Subject: [PMFFML] [FFML-R] [Fanfic][R1/2][Fusion] Battletech: The Saotome Gambit Part 30 [2 of 2]
From: Jamie and Bridget Wilde
Date: 3/27/2001, 4:02 AM
To: FFMLRefuge@listbot.com

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                             Chapter Three

                          Primary Orochi Unit
                  Approaching the Furinkan Combine Fleet
                            15:21 Local Time



     Threat assessment routines running within the Orochi's controlling 
computer studied the signatures of the small craft launched from the 
invading fleet. None of the craft, identified as several types of 
shuttle craft, troop carrier, and battlemech DropShip, possessed 
authentic IFF codes, and were therefore determined to be hostile. 
Hostile ships were to be destroyed in accordance with its programming.
     The capital ship in low orbit was initially classified as friendly, 
but when it destroyed Node Three, the Orochi was forced to redesignate 
it as hostile. It was apparently crippled, however, and so it was 
assigned a low priority along with the troopships. The Orochi could 
descend into a lower orbit and destroy them at its leisure.
     The fleet of starships that descended from high orbit were also 
identified as hostile, and these included several types of capital 
ship, including a battleship. The threat assessment routines assigned 
a higher incidence of priority towards these vessels, as they represented 
a greater threat level than the other ships. Thus did the Orochi network 
shift from an orbital bombardment mode of operation to system defense, 
sparing the enemy forces on the planet for the moment.
     As range and target motion analysis subroutines fed the computer 
with data, the decision to act was made, and the appropriate combat 
programs were loaded from hard memory into the process loop.
     Sensor arrays locked in on the approaching enemy fleet, and massive 
weapon mounts shifted to bear on their targets. The mighty fusion furnaces 
deep within the heart of the Orochi ramped up their output, charging power 
banks for the tremendous volley of fire it was about to unleash. Engine 
nozzles the size of houses rotated in their mounts as the battleship class 
automated orbital battlestation adjusted its orbit to block the invader's 
path.



                            *       *       *

                    Furinkan Combine WarShip _Imperator_
                          Ryuugenzawa High Orbit
                             15:21 Local Time



     "Prince Kuno's landing force has cleared the effective weapon range 
of the Orochi network," Sensory declared. Captain Kyle gave a sigh of 
relief at the news.
     "The Orochi has bigger fish to fry," _Imperator's_ captain added. 
"Us." He strapped himself into his chair and sealed his visor. "Fire 
Control; prepare to fire all weapons at the primary satellite."
     "Fire Control, aye. Gun directors locked on target. Estimated firing 
range in two minutes, mark."
     "Conn, Electronic Warfare Bay; radar and lidar countermeasures are 
being deployed by the network. Counter-countermeasures underway."
     Kyle could do nothing from his station until the battle was joined. 
As Prince Kuno's Operations Officer, he had been tasked with coordinating 
the fleet's action against the network, and he had given the ships and 
fighters their orders. Now all he could do was observe, try to divine 
last moment intelligence, and attempt to be proactive rather than reactive. 
It wasn't as easy as it sounded.
     "Conn, Sensory; detecting gun directing radar. The Orochi network is 
targeting us with their weapons."
     "Helm; evasive maneuvers," the captain ordered at once. _Imperator_ 
began to vibrate as its plasma drive fired to alter its course. Even the 
powerful primary weapon mounts of the battleship were not yet in range of 
the Orochi, and yet the network was already preparing to blast them.



                           *       *       *

                 Star League Defense Force Proving Grounds
                       Bunker Nine, Test Area North
                            15:34 Local Time



     Commander Malloy and Lieutenant Davidge watched the battle in space 
from the Orochi's point of view. Terrible energies were being unleashed 
up there, the power of four lesser satellites focused on the lead ships 
of the Combine fleet while the primary satellite attacked the _Imperator_ 
directly. Two Combine ships were already burning, but the _Imperator_ had 
now come into range, and its powerful weapons were now being felt.
     "Unit Two primary gun mounts bravo and delta destroyed," one of the 
_Dragonfly_ crew updated. "Fire in transverse busses alfa and charlie." 
     Red damage prompts scrolled across the displays for Unit Two, then 
suddenly stopped in a squawk of garbled telemetry.
     "Unit Two destroyed," the tech announced, surprise evident in her 
voice. "I didn't think they hit it that hard."
     "Kamikaze attack," Davidge replied. He had a visual lock on the 
battle courtesy of a weather satellite reoriented to look into space. 
"Two Leopard GunShips crashed into the main engine ports from what I can 
see. The blast must have gone straight to the powerplant."
     "Unit Six is drifting," another tech called out. "The guidance 
package failed again. System attempting to reboot from the hardened 
backups."
     "I hate to say it," Malloy observed. "But the Orochi network wasn't 
prepared for this kind of fight. They've been up there too long without 
maintenance or repairs. Half of them are only at marginal readiness."
     "Unit One is the only one worth a damn," Davidge agreed. "At least 
it's the big one."
     "Combine Essex Class Destroyer is taking fire from Unit One. Heavy 
damage estimated."
     "Unit Six is not responding to guidance control from the network. 
Main Computer down. Back up processors are not responding."
     "X-ray damage from the explosion of Unit Two," Malloy guessed.
     "Fighter elements approaching Unit Six... Point defense systems 
engaging... All fighters destroyed!"
     Davidge looked to Malloy. "It's hard to tell who to root for," he 
remarked. "The Orochi or the Combine."
     Malloy nodded as more reports came in. People were dying by the 
hundreds up there, and ships that had existed for a century or more 
were being reduced to red-hot scraps of metal. 
     "I know what you mean. This is one battle where I'd like to see 
both sides lose."
     "Combine Essex Class Destroyer has been destroyed."
     Another set of monitor displays went dark.
     "Unit Six is destroyed," the same tech announced quietly.
     "Combine light cruiser under fire..."



