J. Austin Wilde and Fission Park Press proudly present:


by J. Austin Wilde, K.B.C.S.

Safety Control Rod Axe Man,

Fission Park wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting

to die for one's country. But in modern war there is

nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die

like a dog for no good reason."

-Ernest Hemingway

"There's many a boy today who looks on war as all glory,

but, boys, it is all hell."

-Gen. William T. Sherman

Revised Introduction...

"Ranma Goes to War" was my first fanfiction effort. Next to its

sequel "Chasing the Wind," it is probably the story I am best known for

in the world of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction. It's been almost two years since I

wrote it, and looking back, there were parts of the story that didn't

quite achieve what I intended in the first telling. Few writers ever get

the opportunity to revise their works after publication, but at least in

fanfiction (where none of us gets paid and we answer to no one save our

readers) we have this opportunity. It seems a shame to waste it. This is

not a full-blown rewrite, but I would have to say it is an extensive

revision with a great deal of new material filling in the parts that

were previously dealt with only briefly during the connecting narrative.

At the time I first wrote "Ranma Goes to War" (December 1995 to

January 1996), a Second Korean War was already a real and even immediate

possibility. There were many indications that the North Koreans, their

people starving and their leadership under intense pressure from their

military to act, were preparing to launch an attack during the late spring

or early summer of 1996.

In light of this critical period in time, the Special Warfare

submarine USS Kamehameha, of which I was a member of its Engineering

Department, deployed to Korea for Operation Foal Eagle 1995. The details

of the Kam's operations outside of the Foal Eagle wargames are of course

classified, but I'm sure you can draw your own conclusions as to our true

purpose there. Personally, I'm very glad that war never materialized, as

I would have been right there in the middle of it. Spec Ops were harrowing

enough at times without riding the oldest boat in the fleet (built by the

lowest bidder) in a full-blown shooting war.

In this story I have tried to convey what a Second Korean War might

be like for Ranma and Company. Whether Japan would actually send troops

to fight in a Korean conflict is up for debate, but with German involvement

in NATO action in Bosnia, and the steady downsizing and withdrawal of the

United States military from the Western Pacific, Japan might well find

itself left in the position of having to take care of itself in a war.

Chapter One

The summer of 1995 had come to Nerima the way it had for years past

count. School was over for awhile. For some, however, school was over for


Ranma Saotome, fresh from his eighteenth birthday, had graduated from

Furinkan High. This was a fact that surprised some, particularly the

faculty. Despite his never being much of scholar, he had done well on his

final exams, and his prospects for college weren't half bad.

For his part, Ranma had no particular interest in further schooling.

It distracted him from his true talent: Martial Arts. He had already made

up his mind about not going to college in the fall, and nothing his father

or Mister Tendo could say would change it. After all, neither of them had

been to college.

Akane's performance was outstanding, a fact which surprised no one.

She would be attending college in the fall with her older sister Nabiki.

This was a last summer of sorts, and the thought of it had forged an uneasy

(and unspoken) peace between Akane and Ranma.

The Tendo Dojo was particularly quiet that afternoon. Soun Tendo and

Genma Saotome played shogi, as they always did, in the waning sun. The

heady aroma of Kasumi's cooking filled the air. Even the koi in the pond

seemed content with the remains of the day.

Nabiki, home for the summer, was perched before the television

watching the news. She curled her legs up to her chin and watched the

screen. They had acquired a satellite receiver through unknown (and

dubious) means, though no one was arguing much about it. CNN was tuned


Ranma and Akane came into the living room from separate directions.

Both plopped down beside each other to watch the news with Nabiki.

Nabiki held her tongue, deciding that if Ranma and Akane decided to sit

next to each other, who was she to argue. Their truce was keeping the

place quiet, though she missed the good old days already.

"What are you watching?" Akane asked.

"CNN. It's the top of the hour, so the headlines are coming up. I'm

only watching for the financial reports though." Nabiki replied.

"What? You mean you don't have a ticker tape machine constantly

feeding you Nikkei Index reports?" Ranma chided.

"My dear Ranma, please get with the times. My laptop with cellular

modem receives all the information I require in that intelligence spectrum.

I simply wish to evaluate my options from a human side. The Market is,

after all, based on perception."

"Sorry I asked," Ranma said lamely.

"Shhh!" Akane hissed. "The headlines are next."

They all turned their attentions towards the small screen. The

Indomitable Sturm Blitzen appeared on screen, the Herald of World Conflict

for CNN. He was on some sort of ship at sea. Japanese subtitles flicked

across the screen as he began to speak.

"This is Sturm Blitzen reporting to you live from the Arleigh Burke

destroyer USS John S. McCain, currently deployed near the Spratly Islands

in the South China Sea. The McCain is part of a surface task force trying

to project a sense of stability to the sea lanes around the Spratly Islands.

Tensions between Western Pacific Nations have been very high the past few

days with formal proclamations of ownership by at least nine countries:

Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the People's Republic of

China, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan..."

"What the heck do we want with a bunch of islands out in the middle

of the ocean?" Ranma asked. Nabiki shushed him. Blitzen continued.

"The Spratly Islands have become an economic boon for the surrounding

nations with the discovery of vast mineral wealth, particularly crude


"You see, my dear Ranma, Japan relies almost entirely on foreign oil.

If we were to develop our own resources, we would rid ourselves of a vast

drain on our energy dependent economy," Nabiki supplied.

"So what are the Americans doing there? They can't possibly have a

claim to those islands as well," Ranma asked.

"The Americans are just playing policeman again. I say let them. It

spares us the expense of using our own Maritime Self Defense Force ships."

The CNN anchor was on again. Superimposed behind him was a map of the

Korean peninsula.

"In other news in the region, the military Junta that deposed

former ruler Kim Jong Il of North Korea has demanded trade concessions

with their cousins in the south. Such demands were met with great

criticism in Seoul..."

The screen then shifted to show file footage dated from last winter.

An American officer in green camouflage fatigues was speaking.

"As we learned during the recent Foal Eagle exercises with Republic

of Korea forces, this next year will prove to be the year of North

Korea's discontent..."

"What did he mean by that?" Akane asked.

Nabiki sighed. "He was making a reference to Steinbeck. What he

means is that North Korea is bankrupt without support from China and the

foundering Russian Republics. If they don't take drastic measures, they'll

be completely ruined."

"Oh well," Ranma sighed. "It really doesn't affect us at all."

Nabiki was about to rebuke him when Kasumi appeared in the room.

"Dinner's ready!" the eldest Tendo daughter declared cheerfully.

Such matters were forgotten...

Weeks had passed since that afternoon, and it was a quiet evening in

the house. Everyone had gone to bed save for Ranma. He stood out on the

balcony of the dojo, watching the stars. It was a glorious night, filled

with heavenly light.

It was time I said something to her, he thought to himself. It

seemed that as far as Akane was concerned, words that were so easy to say

in his heart became a tangle, driven by frustration into the inevitable

cutting remark that he never meant to say, but came out anyway. It's

gonna be different this time! he vowed. Soon she would be away at college;

hers would be a different life from the one they'd shared these last two

years. He had to do something, say something, or he just might blow it for


He had already dropped the ball after the ruined wedding attempt. In

the year since then, he had often argued with himself that it was better

that it hadn't happened. After all, they were just kids then! Things were

different now, and he knew his own mind better -at least he thought he did.


Ranma jumped in surprise as the subject of his thoughts appeared behind

him in the door. His inner will to do what had to be done crumbled with an

inaudible crash.

"Uh, yeah?" he asked. "What's up?"

Akane's eyes sparkled in the starlight. "I was just wondering where

you had run off to. That's all."

"Oh," he replied with some relief. "Well, now you know."

"It's a nice night, huh?" she asked, settling next to him along the

balcony rail. Although she rarely wore perfume, Ranma found the sweet scent

of her short blue-black hair unnerving.

"Yeah," Ranma replied lamely, still smelling her hair on the breeze.

"Real nice."

A shooting star arced overhead. Akane gave no indication of having

noticed it. Ranma stood there in a kind of paralysis, waiting for Akane

to say something.

"Have you thought about what you're doing this fall yet?" she asked,

finally obliging him.

Her reminder of their dwindling time together hit home. He had to say

something to her!

"Uh, Akane...?" His voice was shaky, and he cursed himself silently

for such a weak start.

She didn't seem to notice. Or did she? "What is it, Ranma?" Her voice

had that tone about it that spoke volumes.

He found his small reserve of nerve failing. How could he say it when

she just stood there with her sparkling eyes and glowing skin and her hair

that smelled so... so... He couldn't think of anything to describe the way

her hair smelled, only that it made him feel so jittery and anxious and,

well, so good, dammit!

"Uh, I've been meaning to talk to you about something for awhile

now..." he forged on.

"Oh? About what?"

"Um... You see, I've been thinking. You go off to college this fall

and I'm going to be here at the dojo and, well, I..." His voice trailed


She turned to look him in the eyes. Hers were now a little dewy, and

his heart started turning somersaults. Say it, you coward! a part of

his mind railed at him.

He opened his lips to say the one thing he'd wanted to tell her for

so long. To get his feelings for her out in the open, to cast aside all

pretense, all pent up frustrations, and petty stubborn defenses and just

tell her. He had told her once, when she lay apparently dead in his arms

after the battle with Saffron. Then, like a fool and a coward, he had

denied it.

Why couldn't he say it?

Akane, I love you!

Akane waited, her breath held.

"I... That is I... Well, you know we've known each other for awhile

and..." Coward! Coward! Coward! his mind screamed at him.

"Yes, Ranma?"

The distant and totally unexpected wail of a siren filled the night.

More sirens, closer than the first, took up the plaintive cry. Soon all

of greater Tokyo was filled with them. The roar of jet engines was far

away now, throaty and powerful, and any pretense that they were the engines

of passenger jets was immediately dispelled as they screamed aloft.

"What's going on?" Akane cried.

"It sounds like an air raid or something!" Ranma replied.

"Here? How? Who?"

"I don't know, but maybe we should get inside!"

Lights came on in the house and across the neighborhood as the sirens

continued to wail. Dogs barked, adding to the din. As Ranma and Akane

reached the house, they heard Kasumi saying something in the living room.

The rest of the family clustered around the television set. They sat in

bleary-eyed shock as NHK carried the news live.

"What's going on?" Akane asked them.

Soun pointed at the screen. "It appears we've been attacked." His

voice was solemn. "Nagasaki and Osaka. About fifteen minutes ago."

They watched images of smoke and fire raging around the seaports of

Nagasaki and Osaka for over an hour. The reports were coming in hurried

and even a little panicked. No one seemed to have any idea what was going

on or who was responsible. The government was keeping silent to the media.

Nabiki flipped to CNN in disgust. The handsome CNN anchor's polished

calm and detachment screamed in the face of the horror he now relayed to

the viewers. Japanese subtitles scrolled along the screen as he began


"This just in... A ballistic missile attack was just launched in the

last ninety minutes from North Korea's Keumjonri Weapons Complex at Japan

and South Korea. At this time at least thirty Scud type missiles have been

fired. All diplomatic channels with the communist nation are believed to

have been severed simultaneously with the attack."

A spokesman for the White House appeared on screen for what was

obviously a hasty early morning press conference.

"At this time, the most I can disclose about the situation is that

both Japan and the Republic of Korea have been struck with several long

range ballistic missiles, and that there has been loss of life and property.

The Republic of Korea government has informed the President that they now

consider the Armistice of 1953 null and void, and that a state of open

warfare exists between the divided country.

"The United States will honor its defensive commitments to both South

Korea and Japan in the event of further military action by the North, and

we will be presenting to the United Nations a measure to impose further

economic sanctions and the suspension of humanitarian aid for this

unprovoked and inexcusable act."

The CNN anchor returned.

"We take you now to Sturm Blitzen, who is currently in the Sea of

Japan, near the center of the crisis."

The screen switched to Blitzen. The sky was dark, and the crackle of

announcements over a loudspeaker filled in the silence before his report.

A subtitle declared that the clip was prerecorded.

"This is Sturm Blitzen reporting from the USS Lake Erie, a guided

missile cruiser in the Sea of Japan and the flagship of the US Naval

surface forces in the Western Pacific..."

The ship appeared to shudder as a flash of brilliant orange light and

the harsh roar of rockets filled the screen. Several sailors could be heard

cheering over the sound of the rockets. The cameraman tracked a Standard

SM-2 missile climbing higher and higher into the sky, leveling off at high

altitude and disappearing from sight behind a bank of luminous clouds.

"I'm told that we're firing on a second wave of theater ballistic

missiles launched from North Korea at Japan. The first wave of the long

range Scud-type No Dong-1 missiles came largely by surprise not fifteen

minutes ago. I'm led to believe Nagasaki and Osaka were hit especially

hard, although details aboard the Lake Erie are sketchy right now. As

far as I know, Tokyo and its surroundings have not been targeted."

An announcement was made over the ship's loudspeakers, but no one

watching could make out what was said. Blitzen appeared to take a cue from

someone off camera as a sailor, clad in a sweat stained fire-fighting

ensemble and a Scott Air-Pak, rushed by him with a limp firehose.

"The Captain has just ordered the ship to prepare for a possible

nuclear-biological-chemical attack. We'll have to go inside for now...

This is Sturm Blitzen reporting for CNN aboard the USS Lake Erie."

"Oh dear," Kasumi said softly, hand pressed to her cheek.

"Dad, does this mean we're at war?" Akane asked, suddenly very

frightened. The thought that someone could rain missiles down on their

heads while they waited helplessly was enough to make all of them


"That might be very true," Soun replied somberly.

"Well they haven't attacked Tokyo, and now we've got a fleet out

there shooting the damn things down," Genma offered, which seemed to

bring a little calm back to the assembled family.

"Yeah, It's not like they're trying to invade us or nothing," Ranma


When Ranma spoke Genma and Soun looked at each other, then Ranma,

then back to each other. Theirs was a grim countenance indeed.

"It'll all be over in a few days," Ranma said, trying as much to

comfort Akane as himself.

Genma and Soun shook their heads imperceptibly, now focused on the

sight of Ranma and Akane sitting close to each other. Neither was

conscious of the fact that their hands were now locked in the other's.

Chapter Two

The notice had come within the week. It was a shock to all save Soun

and Genma, who had known it would come, and yet remained stoically silent

on the matter. Ranma went out into the garden to look at it in private.

"You are to report no later than 10 July to the First Military District

Recruiting Depot for compulsory military service under the National

Emergency Act dated..." Ranma's voice trailed off as he read his draft


"Aw, this can't be happening to me!" he cried aloud. If there was any

sympathy for him from above, it failed to reveal itself.

"You must go, my son," Genma said evenly. Soun stood next to him with

a look of sorrow on his face. The two had appeared out of nowhere it seemed.

"It is your duty."

Ranma turned to face his grim faced father. The man wasn't getting

it, apparently.

"I understand all that, Pop. But why the hell does it have to be me?

I could care less about North Korea."

Genma's eyes widened.

"It doesn't mean anything to you that your own country was attacked?"

His father's words were lost upon him. "Yeah, but this is different.

Wars these days are fought with guns, not fists. What good would I be?"

Genma folded his arms over his chest.

"Then you will learn the ways of the rifle. It is your duty, son."

"I can't shoot anybody!" Ranma cried in protest. "Maybe beat 'em up a

little, if they have it coming, but I can't go killing anyone because of

some stupid..." His voice trailed off.

Genma was unmoved by his son's concerns.

"There are other paths than killing, my son."

Ranma went red. "If I go to Korea to fight, then I'll have no choice!

I'm not a killer, pop!"

Genma searched for a rebuke. He didn't want to see blood on his son's

hands either, but there was honor and duty to think of.

"Maybe if they find out about my little 'secret' they'd disqualify me

from service," Ranma thought aloud.

Genma was livid. "You will not bring such disgrace upon the Saotome

name!" He eyes narrowed behind his glasses. "I didn't want to have to bring

this up, but what would your mother think about you refusing your MANLY

duty to Japan?"

Ranma swallowed hard. Was his old man bluffing about telling mom? There

was one way to find out.

"Supposing I did refuse to go, and you did tell mom," Ranma said

slowly. "And supposing mom makes me commit seppuku. That would mean you

would have to kill yourself too, wouldn't it?"

Genma nodded. Tears welled in his eyes. "Yes son, I would. For the

glory of Japan, I would."

Ranma started. He was expecting his old man to realize his mistake and

back down, but the fool was going ahead with it! He never thought anything

would make Genma Saotome forsake his instinct for self-preservation, and

now he came to the sudden conclusion that reporting for duty was his only

acceptable course of action.

"All right, fine. I'll go," he said. "I don't like it, but it looks

like I don't have much choice."

With that he turned and headed back into the house.

Soun looked at Genma, whose face was beaming in a wide smile.

"He bought it," the Tendo patriarch declared. "I didn't think you had

it in you, Saotome."

"Phase One is complete," Genma agreed. "Now we move on to Phase Two."

He was going away, but there was nothing really for him to pack. The

JGSDF would send it all home when he arrived for training regardless. He

paced around the room wondering about what would happen next because he

couldn't think of anything else to do or say.

He still couldn't believe he'd been drafted! Of all the eligible

people in Japan, someone had picked him! He understood it, he supposed.

Japan didn't have a large standing army. It was actually quite small, even

with the slow withdrawal of American troops from his country. The only

branch of the Self Defense Force of any size was the Maritime SDF, their

navy. Nabiki had explained that Japan maintained a good sized and modern

Navy to protect their shipping, which was the absolute lifeblood of the

economy. She would know, of course.

As he mused, Akane slipped into the room behind him. He sensed her

presence, that slight tingle of nerves and excitement that struck whenever

they were alone together. He wasn't sure what she was going to say, and

tried to prepare for any number of possibilities.


He turned around.

"Yeah?" Somehow it came out sounding all wrong. He didn't want to

push her away, but he was going there fast.

Her expression was somewhere between hurt and anger.

"Ranma... I-- I just wanted to talk, but if you don't want to..." She

turned to go.

"Wait." He took her wrist gently and turned her to face him. "That

is..." he began. He stalled.

Why aren't I any good at this?

Akane bit her lower lip. "Umm... I just wanted to..."

"I'll be all right," Ranma said cockily. Once again the words came out

all wrong.

She put her hands on her hips. "What? You thought I was worried about


"Well isn't that why you're here?" He could have smacked himself even

as he said it.

Akane's emotional spectrum shifted further towards anger.

"I came to help you pack!" she said and stormed out of the room.

Ranma buried his face in his hands. That went real well...

Kasumi had pulled out all the stops for dinner, as this was going to

be Ranma's last one with the family for a long time. Unfortunately, no

one was feeling particularly hungry. Not even Ranma, who was a chowhound

of the first order.

"Is there something the matter?" Kasumi asked, unused to the lack of

attention her meal was getting.

"No! No not at all, Kasumi dear," Soun said.

"Guess I should be enjoying this," Ranma said glumly. "It's my last


"Please, Ranma, don't say that!" Kasumi cried.

"Gallows humor doesn't suit you," Nabiki added.

Dinner went really well after that...

That night, after dinner, Ranma decided to try and make a final

peace with Akane. He didn't want to leave with bad blood between them.

He went upstairs in search of her.

The first place he looked was her room. He knocked, but there was no

answer. He decided to let himself in (it hadn't stopped him in the past.)

She wasn't there.

Next he tried the bath. He knocked.

"What is it?" Nabiki's voice asked.

"Is Akane in there?" Ranma asked.

"Haven't seen her," was Nabiki's curt reply.

"Uh, okay," Ranma offered, and headed for the dojo.

She wasn't there, either. He walked out into the yard. The sky was

filled with light.

He looked skyward, shaking a fist to the stars.

"You're always popping up at the worst possible times, but when I

need you you're not there!" he yelled. His voice echoed across the


"Need who?" Akane asked.

Ranma just about jumped out of his skin.

"Need who?" Akane repeated.

"Oh, uh. Nothing."

She smiled at him. "Oh, I just thought you were talking about me."

He started to turn red. Fortunately for him, his head was backlit by

the rising moon, and Akane didn't notice.

"I was going to take a walk, would you like to come with me?" she

asked. Her hand was just far enough from her side to be an invitation

without seeming too forward. He had seen that trick before, after their

Ryuugenzawa misadventure.

