A/N: wew, been slacking

Also a note, for those of you who are new Manifest Destiny readers, sorry for the long updates, I'm curtailed by other fan and professional projects, so my bad and it's not what you deserve. For you returners, I'm sure you've noticed by now this Manifest Destiny's scope is different. And I can't just straight rewrite Manifest Destiny but better, there's no such thing. The new tone, and the lessons of these last real world five years, are reflected in this new version of Manifest Destiny.

The Rangers

At some point Emerson's actual gear had been delivered to him, his plate carrier and proper kit, and he assumed the role truly of Ranger, on the front, at ground zero. He and his men spent over twenty-four hours straight in Ginza, kicking in doors and organizing sterilization of office buildings from the Romans, done without mercy, without misgivings, without a stutter. So many doors, so many bodies, kicked in as they silently became Ginza's special operators on tap.

Men and women, Americans, with thermal vision and night seeing capabilities, peering into the darkening day and reaching out with gunfire.

It was what they needed, after carrying the bodies of the O'Neills to a waiting helicopter, seeing him be flown away, ruined. In truth, Emerson hadn't been in command that night, or General Andrade, or Colonel Pierce, or the responding Japanese General Hazama. The Romans certainly hadn't been in control that night, as they were herded like animals and put down with a vengeance by the JSDF that coated the air with vindication. The rain wouldn't stop, and neither would they.

Who had been in control were the dead.

They were just on autopilot, carrying out the will of those lost.

Their justice, their retribution, begged for as the JSDF opened fire into an enemy that could not fight back. Their bodies had been dragged out into the street, piled into stacks unceremoniously as, besides them in contrast in neat rows: the bodies of those they conquered. Innocent men and women and children, put onto tarps, dead, waiting to be identified as Ginza became a tent city, sprawling out from the Gate itself, surrounded on four sides by tanks, American and Japanese.

The Mutual Defense Agreement had been in full swing, and like all things never enacted before, there were… rough patches.

"You need to disengage your men from this area and let the JSDF handle this!" It was Hazama, in a poncho yelling almost into the face of Colonel Pierce, in his gear as he had been hunched over the command tent in front of the office building that Hitman had taken to earlier that day. It was night now, the stars above gone, and Tokyo's lights still blaring out against the darkness. The city itself had been dead quiet however, so that was why Emerson had caught the argument in earshot as he had picked up more magazines for his rifle, stuffing them into his gear.

He picked up his head, looking, breaking a rule taught at West Point: Keep your head down.

Pierce had been quick on the draw to respond. "Those aren't my orders to give, General! And as far as I'm concerned, we need to be here! We have confirmed American civilian casualties! This is as much our responsibility as it is yours!"

More than just American civilian casualties; a serviceman and his family.

"You have Abrams tanks rolling down our streets, Colonel!" Hazama spoke back, his hand slapping the map on the table Pierce had been hunched over as Major Sevson on the other side of the tent had made a step toward the pair before deciding it'd be in bad faith to intercede. "Is that really necessary?!"

Pierce had glanced outside of the command tent, looking at JGSDF Type-74 tanks hull down in front of the Gate, their cannons staring into their darkness.

"Well we don't know that, do we General? Respectfully take it up with General Andrade, but we're not going anywhere." As he said that Pierce looked up, locking eyes with Emerson. How tired the two men had been, and how much longer they had.

The basements and cellars of those hundreds of buildings in Tokyo were next on the list to be checked, and that meant nightvision. On his helmet the GPNVG-18s, four tubes that would lock down in front of his eyes and give him night vision, had been ready and willing. He would be lying if this didn't feel like old poetry to him, comforting that, even against an ancient enemy, his combat tactics remained the same.

"Ell-Tee." It was Sergeant Bannon, her hoarse voice beckoning him away from the heated aura of the command tent. The Tokyo Metro needed to be cleared and they were on deck with the SAT teams. The Romans had found themselves in every hole in the foreign land, and they had made it their prerogative to hold out, hoping reinforcements would come.

None would.

A few blocks down bodies of Romans had been piling up unceremoniously, piling higher and higher until a new stack had been started. Still not all who had been in there had been dead. One such stack had been shifting asides, unnoticed beneath the rain until the metal clanging of armor moving against each other had been heard, the EMTs and medics checking over the bodies turning over immediately to see a Roman emerge out of the amassing of limbs and heads, his eyes dead, confused, as one of the Tokyo police had only approached him cautiously. He was mistaken for dead and now he wished for it as the office took the man's arms behind his back and cuffed him to the floor, yelling for soldiers to take him away.

Over the noise, the Roman had been uttering an unknown language on his lips weakly, as if calling out names before again he was knocked out: "Emroy, Hardy? Hardy?"

Fatalities during the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Several thousand of those exposed to the ash cloud following the collapse have also died due to related illnesses after the attacks.

For Kristian Emerson, the days following the Battle on Ginza were a blur between rain, blood, and the complete and utter deployment of an entire JGSDF division into downtown Tokyo. The world focused entirely on Tokyo like never before as one of the largest metropolises on Earth became, not only a battlefield, but a host to an impossibility. He never paid much heed in the aftermath: the clamoring of the scientific pundits or speculations on why it was a Roman legion which had arrived at Ginza's door. He had only cared for what he had done, and what had been done to him and his Rangers.

HQ had pulled the Rangers out specifically. JSDF hadn't liked the fact American special forces had been on the ground acting in a forward capacity. What was done had been done though, and the news coming out of Tokyo, from survivors and first-hand witnesses, was that the very first people to fight back had been nothing less than American Rangers. Plain clothed and-

"Right place, at the wrong time." Emerson had recounted off dazed, groggily, nearly a day and a half after the Gate had appeared. For one whole 24-hour period, he and his Rangers had been, for the most part, the tip of the spear in clearing out entire buildings from the Romans. It had been a consequence of coincidence that a good part of Japanese police and JSDF had been occupied dealing with another disaster for the last six months. Fukushima's wasteland appropriately calling for much of the emergency personnel of Japan to it. Six months on and it hadn't been any better, if not entirely known in scope. What had happened in Ginza had seemed as if God himself had ordained to damn the Japanese in the most grotesque fashion.

He spoke in his folding chair in an empty Ops room, usually reserved for briefings and the like amongst his platoon. At some point he had finally gotten out of his ruined civilian clothes, the cloudy, woodland smear of his BDU on now; a design meant for mainland Asia and its urban centers. Who he had spoken too had worn the exact opposite: a white polo and khakis, bags beneath his eyes and a clean shave.

Emerson had seen this man, from time to time on base. Not exactly a spook, but a master of them. He had been of Asian stock, Emerson could tell, perhaps Korean. He had heard the man in passing speak several languages. CIA? JSOC? He wasn't quite in the right state of mind to ask, a brisk handful of hours of sleep keeping him going even now as he ran his hands down his jaw. Emerson had one, of handsome jut, hidden only by the beard that the relaxed grooming standards had allowed him to have, the tighter, curled locks that seemed to come from the top of his groomed hair, as if one cohesive unit. It had made him a touch bit manlier when it first came about, putting on five years on his face to his benefit. He hadn't always been a 2nd Lieutenant, in command, but the beard had helped him fold into the part.

"Your face grows faster than the rest of you, honey!" Emerson recounted his Mom saying another version of him, so long ago it felt. It wasn't the hair that made him old, that he knew.

The spook had slid a larger photo of himself and Masterson across the table he had been sitting at, settling into a chair himself.

"Congrats, you're front page on Reddit." The spook spoke, not letting Emerson speak before he had spread out several other images printed: Of Emerson and the Japanese lieutenant standing on the police kiosk, ushering people into the Imperial Palace, of Masterson and Emerson charging in with borrowed gear and borrow guns, into the streets of Tokyo; images taken up and down the last 24 hours of Emerson, and then his men. "Usual hookey bullshit circulating about now. Saying this was some sort of fantastic false flag, because there was no way there was a Ranger who just so happened to be in the area to fight back and give us cause to go in. Or that we knew that this was coming so we planted Rangers ahead. Things like that."

All Emerson could do was shrug, head shaking a bit, tongue poking a cheek from the inside. "I wish I wasn't there, sir…?"

The spook loosened his tie, letting out a sigh. "Yeah, me too." Taking one last glance at the photos he had locked eyes with Emerson. "Name's Andrew Blackburn. CIA Station Chief here in Tokyo. Was in Korea before that, well, when there was a Korea. And before that I was JSOC."

Emerson had leaned back, a little perturbed, but he wasn't surprised. He fell under JSOC as a Ranger, and they had rubbed shoulders with enough spooks. Hell, some people would call him one.

Blackburn had glanced at his smartwatch, a notification popping up on it that he had hurriedly ignored, and then another after that, and then another after that.

"Busy?" Emerson questioned.

He grit his teeth in response. "A bit. I just have to confirm the reasons why a certain Ranger group was in Ginza that day, and then explain it upward to the Japanese government."

"That a concern?" Emerson rose a busy eyebrow.

"It is when that Ranger leads his own counter-offensive and not leaving it to the authorities." Emerson had gone to open his mouth but Blackburn had been a bit snappier. "Ain't nothing against you, Lieutenant, if I was in your place, I'd probably do the same, all things considered, but…" Out from Blackburn's back pocket had been a recorder device. "State your name, rank and current assignment."

Emerson blinked several times. Should he have had a lawyer for this?

"Kristian Ridgeway Emerson. 2nd Lieutenant. Current tasking with the Four-Seven-Five, Delta Company, 3rd Platoon."

"So you're a Ranger?"

"Yes, sir."

