Prologue

     Jack bolted upright in his bunk, a scream tangled up in the back
of his throat.  He gasped for breath, shivering at the sensation of  the
sweat drying on his bare chest.  He caught himself groping for his gun
and clenched his hand reflexively.  He didn't sleep with a gun under his
pillow any more.  He didn't need to.  He shook his head and
swallowed hard, trying to convince his racing heart that there was no
danger.
     Waking up from a nightmare was a terrifying experience.
Waking up alone, with no one to tell, no one to look to for comfort, no
one to *care*, was a profoundly lonely one.  And sad.
     Home.  He'd dreamed of home.  He hadn't had that particular
dream in ... years, God, it had to be years.  He swiped his forearm
across his sweat-drenched face, noting with some surprise how his
hand was still shaking.  In his ears he fancied he could still hear the
screams, the sirens in the distance, the distant thunder of explosions.
     And a single gunshot.
     ("Mum, why'd dad go out there?  He said not to go out
anymore.  He said it wasn't safe.  He made us promise not to go
outside anymore.  So why'd he go out?  Mum?  Mummy?  Why are
you crying?") He hadn't understood it all until later, about the virus and
how, in the last stages, the victims went insane, attacking anything that
moved.  All he'd known was that the city was tearing itself apart, there
was fighting everywhere, and everybody seemed to be getting sick.
Except him.
     He shook his head angrily, not wanting these memories to
surface.  They belonged to the past, along with the Mistake.  He
wanted to be left alone.  He wanted to be busy again so he wouldn't
have so much time to think.
     "Time!" he snapped.  The wall display lit up obligingly.  0406
hours.
     Jack frowned, a tiny thrill of dread shooting through his gut.
What the hell?  That should mean something to him, he knew.  That
time ... He shook his sleep-befuddled head wearily.  He couldn't think
straight when he was tired.  He wished Scooter would finish with the
repairs so he'd have someone to talk to ...
     Repairs.  He froze, and the feeling of foreboding in his gut
intensified.
     "Repeat after me," he whispered.  "I do NOT believe in
premonition, I do NOT believe in premonition, I do ..."
     The display changed to read 0407 hours.  And a siren started
to wail.
     "EMERGENCY!  ACTION STATIONS!  ACTION
STATIONS!  THIS IS NOT A DRILL!  I REPEAT, THIS IS NO
DRILL!"  Jack hit the deck fast, grabbing his clothes from the floor
as he ran, hating the preprogrammed alarm voice, wondering what
Scooter had found.
     He shuddered.
     I do not believe in premonition, he told himself silently.  But
apparently, it believes in me.
 

A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
 

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part 7: The Abyss
 

     "And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes
into you."
     -Friedrich Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil"

     It was, as they say, deja vu all over again.
     It started simply enough.  We were sitting down for breakfast
after the traditional morning workout.  This morning, however, Ranma
and I had gone at each other while the others watched.  Without the
tension that had been between us the previous day, we were able to
spar in a friendly manner.  Well, mostly friendly.  We both hated to
lose, and there was still a bit of tension, but in the end, we proved to be
too evenly matched for any decisive advantage to be gained on either
side.  We did both get wet, however.
     Ranma's mother had shown up early and had joined us for
breakfast, as had Ryouga.  I was surprised to see him at first, until I
realized that he wanted to be on hand when Jack returned that
afternoon.  With his sense of direction, that meant he had to stay at the
dojo until then.  I was pretty sure that he'd be leaving soon after,
though.  It would be hard for him to stay this close to Akane, after what
he'd decided.
     Especially now.
     They'd spent a long time on that roof the previous night, and
when Ranma had finally come to our room, his feet were barely
touching the ground.  Just being close to him was like standing next to
an uninsulated power line.  His eyes were unfocussed, he kept smiling
for no reason, and he had trouble getting to sleep.  I didn't have to be a
genius to figure out what had gotten under his skin.  Or rather, who.
     They'd finally done it.  I sneaked a look at them.  They were
both uncharacteristically quiet, and they kept glancing at each other with
shy little grins.  Akane was actually blushing every time her eyes and
Ranma-chan's met, and my counterpart was actually chewing her food
instead of shovelling it down.  I didn't think anyone had noticed yet, but
only because they all had other things on their minds.
     They'd actually done it.  And I wanted to scream.  It was a
good damn thing I was leaving, because, ridiculous as it was, I could
feel no joy for them, only an irrational jealousy.  I swallowed my
bitterness, my jaw clenched painfully tight.  I should be happy for them,
I should be cheering the fact that they'd finally done it.  But of course,
all I could think was now he had his family, his friends, his life.  AND
Akane.
     And I had nothing.
     Stop it, I told myself angrily.  You decided, remember?  It's
better this way.  You had all sorts of good reasons why.  Remember?
     I reflected that Uc-chan had been right.  The heart really didn't
care much for logic.  Still, I would leave, and it would get easier.  Oh,
please, it had to get easier.
     Kasumi got up and went to the kitchen to heat some water for
Ranma-chan and me, since we were both still in girl form, and Mr.
Tendou cleared his throat.
     "Well, Nabiki, Akane, since we expect our visitor to appear
here again sometime this afternoon, your Auntie Saotome has
graciously offered to allow you girls and Kasumi to stay with her at her
house until this is all over."  I glanced over at Ranma-chan and Akane,
curious to see how this would go over.  They didn't seem surprised by
this news, however.  Akane glanced at Ranma-chan, who gave her a
tiny nod.  Akane set her mouth in a stubborn line and stood up,
crossing her arms defiantly.  Ranma-chan stood beside her.
     "I'm staying," Akane said simply.  The sudden silence was
broken by the sharp sound of Mr. Tendou's chopsticks breaking in
two.
     "Akane, we talked about this!" he said sharply.  She scowled.
     "No, Dad, *you* talked about this.  Now I want you to listen.  I'm
the heir to this dojo, and I won't run away from this threat or any
other.  Ranma is my fianc‚, and Ranko is part of our family now.
Anything that threatens them is my business.  I'm staying."
     "Mr. Tendou ..." Ranma-chan began.
     "You shut up!  Don't think I've forgotten that you nearly got
my daughter killed earlier this week, Ranma!  What ideas have you
filled her head with now?"  Ranma-chan gaped, Akane turned pale, and
a crease appeared between Ranma's father's eyes.
     "Tendou," he began uncomfortably.  Mr. Tendou cut him off,
his eyes blazing.
     "No!  I won't hear of it!  Akane is going and that's final!"
Ranma-chan reached out and took a startled Akane's hand.
     "If she goes," Ranma-chan said quietly, "I go."  A stunned
silence fell on our little group at that.  Ranma and Akane, forming a
united front?  Akane looked at Ranma-chan, gratitude in her gaze.
That and something else.  Something I didn't want to think about.
     For long moments, nobody spoke.  I could hear the whistling of
a kettle in the kitchen, could hear Kasumi moving around.  Then I heard
something else.  A strange humming noise.
     Then Kasumi screamed and I was leaping over the table,
beating the others in a headlong rush into the kitchen.  I rounded a
corner after hearing a scream to find Jack standing with one of the
Tendou sisters, just like two days before.  But this time it was Kasumi
instead of Akane.
     And this time he wasn't holding a gun.
     I closed the space between us before the intention had fully
formed in my mind, grabbing Jack by the front of his long black coat
and using my momentum to force him back against the wall.  Since I
was in girl form, I wasn't as strong, but rage lent me enough strength to
pull the taller man away from the wall and slam him back.  He didn't
resist.  I felt my control slipping away as I waited for him to give me an
excuse to hammer him with a Kachu Tenshin Amiguriken attack.  Any
excuse.
     "So," I breathed, "not a man of your word, eh, Jack?  Why am
I not surprised?"  He brought his hands up slowly, open and empty, to
shoulder level.
     "That is you, right, Saotome?" he asked cautiously.  I realized
that he'd never seen me in girl form before, but since he'd seemed to
know a lot about me, it made sense that he knew about the curse.
     "That's right.  Kasumi, are you okay?"  I saw her nod out of
the corner of my eye.
     "He didn't hurt me," she said shakily.  "I was just startled."
     "I'm not here to hurt anyone ..." Jack began.  I felt someone
standing directly behind me.
     "That's right," I heard Mr. Tendou say.  "You're not going to
hurt anyone."  His tone made me realize that Jack was lucky I'd gotten
to him first.
