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Part 11

A Ranma ½ / Tenchi Muyo! crossover story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Ranma belongs to Rumiko Takahashi and Viz Communications.  Tenchi Muyo! belongs to Hitoshi Okuda and Pioneer LDC.

Additional credits: Takada Yuuzou and Kodansha (3x3 Eyes), Takada Yuuzou and A.D. Vision (Bannou Bunka Nekomusume Nuku-Nuku), and Rumiko Takahashi and Viz Communications (Inu-Yasha).

Notes: Diverges from Ranma after volume 24, continuation for OAV 2 in the Tenchi universe (well, one of them). Nuku Nuku is from the OAVs, not TV. Sailor Moon occurs, well, at some point in the series, but it's something of an alt anyway. 3x3 Eyes diverges just before OAV2. This fic uses the bizarrely vague 'Pick One!' scenario. Enjoy.

"She achieved a great many unlikely and unexpected results, but we've grown used to that from her. Her new partner, however, was like a rising nova among glow-lights — I don't know that I've seen a finer Galaxy Police officer in all my time."

—Commander in Chief, Galaxy Police, further identification withheld
—Mentioned at a munitions conference in New Terran year 005.

The Marines continued driving the convoy into the night, switching over in shifts when one driver became tired, so that the vehicles never stopped moving. The steady rumble of the engines was oddly soothing to the passengers.

After nearly of an hour of quiet chatting, both Ranma and Yakumo finally succumbed to sleep.

And dreamed.

The setting was familiar to Ranma immediately. It took only a heartbeat for the resentment he had built for the woman to return to him, and he scowled, spinning to face her dais as he yelled, "Leave me alone!"

His shout echoed through the vast, echoing chamber, resounding from the columns of ivory and the dark, unknowable recesses. Blinking in no small amount of surprise, he realized that he was alone — the golden dais was deserted.

"What the hell?" he mumbled. "Some new trick to screw with my head?"

"Not entirely," a voice answered him, low and dulcet.

Whirling, he spun, landing in a crouched and ready stance, summoning a blade of crackling red power to his hands without thinking. The speaker was a woman, shorter than Tokimi or himself, with flowing blonde hair that reached easily to her ankles, and wore a shimmering, iridescent white gown.

She had not been there when he had first arrived, but he had learned to expect as much from the dreams. "Who are you?" he asked warily.

"I am Amatera Omiki, Higurashi-sama," she replied, curtsying low. Straightening, she added, "I would advise that you be quiet, though. I do not know how much I can hide from the lady to whom this hall belongs."

Stunned, Ranma allowed his blades to vanish. "You're not going to try and make me bring Washuu here?" he asked carefully.

"I do not know who that one is. I am here because I believe it would make Tsunami happy for me to do so," she responded quietly, a smile coming to her lips.

Ranma relaxed very slightly, standing in a less aggressive stance and frowning. "What's your story? Hell, what is this place?"

Omiki touched her fingers to her lips thoughtfully, then clasped her hands before her and admitted, "I do not understand entirely. This is the lady's hall. More than that I cannot say. Tsunami keeps no such hall that I know of."

"Uh-huh. So what do you want with me?" Ranma asked, eyeing the woman suspiciously.

She shook her head, looking away. "I wish to atone for a mistake I have made. A sore misdeed, I should think. In protecting you from the lady of this hall, I believe that I can, in some small measure, make amends to Tsunami."

"So you want to protect me from the crazy chick," the boy assessed, narrowing his eyes.

"It could be worded in such a manner, yes."

"Uh… What if I don't need you to help me out? I can handle her just fine."

The woman smirked, raising her hand to cover her smile and shaking her head. "Then I would tell you that survival comes before pride, Higurashi-sama. The lady of this hall seldom allows it, I would imagine, and my powers are limited in most respects. I cannot always intercede like this, so rest while you may."

Ranma opened his mouth to protest, but collapsed from the setting into a deeper, dreamless sleep before he could utter a complaint.

Unused to the lavish apartments that had been bestowed upon him when he was handed the title of 'Emperor', Tenchi did not entirely feel comfortable in the old Emperor's oversized bed. It was large enough that it could comfortably allow three of four of himself to sprawl about and not be able to reach one another.

Thinking about why a bed would be so large didn't comfort him much either, and as a result he had taken to sleeping on a couch in a sitting room connected to the official bedchamber. The sitting room was large enough that it put the living room of the Masaki home on Earth to shame. Still, the high ceiling had windows that allowed some amount of light to filter in from the Juraian dawn.

He was awake before the sky began to brighten, laying back on the large couch and staring upward. The first morning, the servants that came to wake him had not dealt with his hesitancy to use the bed well, and so when the light became more pronounced, he would again sit in the large bed and look as though he had just wakened when they arrived.

That stray thought brought up an idle wish that either Ayeka or Ryouko would wake him, since it had been some time since he'd had that particular pleasure, but he dismissed it. Time for playing was long since past. "Meeting with Seiryo," he mumbled to himself. "Delegates from the Galaxy Police to discuss common laws that the Galaxy Police and the Empire of Jurai will agree to enforce within Juraian space." And more, he knew, that he couldn't remember at the moment.

"Ugh," he grumbled, sitting up and swinging his legs off of the couch to stand on the soft carpeting. He scratched at one arm absently, glancing around the room. The clothes that he had been given to sleep in were not to his liking, and he had taken to simply sleeping in boxer shorts and a tank top. The Tenchi-ken — never far from his hand now — sat atop the discarded robes of the previous day.

Grimacing, he gathered the Tenchi-ken, frowning at a muffled scratching noise from the bedroom. Maybe the servants had come early. He dismissed that for the moment as unimportant. The servants vastly underestimated him anyway. In Tenchi's opinion, if he was capable enough to run the government of a massive empire, then he was capable enough to change his own clothes.

The muffled scratching faded away, to be replaced with a soft thud, followed shortly by an echoing impact that reverberated through the floor. Eyes narrowing, Tenchi dropped the robe he had picked up from the floor and activated the Tenchi-ken, slightly reassured by the glowing blade of energy as he flung open the door to the bedroom. Something felt very odd about that strange sound.

A chill wind preceded the dawn, rustling the leaves of the First tree near the balcony, and causing Tsunami to hum slightly in contentment at the First's happiness. She leant over the balcony — she wouldn't fall, and even if she did, the First's branches spread beyond the balcony — and looked beyond the green and brown tones of the First's branches.

More trees were spread below, a vast, nearly endless sea of green foliage waving in Jurai's winds, occasional lights flashing messages from one tree to another as the people below began to wake. Of course, she knew she was just distracting herself from the task at hand.

Behind her, at the medium-sized table grown from the First that accompanied the balcony, Misaki and Funaho sat, attended by a single servant. And Jakugo, of course. It was at his suggestion that the meeting was happening, and thusly, he stood by as an attendant and observer.

Turning back to the women, and bowing her head, Tsunami took a seat between them, closer the edge of the balcony. "I'm sorry," she said apologetically, before raising her head. "I forget myself."

Funaho nodded her understanding, sipping at her tea, while Misaki sat stiffly, managing a terse nod. "Are you sure that you do not wish Ayeka to be here?" Jakugo asked softly. "And perhaps, your successor also? I'm certain that Ryouko could have some advantageous insight."

Misaki shot Jakugo a disapproving glance, and shook her head, recovering some of her composure. "If our husband shouldn't be here, there's no need for either of them," she informed him coldly.

Jakugo took a step back, flinching.

Turning her attention back to Tsunami, Misaki managed a smile, and in a quavering voice said, "Tsunami… Are you Tsunami? Or are you Sasami? Who are you?"

Tsunami felt her smile fading, and sighed, bowing her head again. "I'm… neither. And both," she said hesitantly. "I am of Tsunami and Sasami, but not wholly either. I suppose this is very difficult for you."

"Yes," Misaki said instantly, a flash of regret in her eyes telling Tsunami that she had not meant to speak so quickly. "Rather, that is—"

Funaho smoothly overrode the stuttering woman, and offered, "It's difficult to adjust, one would think, when one finds that their daughter has become divinity."

Jakugo watched with undisguised interest, a subtle hand-gesture from him sending the attending servant to refill the tea.

"Divinity?" Tsunami asked, frowning. "I'm… I'm a real person, Funaho, Misaki."

Misaki sighed, calming herself visibly. She was probably pleased that Tsunami had taken the first step towards allowing her to disavow a relationship between them. "I see," she said. "So then I suppose this means that Sasami, at least as I've known her, is gone forever?"

Blinking away forming tears, Tsunami offered a shrug. "Yes," she said simply. It wasn't true, of course, but it was the answer that Misaki obviously wanted to hear. It was far easier for her to think of her daughter dying as a sacrifice than changing in such a manner.

Funaho made a thoughtful noise, sipping at her tea again. "Tell me, Tsunami," she said conversationally, "if you're not kin to Misaki, then who is your family here?"

Tsunami winced, stung. Funaho's question was more than simply asking who Tsunami was; it was asking on what ground she remained in the palace.

Seeming to realize that her words might have been harsh, Funaho amended before Tsunami could speak, "Rather, who are your relations, Tsunami-chan? I don't question your right to be here."

The girl swallowed, and grasped her teacup in trembling hands. Who was she, then? She had already taken the name 'Tsunami'; what reason was there to go back on that choice? "I suppose that I have no family in this realm," she said quietly. "I would be nothing more than myself, Tsunami. My right to be here is my privilege as…" She sighed, not wanting to complete the phrase, but knowing that it had to be done. In a very tired voice, she completed, "My privilege as the Goddess of Jurai, and the tree-ship Tsunami, symbol of all that is Jurai."

Funaho frowned, appearing displeased with the answer, while Misaki nodded in understanding. Jakugo watched quietly, offering her a sympathetic smile.

"By your leave, Misaki-san, Funaho-san," Tsunami mumbled, rising, and offering each of the women a polite nod.

For a moment, it seemed as though Funaho would stop her, call her back, but the woman instead turned to comfort Misaki. Obvious enough, really, Tsunami thought. The two had been together for centuries. It was no wonder that Funaho would choose that woman over her. Jakugo offered her his arm on the way to the door.

Tsunami paused, considering, then accepted, hesitantly. Refusing it would be rude, and she did want to ask him a few questions. Walking a short distance down the hall, Jakugo automatically led her to her quarters — Tsunami's quarters, which she hadn't seen in some time. Not the quarters that Sasami had used, which Tsunami had been staying in until recently. She frowned, but said nothing, waiting for him to speak first.

"Tsunami-sama," he began warmly. "Allow me to welcome you to Jurai. I do not believe that any others have thought to welcome you, or give you the respect you deserve."

"Ah," she said quietly. "Well. Tenchi-san, of course."

Jakugo's smile didn't falter. "Of course. He's a very well-meaning boy, isn't he?"

"Yes," she said quietly, pulling her arm free of his and turning to face him in the corridor. "What did you want to ask me, Jakugo-san?"

He frowned, taking a step back and folding his arms across his chest. He did not make an imposing figure, looking to be as old as Yosho had seemed in his 'Katsuhito' guise, clad in simple robes and wearing the medallions over his chest on the right side that indicated his status as a Council member. Something was missing though, and it only took Tsunami a moment to place it.

"Jakugo-san, where is your key?"

The man winced, looking away, and mumbling. After a moment he met her eyes and explained more clearly, "My ship, Astar-oh, was lost in the Masagiri sector due to some outlaws a few years ago." Frowning darkly, he quietly added, "They looked like Laruma outriggers."

Tsunami blinked, frowning. Her own tree-self could only distantly remember Astar-oh's pain before its life was extinguished, crying out to the nearest ship for help before it perished. And that ship had been Saryu-oh, which remembered the wreckage clearly enough, and more clearly, rescuing the man from the void of space before his life support failed.

She shuddered at the memory. Saryu-oh was not far away, orbiting above the planet with many other ships in the Home Fleet. Of his crew, Jakugo was the only to survive. "This was some time ago," Tsunami said quietly. "Why haven't you taken another tree?"

Jakugo made a face, waving a hand dismissively. "It's of no real importance, Tsunami-sama. My welfare is as nothing compared to the welfare of Jurai. Indeed, we must take steps to ensure the safety of the empire, and I believe that you are an important part of the perseverance of what safety we have."

"How so?" Tsunami asked, frowning. "I don't like politics — I never have."

"Ah, but this doesn't make you any less important," Jakugo said, shaking his head. "Indeed, Jurai needs your help to preserve it and keep strong."

Doubtful, Tsunami mumbled, "Tenchi-san is taking good care of Jurai. Are you saying you want my help to get rid of him?"

"Not at all!" Jakugo exclaimed, shaking his head quickly. "Tenchi is as much a Masaki as I am, and I wish nothing more than the Empire to be ruled by those most capable — and that's us. I'm quite sure that he'll do more good than evil for Jurai before his reign ends."

Tsunami's frown deepened, considering. "I see. So what do you want me to do?"

"At the moment, nothing, Tsunami-sama. Simply realize that you're a valuable and cherished symbol for all the people of Jurai. And know further that if you should ever need aid or help in some form, I and the Masaki I represent stand at the ready for you."

Studying the man's eyes, and seeing nothing behind the guarded veil of his purposeful smile, Tsunami offered a dubious nod. "Of course," she said quietly, offering a slight bow to the man. "By your leave," she finished, more out of formula than respect.

The man returned the bow, much more deeply, and answered by rote, "As you will it."

Tsunami nodded again, swiftly turning away and marching towards her quarters. She had hoped for some support from the man, given his call to assemble the meeting with her moth— with Misaki and Funaho, but all he truly asked was that she avoid doing anything visible to the public, because her position was too much for most to bear.

Wiping at a slowly forming tear, she raised a hand to the crossed branches and vines of the door to her room, which swiftly unfurled and opened to admit her. They wove themselves silently back into place after she passed through them, into a room that not even servants could enter.

All of the furniture was grown from the First, just for her, and the few baubles and trinkets in the room were gifts to her from long, long ago, when the families of Jurai had thought to curry her favor with such. None of them were given to her as gifts because she was loved, or even cared for. Still, it was her room.

A room designed specifically for her, and her alone.


Curling up on the large bed, cleaned through the First's innate efforts, she pulled the finely woven sheet of laboriously grown leaves over her head.

And cried.

Funaho regarded Misaki levelly, dismissing the servant after Tsunami left with Jakugo. "That wasn't very kind," she informed the other woman.

"Neither were you," Misaki snapped. "Goddess of Jurai or not, she's not my daughter."

Groaning, Funaho rubbed at her temples. "She's still a person, Misaki. And now she's very alone, and without any family. I was clumsy about it, but I only helped the problem. Now, we have a lot of work to do, and we need to get to it."

"Bah," Misaki grumbled. "This meeting would never have happened if it weren't safe. We have time enough to sit here and calm down before we have to watch over your great-grandson."

Funaho nodded grudgingly, pushing the tea away from her and sighing. "Still, Tenchi is running dangerous territory, and we'd be well advised to cost him as few allies as possible."

"Well, what allies can he garner?" Misaki asked, furrowing her brows in thought. "That's your job, really, and he's chosen the Laruma, which means there's almost no chance of anyone here allying with him. Who's strong enough to help him?"

"Hakubi, perhaps," Funaho mumbled. "She refused to help Azusa, but perhaps she will help Tenchi?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. Washuu's wily, and has no great love of politics, either. Who else?"

Lacing her fingers together beneath her chin and frowning, Funaho hesitantly said, "This is not entirely news, I'd suppose, but rumor has it that Washuu has some guardian, from Earth. A Terran native would likely be more amiable to Tenchi's cause, but it's difficult to gain information on him."