75th Ranger Regiment, 4th Battalion. Emerson had been a new Ranger in a new battalion, the world shifting its needs for the expansion of special forces such as himself. What it meant to be a Ranger in those modern times had been nebulous, ambiguous, but the United States Army needed the premier fast reaction force that it fielded to be as versatile as it needed to be. Regardless of whatever happened to those that made up that force. The Rangers were an old creed amongst the US Military, ushering forth American warfighting by being the tip of the spear. As simply put, a Ranger had been the in-between. The middle child between the GI and the Operator that had their feet in both pools that had been increasingly blurring together. The combination of modern warfighting and then modern special forces techniques.

A lot of his chalk had been new, barely a deployment or two beneath their belts save for his two team leads and Ramirez. Ginza had been the most hectic fighting they had encountered.

"What does that mean to you, Lieutenant?"

Emerson wanted to reel further back in his chair. Awfully deep and retrospective a question for what was otherwise a post-action debrief. He palmed his forehead again, giving off a chuckle. "Seriously, sir?"

"Drop the sir," Blackburn casually followed. "And yeah. Take it how you want."

Emerson had washed the answer around in his mouth a second, playing it over in his head as he poked the inside of his cheek with his tongue. "It just means I'm busy, sir. I get caught up in things that go beyond my clearance to talk about while being recorded."

Good enough, Blackburn nodded a few times. "You like being one?"

Emerson flared his nostrils a bit. "I like living up to the standard, yes… Though not everything about this job I enjoy."

"Been around the block, haven't you? COIN and Low-Intensity operations out in Africa and the Gulf?"

"Can't confirm or deny." Emerson said to the spook.

Blackburn saw the irony in that as he had tapped some fingers against the table.

"What were you doing, in Ginza, Lieutenant Emerson?"

Emerson had asked that same question to himself as he sat on that bench, looking up between the skyscraper canyons of Tokyo and seeing blue sky. What was he doing in Ginza of all places? He'd rather have been back at base catching up with his family, if anything.

"Sergeant Masterson… Cam, we're friends beyond our usual professional etiquette, and so, with some goading, wanted me to go out with him on behalf of Corporal-" Emerson caught himself, a pause to his eyes and throat as if the next word had been a curse. "Tracy." He said once, nodding to himself. "We were going to surprise Tracy by arranging a visit with his family, from back home. They were supposed to meet at some comic book convention or-"

"Comiket." Blackburn rolled off his tongue. "That's what it's called."

"Yeah," Emerson nodded, the name being familiar. "I'm not personally a fan of anime or all that stuff, and I really didn't want to intrude, hovering over Tracy as he met his family, so I, kinda just, stayed behind at Ginza."

Blackburn raised his shoulders once before lowering them, head shaken. "So you were just there, by coincidence?"

Emerson nodded softly. "You can check the logs, my planner even. I've had this written down for weeks." He didn't get to where he was without writing things down, that's for sure.

"Right, well, the main issue of contention, Lieutenant Emerson, was you taking your own initiative and securing weapons and gear onsite, pushing back into the attackers before linking back up with command authority."

Emerson bit down on the inside of his cheek, nodding. "I understand that what I did was outside of the particular… protocols and the rules of engagement for anything like this, but I had my responsibilities to my men. Even off-duty."

"So much so you went through enemy lines for them?"

"I'm a Ranger." Emerson parroted. "Enemy force composition and strength was… extra-ordinary, as I evaluated. And I did establish comms when prompted by HQ. I had a responsibility."

The fact of the matter was to kill these Romans as they came, it had been easy. To say it out loud, to say it and declare his combat ability above the enemy in such an empirical and objective measure, it spoke to his mind of arrogance in every other situation. The world over he had been reminded that just because he had been an American, drinking whole milk, eating beef his entire life and trained by the world's most powerful military, did not mean invincibility or the right of might. Anyone could send a mortar down on his firebase, young or old, terrorist or freedom fighter. Anyone could shoot a gun, and that gun did not care for who shot it.

When confronted with the Romans however it was nothing less than right.

It was as if, that day, he existed on a plane far above any of them, and yet, in the most tragic sense, there were still people he got caught below it all, who had suffered their indignities. It was personal.

"You do see that there's a huge problem here, with you taking that responsibility and running with it, yeah?"

"There's a huge problem with there being Romans in downtown Tokyo, that's for sure." There was an edge to Emerson, then and there, the way his chair slightly moved that Blackburn had pegged. How many SOF did he personally know to go through the stages as Emerson did now? The Forever War had been, plain as day, long. Long enough for him to see generations of operators go through this same cycle of burning out, of failure. Emerson caught himself, clenching his teeth. "Sorry, just a lot on my mind."

"Naturally," Blackburn cooly said. "But I'm just here to warn you that if there is an investigation into your conduct then, you shouldn't be surprised."

"Of course." Emerson had agreed. He understood what he had done. He understood it and then every bit after. "But respectfully I think it would've been more negligent of me to do nothing."

"By your regard? Or the code and conduct of the US Army?"

Emerson pursed his lips. "Both."

"I don't remember reading that in the handbook." Blackburn looked to his side, snide comment made and all.

"I was not about to leave one of my men behind, and I wasn't about to take any hostility against the innocent laying on my back. We were engaged."

"Settle down, meat eater." That combat high was still on Emerson, hanging over him like a cloud. Blackburn had smelt it. "Don't need any more strikes against your record if they come. Whether it be from our circle or the Japs."

"They already on there?"

"No, but let's just get on this break down."

Blackburn had went on, checking off points on the list, making sure that this Emerson had been the one who did indeed walk through Tokyo with an MP5, gunning down Romans and being one of, if not the, first to do so. An exacting after action report, by any other metric. One misstep, even when already presumed that the entire ordeal was a misadventure, would've ended Emerson's career then and there.

Though Emerson knew it, and quite frankly, he didn't care much for it. Things like this, of discipline, of the nature of war, they went above him. God would be his judge.

It took an hour and a half for that debrief to come through, that first few hours of that day up until they had found Tracy replayed as if torture to the lieutenant, but it was needed. Emerson talking back his memory as Blackburn read questions clarifying as such. This wasn't his first debrief. Far from it. Hardly his messiest mission and needing to justify what he had done for it.

Surgical, tactical, precision; words that defined his missions but, in the end, never ended up matching as far as he had known. It was easy to be cynical about it all, as he was being, even today.

All the order of things, from paperwork to confession, it helped justify anything and everything.

"They need to hear it in your words," Blackburn had said, finally thumbing the recorder off after it was done. "From what I heard of you, you weren't going in there, gun blazing for nothing, so this should help."

"Then why is it a CIA Station Chief doing the debrief rather than me regiment?"

Blackburn had only smiled, getting up, hanging outside the door of their room and signaling for someone. "As you were, lieutenant."

Leaving that room he had only bumped shoulders with a man who had been as equally on edge as him. It was Cam Masterson's turn in the hot seat. The least Emerson could do was wait for him.

Friends beyond professional etiquette.

Replaying those words in his head Emerson had laughed at himself internally. It was hard to simply say that he had been friends, not after a situation so hot the base was still rumbling with movement of other Rangers from the 4/75 doing what they were called for. It was hard for him, not to go out there and resume formation. The 4/75 had been brought forward into Japan for a very specific reason, not too different than what they were going into Tokyo for. Albeit of all the armies to come into Tokyo, they expected it to be the Chinese.

The deployment of an entire Ranger battalion across Japan had served many purposes that he had understood, most of them playing a political game that Emerson knew too well. Of all the campaigns he had served on, the political ones had been the most fulfilling.

He glanced at his phone, notifications blowing up, and yet nothing he could say.

Not to Mom, or Dad, or John: Emerson's family, worried sick, knowing where he had been.

He had slid the switch to silence his phone, head in hands, leg shaking.


He had a family.

Not Tracy. Not Anymore.

He had allowed himself one short message, just his luck he had caught the phone not answered and left only this:

"I'm okay Mom, don't you worry about me. Stuff got real dicey, but you know me. I'll be fine. Just worry about chemo and all that? Alright? Promise? Love you. Tell Dad and John I'm okay. I'll call again soon."

The rumbling and yelling from beyond the door had brought Emerson out of his inner thoughts. "Write me up, like I give a shit spook. I did what I needed to do and I'm not justifying it to the asshole who botched North Korea!"Masterson had been a shooter in the forward deployed Rangers longer than most. The shoulders that he had bumped into during his time outweighed Emerson's own, and whatever that meant as he stormed out of the room and left nothing but a slammed door in his wake, yelling all the while.

He was pleasantly surprised to see his lieutenant waiting for him, but it only offered him opportunity to put what he was feeling into words. "Man, can you believe it Kay?"

Fired up, this was how a piece of himself, his true self, came about again. Half disbelief, half sarcasm. His voice, his words, the way he held himself and spoke to people, it had been one of his traits that made him who he was. Loud and proud, hand pointed at that shut door and the man beyond it.

"I am a grown, thirty-year-old, meat eating, red blooded, Anglo-Texan-American! I served my country shooting brown people for years by the infinite wisdom of a Commander in Chief and the Five Star Generals who have done as much irreparable damage to this world as fructose corn syrup. I carried out those orders, and made sure they were reinterpreted best to the greatest common good of our mission, for the last decade of my life. And yet…" He had slammed his fist against the doorway. "Some spook asshole who thinks they can just come in and insert himself into this god forsaken situation a few days late has the gall to tell me, a good ass Ranger, that I might've done something wrong! Fuck you! If my tribe didn't raise me right I woulda just called you a carpet bagging, Uncle Tom, chink to your face!"

Colorful he was as a character, how folksy his accent was that came from Texas itself, it had been as harsh as the man needed to be.

Hands at his hips, Emerson could only pat the man's back twice. "Good Cam?"

The man had been fuming like a bull, daring Blackburn on the other end to move. None came. Even after half a minute, tense as a firefight lull. "Sorry," Masterson said, hushed, beneath his breath. "Don't usually like using the race card but it's uh, the Marines are a bad influence."