     "Listen, kid, we need to talk," Jack said, looking me in the eye.
The bruise under his eye had faded to an ugly yellow colour, and his
face looked drawn.  I resisted the urge to slam him against the wall
again, and opened my mouth to tell him we had nothing to talk about.
     "Ranko," Mr. Tendou said in a frighteningly calm voice.  "Step
aside, please."
     "Tendou," Ranma's father said in a warning tone.  Mr. Tendou
reached over my head to grab Jack's coat above my grip.  He tugged
sharply, pulling us both back against him.
     "You," he growled, "are going to pay for threatening my
family."  I found myself caught between the two larger men as they
struggled.
     "Hey!" I shouted.  I wanted first shot at this guy.  I understood
Mr. Tendou's feelings, but he'd just have to wait his turn.  He didn't
look, however, like he intended to wait.  He cocked his arm back,
fingers curled and palm out, and I knew if I didn't let go of Jack and try
to stop him Mr. Tendou was going to nail the guy with a vicious,
possibly fatal blow.  Jack just stood there, possibly not understanding
how much danger he was in, and kept trying to talk.
     "Listen to me, you people!  I have to tell you something!  Dammit,
would you just listen?"  Then I heard someone else speak, in a quiet,
controlled voice that commanded attention.
     "Genma."  At the sound of his wife's voice, he roused himself
from watching the drama and reached out to grab Mr. Tendou's arm
firmly.
     "Saotome, let go," he gritted, struggling to get at Jack.  I was
still between them, inadvertently keeping them apart just because I'd
wanted to hit Jack first.
     "Father, stop it!" Kasumi cried, distressed.  I saw Ranma-chan
and Akane beside her, and Auntie Saotome came over to where we
were struggling.  I noted with some trepidation that she was carrying
her katana, sheathed but no longer wrapped in silk.
     "Soun," she said in a quiet, authoritative voice, "perhaps we
should listen to what he has to say.  Beating him when he offers no
resistance is dishonourable and serves no purpose.  Don't you agree?"
It was clear that he at least didn't *want* to agree, but he couldn't
break his friend's grip on his arm, and his other hand was still clenched
in Jack's coat.  "Do we all agree?" she said, looking at me this time.  I
gritted my teeth.  She was right, of course.  I needed Jack to go back
to his people and tell them I was leaving the dojo, which he was going
to have trouble doing if Mr. Tendou tore his head off.  Or if I did.
     Finally, some of the tension dissipated and Mr. Tendou spoke
through clenched teeth.
     "Say your piece," he growled at an impassive Jack, "and go.
And if you ever return, no one will be able to save you from me."  I
thought he was overreacting a bit; after all, Jack had never actually
threatened to hurt Akane or any of the others.  However, he had
invaded the Tendou home and held Akane more or less at gunpoint,
and Mr. Tendou had been very much on edge since Akane's near-fatal
accident.  His overprotective nature had been pushed sharply to the
forefront.  I watched warily as Ranma's father pulled him slowly back.
Auntie Saotome caught my eye, her expression brooking no defiance,
and I reluctantly released Jack's coat and took half a step back.  I
stayed close enough, though, that if I thought he was going for his gun,
I'd be able to take him out.
     He glanced at me and, as if reading my mind, he slowly pulled
the long coat open.  His shoulder holster was clearly visible, and it was
empty.
     "I just want to talk," he said, not taking his eyes from mine.
     "You have violated the sanctity of this house twice," Auntie
Saotome said coldly, staring at him.  "I doubt there is anyone, including
me, who could protect you from Soun Tendou's wrath should you do
so a third time."  He turned to look at her, his expression tightening.
     "Lady, I'm no longer you're biggest problem," he said carefully.
Everyone was watching him the way you might a dog you found on the
street, one that might bite you at any time.
     "What's that mean?  We won't let you just take Ranko, no
matter what you say!" Akane spat angrily.  Ranma-chan was standing
close to her, looking worried but not interfering.  Jack glanced at her,
then turned back to me.
     "Who's Ranko?" he asked.
     "Me.  Look, what do you want, Jack?  I won't go with you ..."
     "They're here, kid."  I stopped.  Everything stopped.  My
mind, my heart, my breath, time itself.  Stopped dead.
     "No," I said.  He could only mean one thing.
     (Promise me you'll come back, Ranma.")
     ("Don't be so dramatic, Akane ...")
     One thing only.  Black spots danced at the edge of my vision
and there was a hollow whistling in my ears.
     ("Promise me!  Promise, or I won't let you go!  Promise, damn
you!")
     ("A-Akane, are you ... don't.  Don't cry ...")
     They're here.  Them.  The demons, the monsters.  The killers.
Here.
     ("Promise, Ranma.  Please.")
     ("I promise you.  I'll come back.")
     They followed me.  They found me.
     ("I'll come back and I'll bring everybody with me.  And it'll be
all right, Akane.  You'll see.")
     No, please.  Not again.
     ("Everything'll be all right.")
     Please.
     From a long way away I heard Jack's voice, saying "I'm sorry,
kid.  I wish there was an easier way to break this to you ..."  His words
were lost as the sound of rushing wind in my ears grew louder.
     They're here.  It's all happening again.  All of it.
     Someone touched my arm.
     And I started screaming.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Commander Shetney had been operating on less than four
hours sleep a night since the situation on T.D. 49 had broken wide
open.  She was definitely not happy to be called to the command deck
so soon after she'd left it.
     "Lt. Takahashi," she snapped, striding angrily through the
sliding doors.  "Report."  Takahashi turned from the console she was
studying and frowned.  The whole room seemed subdued for some
reason.  Shetney felt a sudden faint tendril of foreboding twitch in her
gut.
     "Commander, a disabled patrol door in the 300 world-string
received this transmission less than an hour ago.  They boosted it and
sent it to us for decryption.  It was apparently coming from an
emergency beacon near ..."
     "Show me."  This couldn't be good.  Why now?  She'd been
forced to commit almost everything at her disposal that wasn't already
spoken for to T.D. 49, and T.D. 413 had gone over with no warning at
all, lost before she could act.
     She found herself remembering how her mother had always
said bad news comes in threes.
     "Ready, Commander."  She sat in front of the duty console and
pulled down the keyboard.

WARNING: MESSAGE ENCRYPTED DES-1 CODE.
ENTER COMMAND AUTHORIZATION.

     She activated the privacy mode and complied.

     SHETNEY CAROL A.  GARRISON COMMANDER.
AUTHORIZATION: WHISKEY 24399 ALPHA.

     STAND BY FOR RETINA SCAN.

     She sighed and sat still, waiting for the scan to be completed.
Takahashi stepped in front of the duty station and watched the room
while Shetney fretted quietly.  DES-1 encoding meant it was very bad
news.  Finally, the authorization cleared and the message flashed up on
her private screen, text only.

FLASH TRAFFIC:  FROM DIMENSIONAL TASK FORCE
PATROL UNIT X-RAY FOXTROT SIERRA SIX THREE THREE
TO JA SECTOR COMMAND GARRISON.  DES-1 PRIORITY.
MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY.  ACTIVE DIMENSIONAL
LINK DETECTED BETWEEN T.D. 417 AND T.D. 413.
SITUATION URGENT REPEAT URGENT BUT NOT YET
UNTENABLE.  OFFICER REQUIRES IMMEDIATE
ASSISTANCE.  AM ATTEMPTING COUNTERMEASURES
IMMEDIATELY.  LOCAL LINK DISTORTION MAKES DIRECT
COMMUNICATION IMPOSSIBLE AT THIS TIME.  REPEAT
OFFICER REQUIRES ANY AND ALL ASSISTANCE
SOONEST.
PATROL OFFICER JACK GARY CONROY DTF 880 PATROL
GROUP -- X-RAY FOXTROT SIERRA SIX THREE THREE
MESSAGE ENDS.
MESSAGE REPEATS:

     She hit the hold key, then blanked the screen.
     Trouble really does come in threes, she thought bleakly.
Mother would be so smug right now.  She stared at the screen, her
eyes dry and tired.
     "Urgent but not yet untenable," she muttered.  Takahashi
leaned back over the console.
     "What was that, Commander?" she asked.  Shetney shook her
head.
     Damn Jack anyway.  His message was none to subtle, but the
call wasn't his to make.  Her forces were badly overextended, and if an
active link had formed between a world overrun with demons and one
incapable of fighting them off, there was really only one option open to
her.