"Well, sure."

He steeled himself, and took her hand. It was warm and soft, and his

jitters seemed to melt away.

They left the yard and walked out into the street. Ranma had to

suppress his conditioning and not jump up to walk along the walls. Akane

felt him start to surge out of her hand, and gave it a firm squeeze and

gentle tug to pull him back next to her.

"Uh, sorry," he apologized. "Force of habit."

They walked hand-in-hand for awhile with neither of them saying a

word. Ranma was content with that, as a conversation would probably ruin

everything again. As long as he kept his mouth shut he couldn't screw up.

The two of them eventually returned to the yard. They sat down in the

grass to watch the stars. Akane leaned her head on his shoulder, which

both thrilled and frightened him to no end.

She sighed, and for a moment Ranma felt like it had sounded more like

a sob. He started to panic inside, wondering what he'd done wrong now.

"W-What's the matter?" he asked quietly.

She shuddered a little. "You promise me that you'll be all right?"

He leaned his head over to rest on hers. Her hair smelled so sweet,

and her closeness was intoxicating.

"Don't you worry, Akane. I'll be just fine."

She looked up into his eyes. Hers were wet, and still he wondered

what he'd done wrong to upset her.

"You promise?"

He gave her hand a squeeze as she had done to him earlier. "I promise."

They were so close to each other, he felt sure they were going to kiss.

He started to lean closer, just letting his heart take over for once, and

his foolish pride be damned! Akane closed her eyes in anticipation.

"Aha! There you two are! Father's been worried sick," Kasumi cried

from the porch, oblivious to what was about to happen.

The moment was shattered. Ranma could almost hear it crash down

around them. Akane cursed so softly, he wasn't sure if he heard it or

just felt it from her.

She stood up, and he rose with her. Kasumi went back into the house,

only now realizing that she had interrupted something. Ranma was once

again at a loss for words, and decided that he shouldn't push his luck

by saying anything.

It was very late, and they climbed the stairs to their rooms. Only at

Akane's door did they let go of each other's hands.

Akane opened the door and started to go inside her room. Then she

spun on her heels and threw her arms around him in a brief but fierce


"Please be careful!" she whispered into his ear. Then she broke from

their embrace and ducked into her room.

"Good-bye, Akane..." he replied to the closed door.

He walked slowly to the room he and his father shared.

I finally did something right with her! But grim thoughts of the

future followed, and his bouyant mood was smothered in doubts. Too bad

it might be the only time I ever do...

"Where have you been, boy?" Genma asked him.

Ranma wasn't in the mood for this. Not when he was already feeling the

pangs of both homesickness and the loss of Akane -and he hadn't even left


"None of your business," he replied in a surly voice.

Genma let the remark pass for a few moments before speaking.

"So are you going to do the right thing or not?" he asked cryptically.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Ranma asked from his

sleeping mat. He hadn't even bothered to strip down for bed.

"You join the Self Defense Forces tomorrow," Genma began. "We could be

at war at any time, and, as much as it pains me to think about it, you may

not return at the end."

Ranma cursed to himself. He did not need his old man reminding him of

possibilities that already paraded unbidden through his skull at all hours.

"Just watch the news," he retorted to his father. "It's all being

taken care of by the diplomats. There ain't gonna be a war, okay?" He said

it as much for himself as to derail whatever train of thought Genma had


"What if you're wrong, Ranma?" Genma continued. "Do you want to leave

Akane heartbroken and alone, having never known the joys of matrimony?"

Ranma winced. Anger swelled in him as he realized what his father was

getting at.

"You've got some nerve, Pop. Trying to fast talk me into marrying

Akane before I report for duty..."

"We could take care of it first thing in the morning," Genma said

greasily. "You don't have to report until that evening -so you'd have a

little time alone together to consummate--"

He didn't get a chance to finish, for Ranma had planted a foot

squarely in his face.

"You are unreal, Pop..."

He settled down to try and sleep, and wondered if his father might be


The next morning came against all hope. He hadn't slept much at all

that night, lost in his thoughts and the events of the past few weeks.

His mother had come to see him off, and she had prepared a simple breakfast

for Mister Tendo, his father, and himself so they could catch the train.

He said his good-byes. Kasumi was indefatigable -no surprise there.

Nabiki was her usual distant self. His mother threw her arms around him

and gave him one last hug. He almost choked up at that point, and he hadn't

even said good-bye to Akane yet.

She stood demurely at the gate, looking down at her feet. As they

approached, she looked up and gave him a weak smile, though her despair was

plain to be seen behind it. He returned it with a jaunty wave. There would

be no emotional outbursts, no tears or crying, and unless she said it first,

no confessions of undying love. They had said what they could last night,

and nothing would take that from them.

He took one final look at the dojo and walked away with the two

fathers. The trip was filled with silence. Mister Tendo had quickly spent

his meager store of peppy small talk, and in the end stared off into space.

Genma nursed his bruised chin while reading a magazine.

When they reached the Depot, long lines of other young men around his

age stretched around the corner of the building. Their families tried to

look strong and supportive, but the dread and the pain of separation was

plain to be seen.

Ranma didn't know what to do when he saw the crowd waiting at the end

of the line. Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno were there, the sister weeping

openly for her brother while he stood stoically like some television

melodrama samurai. Ryoga Hibiki was there, having no family present, but

in the company of Ukyo. His perpetual high school sidekicks Hiroshi and

Daisuke gave him waves and welcomed in into the line. Hikaru Gosunkugi was

last, and his family was just as spooky looking as the frail eighteen year

old himself.

"So they got you too, eh, Saotome?" Hiroshi asked.

"Yup," Ranma replied casually. "Looks like they got everyone." He

turned to Ryouga and Ukyo. "I can't imagine how you managed to find this

place in time."

"He had a little help, Ranchan," Ukyo said before Ryoga could get

angry at the remark. She smiled sweetly for him, but there was that same

look of silent despair that Akane had.

Why does everyone fear the worst? he thought. I'm just going

into the reserves -it's not like I'm going to be on the front lines. Heck,

I'll probably spend the whole time in Japan!

Kodachi brightened a little at seeing him, then broke down into

another wave of tears. "Oh, not my Ranma darling too!" she sobbed. She

moved to embrace him, only to be held in check by her brother.

"Hush, sister. Waste not thy tears on him," Kuno said gruffly.

"Oh, but I may never see him again!" Kodachi cried. The black rose in

her hand became an image, particularly morbid, graven in Ranma's mind.

"Oh come on!" Ranma said full of bravado. "We're going into the

reserves! We'll probably be right here in Japan!"

The others took a little heart to his words.

"Yeah, there's no way they'd send us into a fight," Daisuke cracked.

"Besides, by the time we get out of training this will all blow over.

They'll cut us loose in no time."

Ranma nodded enthusiastically.

Perhaps this won't be so bad after all. I just have to keep

convincing myself that it will all work out.

The officials inside the building seemed to be taking draftees inside

in groups, and their turn to go in was coming up. He said good-bye to his

father and to Mister Tendo, both of whom lost all resolve and began to weep.

They didn't even beg him to reconsider their quickie marriage plans. It was

hard for him to see it from both men, but he dismissed it as just useless


Kodachi gave him her rose and promised to write him every day. She

stood there as they began to walk in single file into the building. Ranma

wondered where the Principal was that he wouldn't see his only son off, but

then figured that the man was probably in Hawaii again.

As he was about to step through the door, Ukyo rushed up and gave him

a tearful kiss upon his cheek. He marveled that he had such an unlikely

friendship with her, his Ucchan. The disaster of the failed wedding, and

her involvement in it, were a year behind him now. He didn't even think

about it anymore when he saw her.

Within seconds of saying his farewells he was whisked into a world of

stern faced doctors and soldiers. He was poked, prodded, probed, tested and

interrogated at every turn. When they drew several tubes of blood from his

arm he had to ask them what all that blood was for.

"We do blood typing, pathology, HIV testing, and of course the DNA

for the archives," the nurse replied cheerfully.

"DNA? What for?"

"To assist Graves Registration in identifying remains."

He decided that there were some questions he didn't need to ask. They

were taking this all so seriously, and Japan hadn't even sent troops

anywhere. The Second Korean War had yet to materialize, it was all blowing

over just like they said it would.

Chapter Three

The word was that they would be placed in a reserve unit following

their recruit training. Their training would also be greatly abbreviated

due to the nature of the emergency. Boot camp would only be six weeks long,

compared to the sixteen week training schedule normally directed for

recruits. He was glad he was already in top shape, as the JGSDF no doubt

had plans to squeeze in as much as possible within the shorter time


So far it had all been a joke. After getting off the bus at the base,

their drill instructors loudly bemoaned their sad fates to have received

such a sorry lot of recruits, and how they would just have to salvage what

they could. It was actually almost funny, Ranma thought.

It came as no surprise to Recruit Private Saotome Ranma that he would

get Tatewaki, Ryoga, Hiroshi, Daisuke, and Gosunkugi in his boot camp unit.

It was his karma, he supposed. The only real discomfort he could foresee

was that Tatewaki Kuno was his bunkmate, and had insisted on the bottom rack

of the double bunk. He could see that even six weeks of boot camp was going

to be an eternity, as the man was already crying out for the servants to

make up his bunk.

"What manner of hostelry is this?" Kuno raged. He was ignored by the

Furinkan crowd, though the others cast nervous looks in his direction and

prayed the drill instructors wouldn't walk in and decide that group

punishment would be in order.

It took him three hours to come to grips with the fact that he'd

have to sleep on such a little bed, and with the entire platoon for

company, Ranma thought darkly. How long's it going to take for him

to figure out that he's supposed to make his own bunk?

He sat on his bunk as Kuno continued his tirade. Eventually he got

tired of it and bonked Kuno on the head, sending him to blissful stupor on

the cold tile floor. The rest of the platoon applauded vigorously.

"I was going to do that myself if you hadn't beaten me to it," Ryoga

growled, not looking at him, but instead gazing emptily into space.

Ryoga had the bunk next to his. He and Gosunkugi were bunk mates, it

seemed. Hiroshi and Daisuke had the racks opposite. Ryoga continued to have

a far away look in his eyes.

Ranma shrugged. The sight of Ryoga and the others with no hair was

definitely weird. For one thing, the lack of hair caused other facial

features to become more distinct, and Ranma found his eyes drawn to Ryoga's

prominent fangs. Gosunkugi's dark circles were another thing that drew his

eyes, and he decided that he wouldn't look at the guy if he could help it.

He felt the top of his head, it was bare as well. For reasons that

became immediately apparent to the base's barbers, Ranma had to keep his

pig-tail where it was. He felt a little silly, and his unique condition

had leveled all manner of abuse against him by the Drill Instructors.

"This ain't so bad, huh, Ryoga?" he said.

Ryoga didn't answer.

"Aw, come on, Ryoga. The chow ain't nearly as good as Kasumi's but it

wasn't bad either. And the Drill Sergeants ain't nothin' but a lot of bluff

and bluster. You and me can take whatever punishment they dish out."

Ryoga remained silent.

Ranma sighed.

"Aw Ryoga, talk to me, man. You're one of the only friends, well, sort

of friends, that I have here."

"We aren't soldiers, Ranma..." Ryoga said at length. "Why are we even


So that's eating him too... Ranma realized. "Who said anything

about being soldiers? We're reservists."

Ryoga snorted.

"You actually believe that? Why such a short training cycle if our

country isn't going to need a lot of men ready for combat?"

Ranma hadn't thought about that.

"But we're not even at war right now. Everything's a little tense,

but the diplomats are working things out. Even you have to have seen the

news lately. It was all a big mistake, and the generals who were responsible

are being punished."

"Believe that if you will, Ranma, but as for me, I must come to terms

with the fact that I may be forced to kill someone I don't even know, over

something I care almost nothing about."

There seemed to be something else that disturbed him, but Ranma wasn't

certain what it was. It didn't seem to be a fear of death, that had never

concerned Ryoga in the past.

"Ryoga, the only thing we have to worry about is staying away from

cold water."

"Pla-TOON! To the right flank, march!"

Because of his moderate height, Ranma was in the middle of the marching

formation, and watched with a bit of pride and amusement as the seventy men

in the platoon all bobbed and wheeled sharply ninety degrees to the right

to land their next footstep in time to the cadence.

Except for Ryoga, who would have lurched in the opposite direction

if not for the little piece of drab colored shoelace that Ranma had tied

to his belt. A quick jerk sent Ryoga turning in the right direction. He

could almost feel the heat coming off the lost boy's face as he realized

that he had been spared official ridicule once again.

"Pla-TOON! Left oblique, march!"

Marching drill continued, with those who failed to follow the drill

sergeants' instructions falling out to do pushups of increasing numbers as

the weeks went on. Ranma found that recruit training was actually pretty

slack in the physical training department, and much to the consternation

of his instructors who knew he could do better, he often screwed up just

for the exercise. They finally found a way to keep him in line by punishing

the entire platoon for his mistakes. Ranma was not going to hold everyone

else to his own standards of training, especially since most of them came

into boot camp pretty soft, and so toed the line thereafter.

"Pla-TOON, halt!"

They took their last forward step before bringing their other foot in

line at attention with a satisfying clomp of seventy boots hitting the

pavement in unison.

Sergeant Aikawa left the platoon at attention while he discussed a

matter with the drill instructor of their brother platoon. Ranma stared

straight ahead at the back of Tatewaki Kuno's head, noting the tiny bald

marks in the dark brown stubble where his father had shaved his head a

little too closely in the past. At least Kuno was no stranger to electric


He also noted the dark clouds of a summer shower closing in on them.

Several expectant sniggers from the men around him confirmed his fears.

Ryoga to his left looked positively sick. This was a lot more stressful for

him, Ranma supposed.

It had been touch and go for the last few weeks trying to keep their

curses from the drill sergeants. Ranma's change was a little easier to

conceal, what with the fatigues being slightly baggy. Being in the middle

of the formation also helped, and because he had to keep his pigtail tucked

in under his collar, the change in color to bright red wasn't very apparent.

Ryoga wasn't so lucky. When the cursed summer showers hit, he would

literally drop out of sight in the middle of the platoon. After their

platoon mates adjusted to the shock of the two transformations, it became

something of a game with them to keep the secret hidden.

Raindrops came fast and furiously, and the platoon stood silently at

attention in the downpour. Aikawa didn't seem to notice the rain, nor did

he notice as Ryoga shrank out of sight into the folds of his uniform with a

whimper. As soon as Aikawa's back was turned, the platoon closed ranks to

fill in the gap, while Ranma scooped up Ryoga and his fatigues and stuffed

them into his jacket. He was only glad they hadn't yet been caught out on a

road march with full kits, but he was prepared: he had purchased a small

thermos at the post exchange. Hot water was available if necessary.

Six weeks went by in a blur. The platoon was dead tired to a man.

Even if Ranma was unfazed by the P.T., the accelerated training meant that

sleep was a luxury and not a right. Marksmanship in particular was stressed,

and they spent any chance they could get at the range. Aikawa had even

challenged their brother platoon to a hand to hand combat duel for their

range time -with predictable results considering the makeup of his platoon.

After all this, the word was that they'd be given three days leave before

their posting to a reserve battalion in battered Nagasaki.

On the subject of the word though, the truth was that they weren't

getting much of it outside the JGSDF, and the JGSDF was keeping mum. Ranma

found to his disgust that his letters were being censored. Big black

permanent markers had been taken to letters from Akane, Ukyo, Kodachi,

Shampoo, and his mother. He didn't know what half of the letters said,

only that he received more mail than anyone else in the platoon, and most

of it unreadable.

The day of graduation came with little ceremony. Sergeant Aikawa

seemed particularly solemn as he handed out each Private's orders. The

platoon was instructed to keep their orders sealed until the sergeants

had spoken to them. It was the first time their leaders had been so

informal with the platoon.

"It is our duty to inform you that upon the completion of your

training, you will be sent to the 1st Expeditionary Division, now in

combat against North Korea."

There was a stunned silence then upon the whole platoon. The sergeants

continued. "In a unanimous vote, the Diet declared that the provisions of

Article 19 of the Constitution did not apply under the present crisis, and

declared war against North Korea two days ago following a third missile

attack, and for attacks on Japanese flagged shipping in the open sea. North

Korea has invaded the south, and you will be part of a United Nations force

to oppose them. You must be on your highest standards of behavior and

conduct, as the Republic of Korea has openly protested the presence of

Japanese troops on their soil."

They let their words sink in for a moment before continuing. "It is

also our duty, and our regret, to inform you that all leaves have been

canceled for recruits, due to the need for replacement troops in the field.

You will be departing for the Divisional Staging Area in four hours. Your

families will be notified and instructed on where to send mail. Good luck,

and may the gods shine upon you for the glory of Japan."

Chapter Four

Korea in the summer was terribly hot. The country was nothing but

hills, although some would argue them to be more like mountains. Ranma was

leaning in favor of the mountain definition, as he had hiked up and down

just about every one of them in all of South Korea getting to his new


Again it was no surprise for him to learn that he, Ryoga, Kuno,

Hiroshi, Daisuke, and Gosunkugi were to be in the same unit again. They

seemed fated to be together, and over their last ten weeks together had

become almost close. They were now part of 3rd Platoon, 'A' Company, 2nd

Battalion Reserves, and despite their status as reserves, they would be

right on the front lines. The battalion had been hit pretty hard early on,

and was still reorganizing. The rumormill, always in overdrive, had it on

good authority that their company would become a regular company outright.

Their only solace was that by the time of their arrival in country,

the North Koreans had become more interested in attacking along the western

end of the front, which was closer to Seoul. The Japanese troops had been

shunted far east along the coast for political reasons.

Ranma and his platoon were fortunate indeed. At least they tried to

convince themselves of this. Ranma sat atop his foxhole dug into the side

of the hill near the top. He looked out across the valley below into

no-man's land, and to the hills beyond where the North Koreans were thought

to have some troops.

The scourge of the day was airplanes, jet fighters that streaked

overhead at close to supersonic velocities and shot at whatever they felt

like. They'd heard of one of their brother companies getting hit by South

Korean F-16's, which didn't do anything for morale, particularly when

feelings between the Republic of Korea and Japan were none too pleasant

to begin with. He secretly hated the jets, because they were an

unpredictable threat that he could do nothing about.

The jets criss-crossed the air above them, streaks of white and black

smoke dancing lazily over their heads. Bombs fell along those opposite

hills, little puffs of black smoke followed by dull booms several seconds

later. The constant patter of distant artillery kilometers away to their

left was something they had grown used to.

Ranma had seen the maps and knew that even kilometers away, it wasn't

very far when you figured how narrow the country really was. Seoul was being

hit pretty hard, as if the bombardment of Scuds that precipitated this

nightmare weren't enough. If they broke through at Seoul, the rest of the

UN forces on the line could be outflanked and cut off from their supply

lines from Pusan along the southern coast. Another thing he could do nothing

about from his dirty little hill in the eastern highlands.

He sighed tiredly. He'd been here for almost a month and hadn't been

so much as shot at a single time. Aside from the jets and the distant thud

of exploding ordnance, it wasn't even like there was a war going on. The old

questions of why they were here were soon dredged up, and he couldn't find

any satisfactory answers.

Even more than his doubts of purpose, he missed Akane.

Her letters flowed in to him by the armload from the rear area. To

his delight he found that her letters weren't being censored like they

used to be. She was writing him at least daily, and though he never thought

he had it in him, he tried to write her too. He wondered where she found

things to talk about, all of his letters to her and to the Tendos back home

in far away Nerima all said pretty much the same thing:

"Korea's hot. Everything's quiet where I am. I'm all right. Miss you

much. -Ranma."

Ryoga's head poked out of their foxhole. He had his British-made

assault rifle slung over his shoulder, his bandanna wrapped around his

head beneath his kevlar helmet. Ranma noted that at least Ryoga made a

better partner than Kuno, who now suffered the company of Gosunkugi.

Hiroshi and Daisuke had predictably partnered up in the third hole to

their right.

"Hey, stupid!" Ryoga snarled. "What are you doing up there? You wanna

get yourself killed by a sniper?"

Ranma scoffed at Ryoga. "Come on, Ryoga, we've been here four weeks

and no one's so much as looked in our direction the whole time. The only

casualties we've taken were from those stupid jets, and they were supposed

to be on our side!"