As tense a smile he could put on, Emerson gave it to him. "Come on. We gotta get our kits in order if we're being sent back out."

"I'd rather just stay here and lock this spook in this room."

This time the hand on Masterson's shoulder had stayed, forcing him off and away. "If you're gonna rage against the CIA for what they've done, Cam, I have a nice pot I could introduce you to."

In all honestly Emerson had preferred that Masterson not vent the frustrations of the last few days at a CIA Station Chief, of all things. Though this was the first signs of life of a man that had gone cold since Tracy had been restrained and taken away. The man had fought his own platoon, with hands and fists, spreading the blood of his baby amongst them all as he clawed at them to not restrain him and send him away, away from his family. Masterson had held him down and it felt like betrayal; his redemption simple: Kill as many Romans as he could.

So many JSDF and police had acted very much like him, striking out against the Romans as they coward beneath superior firepower, handling them roughly when they did surrender, tossing the dead ungracefully into piles.

There was a story Emerson had recounted, then and there, the two men walking through empty halls of Yokota AFB to the setup area for them: During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a lone airman had taken off disobeying orders, shooting down so many attackers with a single machinegun in an outdated plane, only crash landing when he had run out of ammo, fuel, his plane riddled with bullets. The public had cried for him to be decorated when all was said and done, but US Command had seen it differently: it would've awarded dissent and insubordination.

"How's the shoulder man?" Emerson had held the doors out of the admin building out to the tarmac of Yokota, still cloudy, still damp from the rain that had come over them. Masterson had only shaken it once, barely wincing.

"Ain't nothin'." He said, coolly as he could. "Only lightning will take me down, and even then, it's gotta strike twice."

"Is that the official diagnosis, sergeant?"

Masterson snickered. "No, sir."

For a moment a bit of his lighthearted self had returned, but it was buried beneath the furrow of his brow, another flight of F-35s from the Fallujah roaring overhead. A reminder of where they were.

The sound of military jets and choppers had been long familiar to the two men, but here, it felt different, bouncing off the natural sound of a country that had otherwise been a bastion of non-interventionism for the latter half of a century. No country existed in a vacuum however.

"You gonna be alright?" Emerson didn't know exactly how to word anything but the combination of pure, genuine worry and the insinuation that he had to be for the sake of order, but that was the best he had gotten out of his mouth as the two men walked along the buildings of the air base, distant thunder roaring out.

"We've all lost, Kay, this ain't my first rodeo… But shit. I shoulda never left his side."

Emerson sighed out, as strong as Masterson tried to gather himself up. "Don't put that evil on yourself. None of you could've prepared for what happened."

"I shoulda yelled at him at least, to just not go for the fire alarm and just book it with his family," Masterson patted his own cheek, going over to palm his face. "Shit happened so fast."

"I know, Sergeant. I know. But if he didn't, that convention woulda been a lot worse."

It was hard to quantify anything worse when they were all there and the bodies had become the new floor.

"I'll get over it." Emerson doubted that. "Just put me out there again, and I'll be better."

Put me out there. Let me keep killing.

Everything in that world was about power, the relationship between Rangers like them, and dirt farmers that shot at them? Bridged only by gunfire and a common language of modern warfare, no matter what type: guerilla or traditional. These Romans? They did not exist on that power structure, but were subject to it. It was nothing less than the exertion of justified megalomania; to exert force on someone who deserved it.

"Ain't healthy, you know." The two men turned over to the open mouth of one of the base's hangers.

"This job, ain't healthy, Kay…" Masterson paused everything, even his steps, letting Emerson walk a few steps in front before a few words had breathily came out of him. "Thanks for asking, by the way."

Emerson had made a small smile, an affirming nod. "It's what I'm here for."

A hanger on Yokota had become the staging point for much of the Rangers deployed forward in Japan at the time, inside it not planes, but rather the cages that each operator had found their own gear and workspace in. Not much bigger than a walk-in closet, it was enough, each cage side by side forming a block. Inside each had been the personalized shelves and containers, workbenches, meant for each Ranger to look over and maintain their gear and equipment. An entire company of Rangers had found themselves in cramped quarters of that hanger, over eighty, but Hitman had had their time in the sun, the rest of the company out in Ginza performing their duties as called upon.

A moment of privacy, rare, but the quietness over the hall had been filled with the sorrow, thick with regret.

Emerson had rounded the cage block dedicated to his platoon, and found his Rangers off by one of its corners, half in a school circle, heads held low, unsure of what to do. Nearly twenty men and women, normally loud and proud and glad to be alive, more or less, driven silent by absence. When Emerson rounded the corner his Rangers looked at him. It was time.

"Ell-Tee." Bannon had been the first to open her mouth, her ragged voice dragging, her eyes going back to what they were all looking at:

It was Tracy's cage.

Through the wire of the cage they all saw it; the now morbid reminders of what he didn't have now: laying by his disassembled rifle on his work bench had been a picture of him and his family together in their backyard in Maryland. Tracey, so young, having a family, had a apron that read: "Kiss the Cook!" in all of its cliché glory, his wife hanging onto his shoulders as he tended a grill, his daughter waiting patiently with a paper plate, waiting for the burgers to come out. His daughter's blonde hair glowed brilliantly in the summer sun as his wife's tank top proudly displayed the emblem of the 75th Ranger Battalion.

He was lucky. Far luckier than he deserved, he sometimes told them all.

Of Hitman, only three other members had a family like he did, and he had been the youngest, happiest of them.

Ramirez had been the other, his worn face betraying the indignity that he felt for a fellow family man having been dealt such a rotten card. The oldest man of that group, at forty, he had always been a guide for Tracey on how to maintain a healthy family relationship despite what they did as a profession. All that advice now, had been useless.

Emerson felt for the keys to the cages in his pocket. He as an officer had the masters for his block. Of all the services that they, Hitman, needed to carry out for Tracey, cleaning out his personal effects had been one of them.

"Sir-" Masterson had said quietly, but couldn't hide it, as the two of them approached the caged door in front of Hitman, the group allowing them space. "Let me, open it. He was my direct responsi-"

Emerson didn't need to hear anything more, turning around and gingerly dropping the key into Masterson's palm.

"Thank you."

The Lieutenant could only give a meek smile as Masterson moved to open the door, now he caught in front of Hitman as a whole, pensive, holding back, ashamed. He needed to say something, and he did. "I asked, uh, General Andrade, on whether or not we can get clearance to visit Tracey." The entire group had perked up too soon, not catching his tone, drooping. "The doctors, they won't let us."

"Man, fuck them, we gotta be there for him man." Corporal Harris had been strong with his words. He always was, having the form and fit to back it up, standing tall amongst all the Rangers. The closest thing to a doctor in that group however had seen it the medical professional's way. Hitman had, collectively, called him Doc. Bald by his own choice in the end, he turned over to Harris, baseball cap he wore in hand.

"We'd only make it worse, Brian." As a combat medic, Doc knew best what hard decisions were, and to agree was one of the hardest he'd made. "Being there? We'd do everything he'd ask, we'd send him deeper down."

Hate. There was so much hate brewing in each of them. The feel they had for the innocent alone would've been murderous enough, but the fact that it had happened to one of their own? The very ground beneath them had felt dry, cracked, ready to be stomped down on by each and every one as they felt the drag of darker instincts.

They entered Tracy's cage, the ones closest to him. Ramirez, Loke, Masterson. They saw all that he had brought along to make himself at home in the cage.

"Rest of you," The Hitmen who had stayed, looking in, their eyes had all turned to Emerson as he called for attention. "Break off. Go ready your kits, do something. Being here… No need."

A few silent nods, yes sirs, alrights and okays. Emerson had a point as silently his platoon split, most into their own cages as their chain doors rattled and they settled in.

Shelves had been erected in Tracy's cage, more personal effects than anything, framed pictures, report cards and drawings, books that his daughter had sent him to read. They had a set schedule on what to read, together, even an ocean apart. It was so that even thousands of miles away they could look forward to something together. A container of old bay had sat next to a bag of chips, half of it dumped into the snacks on his own volition, that had perhaps been the reason Tracy's AR had been a little greasy around the points of contact. He had been the middle of extending the mag release. He was practicing shooting offhand and having an ambidextrous control would've helped that along. It was Masterson's suggestion.

The sergeant had taken a seat at his chair, before said work desk, picking up an AR wrench. "I'll strip the gun down. Get his personal stuff off of it.

"Right." Loke nodded behind Masterson, palming over a few of those picture frames, stacking them on top of each other as Ramirez had produced a rucksack.

"Stuff that's fragile, put it in his hard case," Ramirez motioned to the footlocker in the corner. "With no gun, there's gonna be space. Rest in here."

This was his first loss like this, and Emerson had felt useless as he stood outside of the cage, looking at the three Rangers wade in the melancholy of a man they thought dead. He wasn't. He had nothing more than a few bruises and cuts, but it had been an act of ignorance to believe those were his only injuries.

What was it like to see a man go insane? A question unanswered until the day they saw Tracy, and how, he had gone from body to body in the convention center, trying to find parts to put his daughter back together. When Hitman tried to stop him, he fought, he fought as hard as he possibly could, and he screamed, and he screamed for death.

It was about time for himself to get squared away, by his own words, letting those who had taken to Tracy's effects do their business, wade through the life of a man that they had called brother.


The amount of countries, around the world, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command, where US Special Forces are currently deployed.

Tracy's cage was stripped bare and down, packaged all nice and tight for transport. Those that had done him the service had nothing more to do than attend to themselves. It was easy, for Masterson and Loke to linger as Ramirez gave one last mournful nod at the empty cage and walked away.

"You look beat, Sarge." Loke had tapped Masterson's elbow, and he agreed, running a hand down his face.