     "Takahashi, go down to Main Ops.  Find Dussalt.  Tell him I'm
authorizing a Black Ops strike for T.D. 417.  Then find me a door and
a pilot.  I need to know what the hell we'll be going into."  Takahashi
hesitated.
     "That won't be easy ..." she said hesitantly.
     "Dammit, pull someone off active if you have to!  I won't
authorize final strike until I've got confirmation!  Now move it!"
Takahashi snapped off a sharp salute and dashed off, leaving Shetney
alone with her conscience.
     Sorry, Jack, she said silently.  This is the way it has to be.
     She leaned back in her chair feeling a million years old.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ranma was worried.  Ranko-chan had finally been calmed
down, but her reaction had been extreme.  And things were threatening
to get out of hand again.
     Ranma had snatched the kettle off the stove and doused himself
with hot water just before Ranko-chan had started screaming.  He'd
wanted to be in boy form in case a fight broke out, but that guy Jack
wasn't doing anything.  He just kept saying that they were here.  And
when Ranko-chan freaked out, he knew instantly what the guy had to
be talking about.
     He just didn't believe it.
     Akane was murmuring to the shocked red-head, her arm
around the other girl's shoulders, and Ranma fought down a sudden
surge of jealousy.  Not now, dammit, focus, he thought angrily.
     "Are you saying what happened to Ranko's world is going to
happen here?" he asked tersely.  The others, still in shock after
Ranko-chan's outburst, were jolted back to the present by the
question.  Jack shook his head emphatically.
     "No!  No, not exactly.  Look, I'll tell you everything, but you have
to keep calm, okay?  I need you to understand exactly what's
happening here."  Ranma wasn't sure why he would need them to
understand, and he wasn't sure he trusted the guy, but if there was any
chance those monsters were coming here he'd be listening closely
indeed.
     He didn't intend to let what happened to Ranko happen to him.
     "If it's not the same, then what is the situation exactly?" Ranma
asked point-blank.
     "Just listen to me," he said, looking at them all.  "This isn't like
before, when they destroyed Ran ... Ranko's world.  We can stop
them, if we act quickly."
     "Ranko told us about you, about what your people are like.  You
didn't do anything to help the others on his world.  Why should we trust
you?"  Akane asked bitterly.  He gave her a despairing look.
     "Because it's the only way.  If they aren't stopped, the same
thing that happened to your counterparts is going to happen to all of
you."  Nobody seemed to know what to say to that.  Tension seemed
to swirl around them, binding them all together in the confined space of
the kitchen, building like a summer storm.
     "So tell us what you came to tell us," Ranma said, "and we'll
see if anyone believes you.  How about that?"  Jack nodded.
     "Okay.  This morning I finally repaired the sensor systems on
my Door, and I discovered that a link had opened between this world
and the one where I found Ranma.  That shouldn't have happened."
     "Are you saying those things are coming after Ranko?" Nabiki
asked incredulously from the doorway.  Ranma turned to see
Ranko-chan stiffen in Akane's arms.  Nabiki seemed to realize the
implication of her words at the same time and reddened.
     "I'm sorry, Ranko," she said quickly.  "I didn't ..."
     "They *did* come for me, didn't they?"  Ranko-chan spoke softly
from where she was crouched on the floor.  "They came because I got
away from them, and they want me back."  Her voice was frighteningly
lifeless, and her eyes gazed dully at the floor.  Ranma felt a chill skitter
down his spine.  Could that really be true?  Could Ranko's presence
have endangered them all?
     "Look, kid, there's no way they could have known you'd end
up here.  It was an accident, remember?" Jack interrupted.  "It's just
coincidence that the link they opened led here.  That's all."  Ranko-chan
didn't look convinced.
     "If they really are coming, how can we stop them when our
counterparts couldn't?" Ranma asked.  He remembered telling Ranko
that he wouldn't have let them all die if their positions had been
reversed.  He hoped he wouldn't have to live up to that rash statement.
     Jack scratched his chin wearily.  "I'll have to give you some
background here, so bear with me.  Any dimension is comprised of
various planar levels.  You might have any or all of, say, a kami plane, a
demon plane, an astral plane, a material plane and so on.  On Ranma's
... Ranko's world, the barriers that separated the human and demon
planes were completely ruptured.  Freed, the demons were able to
invade the human realm, coming out everywhere.  But that dimension is
completely separate from this one.  Planar barriers can be bridged, or
sometimes sundered, by various means magical or technological.
Dimensional barriers are quite another matter."
     "But they did it," Ranma stated flatly.  Jack nodded.
     "There are only two ways known to cross the dimensional
barriers between worlds.  One is crossing through natural vortices
between dimensional levels using dimensional transit technology.  Our
Dimensional Task Force uses that method.  The second is to open a
pre-existing subspace link between worlds, and to do this you need a
rare and powerful artifact known as a hyper-link key."
     "So they opened a link to come here," Ryouga said stonily from
where he was leaning against the wall, his posture deceptively relaxed.
"Does that help us?"
     "Yes.  That link is their only bridge to this place.  They'll be trying to
keep a low profile until they can get enough forces through to defend
the link at this end.  Once their beachhead is secure, they'll begin
spreading out, destroying everything in sight.  Unless we stop them."
     "We?" Ranko-chan asked, her chin coming up sharply.  "You
said "we" before, didn't you?  Who exactly is "we", Jack?"  Jack's jaw
clenched and he drew a deep breath.
     "According to my files on you, there's quite a talented group of
martial artists in your circle of friends.  I think we can stop these things
if we act quickly enough, with surprise on our side, before they're
ready.  A strike force of all your friends ..."
     That was as far as Jack got before Ranko-chan broke away
from a startled Akane and hurled herself at him.  The force of the
collision knocked them both to the floor, with Ranko-chan on top.  She
grabbed Jack's coat in her hands and hauled his face up until their noses
were nearly touching.
     "No!" she growled.  "No way!  Are you crazy?  You can't ask them
to fight those things, I won't let you do this!  I won't!"  Ranma moved
closer, wondering if he should try to separate the two.  Jack was
continuing to remain calm, not fighting Ranko-chan, just staring into her
eyes with a haunted expression.
     "Kid, it's the only way," he said quietly.  Ranko-chan began to
quiver in rage, slamming Jack back against the floor.
     "NO!  WE TRIED THAT BEFORE!  WE TRIED THAT AND IT
DIDN'T WORK!  I WON'T WATCH THEM DIE AGAIN!  I
WON'T!  DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?"  Ranma started forward,
only to be brought up short by his mother.  She motioned him back,
then crouched down by Ranko-chan, whose shoulders were rising and
falling with the angry intensity of her breathing.  Jack didn't seem to
know what to do with her.
     "Ranko.  Ranko, let him up now.  It's all right, Ranko, we
won't let him do anything.  Just let him up, all right?"  She spoke in a
low, soothing tone, reaching out to rest her hand on Ranko-chan's
shoulder.  Ranma saw the red-head jerk convulsively, then turn to look
at his mother, her eyes wild, desperate.
     "It's not fair," she whispered.  "It can't happen again.  I won't
let it happen again.  I just won't."  She released her grip on Jack and
allowed herself to be drawn back gently.  His mother pulled
Ranko-chan away from the fallen man, moving behind Ranma's father,
Mr. Tendou and Akane.  Jack got up slowly, taking care not to make
any sudden moves.
     "You people have got to understand what's at stake here," he
said, his tone almost pleading.  "They don't know I'm here, they can't
know anyone is aware of their presence or their plan!  We have exactly
one chance to shut down that link, but to do that I'll need your help!"
     "You want us to fight these demons?  And then what?" Ranma
asked.  He found that, almost against his will, he was coming to believe
that the threat was real.  Jack was either a brilliant actor or he was
desperate and afraid.
     "The gateway into this world will be defended.  What I need
you guys to do is get me into the link on this end.  Once inside, I should
be able to disrupt it with some equipment I have."
     "*Should* be able to?" Ranma asked acidly.
     "WILL be able to!  Look, it's this, or do nothing and let them kill
everyone you love!  Is that what you want?"  Ranma bit back a reply as
his mother stood gracefully, drawing herself to her full height.  She
walked over, brushing past the others to look Jack in the eye.
     "They are talented martial artists, but they are still just children," she
said angrily.  "What of the people you serve, this Dimensional Task
Force?  Why don't they come and put a stop to this?"  Jack flinched at
her barely contained rage, but held his ground.