                           *       *       *


                   Furinkan Combine WarShip _Imperator_
                          Ryuugenzawa High Orbit
                             15:41 Local Time



     Captain Kyle picked himself up off the deck where he had been thrown 
by the last volley of fire. The fleet was disintegrating under the heavy 
guns of the primary Orochi satellite, and there was little he or his staff 
could do to change that.
     He wiped at the greasy soot that coated the tactical displays and made 
the holotank shimmer disruptively. Fires raged throughout the ship, and the 
hiss of the crew breathing through the life support umbilicals made it 
difficult to relay commands by voice. 
     _Imperator_ shook again, and alarms wailed. 
     "Turret 'A' reports heavy damage!" someone at Fire Control announced. 
"The mount will not train!"
     "Fires have broken through blast doors on 'E' Deck and 'F' Deck 
starboard outboard, between radials zero-five-five and zero-eight-zero," 
the Damage Control Assistant declared. "No reserve fire-fighting teams are 
available at this time."
     The captain of the battleship caught Kyle's eye.
     "Any suggestions?!" he cried.
     Kyle knew that there was only one way to defeat the Orochi. "Continue 
directing all fire towards the primary satellite!" he yelled over the din. 
Sparks flashed from a nearby panel as the electrical system rebelled at the 
abuse. "The entire system coordinates through the primary unit! If you take 
it out, the remaining satellites will become disoriented. You can then 
isolate them and destroy them easily."
     The captain laughed bitterly. "And in the meantime, we let those lesser 
satellites pound us into dust! I like your plan, Kyle!"
     The main display glowed white as Unit Two exploded, raising a brief 
cheer from the Bridge crew.
     "An expensive trade," Kyle muttered angrily. Two precious GunShips and 
an irreplaceable Essex Class destroyer to knock out a single secondary unit.
     "The price will be even higher before this is over," the captain 
observed. "Maintain all fire on the primary unit! Continue targeting the 
upper and lower sensory nodes!"
     A particle beam from the primary Orochi tore through the hull of the 
light cruiser _Repulse._ The ship trembled with the hit, its main drive 
still firing at maximum to evade. Kyle could see that the cruiser was 
dying, as plumes of burning air burst from the scorched hull in angry 
yellow jets. 
     "_Repulse_ has jettisoned its log!" Sensory declared. "Detecting 
life pod separations!"
     Kyle knew then what the _Repulse's_ captain had in mind. He watched 
as the cruiser's reaction control thrusters blazed, pivoting the burning 
starship, and orienting it at the remaining secondary satellite. The main 
drive continued to fire at maximum, and the cruiser accelerated inexorably 
towards the Orochi satellite. 
     Beam blasts ripped the _Repulse's_ habitat apart before it could 
reach its target, but the drive section and ultraheavy jump core plowed 
on through the expanding clouds of gas and impaled the Orochi. The 
satellite exploded with such a fury that the radiation pulse shut down 
the monitors on the _Imperator_ for several seconds.
     The sound of hull metal bouncing off the _Imperator_ began a steady 
patter, until it was a rain of particles that sandblasted off the hull what 
little dark blue paint remained.
     "Sensory!" the Captain cried. "Status report!"
     "All arrays are down. Main and secondary telescopes damaged."
     "Reports from the frigate _Perry_ indicate that the primary Orochi has 
ceased all fire," someone at Communications threw in to the chaos of the 
moment.



                           *       *       *

                 Star League Defense Force Proving Grounds
                       Bunker Nine, Test Area North
                            15:46 Local Time



     "Oh shit..." Davidge moaned. The rest of the crew echoed his sentiments 
as their displays crashed into static.
     "What happend?" Malloy demanded.
     "Another big radiation pulse," Davidge replied. "Right as that light 
cruiser hit Unit Eight. Those satellites have been up there a long time, 
getting bombarded with solar radiation for two hundred years... Their 
shielding must be pretty fried by now. They're vulnerable to this kind of 
attack."
     "So what happened?" Malloy asked him. "Did the whole system crash?"
     Several banks of displays came back on line as Malloy asked. Davidge 
held up a hand for quiet, and began pouring over the data that came back. 
     "A lot of telemetry garbage," he replied uneasily. "Error signals 
everywhere. I think the network has totally crashed." He scanned the 
displays for the primary Orochi. "Unit One is at only nineteen percent 
effectiveness. Main Drive damaged and offline. Primary reactor is still 
fully operational, but distribution faults have crippled the big guns 
and most of the sensors. All secondary and point defense batteries are 
functional. Reaction Control System at thirty percent."
     "What about the Combine fleet?"
     "Your guess is as good as mine, sir," Davidge replied. "Only the 
primary Orochi is still functional. The others are either destroyed or 
else suffering massive malfunctions. I don't see any more hits coming in, 
so for the moment I'd say the Combine is as bad off as the Orochi."
     Malloy let out a sigh of relief. "Well that's good news. We should 
let his Grace know about this at once."
     Davidge studied tracking data as it came in from other orbital 
sources. 
     "It looks like the primary unit is in a decaying orbit; estimated 
time to atmospheric entry is thirty-nine hours."
     "We'll be long gone before then," Malloy replied.
     "I hope so, sir, because I don't want to be here when that thing 
hits. In the meantime, we've got Furinkan Combine DropShips on their 
way down, and nothing to stop them. Estimated time to touchdown is 
two-zero minutes."
     "Where?" Malloy asked him.
     Davidge ran a few calculations. "About twenty-five klicks southwest 
of our position, roughly between us and the Musk Dynasty landing zones."



                           *       *       *

                        The DropShip _Palomino_
                  Approaching the Orochi Command Bunker
                            15:48 Local Time



     "I'm at minimum safe coolant pressure in the loop," the Co-Pilot 
announced as the _Palomino_ soared at treetop level over the forest.
"Reactor internal temperatures are still climbing."
     "How much farther?" Grant asked the Pilot.
     "We should be within five klicks now," he replied. "I can set 
us down anytime you like."
     Grant turned back to Tad. "How about those Musk fighters?"
     Tad shook his head. "They're still back there, sir."
     "Turn us away from the bunker," Grant ordered. They had been 
expending precious flight time trying to lose their cagey pursuers, 
and now time was running out. "We can't risk drawing those fighters 
any closer."
     The DropShip's nose dipped sharply, forcing the Pilot to wrench 
at the controls to stabilize the ship.
     "We might not get that chance," the Pilot replied through 
clenched teeth. "I'm losing thrust." The stall alarm sounded, and 
the ship wallowed into a shallow dive. "Port atmospheric maneuvering 
engine failure!"
     Grant grabbed at the 1MC microphone as everyone of the flight 
deck held tight. "Prepare for crash landing and hold tight, everyone!"
     The Pilot fought through the sluggish controls to put the ship 
on a controlled dive. The bow of the DropShip smashed through trees 
as it dipped lower in the air, absorbing some of their energy in 
preparation for contact with the ground. With milliseconds to spare, 
he fired the HEPLAR drives in one furious and final burn, and the 
_Palomino_ hit the ground. The ship slewed sideways through the forest, 
snapping trees like kindling as it decelerated.
     The _Palomino_ heaved to a stop with its bow buried in the side 
of a low sloping hill. The crew on the flight deck came around in a 
chorus of groans as dust shaken loose by the impact settled on the 
displays.
     "Anyone hurt?" Grant asked. No one was. "Engineering; mark status 
of the reactor." 
     Akari answered after a long pause. "The reactor is down. The port 
loop appears to be completely depressurized. I had to vent the plasma 
manually or else---"
     "I understand," Grant said calmly. "You did what you had to."
     "The ship is essentially grounded, sir," Akari said quietly. 
"What should we do?"
     Grant thought about it. "We sit tight and wait for Duke Tendo 
and the others to get here. I don't want to put the bunker at any more 
risk than necessary." He wiped at his sweaty brow. "Rig the ship for 
reduced electrical loads, and break out with the small arms just in 
case an enemy patrol comes to investigate."