"Who wouldn't?"

The two had walked off back to their cages, settling in, getting squared away by way of their weapons. For Masterson though, Loke's observance hadn't been entirely unfounded, hadn't been relegated only to her. He had heard the familiar boot steps of another woman at the door of his cage.

Lisa Bannon, he had known for a while. RASP, same cohort. A particular moody little number by his count and her own. A wedding ring had been around her finger but it hadn't meant what people thought; that was the point.

"I'm divorced." She said one night, to him, about four tours and a few years after the two had the whiff of each other after RASP. "'bout a week before I enlisted."

"Any particular reason for it?" He gestured at the ring.

"So idiots like you can ask about it."

Her voice had been raw, beat down, like sand paper had gone down her throat and never healed. It always sounded like she was yelling, even when she talked, but at her speaking voice it simply sounded like she had whisper-rasping. It reminded Masterson of his Dad, in a way, how smoker's lung had done him a number.

She had tipped her head at him as he turned around, and he nodded, inviting her in. She had been more than comfortable in this space with him, and vice versa.

"You." She wags a finger at him as she takes atop one of his hardcases, sitting down and settling in. "I want to know if you're okay."

Masterson is a classically trained shooter. On his uniform, the Velcro along his shoulder holds the flag of nothing less than Texas. Guns had been his culture, so he knew and picked his well, in a unit that had offered him the liberty to choose his exacting specifications he had done so. He had an old carbine that had been perhaps not the latest and greatest, but it had been the standard configuration for gunfighters like him for the last decade. He had clacked it together, pushing the body pins back as he loaded a practice mag, making sure it cycled with a dummy round well enough. Bannon had allowed his silence as he did it.

He knew he was being obtuse, but it was lunacy for him to not submit, to deny himself the feeling of failure. With a placative look he had taken the rifle in one hand in his swivel chair, handing it over to the woman. "I'm a ways away from okay, darlin'."

Corporal Donald Nutt had been in the cage to Masterson's right, the second that last word came out of his mouth he had taken his own leave. He knew the deal. The two sergeants needed privacy, as messy as it was. The grenadier had knocked against the shared wall though, vibrating the chains. "Got some whiskey, stashed by my forty mike, it's there if you need it Sergeants."

"I didn't hear that." Bannon had grimaced, taking Masterson's M4 into her lap after sighting it down to the floor for curiosity. He had switched out for a shortdot recently, his backup ironsights canted at 45 degrees. Always toying with his guns, he had been. She had been otherwise just reading. As long as her own guns shot straight, it was good enough. It wasn't as if the other fireteam lead in Hitman hadn't been taking it upon himself to maintain her weapon for her.

"Might take Don up on that." Masterson thumbed back, rolling his head on his shoulders. "Don't tell me drinking wouldn't help us make sense of this all."

He had shuffled, and for a moment Bannon had thought him moving to go actually get the bottle offered, however a hand had stopped him, holding his wrist and squeezing once, telling him to stay.

On the other side of Masterson's cage had been Corporal Loke. She hadn't been too exacting on letting the two fireteam leads have their guilty privacy as she spoke over the thin barrier of the chains, she going through her own rifle's maintenance. "Cameron," as was how casual Loke had been, "I'd rather you canoodle with Lisa than take to the drink right now…" Distantly Loke had turned, her back had been toward the open hanger door, allowing them all a look out to a very busy military base. "We're at war, don't you know?" Her Michigan accent broke through, perhaps unexpected from a Pakistani-American.

Loke had taken her Mk18, giving it a rack herself before going to her pistol and sighting down the RMR.

"This what you call war?" Bannon gestured her shoulder out the hanger doors.

"Look more like war than Afghan." Loke had said back, going back to working on her guns, the white noise of metal tools on aluminum and titanium going on.

One of the oldest questions of the American modern mythos had tumbled out of Masterson's mouth as he locked his blue eyes with Bannon's greens. "You remember, where you were, during 9/11?"

Bannon made a thin line with her mouth. "We were both kids, you know that. Probably school or sum' shit."

"Well yeah, we was too young to know the feeling of it, but… I always imagined it, early on." He went on, reflective. "What it feel for something to be so impersonal to myself, but so important to the reason I'm even here."

His hand had cupped his own chin and mouth, mumbling as Bannon rose an eyebrow. "You got that feeling now?"

"Me and about million other people now, in this nation." Masterson pointed down at the floor below them. "Something's gotta happen, and I want to be out there."

"Slippery slope, hun'."

"Darlin', you know it ain't our choice. Best I can do is just go for it."

Darlin', hun'. Hints to many things. They told the story of a man and woman from America's West. One from Texas, the other Montana. Bannon's voice, given its gravel, had hid her accent, but Masterson had more than compensated as he held his rifle back, tight, using zip ties to thread his flashlight's pressure pad to its rail.

It was a hint toward familiarity, about who these two adults had been in light of where they were.

It was a hint toward what was happening now: the downtime after the opening shots of a war, one they specifically had been the first ones out on.

Most of all though, it was a hint toward an affection.

Forbidden not in the dramatic sense, but in the professional nature of it. They both knew better, and how it happened over time? An accident. Though that was how it worked, after all.

Quiet moments they were allowed, with Emerson not looking or just ignoring outright, had been rare, and when they were needed, they were denied. Now, today, with a dead family on his shoulders, it was needed.

She had reached out once, again seizing Masterson's hand for a fleeting second, running her thumb over his knuckles and he squeezing back in turn. The two had turned away from each other in it, knowing of the improprieties, their gall, in even doing something like that there in broad daylight. It was their coping mechanism for that long day as, after their moment, Bannon had stood and walked off, leaving Masterson to rest.

Less than a week, that's all it took for the Japanese Diet to congregate and put together a statement.

Ginza had been secured: Downtown Tokyo had been turned into an entire militarized zone, JSDF and Police constantly combing over every single crack that a Roman or one of their beasts could hide. The JSDF came, and they had broken down Tokyo to its core, turning up buildings themselves as they searched for the villains, the enemy, and as they came to be known as: Terrorists.

Though terrorist was only a convenient word. One mired in the language of diplomatic chemistry and the state of warfare as it was in the world as they understood it. Terrorism held its connotation: unnecessary, to force upon innocent people.

The Japanese Diet, and by way of its Speaker of their House of Representative had declared this:

"We shall authorize the deployment of the JSDF!"

The TV that had been on told the tale of a nation wanting retribution, justice.

It was turned off in short order as Hitman sat alone in the briefing room of Yokota as dedicated to them. Them and the rest of Delta Company. Nearly one hundred Rangers, fresh out of patrolling Ginza, had folded their arms in or leaned back into chairs, looking down on their Company CO as he looked at a piece of paper and then the projector image behind him in that darkened room.

This was the image that hadn't been shown to the public:

"Mediterranean." The Company CO had said at once, thumbing back at the grainy images from a drone borrowed from the JSA and sent through the Gate underneath the cover of night and a giant tent arising over it.

That massive Roman Gate had been covered up immediately, JSDF scaling it, drafting a cloak on it in the meantime to cover both it and its defenses inward. In that secrecy the first work was done.

Preliminary records of what had laid on the other side were shown through cameras meant for Mars and the Moon:

"Ladies and gentlemen, what we are looking at is the surface of what is, quintessentially, an extraterrestrial planet. Of all the questions that have come up in this last week, we have an answer to one: We are not alone in the universe."

It was odd, the implications that this Gate provided a pathway to a somewhere else that hosted life. Life that also so, so similarly mirrored Earthen fauna and fairytales.

The video footage told the story of a fairytale: of a quaint landscape as seen from what was obviously a raised position. The camera mounted onto the rover that was sent through had revealed these details:

At first it had taken several hours to go through the Gate and its blackness, even casual attempts to step into the dark revealing nothing but a firm blackness, reality turned into the void with only a glimmer of light toward the opposite end. Through that end in a burst of light was another world. At the other end had been a Gate, much like the one that had stood in the middle of Ginza, and much like Ginza, there had been Romans there. The grainy resolution of the video camera could only speak to the hordes of Romans and what other life there was giving the immediate area around the Gate, down the hill that it sat, a wide berth. Was it of caution? The smoke from war fires and the flight of dragons had fluttered about. Blue sky above, clouds, breathable air. Legions and legions.

"This is some time travel shit." One of the Hitmen had muttered to some muted agreement.

Time travel, space travel, dimensional travel, maybe. Though what was the point on even finding out what had been what? To many there, their Middle East had been brought back to the stone age by their hand. The US Military was a time travel machine in a way with how it regressed so many people, Emerson had given thought as took in those images. How much further in time could they send these Romans?

"These images," The CO started. "Are current as of eight hours ago. This same recon drone is still beaming images. From what we can tell the Enemy has formed a perimeter around their insertion point, anticipating reprisal from us."

"Then why ain't we thanking them for their troubles?" Masterson grumbled up front.

The CO had thumbed to the TV in the room and held up another paper. "That speech their Speaker gave was premeditated." Said speech was in his hand. "And trust me, you want to hear it from me."

A few of the older Rangers who had known this CO tucked in, it was very odd for him to have been as reserved as he was as he put on his glasses to better read it again, starting slow. "Under current Japanese legislation, and in compliance to International Law, Japan shall not engage in an escalating international conflict." Eyes had gone dry, brows shifting. "That is why in the course of these events, no matter how unreasonable, the land beyond the Gate shall be considered a part of Domestic Japan. The perpetrators of the attack on Ginza are nothing more, or less, than terrorists. Criminals." Those were the COs words: plain English.