     "I put in a call for help, but there's another problem in this sector and
frankly, I don't think we can expect help any time soon.  We're on our
own here, and we're running out of time."  As the two continued to
stare at each other, Ranma noticed Ranko-chan stand up and walk
over to the stove.  She grabbed the kettle and poured its contents over
herself.  The water was still warm enough to trigger the change, and the
damp Ranko turned to Jack, his expression hardening.
     "Leave them out of it, Jack.  Take me."  Jack frowned.
     "Look, kid, they'll be *guarding* the link.  One fighter won't be
enough.  Not to have any reasonably decent chance."
     "What about the police?" Kasumi cried.  "Or the army?"  Jack
shook his head.
     "Even if we could get them to believe us before it was too late,
we'll be better off with a small, fast strike.  Anyway, I suspect the
police will be busy with other matters."
     "I survived alone there, Jack," Ranko said stubbornly.  "The
place was infested with them, but I survived.  You can do this with just
me."
     "I know what you're trying to do, kid, but we can't risk it!
Too much depends on this succeeding!  And I don't think we have
much time left."  Jack was interrupted by a shrill beeping.  As
everybody tensed, he pulled the sleeve of his coat back and lightly
touched the dull gray bracelet around his wrist.
     "What?" he asked brusquely.  A voice answered him from the
bracelet.
     "Something's happening, boss.  I've been monitoring local
police and emergency services bands, and they're going berserk.
Downed power lines, hydro substation fires, water and gas main
ruptures, you name it.  Big time chaos, and it's spreading."
     "Show me."  A burst of light appeared in front of him, resolving
itself into what appeared to be a map of the area.  Red lights were
flashing everywhere on the map.  Ranma edged closer, frowning.  He
thought he could make out a pattern forming.  What the hell ...?
     "It's started," Jack said sourly.
     "What has?  What are they doing?" Akane asked.
     "Causing trouble.  Drawing off police and support services,
tying them up.  Restricting access to their vulnerable area."
     "They're making a big circle," Ranma said.  Jack nodded.
     "Yeah, look.  These are major ground routes and intersections.
This one's flooded by a burst water main, this one's blocked by
downed power lines.  Here there's a train derailed.  Your average
demon is dumber than a bag of hammers, but this took planning.  They
must have sent at least one high level demon lord through to coordinate
everything.  Damn."  Ranma squinted at the glowing lines of the map,
trying to figure out what was bothering him.  Then, suddenly, he had it.
     "Furinkan High's at the middle of that circle they're making!"
     "Well, yeah.  That's where the link point is.  Didn't I mention
that?" Jack asked.
     "No, you didn't," Ranko said flatly.
     "Boss, I need to talk to you for a minute," the voice coming
from the strange bracelet said.  The humming noise returned and the
strange door appeared on the wall behind Jack.  The map display
disappeared and he turned to go.
     "I'll be right back," he said over his shoulder.  "I'd suggest you
decide quickly if you're going to help me or not.  This activity suggests
that we're almost out of time."  Then the door opened and he
disappeared through it.  A startled silence held sway for a few
moments.  Finally, Ranko turned to Ranma.
     "I need to talk to you.  Alone."  He walked out of the room,
brushing by a startled Ranma, leaving everyone staring in his wake.
Ranma sighed and started to follow.
     "Ranma," his mother said, worry evident in her voice.  He
grinned at her reassuringly.
     "Don't worry.  We'll be right back," he said.  He followed
Ranko out to the veranda, where the other boy stopped and turned to
face him.
     "Well?" Ranma asked after a long, tense moment.  Ranko
glanced up at the sky, gray and threatening, then back at Ranma.
     "Don't go," he said finally.  "Please.  Just stay out of it."
     "You know I can't do that."
     "Listen!  If you don't go, the others will stay out of it too!
They'll follow your lead, you know they will!  Please, Ranma!"
     "What are you talking about?  These things destroyed your
home, killed your friends ..."
     "And I want to make them pay!  But I don't want to give them
a chance to do it again!  Dammit, you don't know what you're up
against!  You won't understand until it's too late!  These things, they're
not some martial artist with a grudge and some fancy moves, they're
killing machines!  They've got no conscience, no fear, nothing!"  The
two stared at each other, tension charging the air between them.
     "I understand that Jack thinks he needs us all to make this plan
work.  I understand that I can't just sit here while my home is
threatened.  This place, you know what it means to me.  I'm going to
defend it, and these people, no matter what.  And the others will too.
You of all people should know me well enough to know I can't let this
go."
     "All of them?" he asked softly.  "Even Akane?"  Ranma's lips
pulled back in a snarl, and he looked away.
     "I promised her," he said, and the words hurt.  "I promised her
I'd stand beside her.  And her pride ..."
     "Pride makes piss-poor armour, Ranma!  Pride won't keep her
alive!"
     "*I'll* keep her alive!  I'd never let anything happen to her!"
They broke off, glaring at each other, their anger palpable.
     "She is good, you know," Ranma said softly, breaking the
angry silence,  willing Ranko to understand.  "And she won't be alone.
I know what you're thinking, but ..."
     "But you're not going to ask her to stay."  Ranko's voice was
flat, emotionless.
     "I can't.  I can't because she was right, what she said ..."
     "When, last night?  I guess you two had a few things to talk about
after I left, didn't you?"  Ranma's head snapped up at the tone in
Ranko's voice.
     "Is that what this is all about?  What happened between me and
Akane last night?"  Ranko flinched guiltily.
     "No.  Yes!  Shit, I don't know!  I should be happy for you
two, I suppose.  Dammit, I wanted to leave before this happened!  I
never wanted to have to see her fall in love with someone else, not even
you."  Ranko shook his head, his inner turmoil clearly visible on his
face.  Ranma was beginning to understand just how difficult the situation
could become.
     "So what happens now?," Ranma asked him flatly.
     "Look, all I know is that I decided to leave so that nobody would
get hurt.  Now, my decision is all for nothing.  We're not talking about
hurt feelings or broken hearts anymore, we're talking about life and
death!  And I don't care what Jack says, I know!  I know that they
came here ... because I'm here."  He finished in an agonized whisper,
and Ranma felt a surge of sympathy for his counterpart.  And a little
frustration, too.
     "He said that wasn't ..."
     "I know what he said!  But I can feel it!  They're not done with
me!"  Ranko's voice was wild, raw with pain.  Ranma could feel the
intensity of the other boy's unfocussed rage like a hot wind on his skin.
     "Ranko, if there was an earthquake in Tokyo tomorrow, would
it be your fault?  If a tidal wave wiped out half of Japan, would you feel
guilty?  I'm starting to think you would.  I thought, after we talked
down by the river the other day, that I understood just how guilty you
felt about what happened, about surviving.  I guess I was fooling
myself.  Maybe we both were.  Eventually, you need to forgive
yourself, but we don't have that kind of time.  Right now, we have to try
to stop these things before they can hurt anyone here.  I'm going.
That's final."
     "And what about the others?" Ranko asked, his voice a tiny and
emotionless whisper.
     "They can decide for themselves."
     "Even Akane?"  Ranma took a deep breath and fought down a
feeling of panic in his gut.
     "Yeah.  Even her."  Ranko looked at him for long moments,
then finally the tension leached out of his body.
     "I just don't want you to have to go through what I did," he
said plaintively.  Ranma nodded.
     "I know, but running away isn't the answer.  We have to do
this.  There's no other way."  Ranko nodded, avoiding Ranma's gaze.
     "I suppose I knew you wouldn't listen," he muttered.  "I had to
try, that's all.  You understand?"
     "Sure.  I understand."  And he did.  He just didn't approve.
Ranko's hysteria when he'd found out about the demon's presence had
him worried.  He wasn't sure if his friend's nerve would hold against the
creatures that had killed his friends and family.
     He was worried that Ranko might break under pressure, and
he had no idea what to do about it.
     He turned to go back in, then stopped as he saw Akane
walking out towards them.  Ranko saw her too, and turned to Ranma
with a bitter little smile.
     "I guess I'll leave you two alone," he said.  "I'm sure you have
things to talk about."  Ranma winced at the other boy's tone, watching
him walk off with despair.  He needed to talk to Ranko about what had
happened between him and Akane.  He needed to straighten things out.
He didn't want to leave things the way they were between them, not
when they'd just begun to develop a real friendship.