"A Terran?" Misaki mused. "Well, you yourself are formidable enough, I suppose another could be powerful as well. But if he's Washuu's guardian, then he's not likely to help us any."

"I've heard it that there's also some connection between this boy, this… 'Ranma', and Tsunami as well. Surely she could influence him and sway him to Tenchi's cause."

Misaki's eyes narrowed. "It all comes back to that, does it? What kind of connection, and how did you hear of this?"

"Yohito, the captain of Saryu-oh," Funaho explained. "Of course he was closest to Tenchi and Tsunami on the last return to Earth, so I questioned him closely. I don't know the extent of it, but apparently he'd protected Tsunami at some point previously. Yohito himself was reluctant to question Tsunami, but Saryu-oh was able to glean some information from her. Apparently she holds him — whoever he is — in very high esteem."

"Yohito… of the Tatsuki clan?"

Funaho nodded, settling back into her chair and staring upwards, deep in thought. "Yes, that's the one."

"Physical power is not political power," Misaki noted. "Whatever this 'Ranma' can do, how does it help Tenchi?"

"Tsunami seems reluctant to support Tenchi herself," Funaho said quietly. "Or Tenchi is reluctant to ask her for support because it might be seen as a sign of weakness. If that's his thinking, I applaud it, because he's right. However, if he's allied with someone who the goddess of Jurai supports openly, it garners him that much more support without making him look weak for it, especially if it's through an outsider."

"I suppose," Misaki mumbled dubiously. "So we now simply have to find out how to get him here to use him."

Funaho frowned. "True enough," she said quietly. "But we might be able to use something of what he says if we can get into contact with him."

"You dismiss Washuu too easily, I think. Isn't he her guardian, after all?"

"Which makes him that much more worthwhile," Funaho opined. "The catch is, as before, simply getting him."

"Very well then," Misaki sighed, shaking her head.

Funaho smiled pleasantly, and sipped at her tea, staring out at the horizon. "It's a nice morning," she said after a pause. "I think it's just as well that we took something of a break."

The door to Tenchi's room slammed open, revealing the massive bed of the Emperor, rent asunder and the scattered bits of it smoking and aflame. Above the remnants of the bed, looking down at it dumbly, a massive cloaked figure stood. Easily three meters tall, by Tenchi's estimation, and nearly as wide. Gargantuan metal boots poked out from below the red cloak, as a face covered in a smoothly reflective helmet turned to regard him.

No features could be seen beyond the armor enclosing the figure. "Uh… I think this is the wrong room," Tenchi said dumbly, edging towards the main door nervously.

"Very funny," the figure remarked, leveling a massive steel fist towards him. An unfriendly-looking gun-barrel popped out of the wrist of the armor, directed at Tenchi. He swore softly, and dodged to his right before suddenly reversing his direction, rebounding off of a large dresser moments before a number of nearly silent rounds from the hand-cannon reduced the furnishing to rubble.

Tenchi made a beeline towards the main entrance to the emperor's suite, throwing himself flat and rolling to one side as the armored figure leapt towards him. He passed beneath the massive clawed boots before they tore into the floor, sinking into the wood and bracing the being as it slammed a fist into the spot where he had been moments prior.

Swearing under his breath, Tenchi leapt to his feet and slashed across his opponent with his sword, yelling, "Guards!" The cloak parted beneath the Tenchi-ken's assault, falling to the floor, but the blade rebounded harmlessly from the armor itself.

However, with the cloak removed, Tenchi was able to see the figure more clearly. It was as he had guessed, a gargantuan suit of some kind of armor, heavily reinforced, and he could only guess at the creature that lay within. Still, whoever it was, they were trying to kill him, and that struck Tenchi as a bad thing. He fumbled with the ring on his finger for a moment, activating the battle-gear that Ayeka had given him so long ago.

And not a moment too-soon, as one of the massive feet of the armored figure crushed into his chest and flung him across the room. He impacted roughly with the far wall, and slumped to the floor, crouching low. The pain wasn't unbearable, merely extreme. "Guards!" he yelled again, gasping, Rolling to one side, he used the Tenchi-ken to create a protective barrier as another salvo of the nearly silent rounds flew across the distance between him and his assailant, destroying more of the furnishings in the already devastated room.

"Damn it!" he swore. A nagging voice informed him dryly that if the guards were coming, they would have been there already. Lurching to his feet, and still deflecting the assailant's shots with the Tenchi-ken's shield, he staggered to the doorway. There were other guards, and Tenchi didn't feel the need to fight some over-armored thug alone when more help could be summoned easily.

The salvo of projectiles tapered off, as the armored figure grumbled, stomping towards Tenchi swiftly, the gun folding into the armor only to be replaced by a number of claw-like blades. This was not what he needed to greet him in the morning.

He dove for the door, slashing at it with the Tenchi-ken instead of pausing to scrabble with the handle. Not made to stand as any real kind of barrier, the door toppled, and Tenchi landed atop it, sliding across the carpet on one panel, and from there down the flight of stairs leading to the bedchamber.

The guards, as Tenchi had half-expected, were nowhere to be seen. The armored figure tromped after him, leaping down stairs that were too small for its feet ahead of him. Tenchi rolled off of the door and caught himself on the handrail aside the staircase, while the door shot out beneath him, bouncing off of the floor at the bottom of the stairs and slamming into the armored figure.

Unsteadily reclaiming his feet, Tenchi threw himself at the door, obstructing the assailant's face as it was, and rammed the Tenchi-ken forward to stab easily through it, and into the armored figure with a far greater deal of resistance. Yelling savagely, he rolled onto his back, tucking his in as he yanked the Tenchi-ken out, and the door fell atop him. His feet lashed out, bouncing it into the figure's face again, while massive metallic hands fumbled to remove the obstruction. Rolling to one side, Tenchi scrambled behind the figure, and charged full-bore to the end of the hall at the bottom of the stairs.

There should have been another pair of guards outside the door, though Tenchi didn't place high hopes on it at that point. Hearing a scream of rage from behind him, he dove to the floor, swearing as the carpeting near him exploded violently from more of the nearly silent projectiles. He hissed in sharp pain as a ten-centimeter long metal needle lanced through his arm, not stopped by either the Tenchi-ken's barrier, or his battle gear.

"Flechette rounds will still get you," the attacker mumbled, leveling another gun-barrel-bearing fist towards Tenchi.

Swearing loudly again, Tenchi scrambled to his feet, turning to face his assailant side-on, to present a slimmer targeting profile, and focused his power on the barrier before him. Brightening from a vague bubble, the power condensed into a solid wall of force, both the Tenchi-ken's gems flaring brightly. "Who sent you?" Tenchi demanded, flinching as a number of much louder shots rang out. The barrier halted the needles — barely. He knew his strength wouldn't last much longer, and he had no way of knowing how many more shots his attacker could afford to take at him.

The figure snorted derisively, not answering. Tenchi grimaced, trying to calculate whether or not he could make it to the door before he ran out of time.

That idea proved itself moot, as one side of the corridor exploded across the armored figure.

Tenchi sank gratefully to his knees, as Ayeka's familiar guardians arrived at either side of him, adding power to his waning shield, and a dual pair of red flashes tore through the smoke obscuring Tenchi's view of his assailant.

Recovering himself, and sparing no time for the as-of-yet unhealed wound on his arm Tenchi charged forward, knowing that Ryouko was already battling whomever his assailant was. "Aw, crap," he distantly heard, recognizing it as being the voice of the attacker through the suit's speakers.

Ryouko snarled something fierce, slamming one blade into the sternum of the armor, unmindful of the thick, red blood that boiled out from her attack. "You won't hurt my Tenchi," she screamed defiantly, teleporting away as the armored figure made an attempt to grab her. Reappearing at Tenchi's side, she seized him before he could protest, and warned, "I know this kind. They self-destruct when you damage them enough."

Growling unhappily, Tenchi remained silent as Ryouko paused and deposited Tenchi and herself at Ayeka's side. Ayeka stared down the hallway in consternation, the doors having been dissolved through some other agent. "Azaka, Kamidake," she ordered primly, "seal off the explosive radius and contain the damage."

"Of course," the guardians answered in tandem.

Tenchi blinked, trying to come to grips with the situation. "This isn't normal, is it?" he asked worriedly.

"No, Tenchi-sama," Ayeka answered, turning to him and fretting over him, wincing when she saw the spot of blood from his wound. "Something seemed odd and Ryouko suggested that we see you to follow up on her suspicion. Assassination attempts are not common to Jurai. We must find out who did this."

"That's not going to be easy," Ryouko grumbled. "Cynax assassins leave no clues behind. Death before dishonor and all that garbage."

"So what else do you know about them?" Tenchi asked, frowning as two of Ayeka's smaller guardians lanced his wounded shoulder with small blue lights, slowly reweaving the damaged tissue.

"I didn't think any of them would agree to a job like this, really," Ryouko mumbled, not even glancing aside as the corridor filled with a silent, noiseless explosion of light, kept at bay by Azaka and Kamidake. "Whoever sent him had to know he would fail. It was probably sent as a warning."

"Not a very good one, I should think," Ayeka grumbled darkly, shooting a glance at the ruined hall as the light faded. "What did he say to you, Tenchi-sama?"

"Nothing," Tenchi sighed. "I guess someone doesn't like my style of running things here."

Ayeka yelped softly, as a crackling field of blue force sprang up around Tenchi, pushing both her and Ryouko away. Glancing to one side, Tenchi noticed both Misaki and Funaho running towards him, both of them furious. "Where are the other guards, anyway?" he asked, as the pair drew near.

"Dead, most likely," Misaki stated evenly. "Are you wounded at all, Tenchi-sama?"

Tenchi shook his head, testing his shoulder experimentally. "No," he said after a moment. "I think Ayeka got it. I'm okay."

Funaho eyed him carefully as the crackling field dissipated, then turned to Ayeka. "We have much work ahead of us," she said quietly. "I rather suspect we should begin the investigation immediately."

Ayeka nodded hesitantly, following Funaho as she marched away, the elder woman bristling quietly.

Misaki rounded on Ryouko the second that Ayeka and Funaho were out of sight, fuming, "You're supposed to be my successor, Ryouko! It's going to be your duty as the Supreme Commander of the Royal Bodyguard to protect Tenchi-sama. Where were you?"

Ryouko glared at Misaki balefully, and grumbled, "What do you want me to do to protect him, sleep with him? I'd be happy to, you know, if that's what it takes." Tenchi's eyes widened in alarm.

"That's a step in the right direction," Misaki said, her fury abating suddenly. "I forget myself. I apologize. This was a lapse on my part, and I shouldn't have allowed myself to be distracted. Ryouko-chan, we have much to do, and there's a busy day ahead of us yet."

"You can say that again," Ryouko muttered. "I'm not leaving Tenchi's side again, ever." Glancing at him, she latched onto him securely, embracing him and nuzzling his face gently. "Never."

"Uh… don't I get a say in this?" Tenchi asked.

Ryouko and Misaki turned on him together and announced, "No!"

Hanging his head, Tenchi sighed. "Okay. Well, since we don't know who sent the assassin at us yet, we should pool our resources, and be really careful about what we let out about this whole thing. Um… Ryouko, we're going to need to track down Ayeka again. The investigation may have to wait for a moment. Once we find her, we need to repair the damage here, and do whatever we can to hide that this ever happened from everyone else."

"Hide it?" Ryouko asked, furrowing her brow in confusion. "Why do we want to hide it?" Misaki nodded her own curiosity at Tenchi's plan.

"We need whatever we can get, and we can't afford to appear weak. As far as I can tell, I don't have a real good grasp of this whole 'emperor' thing, and it kind of hinges on representing a strong image. So when I show up in council today, I'm not going to be wearing this," he said, gesturing to himself, still in his battle garb. "I need something more casual than normal for the council meetings today."

Misaki raised an eyebrow, and shook her head doubtfully. "Risky. You could upset people with an act like that if you're not careful."

"I plan to step on a lot of toes," Tenchi mumbled. "And I don't intend to give whoever sent the assassin after me the satisfaction of seeing us scared."

"Maybe you should just wear that, Tenchi," Ryouko protested, eyeing his clothing. "It's safer."

"I don't need to," he answered firmly. "I trust you and Ayeka, and Misaki and Funaho. I'm personally more worried about Karau."

"I'll have a contingent of guards check on his welfare," Misaki muttered after a moment.

"Great," Tenchi said, smiling confidently. "Come on, Ryouko, we have a lot of work ahead of us today. And, um, while it's good to have you near, you might want to let go of me while we're in public. I want to make it look like I'm confident enough that I don't need a bodyguard that close to me." Pouting, Ryouko nodded, and released Tenchi from her embrace, floating just behind him instead. "Right. Let's get to it."

Unsettled from a dream he remembered far too well for his own liking, Yakumo woke, staring about with some confusion. The girl at his side, sleeping against him, head resting in his lap, was not Pai, which simultaneously disappointed and pleased him. That she wasn't there meant she was safe from the current threat. That she wasn't there also meant that she could be in danger from some other threat that Yakumo couldn't hope to counter.

The aches and pains of sleeping in his awkward position were easily dismissed. Pain was nature's way of notifying a body that it was potentially incurring damage. When that damage ultimately only meant a moment of time spent regenerating, then that pain became far less important. Any kinks or strains would heal given a few minutes to do so.

But that was distracting himself from the issue. More pressing was the question of why he was able to see into someone else's dreams. He remembered that Pai had told him that Wu often reached new heights of power when their… partners, he supposed… were threatened, but that made no sense. If Pai were in danger, that kind of power wouldn't make a great deal of difference at the moment. More importantly, how did the ability to see into Ranma's dream — as strange as it had been — benefit Pai?

He sighed, craning his head upwards. Unable to see over the level of the windows to the ground outside, he was able to see the lightening of the sky as the sun prepared to rise for another day. The bus driver knuckled back a loud yawn, and one of the sleeping Marines in the seats nearer the front stirred, climbing to his feet and mumbling at the driver. The driver said something in return, and then there was some indistinct radio chatter before the bus pulled over against a gravel shoulder, the stop jarring Ranma awake.

Opening eyes wide, he glanced around himself, frowning, then sighed, unable to escape the clutches of the women clinging to him. "Morning, Yakumo," he said quietly, eyeing the clinging redheads.

Yakumo smiled weakly. "Morning," he returned. "What's the plan for the day?"

"Keep on moving, I guess." Ranma struggled to stand, but the younger-looking redhead — the one with shorter hair, thought it was still quite long — made a noise in her sleep, and tightened her grip about his waist. After a moment, the other made a similar noise, and too, tightened her grip. Ranma sighed, grumbling, "Or maybe I'll just stay right here."

Ami moaned quietly and sat up, still half-asleep. Yakumo glanced to her, as the blanket slipped from her shoulders to pool behind her, and winced in sympathy as she whimpered at the stiffness that had settled into her from the awkward sleeping position. "Morning," she mumbled, voice cracking.

Yakumo shook his head, handing her his canteen wordlessly, and turning his attention to Ranma, as the girls clinging to him slowly woke. Washuu, of course, though Yakumo didn't know her well, was the leader of the group, and the shorter redhead was Ranma's daughter in some senses. Of course, she was also mostly mechanical, but Ranma didn't seem to mind about that too much, and being an immortal zombie Wu, Yakumo couldn't find it within himself to fault him.

Washuu stretched languorously, then curled up at Ranma's side, still leaning against him. Nuku bounced to full wakefulness immediately, eyes bright, and hair mussed. "Morning, Ranma-papa-san!" she chirped merrily.