The bodies, the uniforms, the order of battle lines and formations. The proposition that Japan had declared that these had been terrorists. In a more decent world, some of the Rangers there thought, terrorists didn't wear uniforms; weren't part of standing armies. The world they had lived in hadn't been decent though. Still, on its face, it was a ploy. They were an army. An army of a standing nation, unknown to the world. They could not be treated as criminals. They were not, as many of those in that room had known, as Hitman had known uniquely, shot at like common criminals. They were warfighters, and to degrade their enemy into no less than illegal… It felt wrong in a way.

Emerson saw through the meat of it, cut into the heart of the matter. "So we have little recourse." We. The American Military.

The CO had blinked a few moments in the dim room as his Rangers riled up, realizing what Emerson meant. Even with the Mutual Defense Agreement, US Military matters in Japan hadn't extended to that "civil" sphere of law and law-keeping.

"The language of this declaration which is happening now," The CO explained tiredly. "Mirrors certain language as employed in our own War Powers Act. It basically gives Japan its blank check, despite the JSDF's own imposed limits. The fact that they were in Korea has weakened their checks and balances."

Masterson's blue eyes reflected the sky of the image before him. "Then where do we stand, sir? Why we lookin' at this place?"

The CO tightened up, spoken to by Masterson. How personal this went for him, the CO had put aside his rank as captain and spoken to him, like a man. "We're Rangers, Sergeant Masterson. Our tasking here in Japan as of current is of, pushing past the placating language, a fast response to the PRC should open warfare come to pass. However, it is our responsibility, therefore, to act in recognition to further threats in this region. Given that Delta Company has personally sustained losses…" he trailed off, seeing Hitman almost glow in the dark. Personal. That word, for as professional as they were, was inevitable. "Command is looking to see if the Japanese will let us play ball."

An implication: "They aren't already?" Doc had been one of Hitman's smarter members. Went to medical school once, became everything short of a practicing doctor. Cancer had come first, ripped out his heart, showed him how much he had to lose. That matter of introspection to save other people in their most dire had, somehow, culminated in finding his way into the military and Ranger.

"We'd be, according to this language," the CO had seemed pained to say, "Performing COIN on Japanese soil."

"Well it ain't." Doc said again. "They have no international recognition of it. To just broadly claim another world, whatever is beyond there, as Japanese?"

"It's Imperial." Emerson had said once, almost as if a period. "It would contend against any local powers that do legitimately claim territory beyond this Gate."

"Well, lieutenant," the CO said to his youngest officer. "I don't think territory claims are exactly to be respected when it comes to responding to American casualties. To be fair, I don't think Japan will do any such thing. Not with what's happened to them."

Justice, what was right, and what was due. What was due to Delta Company? To Hitman in particular for having lost what they had? Was that at all equal to the Japanese who had lost people that day? Questions that contended with objective fact.

"We have a final count on casualties?" Loke had asked gently.

The CO had winced. "Upwards of eight thousand civilians."


"Twelve Americans," He started. "One Hungarian, two Italians, four Brits and a Frenchman. Senegal claims to be missing two children as well in the attack but those aren't confirmed. A lot of embassies are reporting missing but there are a lot of nooks and crannies that all forces involved have to go digging through."

Masterson had almost regretted asking, but it had been involuntary. "And the Romans?"

The CO had answered more concretely. "Eighty-thousand at highest."

Eighty-thousand dead.

When men had stood in lines, bullets tended to amplify in their output. This type of warfare was outdated for a reason, and its lesson had never been taught to the Romans until that day. To think of that many people, that many bodies being piled up on top of Tokyo streets? It was insanity. And yet the JSDF had carved a path through its own streets and buildings, and the enemy had met them the only way they knew how: like pigs to the slaughter. The sum total of the entire Japanese losses of the Invasion of Okinawa in World War 2 had been brought to bear in the span of 24 hours in the heart of Tokyo, and the bodies that had piled up had been becoming a problem altogether.

Unfortunately, for Japan, dealing with hazmat and biohazard risks had been its norm recently.

Every body, every corpse, had had its picture taken, and then burnt, a case file assigned and what personal effects found packaged up neatly into a cold warehouse for further examination by a historical and scientific society faced with the same fact as the Rangers: the Roman Empire, in some form, had come to the Modern World.

"Is that an equal give and take?" A Ranger asked quietly, contending with the number.

No one answered.


The number of Iraqi deaths stemming from the invasion from Iraq, from March 2003 to June 2006.

From Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey via The Lancet

Several days later.

Again, rain, or, at least, the mugginess beforehand. As of late, the average Japanese civilian didn't spend much time outside when it rained: the fears of radioactive contamination, actual nuclear rain, perhaps overblown, but a present fear. It was why the Rangers, as they flew above a portion of outer Tokyo, were surprised to see so many out and about, even if some had been there without choice.

Hitman as a whole had been dropped off by chopper, dressed down, for all intents and purposes. Plate carriers, at least, but no rucks or bags. It was decidedly casual but outright combat hadn't been what they were there for today, even when all of them had their duty weapons still slung over their chests. The two choppers required to bring Hitman anywhere had dusted off as soon as they had disembarked.

Where they had gone had been the nexus of two disasters.

Japan had had its rough share that year: between a tsunami, a nuclear disaster which dredged up the last one, and a military incursion into Tokyo. It had only meant that there had been something in place, something to use, for when the Romans came.

Displacement Camp 1A had been the largest refugee camp within Japan, erected overnight in the frame of a supermall to be on the edge of Tokyo. Calamity had come first however, and the government had taken over the large plot in order to help organize and give those who had no family outside of the Fukushima Prefecture a place to stay as the disaster relief went on.

Emerson had been to the prefecture, taken helicopter rides further north as the nuclear sludge had been taken back out to see and deposited along an impossibly big coastline. The dead, man and animal, had been thrown about beaches dotted with debris. Every single moment the JSDF had been enthralled in merely collecting the dead and dealing with the worst of it, picking up, tearing the skin itself from Japan as it uprooted anything touched by radiation. Helicopters had been around the clock, even before Ginza, sending more men and material into Fukushima and into the devastated zones.

At least there, in 1A, it had been where a great deal many people were housed, having escaped the nuclear apocalypse. Japan as a people had never been more unified as they had been in that last decade, between the rise of a Chinese power and the faltering of an American one, so rooms were made, hosts had volunteered, and those without a home in Japan after the disaster had been welcomed in by those who had offered.

It hadn't been more than four months since the tsunami and earthquake which had opened up the dark heart of Fukushima, and the last stragglers of 1A had been moved on in place of a different population:

A Roman one.

What had once been a refugee camp, the massive, multi-story parking lot which had surrounded a central mall flat and filled in with fenced sections of tents and prefab buildings, had now turned into a prison. A perimeter had been established around the mall, Japanese people screaming for the heads of these Roman soldiers in an unknown land had resounded even above the beat of helicopters. The survivors of the army had all been marched to here on short-notice, stripped of their weaponry and arms, and told to sit tight beneath the guard of the JSDF.

There had been a helicopter pad on top of the mall building, offering Hitman a look down, bumping shoulders with some of the posted MPs, down onto the fenced courtyards that had been made from the parking spaces. Like the war prisoner camps of another world war, Romans, dazed and confused, tired and scared, had all huddled by each other or had been in tents, not knowing what had been happening.

This had been no charade, no trick; these were men out of time. More than men, even, pigs and tauros, canid and feline verities of bipedal humanoids, even avian. All of them had served, undeniably, a legion.

Emerson adjusted his sling as he peered over the roof, down as Hitman also took that look of curiosity. "Helluva a group." Masterson remarked.

"2,000 and counting." Emerson reported back. Meetings between the officers of the 4/75 had been tense in Japan now. Emerson had been a dark horse, having been the only one who had gone to fight at first as the rest played second fiddle.

Rangers lead the way, after all.

Ryan Valentine, marksman, with his keen eyes had look down on them all as a man with his type of rifle did. M110A2. Dressed up as was befit for him: the net-like paintjob intermittent above a black body. He didn't need a scope to see the one Roman that looked up at the Rangers in turn. How easy it would've been to just turn his rifle over, to aim down, to put the crosshairs right on his head and then-

Valentine had a child on the way, a wife waiting for him, back home, in Seattle. He felt for Tracy in ways he never thought possible: to think of losing his family, before his very eyes, the rage he felt had been the best he had ever felt. The way his brown hair blew was the only feeling he had as he looked down and locked eyes with that Roman.

They didn't look any different from him: White, twenty-something. Stripped of their armor, left with only thin and simple under layers that they had, their fabric had been of the ancient variety. It felt, to many of the Hitmen, what perhaps the set of a fantasy TV show looked like.

"You ever watch Game of Thrones?" Doc had nudged Valentine with his elbow.

Valentine shook his head, his eyes and voice dull. "I was like, 5 when it came out man."

Doc had patted the back of his SCAR-L. "Always wondered what it was going to be life, if, like, there were guns in Westeros." He said with some dry morbidity.

The answer had been before them, looking down.

Emerson had seen, more and more, Romans down there had looked up at them and he felt it: The Judgement. It rose the hairs on the back of his head, feeling the raw energy of knowing what the enemy looked like. "Alright, let's go. We got a briefing to get to and we're already in enough shit."

Emerson had drawn his Ranger Chalk away into what had been the mall, turned operations center, the stark white hallways and stairways of what was to be commerce on a massive degree sickly in a way as suit and ties rubbed shoulders with armed men. The JSDF and the US Military, operating side by side in a tense arrangement. The tension had been there: of both sides feeling they were being held back by each other.

One had seen revenge clearly, a goal: The other had been down that path before.

The lower levels of the mall had been used as prisoner occupancy as well, leaving the American and JSDF MPs on the walkways above, looking down. Hitman still looked down as they entered the mall proper, their boots in unison, guns uneasily slung, as they walked to where they were expected.

In what had used to be the mall's planned food court instead had lain the American situation center.