                           *       *       *

                      Nerima Confederation Red Lance
                       North of Ian Cameron Starport
                            15:50 Local Time



     "How is Sayuri holding up?" Akane asked over the tac-net.
     "Doctor Tofu says her condition is stable," Kasumi answered for him. 
The doctor and his patient rode within the cupped hands of her Victor as 
they marched north towards the Orochi bunker.
     "That's it?"
     "I'm sorry, Akane," Kasumi soothed. "I'm afraid there isn't 
much else to say."
     "She'll be all right," Ranma broke in. Her LAM cruised at low 
speed above them.
     "You don't know that!" Akane snapped.
     "Hey, take it easy, all right?" Ranma returned. "If anything 
goes wrong, there isn't much you or I can do about it, so there ain't 
no point in worrying."
     "Sayuri is a childhood friend," Akane said in a bitter voice. "I 
wouldn't expect you to understand."
     The LAM swooped overhead to land in front of Akane's Warhammer. 
Ukyou and Genma's 'mechs stepped out of the way in case the two decided 
to start pounding on each other.
     "Remember who the real enemies are..." Ukyou advised them.
     "What do you want, Ranma?" Akane asked her archly.
     "I want you to lay off," Ranma replied. "I know this ain't easy 
for you, but--"
     "You know nothing, Ranma!" she cried. 
     The LAM transformed to Battlemech Mode in time to ward off a blow 
from her PPC arm. Ranma wrenched the tube-like muzzle aside and brought 
her sensor head against Akane's armored visor. "I know enough to 
understand that a commander has to put her personal feelings aside 
sometimes, before they get in the way of her judgement."
     Akane tensed at Ranma's accusation, but did not respond. 
     Ranma continued. "I don't want Sayuri to die any more than you 
do. I wouldn't have risked my neck saving her if I did. The thing you 
gotta remember is that she's a soldier just like you an' me. She knew 
the risks, and she accepted them. If she dies, she dies." The LAM 
released the PPC arm and stepped back a pace. "You gotta get your 
head in the fight, and think about what we need to do next to get off 
this mudball in one piece. You can't spend all your time worrying 
about one of your troops - even if they're friends of yours."
     Akane closed her eyes. "Even if you love them...?"
     Ranma blinked several times in embarassed silence. "*Especially* 
if you love 'em," she finally replied. 
     Soun motioned with his Warhammer's PPC arm for the others to 
follow on ahead. Ukyou had point in her Hatchetman. Genma followed 
after in his Orion. Kasumi walked at a steady pace in her Victor while 
Yuka stumbled along clumsily in Doctor Tofu's Centurion. Ryouga walked 
drag in his blackened BattleMaster, the war machine that had brought the 
Black Rose Terror Regiment to its knees on Ryuugenzawa.
     "I hate to admit this, Ranma," Akane said quietly on the air lance 
channel, where the others couldn't hear them. "But you're right."
     The Super Phoenix Hawk LAM gave her an infuriating wave. "Glad to 
see you're finally making sense," Ranma said with a laugh.
     "Thanks for being your old modest self, Ranma," Akane huffed. She 
started walking past him. The LAM made a deep bow for her.
     "My pleasure," Ranma replied.
     "You are a total jerk," Akane pointed out. "I just want to make it 
clear that even though I'm completely in love with you, you still manage 
to piss me off on a regular basis."
     Ranma blushed at her fiancee's candid declaration of love. She 
tried, but couldn't find her voice.
     "Let's go, Ranma," Akane said at length. "I'm getting a priority 
message from the Orochi bunker. Kuno's forces are about to land south 
of the bunker."
     Ranma snapped back to attention. "Close?"
     "Twenty-five kilometers is the estimation," Akane replied. "But 
it gets worse. The _Palomino_ didn't make it to the bunker. Their 
cooling system failed about five klicks short. They had to make a 
crash landing."
     "Marvelous," Ranma snorted. "Give me the coordinates and I'm 
gone." The LAM transformed to its bird of prey Airmech Mode, and 
brandished its heavy pulselaser rifle. "Any unfriendlies giving them 
a hard time?"
     "Two fighters," Akane replied. She would have said more, but 
Ranma was already blasting into the air to attack them. She watched 
her fiance transform to Fighter Mode on the fly, and the white 
shock wave of a sonic boom rolled out from the silver hull.
     "Be careful, you jerk," she whispered to her.



                             Chapter Four

                     Blue Thunder Regiment Drop Zone
                            Test Area North
                            16:25 Local Time