"Morning," he mumbled, glancing to Washuu before scratching the furry creature that had fallen asleep on his ankles. His partner, he had told Yakumo. The creature twitched, one ear flicking towards Ranma's fingers, then mewled softly, stretching in a fashion not entirely unlike the manner of a cat. "What do we got… Oh, lovely."

Sighing, Washuu pushed herself away from Ranma to look at him questioningly. "What is it?" she asked cautiously.

"Your little beacon thing seems to be working," Ranma answered curtly. "Ran-oh-ki sees about two hundred and forty of the things within a few hundred kilometers. I'm guessing that the refugees in Australia are going to be okay."

"Not so sure about us?" Yakumo asked.

"Yeah," Ranma mumbled. "None of them are real close. They're just milling around underground. I guess the closest one is about twenty kilometers off. I'm going to check it out."

Washuu slipped her arms about him and restrained the boy, much to his dismay. "Not alone, you won't," she insisted.

"Fine. Who do I take with me?" he grumbled. "It's just going to make it harder if I find a bunch of people who need to be brought back."

"I'll go with you," Yakumo offered, standing slowly, stretching his muscles out as he did so.

Ranma nodded, tossing his partner to Yakumo, who managed to catch the furry creature. Washuu opened her mouth to complain, but Ranma sank through the floor, slipping out of her grasp and leaving her to fall into Nuku, who scratched her head in confusion.

Yakumo snorted, as Ranma appeared at his side a moment later, smirking. "Yakumo's good enough for probably anything," he explained, as Yakumo shouldered his rifle.

Scowling, Washuu allowed, "Fine, but tell me what you find and be careful!"

"Sure thing," Ranma answered easily, grabbing Yakumo underneath his arms and —

— dropping him off somewhere else.

Yakumo staggered, horribly disoriented by the shift, as Ranma landed at his side, watching him carefully. "You okay?" he asked.

Nodding, Yakumo dismissed the nausea, looking around and taking in the surroundings. "Where is this?" he asked, curious.

Ranma shrugged, staring about himself as Ran-oh-ki struggled from Yakumo's hands to climb atop his shoulder. "When me and Pops came back from Jusenkyou, we passed further north. Then we swam from the coast to Japan," he offered. "Further north of here, maybe a hundred and twenty kilometers, is a big farming area. We got a nice break running through there; much easier travel."

"How close are we to where we're going?" Yakumo asked, regarding Ranma closely.

"Uh… well, I guess we're about half way to Madoi, which is probably the closest we can get on an easy road to Jusenkyou and the Joketsuzoku village. Um… from Madoi, we might be able to take boats through Ngoring Hu, then up some of the other streams towards Yagradagze Shan, which is only about twenty kilometers or so away from the village." He shook his head, shrugging. "I didn't pay much attention to the route that they planned on — we can ask later, and Cologne probably knows an easier way to get there."

"You know a lot about Chinese geography," Yakumo mumbled, looking away from Ranma, and glancing around what looked to be a tiny farming community. They stood atop a farmhouse, with a few small outlying buildings. The entire area looked to be deserted, the pair of dirt roads leading north and south not appearing to have been traveled any time recently. "I've been to Tibet," he remarked, jumping off the roof and landing in the yard before the house, bones creaking protests at the jarring impact.

"Where?" Ranma asked, drifting at Yakumo's side, though his eyes appeared distant.

"Nyima," Yakumo answered, shrugging. "Spent a few months learning Wang Chung Kung Fu."

The boy snorted at Yakumo, asking, "In Nyima?"

"Hey, I'm not half bad," Yakumo grumbled. "I also spent time learning beast magic and, after the Qvansti showed up, some time with the Yakuza."

"Right. Ran-oh-ki senses a reaver not too far away, and a couple of people underground pretty close by. They're probably hiding from it."

"And it's not attacking them because it wants to lure us in," Yakumo said, nodding slowly. "Makes sense. There's two of us, what can a single reaver do?"

"We're about to find out," Ranma mumbled, tensing his shoulders and drawing his sword.

Ami sat opposite Washuu and Nuku while the convoy was temporarily stalled. Some of the vehicles' engines needed a little time to cool down, and more needed refueling from the pair of tanker-trucks that were in the convoy, so while the Marines maintained the vehicles, everyone else took advantage of the opportunity to stretch and eat.

A not-quite-vacuum-sealed sandwich package sat in her lap, obviously wrapped at a lower altitude, as the plastic was bulging outwards. A similar sandwich had been gathered for Yakumo, and sat next to a pair of juice cans, but Ami's attention was focused on her computer. Washuu too consulted her terminal, one of the stray leads linked to Nuku's ear-sensors, while the scientist explained, "Finding something for you to eat is easy, Nuku-chan, but finding something that's good for you is going to be a more difficult problem. You're going to need to have most of your systems replaced when I have the time."

"Nuku-Nuku is not broken," the girl said defensively. "Does not need to be fixed if she's not broken!"

Washuu shook her head, smiling slightly. "That's partially true," she allowed. "The systems your builder created you with are remarkable, but built entirely of Earth-native alloys. You're going to wear yourself down in a number of months, and will require constant maintenance."

Nuku blinked, not seeming to like that idea. "Nuku-Nuku is dying?" she asked quietly.

"No. Your systems are all designed well enough to allow you to survive for much longer than that, but how long is questionable. Your sensor suite is less than half as refined as it could be — the sensors work, but they could be much smaller, and more of them. Your processors limit your intellectual capacity, which is stunning, given what I would have assumed. I can replace and refine almost all of your systems so that you will be like many other beings in the galaxy, able to maintain yourself with time and matter to build off of."

The girl stared for a long moment, then hesitantly asked, "Washuu-mama-san can make Nuku-Nuku a real girl?"

"More than that," Washuu noted dryly. "But yes."

Ami realized she was allowing herself to be distracted, and turned her attention to her computer as it beeped loudly, warning of something. Keys flew to buttons from long memory, swiftly retrieving a window to explain what the alarm was about. "Oh!" she exclaimed, surprised. "We have company!"

"What kind of company?" Washuu asked, glancing over curiously.

"I'm not sure," she admitted, frowning.

A klaxon sounded, jarring the blonde from the exhausted sleep she had finally succumbed to, and causing her to jerk upright, bouncing against the back of her seat with a startled yelp. "Mihoshi!" her computer alerted her, while she rubbed at her eyes, blinking blearily.

"What is it?" she asked, unable to remember exactly what was going on.

"We're entering Earth atmosphere!"

"Oh, right! I won't forget that there's no automatic system this time."

The computer whirred a low, grating warning. "That's not the problem — you neglected to disengage the booster section before reentry."

She blinked, staring at the control panel she had been slumped against. Her elbow had nudged the manual override, likely in her sleep, and as a result… "What's going to happen now?" she asked, a thin note of panic entering her voice.

"The booster section contains additional shield reinforcements, but is not designed to operate within an atmosphere — your options are either to attempt a manual correction swiftly, or jettison the booster to self-destruct."

Mihoshi glanced around worriedly, her mind racing, until she came across a familiar button. "Oh!" she exclaimed, reaching for it and slapping it victoriously. "This will solve the problem!"

The computer whirred its low, grating warning, and then muttered, "Oh, dear…"

Blinking, the Galaxy Police office stared at the depressed 'rescue' button, and frowned. "It didn't work?"

"Working," the computer answered tersely, as the ground in the viewscreen — largely masked behind the bright red flare of the shielding — began to draw closer.

Yakumo shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, bearing the rifle in his hands and glancing around. Ranma's partner sat on his shoulder docilely, ears perked as he sniffed at the air, whiskers twitching in the morning air. It mewled quietly, and Ranma nodded in response, pointing to a patch of dirt a few meters away. "Stand there," he advised Yakumo, leaping away towards one of the low farmhouses nearby.

Grunting, Yakumo did as Ranma suggested, glancing back in time to see Ranma slide through the wall as easily as though it were nothing more than illusion, and disappear into the building. He was still peripherally aware of the reavers in a way that frightened him greatly. The one Ranma had said was near was at least fifty meters away beneath the ground.

Waiting, likely. Ranma reappeared at Yakumo's side in an instant, growling dourly as he dropped a machete to the dirt. "You go in that house and get them," he spat. "You look more human."

Yakumo winced in sympathy, and nodded his understanding, slinging the rifle over his shoulder. "So where are they hiding?" he asked.

"Trapdoor in the far back room, leads to a hidden cellar of some kind," Ranma answered, drawing the sword he had sheathed to enter the house in the first place.

Sighing, Yakumo trotted towards the house, pausing as an eerie warning sensation reverberated through his spine. He and Ranma exchanged a glance, Ranma's partner leaping across the intervening distance to land in Ranma's outstretched hand before running back to Yakumo. Low to the ground, and some distance north, a massive red ball of fire was barreling towards them, streaks of faint vapor spreading upwards from behind it.

"That ain't good," Ranma noted sourly, taking a wide stance and raising both arms parallel to the ground, palms facing the oncoming force.

Yakumo shook his head, running towards the house and throwing himself flat as the ball of fire approached. Ranma's partner tucked itself into the crook of his arm, and Yakumo obligingly summoned Chin-Kuu to protect it. Fearing little for his own safety, Yakumo glanced back to Ranma, who had generated a large wall of blue force that extended to cover the farmhouse easily, his body braced for impact.

The massive ball of fire slammed into Ranma's wall of force with an audible impact, not entirely like the reverberations of a bell, tolling across the area. Finally catching up with the blazing projectile, the screech and roar of its passage swept outward, shattering the glass of the farmhouse windows. Yakumo grit his teeth, Ran-oh-ki covering its ears with its paws.

For the briefest moment, Yakumo thought that Ranma had stopped the projectile, but in truth it halted for only a heartbeat, before Ranma's wall of power dissipated, cracking like a pane of crystal. The resultant backlash flung Ranma backward with explosive force, before Yakumo's eyesight vanished in a blinding flash of searing fire and light.

Flesh boiling away from the intense heat, Yakumo was only able to dimly hope that Ran-oh-ki was protected by Chin-Kuu before the all-too-familiar sensation of death overtook him.

The air was cool, and there was a slight, eastern breeze, which reassured Washuu about the fallout from Shanghai. The breeze meant that the previous day's nuclear explosions would not be a pressing concern for the refugees. Ranma's relative silence after he had gone to investigate the lone reaver bothered her, but with the arrival of the first wave of Galaxy Police cruisers, that concern needed to be set aside for the moment.

Ranma could manage himself well enough, and Yakumo — according to Yosho — was more than formidable against the reaver, though Yosho had been reluctant to go into details about Yakumo's abilities.

Ami, however, fretted constantly, unsure of what to do and watching the readings of the Galaxy Police cruisers from her laptop. Washuu's own terminal was displaying a square of static, Mihoshi being somehow unable to be reached for comment, as the remaining twenty-five Galaxy Police cruisers all locked into a neat orbit, waiting on orders from their squadron commander.

Who was unavailable at the moment.

Sighing, Washuu surveyed the refugees that had piled out of the caravan to stretch their legs. Eric and Ray led a trio of other Marines in a quick circuit of the line of vehicles, scanning for anything that they would deem a potential threat.

And Mihoshi was still not answering Washuu.

"This is becoming annoying," the scientist noted quietly, glancing upwards. The man who had joined the defenders at the last possible moment, opting to remain instead of leaving stood nearby, staring northward and frowning. Washuu glanced that way herself, blinking as she spied a swiftly growing splash of fiery red accelerating towards the refugees.

"Oh no," she groaned. "We don't have time— Defenses, people! Dive for cover!" she yelled, disabling her console and converting what power she had available to her to a defensive shield. It would only be able to stop so much before the entire reserves that she needed to power her computer were drained, but it would be better than allowing everyone to be destroyed by the incoming vessel.

Nuku stood further north, head cocked to one side and apparently unable to hear the order. "Atsuko!" Washuu yelled again. "Duck!"

The young man — vaguely familiar to Washuu as she braced herself — dove towards the girl with alacrity that seemed nearly out of place from such an unassuming figure. He looked little more than an average Japanese man, wearing a brown jacket and jeans, with a simple baseball cap. But he moved with a grace that Washuu envied, a relatively harmless push to Nuku's shoulder throwing the girl to the ground as he leapt atop her, while the incoming cruiser barreled forward.

Careening through the atmosphere of the Earth, unsure of her bearing and orientation, Mihoshi scrabbled desperately at the control panel, yelping worriedly as the ship slammed through a barrier of blue force. The impact threw her onto the very controls she was trying to use and angled the ship to one side of its prior course, barreling onwards to uncertain doom.

An outstretched hand to catch herself from the fall ended up hitting the 'rescue' button a second time while she wailed, "Yukinojo! Help me!"

"Rescue complete," the computer notified her, as the teleportation and retrieval function activated, grabbing the nearest humanoid target and teleporting them into the cockpit with her. With her slumped over the console, the new occupant was dropped directly into the pilot's seat, and she lurched back into the lap of someone who seemed at least as confused as she was.

She grabbed onto him, noting a very faint resemblance to Tenchi, and pleaded, "Help!"

He only managed to eke out, "What the heck is going on, here?" before the ship lurched again, and his hands reflexively flew to the manual steering levers. "What the— how does this thing work?"

"Activating tutorial function," Yukinojo notified them, sounding almost relieved as instructions flashed across the viewscreen.

"Tutorial? Is this a spaceship?"

"Affirmative. Manual flight control is required, please adjust the incline of the thrust to avoid striking a civilian encampment."

Rocking back the appropriate lever, and pulling the craft up, the man exclaimed, "This is so educational!"

Washuu winced as the massive craft — at literally the last possible moment — rolled to one side, pulling up after it shot past the caravan at well over the speed of sound. Turning power back to her console, while the other refugees picked themselves up from the ground, she fumed, still trying to contact Mihoshi. "What the hell is going on here?" she yelled at the unresponsive screen.

Blinking, Nuku climbed to her feet and muttered, "Ran-oh-ki-niichan says that someone wants help, and he's telling them where he and Ranma-papa-san are."

"Great," Washuu grumbled. "So he's emitting a beacon that Mihoshi's zeroing in on— Atsuko, where is the man who pushed you?"

"Don't know," Nuku said. "He disappeared."

"Lovely. Where's Ranma?" Shaking her head at her distraction, she tapped her wrist to the bracelet there, and asked, "Ranma? Where are you?"

He was brought back to his senses by Washuu's voice, staggering upwards and shaking his head in confusion. "What the hell was that?" he mumbled, his entire body aching from the blast that had slammed him into the soft dirt, and left him to carve a trough a good forty meters long before he finally came to a rest. Glancing down at his robes, he was mildly unsettled to find them dusty, but otherwise unscathed.

Washuu's voice reached him from his communicator again, "Are you okay, Ranma? You just got buzzed by a Galaxy Police cruiser — it's zeroing in on your partner, and it's coming back! You need to make Ran-oh-ki stop trying to call it to him!"

"What?" Ranma asked, shaking his head. Ran-oh-ki was a short distance away, unhurt, but severely rattled. Teleporting to his side, Ranma allowed the creature to scurry into the sleeves of his robes and hide there, shivering. "The reaver here is moving towards— Shit. I think I can take two birds out with one stone."

He pointedly ignored the smoking corpse that remained of Yakumo; he had said that he was immortal, and Ranma had no time to spend worrying about him when there were still living people in danger. The reaver was headed towards them, staying beneath the ground, and moving slowly, but Ranma had one idea that could stave it off.

Transferring the gem from his ear to his wrist, Ranma focused himself. Trying to simply stop that much power had been largely unsuccessful, but maybe deflecting it would work. And if he could deflect it at an angle…

Mihoshi blinked, feeling thoroughly befuddled at her current situation. The man whose lap she was sitting in had snapped a few terse queries to the computer, but actually seemed to be marginally in charge of the situation.