They had seen him coming in, in a way, the tanks posted and the LAVs around, alongside the unmistakable formations of Marines on guard. Colonel Pierce had crossed his arms, kitted out like a rifleman as he stood before a white board with General Andrade. The two men had glanced over as Emerson.

General Andrade was a friend to Emerson. The General, older as he was, still made attempts to reach out to the bottom rung of his command structure, especially those in the 4/75. It was Emerson's particular concentration in his own interest that had made Andrade take note of the young man.

"Army must be running out of people if you're a lieutenant, Emerson." Andrade had spoken to Emerson frankly one day during inspections. The general had taken some time to do so personally.

"It's not my failure, sir." Emerson had responded.

There was a certain self-loathing in Emerson. On his face, one could mistake it for professionalism. Though even away from the eyes of his command, away from his job, there was a certain dreariness that Emerson existed in perpetually. He was a good soldier, and a good man, and those had been, as observed by himself, dialectically opposed. He lived in contradiction upon contradiction, and he had been much too self-aware of it. He was liable to call himself stuck up for it, but there had been no time for that.

Hitman had rendered salute to the General as Colonel Pierce stood, arms akimbo, regarding them and then the general tactical map on a whiteboard, written in English. Every once and a while a Japanese liaison officer would stop by, leaving notices or communications on one of the many set up tables, but largely the JSDF had left the Americans alone.

Colonel Pierce had been something of a celebrity, whether he had liked it or not.

Medal of Honor recipients such as himself had hardly been on the frontline still, but he was due his choice of assignment, so he chose the one that brought him back to the Pacific. That was what his heart told him to do.

Once, what seemed like so long ago with a nuclear disaster in between, North Korea and South Korea had thrown themselves at each other, one last time. It hadn't been an instigation by the US, or a provocation by South Korea. Of all the plans and undoubted thousands of trials meant to collapse the North Korean state and turn it to the West, what had happened had been no less than a superbug.

Sickness had wracked through a country particularly disadvantaged to deal with an outbreak. South Korea had denied aid and what aid China or Russia offered had been intercepted and stymied by international responses. There was nothing humane about what had happened but the eventual collapse. Like an infected cyst however, North Korea had nothing left to do but explode outward in one last revenge against the world for over half a century of pain.

Artillery fell on Seoul on the magnitude seen only in World Wars. China intervened by invading its northern border, containing the outpouring of refugees and attacks.

The Southern Front had been nothing less than the continuation of the Korean War outright.

Caught behind the North Korean frontline with a company of men, Adrian Pierce had led his Marines to a North Korean firebase, silencing guns that had been shelling urban areas of South Korea and holding out against a torrent of North Koreans.

What he had lost that day, physically, had been his teeth: A North Korean bashing his face in with a shovel before his attacker had been killed.

Though like all things, the damage went deeper. The reason why Pierce had led the 7th now was because his last unit was destroyed, and because of those circumstances, Pierce had understood loss. Pierce had looked at Hitman, at Emerson, at Masterson, and all the pretenses of pompous or believed branch rivalries had melted away into pure pragmatic organization.

"Take a seat, Rangers. Sorry about the mess, but uh, we've had to be really up close and personal with what we've been doing." He spoke like a man from the Midwest, humbled and familiar.

The echoes and reverb of a mall, like so many of the empty, abandoned ones in America's Midwest, had been haunting, albeit sprinkled with the sound of footsteps from guards and Romans. One such MP had walked along with a German shepherd, its paws against ceramic tiles.

A dark-skinned Ranger, darker than Emerson, head bald and pursing his lips had made a comment, glancing at the dog. "It's a shame Khan didn't get into the action." His deep, low voice mentioned.

Khan had been the name of Hitman's dog, still kept on base at Yokota. It would've been inadvisable to have brought him out to Ginza that day. The beast of a dog, meant for special forces work, wasn't intended for the pure combat that they experienced.

Andrade had nodded. "Animals in general haven't been that useful. The surviving pigmen and orcs that we have accrued just scare them off."

Right. Hitman collectively blinked to themselves in remembrance. Yes, there had been those anthropomorphic beasts that stood on two legs. A pig had ripped apart of the O'Neills.

Hitman returned a favor dozens of times over the following hours and fights.

"Now," Andrade started, gesturing at the Ranger group. "You're here for a reason today regarding the US's official response to the emergence of this foreign enemy on Japanese territory."

"We have a way?" Emerson asked, remembering just recently as the international death totals came in. America and China had been highest on the list, and every country that had sustained the death of their nationals had clamored for a response, for the deployment of troops. China had been the most aggressive, having already put together a congregation and deployment of troops, just awaiting the Japanese go-ahead. That was the miracle of a one-party system, Emerson had cynically thought. Then again if all people had been as efficient as that, as righteous as the Chinese as of late, they would've been charging into that gate the moment they returned to it.

Andrade nodded. "The UN and about a small army of ambassadors have been giving the Japanese pressure and have offered an ultimatum: Acquiesce to international supervision or face immediate sanctions and legal actions abroad."

"Was that it?"

"Well, surprisingly, no. They fought back, stating internal security measures and Japanese sovereignty were not to be questioned in matters of domestic affairs, as they have claimed, however since the US Military maintains cause by way of the mutual defense agreement, we have become the international supervision by way of compromise."

It was certainly a thought: the world giving America its graces to perform on behalf of them. Then again what was America but the pointman in affairs most anomalous?

"Sounds like expectations." A Ranger rattled off.

Andrade's eyes had gone from the Ranger group down to his notes and mission brief. Still unsure, knowing that there was a point to all this. "It's real messy so far, but the Japanese aren't gonna like what we're gonna put down." A few of the Hitmen shifted, the foley of rifles shuffling against their forms unkind. They were already halfway through this deployment into Japan and the idea of it being extended? It didn't sound too hot to any of them, but nothing had been simple in that last week. "The Japanese government is gonna put a force limit on what we can contribute to this…" Andrade took a glance at the communications sent to him, "Special Task Force."

"Special task force? Sir?" Bannon asked further.

"A military contingent head by the JSDF meant for a tactical expedition into the Gate for the express purpose of dealing with the security threat."

"How big?" Emerson had been more pointed about it. Details oriented. Details saved lives.

"Division strength on their end." Andrade answered, glancing to Pierce and affirming it really was him standing there.

"Not like we need much anyway, sir." Bannon spoke up again, and the General nodded.

"Yes ma'am." He affirmed. "But for what we will bring over, Hitman will be a part of it."

Masterson gripped his arms a bit harder, crossing them, his jaw locked tight. Throughout Hitman, a wave of tension taken in, dealt with. In the minds of each man and women they tried to decide how to feel. Some were vindicated, ready for a real combat deployment, to avenge Tracey. Some were apprehensive, the idea of being even further deployed uneasy. Uneasy in the way during Ranger training that they had thrown themselves into a pool with bound arms and legs and told to break out.

"Hitman as a whole, and as part of the larger element?" Emerson had seen the particular language used as Andrade nodded again, looking over to Pierce.

"Hitman, you'll be tasked to the 7th MEU as our Special Missions Unit beneath JSOC. You'll be a forward deployed when we get past this gate and act as a recon force that reports directly to General Andrade and his headquarters. Otherwise we'll provide support when warranted."

Just the MEU? Emerson had rose an eyebrow. "Sir, surely this…" Emerson searched for a word other than invasion, "Operation calls for more than just one MEU."

Andrade soured. "It's all we're able to get over."

A little over 2000 men and women, Marine and Navy elements included. Aviation, Armored, Mechanized, logistics, and anything that filled in between, all neatly wrapped up in what the US DoD had called the Marine Expeditionary Units. Fast response forces not unlike the Rangers in a way, but obviously more conventional in nature. These were the forces that, if China had invaded, were to either press the assault forward first and hope that the main battalions would file in to support afterwards. Self-contained was a word to use them.

A microcosm of the Marines.

It sounded like a lot, but compared to a division of the JSDF? They had earmarked 10,000 or so personnel. A sizable portion of the active JSDF outright.

"Sound like something more for the Snake Eaters back at Bragg." Bannon had the repertoire of the other Army SOF units on her mind. "We're Rangers, this wasn't our work back in the Sand Box."

It was the word of the Green Berets more what was being hinted at.

General Andrade nodded again. "In my time dealing with SOCOM, yes, that is correct. But Lieutenant Emerson and Sergeant Masterson have dealt you this card."

Hitman turned over to the men in question, Masterson furrowing his eyebrows, shoulders shrugged. "Hell did I do?"

"Nothing, Sergeant." Andrade went on. "But the Japanese know that you two were the first American responders that day, and so they know you. You're familiar. You are already engaged in such a way that the rest of the 4/75 isn't. That the Japanese is comfortable with."

Pierce had spoken now, as fathers to their men do. "This is what we get for being first on the trigger. Suddenly we're experts in medieval warfare."

"Classical, sir."

Pierce had looked at Emerson as he made the comment, Hitman as a whole shrinking as their book smart lieutenant had to open his mouth. It was a collective groan, but one in good faith. Emerson was a West Point graduate surely, with all the temperance of a man more set for Yale.


"Medieval is post-Roman. The Classical era is what we consider the period when the Roman Empire was in power."

A beat, Pierce and Andrade looking at each other a moment. Emerson was almost embarrassingly a bookworm by any other measure, though it was endearing.

"Hm. Noted." Pierce had nodded, moving on.

Footsteps from out of view, office shoes, office shirt, a man who dressed like he did when surrounded by Romans and Marines had been a man of note: It was Blackburn again, a folder of papers in his arms as he had walked up. "General, Colonel." He greeted before turning to Hitman. Masterson grimaced and Blackburn had similarly done so. "Hitman."

Pierce had been a little more cognizant of this man. "Andrew."