     Tatewaki Kuno, Prince of the Furinkan Combine and would-be First Lord 
of the Star League, took his first steps onto Ryuugenzawa within the cockpit 
of his Thunderbolt battlemech. He was a man consumed with the idea that his 
destiny was at hand, the culmination of years of conquest and struggle. He 
looked to the stereographs of Akane Tendo and the Pigtailed Girl that graced 
his cockpit, sighing longingly for the time when he would be reunited with 
them.
     "I am here, my loves," he said to himself. "Despair no longer; thy 
handsome prince is come to save thee from thy oafish captors."
     He visualized for a moment the sight of Ranma Saotome and his father 
dangling from a gallows, their eyes bugging out of their sockets, and their 
tongues hanging limply from their purpling lips. Ah, to see those curs pay 
for their crimes against him... Hanging them was almost too good a death.
     "News from the Fleet, milord," an aide called to him over the tac-net, 
interrupting his reverie.
     "They have succeeded in destroying the cursed Orochi Network?" he 
replied absently. His mind was focused elsewhere.
     "Yes, milord. Though they have suffered heavy casualties. All of the 
fleet's WarShips save the _Imperator_ have been destroyed or damaged beyond 
repair."
     This caught his attention, and he arched an eyebrow in disbelief at 
what he had heard. "All save the _Imperator_?" he cried. So many 
irreplaceable ships! "Nay... The report must be in error. Consult with 
Captain Kyle and seek clarification at once!"
     "At once, milord!"
     He refused to be troubled by the news. Taking a moment to compose 
himself, he called up the tactical situation on his map display. The 
Commonwealth landing zones were vulnerable with the majority of their 
battlemech forces scattered across the various installations. His first 
task would be to hit them there.
     Two of his battalions would attack, leaving the rest of his regiment 
to search out for the Confederation force's whereabouts. Nabiki Tendo 
had insisted that they were here, and for once he did not doubt her. The 
fact that his twisted sister was on this world was all the proof he needed.
     "What news of my sister?" he asked his intelligence section while his 
mind was on the subject.
     "Very little, my lord prince," a captain replied. "We have intercepted 
scattered signals indicating that the Commonwealth troops have routed them 
south of the starport, and are pursuing them back to their drop zone."
     He weighed the idea of dispatching some of his fighters over to pay 
his sister a visit. It was tempting, but he was already short of air cover, 
having left over half of his fighters with the fleet to fight the Orochi 
network. Let the Commonwealth have their way with her for now...
     "Hold two squadrons in reserve," he ordered. "Inform me at once if 
they should attempt to flee this world, and dispatch the reserve fighters 
to destroy them ere they escape the atmosphere."
     "At once, my lord prince."
     The aide returned to his display as he marched his Thunderbolt south 
to deal with the Commonwealth upstarts.
     "My lord prince, Captain Kyle sends his regards."
     "Speak, man! What news of the fleet?"
     The aide was grave. "As before, milord. The Orochi network secondary 
satellites have all been destroyed. The primary satellite is in a decaying 
orbit, and is believed to be heavily damaged and non-operational. All 
combatant ships save the _Imperator_ have been destroyed or damaged beyond 
repair. Fighter and GunShip losses are over sixty percent..."
     Tatewaki could not believe the reports. "Madness!" he cried. "Surely 
my captains were not so incompetent as to lose the entire battle fleet?"
     "The transports are all intact, milord," the aide replied, knowing it 
was of little consolation.
     "Damn the transports!" Tatewaki thundered. "My fleet is in ashes! 
The toil and treasure of two centuries spent in the sum of an hour!" He 
put a hand to his brow as tears of rage spilled down his cheeks. "O rash 
and bloody day!"
     He punched at his command channel override, opening a direct link to 
all of his officers down to the lance and platoon levels. 
     "Thy orders are to attack the Commonwealth foe wherever he may be 
found," he said bitterly. "Let no one yield, nor any among you raise the 
cry for mercy upon them!" He swallowed back bile and clenched the controls 
of his battlemech before continuing. "I am aflame with the madness of war; 
so let one fire burn out by another's burning, and let one pain be lessened 
by another's anguish! Spare no one!"
     His commanders responded as one voice, crying out for the blood of 
the Jusenkyo Commonwealth. Their shared wrath tempered his own hot rage, 
allowing him to clear his head sufficiently to think once again.
     "Tell my servant that his labors are to commence," he called to the 
DropShip _Oda Nobunaga._
     "What shall we do with him, my lord?" the captain of his unmounted 
guard asked over the radio.
     "Let the fool be made serviceable according to his folly," Tatewaki 
huffed. "By whatever means, he is to bring me victory and my two loves."
     Hikaru himself appeared on the display a moment later. Lit candles 
were tucked into his headband, and dripped wax down upon his shoulders. 
His sunken eyes gleamed dully with excitement as he prepared one of his 
arcane formulae for use.
     "I assure you, lord, that my assistance will provide very tangible 
effects for you," he said in a weedy voice.
     "For thy sake, sorceror, I do hope so," Tatewaki replied coolly. 
"If I cannot have the cretinous ne'er-do-well, Ranma Saotome, mounted 
'pon the prow of the noble _Imperator,_ then perhaps the scion of the 
House of Gosunkugi will provide an acceptable substitute..."
     With that, Tatewaki signed off, and his Thunderbolt marched away to 
do battle with the Commonwealth.



     Hikaru Gosunkugi watched the Thunderbolt depart from the vantage of 
the flight deck. Most of the Furinkan Combine forces were leaving the drop 
zone to fight the Commonwealth, and he saw opportunities for escape, but 
to do so, his persistant shadows in the form of two Marines from the 
_Imperator_ would have to be dropped. He had an idea of how to go about 
doing that, but first he needed an idea of where he could go.
     He was not disappointed.
     "Skipper," one of the Overlord Class DropShip's commo techs said 
over the cacophony of the flight deck.
     "What is it?"
     "I'm picking up some unidentified signals. I'm not entirely familiar 
with the protocol, but it appears to be old SLDF codes."
     Hikaru raised an eyebrow at this. The Star League, here, after all 
these years? A glimmer of hope welled within him, for he had experienced 
a dream only the day previous of the eight pointed Cameron Star, a device 
that he aspired to one day as First Lord of the Star League. It seemed 
to be an omen, and listened carefully to the exchange on the flight deck.
     The captain glanced over at the commo tech's board. "Get a DF fix?"
     "I'm working on it, sir." The tech tapped at several keys. "I've got 
a rough fix, since it looks like direct UHF sat-comm signals, and those 
are mostly line-of-sight with a little leakage."
     "Where?"
     Hikaru watched as a computer-projection map of the surface appeared 
on the main display. The positions of the Blue Thunder regiment, the known 
or suspected positions of Commonwealth and Black Rose troops, and the 
source of the unknown signals were displayed. The signal source was 
relatively close.
     "Send it down to the war room," the captain ordered. "Let them decide 
what they want to do about it. We're just the bus drivers, remember?"
     Hikaru knew then that he had to find the source of those signals. It 
was a coincidence that could not be denied.
     "I'm going to have to go outside," he told his handlers.
     "What for?" the senior of the two Marines asked him.
     Hikaru held up one of the spellbooks Kuno had provided him. It was 
an utterly useless fraud, but it was filled with arcane drawings and 
suitably alien babble words printed in all-capital letters in appropriate 
places. More than enough to fool the rubes.
     "I need material components for the hex his Highness has demanded 
that I cast upon the Commonwealth forces," he replied shakily. The two 
Marines looked like they could break him in half over their knees.
     "So?" the first Marine replied, unconvinced.
     "S-So..." Hikaru stuttered. "I need fresh herbs and native soil from 
this world if it's going to work." He steeled himself. "You wouldn't want 
his Highness' spell to fail, would you?"
     The two Marines gave each other flustered looks. On the one hand, they 
didn't believe Gosunkugi's occult crap, and on the other hand, their lord 
apparently did. They decided to play it safe.
     "Sure," the senior of the two declared. "But if you think you can 
pull a fast one on us..."
     Hikaru began to sweat. "I-I would never think such a thing," he 
gasped. 