"Fine with me then," Ryoga retorted. "I'll just have to console poor

Akane when they bring your stupid dead body back from this hellhole."

That had Ranma's blood going.

"Shut up, Ryoga! It's not like you can even find your way back to

Battalion, much less all the way back to Japan. You can't even find your

own damn foxhole without help!"

"You take that back!" Ryoga yelled. He jumped out of the foxhole and

assumed a fighting stance.

Ranma sneered. It was about time! He needed someone to spar with or

he was going to go crazy!

They commenced to hammer each other with blows, not really caring

1about defense, just blowing off steam. As they grappled and tried

alternately to strangle or break the other's neck, shells began dropping

in all around them. The explosions were so loud as to bring stars to their

eyes, a force defying any of their expectations.

Ranma watched horrified as their own Corporal Okuda was blown to bits

by a direct hit not twenty meters away from them. Hot embers and clods of

dirt rained down on them, and their ears rang with the report of the shell.

They jumped into their foxhole as hot black smoke wafted over their heads.

The shells continued to fall around them, shaking the ground and

threatening to cave in their shelter. Dirt clods pelted them as each tooth

rattling explosion hit nearby. It seemed every gun in Korea was aimed at

their foxhole and their foxhole alone.

Ranma opened his eyes to find that he and Ryoga were holding onto each

other for dear life. Ryoga's eyes were squinted tightly shut. It struck him

as funny in a brain-addled kind of way.

Just a minute ago we were trying to kill each other, now we're

holding onto each other like best friends.

He started to laugh.

Ryoga opened his eyes and saw that Ranma was laughing. Not that he

could hear him, as the shells' thunder came in full force to their little

hole, but because the idiot was smiling and carrying on.

He's gone nuts, Ryoga thought. Shell shock.

"What are you laughing at?" Ryoga screamed.

"Just thinkin' how lucky you were to be saved by this shelling!"

Ranma shot back.

Ryoga's face screwed up into a cross-eyed visage of mindless rage.

"AAAAARRRGGGHHHH!!! Think that's funny do you?! I'll take your fool

head off, Saotome!"

Before Ryoga could make good on his threat, the sound of Kuno's voice

could be heard over the howl and whomp of the shells.

"Insolent curs!" Kuno cried at the top of his lungs.

Ranma and Ryoga faced each other, then poked their heads cautiously

out of their hole. Tatewaki Kuno stood atop his foxhole, facing out across

no-man's land. He carried a sword held high in his hand; a real sword, not

a wooden bokken. The polished steel gleamed in the sunlight. Shells landed

all around him, yet not a scrap of shrapnel touched him.

"Cowards!" Kuno bellowed. "A thousand deaths are not enough for thee!"

"Kuno, you idiot! Get back in your hole!" Ranma yelled. A hot sliver

of metal creased his helmet liner, driving him back down.

"Let him get himself killed!" Ryoga yelled over the din.

Kuno continued to pontificate.

"Face me in single combat, you heathen!" he bellowed, waving his blade

over his head. "Hide not behind the skirts of thy artillery! Art thou

afeared to be the same in thine own act and valor as thou art in desire?!

Wouldst thou esteem'st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine

own esteem!?"

Ranma dared another look out of the hole. Kuno was still standing

there, still in one piece.

"Kuuuunooooo! Get down, you moron!"

Kuno spun on his heels to face him. "Silence, wretched Saotome! You

have not leave to speak to me in that tone!"

"Alright, ya jerk! You asked for it!" Ranma snarled in reply.

Ryoga watched in disbelief as Ranma jumped out of the foxhole and

charged Kuno. The swordsman now faced no-man's land again, returning to

his verbal counter-battery of the far hill.

"Cretins! Wretches! Cowards! I fear you not! Come face me as men! For

'tis truly nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of--"

He wasn't able to finish, as Ranma body checked him with all his might,

driving them both down into Kuno's foxhole. A shell blew apart the ground

where the swordsman had stood, geysering clods of red-brown dirt high over

their heads and collapsing part of the hole.

Ranma lay sprawled atop Kuno, who lay atop Gosunkugi, who was now out

cold. Ranma growled at Kuno for having made him do such a stupid thing,

realizing that his voice had taken on a higher pitch and smoother timbre.

His (now her) helmet rolled over her face, obscuring her vision. Her

clothes now hung on her, and her boots were five sizes too big.

Her whole side was sopped where a shell fragment had burst her canteen


Kuno opened his eyes, which went wide at the realization of a dream

come true. He threw his arms around Ranma-chan, embraced her with all

his prodigious strength, and cried in a loud voice;

"Oh, Pig-Tailed Girl! Even here to this desolate place do you follow

me! I will do honor to your devotion for me! I will protect you with

these arms even as I do so now! I-"

Ranma-chan headbutted him, knocking him out cold. She left him atop

Gosunkugi and sprinted for the safety of her own hole.

Ryoga began to laugh as soon as he saw the bright red locks of hair

spill from beneath Ranma-chan's helmet.

"Oho! Couldn't resist tempting Kuno with your beauty, eh Ranma? You

and he make such a cute couple!" Ryoga taunted nervously.

"Just shut up, pig boy!" Ranma-chan spat. She couldn't believe she

had just run out into the middle of a shrapnel storm to save the likes of

Tatewaki Kuno! She reached for their tiny little camp stove and a box of

hexamine tablets to make some hot water.

There's no way I'm gonna be caught dead like this! she thought

blackly, not realizing her choice of words. Ryoga continued to chortle

weakly. The shells seemed to slow their barrage. Soon they had stopped,

and there was an eery quiet throughout the hill.

"Huh?" Ryoga grunted in the silence.

He poked his head out.

Smoke wafted from numerous shell craters. Clods of dirt were strewn

everywhere. The ragged remains of Corporal Okuda were now muddied red only

three meters from their hole. Ryoga was grateful for the overpowering reek

of cordite, which masked the smell of their dead NCO.

He started to say a prayer for him when the bullets began whizzing

around him. He ducked back down into the hole with a yelp.

"Damn it!" he swore. "The shells weren't enough, you have to shoot

at us too?!" He unslung his rifle and jerked back the operating handle.

Ranma-chan looked at him, unsure of what to do or say.

"Don't just stand there, fool! They're coming for us!" Ryoga yelled.

He popped back up and began firing short bursts. The hot brass showered

over Ranma-chan, and she yelped in pain.

"Hey, ya jerk!" she cried, and chambered a round in her rifle. She

popped up next to him and looked down her sights. Bullets from a heavy

machine gun slammed into the hill around them. The shots didn't seem to

be directed at any particular target, and Ranma decided it was suppressing

fire. That meant there would be an infantry attack on the hill in short


She began firing rapid bursts, heedless of any targets, just shooting.

Shooting made her feel like she was in control of the situation, that she

couldn't be harmed as long as she shot back. Her magazine was emptied in

seconds. As she bent to take a spare from her pouch, a machine gun round

struck the top of her helmet and drove her into the foxhole.

"Shit!" she cried stupidly as she landed on her bottom.

"Ranma!" Ryoga cried, turning around and ducking into the hole.

"I'm all right," Ranma-chan replied. Her heart pounded in her chest

like it was about to burst. "I'm all right," she told herself again. The

adrenaline coursed through her as she fought to regain her composure.

She loaded her rifle, slowly, deliberately, and rose to face the fire once


This is different from being shelled, Ranma-chan tried to convince

herself as she squinted against the burn of the cordite in the air. The fear

was there in the pit of her stomach, and she found death from a bullet to

no longer be an abstract in her mind.

I've fought some pretty scary characters before, but getting shelled

is a lot different, she told herself. You're helpless against it. But

this... I can fight back now. I have to fight back now.

There were a lot of them running along the valley at the base of her

hill under the cover of smoke from artillery shells. They must have

infiltrated the valley by squads to avoid notice, because she couldn't

imagine them crossing the valley in force during the short time of the

barrage without being noticed and attacked by friendly artillery.

She could see several armored vehicles lobbing more smoke shells in

front of them. Even the APCs couldn't have carried all of those troops.

There had to be at least a battalion down there.

The artillery barrage returned with a vengeance as she watched. There

was nothing she could do except start shooting again. If she ducked back

into her hole, the North Koreans would get close enough to kill them with

rocket propelled grenades.

I don't want to kill anyone, she thought. But I don't want to

die either... I have to fight.

She took aim at one of the closest troops and fired.

The rifle cracked once. It was a good 100 meters, but the shot was

true. A North Korean dropped to the ground and thrashed around in agony

-clutching his ankle. Ranma watched with a morbid fascination as the man

was dragged behind the cover of a knoll by a comrade.

A heavy machine gun from a larger hole behind theirs began thumping

away, and the North Koreans directed the majority of their fire at it

instead of them. Ranma-chan focused on the task at hand, and her rifle

cracked again and again. North Koreans dropped to the ground as she shot

at their legs. They were closer now, halfway up the hill, but the wind

had picked up, blowing away their smoke cover. Shells that rained death

on the hill now shifted to drop smoke on their forces to keep them covered.

Ryoga saw what Ranma-chan was doing and joined in. All he'd been doing

was wasting rounds spraying in front of them in a futile attempt to get

them to stop advancing. Minutes passed at an agonizing gait as the staccato

crackle of gunfire and the shouts of fear and excitement sounded around

them. Despite all of the firepower being poured down the hill, the North

Koreans were still advancing, and they could see the RPG equipped soldiers

setting up from behind cover to take out their machine guns. There would be

no stopping them from overrunning the hill at that point.

As Ranma-chan realized this, the roar of jets filled the air. All at

once the valley became engulfed in fire and smoke. A terrible ripping noise

followed, like a giant tearing apart a great carpet. Huge steel shell

casings dropped on them from above as something big, green, and ugly flew

overhead. A grinning shark's mouth on the thing's nose surrounded an

enormous gatling gun. The NK armored vehicles were flayed open by the

depleted uranium shells -bursting in bright firework flowers of orange and

green as their ammunition and fuel exploded. Cluster bombs filled the air

at the bottom of the hill with rippling explosions like overgrown Chinese

firecrackers, and the whine of shrapnel was heavy in their passing.

As suddenly as the jets had come, they were gone, and silence once

again reigned on the battlefield.

Ranma-chan could see the North Koreans running back for the shelter

of their hills, many of them wounded. Those who were dead or too hurt to

move lay along the hill. She could hear their cries of agony drifting up

with the stink of gunpowder. The artillery barrage had ceased for fear of

drawing further attention from the terrible green jets that had decimated

their attack in one pass.

"What the hell were those things?" she cried in her clear alto voice.

She decided that she didn't hate all jets. At least not these jets.

"Who cares?" Ryoga replied. He dropped back into the hole and reloaded

his rifle. "Maybe they'll buy us a little more peace and quiet."

Ranma-chan joined him in the hole. Both of their faces were plastered

with sweat and smudged with smoke and dirt. Ryoga looked very tired. Shouts

to cease fire echoed over the hill, and were followed the sounds of voices

crying out the status of their foxhole's occupants. Ryoga answered for the

two of them as Ranma checked the stove.

The water was hot on their little hexamine stove. She applied a

splash of it to herself, feeling herself begin to fill out her camouflage

fatigues at once. His boots now fit him again, which was a relief from

all of the chafing he'd suffered with them flopping around on his formerly

little girl's feet. His body was tingling with nervous tension, and the urge

to jump out of his hole and start running around pell-mell was strong within

him. He needed to calm down.

"Want some tea?" He offered the remainder of the water to Ryoga. They

were well supplied with it from Kasumi's care packages. It was finer brew

than the tea in their ration kits.

Ryoga looked at him tiredly. "I'd settle for going home."

Ranma slumped down beside him. He was coming down now, and coming down

hard. They were both worn too thin to continue their earlier fight.

"Me too, Ryoga. Me too."

Ranma drank the tea in silence.

At length, a voice from outside their hole asked if they were still

alive. It was their platoon sergeant, Yoshida.

"We're all right, sarge," Ranma and Ryoga replied in unison. The two

of them poked their heads out of the hole.

Yoshida had a cut across his forehead that a medic was trying to

treat. He ignored the medic and gestured to the hole belonging to Kuno and


"How 'bout them?" he asked.

"I think they're all right," Ranma answered.

Yoshida nodded grimly as Kuno and Gosunkugi crawled out of their hole.

Hikaru looked even paler than usual. Kuno seethed in silent fury at the

grief his enemies had heaped upon him. He had a purpling bruise on his


The sergeant turned back to Ranma and Ryoga. "Okuda and Kishiro were

killed during the attack," he said flatly. Both men were corporals in

the platoon. "There are no replacements for them, so the Old Man told me

to find some out of the rest of the platoon. Saotome, Hibiki, you're the

best men I've got right now, so you're both breveted to corporal - effective

immediately. It'll be official once it clears Division, but this is good

enough for now."

Ranma and Ryoga didn't know what to say. Yoshida continued on without


"Your first assignment as the new squad corporals is to see that every

man has enough ammo and grenades for another attack, probably after sundown.

Then you'll meet me in my hole and I'll lay out the new fire lanes for our

position. You'll pass that on to the rest of the platoon. Questions?"

"Another attack?" Ryoga asked.

"Most likely. That was probably a probing action - according to

Battalion. We were lucky to have air support available, that's the only

reason we got off with such light casualties. We can expect another probe

tonight, maybe even a full scale assault, so make sure the men have plenty

of ammo. Enough to fight all night. And get 'em to eat something now while

they can. A little sleep couldn't hurt either, as long as it's in shifts. I

want a man awake in every hole at all times, got it?"

"Hai!" both answered. What else were they going to say?

Yoshida left them to see to Okuda. Two medics had placed what was left

of the man's body in a vinyl plastic bag and zipped him up. Ranma and Ryoga

were both grateful that they didn't have to look at him anymore.

Ranma sank back down into his hole.

Two dead and that's getting off light?

Chapter Five

Night fell, surprisingly cold, and Ranma remembered what someone had

said about how bitter the Korean winters could be. It was early autumn

now, and winter wasn't far away. It was a very dark night, the sky was

overcast and there was only a sliver of a moon that still hadn't risen

- nor would it until almost dawn. It was no wonder they thought the North

Koreans would try again.

To make matters worse, 'A' Company had only two sets of nightvision

gear for the entire unit. These were given to two listening posts situated

about halfway down the hill, and unmanned during the day time. Ranma did

not envy the poor bastards who got to spend four hours down there in the

middle of all that carnage.

Someone in Battalion had decided that it wouldn't be a good idea to

expose men to snipers or give the North Koreans an idea of their strength

by sending troops down the hill to take care of the dead and wounded. Both

were left where they fell, and the last of the wounded was believed to have

expired by sundown, if the lack of agonal cries was any indication. Ranma

wondered if the North Koreans would do the same if their positions were

reversed, and shuddered.

He leaned against the opening of his foxhole and peered down into the

darkness. Yoshida had warned them that there might have been North Koreans

left behind who could still fight, and would wait until night to infiltrate

their positions. His rifle lay against the edge of the hole. If he did

actually see something, he was supposed to throw a hand grenade at it rather

than start shooting. The rationale went that a grenade would be more likely

to kill an infiltrator than a shot in the dark, and that a muzzle flash

from the rifle might draw the attention of snipers.

The trouble with staring out into the darkness was that after awhile,

everything seemed to be moving. Shadows moved, a bush suddenly became a

person crouching, a branch looked like the barrel of a rifle - it was nerve-

wracking. He suddenly had an urge to wake Ryoga, who was sleeping inside

the foxhole, just to talk to him.

His eyes caught a flicker of movement below. He watched carefully as

what was clearly a person began moving up the hill at a crouch. His

instincts screamed at him to throw a grenade, but he held himself in check

until he was sure of his target.

"Sukiyaki," a voice hissed. It was coming from below. Ranma's hand

clenched on the spoon of the grenade as a finger slipped around the loosened

pin. He could see a second figure moving up behind the first.

"Sukiyaki," the voice said again, seeming a little impatient for a

godless communist infiltrator out to slit his throat and dance on his


"Hey Saotome, you awake up there?" the voice hissed in irritation.

"If you are awake, don't blow my ass up, okay?"

It was Hiro Ohata, the squad radioman, Ranma realized.

"Yeah, Saotome, take it easy. It's just us," Daisuke added from behind


"Teppanyaki," Ranma remembered, although it was his job to give the

sign and their job to give the countersign after he challenged them.

Hiro and Daisuke approached close enough to be recognized.

"You weren't asleep, were you, Saotome?" Daisuke asked quietly.

"No, but I was pretty close to dropping a grenade on you. What's with

you, sneaking up on me like that?"

Daisuke shrugged. His boyish face grinned in the dim light. "I know

we're supposed to take the other path up the hill, but it's too damn dark

out, and the thought of walking into the mine field isn't comforting. So we

took the only way we were sure about. Sorry."

"Whatever," Ranma groused.

"We'll go report in now. Have a good one, Saotome."

Hiro and Daisuke continued up the hill to the Company area to report

to the duty NCO.

Ranma let out a loud sigh and settled back into his hole. He had come

about two seconds from blowing one of his high school buddies to tiny bits.

Ryoga slithered up from out of his sleeping bag and blinked sleepily

at him.

"What was that all about?" he asked groggily.

"You mean you heard us?" Ranma replied. He thought Ryoga was sleeping


"I wasn't really sleeping very well," Ryoga supplied.

"Then stay awake and keep me company."

Ryoga cocked his head at Ranma. The thought of Ranma Saotome wanting

his company seemed out of place, even for the middle of a war.

"Sure," he said at length.

"I just need to talk to someone while I keep watch," Ranma said,

turning out to face the darkness of no-man's land once again. "You can go

back to sleep if you want, but I'm going to talk to you as if you were


"That makes absolutely no sense, Ranma," Ryoga yawned. "You are an


Ranma didn't take the bait. "Maybe, but you'll feel the same way after

three hours of this."

"So what do you want to talk about?"

Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. Anything."

There was a long pause.



"We never talked about anything before we came to Korea, so what makes

you think we can come up with something now?"

Ranma thought about this.

"You've got a point, man. Sorry to bother you."

"I'm going back to sleep," Ryoga yawned. "Wake me when it's my turn."

He watched Ryoga settle back down into his section of the hole.

"Good night, Ryoga."

The night passed without incident. Ranma wasn't sure if he was glad

or not. The lack of an attack wasn't inspiring confidence in his superiors'

ability to predict the enemy's intentions. He didn't need Ryoga to jostle

him awake, the cold morning did it for him.

Yoshida dropped two new jackets into their hole, each with corporal's

insignia on the sleeves. The embroidered name strip had been removed from

the breast pockets of both jackets. He left without saying anything.

Ryoga tried on his jacket. It was relatively clean, but that wouldn't

last long. Ryoga didn't quite fit the part of a corporal, but then again,

neither did he, Ranma supposed. He tried on his jacket as well. At least it

was dry and clean.

Shelling began on a nearby hill. It wasn't very intense, just

harrassing and interdiction fire. Ranma found that despite the sound of

the explosions, the fact that they weren't directed at him meant that

they could have been on another continent as far as he was concerned. He

made his way from his hole to the communications trench that led to the

company area, and the latrines for his morning business.

When he returned, he heard Tatewaki Kuno bitching about something

from inside his hole. Ryoga, Hiroshi, and Daisuke were busy cleaning their

rifles in Ranma's and Ryoga's foxhole.

"What's with Kuno?" Ranma asked.

"Kuno didn't take the news of you guys' promotion well, and he's over

in his hole sulking," Hiroshi replied. "He's convinced that a couple of

'churlish cretins' like you two are unworthy of such an honor."

"Is that so?" Ranma replied. He had a mind to go over to Kuno's hole

and straighten the clown out. As he moved to leave, Hikaru Gosunkugi

appeared, rifle in hand, and a camera dangling from his neck. The sight of

Hikaru Gosunkugi toting an automatic weapon was still taking some getting

used to, and they'd been in the JGSDF for over three months.

"Do you guys mind if I join you?" he asked meekly.

"Sure Gos', come on down," Ranma replied. "Kuno bothering you?"

"A little," Hikaru admitted. He lowered himself gingerly into the

foxhole. Ranma noted dribbles of candle wax on the sides of his helmet.