Survivors of the initial North Korean charge across the DMZ into Seoul had sustained respect across each other. That was, at the very least, what Pierce had for the spook.

Blackburn had placed his folder against the table before crossing his arms, looking over at the Ranger group and taking a breath.

"My name is Andrew Blackburn, I'm the CIA Station Chief for Japan, and, given the situation, I'm being transferred. Same as all you."

"We falling under you now?" Masterson crossed his arms himself, chin tipped.

Blackburn nodded. "Trust me, I'm as thrilled as you about this, Sergeant Masterson, however…" Blackburn ran a hand down his face, dragging out the bags beneath his eyes. "Long story short we're all acting outside of ourselves. White House and the Director want the closest touch they can on this pulse, and we're it. Due to my work history I'll be your handler for your deployment into this Special Region." He expected the Rangers to say something, to react, but none did. "How many of you have been tasked with Yankee-White mission deployments before?"

One man raised his hand: Ramirez. In Blackburn's recollection: He was the Bin Laden Ranger.

Blackburn had blinked a few times. These really were new Rangers. "Well, alright. This deployment will fall under that purview."

The oldest Ranger of Hitman had puffed his cheeks before nodding to confirm. Ramirez was among a handful of people to see Bin Laden's body as SEAL Team 6 had carted him onboard the Chinook that was their ride out. A detachment of 75th Rangers had been on hand for Neptune Spear just in case the operation had gotten hot and the SEALs needed a highly kinetic extract from what was essentially Pakistan's West Point.

Ramirez asked in his older gruff. "We have an HVT this time? Hell do we even know their names?"

The bustle and murmuring of the prisoners had persisted, but when asked about, their sounds had filled their ears subconsciously.

Blackburn had sniffled before considering his answer: "We're working on it. It's really hard to do intel work when we have a completely new language to parse through." Though that had arisen another comment. "Now according to your rep sheet, I believe one of you is actually a trained 'terp?"

Hitman had turned over. Eighteen sets of eyes on one woman.

As far as new Ranger combat doctrine goes, the Weapons portion of a typical platoon had been a highly specialized section of hurt. Mortars, snipers, light machine guns, and generally most of the AT fielded on their shoulders. The Ranger that they had all looked at had been a part of Masterson's charge then: She was a sniper. Specifically, a sniper, even when compared to Hitman's marksmen with their DMRs: Barbara Annel.

"Specialist?" Emerson asked for her.

She was Hitman's largest woman. Full and stocky, a considerable bulk on her that betrayed her role in the platoon. Her curly red hair had been, as was regulation, tied back and short. Chewing on gum as she usually was, she had taken it out and rested it in her hand to speak.

"Talk to me, spook, what're we dealing with so far?" New Englander as she was she didn't have a kind tone in her voice.

Blackburn opened his folder. "We're seeing a lot of similarities with the Romanic languages, interspun with something that is suspiciously Latin in nature. Currently we're referring it as Lingua Franca, and by that measure, you're all going to have to be somewhat proficient in it."

"The entire Special Task Force?"

Blackburn had smiled once. "Well, you're Special Forces, so you especially. I don't think the JSDF could get a Division-amount of men ready if they tried."

Hitman had groaned in their seats. "Ah shut up you pansies." Annel had spoken out. "We all had to learn Japanese and Chinese at some point here, and god knows half of us know either Pashto or Arabic. Something that's similar to Common Roman shouldn't be that hard."

Doc had piped up. "My medical training should help, actually. I do know a bit of Latin because of it."

Blackburn extended a hand to Doc from his chair. "See? A little optimism goes a long way… We'll be forwarding your element readings as soon as we're confident translations are up to par."

"We'll need more prep than that." Ramirez growled; arms crossed.

Blackburn grimaced. "Yes, but I don't think we'd have the time even if we weren't dealing with an entire unknown element."

Andrade nodded. "Japan wants to get in, secure a foothold, and proceed before the international community puts its foot down in regards to such a move. It's in, therefore, our best interest to follow to provide advisory at the very least. The President made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the US will not sustain a mere oversight capacity when the US has sustained a tragic loss… I assume you, Hitman, assume the same stance."

Emerson licked his teeth with a closed mouth, tilting his head. "Have we been chosen because of our personal connection outright?"

Pierce stepped forward before Andrade could answer. "You've put enough Romans into the ground to quantify a professional, pragmatic experience with them. The emotional why of it was… influencing, but not the main one."

It came with the job: this feeling that washed over Hitman. They were tools, cogs in a machine. In not so polite terms they were merely assets in the military, not people. The indoctrination, the training made it so they accepted it. They felt used, and yet, it was okay, it put them in a position to do something about family lost.

"What's our timeline?" Emerson asked again.

Andrade glanced down at his notes again. "Month and a half, you're setting off in late August."

"And beyond that?"

Andrade paused, thinking, but finding nothing. "Can't say. Mission objective of the Special Task Force is to simply bring those responsible for Ginza to justice. However long that takes, and by what method the Japanese dictate."

"And if we find Dickwad Caesar on an action and we shoot him dead?" Masterson grit through his teeth.

"If it was only one man responsible that'd be easy."

History showed otherwise, time and time again.

It never was just one man responsible about the indiscretions of a nation. Lawyers and judges, commanders and communities, generals and gentrifiers. They all followed and enabled.

Wouldn't it have been easy to just kill people and solve problems? Emerson had thought for a moment that it had been the answer to his questions.

They weren't.

In a morbid sense, the prison had been a museum at the same time, albeit the items of that display had been alive and a few hundred feet away. What had been a watch showroom had become a mini-forensics and study lab. Masterson had led enough of the squad out to study the particular beasts that had been collected, both living and dead examples, leaving Bannon and a few examples to look over what it looked like when a bullet hit chainmail and plate.

5.56, nine millimeter, 12 gauge, 7.62 full metal jacket.

All the same essentially, after a point.

"Take any air support they have out of the equation, and it's easy." Bannon had made the obvious comment as she knocked against the shined metal, right below where a bullet had made its mark.

Blackburn had gone on besides Emerson and Bannon. "Some sort of magic too, ain't much on that. Apparently, it was what happened with comms." He motioned for them to follow him, leading them along the inner hallways of the mall, where offices for the store branches were expected to have been propped up. Instead however, JSDF MPs stood at attention in front of doors, glass meeting rooms for managers and mall staff.

The air of a prison filled their two noses.

Emerson shifted his rifle tighter to his body.

How many Iraqi or Syrian prison camps had the two of them been through before? How many blacksites had this spook been to?

"Violent ones." Blackburn made the comment, flashing his ID badge to the JSDF MPs. The Rangers needed no such clearance.

Medical personnel had been shuffling in and out of the cages of some, shit and grime on their gloves. Blackburn had made his way past those doors, those windows, revealing men bound by cuffs to makeshift cages, evil looks in their eyes: soldiers who refused to stand down.

It was an image that had to register in Emerson's head: down into prison jumpsuits, these were just white men, in chains from a lost war. It was an odd look, one that didn't quite sit well in his head when he was used to so many Arabic, so many just simply brown people held up like this.

Though color and race paled when Blackburn had finally stopped in front of a conference window to a "cell" left all alone save for one occupant:

The upper half of the prisoner's body had been human, as far as Bannon and Emerson could tell, scarred and thin, but a sinewy fighter, all the same. Tattoos in an almost runic, tribal pattern had made itself known on it.

Their hands had been forced closed by bindings, gagged at the mouth. Degraded, a prisoner by any other token. A prisoner of war, no less. "For our own good," The guard at the door had said. "They can manifest fire, pull items and stuff like that. Actual magic."

Magic, fantasy, madness. From the lower half of the prisoner, forced into the center of a room in a metal chair, Bannon and Emerson saw the uniqueness of them, and indeed many of the prisoners that had come from this Roman legion.

Their hooves had tapped along the ground, eyes burning through its observers.

Bannon remembered from the stories her babysitter used to tell her, of dungeons and dragons and the arcane: This was a Satyr. From beneath curly brown, unkempt hair, that of horns poked out.

"He's just… a person, right?" Emerson had asked aloud.

Blackburn hadn't made a nod, but the guard had. "Yeah."

"They're Human, back out there," Blackburn threw a thumb over his shoulder back to the mall proper. "That's for sure. Tests we ran on the body show a 99.7% match with us. Rest of those beasts, those walking pig men and ogres? They have relation to our animals in this world." Blackburn cocked his hips, perplexed he had even been saying this himself. "All of them, like him though," Blackburn finally said pointing at the Satyr, motioning for them to move on. "They're all of general intelligence, undistinguishable from us really. The other Romans treat them as if one of their own. They are of our own… archetypical personality and mind… It's the boars, the beasts as we're calling them, they're a bit lower but still of intelligence enough to understand the others, us even."

Below, in the storage facilities of the malls, the prisons for the beasts had been made, and far above in its rafters, Sergeant Masterson and his group had looked down upon them and knew what it was like to be superior, to see a people able to be slaughtered: Pigs.

He tempered himself, if only because heavily armed JSDF MPs had stood by as well, looking down.

They spent the day there, like a trip, almost, knowing they would be back, to study and to learn about the enemy.

The JSDF had been cognizant of the Rangers, giving them their berth as they commanded their presence: of milk and steak, bred and born American special forces come here so that they knew better how to fight.

"Smoking? My mother was the same way." An MP had made casual talk as Bannon and Emerson had been perusing the prisoners down below, trying desperately to find a point of difference between them and her. The answer that Bannon had given had been said more times than she cared for since she had been eight.

She shook her head. "I had surgery on my throat as a kid. Had some sort of infection in it that wouldn't go away. Ain't nothing as cool as smoking unfortunately."

It had gotten some time for Emerson personally to get used to Bannon's voice, as if she was always gurgling pebbles, but they had been comfortable now. The MP had squeamishly nodded. "Ah."