                           *       *       *

                            Test Area North
                            16:37 Local Time



     Where are you, Shampoo...? Mousse asked himself as his Crusader 
stalked through the forest in search of her. He was supposed to be 
searching for the source of the mystery communications signals, and 
found himself obsessed with idea that Shampoo was alive and somewhere 
on Ryuugenzawa instead. Though he had no rational explanation for it, 
he knew she was close. He could feel it in the tension that knotted 
his stomach and made his hands tremble on the controls of his battlemech. 
     He did not know what he would do or say when he found her. The anger 
that had consumed him after they had parted ways on the _Dragonfly_ had 
burned itself out. Part of him still wanted to gloat at her for what he 
had become, to make her feel the betrayal that he had suffered at her 
hands. Another part wanted to beg her forgiveness, and he cursed his 
weakness for even thinking it. 
     Shampoo did not love him, he knew that. He even accepted it, though 
it stabbed at him with a cruelty that only she could inspire. What he 
could not face was that he still loved her in spite of everything she 
had put him through.
     If there was even one chance in a million that she would grow to 
love him someday, he knew that he would be foolish enough to take it. He 
knew that if she so much as batted her eyelashes at him, he would melt. 
It was infuriating, but he knew that he was so very weak-willed when it 
came to her.
     The only solution to his dilemma, then, was to kill her.
     One of them had to die, there could be no alternative. His pain would 
end one way or the other. True, killing her would make him miserable, but 
not killing her - having her go on tormenting him, or even worse, seeing 
her become General Herb's plaything - would be infinitely worse. Better 
to end it in one bitter moment of hell than to endure a torturous chipping 
away at his soul.
     The flash of movement at the periphery of his vision ended his sullen 
woolgathering, and he brought his Crusader to halt within the cover of a 
thick copse of trees. Hanging vines glistening with afternoon rain obscured 
his vision just enough to be bothersome, but not enough to prevent him from 
seeing a Panther battlemech creeping through the woods in front of him and 
to his left. There was no doubt in his mind who the mechwarrior of that 
machine was, for he could see Shampoo in the sinuous way the Panther moved 
through the forest.

     Shampoo...

     Afraid that she would hear him even behind the armored walls of his 
cockpit, he flicked the arming switches on his two fifteen-rack long range 
and two six-rack short range missiles launchers. He brought the lasers up 
to power with another touch of his controls, and waited silently for her 
to move closer to him. He doubted that his missiles could penetrate the 
thick foliage without detonating prematurely, and he knew that he couldn't 
defeat her without them.
     She moved as if she had noticed him, positioning herself to his 
left flank, where she could fire and then bolt before he could turn 
to respond. He knew her tactics in close quarters situations, and knew 
the capabilities of her chosen 'mech. He could expect the liberal use 
of her jump jets as well, though if he was lucky, he could use that to 
his advantage.
     What he knew was most important, however, was that he could not 
surrender the initiative to her. As long as the pace of the fight was 
set by him, he could beat her. He had been beaten by her often enough  
in simulator duels past to know that much.
     Keeping his torso facing away from her, he extended his left arm 
out to her and fired the medium laser and 20mm machinegun mounts in the 
forearm. The fire was unaimed, but lashed into the woods she used as 
cover close enough to make the Panther rise to its feet in a flash. The 
thin scream of Shampoo's jump jets echoed across the forest as she leapt 
into the sky.
     He was ready for her, pivoting to bring his shoulder-mounted LRM 
racks to bear. The range was very short for the tube-launched missiles, 
and the dispersal pattern would be very narrow, but he fired nonetheless. 
The armored hatch covers sprang open with metallic rings, and the missiles 
began spurting from the tubes and into the air. 
     He watched as Shampoo twisted in midair to avoid the first volley 
of screaming missiles, only to catch the latter half of the second volley. 
Explosions obscured her from sight in firelit clouds of black, and white 
shockwaves of compressed moist air rolled from the impact points as she 
fell. He broke out of his cover to give his hip-mounted SRM launchers a 
clear shot, and aimed for the streamers of smoke concealing the falling 
Panther.
     The SRMs hissed out of their launch tubes, slamming into the Panther 
as it touched down. More explosions rocked the forest, and for a moment 
Mousse saw the battlemech topple over through the smoke and flame. He 
revved his throttle, charging out of the trees to attack at close range, 
where her arm-mounted PPC would be least effective.
     It was exhilarating to be able to attack her so easily, he realized. 
No pangs of conscience assailed him as he streamed laser fire into the 
woods where Shampoo had fallen. He had expected it to be hard, perhaps 
impossible to squeeze the trigger on her, but he was doing it. 
     The 65 ton Crusader leaped through the black clouds of smoke to 
find that Shampoo was gone, and the woods ripped apart where her 
Battlemech had crashed through them in a desperate attempt to escape. 
Her obvious panic stirred him further, making him laugh out loud. No 
longer was he under her heel! This was the freedom he had so desperately 
sought when he made his break with her on the _Dragonfly,_ come to him 
at last in this moment of triumph!