"Congratulations, by the way. Do you mind if I get a photo of you two?"

"Thanks, man," Ranma replied. "It ain't that a big deal, really. I

mean we've only had them for less than a day and Yoshida's already bitched

us out three times."

Hikaru snapped a few photos of the two new corporals, then Ryoga

took a group shot of the four Furinkan alumni. No one felt like getting

Kuno to make their group complete.

"It can't be all bad," Daisuke retorted when Ryoga was finished.

"Think of the extra pay."

"You mean we get paid for this?" Hiroshi asked. Ranma wasn't sure if

he was joking.

"Man, I'd give all the money in the world just to see a pretty girl

in the flesh," Daisuke lamented. "It's been months!"

Hiroshi looked to Ranma. "Do us a favor, Ranma."

"What?" the pig-tailed martial artist spluttered. "There's no way I'm

gonna turn into a girl just so you can gawk at me!"

"Aw come on, Saotome," Daisuke pleaded. "It's an NCO's duty to see to

the morale of his men!"

"No way!" He leaped out of the hole.

Daisuke looked to Hiroshi.

"We had to try," he said.

Hiroshi nodded solemnly. "Indeed we did. Perhaps we can ambush him

later with a full canteen."

"Not in this foxhole you don't!" Ryoga said sternly.

Later that day the shelling of the nearby hill stopped, and with the

respite, someone from the rear area brought mail. The platoon's radioman,

Hiro Ohata, began to distribute it by foxhole.

"Here ya go, Saotome, your usual bundle of letters," he said to Ranma.

Ranma took the bundle of letters from Hiro, who reached into a sack.

"It seems there's a care package for you as well," Hiro said brightly.

"Some guys get all the luck."

Ranma took the package, and Hiro moved on.

The package was from Akane, which was unusual in that Kasumi had sent

all the other ones. A cold lump formed in his stomach, and he shook the

box cautiously.

It rattled, sounding a little like cookies. Now his heart was racing.

He handed the box to Ryoga as if it were full of explosives.

"Here, open it."

"Why me?" Ryoga asked nervously.

"Cause it might be food."

"You lout!" Ryoga snarled. "Just because Akane is still learning to

cook doesn't mean you should insult her like that!"

"Hey, you know as well as I do what her food's like," Ranma retorted.

He pointed out across no-man's land to the distant hills belonging to the

North Koreans. "If we air-dropped some of it over there we'd end the war

within the day!" He paused for a moment in thought. "Of course, they'd

probably retaliate with nukes..."

Ryoga saw his point, but he also wasn't going to let him get away

with insulting Akane.

"All right, Corporal Saotome! I'll open this, but if it's edible,

you don't get one damn bite!"

"Deal!" Ranma chirped.

Ryoga tore open the box with his characteristic ferocity. Sure

enough, there was a tin of home baked cookies inside. Akane had drawn

little animal faces on the cookies with frosting. At least that's what

they thought they were. The faces were a little crude.

"Hey, they smell pretty good!" Ranma cried in excitement. "Maybe

Kasumi did bake them."

"Oh no you don't, Ranma! Remember our deal!" Ryoga shot back, jerking

the box out of Ranma's reach.

"Aw come on, Ryoga! Just one?"

"A deal's a deal!"

"But we haven't tested them yet!" Ranma protested. "How do we know

they're not edible?"

Kuno and Gosunkugi appeared then at the top of the hole. Ranma and

Ryoga had lined the top with sturdy logs, which even if they would never

stop a direct shell hit, did make the place feel a little more secure.

"Are those cookies, or doth mine senses deceive me?" Kuno asked.

"They smell great!" Gosunkugi added.

"Akane made them," Ryoga said, both as answer and warning. Though he

would never malign her cooking in public, he knew all too well how deadly

she could be in the kitchen when she 'experimented.'

"Home baked cookies made from the loving hands of Akane Tendo?" Kuno

cried. He lunged down into the box and grabbed one. "Very well then, I

shall taste what love hath made!"

He bit down on the cookie. Ranma could have sworn he heard the sound

of shattering glass. Tatewaki Kuno began to stare cross-eyed.

"Gee, who would have thought she'd confuse dry cement mix with the

flour? It could happen to anyone I guess," Ranma said casually. It was a

disappointment to be cheated like that, but better for Kuno to discover

the awful truth than himself.

Kuno recovered from his shock to examine the cookie. There weren't

even dent marks from his teeth in the thing.

"Hhhhmmmmm..." he murmured, still studying the cookie. "Perhaps like

fine French wines, they do not travel well..."

Chapter Six

The days seemed to drag in Nerima. Every day found the family

clustered around the television set to watch the news. Ukyo was there,

as were Shampoo, Mousse, and Cologne. The three Chinese had escaped

detention or deportation back to China only because China had refused to

take sides in the war. Happosai smoked his pipe calmly, the only one who

wasn't worried about Ranma or the others.

Nodoka and Kasumi entered with the tea. All were silent as the news

came on. The screen showed images of distant explosions and the sounds

of jets and artillery. The NHK reporter was describing what he saw, which

was followed by a voice-over narration.

"Fighting continues around the outskirts of Seoul today, with heavy

casualties on both sides. UN forces have been pushed back after their

first counter-attack since the beginning of hostilities. Many insiders

report that an uneven flow of supplies due to North Korean submarine

attacks is hampering the defense of the peninsula..."

The screen then shifted to show a foundering merchant ship burning in

the early morning darkness.

"Attacks continue on merchant shipping on the high seas, with the

latest being the attack on the Yuri Maru. The 25,000 ton container ship

was hit by several Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship cruise missiles, fired

from a North Korean Kilo Class submarine. Allied naval forces were able to

sink that submarine, but only after it had sunk Yuri Maru and her vital

cargo of pharmaceuticals and iron ore from Australia. The cost of the

sinking is estimated at 24 billion yen.

"Even worse than the loss of life and property are the delays such

shipping attacks are causing in the region. Inflation has risen nineteen

percent in recent weeks, and the cost of underwriting voyages has

skyrocketed. Ultimately the consumer must pay the price for the higher

cost of goods that travel by sea..."

The screen shifted back to the jagged hills of Korea. Bodies were

being carried out on stretchers. Each was zipped up in a dark plastic

bag. Several shots of wounded Japanese soldiers followed, with each

member of the family and friends cringing in the fear that they would

see someone they knew, perhaps even cared for. Fortune was with them,

and they recognized no one. Others in the neighborhood weren't so

fortunate. There were three Nerima boys so far who weren't coming home


There was little more of note on NHK, and Nabiki switched over to

CNN. She had a hunch that certain details of the war were being censored

by the Japanese government. Hopefully CNN would have no such troubles

reporting the events as they happened, but the UN forces were keeping

the press on a leash. After a rehash of NHK's report, she was vindicated.

Sturm Blitzen appeared, this time on dry land. He was wearing a

camouflage parka because the weather was starting to turn cold in Korea.

"Japanese elements of the UN forces came under heavy attack earlier

today, the ninth straight day of attacks. Analysts believe that the attacks

are an attempt to skirt American and Republic of Korea blocking forces

around Seoul, and drive deep into the center of the peninsula. Thus far

the Japanese troops have held, but losses have been heavy.

"Continued shelling and armored attacks have kept them pinned, and

only the dwindling resources of available air support by the American and

Japanese Air Forces have kept the North from rolling over the beleaguered


"Oh my word!" Kasumi cried. Hers was the most vocal report. The rest

suppressed their worst fears with silence. Nabiki turned the TV off.

Akane stood up and walked out to the koi pond. Ukyo followed her to

offer some kind of support.

"If something happened to the boy, we would have been notified by

now," Soun Tendo said. He wasn't sure who he was trying to convince.

"You're right, Tendo," Genma replied solemnly. He was determined to

help his friend keep the family's spirits up. Ranma hadn't written in

twelve days.

Akane was on the verge of weeping. She'd been able to keep her chin

up for awhile, but the truth was that Ranma's absence was tearing at her

more and more each day. "Why won't the jerk write me?" she asked herself

"All I want to know is that he's all right!"

Ukyo placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"Come on, Akane, we both know Ranma can take care of himself."

Akane turned to Ukyo with a hurt look.

"Then why hasn't he written or tried to send word? He used to write

every few days!"

"Maybe with all the fighting that's been going on the mail's having a

tough time getting out. Heck, he's probably got a whole stack of letters

ready to go for you." She had to admit that she was worried as well, but

someone had to be the strong one and keep quiet about it.

"I hope you're right, Ukyo." She smiled for her sometime rival's


Ukyo took the smile as a good sign. "I know I am, sugar."

Kasumi's voice rang clear and cheerful across the garden. "Akane!

Come quickly! I've got letters from Ranma!"

Akane's face brightened like they hadn't seen in weeks. She was

standing before her eldest sister before another word could be said. The

rest of the family and guests gathered around the two.

"It's dated only three days ago!" Akane said happily, and she tore

open the envelope. The paper within looked like the back of a ration box,

but they were used to that. Ranma's scrawl was plastered over every

available surface.

"Dear Akane," she read aloud, too happy to care if anything personal

was being said. "Sorry I haven't written to you sooner, hope you're not

worried or nothing. As you probably know, things are pretty crazy here,

but I'm all right. So're Ryoga and Kuno and even Gosunkugi. Oh yeah, I

keep forgeting to mention it, but me and Ryoga got promoted to corporal-"

Gasps of happy surprise followed. Genma started bragging until Nodoka

shushed him.

Akane continued, "-but all it really means is we get less sleep than

everyone else 'cause we gotta look after them. Oh yeah, thanks for the

cookies you sent, they've been a real life saver! Miss you. Signed Ranma."

Akane closed her eyes and tried to imagine Ranma's happy surprise at

her box of cookies. Something had finally turned out right! Tears welled

at the corners of her eyes, tears of joy.

Hey Saotome! Supplies didn't get through again! she imagined

someone telling him out there. Ranma looks at the soldier and smiles.

'Don't worry about me, I've got these cookies to see me through!'

The shelling picked up the tempo, coming down like high-explosive

hail. Ranma, Ryoga, Tatewaki, and Hikaru sat in their enlarged hole.

Tatewaki and Hikaru's hole had taken a direct hit while they were in the

rear area picking up ammunition for the platoon, and now the four from

Furinkan shared a hole until it was safe to go out and dig out the old


A particularly nasty shell landed close by, nearly knocking them

silly with the concussion. Several more followed around them. The dirt

was hard packed by now, and only little trickles of it fell from the

logs and sod roof they'd put over the forward half for cover and


"Hey Kuno, shelling's getting heavier. Go put some more of those

cookies on the roof," Ranma said casually. He'd grown used to the constant

thunder, could even sleep through it if it wasn't immediately close by.

"Why must I do it, Saotome?" Tatewaki protested imperiously.

"Because it's your turn this time," Ryoga informed him.

Tatewaki sighed. "Very well, though it seems a sin to despoil the

work of the beauteous Akane Tendo by such coarse and vulgar uses."

"Whatever keeps us from getting killed," Ranma said. "Those things

are harder than stone."

Tatewaki sighed again and dug into the box for a half dozen of the

things. They looked like ordinary sugar cookies, they even smelled

wonderful, but whatever Akane had done to them, they were now like armor

plate. He poked his head up long enough to arrange them with the rest in

as aesthetically pleasing way as time permitted.

As soon as he ducked back into the shelter of the hole, a lucky

shell hit the roof dead on.

The concussion was enormous, stealing the breath from their lungs

and knocking them silly. The only reason they had not been instantly

killed was that something had directed the tremendous force of the blast

up and away from the four soldiers huddled in the light of their tiny camp

stove. When they had recovered their senses, Ranma ventured a look up to

see how their shelter had fared.

As expected, the cookies were undamaged. They weren't scorched. They

weren't even warm.

"If only Akane knew how many times those things saved our necks," he

muttered to himself, then ducked below to wait out the shelling and the

inevitable attack that would follow. This the tenth day of it was really

wearing thin, though they had all hit some weird threshold where they

didn't seem to fatigue any more than they already were. If anything, the

constant shelling had made them indifferent to all the violence around

them; their actions in hobbling the enemy when they attacked were

automatic, like robots.

Akane hugged the letter to her chest, the happiest she'd been in a

long time. She let the others read the rest of the mail, content to sit

on the patio deck and watch the sun set.

Chapter Seven

Ranma felt the cold bite of the wind as he ventured down the hill to

their listening post. Despite his elevated rank as a corporal, Platoon

Sergeant Yoshida had decided that he and Ryoga weren't above drawing

listening post watch. It was probably the worst job you could draw on the

hill, even worse than digging out latrines. At least with latrine duty you

weren't likely to die.

Listening post watch meant that you and one other soldier sat in a

hole well beyond the help of your comrades, and your only duty was to sound

the alert if the hill was attacked by infiltrators -you weren't expected to

live much longer than that. Several men had already died on listening post

watch doing that very same thing in the last week, and now there were holes

to fill in the roster.

Fortunately the moon was waning again, and there was little light to

expose him to snipers as he moved down the charred and pocked slope of the

hill. If he needed to, he could always crouch down and follow the telephone

lines strung from the hole to the Company area on the back side of the

hilltop. He preferred not to, however. Battalion policy continued to dictate

that the North Korean dead stay where they fell, and the thought of touching

the shattered remains of one of the fallen did not sit well with him. The

smell and the flies were sickening enough.

Hiro Ohata was behind him as they trekked down the hill. Yoshida liked

to keep someone experienced with commo protocols in the hole whenever it

was manned, and as a radioman, Hiro ended up pulling a lot of watches. So

far, the North Koreans had chosen to stage their attacks around his watch

time, and as a result, pulling listening post watch with Hiro was considered

good luck.

Ranma hoped Hiro's luck would hold out just one more night.

Daisuke and Hikaru were relieved to see them as they announced

themselves at the rear entrance to the sandbagged emplacement. The circles

under Hikaru's eyes had deepened with stress and fear, and he'd gone back

to his voodoo spells to cope. Ranma could see a straw doll made up like a

North Korean soldier, with Gosunkugi's namesake spike driven through the

chest, pinning it to the sandbag wall.

"Hey guys," Ranma greeted them. "How's it going?"

"Quiet," Daisuke replied. "Just how I like it." Hikaru nodded in


"Yeah, a day off from the shelling is always good," Ranma said. "Any

chance of the rumor that the Koreans are out of supplies being true?"

"We can always hope," Hiro said, settling down with his rifle and

checking the communications line to the company area.

Daisuke picked up his rifle and started for the exit with Hikaru.

"Take it easy, Ranma," he said. "Good luck."

The two soldiers left them in the darkness of the listening post.

"You don't smoke, do you, Saotome?" Hiro asked at length.

"Nope," Ranma replied.

Hiro seemed pleased with this. He gestured to the slit opening that

faced out across the tortured, rubble strewn valley. Camouflage netting

provided some measure of concealment without obstructing their view.

"Good. 'Cause out here smoking'll get you wasted, and I'm not talking

about lung cancer. The NK snipers see the cherry on your smoke, they'll put

a bullet through this opening without breaking a sweat."

Ranma nodded knowingly. He'd heard this lecture in basic.

Hiro arranged several grenades along the opening for ready use. As he

straightened the tips of the priming pins for easy pulling, he continued to


"People say I'm lucky because the Koreans never attack when I'm down

here... It's not luck."

Ranma decided to bite.

"Then what is it?"

"Not doing stupid things like smoking," Hiro replied. "That and a

little healthy paranoia. I won't hesitate to call for illumination rounds

or a little cold steel if I think something weird is going on out there.

Look at the four guys who died already. Fuck-offs, sleepers, every one of

them except Tsurubaru, and he was just unlucky enough to get stuck with an


Ranma felt a bit of anger rising in him at the declaration that some

of their own, men who had died in battle, were anything less than ideal


"That's a pretty heavy thing to say about them, man," he said in a

warning tone.

Hiro checked the batteries on the nightvision rig.

"Am I wrong?" he challenged. "How many times did Nagata get caught

sleeping on guard duty back in boot camp?"

"A lot," Ranma admitted. "But we weren't getting much sleep then,


"We aren't getting much now," Hiro pointed out. "At least back in

basic, sleeping didn't get you and your buddies killed. These Koreans are

sneaky, dangerous bastards. All they need is an opening, and they take it.

Like Fukuyama and Wakida -those two smoked like chimneys. They both got

zapped by snipers, and only then did the Koreans attack. If it wasn't

for them stumbling into the new claymore tripwires we set up, they would

have reached the top of the hill without firing a shot. We'd have all

been knifed in our sleep because of those two."

Ranma didn't reply. As much as it galled him, Hiro had a point.

Hiro placed the nightvision rig on his head and peered out into the


"Look, Saotome. I didn't ask to be here, and I'm sure you didn't

either. But I'm sure as hell not leaving in a body bag. This is your first

time down here. If I have to dig on our dead to get my point across to you,

then I'll do it. I am not going to die in this godsforsaken hellhole,

and I am not going to let you get me killed."

"I ain't gonna get you killed," Ranma said evenly. "So stop giving me

shit about it."

"Fair enough," Hiro said. He offered a hand as he continued to search

the valley for signs of attack. "Friends?"

Ranma looked sidelong at Hiro, but took the man's hand.


They took their turns on the watch in one hour shifts. Any longer than

that, and the stress became too much. The other would rest -but not sleep.

Hiro was pretty adamant on that point, and even if Ranma outranked him, he

was willing to concede to the one guy who had spent so many watches in a

dangerous post and survived.

With nothing to do while Hiro took his next hour on the lookout, he

had nothing but time to think. He hadn't had much of a chance to do any in

the last two weeks. There was too much action, either the night attacks or

the shelling by day, to sit down and let his mind wander.

Akane was easily foremost in his thoughts. He wondered once again if

his old man was right about getting married just before he reported, then

dismissed it. He wasn't ready to get married. Not even to Akane. Not even

if he could at last admit to himself that he loved her.

There was also the possibility that he would die here, perhaps even

that very night, and then Akane would be left a widow at the age of

eighteen. That he could not do to her. Better that they never marry than

for her to go through losing her husband within months of the wedding.

He wasn't entirely certain of her feelings for him, but he was sure that

she cared enough for it to hurt.

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a photograph of her. He

had swiped it from one of Nabiki's albums before he left. The corners were

bent and the print paper a little worn from keeping it on him all the time.

There wasn't much light to see by, so he turned his back to the viewing

slit and used his red-filtered flashlight.

It was a photo of her taken shortly after her impromptu hair cut by

one of Ryoga's bandannas. She was wearing her blue school dress and white

blouse. Her eyes were alight and the corners of her mouth were drawn up

into a smile.

Yeah, she really is cute when she smiles.

He turned off his light and replaced the photograph in his jacket,

unaware of Hiro's grin as the private turned his attention back to the


Ranma and Hiro left the listening post at dawn, and followed one of

the returning 2nd Platoon night patrols from the valley back up the hill.

There had been a brief skirmish in the darkness with a North Korean patrol,

but as far as they could tell, no one on either side had been hit. They

reported in to the Duty NCO, and then went to their respective holes to


The rumble of thunder woke Ranma from a heavy sleep. It wasn't the

sound of artillery, nor was it the sound of jets. He watched as several

drops of rain began to patter outside the hole and groaned. He'd need to

fire up the camp stove or he and Ryoga would be spending the day in their

cursed forms. At least they had the sense to dig themselves a deep drainage

pit for their foxhole.

Ryoga came leaping into the foxhole as the rain started in earnest.

He panted for breath at avoiding his Jusenkyo cursed fate with scant

seconds to spare.

"Way to go, blockhead," Ranma chortled. "You almost became lunch on

the hoof for the cooks."

Ryoga shot him a death look.

"Better that than one of Daisuke's pin-ups." He could see that he had

achieved the desired response from Ranma with this remark. "So, you posed

for him yet?"

"Shut up, pig boy," Ranma groused. "The answer is no, and it ain't


"Says you."

"Oh yeah?"


They stared daggers at each other for a few moments. Then, without

further ado, they both backed down.

"It's too much trouble to beat you up right now," Ryoga sighed. "I'm

too tired to bother."

"As if," Ranma retorted. "But you're right. I'm pretty worn out too.