"Okay," he asked the computer, eyes flickering across the data streaming past the viewscreen, "how do we get this thing somewhere I can stop it?"

"Return to nav point alpha, angle all thrust downward, and achieve escape velocity," Yukinojo offered.

"Just shoot straight up and stop in space?" he asked, not actually glancing at the small 'face' of Yukinojo.

"Affirmative. Nav point alpha's instructional functions insist that this is the most efficient method."

"Gotta learn how to do this," the man muttered under his breath. "Gotta study. Study! Study! Okay, show me how to do it, and let's get this done!"

Bringing the shimmering plane of force back into place, Ranma was unsettled to see that it retained the fractures from the impact with the thing Washuu had told him was a ship. The fractures slowly flowed together, leaving it an unbroken field once more, but only after an effort, leaving Ranma grateful that he had a spare gem for the task. "Here goes nothing," he muttered, while Ran-oh-ki relayed what information he could on the rogue craft.

It streaked towards them suddenly, riding above the ground only on its drive flame, the fiery exhaust bright red and yellow, searing into the ground beneath it and throwing up gigantic gouts of molten soil and rock.

"This isn't going to be good," he winced, extending the plane of force before him beneath the ground to protect the people in the enclosed space beneath the farmhouse. They hadn't reacted well to him, but that was no reason to leave them unprotected.

The ship drew closer, ever so slowly straightening its angle of thrust to be nearly vertical, but still gliding forward on its built momentum. Ranma squinted at the brightness, finally able to see more of the vessel. It was bright red, but more than that would have to wait until he was able to study it without maintaining the shield, or being blinded by the glowing intensity of the drive flame.

It brushed against the shield, seeming nearly gentle to Ranma's eyes, though the stresses through the field he was maintaining told him otherwise, as the roaring column of fire ate into the Earth, liquefying the ground below into a molten morass. Clawing its way upwards through the miasma, as the ship preformed minor adjustments, managing to somehow stay precariously balanced, the reaver that had been beneath the ground struggled through the drive flame.

Ranma gaped, unable to counter it as he was maintaining the shield. "Damn it!" he screamed aloud, wishing he could reach the people aboard the ship. "Get the hell out of here!"

"Notification," the computer announced suddenly. "Nav point alpha advises full thrust at this point. Inertial dampers are active."

"Okay," the man who was piloting answered, grabbing the throttle. "Uh… we did all this at two percent, so… full speed ahead!"

Mihoshi whimpered softly, as the sky gave way nearly instantaneously to the blackness of space. The pilot reacted swiftly, quickly shutting the propulsion off, and blinking at the screen. "Um, what's going on now?" he asked warily.

"Shielding is at less than fourteen percent. Our current course is taking us away from the convoy. Nav point alpha is no longer communicating relevant data. I would advise that we return to the fleet."

"Okay," the man said agreeably. "How do I do that?"

The computer was silent for a moment, then said, "In a non-emergency situation, I cannot allow a civilian to operate this vehicle."

"Huh? Why not?" he protested.

"Yeah," Mihoshi added weakly. "Why not?"

"Do you plan to let him pilot your ship, Mihoshi?"

"Sure!" she said, nodding quickly. "He did a good job!"

Turning to the man, still seated comfortably in his lap, she announced, "I'm Mihoshi! I'm with the Galaxy Police! Nice to meet you, and thank you for saving me!"

"I'm Oe Kintaro," the man answered, grinning. "You're going to let me fly this thing some more?"

"Sure! You want to join the Galaxy Police?"

Yukinojo made a muffled sound, then explained, "You are not authorized to make field recruit—"

"It's an emergency!" Mihoshi wailed over the computer's complaints. "Let him fly it!"

Sighing in defeat, Yukinojo allowed, "Until he can be further trained, Oe Kintaro will now be recognized as Cadet Oe."

"Call me Kintaro," he said cheerfully. "Now where do I move this thing?"

Ranma staggered backwards, watching the reaver inexorably claw its way towards the flare of starfire from the ship's engines, struggling out of the molten miasma of the ruined soil below. The ship's drive hesitated, waning in intensity for the merest moment before multiplying its output an untold volume, blinding Ranma to all but a stark white intensity, and a fiercely penetrating roar.

He knew the ship was gone before his eyesight recovered. The pressure against his wall of force had been reduced to something that required far less concentration to maintain, and the deafening howl of fiercely resonating sound was diminished, fading quickly.

Blinking, he shook his head to clear it of the bright splotches and willed his eyes to work properly. Within a few moments, he was able to see again. Everything for several hundred meters beyond the wall of force he had projected had been reduced to a massive lake of boiling magma, brightly glowing turf sending faint smoke into the trail of the now departed ship. "Whoa," he said quietly, blinking. The shimmering plane of force was still there, holding the heat of the devastated plain behind.

A muffled groan turned his attention elsewhere, and he stared with no small amount of surprise at Yakumo, who staggered to his feet, burnt and seared flesh slowly reweaving itself together as he rose. The shockwave and heat of the ship's first passage had knocked down the houses that Ranma's shield had protected and then reduced them to smoking masses of collapsed wood and masonry.

"Are you okay?" he asked, cursing himself for his stupidity after the words left his mouth. Of course he would be okay. He was immortal.

Yakumo smirked wryly. "Funny thing is that it hurts less after a while. You stop noticing the pain. What did I miss?" he asked, glancing around and picking up his rifle.

"Spaceship buzzed us. Washuu says it's some Galaxy Police or something," Ranma announced, narrowing his eyes at the rubble above the group of survivors that the reaver had been headed towards.

"They got the reaver," Yakumo observed, checking his rifle for damage before setting it on the ground. "Now we need to get those people out of there before they choke on the smoke."

"Right." Ranma grimaced, closing his eyes and rubbing at his temples. "I'll teleport them back to the caravan. This should only take a moment."

Sighing, he split himself into his two separate halves, and concentrated for a moment. Ran-oh-ki's senses reported exactly where he could teleport in and grab what looked to be a fair sized family to move them. "Don't strain yourself," Yakumo advised.

"Mihoshi, there's an incoming message for you."

"Put it on the main screen!" she chirped, seated comfortably on Kintaro's lap, while he learned the controls. As she commanded, a window of light formed in the screen, displaying Washuu — or someone much like Washuu, were she to not look like a child. "Washuu-san? Is that you?" Mihoshi asked before she could stop herself.

"Yes," the redhead said, frowning unhappily. "What are you doing, Mihoshi?"

"I fell asleep when we were supposed to stop," Mihoshi admitted, staring at her lap in embarrassment. "I'm sorry."

"I see," Washuu muttered. "Hello, Oe-san. I didn't recognize you when you knocked Atsuko to safety. Can you pilot that craft?"

"Yes!" he said, nodding quickly. "It's quite educational, really."

Washuu snorted, glancing briefly at something away from the screen, which prompted her to frown more deeply, then back to Mihoshi and Kintaro. "Okay, we don't have a lot of time. What did the Galaxy Police send you with?"

Mihoshi blinked, turning her attention back to the screen, and said slowly, "We took the cruisers that we could here to provide coverage for encampments. We don't have enough room to take lots of people with us, but we brought some equipment with us!"

Washuu raised an eyebrow at that. "What did you bring?"

"Fifty Galaxy Police shock-troops!" Mihoshi exclaimed proudly. "And some weapons for you, too! Where should we send them?"

A smile came to Washuu's lips at that. "Galaxy police shock troops? They're good at working in squadrons; you should send them to Australia, just in case. What weapons do you have for us?"

"Um… Grandfather— that is, Marshal Anderson, said we should use something that could make cold, so we got some kinetic displacement beams!"

Washuu's eyes widened fractionally. "Really? How many?"

"Fifty," Mihoshi said slowly. "Which is half of all of them. Twenty-five were given to the shock troops, so what should I do with the rest?"

"Bring them here, if you can. And, ah, let Oe pilot the ship."

The man grinned slightly, breaking from his studious examination of one of the instrumentation panels. "I can do that!" he said eagerly. "Okay, computer, tell me how to land this thing."

Bracing himself for the jarring effect, Yakumo landed, winded, not far from the bus that they had ridden on. Washuu stood nearby, speaking with a small face on the screen of her monitor, and shot both he and Ranma an annoyed grimace before turning back. Ami offered Yakumo a timid smile from her position at Washuu's side.

Ranma sighed, probably tired from teleporting the survivors — as much as they had resisted, apparently — to the relative safety of the caravan. His partner had climbed from Ranma's sleeve to perch on his shoulder, while Ranma leaned against the side of the bus.

Yakumo turned his attention elsewhere, watching a man he didn't know try to show a young girl how to use a sword. A number of other young men and women looked on, watching the training with interest. Beyond them, a number of Marines were rummaging through swiftly packed supply crates and trading numbers back and forth.

Two young men who Yakumo hadn't met yet spoke with Yosho, quietly, as the somewhat older man nodded judiciously. Washuu nodded at her viewscreen a final time, and banished it with a gesture before turning her attention to Ranma. "You were supposed to tell me what you were doing, Ranma," she chastised him.

He sighed, not meeting her eyes. "It won't happen again," he said quietly. "Sorry."

Washuu stared at Ranma for a long moment, her green eyes darkening with sympathy before she said, "Ranma, could you have your partner show Mihoshi where she can land nearby? She's going to drop off a package for us."

"Mihoshi? I remember that name. There was a mirror—" He abruptly cut himself off, shaking his head. "Where can they land?" Ranma asked, glancing around the area curiously, and rising into the air to expand his field of vision.

"Some place nearby that's level, and probably a few hundred meters away. Ran-oh-ki should know the kind of area," Washuu said, frowning as Ranma continued to avoid meeting her gaze.

Nodding, Ranma turned to face his partner, awkward as it was with the creature perched on his shoulder. "Okay, rat," he said evenly. "Do your thing."

The creature shot Ranma a disdainful look before turning its attention elsewhere and emitting another soft, mewling, "Miyah!"

Ranma grunted, pulling the gem from his left wrist and leaving it to hang at his ear. "What next?" he asked evenly.

"Mihoshi gives us more weapons. She's managed to get us twenty-five kinetic displacement beams."

Staring blankly, Ranma traded a confused glance with Yakumo before asking, "What are those?"

Washuu smirked, waggling a finger at Ranma. "I didn't have the time to make them, and they're complicated enough that the Galaxy Police themselves only have a few. What they do is create a beam that drains all of the heat-energy from a target and dissipates it into the surrounding air. I could explain how, but we're a little short on time. To make a long story short, they'll freeze the reavers and take all of their normal heat out of them."

"I'm not so sure about that," Yakumo remarked. "I don't know what it is, but the reavers already have a way to counter cold. Still, another weapon is probably a good thing. When we got hit by that ship, I think my rifle got damaged anyway." He took the rifle strap from his shoulder, frowning at the barrel as he offered it to Washuu.

Eyes narrowing unhappily, Washuu accepted the weapon. She examined it closely for a few minutes before sighing, and handing it back. "You got lucky," the scientist explained. "Only the casing was damaged. But what do you mean the ship hit you?" She frowned, looking Yakumo over.

Ranma said nothing, and Yakumo cleared his throat, explaining, "Ranma tried to stop it, but it passed right over us, set some farmhouses on fire, and that's all I remember for a bit after that."

"The wake of that craft should have killed you," Washuu said quietly.

"It didn't take," he replied shortly, remembering that his outfit had been seared and charred by the ship's passage. "Anyway, I need to get a change of clothes. Then I'm going to go talk to the people Ranma hauled out of the basement of that place, to let them know what's going on."

Approaching Washuu once Ranma had vanished again, Cologne asked, "What's the problem?"

The scientist looked at the old woman, then sighed, "He's distancing himself. He said he'd try his best not to, but he is. I think it has something to do with Fuji-san, but I'm not sure."

Cologne frowned, considering the situation. "I can't claim to know what kind of pressures are playing about the boy," she said quietly. "There's a lot at stake here, though. What do you think should be done?"

"I think that Ranma shouldn't be on this planet and fighting reavers," Washuu said quietly. "I think he should be living a normal life, away from this mess."


Rubbing at her temples, Washuu mumbled, "But it can't be like that. For one thing, this is what he wants to do. No, this is what he thinks he has to do. For another, he's the best."

Cologne snorted, shaking her head. "He's always said so," she said quietly.

Washuu eyed the much shorter woman. "I meant at fighting the reavers. But that's aside from the point. Where else could Ranma go, anyway? He hasn't got anyone who's not here, does he?"

"Well, there are his fiancées," Cologne mused. "One of whom is my own great-granddaughter." Washuu flinched at that, prompting the old woman to mask a smirk. "But they're somewhat out of reach at the moment, and I do not know if they would be able to handle the changes that he's been through."

The redhead nodded somberly, sighing again. "It's always something," she said quietly. "The point is that there's nothing we can do at the moment."

"Maybe something," Cologne said, smiling pleasantly. "We are getting much closer to my village, after all. We should reach it by sundown if we start moving again soon, and once we're there, we'll have many more allies to help us. Some of which are more formidable than you might think."

Washuu frowned at that, regarding Cologne closely. "Tell me who Herb is," she said quietly. "Ranma only said that he knew someone with that name, and refused to tell me more."

Cologne looked away, staring thoughtfully at a descending shaft of light, headed for a point some hundred and more meters distant. "Probably one of the most dangerous men on Earth," she managed after a minute.

"And this is a good thing how? I really don't like the way you and Ranma edge around the issue — I want to know exactly what's going on here."

Meeting Washuu's eyes, Cologne completed, "Herb could be very dangerous to the reavers."

"And not to Ranma?" Washuu asked insistently. "How dangerous is he? He's just a Terran, right?"

"Something like that," Cologne mumbled, looking away. "Ranma's beaten him before."

"I'm guessing there's another 'but' here, isn't there?" Washuu asked, here eyes narrowing.

"But I don't know that he'll need to fight Herb for any reason," Cologne answered, shrugging. "It's not something we should worry about. We'll reach my village soon, and once we're there, our problems will be greatly reduced."

Washuu opened her mouth to object, but was cut off Ranma's return, lugging a large metal crate with him as he arrived.

"The rat found a place for your friend to land," he said quietly, Ran-oh-ki perched on his shoulder still. "You want me to take you to her?" He set the crate on the ground, cracking his knuckles and waiting for her response.

The scientist nodded doubtfully, casting a glance at Cologne before Ranma gathered her into his arms and vanished again. Cologne sighed, shaking her head. What prices would everyone pay when this ordeal was through?

Too much, she thought. Ranma was obviously uncaring of his own survival at this point, and while that did not bode well, neither did Washuu's worry for him. That situation would have to be managed carefully, lest the ordeal damage the army's ability to function. Cologne frowned at that, staring at the crate Ranma had dropped off, deep in thought.

While her original plan had been to offer a help allow Ranma to glow close to Washuu, she could see that there was little she could truly do to influence them. Washuu was more knowledgeable than Cologne had given her credit, and as far as Cologne could tell, Ranma happily discarded all pretenses of romantic inclinations in favor of fighting reavers.

Which was good, to a degree. Warriors should be warriors, but not nothing but warriors. She raised her head and turned around, nearly jumping back in surprise when she noticed Yosho standing behind her, watching her with a raised eyebrow. She scowled at him, and tapped him on the head with her staff before he could step completely out of range. "Don't do that," she scolded. "A little respect for your elders, please."

Yosho tried to resist smiling, and said, "Of course. I had wanted to speak with Ranma, and was going to ask if you'd seen him."