     Shampoo's hands worked the controls furiously, maneuvering at 
top speed through the forest as she ran damage control routines to 
contain the fires and outtages that assailed her Panther. She had been 
careless with this Musk Crusader, and he had taken her by surprise. 
She was hit badly, her battlemech functional but borderline, and she 
was in no shape to continue the fight on her enemy's terms.
     At first she did not realize who her attacker was, but as she 
concentrated on where she went wrong in her ambush, she realized that 
there had been only one battlemech, painted white with grey trim. The 
same livery used by Mousse.
     The realization made her stomach churn. Shampoo, the pride of the 
Joketsuzoku, had been nearly killed by a man, and a spineless, weak-willed, 
and half-blind fool like Mousse! 
     What was he doing out here, if not looking for me? she asked herself. 
     "<Mousse,>" she called out over the Musk Dynasty frequencies. There 
was no response. On a whim, she switched to a commonly used Commonwealth 
frequency, and tried again.
     "<What is it, Shampoo?>" Mousse replied. There was something dead 
in his voice as he spoke, though it was brimming with arrogance.
     "<Why have you come here, Mousse?>" she found herself asking. "<Why 
have you joined General Herb?>"
     There was pause before he spoke. "<You know why I've joined the Musk 
Dynasty, Shampoo, and you know that I'm here to kill you. I'm only sorry 
that it has come to this.>"
     "<You won't find me easy prey,>" she returned shakily, and cut in her 
jump jets. She soared over the treetops, moving laterally to interrupt the 
obvious path she was making through the forest. He might hear her fire the 
jets, but he would have to guess which direction she would take.
     "<It won't matter,>" Mousse replied coldly. "<The outcome will be the 
same.>"
     He blames me for something he should have known about me all along, 
she realized. But perhaps he isn't entirely wrong in thinking that I'm 
responsible for his betrayal.
     "<I never wanted to hurt you, Mousse,>" she told him as she fired her 
jets to slow her fall for landing.
     "<No, you just wanted to use me for your own pleasure!>" he retorted, 
anger rising in his voice where icy calm had reigned. "<You preyed on my 
love for you to get what you wanted!>"
     And I'm paying for it! she cried inwardly, nausea creeping into her 
belly and making her stomach curdle. She landed in a crouch to the right 
and well in front of Mousse, her PPC arm raised to fire as he blundered 
into range. The white Crusader did so a moment later, and she let fly with 
a bolt of lightning that ripped across his torso, tongues of plasma flame 
licking against the head armor and melting one of his commo aerials. 
     The act of shooting at him made her sick to her stomach, as if the 
child within her could sense that she was trying to murder its father and 
rebelling in the only way it could. The thought was nonsense; she was just 
projecting her own feelings of guilt into her baby, but the urge to vomit 
came strong enough to make her cup a hand to her mouth out of reflex.
     The Crusader skidded to a halt and lurched in her direction as she 
gritted through her nausea and fired a second time, the particle bolt 
crashing with a thunderclap square into the thick torso armor, and leaving 
a long black scar in the once-pristine white.
     Even as her second blast struck him, the Crusader was firing its SRM 
launchers. Twelve missiles corkscrewed across the short distance that 
separated them, detonating in the trees and exploding into the ground at 
her feet. The shockwaves buffeted her and filled the air with the whine 
of hot shrapnel. She was moving before he could correct his aim with a 
second volley, dashing to her left in a bid to outflank him and perhaps 
strike at his vulnerable rear armor.
     Incredibly, he anticipated her move, rocking on his hips and making 
a diving leap at her with the right arm extended in a clothesline tackle 
that shook the forest with a terrible clash of metal on metal and the 
heavy thuds of a hundred tons of battlemech hitting the ground. Shampoo 
reeled in her seat straps from the double impact of forearm and ground, 
her head swimming dizzily as she tried to right herself.
     Both battlemechs came up at the same time. Shampoo thought her 
Panther through a front kick that savaged the Crusader's head, while 
a brutal full-on punch to the breadbasket from Mousse smashed apart 
what little armor she had remaining in her center torso. Damage lights 
flicked on and alarms sounded in her ears as the four-rack SRM launcher 
malfunctioned. Though the Crusader toppled over once more from her blow, 
she was in no position to take advantage of it, as she was forced to 
repeatedly slam the ammunition dump button before the remaining eighty 
missiles in the magazine cooked off. 
     She righted the Panther clumsily, noting that her main gyro had 
also been hit, and drew up to her full height. Jumping was no longer 
an option for her - not with a damaged gyro in the middle of the forest - 
and she was no swifter than the Crusader which out-massed her by almost 
double. She had to fight it out here and now, and end this once and 
for all.
     "<It's over, Mousse,>" she said to him as she limped her Panther 
over to where the fallen Crusader lay. The head was crushed in at least 
half a meter over the right temple where her Panther's foot had connected, 
and it was possible that he was already dead from the force of the impact. 
She kept the PPC aimed at him nonetheless, and prepared to deal the 
finishing blow in an execution-style shot to the battlemech's forehead. 
Though her stomach churned and her bowels threatened mutiny, she was a 
daughter of the Joketsuzoku, and her will was master over the frailties 
of the flesh - or at least she tried to tell herself this as her finger 
trembled on the trigger.
     The Crusader's hand came up with incredible speed before she could 
bring herself to fire - faster than she would have thought possible - and 
grabbed at the muzzle of the PPC. The powerful battle fist of the Crusader 
crushed the emitter aperture of the weapon with a squeal of tortured metal, 
and as she squeezed the firing trigger reflexively, the entire tube-like 
projector glowed white and exploded.


     When she came to, her Panther was sprawled over the fallen and 
splintered trunks of several centuries-old trees. The entire right arm 
was gone, and a blackened smear of carbon encrusted what was left of 
her battlemech's torso. She still had main power, but one look at the 
reactor controls told her that she was leaking coolant badly, and close 
to a total and catastrophic shutdown. 
     The Crusader was thirty meters away, nearly laid out in a half-
sitting position against a stand of trees. Smoke wafted from the torso 
and head, and she could see rents in the armor where the shrapnel from 
her exploding PPC had torn through. The right arm was missing from the 
elbow down, and red hydraulic fluid leaked from the burnt limb in a 
grisly imitation of arterial blood on the dirty white hull.
     Cursing her carelessness once more, she wrenched at her controls 
to bring the Panther to a stand. The battlemech's myomer bundles groaned 
plaintively as they tried to comply, but the Panther would not move. A 
look at the flickering damage board told her why: the gyro had failed. 
     She wiped at the haze of smoke that wafted through her steaming 
hot cockpit. The cooling system was about to go next, and if she didn't 
shut down the fusion plant, she was going with it. Her hand swiped at 
the controls to do so, and she was relieved to hear the hollow droning 
of her failing powerplant shrink away to nothing.
     She pulled herself up out of her ejector seat to the cockpit hatch, 
which had sprung partly open from the shock of her final impact with the 
ground. A tug on the handle opened it the rest of the way, and she eased 
herself out to the loamy wet soil. The smell of hot metal, ozone, and cut 
grass made for an overpowering sensation, one that she was not prepared 
for in her disoriented state. She fell over double and retched, then 
collapsed onto her hands and knees and heaved spasmodically until she 
sank against the crumpled armor plate of her Panther's head.