Not physically tired I mean, just worn out. All the patrols, the night

watches, the shelling, getting attacked in the middle of the night, it's

too much."

The rain continued to fall outside their hole. Little streams trickled

down the hard packed dirt sides and into the drainage pit. The sky seemed

to be weeping, Ranma mused as he watched the rain while Ryoga dozed. It

was the first real rain they had experienced in Korea. He wondered if it

would be raining in Tokyo, whether Akane was watching it as well from her

bedroom window.

"Hey Ryoga, you awake?" he asked.

"I was," Ryoga grumbled. "What is it, Ranma?"

"You still seeing Akari?"

There was a pained silence.

"Um, every now and then," he admitted with a blush. "Why do you ask?"

Ranma didn't answer at first, searching for an approach to his topic

that wouldn't escalate into a brawl.

"Come on," Ryoga pressed. "Why do you even care?"

"Are you and Akari, you know..." Ranma continued. "Um, you know what I


Ryoga was starting to fume. "No, I don't know. Spit it out already, or

let me go back to sleep."

"I was just asking how you and her were getting along," Ranma managed.

"Is this about Akane?"

Ranma winced in surprise. Ryoga wasn't usually keen enough to catch

such subtlety.

"I guess you could say so."

"What have you done to hurt her this time?" Ryoga asked in an acid


"Nothing! Why does it always have to be something I've done to her

with you?"

Ryoga narrowed his eyes at him.

"Isn't that how it usually goes?"

Ranma folded his arms over his chest. "Well not this time," he replied.

"I just wanted your take on something, and you get in my face before I can

even tell you what it is."

Ryoga closed his eyes and rolled onto his side. The rain continued to

patter outside their foxhole. "So spill it already."

Ranma took a deep breath and plunged.

"What if I was to marry Akane when we finally go home?"

He saw Ryoga's pained expression for just an instant as he broached

the question.

"What of it?" Ryoga asked after a beat.

"You wouldn't mind?"

Ryoga swallowed before replying.

"Did I try to stop you the last time?"

"No," Ranma said slowly. "So does that mean you're cool with it?"

"I didn't say that," Ryoga snapped. "The first time I figured it was

something you both had chosen to do. I didn't know it was just another

scheme by your father and Mister Tendo."

"So you aren't cool with it..." Ranma said slowly.

"Are you going to do it?" Ryoga returned.

"I dunno," Ranma admitted.

"What do you mean you don't know?" Ryoga asked harshly. "Have you

even said anything to her yet? It's only been just over a year since it


Ranma shrugged uneasily. "No, I ain't said nothing yet. Gimme a break,

Ryoga, I just thought I'd mention it. Don't make this into a big deal."

Ryoga clenched his hands into fists.

"It IS a big deal..." he growled between clenched teeth. Ranma's body

tensed in anticipation of the brawl he'd hoped to avoid. As Ryoga appeared

to be reaching some sort of inner crescendo, he settled down and rolled

onto his other side, putting his back to Ranma. "I don't want to talk about

it," he muttered. "Just drop it. You never said anything to me, and I never

heard anything, got it?"

Ranma's eyes drifted to the opening of the foxhole, and the water that

trickled down the wall.

"Whatever, man. Whatever."

The afternoon was spent digging out the holes and trenches the rain

had washed out. Ranma and the others were caked with thick red-brown mud

as they worked. After the platoon and company areas were in order, the EOD

guys would make certain that the tripwires connected to the flares and

antipersonnel mines were still in place and concealed. They would need

assistants, and the rumormill had it that the guys Platoon Sergeant

Yoshida caught screwing around during the work detail would be tapped.

Whether the rumor was true or not, no one wanted to find out, and there

were nothing but assholes and elbows to be seen on the hill that day.

"Hey, Saotome," Hiroshi said as they filled sandbags for extra

reinforcing of an observation post on the hilltop. "Any idea when they're

gonna let us go for the day?"

"Why ya askin' me?" Ranma returned as he flipped a shovelfull of soggy

mud into the bag.

"You've got the stripes."

Ranma frowned.

"Does it look like anyone tells me anything? You wanna know so bad,

go ask the sarge." He flipped another shovelfull into the bag. "Me, I don't

feel like goin' out and playing amateur mine-hunter, so I ain't askin' no


Hiroshi tied the sandbag off at the end, and stacked it in place along

the wall facing no-man's land.

"You've gotta point, Saotome," he conceded.

Kuno walked by them, carrying an armload of empty sandbags for the

two of them to fill. Hiroshi sighed tiredly at the sight of them.

"These are the times that try mens' souls," Kuno lamented. "That the

scion of the noble House of Kuno should be reduced to such base labors as


"What are you talking about, Kuno?" Ranma asked acidly. "You've got

one of the sleaziest jobs around! Are your hands even dirty?"

The scion of the noble House of Kuno offered his hands for inspection.

They were in fact slightly dirty.

"Well I'm impressed," Hiroshi remarked.

"Keep up the good work, man," Ranma added. "You're a credit to the

service." He started shoveling again.

Kuno set his hands on his hips haughtily.

"Indeed," he agreed. "It cannot be long before my true value as a

leader of men is recognized, and I shall be given rank as due my station.

Ever shall you continue your toils in the earth, whilst I set forth such

plans as to destroy our cursed foe and bring us hence to Japan as victors."

Ranma burst out laughing.

"Aw come on, Kuno, gimme a break!" he cried.

"Silence, knave!" Kuno retorted.

"Oh yeah? Make me, 'cause I've had enough of your crap, Kuno."

Hiroshi chuckled as well as he sat up on top of the observation post

to get a good view of the inevitable and likely short brawl between Saotome

and Kuno.

"You guys gonna fight or what?" he asked.

Several others in the platoon stopped work to watch the standoff.

Tatewaki Kuno stood imperiously over Ranma, who affected his usual

formless stance when wanting to appear off guard. Neither one made a move.

"Any minute now, the sarge is gonna come by to check on us, so either

get on with it or get back to work," Hiroshi told them. He stood up to

stretch out his sore back.

Ranma turned his head up to Hiroshi to say something, and watched the

young man's head jerk back as a bullet exploded through his throat. A hot

red mist dusted Ranma's face as Hiroshi pitched over the roof of the

observation post and fell face first into the mud. A dull crack echoed

distantly from near the bottom of the hill.

"Hiroshi!" Ranma screamed.

"Medic!" someone else cried. Others hit the ground to keep out of the

sniper's sights. A heavy machine gun position opened up with suppressing

fire against further attacks. The crackle of automatic rifles joined the

din as men came unglued with fury against the hidden sniper.

Ranma lifted Hiroshi's head out of the mud and tried not to scream a

second time. The young man's throat was torn wide open, and blood streamed

in arterial spurts over his muddied chest. Ranma could see the blue-white

bits of spinal fragments, mixed with copper and lead from the bullet,

embedded in the ruined and bloody tissue. As he rolled Hiroshi's head into

his lap, his hand slipped across the wet entry wound high in his friend's

back, between the shoulder blades.

"Hiroshi..." he whispered.

Hiroshi looked at him with glazed, almost dull eyes. A terrible

hissing sound rattled from his ruined throat, and pink froth foamed from

the wound.

"Don't talk," Ranma cried. "You're gonna be okay, man. It's nothing.

It's justa scratch. They're gonna patch you up and send you home, man!"

Hiroshi spasmed in pain once, his eyes suddenly ablaze with fear.

"Where's the goddamned medic!?" someone, maybe Ryoga, screamed. Kuno

looked on in mute horror.

"Come on, please," Ranma pleaded. "Hang on!"

Hiroshi turned his head to face Ranma. He arched his back once more,

slamming his eyes shut in pain, then fell loosely in Ranma's lap. A last

ragged gasp rattled in his shattered throat, and then there was only the

muted thumping of gunfire from the machine gun nest.

Ranma Saotome stared dumbly at his dead friend.

Cpl. Saotome Ranma, JGSDF.

3rd Platoon, 'A' Co., 2nd Bn.,

1st Japanese Expeditionary Div.,

UN Forces - Korea. APO 23011-0111

Dear Akane,

This is the hardest letter I've ever had to write, and you know me,

they've all been hard. Today was the worst day of my life. I can't even

talk about it to anyone, but I have to get this out me before it gets me


Hiroshi was killed today, Akane. A sniper shot him in the back. I was

right there when it happened, and he died in my arms. There was nothing

anyone could do for him, and I keep telling myself that at least it was

quick. I never knew him all that well, even though we always hung out

together at school. I started to get to know him better while were here,

but now he's gone, and I'll never get another chance.

I hate this place, Akane. I hate it more than anything I've ever hated

in my life. I hate it. I hate the North Koreans. I wish they would all

just die.

I'm sorry if this wasn't what you were expecting in a letter from me.

I just had to tell someone how I feel right now, because I want to march

down the hill and do something really stupid. I don't want anyone else I

know to die, and I can't think of any way to keep that from happening. It

hurts knowing how weak and helpless I am.

I'm sorry.


Akane folded the letter slowly into the muddied envelope, and set it

down on her desk. Her new roommate, Yumiko, was out studying at the library,

leaving her alone in the tiny flat they had rented for their first semester

of college. She turned off her desk light, hugged her arms to her chest,

and began to cry.

Chapter Eight

A mortar shell burst overhead, ripping a circular swath of mud out of

the hill and showering them with it.

"Third Platoon form a skirmish line on the ridgeline!"

Ranma looked to Sergeant Yoshida, who circled his hand to get the

platoon on their feet. Ryoga grunted something which was lost over the roar

of two Marine AV-8B Harriers as they crested the blackened hill to their

backs. Rockets spurted from underwing pods with great poffs, and screamed

overhead with fountains of orange sparks to explode at the base of their


The radio crackled with many hurried voices nearby as Hiro tried

reestablishing communications with Division. The entire Main Line of

Resistance was being thrown back by the North Koreans, and they were about

to evacuate their positions or be encircled and destroyed.

"On your feet!" Yoshida growled. He was the acting platoon leader

after their lieutenant fell to a mortar round.

The platoon crawled out of shell craters and from under an overturned

Humvee. 120mm mortar bombs fell as hard as rain around them, killing one

of the machine gun teams in the support squad with a flash of light and a

deafening boooom. Fresh clods of mud and blinding sprays of murky water

erupted around them. Ranma watched in disbelief as Ryoga crawled out to

recover the weapon and ammunition; the team was beyond help. An explosion

drove him down into the mud with a curse a moment later.

As he picked himself up out of the cold mud, Ranma heard the Old Man,

their not so old Company Commander, yell over the din.

"First Platoon falls back to the next ridge, Second follows at two-

hundred meters, Third and the Support Squad pull rearguard and fall back

on orange smoke!" His orders were passed along with hoarse screams as the

artillery picked up the tempo even further.

"You got that, people?" Yoshida barked over the din. "We move on orange

smoke. Stick around, and you'll get killed by your own artillery." Ranma and

the others shot back replies as Hiro gave him a thumbs up to signify that

radio contact was reestablished.

Ranma looked to Ryoga, who nodded grimly. They would have to hold

the hill long enough for the rest of the company to withdraw. Their own

withdrawal would be supported by massive airstrikes and an artillery

barrage that will fall on their own positions.

"First Platoon, move out!" the Captain yelled.

Ranma watched them file out of their holes and start over the other

side of the hill at a trot. The Captain joined up with the Second Platoon

as they prepared to disengage. Another volley of rockets from the Harriers

raced overhead with earsplitting screams.

The barrage continued to drop all around them. A kid Ranma barely knew

was lifted into the air with another explosion. Only at apogee did he

realize that the kid was dismembered in the blast, and his arms and head

continued on while his ragged body spiraled down the muddy hill in pursuit

of First Platoon.

"Get up behind these rocks!" Yoshida barked, pointing a finger.

Ranma leaped up into the open, weaving and dodging the explosions. He

ran for the jagged outcropping of white granite that would at least shield

them from the advancing North Koreans' bullets. As for the mortar rounds

howling in on them with increasing accuracy, he would have to wait and see.

He threw himself over the rocks, panting hard as his heartbeat

thundered in his ears. Looking back, he saw that the others were following

his lead and doing the same. Ryoga, Kuno, Daisuke, Gosunkugi, and Hiro

tumbled over the rocks close by, followed by Sergeant Yoshida and the rest

of the platoon. The new position was slightly better, with an overhang of

rock that would keep a direct hit from them if they crouched beneath it.

He continued panting for breath as he waited for the attack to

commence. The Koreans would be advancing behind an almost curtainlike

wave of artillery, so by the time the barrage let up, they would be on top

of them. It would be his first close-quarters battle since he came to Korea.

The respite would give him enough time to check his ammunition and supplies.

He had little of either.

From the valley behind him came a great wall of fire and smoke. An

instant later the ripping noise of North Korean MiG engines assaulted their

ears. Hiro, who was in contact with First Platoon, suddenly clutched at his

headset in pain.

What he heard was the horrible squawk of static as the radio on the

other end was engulfed in napalm.

First Platoon had just been incinerated to the man.

With a scream of rage, one of the support squaddies at the end of

the skirmish line lofted a shoulder-launched SAM at the fleeing MiGs, but

the Stinger had no lock, and corkscrewed out of sight. The jets escaped to

the north unscathed.

"Hang tough, Third Platoon," Yoshida told them, trying to keep them

focused on the task at hand and not on the slaughter of their buddies. "We

have to buy some time, but when the orange smoke comes in, I want you to

beeline it down the hill. First we get the hell out, then we regroup by


"Assuming we don't get bombed at the bottom of the hill," Daisuke


"Don't say that," Gosunkugi whimpered.

"It's looking pretty bad," Ryoga admitted grimly. He clutched the

light machine gun a little tighter in his grasp.

"I ain't goin' out like this," Ranma shot back. "They want a piece of

me, they're gonna have to come and get it."

Tatewaki Kuno nodded assent, and drew his katana. His rifle was slung

on his back, and would likely remain there until the battle was done or

his life ended. "If ever the foe shouldst find vigor enough in their timid

hearts to do battle without their cursed artillery, the Blue Thunder shall

stand on this spot to face them."

There was nothing else to be said. Each man peered over the rocks to

look out over the smoke shrouded valley. They could make out the dark forms

of armored vehicles moving along the narrow bombed out roadway towards a

pass between their hill and the one their brother company was evacuating.

He knew that teams of soldiers toting Dragon antitank missiles waited in

the rocks at the top of the pass to try and halt the advance of the armored

column, but he saw it as nothing but a futile suicide mission for them. It

was probably only slightly more futile and suicidal than their own holding


The artillery barrage stopped abruptly.

"Heads up, people!" a corporal from one of the other squads cried.

"Movement straight ahead; at the bottom of the hill, two hundred meters."

They zeroed in on the enemy and began firing. Chinese-made AK-47

knockoffs returned fire. Bullets zipped overhead and spanged off the rocks.

Clods of mud flew into the air and in their faces. Rocket propelled grenades

zoomed up the hill with whoooshes and terminated their flights with

thunderclap explosions to the left and right of Ranma and his buddies,

killing several in the other squads and tearing huge holes in their rock


"RPGs!" someone warned a little late. Ryoga snarled and began hosing

suppression fire down the thin smoke trail paths of the rockets with the

machine gun.

Another volley of RPGs followed, screaming through the air straight

at them. Ranma ducked low under the rocks as the first one hit. The hard

granite rock was shattered over his head, pelting against his helmet and

the kevlar body armor that covered his back. Choking black smoke filled

his nose and throat, and he fell away stunned and coughing from the blast.

Someone fell over him a moment later, shrieking in agony. He rolled

over the top of Ranma and slid several meters down the muddy hill before

popping up to his knees. His hands clawed at his face as he shrieked, and

blood streamed down his ragged muddy arms.

It was Daisuke.

"Medic!" Ranma cried hoarsely. He stumbled down the hill after Daisuke,

who began thrashing around in the mud as he screamed. He caught him up in

his arms and held him tight, trying to calm him enough for a medic to

treat him.

"MY EYES!" Daisuke screamed. Ranma could see the shards of rock that

stuck out of his face and forehead. An ear was sheared off and the wound

bled heavily.

"Medic!" he screamed again. He was oblivious to the firing along the

ridge, of the screams of the other wounded and dying. He couldn't hear Hiro

screaming at a distant firebase over the radio that didn't have the correct

authentication codes for the fire mission, and refused to accept his urgent


Daisuke continued to scream about his eyes as a medic slogged through

the mud towards him.

"Hold him down!" the medic barked.

"I'm tryin', goddammit!" Ranma shot back. "Come on, Daisuke, it's gonna

be all right!"

Daisuke continued to thrash in panic.

"Hold him!" the medic protested again.

"Fuck you!" Ranma screamed. He jerked Daisuke's arms away from his

face roughly. There were bloody sockets where his eyes should have been.

It wasn't that his eyes were jammed shut and bleeding, but that they

weren't even there.

The medic shot him up with morphine without a second thought, and as

Ranma held a large bandage over the gaping holes in Daisuke's face, began

wrapping his head in gauze. The morphine began taking effect as the medic

penned a letter "M" and the time on Daisuke's forehead, and clipped the

used syringe to the man's jacket.

"Get him out of here," the medic told him.

"What about you?" Ranma asked.

The medic was already slogging through the mud to the next casualty,

and only then did Ranma remember that there were other people fighting and

dying around him. The Koreans seemed to have an inexhaustable supply of

rocket propelled grenades, and to expose oneself on the ridge line to

shoot back was suicide.

"Where's the fucking smoke?!" Yoshida yelled over the din to Hiro.

"They won't send it!" Hiro screamed in reply. "Our codes don't match


Yoshida shook his head and cursed.

"Third Platoon, fall back!" he ordered. "Ohata, keep trying with

the fire base."

Ranma picked Daisuke up into a fireman's carry and began chugging

down the charred hillside. Below and beyond there was only black smoke and

pillars of flame from the burning napalm and the trees it was consuming,

and they would have to cross it to reach the relative safety of the next

ridge line. He didn't even know if it would be possible.

Bullets fountained geysers of muddy water around him as he ran down

the hill. The North Koreans had crested the ridge several dozen meters to

the east of Third Platoon's position, and now hosed rifle fire down upon

the fleeing troops. Fierce answering fire from the last squad to retreat

cut down the Koreans within seconds, and they whooped in exultation at

finally having an enemy they could kill within easy reach.

Ryoga came running down the hill, dragging Kuno with him. Hikaru

Gosunkugi had Ryoga's arm, keeping him running in the right direction.

Even with the added burden, they caught up to Ranma easily. Hiro and

Yoshida followed only meters behind them.

"Release me at once, Hibiki!" Kuno railed as he was dragged by the

collar down the hill and through the mud.

"You'll get your chance to die soon enough!" Ryoga exclaimed. He saw

the bandages that wrapped Daisuke's head and squinted back tears. Ranma

gave him a similar look as they began stretching out their legs on the

lessening slope. The black haze of smoke and the strong smell of gasoline

from the napalm assailed their eyes, noses, and throats.

It was like walking into a vision of Hell. Sizzling pools of rainwater

threw off noxious clouds of steam and smoke. Glowing globs of napalm burned

cheerfully along the ground. The charred remains of their comrades smoldered

at their feet. There were no survivors among First Platoon, and only muddy

tracks through the carnage told them that Second Platoon was still alive

somewhere ahead. Behind them, North Korean mortar platoons began setting

up on the hill they had just fled, and prepared to shell them as they scaled

the far ridge to safety.

They reached a paved road, now pocked with shell craters and filled

with burning wrecks of Humvees and six-ton trucks. The air was blisteringly

hot and their legs ached, but the crackle of rifle fire and the howl of

mortar shells drove Third Platoon on. Yoshida told them to follow the road,

as it was the only way they could keep their bearings through the fire and


They ran on, almost blindly, until the slope began to change, and

they were climbing the next line of hills. Their pace slowed, and Yoshida

called for the platoon to regroup by squads. They straggled together in the

shelter of a wooded knoll, probably the only group of trees in the valley

to have survived the firestorm. Of the thirty-six members of the platoon,

there were perhaps twenty who could fight. A dozen were left dead on the

hill, and there were three other wounded, in addition to Daisuke, who

couldn't move under their own power.