     Unfortunately, it looked like there wouldn't be time.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane watched Ranko stomp by her warily.  He wouldn't meet
her eyes.  She guessed that his conversation with Ranma had not gone
well.
     She hoped hers would go somewhat better.
     She walked over to where Ranma was standing and gazed up
at him, her heart beating faster at the memory of what had passed
between them the night before on the roof.  Just when things finally
started to get promising, she thought bitterly, this happens.  Can't we
just be happy?  Is that too much to ask?
     "Well?" she asked softly.  He sighed.
     "Ranko wants us to stay out of it so we'll be safe.  He still feels
guilty.  Frankly, I think I know how he feels."
     "What?"  He gave her a wistful smile.
     "Remember last night, how I told you that I was afraid to
change things?  How I was afraid changing the way things were would
destroy everything?  It feels like a jinx, you know?  Like I wanted too
much, and now ..."
     "Ranma, you don't really think that!  Tell me you don't!" she
cried out, shocked.  She was disturbed by how closely what he'd said
reflected her thoughts of only moments ago.  Could it be fated that
they would never be happy?  She tried to dismiss the thoughts as
foolish, but something deep in the murk of her soul, where the light
never shone, crowed that it very well might be so.
     His expression softened slightly and he sighed, shaking his head
ruefully.
     "Sorry.  This thing's just getting to me.  This isn't like anything
we've ever been up against before."
     "And you want me to stay here.  Don't you?"  He held her
gaze, his eyes sad.
     "Of course I do.  But I'm not going to ask you.  I meant what I
said last night.  Partners.  I just ... I feel almost sick, worrying that
something's gonna happen to you."
     "Good," she said.  He blinked.
     "Wh-what?"
     "You heard me," she said, taking a step closer to him.  "You
should have to feel that way for a change.  How do you think *I* feel,
Ranma, every time you go charging into something?  You never let the
way I felt stop you from putting yourself in danger.  You're not
invulnerable, Ranma, and it's time you realized it!  Whatever happens
today, I want us to face it together.  And I want you to promise me you
won't get distracted trying to watch out for me.  You'll have to learn to
trust in my abilities sometime, Ranma.  We'll both get through this, and
after ..."  She trailed off, holding his gaze fiercely.  "After we'll be able
to worry about us."
     "Is it really so terrible for me to worry about you?" Ranma
asked plaintively.  Akane's gaze softened somewhat.
     "Not terrible," she said.  "It's not terrible to worry about
someone you love.  Believe me, I would know.  I've worried about you
often enough."  He bowed his head, unhappy and confused.
     "I'm sorry, Akane.  I never ..."
     "I know," she interrupted gently.  "I just want you to realize that
we're in this together, all the way.  And that means that we'll both be in
danger.  Ranma.  I've had to learn that you can't put the people you
love in a jar and keep them close and protect them every minute of
every day.  Believe me, after my mother died I was a holy terror.  I
didn't want anybody going out of my sight because I was afraid they
might not ever come back."  She stared moodily out at the garden, the
shadow of dark memory flitting across her face.  "It took me a while to
realize that I just couldn't live that way.  But I did realize, and it wasn't
easy.  Now you've got to do the same thing."
     She turned to look at him, and he felt the tug of war in his gut
intensify.  He needed so strongly to protect her, but she was right.  If he
was going to keep his promise to her, he was going to have to learn to
let go.  It scared him, suddenly, how strong his feelings for her had
become now that he no longer pretended they didn't exist.
Acknowledged, they suddenly became a primal force at the centre of
his being, battering his rational mind with a frightening intensity.
     "I understand," he said softly, and he thought maybe he did.
He understood, but he couldn't stop worrying, and she read his
expression with unnerving accuracy.  She leaned close, her face taut
with worry and other, less easily identified emotions.
     "You're going to promise not to get killed watching out for me,
right?"  He looked away for a moment, then back to her, nodding
slowly.
     "Yeah.  Just as soon as you promise me you're going to be
careful."  She smiled up at his worried face.
     "I'll try."
     "Me, too."  They stared at each other, feeling the weight of all
the words that they'd left unsaid, all the things that might now never get
said.  Then the moment passed and Ranma sighed.
     "We'd better go in and see what's going on."  He started
forward, but Akane didn't move.
     "Wait," she whispered.  Her arms snaked up around his neck
and she raised her face up to his, drawing him down into a kiss.  His
hands came up slowly to frame her face, and she shuddered at his
touch.  The kiss seemed to last an eternity, hot sweet and desperate,
and she leaned into his lithe body, trying to sear the moment into her
memory.  At last they broke the kiss reluctantly, faces only inches
apart, and his blue-gray eyes looked down into hers, filled with love
and need and worry.
     "What was that for?" he whispered, his hot breath brushing
against her face with a wonderful intimacy.
     "For luck," she whispered back, then buried her face in his
neck so he wouldn't see her tears.  He felt them though, and she
choked back a sob as he stroked her hair gently.
     "Ranma," she breathed, "I'm so scared."  His arms went
around her then, and he squeezed her gently, nuzzling his mouth in next
to her ear, his heart hammering at her nearness, at the honesty he felt
compelled to share with her.
     "I know, Akane.  I'm scared, too."
     They stood there, holding each other, for a long, long time.  But
in the end, it felt like a fleeting moment, gone all too soon.
     In the distance, thunder rumbled.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I watched Ranma and Akane come back into the house with no
outward expression, but I was surprised by how much seeing her with
him hurt.  After all, they belonged together.  Was all my talk about
staying out of their lives just that ... talk?  I shook my head angrily.
Now, of all times, I shouldn't be distracted.  I'd made my decision and
I meant to live with it.
     If at all possible.
     "Hey," I said.  They hadn't noticed me, being totally engrossed
in each other.  They started guiltily at my voice, and I could guess what
had been going on out on the veranda.  Feeling jealous might have been
a total waste of time, but that didn't stop me from wallowing in that
feeling, just a little.  I tried to keep my inner turmoil out of my face as
they came up to me.
     "Jack's back," I said shortly.  "He wants to know what you've
decided."  Ranma nodded.  Akane just looked at me with an
expression that brought a lump to my throat.  I didn't want her feeling
sorry for me, pitying me.  I just wanted her to love me, and that wasn't
going to happen.  It couldn't happen.  Couldn't.
     I followed them back into the kitchen, trying to fight down the
feeling of dread that kept rising up in me.  I could tell by the expression
on her face that Akane wasn't going to stay behind.  I'd hoped that he
might at least convince her to do that.  That wouldn't be so much to ask
for, right?  But it appeared that whatever had passed between them, it
had been decided that Akane would share his risks.  I wondered if I
ever could have agreed to that with my Akane.
     I thought it unlikely.  I remembered the Spring of Life, watching
her dance through the air from one of that Orochi's heads to another,
my heart turning to ice at the sight.  She'd improved greatly in her skills
since I'd first met her, but she still wasn't close to me, and I still couldn't
bear to see her in danger.  The problem was, this time I had nothing to
say about it.  He did, and he was going to let her go along.
     I found myself hating him for it.
     Jack stood in the kitchen, arms crossed, waiting for us.
     "Well?"
     "We're going with you," Ranma said firmly.  It was so quiet
you could hear Mr. Tendou's heart breaking.
     "Akane!"  She turned to him, her expression set but slightly
sad.
     "Please understand, Dad.  I have to go."  He just stared, his
face turning an unhealthy gray.
     "I'm in, and so are the others," Ryouga said.  I gaped at him.
     "The others?  How ...?"  Ryouga looked at me as if I'd lost my
mind.
     "I've got no sense of direction, Ranko, but I'm perfectly
capable of using a telephone."  I felt numb.  So that was it.  They'd all
go off to fight this last battle, just like the one that had killed them
before.  I couldn't stop it.  I could only go along and try not to fail them
again.  And pray that I could change the outcome this time.
     "You told them where to meet us?" Jack was asking Ryouga.  He
nodded.  Mr. Tendou was standing in front of his youngest daughter,
staring down at her as if he'd never seen her before.  Ranma's parents
stood close behind her, and Nabiki and Kasumi watched uncertainly.
     "There's no time, Daddy," Akane said softly.  "We have to go
now.  We have to stop these things before they do what they did to
Ranko's home.  Please understand, I'm not a little girl anymore."
     "You'll always be my little girl," he said, his voice rough.  "Always.