                              Chapter Five

                            Test Area North
                            16:49 Local Time



     Shinnosuke gripped Konatsu's shoulder as the thunderclap report of 
a particle cannon shook the woods. A second blast followed in rapid 
succession after the first, and then, moments later, a somewhat muffled 
explosion. 
     The two of them had been out searching for Shampoo, who had slinked 
away from the bunker without so much as a word of warning before she left. 
Tracking a 35-ton war machine was no difficult matter for a man who had 
lived his whole life in the forest.
     "I heard," Konatsu breathed quietly. "We should be cautious."
     Shinnosuke grunted agreement. His leg throbbed as he put weight on it, 
and his shoulder ached from the recent spear wound he had suffered, but 
these physical pains were nothing compared to the crippling boredom and 
feeling of helplessness he had felt waiting at the bunker. His world was 
under attack, and he wanted to make some contribution to its defense.
     "Do you think it's the Furinkan Combine?" he asked the kunoichi. 
     "I don't know," Konatsu replied. "They landed close enough to be a 
threat, but there's also the Musk Dynasty to think about."
     They continued on, Shinnosuke with his pushbroom and Konatsu with 
whatever weapons she had secreted on her person. The kunoichi was very 
pretty, and it pleased him to have her company. It almost dulled the ache 
he felt at knowing that Akane was in love with someone else.
     They were travelling in a direction roughly in line with the sound of 
the particle beam blast, following the tracks Shampoo's Panther had made 
in the soft muddy ground. Silence filled the forest now, and the animals, 
fearful of the terrible goings on, remained in hiding at every turn. 
Shinnosuke, himself well attuned to the woods, shared their anxiety.
     "I hear something," the kunoichi whispered softly as they crested a 
low tree-lined rise. 
     The two of them peeked over the rise to see a frail looking young man 
running away from two Furinkan Combine Marines, who yelled their demands 
that he stop at once or be shot. 
     "I think I recognize that man," Konatsu said quietly. "Unless I miss 
my guess, that's Hikaru Gosunkugi. The sunken eyes and the pallid skin are 
a dead giveaway for the entire Gosunkugi family."
     "Who?" Shinnosuke asked. The name Gosunkugi sounded familiar from 
Grandfather's history lessons, but he did not make any connections.
     "The heir to the League of Five Nails," Konatsu replied. "What is 
*he* doing here, and as a prisoner of the Combine?"
     "I don't know," Shinnosuke replied, gripping his pushbroom tightly. 
"But I do know when someone is in trouble and needs help." He scrabbled 
over the edge of the rise and made a limping sprint for the fleeing 
Hikaru.
     Konatsu blinked twice in surprise before following after Shinnosuke. 
He took to the trees and began leaping from branch to branch in pursuit.


     Hikaru Gosunkugi staggered up the wooded slope out of breath and out 
of time. The Marines were almost upon him, and if they had not shot him 
yet, they might well do so out of spite for throwing mud in their faces 
and then leading them on such a chase. With his lungs burning and limbs 
about to seize with exhaustion, he tripped over an exposed tree root and 
tumbled to the muddy ground. His books and scrolls spilled in his wake, 
their fragile pages floating to earth about him as he gasped for air.
     This was it, he realized dully. They were going to kill him. If not 
here, then certainly at the order of Tatewaki Kuno when he returned in 
triumph from his conquest of Ryuugenzawa. He had failed in his bid for 
revenge and for the hand of Akane.
     Where had his auguries gone wrong?
     Still, though he was a coward and a weakling through and through, he 
vowed that just this once he would fight back with everything he had left 
within him. His hands dug furiously for the mallet and sack of namesake 
iron spikes with which he would use to sell his life dearly. 
     He pulled himself up into a stooping posture, the mallet gripped in 
his right hand and the spike in his left, and faced off against the Marines 
as they neared him. 
     "So... Who wants to die first?" he asked them between pants for 
breath, having always wanted to say something dire and witty like that 
when it really counted.
     The Marines stopped short, and for a moment, Hikaru thought he had 
actually cowed them.
     Then they started laughing the kind of cruel, heartless laugh that 
made Hikaru want to wet himself. 
     "You think we should we should break his legs, or just shoot him in 
the kneecaps?" the first Marine asked the second.
     "As long as you're the one carrying him back to the drop zone, it's 
all the same to me," the second replied.
     "Right," the first one said, twisting his head around to work the 
kinks out of his neck. "We break his legs..."
     Hikaru threw himself at the Marine with a strangled cry of anguish 
and impotent rage before he could make good on his threat. The Marine 
turned the spike aside with a wrist lock, and wrenched him bodily into 
the air for extra altitude before throwing him straight down to the 
ground. As he lay trembling with pain and utter dread for the end, the 
Marine put his boot against the back of his neck.
     "You gotta give the little guy credit for trying," he observed.
     "That mean you ain't gonna break his legs?" the second Marine 
asked.
     "Hell no. I just said that you gotta give him a little credit 
for trying," the first replied. He tapped Hikaru with his boot. "Not 
bad, you little twerp. Now I'm *really* going to hurt you..."
     "Don't mess him up too bad," the second Marine remarked. "His 
Highness'll probably want to nail 'im up to that cross again."
     "I'll try to keep him in one piece," the first replied, spitting 
into his hands and drawing back to strike Hikaru with the butt of 
his rifle. "This is gonna hurt you a lot more than it's gonna hurt 
me..."
     The blow never connected, as Shinnosuke leaped out of the nearby 
trees and swatted the marine across the bridge of his nose with the 
business end of his pushbroom. The Marine staggered backwards, spouting 
blood and curses, before tripping over the same exposed tree root that 
had been Hikaru's downfall earlier, and slamming his helmeted head against 
a rock. The armor might have spared his life, but not his consciousness.
     The second Marine fumbled with his rifle as Shinnosuke landed, 
favoring his wounded leg, and thrust the pushbroom into his face. 
The mighty implement of good housekeeping connected solidly with his 
jaw and cold-cocked him. Konatsu sprang out of the trees a moment 
later, only to find that there was no one left to beat on.
     He knelt over Hikaru instead, who was busy clutching his arms 
over his head and chanting a sutra for divine intervention. When no 
blows fell upon him, he stopped his chants, and looked up into the 
flashing eyes of a girl with long raven-black hair.
     "Are you all right, my lord?" Konatsu asked him.
     Hikaru's face reddened.
     "I--I'm fine," he replied. She was beautiful! He turned to see 
Shinnosuke relieving the two Combine Marines of their weapons. The 
Cameron Star of the SLDF was embroidered in silver and white on his 
black homespun jacket.
     "The Star League..." he gasped in awe. The omen of his dream had 
come true!
     Shinnosuke met his gaze with a slow shake of his head. "I'm not 
Star League," he replied. "Not anymore. I'm just a janitor and a 
handyman now, and not even that for much longer."
     "My companion and I will see you to safety," Konatsu added softly, 
wanting to spare Shinnosuke any further grief. "Although I must admit 
that even our position on this world is tenuous."
     "Who are you people, then?" Hikaru asked. "If you aren't Star 
League."
     Konatsu helped him to his feet. "We're with the Confederation, 
under the command of Grand Duke Soun Tendo and his daughter, Lady 
Akane."
     Confederation! Hikaru could hardly contain his glee. Akane!
     "Lead the way," he told them after gathering up his scattered 
occult materials. 
     Thank you, O Gods above and below!