"I'm through to Division," Hiro panted. "They're gonna chew on some

fire base ass and get us some support."

"We're going to need it," Yoshida replied. "They're going to kill us

with mortar fire when we continue up this slope and into the open."

Ranma shifted Daisuke's weight over his shoulders.

"Some people can't wait that long," he said.

"They might have a hard time zeroing in on just a few people at once,"

Yoshida mused. He looked to the other men who carried or otherwise assisted

their seriously wounded. "All of you start up the hill. Saotome, you're in

charge. Move it. The rest of you take up defensive positions and wait for

the artillery support."

Ranma didn't need to be told twice. He began chugging up the hill

slope at a rapid pace. Daisuke moaned over his shoulder as he moved, letting

him know that his friend was still alive. The others followed after as

swiftly as they were able.

A mortar shell howled overhead, dropping sixty meters long. Ranma

changed course, climbing the hill at an angle to make it harder for the

North Korean mortar teams to zero him. Another mortar round dropped closer,

forty meters long and to his left. He zagged, taking him away from the

smoking crater above him.

His lungs were burning as he humped the last hundred meters up the

hill. He could see men from Second Platoon at the hilltop firing across

the valley to suppress the mortars. They called out to him and the others,

encouraging them on.

He reached the hilltop and fell exhausted into the arms of the Second

Platoon sergeant. A medic pulled Daisuke off his shoulders and onto a

waiting stretcher. He could hear several Humvees driving up the back slope

on a service road to take the wounded away. As he crouched on all fours

sucking desperately for air, he watched them take Daisuke away.

"All outta my hands," he gasped. "I did what I could..."

A soldier pushed a canteen into his hand, and he swigged a mouthful of

water before spitting it out. More Third Platoon wounded came up the hill

and were taken away in turn. As he pulled off his helmet, he heard the

Lieutenant for Second Platoon demanding artillery fire or close air support.

Ranma looked back out across the valley and saw the tanks rumbling

in the distance. The Dragon teams had killed a few of them, he could see by

the long fingers of black smoke that stretched into the distant sky, but

without the artillery barrage and the subsequent retreat of the company, it

was obvious that they had been attacked from behind by the advancing North

Korean infantry, and wiped out. Hatred burned within him, and he set his

helmet back into place. He handed the canteen back to the soldier, and

started running back down the hill to rejoin Third Platoon.

"Where the hell are you going?" the man called after him. "They're

pulling us out of here any minute now!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Yoshida asked as Ranma came sprinting

down the hill and into the shelter of the knoll.

"I ain't leavin' no one behind," he gasped.

Yoshida shook his head slowly and turned back to Hiro.

"Anything yet?"

Hiro nodded his head. "I'm talking to them now," he replied. "Almighty,

Almighty: this is Alpha-Three Actual, request fire mission, over." He

began calling out coordinates from a dirty and torn laminated map.

"Hurry it up," Ryoga called to them from a tree-top. "I can see tanks

coming down the road towards us."

"Copy that, Almighty," Hiro gushed with relief. "Request Hotel Echo

and Whiskey Papa, and give us all you've got!"

Yoshida whistled for attention. "Everyone up the hill, move it."

The sudden crackle of rifle fire interrupted the retreat.

"To the right!" someone cried. "Enemy to the right, fifty meters!"

They began shooting back. Ranma's hatred swelled within him, but his

aim went low nonetheless. A quick burst cut into a Korean's legs and sent

him tumbling head over heels into a tree. Ryoga's machine gun halted their

advance as the Koreans dove for cover from the thunderous weapon.

Kuno brandished his sword and stood in the open, goading the Koreans

to shoot him. Bullets exploded around him, but he was in a state of grace,

and stood unfazed by the attacks. Ranma and the others couldn't believe

their eyes, yet still Kuno was unharmed, and better still, drawing the

enemy's fire away from them.

"Face me in single combat, heathens!" he continued to bellow at them.

"Is there none of you with the mettle to treat with me steel on steel?!"

"Shot out!" Hiro cried. The ripping sound of a shell hurtling through

the air over their heads was followed by the distant thud of a howitzer to

their backs.

The shell exploded on the road close to an advancing armored car. A

great puff of orange smoke burst from the impact point.

"Beautiful!" Hiro gushed over the radio as the firefight continued

around him. "Repeat that!"

Another shell screamed overhead to land in the middle of the advancing

column with a blast of smoke and shrapnel. The tanks began to scatter off

the road and fired their smoke canisters to screen themselves from


"FIRE FOR EFFECT!!!" Hiro howled over the radio.

"Third Platoon, fall back by squads!" Yoshida ordered.

Ranma and the others fired their last rounds from their weapons into

the cowed North Korean positions as a massive artillery barrage began

pounding the armored column in the valley. Huge starbursts of white

phosphorus rained down in brilliant fingers, their glowing fragments

glittering against the black smoke of the napalm, destroyed tanks, and

the exploding HE shells.

"All of you, pull back," Yoshida ordered.

Hikaru Gosunkugi spun around in that instant with a gaping hole through

his shoulder. The rifle bullet had exploded clean through his shoulder blade.

Hiro ran towards him - before catching a bullet in the chest. He was thrown

to the ground with a cry, and the radio flew from his shoulder to shatter

against a tree trunk.

"Gos! Hiro!" Ranma called to them. Hiro rolled over onto his back and

screamed in pain. Gosunkugi twitched in a fetal ball. His body armor was

begining to soak through with blood. Ranma could see that the look in his

eyes was one of fear more than pain.

Ryoga saw this as well, and he threw down his depleted machine gun

as the North Koreans found their courage and advanced from their positions.

He thrust his hands out in front of himself as tears welled at the corners

of his clenched shut eyes.


A blazing golden fireball erupted from his hands and screamed across

the short wooded span between himself and his enemy. The ki blast exploded

into their ranks, sending them flying into unconscious piles of broken

bodies. The sonic boom of the blast drove the rest to the ground in awe.

Ranma followed up with his own ki blast, one driven from the very

depths of his own fear and anguish.


The second ki-blast exploded into the woods, knocking down trees and

felling still more of the enemy. The Korean soldiers began screaming in

panic and rout back down into the artillery barrage in the valley. An

answering artillery barrage began to pound the base of the hill even as

the Koreans broke, and Ranma knew that this hill was lost as surely as the

other one.

Kuno and Ryoga grabbed up the dazed and listless Gosunkugi, and he and

Yoshida hauled at the screaming Hiro. Ranma found himself at the limits of

his endurance as he traversed the slope of the hill for the third time in

minutes. As they reached the top, the last of the soldiers and wounded

were being loaded into trucks for the evacuation.

He watched Gosunkugi and Hiro being swept into the very last ambulance

truck by the medics. Then he and the others of Third Platoon clambored into

Humvees and started down the hill. North Korean artillery began to walk

up the hill as the vehicles started down.

His last thoughts before he collapsed into exhaustion were that they

were driving a very long way from his home of the last two months, and the

North Koreans were following up behind them to seize everything they had

left behind. They were losing the war.

Chapter Nine

Ranma and the survivors of 'A' Company were stuck on their new hill,

dubbed 1127 on their maps. 1127 of course was the hill's height in meters.

They weren't going home anytime soon. They had already spent nine days on

hill 1127, just holding their own.

He loaded up the UN Humvee with the platoon's ammunition allowance,

which he had been tasked to draw by Sergeant Yoshida. He was also in charge

of four new guys, fresh from boot camp. It still amazed him to think that

he had been one of them less than two months ago. Now he was a combat

veteran, a corporal, and soon to be decorated for valor. He could tell that

they were looking at him more in awe than respect, and it bugged the hell

out him. The winding road back up the hill to the company area seemed to

take forever.

He dropped them off with the ammunition and reported in to Sergeant

Yoshida. Yoshida took his report with the same silent ease that Ranma

had grown accustomed to. Then he went back to his new hole.

They weren't able to salvage any of the cookies when they bugged out

of their first hill. He only hoped that some of the bastards had eaten

them (or tried to.) His feelings for the North Koreans and this stupid

war had permanently changed, and although he still couldn't bring himself

to actually shoot to kill, he felt no sympathy for them. Quite the opposite,

he wished them all dead every waking moment. He'd lost too many comrades

already. He wondered if he'd ever really be the same as he was before the

summer started, and knew at once that he wouldn't. This place had changed

him, and not in all respects for the better.

He dropped down into the hole to check on Ryoga, who wasn't there.

Now that he thought about it, his pack wasn't there either. The place

looked much the same as it had when he left for the Divisional area that

morning, only Ryoga was gone. It was odd considering that Ryoga had drawn

the midnight listening post watch out on the perimeter. He was dead tired

asleep when Ranma left.

Ranma asked around. No one had seen Ryoga. He began to worry.

That numbskull can't find his way through a pass-in-review much less

navigate through this camp. He's probably lost. With his luck he'll stumble

through a minefield!

It suddenly struck him as quite odd that he even cared at all for the

jerk. All he'd ever done was try to make his life a living hell. When had

things changed?

He ran into Sergeant Yoshida as he wandered.

"What is it, Saotome?" The sergeant had the talent of knowing people's

minds before they did.

"Um, 'scuse me Sergeant Yoshida, but have you seen Corporal Hibiki?"

Yoshida nodded. "Hibiki's out leading a patrol in no-man's land. You

were down in Division, so I sent him instead."

Ranma nearly exploded. "WHAT?!! You sent Ryoga Hibiki out to lead

people through no-man's land?!! Are you crazy?!"

"Saotome! You raise your voice to me again and I'll bust you back to

buck private on minesweeping detail!"

"You don't understand, sarge! Ryoga Hibiki has the worst sense of

direction in the universe! You know that! He gets lost on the way to the

latrine! Now he's out in the middle of hostile territory and he's probably


Yoshida suddenly realized his own mistake, but remained calm.

"Stand down, Corporal Saotome. I understand your concern for your

friend. We'll see about establishing radio contact. Now see that the rest

of your squad gets their ammunition."

"Yes, sergeant."

Ranma did as he was ordered, knowing that no matter what, Ryoga was


Corporal Ryoga Hibiki had the latest navigational aids available to

the modern soldier. He had hyperacurate satellite topography maps. He had

both a magnetic and inertial compass. He even had a portable Global

Positioning System receiver linked to the cluster of GPS satellites high

in orbit.

None of it mattered, because Ranma was right. Ryoga was lost.

"What do you mean you don't know where we are?!" Kuno bellowed.

Two of the squaddies silenced him. They'd had the feeling that a North

Korean patrol were ghosting them.

Ryoga checked the map again and tried to match up features on it

to the landmarks he could see. He was not encouraged by the results of his


"I mean I'm not sure where we are," he admitted. "Everything on this

stupid map looks the same."

"Damn your eyes, man! Use your GPS!" Kuno cried.

Ryoga shrugged.


Kuno facefaulted. The trouble was that no one else knew how to use the

thing either. Ryoga tapped at the buttons for awhile. At last some numbers

scrolled across the little LCD screen.


The squad of five clustered around the little display.

"Great," a private named Kenjiro said. "Now what's it mean?"

"Uh, beats me..." Ryoga said sheepishly. "They cut that part out of

basic training, remember?"

Ranma had waited about as long as he was going to wait. Ryoga and the

others hadn't shown up. Radio communications in the FM bands were shaky

to begin with due to the hilly terrain, but the constant warble of jamming

systems killed any hopes of contact.

"I'm goin' out after them," he said to Yoshida.

The platoon sergeant raised an eyebrow.

"And add your name to the lists of the dead?"

Ranma stared back defiantly. "I ain't plannin' on dyin'."

Yoshida scowled.

"Are ya gonna let me go, or do I have to leave without your permission?"

Ranma's eyes blazed. Yoshida knew Saotome was deadly serious, and he

considered his options.

"I know nothing of this..." Yoshida said at last. Then he walked


Ranma nodded grimly. He was on his own. Yoshida would neither give

his assent nor try and stop him. That was good enough.

It was pitch dark with no moon in the sky when he left. The North

Korean positions weren't fixed with any great precision, so he had no idea

how far he could go before he ran into trouble. That didn't bother him.

What bothered him was how he was going to find Ryoga and his squad.

He was traveling light to move faster. He had traded his rifle for

an American made M-727, which was a shorter carbine version of the M-16A2.

It was smaller and lighter and a little more handy than his trusty rifle.

He only carried four magazines for it, plus a few smoke grenades. He

carried no food and only two canteens of water. If he didn't find them

within a day, chances were they were already dead or captured.

He started down the hill, checking in with the listening post on the

perimeter to make sure he knew the password to get back through the lines.

No-man's land was another valley between ranges of hills, this one was more

narrow than the one he'd first come to hate. There were abundant trees, as

they had pulled back to a more defensible position faster than the North

Koreans advanced. The enemy had been heavily bombed over the next range

though, and very little remained standing.

Ryoga was supposed to turn inland, away from the sea for his patrol.

It was a safe bet then that the knucklehead had turned out towards the

coast and the Sea of Japan. He started heading towards the east, and the

sea. He made seventeen kilometers in four hours, running as fast as he

dared through the dense woods. The feeling that the Koreans also had

scouting patrols out in no-man's land was very strong in his gut.

Around midnight he stumbled across a yellow and black headband. It

was a standard Ryoga method of finding his way, although it never worked.

It did give him hope that he would find them soon.

He continued on through the night, stopping only to change the

batteries on the set of nightvision gear he had swiped from Battalion

supply. Several times in the night he got the feeling that he was being

stalked, though the ghosty green images through his goggles were sometimes

hard to read on the move. If they were out there, they were good hunters,

and stayed out of sight.

He considered ambushing them, and decided that he didn't have time

to try and draw them out. It was also extremely risky, as it would be just

himself against who knew how many enemies. Better to find Ryoga and the

others, and get back to the hill ASAFP.

"Are you sure we haven't been this way before?" Kenjiro asked.

"Positive," Ryoga replied. Or am I? How can I possibly get lost?! I

had everything! A map, two compasses, even that stupid GPS thing. Why did

they even give it to me? Why is this happening to me? Why? Why? Why?

"Methinks Private Kenjiro is correct, Hibiki," Kuno said. "We have

been wandering aimlessly through these hinterlands all night!"

"Shut up!" Ryoga barked.

Ranma found another bandanna at about three in the morning, then a

third an hour later. A fourth was found thirty minutes after that. And

shortly thereafter, a fifth.

Yep, no doubt about it, he thought grimly. The jerk's circling.

It'll be any time now.

He followed the least likely path Ryoga would take, and was rewarded

with a trail of broken and trampled foliage. He knew he was close. He had

the feeling that his stalkers were close as well. He'd been pretending not

to notice them all night, but his hackles were up and just getting worse.

He hoped they'd have some give away before they attacked, and he hoped

even more that they were after prisoners, and would try to take him


They want me alive, he thought darkly. 'Cause they coulda shot

me a long time ago. I just hope I can get them all before they change their


"Come on, Hibiki, let's just try the radio again," Kenjiro said. He

was getting spooked, and it was contagious.

Ryoga nodded tiredly. He unslung the radio and tried to tune it in.

They were rewarded with static, some faint signals in English, and more

of that incessant warbling on their own command channels.

"The stupid thing doesn't work," he said bitterly.

"We can see that, Philistine," Kuno growled.

"I've had about enough of you!" Ryoga yelled, flexing his fingers

into fists.

Kuno raised an eyebrow. "Oh really, cretin?"

Ryoga grit his teeth.

"That tears it!"

Ranma knew that voice anywhere.

That stupid jerk's gonna wake up the whole damn North Korean


He ran on, knowing his stalkers had heard as well.

Ryoga and Kuno squared off to fight. Neither one noticed as Ranma

leaped into the air, kicking both of them to the ground. Kenjiro panicked,

and nearly blew Ranma's head off with a burst from his rifle. Ranma spun

around and snap kicked the weapon from the private's hands.

"Aw knock it off, you idiots!" he yelled.

Ryoga cursed at him. "You shouldn't have stopped us! He's had this

coming for months!"

"Look, you idiot, maybe you haven't noticed, but we're being


"Maybe I did notice!" Ryoga shot back. "Maybe I just don't care

anymore. If they were so dangerous, why didn't they attack? Huh?"


The shooting started.

Kenjiro took a burst across the chest and went down, but not before

he pointed to the direction of the shots with his dying efforts.

Nomura actually dropped into a firing stance and started shooting

back before he took a bullet in the side of the head. Whoever they were,

Ranma realized, they were attacking from at least two directions.

Kuno jumped to his feet and leaped into the fray with his sword drawn.

In the dense woods their attackers were very close, and their muzzle

flashes gave them away to the swordsman. He hacked at one of them with a

shout, and the man spun around in a spray of blood. As he fell, Ranma

noted that he was wearing blackout-style camouflage. Kuno wasted no time

in idle prattle for once, leaping again into the fray.

Ryoga rushed to Hideo's side as the private fell with a bullet in the

knee. His own rifle barked out two 3-round bursts, taking one of their

attackers across the groin. Hideo was thrashing in pain, his screams

shrill and loud enough to drown out all but the gunfire.

Ranma fired wildly into the darkness, having no targets he could

reach without hitting Kuno. They needed a way to withdraw, so he popped

two smoke grenades and lobbed them in the directions of incoming fire.

The grenades went off with loud pops, and billowing clouds of blue

smoke erupted in the trees.

"Follow me!" he cried, spinning around to collect Ryoga and Hideo. As

he did, he heard the single crack of a pistol from the darkness. Tatewaki

Kuno was sent flying backwards with a surprised grunt. He landed amidst the

four he'd managed to kill with his sword, and was still. Ranma could just

make out the expanding wetness at Kuno's belly.

He looked up in time to see the dull cylindrical object tumbling

towards them.

Ryoga's in the way! he cried in his mind. His voice failed him.

The grenade exploded an instant later.

There was heat and pain, followed by silence.

Chapter Ten

Soun Tendo had known great sorrow before this day. The death of his

beloved wife had been the hardest blow he'd ever suffered. That was until

today, when he had to tell his daughter that her fiancee was Missing In

Action, and presumed dead.

The word had come via an officer of the Self Defense Forces. The

officer had been the epitome of politeness and tact, but his message was

a blow none the easier to take for it. The officer bowed formally when he

was finished, and left the dojo.

Once the officer had left, and only then, did the tears flow from his

eyes. Kasumi saw him then, and at once she knew the cause for his sorrow.

Her hand went to her cheek, but no words came. She let a sob escape her

lips, soft and delicate, before she fled for the kitchen.

Nabiki was in the family room, reading a magazine. Akane was home for

the weekend, her college being only an hour's train ride from home. She

was attempting to knit something, perhaps a sweater, although no one was

entirely sure. Neither of his daughters noticed his silent entry into the


Genma and Nodoka did. They also saw the look on Soun Tendo's face.

"What is it, Tendo?" Genma asked. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"S-Saotome..." Soun began. Akane and Nabiki looked up now at their

father. "Saotome... An officer from the Self Defense Forces was just


"What is it, Dad?" Akane cried. There was terror in her voice.

Soun closed his eyes.

"It's Ranma..."

"No! He can't be!" Akane cried. "He promised me!"

Soun could barely say the words. "He has been declared missing in

action..." He couldn't bring himself to add the words 'presumed dead.'

It was too much now to see his daughter this way.

"He isn't dead!" Akane yelled. "I know he isn't! He promised me, and

he always keeps his promises!"

She ran upstairs to her room.

"Aw man, I feel like I'm dead..."

It was a stupid thing to say. Since when do the dead feel anything?

By saying it though, he knew he wasn't. He wished he was for just a moment.

At least then he wouldn't hurt anymore. He hurt bad.

He tried to sit up. Slowly and reluctantly his muscles responded. It

was daylight out. Maybe it was the morning. It felt like morning. He was


He was also alive. He knew that much. He hadn't been captured. Where

was everyone else?


They must have been. He'd seen Kuno go down with a bullet in his

belly. Ryoga wasn't more than four meters away when the grenade went off.

The other guys had all gone down before then.

He looked around. There were bodies strewn everywhere. Several trees

bled sap slowly from bullet and shrapnel wounds. Five of the bodies were

Japanese. Ryoga was one of them.