If anything happened to you, I don't ..." he stopped, swallowed hard.
"I'm coming along," he said finally.
     "We discussed this, Tendou," Ranma's father said quietly.
"Not all of those things are at the school.  Someone has to stay here
and defend the dojo in case there's trouble.  You have two other
daughters.  You have to stay."  I wasn't sure if they'd decided that
because it was true or because his concern over his daughter rendered
Mr. Tendou almost completely useless.  Whichever, he looked like he
was thinking of arguing the point until Ranma's mother put her hand
gently on his shoulder.
     "Soun, we need you here.  I know how hard it is to let your
child go off into the unknown, but it must be done.  Be brave, Soun.
So much depends on this."  He closed his eyes and lowered his head,
his shoulders slumped in defeat.  He nodded at last, raising his eyes
slowly to look at his baby daughter for what might be the last time.
     "Come home soon, Akane," he rasped, his voice shaking.  She
was obviously affected by his grief, and could only nod.
     "I will, Daddy.  Don't worry."  Her voice shook, but only slightly.
Jack opened the door that had reappeared on the back wall of the
kitchen, and motioned us inside.  Ryouga went first, followed by
Ranma's father, then Ranma.  Akane followed close behind, with one
last look over her shoulder at her father and sisters, all of whom
seemed to be having trouble containing their emotions.  I took a last
look at the small group, trying to believe that I'd see them again, and
followed the others through the door.
     I didn't have any parting words, no comfort to give.  I couldn't
help feeling that these people were about to lose their innocence, and
maybe their lives.
     I couldn't help feeling that it was all my fault.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Jack sat down, his chair materializing under him, and swivelled
to face the main display.
     "Scooter, you got those coordinates?" he asked briskly.
     "Sure thing, boss."  The display lit up with a map of Nerima
ward, red lights multiplying across the cool blue background even as
they watched.  A bright yellow light started flashing on a spot near
Furinkan.
     "I figure that's as close as we can safely go, what with the
subspatial interference that thing is putting out."  Jack nodded.
     "Make the calculations and let me know when you're ready to
go," he said.  He took the few moments peace the delay afforded him
to surreptitiously check out the group gawking at the inside of Door's
command deck.
     The two Ranma's were dressed much alike, although the one
he'd been assigned to pick up, the one they were now calling Ranko
for some reason, was wearing black, while the other was dressed in red
and black, the way Ranko had been when he'd picked him up.  The
bald guy with the glasses was wearing a white gi, and the girl, Akane,
was wearing a yellow one.  Ryouga, the quiet one, was wearing a
yellow tunic and a tiger-striped headband and carrying, of all things, an
umbrella.
     Jack sighed inwardly.  It hadn't been easy, watching the
agonized parting back at the Tendou household.  He knew that it was
entirely possible none of these people would be coming back.  Just as
he knew the alternative was even worse.
     "Ready to transit," Scooter said.  Jack roused himself from his
reverie and shifted in his chair.  "You want the conn, boss?"
     "No, you handle this one," Jack said.  The display flickered
briefly.
     "Okay, we're here," Jack announced.  They all looked at him
dubiously.
     "Already?" Ranma asked.  Jack nodded.
     "Local transit doesn't take much time.  Okay.  I want you guys
to go out and take a look around.  Scout out the area but be careful,
and under no circumstances should anyone go over the wall
surrounding the school grounds.  Okay?"  They looked at each other.
     "Is that safe?" Ranko asked.
     "Come on, boy.  We need to know the disposition of the
enemy," Genma said heartily.  "If they're still trying to keep a low
profile there shouldn't be too much trouble."
     "He's right," Jack said, "but you should go in pairs anyway.
Just in case."
     "There's five of us," Akane pointed out.  Jack grinned.
     "I know, but Ranko's staying behind to help me."  Ranma
scowled at that.
     "I don't like that plan," he said.  "How do we know you won't
try to take off with him while we're gone?"
     "He won't," Ranko said, giving Jack a meaningful look.  "If he
does, he'll get more of what he got last time."  It was Jack's turn to
scowl.
     "It's so nice that we all trust each other so deeply," he
grumbled.  "Now how about it?"  The group paired up, Ranma with
Akane, Ryouga with Genma.  The door opened and they vanished
through it with a last admonishment to avoid contact with the enemy.
Then the door closed and Jack was left alone with Ranko.
     Just the way he'd wanted it.
     "So why Ranko?" he asked idly.  The boy fixed him with a
stony stare.
     "Long story.  How do I help?"  In truth, Jack didn't need any help.
He was worried, however, about what Ranko might do if left to his
own devices.
     "Just stand there and look useful until I need you."  Jack called
up a control console in the air in front of him and began inputting
information rapidly.
     "What's the matter, do you think I'm gonna run off and take
these things on myself?" Ranko asked bitterly.
     "Maybe."
     "And if I got killed, that'd mean your mission failed, right?"
Jack gritted his teeth and looked up from the display.
     "Look, kid, I know you're mad, and God knows you've got
every right to be.  But cut me a little slack, would you?"
     "Why?  You let all those people die because they weren't
useful to you, and now you want to use a bunch of teenagers to fight for
you so your people don't have to get their hands dirty!  Isn't that how it
is?"  Jack stared at Ranko, shock and rage battling it out for
supremacy.
     "You really believe that?"
     "Hell yes!  I don't want them involved in this fight because I
think you'll sacrifice them to get what you want!"
     "Kid," Jack said, his voice low and dangerous, "I know you've
been through a lot, but that doesn't excuse you for becoming a total
asshole.  You listen to me, now, and listen carefully.  There are
thousands of worlds in this sector alone, and the DTF is stretched to
the limit just trying to keep tabs on them all.  You don't think I wanted
to save more people from that hellhole your home turned into?  You
don't think I wanted to say to hell with my orders?  Tell me something,
kid.  If the world was ending, and you could take maybe a dozen
people in this Door and save them, who would you take?  Better yet,
who would you leave behind?  You don't think there are people here
who want to live, who want their friends and loved ones saved?  Would
you want to be the one with the power to decide who gets saved?
Would you?"
     "So that makes it all right, because you don't *like* your job?"
Ranko snarled.  Jack stood up slowly and walked over to Ranko until
they were standing face-to-face.
     "I want you to understand that this isn't about what I like or
what you like.  Codes of honour and standards of morality get lost
when billions of lives are at stake.  I'm not saying that's right or wrong,
I'm just telling you how it is."  Ranko's breathing was quick, angry, and
he jabbed a finger into Jack's chest.
     "Well, isn't that convenient?  It lets you use my friends to do
your dirty work without having to worry about such insignificant things
as honour or morality!  Well I think it stinks!  The way I see it, your
people get to decide who lives and dies!  They didn't lift a finger to save
my home, and now they're not gonna do a damned thing to save this
place, either!  And if we fail, they'll just send someone in, pick out any
useful survivors, and move on!  Right?"  The two stood nose to nose,
and the stink of imminent violence was heavy in the air.  Finally, Jack
took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
     "Saotome," he said soberly, "if we do this, there's a chance we
could all die.  If we *don't* do this, I guarantee you tens of thousands,
maybe millions, of people *will* die."  Ranko's expression flickered,
surprise and doubt showing through the rage momentarily.
     "What the hell does that mean?" he asked finally, angry and
confused.
     "These things are on the brink of establishing a beachhead here,"
Jack said, his voice soft but compelling.  "They'll set up a barrier to
protect their link, and spread out like a cancer.  I sent out a call for
help, but it'll be some time before anyone can get here.  Would you like
to know what DTF protocols are for a situation like this?"  It was clear
from his expression that he wouldn't, but Jack pressed on regardless.
     "If they could scramble enough combat units to the affected
area in a suitable amount of time, they would engage the enemy
immediately, setting up a containment perimeter, and fighting them
with heavy armour, combat ordinance and high energy plasma
weapons.  Of course, the demons would fight back with all means at
their disposal, and you've seen what those are.  Penetrating their
defences would take some time.  Do you have any idea what the
population density is in Tokyo?  It's ungodly high.  Have you ever seen
a military engagement in an urban area, kid?  I have.  Civilian casualties
would be horrendous.  By the time the demons were beaten back
through the link, I wouldn't be surprised if the dead and injured
measured in the tens of thousands."
     "They wouldn't," Ranko whispered hollowly.  Jack gave him a
tiny, ironic grin.