She shook her head, gesturing in the direction that the beam of light had descended from the heavens and touched upon. "Over there would be my guess. He'll be back shortly, with any luck," she informed him. "What did you want to talk to Ranma about?"

Yosho looked distant for a moment, then explained, "We'd not gotten as much of a chance to study his sword forms lately, or more importantly, simply speak with one another."

"Ah," Cologne said quietly. "It seems that everyone wants to be with Ranma."

"Or at least to help him," Yosho mused, nodding.

"Who will he let help him, do you suppose?"

Neither was sure what the answer to that question was.

Washuu thanked Ranma quietly as he set her down, a few steps away from the Galaxy Police cruiser. Mihoshi jumped when the pair appeared, and Oe nodded from where he was, leaning against the side of the craft and looking more than a little winded. "Good to see you again, Mihoshi," she said, managing a weak smile. "I hope you're not going to have any more trouble with piloting your ship?"

She shook her head, pointing at Kintaro. "Nope!" she exclaimed brightly, her surprise at Ranma's appearance dismissed instantly. "He's flying for me, now! He's pretty good at it!"

The scientist took a moment to appraise the young man, now staring at the red craft. "It kind of reminds me of my bicycle," he said after a moment. "But I had to leave that behind when I got on a ship."

"Um, right. Mihoshi, where is the rest of the fleet?"

Mihoshi put her finger to her lips thoughtfully, and said, "Well, the extra troops are being dropped off in Australia like you said, and we're going to leave a few ships there so that we can defend the entire place because we don't want anything bad to happen, but the rest of the ships won't be here until tomorrow."

"Hyperspace, and me without a relay," Washuu grumbled. That meant that they couldn't be contacted very easily until they arrived. "Okay, Mihoshi, we're headed a few hundred kilometers west of here. We're going to establish a resistance point, and try to defend it while luring all the reavers there so that places like Australia will be safe. What we need for the fleet to do as soon as they arrive is grab everyone that they can in a spiral pattern branching outward from about six hundred kilometers from… Actually, I have the coordinates; will you remember them?"

Oe pulled a book that was tucked into his belt out, and snapped it open, setting pen to paper instantly. "Where is it?" he asked.

"Right. You remember where we're going, Oe. The Galaxy Police should avoid coming within a hundred kilometers of the area, because the reavers might find a way to take down the ships. However, we need all the people from this radius outward evacuated. In the navigational computer that's going to translate into a hundred-kilometer sphere around this point." Closing her eyes, she rattled off the number, which Oe studiously recorded before snapping his book shut and tucking it back into his belt.

"Okay!" he said cheerfully, glancing at Mihoshi. "What next?"

"The rat says about a dozen reavers are headed this way," Ranma said suddenly, breaking the silence. "I think they can detect the ship, or something. You should probably leave."

Mihoshi yelped, backing away nervously. "Scary!" she said. "Who are you?"

"Higurashi Ranma," he said tersely. "Washuu?"

Washuu sighed, turning back to Ranma. "Of course," she mumbled. "I'm sorry, Mihoshi, you and Oe should join the rest of your fleet. I can contact you later. Be careful, okay?"

"Okay, Washuu-chan!" the blonde chirped, waving goodbye as Kintaro climbed back into the craft.

Ranma gathered her into his arms and teleported them again, moments before the ship lifted off, climbing upwards swiftly. Back at the caravan, Eric and Norris were already poring over the instruction manuals for the kinetic displacement beams, with Yosho translating. Both of the Marines looked up when she arrived, saluting sharply.

After Ranma set her down again, she asked, "Where are they now?"

"Backing off," he replied, one hand on the hilt of his sword, eyes distant. "I guess they decided it's not worth it. I think they know exactly what the decoy is, and they just don't care."

"A possibility," Yakumo replied, coming back into sight from around one of the busses. "Are we ready to go?"

"Once these are loaded up," Washuu said, indicating the weapon crates. "Norris, your men should use these. Fuji-san, you might want one too. They work a little bit like the positronic laser rifles, but they've got slightly better power sources. Cologne says we should reach her village later today, and that means that we'll have a base soon. Okay, everybody get ready to move out!"

Back aboard the vehicle, and once the convoy was moving again, Rei studied the sheathed weapon sitting on her lap. Mamoru had showed her the basic forms, but they seemed to echo against some older memory, and she had slipped into a slightly modified stance, almost as though her body knew how to use the weapon instinctively.

Unbidden, another of the submerged memories arose, a sword in her hand cleaving the air before her, rending a foe and reducing it beyond ash. She shivered, banishing the weapon to that pocket of space it generally resided in.

Usagi sat by Mamoru's side on the opposite side of the bus, leaning against him, eyes curiously distant. She had been unnaturally quiet the entire day, though Rei couldn't imagine why. Hotaru sat at Rei's side, her glaive vanished to the same place as Rei's sword while she stared out the window tiredly. "I slept through the stop," she said quietly. "I wanted to see Ranma-san."

Rei felt her face grow slightly warm, remembering how he had carried her about the moon to retrieve the sword. She could have stepped away from him without worry for the atmosphere, but something felt… right… about being close to him. At the same time, even if Hotaru's infatuation was little more than a crush, she felt guilty about making an attempt at Ranma. He was so strange, so alien… So driven.

And he'd saved her life, of course, when she got struck by a reaver. Simply being close to him and feeling that strange healing power… Stranger still that he became a girl to do it. Still, Hotaru didn't seem put off in the slightest. "You can see him next time, Hotaru-chan," she assured the girl.

Hotaru turned to regard Rei curiously, then smiled brightly, nodding. "Okay," she said quietly. "I need to remind him that he's my boyfriend, after all."

Rei couldn't help but chuckle at that. "You know, Hotaru-chan, that's not normally the way it works," she chastised.

"We're not normal people," Hotaru countered.

Rei's laughter died in her throat with a small strangling noise, as she stared at Hotaru. The smaller girl turned to look out the window again, apparently oblivious to Rei's discomfort at the remark. It may have been true, but it didn't feel pleasant to consider. "Maybe you're right," Rei managed after a minute, frowning unhappily. "But we're still people."

"Of course," Hotaru said, smiling as she glanced back to Rei. "We just need to do things differently."

Staring at the smaller girl in front of her, Rei couldn't help but laugh again. "You sure have an odd way of seeing things," she said after a moment.

Hotaru merely nodded, turning to stare out the window once more.

Tapping at her terminal quietly, Washuu sat near the front of the large bus as it trundled down the road, Ranma at her side, though he seemed uncomfortable and confined in his seat. Norris was behind her, speaking with Pavel and Patterson quietly. Yosho had disappeared — Washuu wasn't certain where yet, but likely nearby.

The man had a knack for disappearing when he felt like doing so. Banishing her terminal for the moment, Washuu turned to regard Ranma, fidgeting with the armrest of his seat. "Ranma?" she asked carefully. "Are you okay?"

He nodded quickly, turning to regard her. "Of course," he said levelly. "What would be wrong?"

"Nearly getting run down by Mihoshi's ship, maybe?" Washuu asked, narrowing her eyes and dropping her voice. "I'm not asking if you're wounded, Ranma, I'm asking you if you're okay."

Blinking a few times, he managed a slow nod in understanding. "Oh," he said quietly. "Um. I guess so. Just… tired. Just a little tired is all."

"Well, we're going to be reaching Cologne's village soon, right, Ranma? Once we get there it's pretty much all over. We'll be able to hold out there until everyone can be evacuated."

"I guess," he responded quietly. "I don't know. I'm fine." He shook his head, staring away moodily, and offering a weak smile towards Nuku's dozing form. "Just trying to make sure we can stay ahead of the reavers."

"That's everyone's problem, not just yours," she chastised him. "You've done almost nothing but fight and train nonstop since I've met you. Don't you ever relax?"

"I read manga," he said quietly. "Sometimes, anyway. We don't get a lot of money, but they're pretty cheap, Pops would usually give me a couple hundred yen once or twice a month when we were staying with the Tendos."

Washuu stared at him, while he refused to meet her gaze. "That's it?" she asked quietly. "You read manga and train? That's all you ever did?"

"Well, mostly," he mumbled. "I like Caravan Kidd." He shook his head, turning to regard Washuu curiously. "I thought you knew."

"We've hardly gotten a chance to know each other as well as I would have liked, Ranma," she informed him wryly. "Tell me."

"Not much to tell. Pops trained me to be a martial artist since I was a little kid, and we went to China a couple years ago for the training trip. I told you the part about the curse." Ranma's face darkened, and he looked away moodily. "And you remember the rest, don't you?"

"Or can infer it from what Cologne's told me," Washuu said quietly. "But that's not what I asked, Ranma. I wanted you to tell me."

"Oh. Well, okay, I guess," Ranma mumbled, scratching his head as he considered what to say.

Ran-oh-ki made a quiet noise, curling up comfortably in Washuu's lap. The scientist absently scratched the creature's ears, watching Ranma expectantly.

It was a few hours before sunset that the makeshift and ragtag caravan found the first signs of trouble. The convoy of busses came to a halt, drivers stumbling out and chattering over the radio to communicate their discoveries.

Washuu sighed, while Ranma cast about curiously. At the very least, she'd gotten him to relax a little, if his stories were all quite strange. Still there were more pressing matters to attend. She rose, stepping off of the bus and attended immediately by Ranma and Nuku. Ran-oh-ki had roused and transferred himself to Ranma's shoulder, as Washuu glanced around the area.

In a somewhat more mountainous region, the road was narrower, lined on both sides by steep and thickly wooded slopes. The hills gave Washuu an uncertain and nervous sensation, though she did her best to ignore it. There were no reavers too close, or Ranma wouldn't have been as relaxed as he was. "What's the problem?" she asked Norris, curious.

He stood a short distance away, radio to his ear, and scowling. "Okay," he said after a moment. "I'll pass it on to her. Over." Dropping the radio to his side, he shook his head, offering, "The bridge ahead is out. There's a river just around the bend." Gesturing, he indicated the road where it curved out of sight a few dozen meters away. "You might want to check it out. What are your orders?"

Washuu shrugged, glancing at the sun and squinting for a moment. "We can freeze the river," she stated confidently, turning to face Norris. "But I want to look at the bridge and see how it was destroyed."

So saying, she strode forward, while Norris nodded his understanding. "Dew's team is checking it out at the moment," he said, trotting ahead.

Passing around the bulk of the hill revealed the river to view, some other Marines and defenders already staring towards it. The bridge was long gone, its remnants swept away by the rushing torrent of water. Late spring snowmelt had flooded the river to much more than its normal depth, or possibly a dam upstream had been burst. That possibility didn't please Washuu, but the scientist ignored it for the moment, walking to the edge of the bridge, where the concrete cut off abruptly.

The remnants of the bridge were still a few meters higher than the rushing flow, and by Washuu's estimates, should have withstood the tide easily. Ranma shifted about uncomfortably, peering into the rushing torrent of water as it tore carelessly through the narrow divide. Washuu spared him a glance before kneeling to examine the broken and crumbling concrete near the edge.

"Interesting," she remarked, noting the burn marks on the structure. "I thought maybe the reavers had destroyed this intentionally."

"Oh, we're lucky, and someone else destroyed it intentionally?" Norris asked, not as willing to approach the edge as she.

"Probably," Ranma said, pointing into the water. "You see that?"

Washuu raised an eyebrow, leaning forward to see what Ranma had indicated. It was hidden from her view by the turgid flow, and she grimaced, shaking her head. "Is it important?" she asked. "I can't make anything out."

Ranma snorted, cracking his knuckles and diving into the water without as much as a ripple.

Gesturing the others back, Washuu rose, allowing Ranma room for whatever he thought was so important. Nuku crouched on the very edge of the bridge, peering down, her ear-like sensors upright as she frowned. "Ranma-papa-san will need help," she deduced, turning her attention to the asphalt at her side and driving her hand through it effortlessly. Brushing aside a few stray flakes of shattered concrete, the girl wrapped her hand about a bundle of the deeply imbedded steel rods underneath the surface, and leant out across the river. Washuu frowned, but trusted her judgment — aside from which, Nuku was completely waterproof, should anything go wrong.

From Washuu's vantage, she couldn't see anything until the surface parted awkwardly around something — and it was something massive from the way the water moved. Eventually it heaved upwards, and some part of it — something metal — found its way into Nuku's extended hand. She clamped her hand about it, tempered steel creaking in protest, and grit her teeth, hauling upward with all her might.

The large metallic object rose ponderously, shedding water liberally, as a pair of treads came into sight. Nuku gave a frustrated yell, and yanked upward, inadvertently snapping through the rods that provided her an anchor. The girl blinked in surprise for a heartbeat, before a hand grabbed onto hers, hauling her away from the edge before she could slip.

Having moved in at the last possible moment, Ryouga was braced against the road, the concrete slowly giving beneath his feet as it resisted. Nuku flashed him a smile, cheering as the river finally released its victim. Flipping up over Ryouga's head, and slamming into the asphalt of the road segment before the bridge, a full-size, largely undamaged People's Republic of China tank wobbled unsteadily on one side before simply staying put, water sloughing off it still.

Ranma reappeared, rubbing at his shoulder and grimacing. "Current was nasty," he mumbled, eyeing the tank, and nodding his thanks to Ryouga. The lost boy grinned, releasing Nuku's hand and scratching at the back of his head nervously before his smile faded, and he turned to stare at the tank.

"What the heck is going on here?" he asked in confusion.

Washuu frowned, examining the tank closely. There was no real damage to the frame outside of the section that was buckled from Nuku's clumsy grip, and again from where it had been smashed to the road. "I would guess that the bridge was destroyed while the tank was attempting to cross it," she suggested. "Anyone inside?"

Ranma shook his head quickly.

Norris eyed the damaged vehicle, as though considering, and opened his mouth, only to be cut off by Washuu, "No. It's of no real use to us. Okay, Ranma, I'm going to need to think about things for a minute here — can you and someone else check the opposite side of the river to see if there's anything suspicious there while I work on how to get us across?"

"I'll go," Ryouga volunteered quickly.

Shaking her head, Washuu explained, "I'll need your strength, actually. Take Mousse, Ranma." The Masu boy shrugged, glancing around for Mousse. Adjusting his spectacles as he stared at the tank, Mousse was crouched against the side of the bus, appearing a little pale.

"Okay," Ranma said, alighting on the bridge and shaking himself once. The water flowed from his robes to pool about his feet, before he strode towards the Chinese boy. Mousse nodded at him, some color seeping back into his face as Ranma hefted him, and the pair disappeared.

Washuu pursed her lips thoughtfully, then turned her attention to Ryouga and Nuku. "Okay, I'll need you two to get that back in the river — it's just blocking the road here."

Ryouga grunted, standing behind the tank and pushing it towards the river slowly. Nuku skipped to his side, and threw her own strength into the effort. In short order the mass of ruined steel toppled over the edge of the bridge again.

The resultant splash washed up over the bridge, leaving Nuku soaked, and rendering Ryouga… Gone. In his place, a small black piglet wrapped in Ryouga's clothes sat, staring at the river in annoyance.

Nuku scratched her head, turning to look at Washuu expectantly. For her part, Washuu merely snorted. "Norris-san, we're going to need some hot water," she advised.

The man nodded unquestioningly, scurrying off to find what she had requested.

"Atsuko, pick up Ryouga and his clothes, please? We don't need anyone near the edge of the bridge at the moment." The girl nodded, frowning as she grabbed the unresisting pig and accompanying clothes. "I can see now that we've had a run of phenomenal luck as far as cold water is concerned," Washuu commented, staring at the pig intently as Nuku brought it to her. "I'd like a chance to study you later."