He crawled over to him, feeling his muscles cramp and knot with cold

and pain. Ryoga's form was still, no wait, he was breathing! He could see

the shrapnel wounds in his legs and arm. There wasn't much blood, which he

hoped was a good sign.

"Hey, Ryoga..." he whispered. "Ryoga, wake up."

Ryoga stirred as Ranma shook him gently. The man who was sometime

friend and sometime enemy bolted upright with a guttural moan. There was

madness in his eyes. He had his knife in his hand, and he raised it to


"Ryoga, no! It's me, Ranma!"

Ryoga seemed to come to his senses.


"Come on, Ryoga, take it easy..."

Ryoga shook his head to clear the cobwebs.


Ranma went to ease him back to the ground. "Just lay here for a

minute, I'm gonna check on the others."

Ryoga lay back down on the ground. He didn't seem to be in too much

pain, although he was probably in shock.

Ranma crawled over the wet grass to check the others. Nomura was dead.

Very dead in fact, he was missing most of his head. Kenjiro looked liked

he'd bled out every drop of life in his body. The ground was soaked with

it, now jellied and sticky. Hideo he'd seen was dead as well, the grenade

had flung a piece of shrapnel into his throat, and his chest and arms were

now shredded by the bits of steel wire.

That left Tatewaki Kuno. He wasn't a friend, but he was another

person that Ranma knew.

He crawled painfully along the ground, afraid to stand up. The

Koreans had good snipers, Hiroshi had learned that the hard way in the

last two months. He did not want to be a standing target in broad

daylight, woods or no woods for cover.

Kuno lay there white and still. He'd been gut shot, and Ranma could

see where powder burns had stained his fatigues along with the blood. It

had been close range. Still, Kuno had sent four of them to hell first,

which was the lions's share of the enemy.

I can't believe Kuno's dead! he thought bitterly. Another

failure for him.

He had to be sure. He picked up the man's cold limp wrist and felt

for a pulse.

There was nothing.

He turned back to Ryoga, who seemed to be the only other survivor

besides him. As for the Koreans they'd fought, those that lay there on

the cold ground were just as dead as Hideo, Kenjiro, Nomura, and Kuno...

"Come on, Ryoga, it's just you and me, and we've gotta get out of


Ryoga tried to stand. The pain in his legs must have been unbearable,

but he managed to stand. Ranma could see where fresh blood now oozed

from his wounds.

"Come on, Ryoga, I'll help you walk." I'll carry you if that's what

it takes.

"W-What about Kuno?"

Ranma's eyes dropped. "He's dead..."

"No, he's not!" Ryoga retorted. "I can see him moving!"

Ranma spun around. Kuno stirred slightly. A soft moan escaped his


"I'll be damned..." he said.

"We'll need to carry him," Ryoga said. "I'll see about making a


"I'll do it, Ryoga, you can barely stand up on your own."

"You get Kuno, I'll worry about the goddamned stretcher!" Ryoga


Ranma backed off. "Okay. Okay. Have it your way, man."

He went over to Kuno. He was breathing, barely. He felt for a pulse,

and found one after several minutes of searching. It was weak and thready.

He had a battle dressing in a hip pouch. He ripped at the fatigues,

and placed it upon Kuno's belly. With infinite care he lifted Kuno's cold

limp form into his arms.

"You don't look so good, Ranma," Ryoga said as he went to work.

Ranma looked down at himself. He was hit by shrapnel as well. In

the leg and in the side. Both wounds oozed slowly, but appeared to have

scabbed over. He was covered in blood, splashed from Kenjiro's death

throes. His whole body hurt too much to feel specific wounds.

Ryoga came up with a crude stretcher using two long branches and

the fatigues of their dead comrades. Ranma lay Kuno upon it, and together

they picked up the fallen swordsman.

"He's bad, isn't he," Ryoga said. It was a statement, not a question.


"Anything we can do for him?"

"I don't think so. I put a dressing on him, but he needs surgery. And

a blood transfusion."

Ryoga nodded slowly. "We gotta keep him warm, I took Nomura's jacket."


They started walking.


"What is it?"

"Do you know where you're going?"


They walked in silence. Ranma didn't care about snipers anymore, they

were as good as dead no matter who caught them. He still had his carbine,

but that was the only weapon they had left.



"Why did you come out here after us?"

Ranma was silent a little longer.

"I came out looking for you, Ryoga."

"Me? Why? We've been enemies all our lives."

"'Cause you're the only friend I got right now..."

Chapter Eleven


There was a pause.

"Go away, Dad."

Soun turned slowly away from the door.

Akane is still in denial... he thought. It's not hard to imagine

why, but she has to face the facts... I just don't have the heart to tell

her. No one does.

Nabiki had gone back to college. Akane hadn't. Nodoka had been the

only one she would see her during her self-imposed exile in her room, but

she still refused to accept Ranma's death. She stayed in her room, and

Kasumi eventually brought her meals up to her. She ate very little of them.

He walked down the stairs a shambles. He and Genma hadn't been able to

say three words to each other since Saturday, and now it was Tuesday. Such

was his friend's grief.

"We gotta stop for a minute," Ryoga panted.

Ranma agreed. They set Kuno down in the sun to keep him warm. The

days were getting shorter and the nights colder. Frost covered the ground

at night, and snow was just around the corner. The harsh Korean winter

was coming for them.

There was no way they could get back to their lines now. The North

Koreans had pushed on the morning of their awakening and threw back the

UN lines another seven kilometers. They had narrowly avoided the

advancing troops by hiding in a thicket.

Now they were eight, probably nine, kilometers inside enemy territory.

Ranma decided to head east for the sea. He hoped to skirt the

majority of the fighting, and perhaps they could find a fishing town or

something where they could find help for Kuno. The swordsman had held on

for over four days now, but even the man's stubborn refusal to die couldn't

last forever.

Both of them were weak. Kuno was a dead weight, and Ryoga's legs hurt

so bad that he could hear his friend's stifled gasps with every step. They

hadn't said much to each other since that first day. Ranma wasn't sure how

much longer Ryoga could continue, because he was running out of steam


They had no food and hadn't eaten since the day they left the hill.

Ranma knew water was bad for a man with a belly wound, but he insisted on

using some of their dwindling reserves on wetting a rag for the unconscious

swordsman to suck on. Ryoga hadn't objected.

"We need to change Kuno's dressing," Ranma said. "It's looking pretty

bad. Might as well do it while we're stopped."

"I think I still have mine," Ryoga replied. He searched his pouch and

found his battle dressing. The sterile wrapping had been broken, but the

thing was cleaner than the one on Kuno.

Ranma had to stifle his vomit reflex as he changed Kuno's bandage.

The wound was draining heavily and other signs of infection were visible

on the exterior. He used up some more of their water trying to clean the

wound a little before applying a new bandage.

"You ready?" he asked Ryoga at length.

"Yeah..." Ryoga replied wearily. "How much further to the sea?"

Ranma looked at the sky. "I think we can make it by sundown."

"Let's go then. I don't know how much further I can push on."

They got up again, carrying the stretcher between them.

The going was slow, as planes zoomed overhead, and bombs fell in the

distance. Some times the bombs were not so distant. Once a glowing fireball

of phosphorus sailed over their head from an incendiary explosion nearby.

They inched along, and every step was a triumph now.

The crash of the surf was welcome to their dull ringing ears. There

were no fishing towns around, but they couldn't be far. They set Kuno

down in the shelter of a boulder and dropped to the ground, totally spent.

Ryoga was asleep in seconds. Ranma clutched at his carbine, trying to

stay awake. The rhythm of the crashing surf was too much for him, and he

drifted away. He thought of Akane then, remembering her face, and she

was pretty when she wanted to be.

He didn't know how long he'd dozed. The moon was high in the sky, but

he didn't remember when it would rise and set anymore. His head felt like

a big thick blanket was smothering it.

Something woke him up. Some danger sense maybe. He'd been a fighter all

his life, and he was attuned to such things. There was something there.

Someone there.

It was a man. He had a Russian-made rifle. A slender bayonet was

extended upon it, which was dull black against the moonlight.

He probed Kuno with it. Not really stabbing, Ranma saw, just poking.

Kuno was either dead or too far gone to react.

This man was a North Korean, he realized. It was obvious, but he had

to tell himself to get any kind of reaction from his body.

The Korean turned his attention next to Ryoga, who was lying still,

breathing too shallow to see. The sound of the surf crashing nearby

concealed the short ragged breaths.

The Korean decided that Ryoga was alive, and in that instant decided

to end that life. He drew back the rifle for its plunge into Ryoga's


Ranma tried to scream, but his tongue was swollen and his mouth and

throat too dry to make a sound. He remembered the carbine in his hands.

The safety clicked off. Against the sound of the crashing surf, there

should have been no chance of hearing it, but perhaps the Korean had a

danger sense as well. He turned lightning fast to put his rifle to bear on


Ranma was all reflex in that moment, moving so fast that time slowed

to a crawl. He felt the carbine, now weightless in his grip, come up to

meet the Korean. There was the barest caress of the trigger. There was

an explosion of light. He watched as the bullets in the 3-round burst

spun in their perfect ballistic arcs, so flat at this range as to be

nearly imperceptible. The copper jacketed lead slammed into the Korean's

chest. He could see the shockwaves roll across the man's tunic as each

round struck. A brilliant red flower of blood and disrupted tissue

blossomed at each impact. A blossom even more magnificent erupted out of

the man's backside.

Ranma saw the man begin to fall without a sound. He saw the light dim

in his eyes. The shell casings jingled musically, scattering perfect golden

rays of reflected moonlight as they danced on stones nearby.

The Korean hit the ground like a felled tree, dead before he touched

the sand. There was no sound of gunfire, somehow he hadn't heard the

reports. The surf continued to crash nearby.

Ranma was aware of his scream, but there was no sound.

The figures came out of the night wearing black. They moved well, a

single entity out of the darkness. They glided silently across the sand,

ducked lightning quick around boulders, covering each other with liquid


They found Ranma and Ryoga and Kuno lying there. Between them was a

dead North Korean. Smoke wafted from the corpse's back. Smoke wafted

from the barrel of an M-727, a weapon that several of the men in black


They covered the three, but it was obvious that they weren't capable

of any more grief this night.

"What have we got?" their leader whispered.

"Looks like three nips and a dead gook," another replied.

"The nips are all shot up pretty bad. One with a real bad belly

wound," the corpsman added.

"Check the boats," he hissed.

One of the men did so.

"Everything looks intact. Whatever happened here must have gone down

before they spotted them."

"There's got to be more where this gook came from. Time to bag

ass before we get caught."

"What about the nips?" the corpsman asked.

The leader debated that thought. Against his better judgement he

jerked a thumb towards Ranma and the other two. "All right, load 'em onto

a RIB," he replied. "We don't have much time left before the pick-up,

so let's not screw around."

Ranma was awake during all this, more or less. His awareness was

drifting; time seemed to drag on one moment, and then was as fleeting as

summer lightning the next. He remembered the one they called Deuce gently

prying the carbine from his fingers. The ones they called Doc and Easy

lifted Kuno up and carried him towards the sea. Another, unnamed, took

Ryoga, who tried to protest, but was too weak.

Deuce lifted Ranma up into his arms. These men were tall, he decided,

their voices spoke in English. He remembered English. Sort of. They might

have been Americans, or maybe British or Australians.

They carried Ranma towards the sea, the spindrift was cold but

inviting. He wished he could just be swallowed up.

The sea didn't swallow him. Instead he was wrapped in a warm poncho

and placed in some sort of rubber boat. Ryoga was next to him, and so was

Kuno. The one they called Doc was hunched over Kuno as they cleared the

gentle surf and drove out to sea.

He felt Ryoga's hand next to him. He took it in his, and Ryoga

squeezed it in return. The waves rolled them on easily, adding to the

dream state he drifted in.

Finally, the one called Easy lowered something into the water.

There was a very high pitched whistle from somewhere. It pulsed several

times. The whistle was a haunting sound.

He must have dozed again. His head rolled to the side in time to see

something long and slender and green rise out of the water. A glint of

moonlight reflected off the top of it. A second form, much wider, and

covered in large black spots, rose up close to the first.

Something huge, monstrous, rose out of the water very slowly. The

water boiled gently around it as it rose. It was long and black and

glistened with wetness. The sounds of voices reached his ears, more

Americans. They had little red glowing lightsticks pinned to life vests,

the lightsticks he'd played with when he was little. He giggled stupidly

to himself at the thought.

More people appeared on top of the thing, which his mind now

registered as having to be a submarine, even though he'd never seen one

of them in person. The crew of this submarine helped lift them out of

the water. Someone called for something, and a sailor brought blankets

for them.

Slowly, carefully, they were lowered down the small hatch. A man in

a dark blue coverall and a substantial growth of beard took him from the

ladder as another undid the harness catches tied about him. The man had

the most intimidating set of teeth he'd ever seen. He was an orthodontist's

wet dream.

Inside, it was dark, and everyone carried red flashlights or the

lightsticks. They were brought down another ladder and into a long

hallway. More people were waiting for them, medical people he supposed.

They tucked them in a little cubby hole between two great cylinders

that rose from the deck to the overhead, and probably through decks above

and below them too. There were beds here, small but comfortable. The men

wore the same dark blue coveralls. Most of the men he saw were also in

dire need of a shave.

"These guys look pretty wasted," a voice commented. "Let's get some

wide bore IV drips going, 2 liters Ringer's lactate apiece."

"How 'bout that abdominal wound?" someone asked.

"The cooks are prepping the wardroom now for emergency surgery.

It should be ready in a few minutes."

"We're running blood-work on all of them right now."

"Good. Pass the word around the boat that we're gonna need blood in

that belly case's flavor. I don't want to cut him open out here, but he

might not wait much longer, and he needs a transfusion regardless."

"Some of the off-going watch section are waiting on the mess-decks

for that," a corpsman replied.

Ranma listened in a daze as the men worked around him. Someone was

getting his clothes off while another inspected his injuries. A third

was cataloguing them as the second dictated.

Something pricked his arm at the inside of the elbow, and he slept.

The last things he remembered before he slipped away were the sound of

an intercom from somewhere in the direction he had come.

"All Ahead Two-Thirds."


"Dive! Dive!"

Some awful noise followed, like a horn being strangled a couple times,

then "Dive! Dive!" again.

The most haunting and musical sound entered his mind then, and if

he'd have known better, he'd have said it was the sound of air rushing out

of the ballast tank vents as the submarine slipped beneath the waves...

Chapter Twelve

When Ranma awoke, he was no longer on the submarine. He was in a

hospital room, the sterile smell and spartan appointments were a shock

to his system. It was no hole in the ground, and those had been his home

for the last several months.

He felt like he'd been run over.

There wasn't much pain, only a weakness he hadn't felt since the

little pervert's moxibustion trick. He doubted he could even sit up at

the moment. He also had the worst cotton mouth of his life.

Looking around the room, he realized that he shared it with another.

His roomie was swathed in bandages and seemed to be sleeping. Someone

had left a small vase with flowers next to the man's bed.

An army nurse came in then to check on them.

"Ah, Corporal Saotome! You're awake I see. How are you feeling?"

Ranma didn't know what to say.

"How is your arm?" she asked, checking the bandages on his left arm.

"No need to worry, I'm sure you'll have a nice scar to show off when you

leave here."

"Huh? What happened to my arm?"

"You were shot. The bullet passed clean through. You were fortunate

the bullet missed the bone."

He sure didn't remember being shot.

"What else happened to me?"

"Oh, a few minor wounds. You were very undernourished and severely

dehydrated when they brought you here."

"How did I get here?"

"I'm told that you were picked up by an American submarine. They

transferred you by helicopter and flew you to a hospital ship. From there

you were flown to Yokosuka, and here you are."

He looked over at the bandaged soldier.

"Who's he?"

The nurse smiled. "Oh, that's Private Matsushita, he's recovering

from burns. He's stabilized, so we moved him down here."

He tried to sit up. "H-Have you seen a Corporal Hibiki or a Private


"Oh yes. Corporal Hibiki is in the next room."

"What about Kuno?"

"I don't know anything about a Private Kuno. I'm very sorry."

Ranma felt his heart sink. All that struggle, and still Kuno didn't

make it.

The nurse brought him a small pitcher of orange juice.

"You should drink some of this, unless you want to stay hooked up to

an IV."

He looked up to the wire stand next to him. A clear plastic bag

slowly dripped into a tube that ran down to the needle in the back of

his hand.

"I'll be back to check on you in a little while," the nurse said as

he inspected his surroundings further. She bowed once for him, then left

the room as he lay back on the bed.

A heavy gasp escaped his cracked lips.

I'm home. I made it.

He took some of the orange juice the nurse had poured into a paper

cup for him. It was so good. He drank it down, and then had two more cups

as well. The taste of the orange juice helped his cotton mouth a little,

though he wished he could brush his teeth.

How'm I supposed to go to the bathroom when I'm hooked up to

this? he thought, gently tugging at the clear plastic tubing of his


Ryoga poked his head in then. Ranma had never been so happy to see

him before. He was wearing a hospital-green gown and trailed an IV drip

stand of his own. He had bandages on his legs and arm. He leaned against

the door frame for support.

"Hiya, Ryoga!"

Ryoga gave him a slow and thin smile.

"Finally woke up, eh?"

"Yeah. How long have you been up?"

"Since they brought us here. You slept the whole flight from the

hospital ship."

"Do you know what happened to Kuno?"

Ryoga tried to remember. "I think they kept him aboard the ship. I

guess they operated on him when we were on that submarine."

"So he's not dead?" Ranma asked hopefully.

"I don't think so. Gosunkugi, Daisuke, and Hiro made it too."


Ryoga nodded. "Gosunkugi lost some motor function in his right

arm. Hiro's in pretty good shape, I guess. I saw him walking around

in uniform this morning. Daisuke..."

"How bad?" Ranma asked pensively.

"He's blind," Ryoga said softly. "You knew that. There might be

brain damage too, but it's too soon to tell, I guess. His face is

pretty bad."

"I think a boulder exploded in his face. One of the RPGs."

Ryoga nodded.

"He's alive," he said, sensing Ranma's discomfort. "You did that

much for him. I don't think anyone else would have bothered after the

hit he took and what was going on at the time."

Ranma bowed his head.

"It can't ever be enough."

A long and uncomfortable pause followed.

"So we really were on a submarine," Ranma said after a bit of silent

stewing. "It all felt like a dream. I guess I was pretty much out of it."

Ryoga closed his eyes. "Yeah... You talked a lot in your sleep, it

sounded like you were having nightmares or something."

This perked Ranma's interest.

"Oh yeah? Like what did I say?"

Ryoga tried to remember. "It sounded like you were apologizing to

someone or something. I was pretty groggy myself. Sorry."


Ryoga looked him in the eyes. "I don't know how to say this, Ranma...

But thank you for what you did back there... I-I owe you my life..."

Ranma was silent. It had taken a lot for Ryoga to say something like

that to him, and he appreciated the humility of his words.

"Aw, come on, Ryoga... You woulda done the same," he said quietly.

Ryoga bowed once to him, very slightly, and ducked back around the

door frame to his room.

A doctor came into the room. He saw that Ranma was awake and smiled.

"Ah, here's our other Jusenkyo twin! How are we?"

Ranma spat out a swallow of orange juice. The doctor laughed.

"Oh don't worry about it. I've seen stranger things," he said with

a grin. "Gave those Americans a shock though! Wish I could have seen it."

Ranma wiped at the orange juice on his chin and lip. "How'd you know

about what happened to me?"

The doctor gave him a sly smile.

"A colleague informed me."

That had his curiosity piqued. "Oh yeah? Who?"

"Doctor Ono Tofu. He and I went to high school together. All of our

wounded come through this hospital, so he had me keep a look-out for you

in case you showed up."

Ranma nodded in understanding.

"So then my folks know I'm all right?"

"I can assume so. Tofu told me you had been listed as missing in

action. He was very relieved to hear that you and your friends Hibiki

and Kuno had been found."

Ranma felt better knowing that his family didn't have to worry about

him anymore.

"So how long have I been here? What day is it?"

"You arrived early this morning. It's a little past noon right now on

Thursday the 26th of November."

It's been six days then since I left hill 1127. I wonder how long

they waited before they listed me as missing?