     "You're probably right.  See, in addition to the numerous smaller
ongoing crises in this sector, there's a major situation happening at the
other end, one that threatens an entire world-string.  Most of the
available forces from this sector and an adjoining one have been
committed there.  The number of parallel earths is very large, and the
DTF's resources are finite, so they wouldn't be able to send sufficient
forces here fast enough to do any good.  The distances involved are too
great, the logistics of the situation prohibitive.  So, in order to protect
billions of lives, they'd dispatch a Black Ops unit to sterilize Tokyo."
Ranko froze, the angry flush draining from his cheeks.
     "Sterilize ...?"
     "If you were lucky, they'd decide to just seal off Tokyo and
vaporize it.  If the creatures had spread, they might decide to widen the
target area.  At any rate, they'd sacrifice millions of lives to save
billions."  He watched the words sink in to Ranko's soul, watched them
take hold there, feeling a familiar sense of loss as he watched the horror
in the boy's expression.
     "The truth shall set you free, kid," he said softly.  "You're a victim of
bad timing and limited resources."  Ranko shook his head angrily.
     "You're lying!" he cried.  "They wouldn't ..."
     "They would.  I know they would, kid.  I've seen it."  He could
see his own haunted face reflected in Ranko's eyes, eyes that had seen
too much horror already, and the day wasn't over yet.
     "I've seen it," he repeated softly.  "I've been there.  So now do you
see, kid?  Now do you get it?  There's one chance to save all those
innocent lives, and I for one am willing to take it.  Are you with me?"
Ranko looked at the floor, mouth pulled into a snarl.  Jack could
sympathize with him; it wasn't much of a choice.
     "I'll do whatever it takes to close that link," he said finally.
     "Good.  Because once we do that, the threat of sterilization is
over."  Ranko's shoulders slumped and he looked up, his eyes burning
with an impotent rage.
     "What do you want me to do?"
     "Like I said, stand there and look useful.  I'll let you know when I
need you."  Jack turned and walked back to his chair.
     "Did you have to tell him all that?" Scooter whispered from the
chair's console.  Jack sighed.
     "He deserved to know the truth," Jack murmured, keying up
the display once more.  In the next six hours, a ragged group of misfit
martial artists would fight to determine the fate of the good people of
Nerima Ward, and perhaps all of Tokyo.  Caught between invading
demons and the DTF, the city teetered on the brink of the abyss.
     Jack thought again about Ranko's face when he'd told him that
the DTF would kill millions of innocent people to stop the invaders from
spreading.
     "You think that's bad, kid?" he thought sourly.  "Hell, and
we're the *good* guys."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I watched Jack working at his console, trying to accept what
he'd told me.  They were going to destroy Tokyo if the link was still
active when they got here.  I hadn't asked him how long that would
take.  I decided I didn't want to know.  If we failed, I'd be dead
before it happened anyway.  I thought of Ranma and Akane, together
at last, just in time to be vaporized by some faceless force, and shards
of ice tore at my heart.
     No.  They should be happy.  They should have what I never
had.  After all they'd been through, even though I still loved her, I
wanted her to be happy.  And the rest of them, I wanted their lives to
go on, I wanted them to grow, to change, to find their futures, their
destinies.  I wouldn't let them be denied the right to their lives.
Especially not because of me.
     I knew, in the darkest pits of my soul where such knowing is
absolute, that these things were here for me.  We had unfinished
business between us, and I meant to see to it that that business was
concluded.  Personally.  The plan was already forming, but I'd need to
know more.  So I went over to talk to Jack.
     "How are we going to do this?" I asked him bluntly.  He spoke
without looking up.
     "We still don't know too much about these artifacts, these hyper-link
keys.  I can tell you from first hand experience that the link they open
causes considerable local subspatial distortion, which means that we
can't really get as close as I'd like.  From what we've determined,
though, the link will be vulnerable to being disrupted from inside."
     "You mentioned getting inside before.  You mean someone's going
to go inside the link that all the demons are coming through?"
     "Not someone, sunshine.  Me."
     "Speaking of which," the strange disembodied voice called Scooter
said.  "It's strange, Jackie.  The link is cycling.  It should be operating at
a constant peak power level, according to everything I could scrape up
on similar occurrences from the archival banks, but it isn't.  They're
coming through in small groups, I think, which is a bit of a break for us,
but I don't know why."
     "Maybe they haven't mastered it yet.  What little info we've got
about these things indicate they rely on the bearer's ability to use it
somehow."
     "But what can you do from inside there?" I pressed.
     "Relax, Saotome.  I have a plan."
     "RELAX?  Hey, I don't think I'm outta line asking about this,
you know!  If you're the only one who knows what to do, and
something happens to you ..."  He sighed and looked up from his
console.
     "All right, for Christ's sake, keep you shirt on.  I'll show you in
a second, okay?"  Jack made a few more entries on his floating console
and then looked up.
     "Hey, Scooter, how you doing?"  His voice sounded a little
tight to me all of a sudden, and I wondered if something had gone
wrong.
     "Ready as I'll ever be, Jackie.  Let's get it done."  Jack
nodded reluctantly and pressed a button.  A red light started flashing.
     "Warning.  Warning.  Safety interlocks have been disengaged.
Command level overrides are in effect.  Deploying main pylon."  I
started at the change in the voice's tone, then started again as the
middle of the floor opened up soundlessly.  A dull silver pillar rose
slowly from the opening.  Two interlocked rings sat atop the pillar,
spinning around each other.  Floating in the middle of the rings was a
mirrored sphere.
     "The transit core," Jack said, noticing my confusion.  "The heart
of Door's systems.  That thing is what lets us travel between
dimensions.  And that's what's going to destroy the link back to your
old home."  I looked at it skeptically.  The sphere floated innocently,
bigger than a grapefruit but smaller than a basketball.
     "That thing?" I asked, doubt in my voice.
     "Uh huh."  He walked over to the pillar, which stopped when it
reached chest height.  "Okay, Scooter, disengage secondary systems."
The rings slowed in their strange dance, and the lights on several of the
displays went out.
     "Release safety locks."  The rings stopped spinning
altogether, then moved so they were aligned, on inside the other,
leaving space for the sphere to be removed.  The lighting in the room
dimmed, and most of the displays went out.
     "Jack."  The voice was soft and emotionless now.  "Jack.
What are you doing, Jack?  Don't do that.  Jack.  Surely we can talk
about this.  Daisy, Daisyyyy ..."  Jack started to chuckle.  I had no idea
what was going on.
     "You weirdo," he said fondly.  I noticed his jaw tighten and the
muscles around his eyes quivering.  "Hey, any words for the history
books?"
     "I coulda been somebody," Scooter said sadly.  "I coulda been
a car fender, Eddie, instead of a bum, which is what I am."
     "Contender, you moron, not car fender," Jack said with a sad
smile.  "And you could still be somebody."
     "Sure.  The cavalry always arrives just in time."  There was
silence for a few moments.  Something was happening, and I felt
suddenly left out.
     "Hey, Jackie," Scooter said finally.  "We had a good run,
didn't we?"
     "Yeah.  We did, partner.  We really did."
     "Okay, let's do this thing."  Jack bowed his head for a moment, and
when he looked up, his face was set in an expression of determination.
     "Disengage Final Lock.  Disengage main systems, engage
emergency stand-by status."  The floor shuddered, and there was an
almost inaudible whine which dropped in tone, fading away into
nothingness.  Jack stood where he was for a moment, just staring.
     "Good-bye, Scooter," he said finally, his voice so soft I almost
didn't hear him.  Then he reached out and gently grasped the floating
sphere.  He drew it out of the framing rings and held it in one hand, it's
mirrored surface reflecting the dim lights, showing me a distorted view
of my own face.
     "Uh, what just happened here?" I asked finally.  Jack kept
looking at the surface of the sphere as if it held all the answers anyone
might want to know.
     "The human brain will die if deprived of oxygen, Saotome.  Scooter
is an advanced Artificial Intelligence unit.  He depends on the power
from the transit core to sustain him.  Even in inactive mode, the
emergency batteries will only sustain his patterns about six hours before
they degrade beyond hope of retrieval.  He was my friend, and I just
sentenced him to die."  I didn't know what to say to that.  I couldn't
think of some machine as a person, as something alive, but it was
obvious that it hurt Jack to have done what he did.  And when it came
to losing friends, I knew better than anybody that there was little
anybody could say that would make you feel better.