 
                           *       *       *
 


     Shampoo saw him standing there wearing indigo robes in place of 
his regular white, his long fall of blue-black hair mussed and spilling 
carelessly over his shoulders. The thick pair of glasses that was his 
trademark perched on his brow, a crack running across the middle 
of one lens. His face was a mask of indifference, though she could feel 
the tension radiating from him.
     "<Hello, Mousse...>" she said quietly.
     He watched her for several moments, his jaw taut and his blue eyes 
hard and distant.
     "<Shampoo,>" he replied. The way he said her name was both mournful 
and full of regret. She noticed the long, straight-bladed sword he 
carried in his hand for the first time as it came up silently to caress 
the underside of her chin. The steel of the blade was as cold to the 
touch as the feel of his eyes upon her.
     "<If you're here to kill me, Mousse, be quick about it,>" she 
managed. For the last six months she had known humiliation, hardship, 
and defeat, and now she simply did not care anymore. Death would at 
least grant her the release from pain she had been unable to earn through 
success."<To tell you the truth, I want to die. Kill me, and be done with 
this.>"
     He grunted in affirmation, and lifted the sword from her chin. The 
blade came back to a point above his shoulder, from which he could bring 
it down swiftly and cut her head from her neck.
     The sword whistled down at her, and she dropped her eyes to the 
ground. She did not want Mousse to be the last thing she saw in life. 
She felt a pang of conscience for her unborn child, but argued with 
herself in that last moment that this was for the best. 
     She felt the icy blade touch her neck and made a final gasp.

     But death did not come for her.

     The sword remained where it had stopped, the thin edge of the steel 
just biting into her flesh. She looked up to see Mousse's sword arm 
trembling, and his eyes wet with tears.
     "<Don't say it,>" he moaned. "<I already know that I'm a fool and a 
weakling. I can't bring myself to kill you, Shampoo, even though it's the 
thing I want most in the world right now.>"
     He let the sword fall from her shoulder and drop point first into 
the dirt. The hilt dangled limply in his hand for a moment, then slipped 
from his numb fingers.
     "<Go,>" he said to her, turning away. "<To hell, or back to Jusenkyo, 
I don't care. Just get out of my life forever.>"
     Shampoo wiped at the blood that trickled down her neck and looked 
at it for a moment. Then she eyed the sword that lay there on the ground 
at her feet. Finally, she looked at Mousse's vulnerable back. 
     "<Congratulations,>" she said ruefully to him.
     He turned around, his face twisting into a rictus of anger.
     "<What are you talking about?>" he demanded in choked voice.
     She picked up the sword and brought the tip to his chest just a hair 
to the left of his sternum and over his heart. He did not flinch as the 
blade pressed into the folds of his robes to rest directly against his 
flesh.
     "<You finally resisted me,>" she replied dully, keeping the tension 
of the blade against his body as she spoke. "<You finally refused me 
something.>"
     He blinked at her in confusion.
     "<Shampoo...?>"
     Her violet eyes flashed at him. "<And I hate you for it, Mousse. 
The one time you resist me is the one time I wanted you to obey me more 
than anything. I despise you, Mousse!>" She leaned on the blade, which 
tore the fabric of his robes and dug into his flesh, the steel grating 
on the edge of his sternum with a metallic ring. He did not move, did 
not attempt in any way to prevent her from plunging the sword straight 
through his heart.
     She too, stopped short of dealing a fatal wound. She ached to kill 
him, to use him as the object of her revenge for everything that had gone 
wrong in her life, from the things he was responsible for to the things 
he was innocent of doing. The stabs of conscience would not allow it, but 
they did little to soften her heart in that agonizing moment of decision. 
     "<I want you to go on living with my hate, Mousse,>" she whispered 
in a trembling voice, tears running down her cheeks in hot streaks. "<I 
want you to know that if I survive this day; if I should return to 
Jusenkyo; that I will dedicate my life and the life of our child to 
destroying the Musk Dynasty and any who stand with it.>"
     Mousse's eyes opened, and he looked at her in awe.
     "<That's right, Mousse,>" she confirmed for him. "<I'm pregnant 
with your baby. One more reason I have to hate you.>" She let the sword 
drop at his feet the way he had done with her. "<I swear to you that I 
will raise her to hate her father with every fiber of her being.>"
     She stepped back from the weapon. "<This is your last chance, 
Mousse. Pick up that sword and do what you should have done the first 
time. Harden your heart against me because I do not love you, and if 
you should spare me a second time, know that I will be the cause of more 
pain and suffering in your life than anything you've ever known before.>"
     He looked down at the wound in his chest, felt the darker spot on 
his dark robes where his blood soaked the fabric, and then let his gaze 
fall upon Shampoo. 
     "<I can't kill you, Shampoo, and even if I could, I can't kill my 
own child,>" he said at length. "<If one day, she rises up against me, 
even then I couldn't lift a hand to stop her.>" He recovered the sword 
from the ground and made it disappear within the folds of his robe. 
"<We shall continue as nothing more than holes in each other's hearts 
until then.>"
     He turned and started for his Crusader, head high, unbowed. He did 
not say goodbye. He did not look back.



                           END OF PART THIRTY