The doctor made a cursory examination of him before moving on to

Matsushita. He seemed satisfied with both of his patients' progress, so

he left the room with a wave and a wish for Ranma to smile a little.

"You're going home, Saotome," the doctor had said. "The Diet issued

an order to the military to release all soldiers who were wounded and

sent to Japan for treatment after the 25th of November, so you slipped

right in. You'll be discharged from this hospital in two days or so, and

then you'll get a little leave. From there you'll probably do some odd

jobs back at the base and be out of the Self Defense Forces by Christmas."

The news hit Ranma like a ton of bricks.

Out by Christmas!

After supper he sat in his bed thinking. Ryoga's words came back to

him. 'It sounded like you were apologizing to someone or something.'

What was he apologizing for?

He tried to remember that night. He thought harder and harder; trying

to reconstruct events, match faces with those events, match names with

those faces. He remembered going out to look for Ryoga and the others. He

remembered the ambush that was sprung when he found them. He saw Kenjiro

die again and again before his eyes, almost felt the blood splash all over

him as the man went down -something he hadn't noticed when it happened, but

came back to him in a rush now.

He recalled with sick horror as Kuno was shot and fell. Of seeing

Ryoga so close to the grenade when it exploded.

Hideo must have taken the brunt of the blast for him, Ryoga should

have been killed.

He remembered checking each of his fallen comrades for life, of

nearly abandoning Kuno for dead.

Was I apologizing to Kuno? No. That couldn't be it. What happened


He went on, recalling their four day ordeal trying to reach safety.

Of carrying Kuno with their makeshift stretcher. He relived the terror

of dodging the advancing units of North Korean troops as they threw back

the UN lines, of cowering in holes as jets and helicopters blew the

countryside to pieces around them.

He remembered their sense of triumph as they reached the sea. They

hadn't found help for Kuno, but reaching the ocean had seemed like an

impossible goal. He remembered something else...

He saw a face. It was a face he couldn't put a name to. But he could

put an event with that face.

He'd killed that man. Shot him to death at point blank range because

he was going to stab Ryoga through the heart. The man had somehow heard

him flick the safety off his carbine and had turned on him. He watched

again in the theater of his mind's eye as the three bullets tore into

the man's chest.

I killed a man...

He went cold all over his body. Vertigo washed over him, and for a

moment he felt as if he was going to fall out of his bed.

I've seen men die out there, but never by my hand.

He steadied himself as he tried to come to grips with the truth.

I'm not a killer! he pleaded with himself. His memory argued


But I am...

He was discharged from the hospital two days later. Ryoga had to

stay a few more days because of infection in his legs. He still had no

word on Kuno, only that he hadn't died. All of the deceased came through

the hospital as well.

He ran into Hiro Ohata the day he was discharged. The man was up and

about, sore but ambulatory. He explained that his chest wound had been

miraculously minor.

"Missed everything important," he said to Ranma. "It just hurt like

hell. They saved the bullet for me."

"You are one lucky bastard," Ranma replied quietly. "I don't care

what you say."

"Not really," Hiro said. "You know that clause about releasing any

wounded who are sent back to Japan?"


"I came in before the order. They're going to certify me fit for

full duty soon, and then it's back to the lines I go."

"You're kidding me!"

Hiro smiled sadly. "I wish I was."

There was a strained silence between them.

"So, now what?" Hiro asked.

"They gave me seven days leave."

"Great," Hiro said with a grin. "Any plans?"

"Not really," Ranma admitted sullenly. "I guess home."

"Need a lift?"


"I'm limited duty right now, so they've got me as one of the duty

drivers. I'll give you a ride wherever."

"Uh, okay."

They started on the drive to Nerima. Ranma hadn't told anyone that he

was coming, because he didn't want them to have a party waiting for him or

something. He didn't feel like celebrating. Not now.

Most of the ride was spent in silence. Hiro had run out of things

to say, and without Ranma's interest in conversation there was nothing

else to be said. Hiro knew something was bothering Ranma, but he wouldn't

talk about it. Nerima couldn't come soon enough.

Ranma continued to stew. He didn't know what to think of himself. He

had killed a man. He had proven that he could fight that stupid war without

taking lives, and then at the end he had panicked and killed someone. A

clumsy coward was what he felt like. Worthless.

The wide body of the olive drab Humvee had a little trouble getting

through the narrow streets of Nerima. Hiro managed a curse or two as he

whipped the big vehicle around a corner. Ranma sighed as he saw how the

neighborhood hadn't changed a lick. He had not been gone long, but it had

seemed like years.

The Hummer stopped outside the dojo. Hiro waved good-bye to him as he

lifted his bag out of the back. He waved back weakly as the Hummer zoomed

off Yokosuka bound.

He was in his dress uniform, spit and polish from head to toe. A UN

general had pinned a medal on him at the hospital, as had two Japanese

generals. Two medals for valor, one campaign medal, one for getting shot.

They jingled on his breast pocket as he opened the outer gate wide. For a

moment he wanted to rip them off right there along with his Corporal's

insignia. What did they really say about him, anyway?

When he reached the door, he got his wish. No one was expecting him.

He let himself in. Kasumi came down the hall to see who it was, and

didn't recognize him at first.

"Can I help you, sir?"

Ranma smiled weakly.

"Kasumi, it's me."

Her face brightened as recognition set in at last. She threw her arms

around him and gave him a sisterly hug.

"Welcome home, Ranma!"

By this time Soun and Genma had entered the foyer to see what was up.

"My son!" they both cried, and joined Kasumi in a welcome hug.

The rest of the house heard them and came running.

Ranma wasn't ready for this; as Nabiki, his mother, and even Doctor

Tofu joined the press. He was cheerfully crushed into a corner. Their

happy voices filled his ears and their smiles melted his depression away.

"You do your mother proud, Ranma," Nodoka said to him. Then she

hugged him again and tried not to weep.

They led him into the family room, chattering away. It was all he

could do to try and answer their questions. He kept looking around for

Akane, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Kasumi and his mother brought out food for all of them, and Ranma

found that his appetite had returned with a vengeance. He doubted he'd

eaten an entire meal in the three days he'd spent in Yokosuka. He

finished off everything placed before him.

Nabiki rubbed at the short black hair atop his head. "It's going to

take some getting used to, but at least they let you keep the pigtail."

Ranma brushed at his head. "Oh, I dunno. I might keep it short. They

tell me I'll be discharged by Christmas, so if I get tired of it, I can

start growing it out if I want."

This news brought a fresh round of cheers. He looked around for Akane

again without success.

Kasumi set glasses of beer down before him and the other men. It was

the first time he'd ever drank in the house. His prior drinking experience

amounted to having a few in Korea with his buddies the day before moving

out to the lines.

Doctor Tofu clinked his glass with Ranma's. "So, how did they treat

you in Yokosuka?"

Ranma shrugged. "Your friend Doctor Mitaka was great. He really

patched me up good." He rolled up his sleeve on his left arm to reveal

the bandage.

"What happened to you, dear?" his mother asked.

He shrugged.

"I got shot, I guess."

Nabiki smirked. "You mean you don't know? What happened out there for

you and Ryoga and Kuno-chan to end up as missing?"

Ranma didn't want to be reminded, but went on anyway. "Well, Ryoga got

lost out in no-man's land with Kuno and some others in the platoon, and I

went out to find them."

"Ryoga getting lost? Go figure," Nabiki cracked.

"Alone?" Kasumi asked worriedly.

"Well, no one was going to risk sending anyone else out, so I just

went on my own," he replied like it was no big deal.

"You're a hero, son," Soun said. He clapped him stoutly on the


"Someone thinks so," Ranma said evenly, jingling one of his medals.

"They gave me this for it." He looked down at it and shrugged. It was a

piece of metal and a gaudy ribbon to him. "I was just looking out for my

buddies, that's all."

Sometimes better than others...

"You and Ryoga were always such good friends," Kasumi noted.

Nabiki stifled a laugh. "You even went after Kuno-chan? I'm surprised."

Ranma winced. Nabiki would never understand.

"Aw, he can be a real pain in the neck sometimes, but he was really

worthwhile to have around in a fight," he replied. He remembered Kuno

standing defiantly in the middle of that tremendous firefight at the base

of the hill. He didn't get a scratch, and yet his stance and his taunts

had directed the majority of the enemy's fire at him. And more importantly,

away from Hiro long enough to call for the artillery barrage that saved the

day and allowed them to retreat without getting massacred. He then

remembered that last night when Kuno's luck had run out, and he saw him

crumple to the ground with a near fatal bullet wound once again.

Genma and Soun saw the look that came over Ranma then and decided to

change the subject.

"Perhaps he should tell these stories at another time. When they

aren't so vivid in his mind, eh Saotome?"

"I couldn't agree more," Genma replied.

Ranma shrugged again. It felt good to get it all out in the open with

people who cared about you. "Ryoga's okay, he should be out of the hospital

in a couple of days. I haven't seen Kuno since we were on the submarine. I

guess you guys know about Hiroshi and Daisuke..."

There was a muted agreement from the family.

"So what was the submarine like? Was it like in the movies?" Nabiki

asked after a bit of silent reflection and prayers of thanks that Ranma

had come home safely.

"I dunno. I didn't see much of it, and I wasn't in the best shape

when they brought me aboard. I think they operated on Kuno there, I heard

them talking about getting blood donations from the crew."

"How badly was he hurt?" Nabiki pressed. Her concern seemed a little

unusual for Kuno.

Ranma looked around the room and wondered how much he should tell

them. Watching Kuno fall, and later trying to care for him was horrible

enough, and he was the combat veteran here.

"He was shot in the belly at close range."

He watched as they winced at the thought.

"At first I thought he was dead... He didn't seem to have a pulse."

The assembled family looked horrified.

"We were going to have to leave him," Ranma continued. "But Ryoga saw

him moving a little, and so we carried him with us. We carried him for

four days. I think he's on a hospital ship until they think he's strong

enough to be moved."

"Good old Ryoga," Nabiki said. "He may have no sense of direction,

but he's a stubborn one."

"That ain't the half of it. Sometimes I didn't know if the enemy

would kill us or each other. In the end though, we really got along. It

was kinda weird."

He looked around again, hoping that she'd slipped in somewhere. Akane

was still nowhere to be found.

Where the heck is she?

"Uh, has anyone seen Akane?" he ventured.

"Oh, she went out for a walk," Kasumi answered him. "She's been doing

that for awhile now. She'll be home soon."

The night went on, and he talked and joked with them. The war was so

far away now, like a bad dream. It felt so good to be home.

He also got quite drunk. Unlike his father and Mr. Tendo, he was a

rather quiet drunk. The women decided to call it a night, and left their

men out on the back porch.

It was late by the time Ranma decided to go to bed. He had spent the

last three days trying to regain his strength, and the beer had hit him

like the proverbial ton of bricks early on. He was just starting to sober

up when Akane appeared across the yard from them and entered the dojo. The

two fathers were too far gone to notice. Doctor Tofu had excused himself

and gone home twenty minutes earlier.

He crept across the grass so as not to roust the two men from their

stupor. As he reached the dojo he looked back over his shoulder to see

Kasumi and his mother collect the two and help them upstairs. His mother

pointed to the dojo and winked at him.

He stepped into the dojo. It was dark, but in a beam of moonlight sat

Akane. She had her back to him. He crept up to her and sat down next to


She turned to him and tried to smile.

"You smell like a brewery," she said softly. "But I'm glad you're


He shrugged. "I kept my promise."

"I know you did," she said, and started to hug him. "But you had to

worry me sick first!"

"I'm sorry, Akane," he replied. He pulled her tighter against him.

Since when was this so easy?

"Where were you tonight? I was going crazy waiting for you," he asked

after a moment.

"I had to stay away for awhile," she answered. "I wanted you all to

myself, and I knew I'd get the chance eventually."

"You spied on us, didn't you?"

She laughed. "Well, just a little."

Her hand came up to rub his head. "I kind of like it short," she


"It was time for a change I guess," he said.

"You have changed," Akane admitted. "I saw it right away."

Ranma sighed deeply. "You're right. I have changed. Not all of it for

the better."

She sensed something wrong within him. Felt him grow suddenly cold in

her embrace.

"What is it?" she asked softly. "Is it about Hiroshi?"

He began to wave his hands as a drowning man would.

How do I tell her?

She put a hand in his.

"It's more than just Hiroshi. I've seen things Akane," he managed.

"Done things. Stuff I never want any part of as long as I live."

"I don't understand."

I don't either!

He tried to think of something to tell her.

"I'm not the same Ranma you knew this summer. Part of me died over


"What do you mean?" She gasped.

He shuddered at the thought of it. Saw for the ten thousandth time as

the Korean fell, the light in his eyes waning to emptiness.

"I killed a man." The words were like a hammer blow.

Akane felt the wetness on his face and kissed his forehead even as

she embraced him with renewed strength.

"You were in a war," she whispered.

Like that justifies anything! I was clumsy and I was afraid -and a

man paid for it with his life. How many firefights was I in? Too many. But

never once did I kill someone, until the end.

"It hurts just the same," he said to her.

She kissed his brow again.

"Oh Ranma, when they told me you were going over there I hoped and

prayed that you wouldn't have to do something like that. But I also knew

that I wanted you to come home alive, and to bring Ryoga and Kuno, and

even Hikaru Gosunkugi home alive with you! It doesn't matter, Ranma! You

did what you had to. You're here with me now, and you saved the lives of

your friends where you could."

"It's not that simple," he pleaded. His throat began to burn as tears

stung at his eyes.

"It's a start. I know this will hurt for a long time, but I want to

help you move on."

"It's not something I can just forget."

"I'm not expecting you to, but you have to move on. You have your

whole life ahead of you. Don't throw it away because of something you

may or may not have been able to prevent."

He began to cry silently, and he felt utterly ashamed. The tears

against his hot face ran even colder.

Akane held onto him then, and together they rocked slowly in each

other's arms. Ranma wept, and Akane wept with him and for him.

"I stumbled along without you around," she whispered. "I cried when

I found out you were going to Korea. And I nearly died when father told me

you were missing." She sobbed once. "But one thing kept me going on, one

thing gave me strength, and that was your promise to me. I knew you would

keep it and come home safe no matter what... I want to make you a promise

Ranma, and I hope you can draw strength from it as I have from yours."

Ranma nodded against the cool skin of her cheek.

"I promise to you that I will be with you no matter what. We may be

separated by distance, but never in our hearts. I love you, Ranma, and

all I can do is love you."

The tears continued to spill down his face, but his shame was gone.

He looked into her eyes and saw the love that had always been there, but

for one petty thing or another was always missed.

"You better keep that promise, Akane, 'cause I love you too," he


So simple, those words... Why had it been so hard to say them for

so long?

A long silence followed. The tears were gone, and the heat upon his

face was replaced by one deep within his heart. Akane was there, closer

than ever before, and he never wanted anything to come between them


"Where do we go from here?" he asked her.

Akane shrugged with a wan smile. "I don't know, Ranma. But we'll go

there together. We've got our whole lives to figure it out."

The winter of 1995 had come to Nerima the way it had for years past

count. The end of the year wasn't far away. But then again, the future never



Author's Rant:

A Second Korean War is something most people don't even think about.

Most of those that do write it off as being alarmist fantasy. The quote in

the story about "this next year will prove to be the year of North Korea's

discontent" were not my words. They were the words of an intelligence

specialist spoken in the late fall of 1995, spoken in my presence while

we were doing joint exercises off the coast of Korea.

At the time, the famine and chronic fuel shortage that continues to

this day was just a year old, and international relief agencies would soon

level accusations against the North Korean government that they were

hoarding food and fuel oil (including donated aid) for their million-

strong armed forces. (By way of comparison, the United States, a country

far larger and with numerous defense commitments world-wide, has a total

armed forces of 1.4 million plus a reserve force of about 1 million.) Their

people starve and freeze to death so that Pyongyang can keep their invasion

army fed and their war machines ready. I say "invasion army" because their

cousins in the South have a total armed forces of about 600,000 plus the

37,000 American Troops who enforce the Armistice for the UN. The North has

nothing to fear from an invasion from the South.

A desperate war was averted only by the Clinton Administration

knuckling under to demands from Pyongyang for food, fuel oil, and the

technical support and economic aid to build several commercial nuclear

power reactors, and they've been happy to jump at any sign of a weak

American resolve to press their demands since then. In August of 1998 they

brazenly launched a nuclear capable Scud-E (No Dong-1) missile over the

northernmost tip of Japan. The U.S. sent them a diplomatic reprimand, but

did nothing to deter them from further actions such as increased sanctions

or the suspension of their foreign aid, an action soundly criticized by U.S.

allies as encouraging Pyongyang to further adventures. (Japan did rescind

economic aid in protest, the only concrete action of any allied nation in

the Western Pacific.)

In the late spring of 1997, a senior North Korean diplomat defected

to the West in Egypt. His debriefing was disturbing to allied intelligence

agents to say the least, and included the confirmation that North Korea

possessed the nuclear fuel for up to SIX fission bombs. One of which was

possibly smuggled INTO Japan for a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S.

Naval Base at Yokosuka or the Marine Amphibious Force based out of Okinawa.

(The only rapid deployment forces in the Pacific that could reach Korea

within the projected 30 day time frame planned by North Korean stategists

for the conquest of the peninsula. Remember that it took upwards of six

months to mobilize and deploy ground forces for the Persian Gulf War.)

Even as recently as November 20, 1998, North Korea has been accused

of cheating on its nuclear arms agreements. Inspections of their

undermountain weapons facilities were demanded by UN inspectors, and the

North made a counterdemand of $300 Million just for the privelege of


In an era when the Great Enemy to Peace In Our Time seems to be the

bluff and bluster of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or the cold blooded "ethnic

cleansing" of Slobodan Milosevic, it is chilling to think that such a

potent and unpredictable enemy remains beneath the notice of most of the


End of Rant.

Author's Notes:

1. The two warships in the beginning of the story are actual ships home

ported out of Pearl Harbor. The USS Lake Erie in particular has a

reputation for being 'locked and loaded' at all times (ask me about the

time their Phalanx gun went off twice sending 20mm cannon shells across

Pearl Harbor and into the Aiea hills, where they destroyed an old lady's

gardening shed. Nevermind, I just told you...) I figured it would be

appropriate if the Lake Erie was on station to let a few SM-2's fly

against Scuds.

2. The Scud-E (known in Korea as the No Dong-1) is a missile North Korea

developed and has attempted to export to any and all takers. It is fairly

accurate (more so than its previous models by a factor of about 50.) It

has sufficient range to reach any part of Japan, including Okinawa.

(Maximum range with a 1000 kg warhead is 3500 kilometers.) The Scud-E can

carry nuclear, chemical, and biological payloads like its less capable

siblings over in Iraq.

3. The Spratly Islands are located in the South China Sea, right in the

middle of the major sea lanes. Seven countries have claims to them and

the oil deposits believed to be there. Japan is not one of the seven, so

I made up an eighth claim for the hell of it.

4. For those of you who doubt Japan's resolve to send troops abroad,

please recall their invasion of Cambodia in the early 90s.

5. For anyone sharing Ranma's curiosity about those big ugly green jets

that tore holy hell out of the North Koreans, they were none other than

the A-10 Thunderbolt II. (Also known as the Warthog.) Most if not all of

the remaining A-10 squadrons in the U.S. are based right here in Tucson,

Arizona, at Davis Monthan AFB.

6. The guys who rescued Ranma and company at the end of the story were,

of course, SEALs. Probably from Team 5, as they are forward deployed in

the Western Pacific. They probably wouldn't have batted an eye at our

fallen heroes, but then again, where would our story be?

7. Ryoga with GPS? Come on, we're talking about Ryoga here... Might as

well have given him bread crumbs.

8. Yes, I know that Ranma's hair curse is no longer valid in the post

Volume 38 time frame that this story takes place.

9. What's the sound of air rushing out of ballast tank vents? Sorry pals,

you're just gonna have to sign up to find out. (Unless you live near a

submarine base and have a friend who'll take you on their next dependents'

cruise.) I wouldn't recommend the first option.

10. If you have any other questions, comments, flames, or oddities to

share... Drop me a line at I would especially

appreciate the inputs of the old grunts on the Mailing List, as I'm just

a poor dumb ex-submarine sailor.

Free The Nukes!