     I watched him crouch down and pull something from his
pocket.  It was a small box with a red button on the side.  He put it
gently on the deck, then pulled something from his other pocket.
     "Come over here, kid.  I need you."  I went, crouching down
to see what he was doing.  He balanced the box on top of the sphere
and told me, "Hold that steady, and for God's sake, don't push that
button."
     "What's that?" I asked, watching him fiddle with a roll of
something dull gray.
     "Duct tape," he said absently, tearing off a long strip.  He saw
my expression and scowled.  "Hey, it ain't pretty, but it'll work, okay?"
I said nothing while he wrapped long strips of tape around the sphere
tightly, fixing the box in place.
     "So this is gonna destroy the link, huh?  How's it work?" I
asked casually, although it seemed simple enough.
     "Push the button.  Ten seconds later, the full power of the
transit core is released and the link goes bye-bye.  The key too, I
suppose, although I can't be sure about that.  This particular manoeuvre
isn't exactly in the rule book."
     "But it will work," I pressed him anxiously.  He gave me a
humourless grin.
     "Oh, yeah, it'll work.  Trust me.  When this thing goes, that link
will be completely destabilized.  Best guess is that the key will fall into
subspace and be lost, if it isn't destroyed outright.  Without it, the link
can't be re-established, and the threat of sterilization is over."
     "Ten seconds isn't a lot of time."
     "Can't leave it too long, otherwise a demon in the link might
just grab it and throw it out, and then this would all have been for
nothing, right?"
     "Gotcha."  I smiled inwardly.  Gotcha, indeed.
     Jack finished affixing the detonation device to the sphere, then
walked over to a wall cabinet and opened it.  Out of it he pulled his
gun, several clips, some small round objects and what looked like a
contoured plastic hand grip.  He saw me looking at him and shrugged.
     "Not much, I know, but I'm a patrol unit.  This sort of operation is
supposed to be left to Ops."  He closed the cabinet and took one last
look around.  In the dim light, he looked like a kid leaving home for the
first time, lost and alone.  Still, I couldn't feel much compassion for him,
not after what he'd told me.  Maybe I wasn't being fair, but I couldn't
bring myself to care about that, either.
     "Okay, kid, let's get out of here."  I followed him to the door.
Once outside, I looked around in surprise.  The door no longer floated,
but was securely attached to a huge metal sphere which was sunk into
the ground of a vacant lot near the school.  The door was flush with the
ground, the sphere curving up over our heads.  I gaped.
     "Without main power, there's no way to keep Door in subspace,"
Jack explained.  "It slipped out as soon as I disengaged the transit
core."  I nodded dumbly.  He did something to lock the door, then
turned.
     "There's the others," he said.  "Come on."  He was right, I
could see them gathered up by the fence waiting for us.  They were all
there: Ranma and Akane, his father and Ryouga, Mousse, Shampoo,
Cologne, Ukyou, Kodachi and Kunou.  I looked at the sky nervously.
     "Looks like rain," I said shortly.
     "Yeah, be a shame if the end of the world was postponed due
to bad weather," Jack snapped.
     "Rain, Jack.  Cold water.  You really want to go up against a
horde of demons backed up by a panda, a duck, a piglet and a
kitty-cat?"  He paled.
     "Oh, shit," he said, eyeing the threatening sky uneasily.  "I
forgot all about that stupid curse thing."  Just one more thing to worry
about.  If we didn't beat the rain, this was gonna be one unbelievably
short fight.  We hurried to meet the others.
     "Everything looks clear," Ranma said without preamble.  "We
didn't spot any look-outs, and nothing strange.  It's quiet."
     "Frankly, that worries me," his father said.  "It seems almost
too easy."
     "They're nearing the critical stage," Jack said.  "They'll be
sticking close to the gate where the link opens.  Here's what we do.
When we go over the wall, they'll be on us pretty quick.  I need you
guys to draw them out and keep them busy long enough for me to get
into the link and destroy it."
     "That's it?" Ryouga asked bleakly.  "That's the whole plan?"
     "Simple plans are better, young Ryouga," Cologne said simply.
"Battle plans have a tendency not to survive contact with the enemy."
She was looking at me in a way I didn't at all like as we moved along
the wall to the point where we'd go over.
     "Shampoo's told me your story," she said, moving next to me.
"Very strange.  Perhaps ..."
     "Tell you what, old ghoul.  Talk to me after this is all over," I
said.  I'd never liked her, but I had to admit having her along was
somewhat reassuring.  She was very powerful, after all.  Hell, I
wouldn't have turned my nose up at Happousai, if he'd wandered by at
that moment.
     I noticed Mousse move closer to Akane as we walked.  He
turned to her.
     "You haven't got a weapon, Akane," he said.  She looked
uncomfortable.
     "I don't usually use one," she said.  He frowned.  Shampoo
had her bonbori, Ukyou had a brace of throwing spatulas as well as her
main spatula, Ryouga had his headbands, his belt, his umbrella and his
chi.  Kunou was carrying, in the place of his usual bokken, a sheathed
katana, and Kodachi had her ribbon, a hoop and some clubs as well as
who knew how many lethal surprises.  Mousse looked thoughtful for a
moment.
     "Your school does train in various weapons, however, doesn't
it?"  When she nodded, he scratched his chin.  "Hmmm.  How about a
polearm?"  He crossed his arms and from the sleeve of his robe drew a
long wooden pole with a wicked looking curved blade on one end.  He
handed it to her, and she hefted it experimentally, then smiled.
     "It will allow you to engage the enemy from a distance.  After
all, we don't know very much about their abilities," Mousse said.
     "Thanks, Mousse.  I feel a little better having this."
     "Hey!" Jack blurted.  "What'd you do, kid?  You tripped my
subspace detector!"  Mousse tipped his glasses with his index finger
and grinned cockily.
     "Well, I am the master of hidden weapons," he said smugly.
Shampoo snorted something derisive under her breath and his smile
faltered.
     "I don't suppose you got a rocket launcher up there?" Jack
asked.
     "Martial artists have no need for such things," Mousse informed
him haughtily.
     "They do today," Jack replied.
     Nobody had much to say after that.
     In the ensuing silence, I watched Akane and Ranma, noting
how closely they walked, how they kept looking at each other.  I
wasn't the only one who noticed, either.  I felt a rush of heat in my
chest, and I smiled sadly, all of my earlier bitterness draining away.  It
seemed pointless now.
     It was nice, in a way, to know that on one world, a Ranma and
Akane relationship would work out.  I knew then that I'd been right; if
I'd stayed, it would never have worked.  I wouldn't have been able to
deny my feelings for Akane, and it would only have meant pain for
everyone involved.
     However, that was no longer an issue.  It was time for me to
face my demons, to embrace the shadows, and to give these people a
chance to find out where their road would take them.
     I was ready.
     We reached the point where we'd be going over the wall, and
stopped.
     "Okay, everyone knows what to do?" Jack asked.  I put my
hand on his shoulder and smiled at him.
     "Hey," I said, "I just wanted to thank you for telling me the
truth back there, Jack.  And to say, sorry."  And then I sucker-punched
him.  Hard.  As he doubled over, I snatched the sphere from his hands
and back-flipped away, springing to the top of the wall as he crumpled
to the ground, holding his stomach and fighting for breath.
     "Ranko!  What ...?"  Ranma struggled to understand as they all
looked up at me, shocked.  I smiled sadly.
     "This isn't your fight.  It was never meant to be, your lives
should have continued in the light.  I'm going to end this myself, and I
want you all to stay here until it's over.  And ..." I swallowed past the
sour lump of sorrow in my throat, looking now at Ranma and Akane, "I
want to tell you I'm glad I met you all, and I'm glad I had a chance to
say good-bye.  Take care of each other, okay?"
     And then I was over the wall and running toward the rear of the
school.  A circle of light was visible in the air ahead and to the right, and
I veered towards it, sensing rather than seeing the dark forms that
began to rise up around me, keening their anger as a lone human
challenged their supremacy.  Cradling the sphere in one arm, my breath
coming easily, I raced toward the gate, untouchable, strangely elated,
finally feeling free.  Free.
     Akane, I thought, wait for me.  I'm coming back to you, just like I
promised.  We'll be together again.  I'm coming home.
     And the dark rose up all around.
 
 

Almost the end!
End part 7
Revised Aug. 7/97
Any comments or criticisms?  Send them along to: emmack@ibm.net.