"Mama-san?" Nuku asked, cocking her head to one side. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing at the moment," Washuu mumbled. Raising her voice, she turned to the next nearest Marine, ordering, "Eric, if you can, please have the convoy tightened up, and we should take this opportunity to refuel again. We'll call a break here while we wait for Ranma to finish scouting, so everyone can eat and stretch their legs a bit."

The swarthy man nodded, answering in his terse English, "Yes, Ma'am." Spinning on his heel, he charged away to relay the commands she had given.

Teleporting to a point one hundred meters upstream of the destroyed bridge, Ranma lit upon the bank of the river, setting Mousse down.

The Chinese boy immediately collapsed to his knees and retched violently. Ranma winced, looking away for a moment so that Mousse could regain his dignity. After a long minute of being physically ill, the other boy staggered away to the river to rinse his mouth out.

With Mousse's back to him, Ranma turned to watch closely, should Mousse's curse be activated. The boy fished a cup from one sleeve, and swished the water in his mouth for a few seconds before spitting it out, pocketing the cup and turning to face Ranma. His face was pale, and he looked haggard, worn.

"You okay?" Ranma asked cautiously.

Mousse nodded, taking a deep breath, and looking towards the trees that carpeted the area. "I'm okay," he said after a short pause. "I don't like cars."

"Yeah," Ranma mumbled. "I guess. The whole teleporting thing seems to throw some people off."

The Chinese boy grimaced, shuddering, and wiped the back of one sleeve across his mouth. "Let's check the area out," he mumbled.

Ranma nodded turning his attention back to the shore. "Think we'll find more tanks?" he asked.

Mousse shot Ranma an odd look, and shrugged. "I hope not," he muttered, trudging towards the road.

Rousing herself from her depression-induced bout of weeping, Tsunami raised her head at the sound of a heavy, echoing knock on the doorway. She sniffled, wiping away a stray tear, and gathered her willpower to make herself presentable.

"What now?" she wondered, climbing off the large bed, and frowning. Never, that she could remember, had anyone knocked on that door. Was it taboo to the people who worshiped her? Perhaps that was the answer.

Sighing, she stepped gingerly towards the barrier of tightly woven branches and leaves, the First obligingly separating them to allow her to see her guest.

Though Misaki was nowhere to be seen, both Funaho and Ayeka stood by. Her theoretical sister regarded her with curiosity, where Funaho appeared the slightest bit guilty. "I hope I'm not interrupting something?" Funaho asked cautiously.

Tsunami shook her head, stepping into the corridor rather than allowing the women to enter her quarters. The First resealed the entrance behind her. "No, Funaho-san. What can I help you with?"

Funaho smiled graciously, and offered, "You can call me Funaho, Tsunami."

"I know that, Funaho-san," she replied levelly.

Ayeka's eyes widened slightly, and she turned to look at Funaho, who paled. "Um, yes," Funaho mumbled, maintaining her demeanor without pause. "Tsunami-sama, do you have a moment to speak about a Terran with us?"

Tsunami frowned thoughtfully. "Nonoko?" she asked. "The girl I brought back from Earth?"

"She's being taken care of," Funaho assured her. "But I wanted to ask you about a 'Ranma'."

Startled, Tsunami let her guard down, and asked worriedly, "Is he okay?"

Funaho gave a small, victorious smile, and answered, "I don't know yet. However, I know that you are not enjoying your stay here. Emperor Tenchi has scheduled another bout of emergency transport tomorrow, to coincide with the next wave of Galaxy Police cruisers."

"Oh?" Tsunami asked, furrowing her brows. If they were to return to Earth, she could go along, and that meant she could see Ranma.

"Indeed," Funaho continued. "But, before you go, we were wondering what you could tell us about Ranma."

"What do you need to know?" Tsunami asked, her expression relaxing slightly.

Ayeka spoke up before Funaho could. "I would assume that Funaho wishes to ally Ranma with Tenchi to help his… somewhat waning support."

Funaho shot Ayeka an annoyed glare before returning her attention to Tsunami. "Something in that vein, but this is also partially to apologize for—"

"Why does Tenchi-san want Ranma-dono's support?" Tsunami asked, ignoring Funaho.

Funaho bit her tongue, frowning, and stepped back to watch the pair discuss. "I would imagine it would serve the purpose of adding your support to Tenchi, if you could demonstrate that you favored, ah, Ranma-san, and he were to support Tenchi's endeavors. It would be unlike the people of Jurai to deny your wishes and favors," she offered.

"I can't make Ranma-dono support Tenchi-san, Ayeka-san," she said softly. "Who he follows is his choice."

"But, while you're visiting him, you could ask, could you not?" Ayeka smiled, nodding hopefully, and added, "Surely Ranma-san would respect a fellow Terran who wishes nothing more than what was best for his people, and his empire."

"I don't like being used," Tsunami said flatly.

Ayeka began to apologize nervously, "I— that is—"

"But for Tenchi-san, and for you, Ayeka, I will ask Ranma-dono what he thinks." She quirked her lips in a smile, seeing how both Ayeka and Funaho had guided her into going to Earth without asking her opinion. "When I see him," she said softly.

Ayeka's face lit up, and she bowed, murmuring, "I hope all goes well for you, Tsunami…" She let her speech trail off there.

Tsunami nodded, approving the lack of an honorific. Reaching into one fold of her robe, she concentrated for a moment, pulling something across the distance between her tree-self and her true-self. "When you next see Tenchi-san, can you give him this?" she asked quietly, holding a hand towards Ayeka. The princess gingerly extended her hand, and Tsunami placed a seed in it gently. "This is to be Tenchi-san's. But now I must prepare for tomorrow," she said quietly, bowing to the women. "By your leave."

"As you will it," they responded by rote.

Retreating to her room for the moment, Tsunami allowed a small smile to come to her lips. If she were lucky, Ranma, at least, wouldn't judge her or try to use her, as the others had. And, of course, even if he would, Washuu was there, too…

"That was well managed," Funaho allowed.

Ayeka nodded, staring at the small seed as it lay in the palm of her hands. "Some small bit of symmetry, perhaps," she murmured. Turning to look at Funaho, she asked, "Why did you not tell me more of your plans concerning Ranma?"

Regarding Ayeka cautiously, Funaho explained, "I was not aware that you knew him."

She shook her head, carefully tucking the seed into a pocket and turning to walk down the corridor. "I know of him, but I do not know him."

"How do you know of him?" Funaho pressed. "This is somewhat important to us — it will benefit us all the more to know who we're dealing with beforehand."

"Ryouko has met with him," Ayeka answered distantly. "Tsunami knows him better, likely — I understand that she spoke with him at some point before the Home Fleet made its brief journey to Earth."

"Ryouko, hmm? Well, it looks like we'll be stopping by to chat with her, then, won't we?"

Ayeka raised an eyebrow curiously. "Indeed?"

"Indeed. Wherever Tenchi is, Misaki and Ryouko should also be. Let us find them."

"He should be in the Council chambers right now," she offered.

Ranma stopped suddenly, and Mousse was hard pressed to keep from stumbling into him, as the hovering boy sneezed quietly, muffling the sound with his hands, then shaking his head quickly. "You okay?" Mousse asked quietly. The other boy nodded silently, and Mousse joked, "Somebody must be talking about you."

Snorting, Ranma shook his head, turning his attention to the wooded area surrounding the opposite end of the collapsed bridge. "I don't see or hear anything," he admitted.

Mousse shrugged, closing his eyes and concentrating. "I can't hear anything," he said quietly.

Ranma stared at long moment, his eyes focused at the road intently.

"Ranma?" Mousse noised quietly, looking across the river, where Washuu was visible talking with some of the girls, though he couldn't hear what was being said over the river. "You see something?"

"Footprints," Ranma said quietly. "I mean, heat, I guess. I can see where someone stepped. And then they left, walking away."

Mousse turned back to regard Ranma, impressed. "You can see residual heat from people's footsteps?"

"I guess," Ranma allowed, closing his eyes, and shaking his head. "I don't know how old they are, though. They're kind of faint. I think a few people blew up the bridge and left, walking."

"What else can you tell?" Mousse pressed.

Ranma glanced around, opening his eyes, staring at the other end of the bridge. "That end shows burn-marks, and this end doesn't. Something blew up that end, but this one was still cold when it was knocked in."

"Wow," the Chinese boy allowed. "So, we can guess that the tank fell in when the bridge was destroyed, and then something or someone else knocked this end down?"

"I guess. Whoever did it is gone now. We might as well go back."

Mousse felt his stomach churn at the prospect of teleporting again. "Maybe we could scout more thoroughly," he suggested. "Some other clue could turn up."

Ranma shrugged, motioning Mousse to lead the way.

Ryouga — human again, thanks to Washuu — sat at the side of the road, face darkened from the embarrassment of the situation. Yakumo sat a short distance away, and Ryu much closer, finally free of the clinging girl that habitually clung to him.

"I think we forgot to spar with Ranma," Ryouga said, breaking the silence.

Ryu grunted, chewing on a hard bread ration. "Don't want to break the bus," he mumbled around a mouthful of the stuff. Swallowing, he made a face, then continued, "We'll try again later. It's not a big deal, is it?"

"He's planning on trying to ask Herb for help," Ryouga grumbled. "I don't know if that's going to work. We're also going to be meeting up with the Amazons."

"What are they like?" Ryu asked.

Ryouga scowled, shaking his head. "I don't know," he admitted. "Mousse does, though. He's one of them."

"We'll see," Ryu said. "They're pretty good martial artists, right?"

"Cologne's one of them, too," Ryouga allowed. "She taught me the breaking point. She taught Ranma a few things."

Ranma chose that moment to reappear, setting Mousse down and settling to the surface of the road. Nuku and Ran-oh-ki raced from Washuu's side to greet him, while Norris and Washuu walked towards him at a slightly more dignified pace.

Ryu looked as though he was about to say something, but bit his tongue, watching Ranma instead.

"Ranma-papa-san!" Nuku greeted, tackling him affectionately. Ranma grunted, ruffling her hair absently, as Ran-oh-ki climbed to her shoulder.

"Hey," Ranma greeted, glancing at Mousse, who was now wobbling unsteadily, his face a slightly paler cast. "Sit down, and look at something far away," Ranma advised.

The Chinese boy nodded, drifting to sit next to Ryouga.

Ranma disentangled himself from Nuku, and turned to regard Washuu and Norris as they drew near. "We checked everything out, but there's no one there right now," he offered. "A few people on foot left further west, but I don't know how long ago."

"Good enough," Washuu said. "If there's no one there now, they probably assumed that the bridge is impassable."

Ranma shrugged, staring at the water. "How do we get across the river, anyway?"

"I was thinking that Ami and Michiru could take care of that, actually," she said. "If not, there are other ways of taking care of the situation — just that they could take care of it faster."

"Okay," he said frowning. "The reavers are still avoiding us. I think they're waiting for something."

"Perhaps," Washuu said, studying Ranma intently. "But we have a lot more on them than we had, Ranma. We've got backup from the Galaxy Police, at least one shot from the Halcyon array, and more Galaxy Police craft should be reaching us within a day or so. We're going to be reaching the Joketsuzoku village today, if all goes well. Waiting can't possibly benefit them as much as it does us."

"I guess," he said quietly. "I still get the feeling there's more to this."

"You worry too much," she chastised. "Go get something to eat."

Ranma nodded, drifting towards Ryouga, who offered him a solemn nod.

"Hey," Ryu said by way of greeting, tossing a sealed packet towards Ranma. He caught it, sinking to the ground to open it. "You know what's going to happen next?"

"Not really," Ranma answered, grimacing at his meal. "These taste awful," he grumped.

Ryu snickered, "Tell me about it."

Ryouga shot the pair an indignant look, scoffing, "I think they taste just fine."

"Then again," Ranma drawled, "you like Akane's cooking."

Ryouga resisted the urge to yell at Ranma — he hadn't displayed that much life in those regards in longer than he could remember. Managing a faint smile, he allowed, "I got a stomach of steel, I guess. I can probably eat anything."

As though to punctuate his comment, Ran-oh-ki began eating the discarded packaging.

Ranma rolled his eyes, adding, "You got better taste than the rat."

Ran-oh-ki pointedly ignored Ranma, munching away on the wrappers contentedly. "How much does he need to eat, anyway?" Ryouga asked, frowning. "Didn't he turn into a ship, once?"

Nodding, Ranma explained, "He says tells me that he wants some things to add to himself before he does it. He wants to make come kind of crystal thing to make it easier for him to do, and he needs to eat special stuff to get the things he wants."

"So he's some kind of weapon?" Ryu asked, frowning.

"Yeah," Ranma said very quietly, setting the remains of his meal within Ran-oh-ki's reach. "Just like me."

A stunned silence fell across the group, Ryu obviously unsure of what to say.

"You're not just a weapon, Ranma-san!" a cheerful voice informed him.

He glanced up, seeing Hotaru smiling at him brightly, one hand on the massive pole arm she carried about with her. "What else am I?" he asked curiously.

"You're my boyfriend. And you're a real person, just like me," she stated calmly.

"How would you know?" he pressed, suddenly suspicious.

"Because I was made to destroy the world," she delivered in the same calm tone.

With Ami and Michiru working together, a makeshift bridge was manufactured from the flow of the rushing water itself, and the convoy quickly moved across, thankfully without incident. Washuu returned to her seat to find Ranma at her side once more, brooding silently again.

Prodding his shoulder after she settled down, she asked, "What are you thinking about?"

Raising his head, be blinked at her, then shook his head. "Nothing much," he said, relaxing somewhat. "Just about what you said yesterday."

She touched a finger to her lips thoughtfully, casting back. "Which thing?" she asked. "There were a lot of things discussed yesterday."

"About what I'll be once this is all over," he said quietly.

Washuu was silent for a long moment, simply allowing the drone of the engine, and the chatter of the other passengers on the bus to filter through. She raised a hand, invoking one of her more minor powers, and that sound cut off, affording them a small measure of privacy. "And what did you find out?" she asked gently.

"I still don't know," Ranma admitted. "I… It's like there are people who are telling me what I'll be. Hotaru says that I'm hers, but she's just a kid. Tsunami says I'm a guardian, a protector. Cologne says that I'm her son. You tell me I have to decide what I'm going to be for myself."

She nodded, dropping her hand to her lap, though the silence was still maintained. "What are you right now, Ranma?"

Hands raised before him, he flexed them, grasping onto some ethereal thing, and sighed, allowing the black gloves of his battle-suit to vanish, revealing the skin beneath. "I thought… I think I'm not human anymore," he said slowly, as though only putting it together in his mind. "I'm a fighter, I guess. That's what I do."

"And you're a defender," she encouraged him. "You alone have lent considerable strength to the cause, here. Without you, we wouldn't have done nearly as well as we have already." Smiling, she reached an arm behind him, pulling him towards her in a semi-hug. "Besides," she chided him, "now you don't need to try so hard — we've got more weapons and tools to help us fight."

His face fell instantly, though he didn't meet her eyes. "So am I a weapon or a tool after all?" he asked quietly.

Washuu rolled her eyes, patting him gently on the back. "Now you're just being silly. Weapons aren't given choices, Ranma. If you are a tool, who's trying to use you?"

Ranma furrowed his brow in thought, then sighed, finally meeting Washuu's eyes, and managing a weak smile. "I guess you haven't been trying to use me — you tried to get me to leave, after all."

Smirking, she pulled her arm back, and waggled a finger at him. "And now I'm trying to get you to relax."

"I'll relax," he promised. "You said this whole thing was very close to being finished — we've got more people, more equipment, and the reavers are losing. So once it's all over, I'll relax, and find out who I still am."

Washuu bit her lip, frowning. "That's not what I wanted," she countered. "I want you to stop being so hard on yourself and relax now."

Not meeting her eyes, he shrugged. "If I can convince Herb to help us, then it'll be over even sooner," he said quietly.

The scientist allowed her small bubble of silence to collapse, sighing softly, and looking out the window.

Norris stood at the front of the bus, steadying himself with a grip on a handrail, and squinted his eyes to see forward. The driver ignored him for the moment, concentrating on the road, until Norris called out, "Dew, stop right here — I see something that needs to be investigated."

The officer began to slow the massive vehicle, nodding curtly. "Anything else, Sir?" he asked.

"No," Norris answered, shouldering a positronic rifle after the bus stopped. "Eric, Ray, you're with me, everyone else, stay here. This should only take a minute. Pavel, if something goes wrong, you're the next in charge. Miss Hakubi, we should be right back."

The redheaded scientist shook her head, asking, "What's all this about?"

"I see something ahead I'd like to check out," he answered. "It's more of a military matter than anything involving reavers."

She frowned, then shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. "Don't take too long," she advised. "We should be almost there."

He nodded, climbing off of the bus, attended by his Marines.

"What did you see, Sir?" Eric asked, checking over his positronic rifle briefly once they were out of earshot.

"It looks like there's a tank hidden in the trees there," Norris answered quietly. "If there are any military forces left from China, we might be able to add their strength to our own — I don't think they would want to keep fighting without access to what tools we already have."

"Assuming it's not an ambush," Ray added sourly. "Er— Sir."

Norris snorted. "If it was, they would have taken a shot at us before we ever stopped. Keep your hands off your weapons, but keep them visible," he commanded. "If they can see that we're armed but not aggressive, we have a much better chance of this working."

The men nodded silently, slinging their rifles higher, and dropping their hands to their sides as they marched towards the low stand of bushes that Norris had seen the tank's gun-barrel protruding from.

Curiously, they elicited no reaction, the closer they drew, even when Norris called his men to a halt some twenty meters away. "Hello?" he called out cautiously. "Anyone there?"

There was no response. Ray produced a small handbook, and flipped through it. "Chinese phrases," he offered. Norris nodded, and Ray read scanned through the book. "We mean you no harm," he muttered, stumbling through the Chinese words for a minute before he thought he got them right, and called them more loudly towards the bushes.

Still, there was no response.

"Let's go ahead and see what's going on here," Norris muttered, striding forward once more.

Once the small group passed the shrubs that concealed the tank, the reason there was no response was immediately evident. The entire rear portion of the tank had exploded, scattering scrap metal across the area. "What the hell happened here?" Norris grumbled.

"Stupid mens attacked," a voice answered in rough English to their left. Norris jerked his head around, spying another desiccated hulk of metal — once a tank — with a leggy redheaded woman in flowing Chinese clothing lounging atop it. She carried a spear in her left hand that was easily as long as she was tall, a white silk ribbon fluttering just beneath a wickedly barbed head. "Strong womens destroy stupid mens," she offered, smiling.

Norris blinked, a memory dislodged from the back of his head. "Are you with Cologne?" he asked.

"Elder?" she asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "Yes, we know she. Why?"

Norris raised his arms, palms towards the woman in a gesture of peace. "We've brought her here, actually. We're here to… This might be easier if I go get her, really. Ray, can you bring her here?" The man nodded, and dashed off as he was ordered. The woman atop the tank rose to a standing position, her spear standing at her side like a staff, and held in one hand. "So, um, we're supposed to be allies, I think."

She stared at him, unblinking, and he scratched the back of his head, in confusion. "So, what happened to these tanks?" he asked nervously. He hoped it would break the ice between them, somewhat, unsure of how to speak to Cologne's people.

The woman grinned fiercely, teeth showing as she offered, "Us. We be good with fist, spear, big hammer, and sub-machine gun." Norris blinked at the woman, and she added, "We be a handful."

"I think I'm in love," Eric mumbled.

Another woman dropped from the trees to land atop the tank at the side of the first woman, a long mane of green hair trailing her descent. She smiled wickedly, a submachine gun at her side, and bearing a large pair of mace-like weapons. Clicking her tongue, she shook her head and said, "Kura-Wan is taken."

From behind Norris and Eric, causing the pair to whirl, another female voice announced, "Very taken." Though they hadn't seen a sign of her before, or heard her moving into position, she was leaning idly against the first ruined tank, a large curved sword at each hip. Her reddish eyes nearly seemed to glow behind the faint veil of blue hair that covered them. "I speak better English," she noted. "I am Jian-Di. That," she pointed at the redhead, "is Kura-Wan, and that," she pointed at the mace-bearing woman, "Pei-Lin. You think you help warrior women?" Her eyes narrowed, and she made a show of looking down at Norris and Eric.

"I think we should let them meet Ranma," Eric suggested.

"Ranma?" Kura-Wan asked suddenly. "Girl-boy that Shan-Pu chase?"

Norris stared blankly, then sighed, hanging his head. "Is there anyone who hasn't heard of him?" he grumped.

"Is there any girl that hasn't chased him?" Eric returned.

Cologne hopped towards the thinly wooded area ahead of the parked convoy. If the Marine who had summoned her was correct, then they had just stumbled across a border guard, and that meant that they were very close to home. She came into range in time to see a trio of Joketsuzoku women studying Norris and Eric thoughtfully. "Oh, lovely," she muttered. "You three."

All three of the girls blinked, turning to regard her in unison. "It's good to see you again, Elder," Jian-Di greeted in Chinese, brushing a strand of blue hair from her eyes. "Why have you come back so soon?"

"I have answers," Cologne muttered. "But I also have questions, and I am your superior. What happened here?"

Kura-Wan grinned brightly, holding her spear aloft. "Stupid Chinese men thought that they controlled us, and attacked."

Cologne narrowed her eyes. Why would the Chinese government choose to do that now, of all possible times? They could have attempted it at any point in the past, after all. "Do you know why?" she asked.

Pei-Lin answered swiftly, "They said that they were looking for a power. I think they were looking for…" She shivered uncomfortably, and uttered a quiet prayer. "I think they were looking for Saffron."

Heart skipping a beat, Cologne shook her head. "They wouldn't be that foolish, would they?" she mused. "Bah, it's not important — do you know what's been happening in the world?"

Kura-Wan looked offended as she answered, "We're not stupid, Elder. That's why we're on guard here."

"So you know about the reavers?" Cologne asked.

The girls stared at her blankly.

Sighing, she shook her head. "Never mind. How far are we from the village?"

Jian-Di answered quietly, "We're quite near, Elder, though you would have to walk fifteen kilometers through forest to reach it. This road doesn't go any closer than this unless you take a much longer route."

"Good," Cologne responded. Switching back to English, she notified Norris, "To make things faster, we're going to need to proceed on foot."

The man frowned, crossing his arms. "If you say so," he answered dubiously.

"Is something wrong, Elder?" Jian-Di asked, still using Chinese.

Responding in the same tongue, Cologne answered, "Very wrong. We're going to be meeting up with a force that we brought with us to combat the reavers. I expect you to respect them, even if many are just children, and many more are men." Narrowing her eyes slightly, she warned, "Don't fight with any of them, either."

Ranma stretched, working out a kink in a muscle from the long and tense periods of simply sitting about idly. The Marines scurried about the caravan, hurriedly assembling what supplies they had brought, and sorting out what could be kept, and what could be discarded. Nuku sat on the side of the embankment next to the bus they had just gotten off of, holding Ran-oh-ki in her lap. "Nuku-Nuku is bored," she announced.

"It's better to be bored than dealing with the reavers," Cologne opined, as she drew near.

Ranma spared her a glance, nodding.

The three merely watched the Marines work in silence for a moment, before Cologne sighed, looking towards a distant mountain.

"What's wrong?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side.

Cologne shook her head, looking away again. "The enormity of the situation is staggering, Son," she said quietly. "Things I had thought locked away and no worry to anyone are being touched on again, and that worries me."

"Like what?" Ranma asked, scratching his head.

"Legends, myths… Old stories that mean nothing," the woman answered. "People are desperate, and cling to anything to carry them through hard times, so they chase after dreams in the face of danger, hoping that a dream will be real, and lend them some help from what they are scared of."

Ranma blinked, frowning. "Legends? Like, uh, long-forgotten princes of rival tribes that are supposed to be extinct?" he asked.

Cologne choked, and swung her staff about, knocking Ranma sharply over the head. In a grave voice she announced, "Maybe, and maybe not. Some dreams are nightmares, and best left sleeping."

Rubbing his head, Ranma grimaced. "I guess," he mumbled.

Nuku yawned tiredly, scratching Ran-oh-ki behind the ears. "Nuku-Nuku dreams about Ryunosuke," she mumbled. "And Mama-san, and Papa-san." After a moment, she added, "And mice."

Cologne smirked, shaking her head. "And what do you dream of, Ranma?" she asked.

Dropping his hands to his sides, Ranma considered. "I don't think I've had a dream since I woke up in Washuu's lab," he admitted after a moment. "Maybe I can't, anymore."

Turning to regard Ranma curiously, Nuku frowned, still scratching behind Ran-oh-ki's ears. "Papa-san said everyone dreams, even if they don't remember them, because dreams are important," she said.

"I guess," he mumbled, plucking Ran-oh-ki from Nuku's lap by the nape of his neck. "Come on, rat. I want to find Herb today, and that's not going to happen if we don't hurry. Why don't you grab all the supplies, huh?"

Ran-oh-ki mewled indignantly, until Ranma lobbed the creature upwards forcefully, where it once more burst into the spiny and protrusion covered craft that Ranma had seen last destroying the incoming nuclear missiles. He squinted at it, narrowing his eyes, and measuring it in his mind. Smaller than he had seen Ryo-oh-ki's form to be, probably only a hundred and ten meters from one end to another, and shaped differently, too.

Where Ryo-oh-ki's other form was mostly symmetrical, Ran-oh-ki's was not, the spines and vanes all arcing backwards as though to suggest a greater speed. Ranma shrugged, striding towards the Marines, who all stared upwards in stunned surprise. "Hey, Norris, Washuu," he called, getting the attention of the pair as they argued logistics with Pavel. "Ran-oh-ki can load up everything and take it so you don't slow yourselves down," he suggested. "I want to hurry things up."

The scientist frowned, but nodded after a moment. "Very well. We'll use Ran-oh-ki to transport the beacon and supplies over to the village — we should probably go as well. His presence might scare them, if they're not expecting it."

Ranma shrugged, as Cologne caught up to him. "As long as you remember to take me with you," she noted.

"Okay," the boy replied, relaxed. "Ran-oh-ki, go ahead and start picking up stuff." The ship responded swiftly, a beam of light sweeping out from beneath and taking up all of the supply crates. Ranma was silent for a moment, as his partner relayed information to him, and finally said, "Okay, there's room for a few people. Who's going with us, and who's going the long way?"

"I'd like to stay by your side if you're going to meet this 'Herb'," Yosho announced quietly.

Norris shrugged, glancing at the Marines. "I'll stay with the men," he said. "We'll need to follow those other girls to the village, but without having to haul any supplies, that shouldn't take too long."

Washuu nodded, and turned to Ranma. "Me, Cologne, and Yosho," she said. "Is there room?"

Ranma nodded, rising slightly off the ground. "Yeah," he mumbled. "Atsuko, do you want to come?" he asked, raising his voice. The girl nodded, bounding to his side and hugging him tightly. "Okay, Ran-oh-ki, let's go," he concluded, as Ran-oh-ki collected Washuu, Cologne, and Yosho.

"Why aren't we with Ran-oh-ki-niichan?" Nuku asked, as Ranma shifted her to his back. "Standing room only," he grunted. "Ran-oh-ki says that he can't control a larger shape until he gets a crystal or something." He rose higher, until he was level with his partner, and smirked at the craft. "Race you there," he yelled, as Nuku tightened her grip about his shoulders.

And with that, the two tore away, the remaining forces on the ground quickly organizing themselves and marching after. Ranma spared no time for them, instead enjoying the rush of the wind against him as he charged through the air, Nuku nestled comfortably against him as Ran-oh-ki bobbed next to him, keeping pace.

Nuku broke away suddenly, one arm releasing Ranma to gesture towards a distant spot. "What's that?" she asked over the roaring wind.

Ranma narrowed his eyes, allowing them to focus on the place she had indicated. "That's where we're going," he replied. He glanced at Ran-oh-ki, knowing that his partner could easily outpace him, but chose not to. "Let's pick up the pace, okay, Atsuko?"

"Okay, Ranma-papa-san!"

Ran-oh-ki set his passengers down first, freeing them from the somewhat cramped interior, loaded up with crates, and surrounding them with the piles of equipment. Cologne reeled for a moment from the effects of being transported, but caught herself swiftly, as a number of armed women rushed from the houses surrounding the square, crying in alarm.

Ranma lowered himself to the ground at her side, Nuku still clinging to his back, and looking around with bright, inquisitive eyes. Recognizing Cologne, the charge was disrupted, the women staring in confusion at her sudden arrival. Cologne smirked, hopping atop a crate to be more visible. "Spear-sisters!" she announced. "I bring news, both good and bad…"

Ignoring the conversations for the moment, Ranma glanced upward, catching Ran-oh-ki as the creature reverted to his smaller form, and tumbled from the air to land in his hands. "Good work," he said encouragingly, before handing the tired creature to Nuku.

Cologne broke off to regard him, frowning slightly, then asked, "I don't suppose I can dissuade you from seeking him out?"

He shook his head, kneeling so that Nuku could climb off of his back. "Nope," he answered. "I want to find him and get this done with. Do you know where he is?"

Cologne scowled, and shook her head. In Chinese, she addressed the women of her tribe, and the translation from the gem on Ranma's ear only took a moment to follow, "Spear-sisters, this child, this adopted son of mine, seeks the Musk that he can try and add their strength to ours."

The crowd swayed and muttered angrily, and Cologne raised her arms to silence them. "Among the news that I bring you is the unhappy news that not only would such an addition to our ranks strengthen us, it might be the only thing that can strengthen us enough." Dead silence filled the area, all of the women staring at Cologne in disbelief. "You must believe me," Cologne insisted. "Doesn't the manner that I arrived warn you? Or the fact that my adopted son can fly like Herb make you wonder?"

Nodding slowly, but obviously still unhappy with the idea, the women nodded. Sighing, Cologne continued, "My son insists that he must find Herb, and for all that he's brash, and reckless, he's also stronger than nearly any other warrior I've known." Ranma smirked at that, relaxing slightly. "So please tell me where the Musk were last seen so that he can find Herb."

One of the women stepped forward, and grumbled, "For all of his vaunted skill, he's still a man. Is there no other way to achieve this goal that you haven't completely explained to us?"

Another woman shouted, "What scourge could possibly be dangerous to warrant your trust so fully in a man, Elder?"

Ranma stepped forward, hovering a slight distance from the ground, and shifted forms. "What does shape really matter in the end?" she asked. "Strength is strength, and power is power." Her gem echoed her words in Chinese, and the crowd stared at her, surprised. She summoned a ball of blue light into her hands to punctuate the point, not yet clenching her fist about it to make it a blade. "What comes is a swarm of monsters that are powerful enough to destroy most of a country like America — I haven't been there in a few days, but I bet Japan's mostly gone, too."

Yosho spoke up, his Chinese accented as he joined the verbal fray, "Ranma is right. Shanghai fell yesterday, both to the reavers, and the inept Chinese military. No one person can hope to stand against the reavers. There's only one way through this, and it's going to be working together. Will you help us, or will you become another reminder as to the cost of pride?"

Cologne shrugged towards the crowd, offering, "There you have it. I won't demand that you tell me, or help us, though I could as your elder — I simply want you to agree to help us so that we can survive, and become stronger."

Expressions of anger melted slowly to confusion, and a few instances of worry. Finally, the woman who stepped forward nodded, saying, "I can not speak for any others, but it is as your… son… says, Elder. Power is power. I wish to know more of these monsters, but if Ranma wishes to battle with the Musk, they should be some kilometers to the west of Jusenkyou, in a mountainous area of rocky spires. You'll know it by the shattered trees that surround their stronghold."

Ranma nodded curtly, allowing the summoned sphere of energy to vanish, then turned to regard Washuu and Nuku, both of whom were watching her curiously. "Okay, I know where Jusenkyou is from here; it took me and Pops…" She cleared her throat at that. "It took about a half a day to walk there before." She paused, considering, then added, "I could just teleport there, and fly the rest of the way, though. Washuu, I'll be back—"

"No you won't," she informed the smaller girl. "You'll take me with you."

Ranma growled, shifting back into male form. "Fine," he muttered. "Who else is coming?"

Nuku gleefully leapt onto Ranma's back, wrapping her arms about him, and still carefully carrying Ran-oh-ki. "I want to go with Ranma-papa-san!" she exclaimed.

Yosho raised an eyebrow, but Ranma spoke before the older man could. "Fine," he said, sighing in resignation. "I'll teleport everyone near Jusenkyou one at a time, and we'll move out from there. Let's hurry. Sunset is in about an hour."

Nuku leapt from Ranma's back as he dropped her off, and peered around curiously. Ranma waved a hand at her in warning, and advised, "Stay away from the springs down there, Atsuko."

She nodded, looking at them curiously without drawing closer. Ranma rose from the ground and disappeared. The pools didn't seem dangerous to her, but if Ranma-papa-san said to avoid them…

A rustling sound alerted her, and her sensors snapped up instantly, reporting the direction of the noise, as she turned towards it curiously. A large rock sat in that direction, a boulder at least three meters high, and just as wide.

Ranma returned at that moment, and set Washuu down carefully, repeating his warning about the springs to her before vanishing once more. Making a face, Washuu took a seat on a smaller rock, and summoned her terminal to her, tapping at it quickly.

"Ooh! A girl!" a voice shouted triumphantly from behind the boulder. Washuu glanced up in time to see a massive form rise from the boulder, leaping towards her. Nuku didn't wait for the woman to react, instead tossing Ran-oh-ki towards her, then racing to block the assailant's charge.

The hulking behemoth of a man that had lunged from behind the boulder impacted with her, sending the pair sprawling, Nuku momentarily pinned beneath the larger one's weight. She had been trapped under heavier things before, among them buildings, so readily shoved him away, bounding back to her feet.

Flying away from her, the man — boy, really — slammed into the boulder he had hidden behind, crushing it instantly as it soaked the impact. He sat up, dazed, and growled, "That was not nice!"

Nuku countered, "Stay away from Washuu-mama-san!"

He rose to his feet, as Ranma reappeared, setting Yosho down. Ranma took the scene in instantly, and rolled his eyes. "Lime," he groaned. "What are you doing here?"

The large boy sprang to his feet, suddenly nervous at Ranma's presence. "Me and Mint are here because Herb-sama said we had to be," he mumbled. "He didn't say nothing about any pretty girls, though." He blinked, scratching his massive head, and added, "Maybe he sent us here because he knew that there were girls here?"

"Where's—" Ranma began, cutting off instantly. A blur of motion shot towards Washuu, only to be caught as Yosho kicked out suddenly, tripping Mint, and sending the smaller boy tumbling across the ground towards the springs. He yelped, as a stray rock in his path caused him to vault upwards, towards the water. Ranma wasted no time, remembering well enough his own curse, and teleported to intercept the boy's path, catching the dazed Mint before he could fall in. Hefting Mint by the nape of his neck, he drifted back up the hill towards Lime. "Hi, Mint," he offered, dropping the boy in an unceremonious heap before Lime.

Lime swiftly gathered his fallen friend, frowning darkly. "What are you here for?"

Ranma snorted, shaking his head. "I'm here to ask Herb for a favor."

Lime paled, and shook his head quickly. "Herb-sama doesn't like people who ask him favors," he warned.

"Yeah, well, you probably ask him for really stupid things, like to touch his cursed form," Ranma grumbled. "So he probably kicks your ass for it. Now that you're here, you can save us a bit of time — we need to talk to Herb. Can you take us to him?"

Mint shook his head, rousing himself from the daze, and answered as Lime set him down, "Okay, but if we do, can we have tea with those girls?"

Ranma growled, his eyes glowing faintly blue with anger.

"Or, you know, not," Mint suggested, scurrying away. "Follow me."

Lime trundled after Mint, rubbing at his head where it had shattered the boulder.

Yosho and Washuu both blinked, then gave Ranma a hard glance. "I really wish you'd tell us more about things like this, Ranma," the scientist chastised him.

Ranma shrugged uncomfortably, saying, "I didn't think they'd be here. Maybe Herb knew we were coming."

"Is that a good sign, or a bad sign?" Yosho asked, relaxing his stance slightly.

"I don't know," Ranma muttered, stretching, and drifting towards the two boys as they marched away.

Ranma sank to the ground shortly after the march began, mentally preparing himself for the battle. The sword at his side would not figure into the fight — too many of his fights lately had been so much more reckless and with so much more at stake than pride, or the name of a school. They had been for greater causes, and been fought much more savagely.

Herb would not be an easy opponent by any stretch of the imagination, and it would take cleverness and a good deal of strength to deal with him. Ranma was much stronger than he had been, but then, he had only beaten Herb through a clever trick the last time they had fought, and Ranma didn't have any idea how the other cursed boy would think of him. Ranma had done what he could to make restitution, sending Herb back home with his magical ladle and kettle, but had no idea how that would be perceived by him.

Mint and Lime would likely be useless to offer clues in that regard, though the suggestion that they were at least wary of crossing Ranma offered a hopeful hint. Then again, they might just be afraid of associating with someone who had upset their prince.

His thoughts continued in a circular fashion for some time, until he banished them darkly. They weren't helping much, and he thought best on his feet. If he had to fight Herb, he'd make it up as he went along. That generally served him better anyway.

Shaking his head in an attempt to banish the thoughts, he regarded the territory around him. Shattered trees and countless rocky spires filled the area, exactly as the woman from Cologne's village said they would. "How close are we?" Ranma asked irritably.

"Close," Lime answered, pointing to a much larger spire. "There's a valley past that spire, and Herb-sama's palace is on the other side."

Ranma lapsed into silence again, Washuu, Yosho, and Nuku having remained silent since the walk began. They paused as they crested a short rise after the spire that Lime had indicated, which led into a wide, lush valley, lined with small rivulets and splashing waterfalls. The floor was carpeted in thick grass, a stand of small trees standing to the north, and Ranma made out a few small figures moving about beneath the foliage. Across the valley, a few hundred meters away, a massive stone structure sat atop the opposite slope, without windows or doors — merely massive open archways leading into a darkened interior. "That's the palace?" he asked, pointing.

Lime nodded. "Yeah. There's a library, too, in the trees," he said, pointing towards the copse that Ranma had seen before.

"Interesting," Washuu remarked, glancing about. The trees lay to the north, while the southern edge was much more barren and rocky, blasted by some force in places, with large boulders scattered about numerous craters.

Silence descended on the group for a time, as they reached the bottom of the valley, and walked across.

Finally drawing near to a set of stone stairs in the side of the valley that lead up to the palace, Washuu broke the silence, asking, "Who exactly is Herb, Ranma? I've not been able to get a clear answer yet."

Ranma hedged for a moment, then said, "Who do you think he is?"

Washuu snorted, as the group began to descend a winding path to the floor of the valley. "From what I can tell, you martial artists are like gangsters of some sort, and your gang is you, Ryouga, and Mousse. For some reason, Herb leads a rival gang with these two, and you got into a fight over something that you managed to win — though no one's been very eager to offer a clear explanation yet."

Lime and Mint joined Ranma's incredulous stare. "Gangsters?" Mint asked. "We went to Japan because Herb-sama wanted to get his kettle back. Herb-sama used the ladle on Ranma, and he needed the kettle, too, so they fought over who got it."

"And after Ranma beat Herb-sama, Ranma gave him the kettle back," Lime concluded.

"That doesn't sound so bad," Washuu said, relaxing slightly.

"Remember the part where they blew up the mountain?" Mint asked, turning to look up at his swarthy companion.

Lime nodded softly. "Yeah, that was pretty neat," Lime allowed.

"Oh, great," Washuu muttered sourly.

Ranma ignored her complaints, already taking the first step on the stone staircase that led up to the palace. He paused at the top of the first switchback, looking across the valley they had just traversed. The sun was drawing close to the horizon, though he could only see that by the shadow of the valley's walls across the floor. "Man, I never really knew what Herb's home was like," he mumbled. Shaking his head, he allowed Washuu and Yosho a moment to catch their breath, Mint and Lime turning to regard them expectantly. Nuku seemed — if anything — bored at the moment, and Ran-oh-ki perched comfortably atop Washuu's shoulder. Yosho seemed as indifferent to the pause as Mint and Lime.

Shaking his head, again, Ranma took another step up the staircase, Lime and Mint pacing ahead of him, the smaller of the pair quickly vanishing. Silence ruled until they topped the stairs, which opened out onto a stone floor, leading into a massive, darkened hall. Large columns of stone supported a massive stone roof, though the entire area was largely open to the elements. An aged, but well maintained red carpet led into the darkened interior, curiously marked by blackened footsteps that looked to have been burnt into the carpet ages ago.

Lime stopped at the edge of the carpet, and motioned Ranma forward. "Go on," he mumbled.

Frowning, Ranma shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, and handed his sword to Nuku. "Hang on to this for me," he said quietly, phasing through his robes to stand in his skin-tight battle-suit. Nuku wordlessly gathered his robes and sword, cocking her head to one side, and looking at him askance.

"Ranma?" Yosho asked. "What's this about?"

"Nothing," he muttered, turning back towards the darkness leading into the palace.

Shrugging, Ranma paced out onto the carpet, walking alongside the burnt footsteps in the carpet, marching resolutely forward. His eyes adjusted nearly instantly, but as he strode forward, flames burst from the columns on either side of him, large torches shedding light across a small area. A few more tentative steps rewarded him with another pair of lights, and he resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the melodramatics. Herb was royalty, he reminded himself.

At the very end of the carpet, Ranma came to an abrupt stop, as a trio of columns behind an ornate throne suddenly lit, illuminating the entire hall, and shedding ample light across Herb. The Prince of the Musk lounged across his throne, his chin resting on one fist, elbow on the arm of his chair, and one eyebrow rose to regard Ranma coolly. "Ranma," he said quietly. "Saotome Ranma. We meet again."

Ranma snorted, crossing his arms across his chest. "It's Higurashi Ranma, now," he warned. "Do you know why I'm here?"

"I haven't a clue," he answered. "I merely sent those idiots," he gestured to Mint and Lime, "away so they wouldn't bother me for a while." He straightened in his chair, frowning. "Your mode of dress and appearance are changed, I see. I rather suspect you're here to ask me for a favor, yes?"

Ranma nodded quickly, dropping his arms to hand at his side. "Herb, do you know what a reaver is?"

Herb shook his head, shifting his robes about him slightly.

Rolling his eyes, Ranma muttered, "Great." Clearing his throat, he spoke up, explaining, "They're really big and ugly monsters that have destroyed most of the world already, and are coming towards the Joketsuzoku next. There are only a few hundred left, but they're nasty, and I want your help to fight them."

Blinking, Herb drummed the fingers of one hand atop the arm of his throne. "And I should abandon my home and my people to help you in this cause?" he asked, frowning.

"Not really — you should bring your people to fight at our side, and if you don't abandon your home for a while, you'll probably lose it forever anyway," Ranma returned.

Herb frowned. "And why should I do this?"

Growling, Ranma snapped, "In order to save this planet, Herb. If we don't, we're probably gonna lose it. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe we'll just kill all of them without your help. But even I think that gambling with the entire planet is pretty damn stupid."

Herb nodded. "I understand," he stated quietly. "And I refuse to help."

Ranma cracked his knuckles, glaring intently. "Why not?" he asked — nearly an angry shout.

The Prince of the Musk shook his head, frowning. "You may ask any favor of me, Ranma. I am in your debt. But I am not so much in your debt as to help every single person you bring along with you. I have no dealings with them — no obligations. I will not have anything to do with them."

Seething, and throwing out a hand to forestall Yosho before he could speak, Ranma challenged, "What if I fight you? This is what it's about, right? I beat you once, you owe me? What if I beat you again? Then you'll owe me more, right? Enough to help?"

Herb frowned disdainfully, as though the thought alone was too dirty for him to soil himself with. "You fail to grasp the point, Saotome—"

"MY NAME IS HIGURASHI RANMA!" he snapped furiously. "I have nothing to do with that name now."

Falling silent, Herb studied Ranma. A long moment, laden with tension passed, Ranma trembling with rage barely held in check, Herb simply staring, much of his superior air suspiciously absent. "Very well," he said curtly. "If — and only if — you defeat me in personal combat, then I will agree to add my own support, and the support of my people to whatever forces you've assembled. Know this, however… Higurashi… Ranma. If I defeat you, then my debt to you is vanished, and you may not call for a boon from me at any time in the future."

Ranma shrugged, stepping towards Herb menacingly. "Suits me just fine," he grumbled. "I don't plan on losing." His aura expanded about him — something Washuu had not seen often before. Again, it was the same lambent blue glow, shot through with streaks of angry nacreous power, making the very air about him crackle, as Ranma growled menacingly.

Herb raised an eyebrow, rising from his throne to step towards Ranma, then sinking to a careful stance and allowing his own aura, golden and shimmering iridescent streaks of green sparkling bright — nearly bright enough to challenge the glow of the sun itself. "I see you've practiced," Herb said uneasily.

"Maybe," Ranma hedged. "One way or another, I got a lot better than I used to be."

The two were silent then, studying one another and considering, before Herb spoke again. "I think this fight could be very destructive."

"Yeah, a lot more violent than the last one. Let's clear out of here — I don't want anyone near us gettin' hurt," Ranma muttered.

Herb nodded, and tensed briefly. A half-heartbeat later, he was bounding away, impossibly long leaps taking him out of the hall, and out of sight.

Washuu's jaw dropped at the sight, as Ranma effortlessly paced Herb, and the two leapt from the hall. She dashed back across the hall, Yosho and Nuku racing ahead of her. They froze at the top of the stairs, looking towards the blasted and ruined area to the south that Washuu had seen before. There, on the far ridge, Herb squared off with Ranma, easily a kilometer away, but both visible thanks to their blindingly bright auras.

"What's going on?" Nuku asked, confused.

Uneasily, Washuu collected herself, and explained, "Ranma… Ranma's fighting someone who might be stronger than him."

"I don't like it," Yosho grumbled. "I don't understand how his help is so valuable that Ranma needs to fight him."

"I'd like to simply stop him," Washuu murmured unhappily. "But I have to trust his judgment on this one, since I don't know 'Herb' as well as he does."

"Sa… Higurashi. Are you prepared for this battle?"

The boy nodded at his counterpart quickly, his hair rustling in the ebb and flow of his own power about himself. "I'm ready. Are you?"


And the battle was joined.


To be continued.

Author's Notes: Aaaaand my long break is over. Chapters 1-5 are RAAC ready, 6-10 to follow shortly, thanks to everyone who pre-read, and/or C&Ced!

Brian Randall

Part 12
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Last revision: January 7, 2006

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