Seeing the MP's distress Emerson had motioned off to the open sections of the mall, and how some of the aid tents had been set up, a cursory glance at them at what they could see from their elevated point revealing bunks and tables, perhaps not too different than Ranger accommodations when forward deployed.

"We had no shortage of tents, that's for sure." The MP had said, noticing Emerson's gaze, motioning out to the trees and the tents that laid between all of them, weak looking men shuffling amongst themselves in the camp.

Emerson knew what he was referring to. The response to the New Fukushima Disaster had created this outpour of international aid into Japan, of those, refugee tents had been sent for the displaced. And there had been many in surplus, with further removals expected as the true breadth of the zone expanded more.

They would return to 1A in the coming days, weeks, months, learning all they could about these Romans, however on the first day, when the gravity of their enemy had started to set it, Emerson could only look down on all of them and think of what hope, what idea they had about who they were, inversely.

The marbled floor, the bright, gleaming lights above, of soft whites and glass… The mall was a capital of capitalism, of the modern world and the Romans did not understand what they were in; what prison came with branding and fountains?

They were all anxious, huddling amongst themselves, avoiding contact with their guards above as, every once and a while at random, a group of MPs would wade their way through and pick one or two prisoners for questioning.

Linguists had been carted in from all over the world in order to make any sense of this, to at least start a baseline understanding, and the furthest that anyone had gotten had been individual names. They all sounded of the Roman, Italian type: ancient.

Felix, Cornelius, Decimus and Philo, Urban and Claudio and every breed of Roman understanding.

This was the visitation of Rome proper, it felt, but the underlying magica of it all, the fantasy and surrealness of how they got here, it had given Emerson a headache even thinking about it.

It was toward the end of the day and the Rangers had been started moving to the rooftop for transport back to Yokota, a new wealth of information within all their heads and not exactly sure about what to do about it, put asides ideas that they were supposed to know: Of the difference between Sunni and Shia, choice terms and body language customs of common Afghani understanding, rules of engagement in urban areas as far as deployments were involved; all of this bumping shoulders with how much firepower was observed to take down a walking pig, or what magic did to comms (nothing good).

The dissonance between what they were born for, trained for, clashed with what they were expected in that insane world to do.

Emerson found an anchor in a familiar sight. He had wandered to the other half of the mall, more JSDF concentrated than the section he and Hitman had been carted into. There was word from the top down that the Japanese government was to be issuing him some sort of commendation, some sort of award with so many other first responders, so he, at least, was warmly received by walking personnel. He could only reciprocate, and for that, he was offered the direction to go.

It was a bridge over the main way of the mall, connecting the opposite second level walkways. It was held down by two guardsmen, looking downward due to its ideal firing position in the case of a riot, but none had came. The prisoners had been rather ambivalent to their whole situation, unsure of what was happening.

It offered 2nd Lieutenant Itami Youji some peace as he leaned against the railing and browsed his phone, catching Emerson in his peripheral as he approached. Both men had a flash of recognition on their face.

"Same briefing?" Itami spoke in English as Emerson joined him, their two hands clasping in a polite shake. It was rather good for an older Japanese man such as himself, Emerson pegged.

Emerson only returned the favor in Japanese. "Same briefing." Again, Itami was impressed. "Lieutenant Itami is it?"

"And Lieutenant Emerson, right?"


The two men had leaned up against the railing of the mall, over the Romans.

"You mentioned, your first name, I think it was Kay?" Itami asked earnestly.

Emerson nodded, looking at Itami, avoiding the sight of the Romans beneath him. "Kristian is my first name. Kay is what you call me."

"Kay… Kei." Itami tried the word out on his tongue. "Knight."


"It's what your name means, based on the interpretation."

"Funny." Emerson drawled, looking down. "They treating you special?"

Itami pocketed his phone, figuring his time to read up on his latest online issues gone with, not that he particularly minded. He turned over, looking down with Emerson with a slight hint of continuing intrigue. "They always have… but yeah, nowadays?"

"Well are they asking you to go through?"

"Orders. They had me and a bunch of officers from my base briefed today. We heard that the Americans- you, would be coming over too."

"Me specifically or just the Marines?"

"The Marines, but I figured I would see you again. Special forces and all." Emerson had remembered how intently that he and Masterson had told him that fact on the day, and what it meant that they were willing and ready to go back out into Ginza. Looking back on it Emerson could only blush.

"I'm fresh, new, rather. Outta West Point, into Ranger training. Deployments in Africa and the Middle East, but nothing too hot."

"You consider that new?"

"As far as the Rangers are concerned, yeah. I never kicked in doors, didn't see the theatre at the height of it. All things considered I was just there as the final act."

He had heard the stories from other Rangers: of the final days of the Forever War, pulls back of American forces combined with the arrival of a thousand different militias, chasing them out of the country and, for all intents and purposes, out of their world. It had been like the Fall of Saigon, the week it happened: Baghdad, Kabul, Mosul and Fallujah, names that were ancient history as far as the War on Terror went, rearising as every trace of the United States was turned over, coopted, and burned. It wasn't bloodless, it wasn't peaceful, and it was far from the peace with honor that America had tried to do again from Vietnam, but it was the end of a path gone on too long.

American foreign policy had been on the backstep for years, but still, some agreements had to be maintained: Much like the defense pact that had been maintained in Japan, much to the chagrin of a new Japanese generation.

Emerson didn't devote too much about himself onto thinking about being an apparatus of the state.

"I never wanted to be a soldier, or a Ranger for that matter." Emerson hung his head back, looking through the glass ceiling and storm clouds above.

"You love your country that much then?"

Emerson had chuckled. "Perhaps, but, nah… Coming out of college I had… shit to work through. The military provided."

And he was always the overachiever. What was higher than Ranger? Not much.

"I see," Itami considered, hand in his pocket. "I understand, a bit… It's got job security, I'll tell you that."

Emerson nodded. "That it does."

Though job security hadn't been an issue as much as actual security. Emerson looked over Itami. He was a normal man, a normal JSDF member by his mark. The JSDF, up until the last few years, had been comprised of older men, not like the American experience of such. Much like the entire country's demographic it had been skewing toward an older majority, but even then, there was something about Itami. He wasn't like him. Not in a moral or philosophical sense, he just seemed… not built like a soldier, outright.

"Were you there? North Korea?" Emerson asked point blank, tipping at Itami. He shook his head.

Kim Jung Un was gone, the cabal of the Kim family came crashing down as North Korea, in the final cry of the Cold War, rang out against all of Asia. The world had answered.

"Nah, no. I was in training for some…" he held on the next word, "certifications when the DMZ went down."

"Yeah?" An interesting word to use.

Itami nodded, thankful, a smile on his face. "I went into that training, and when I came out, apparently Kim-Jung Un had died, a power struggle had happened, and North Korea invaded the South." He said this with as much light heartedness that could carry with a continued, and then ended, war that had destroyed the Korean peninsula whole. Pyongyang had been a concrete mausoleum and Seoul was sent back to the stone age, what had been North Korea turned into another military buildup as China lost its buffer state.

"So Ginza was your first combat?"

"I didn't fight, in Ginza." Itami fired back, almost offended.

"You killed one of them." The snap of his neck had resounded in Emerson's memory.

Itami stared into the crowd, into the memory of what it felt like to snap a neck. Like a baseball bat, broken in two. It was cruel of Emerson to say that outright: he had his first kill that day. As if it was a goal. "Wasn't what I wanted to do that day. It was supposed to be my first break in a while." He palmed his face again. "I'm guessing we won't have one anytime soon anyway… How about you? You used to this sorta stuff?"

The American Ranger considered for a moment, looking down upon the prisoners.

"My Rangers," Emerson started. "They're new. I'm new. Save for my staff sergeants and an old goat, we've barely been out there."

Itami sniffed. "More than me."

He'd been on distant sands, on missions that never existed. He'd killed before, but never so personally, never so upfront. He wasn't a warfighter before, just a man who shot the poor and old who had picked up AKs and bought into movements that, at least on their face, used them. The enemy was distant silhouettes and inside buildings, never seen when they called in their fire support.

"You been up there? Fukushima?" Emerson asked in turn, "What was it like? The morning after?"

The end of the world was in Itami's eyes as he remembered the hours following his deployment to Fukushima. He remembered suiting up in the most uncomfortable, claustrophobic gear he had ever worn, stealing his breath away from him, but at least keeping him safe from the radiation. He remembered breaking shovels and buckets, trucks and tools, trying to contain as much debris as possible. At the very least he hadn't dealt with the bodies that were brought to bear. He remembered seeing life sucked from the very world as the animal carcasses built up and the living examples were put down: oddly, because of it, gunfire echoed throughout the towns they came through, putting down animals too far gone.

Hopefully, very hopefully, not people.

For hours at a time, he could only hear his breath as he waded through radioactive water and sludge, unsure of what he was bumping into.

And only after that, when he was suited town and given his recovery period, he, as an officer, would be in earshot to hear this:

"Where do we put it?!" The General had yelled at them all, at each other, and at themselves regarding the collected debris and sludge. "We can't burn it, we can't dump it back into the ocean, we can't even touch it!"


"Where?! Where do we put it?!"

Emerson recognized the distant look in Itami's. He would know. His father worked in the VA in New York. He had seen that far away visage of people gone back into memory almost every time he showed up at the offices as a child: people lost in Afghanistan.

"Lieutenant Itami?"

Itami blinked back into coherence at Emerson. "Ah. Sorry, it's been a long day. Got a longer day still. I have to work out my will when I get the chance."

Emerson had hardly considered his own up until that point, nodding. "Got family?"

Itami paused, pursing his lips before continuing. "Just a mother… and an ex-wife. My ex, she's always bugging me about money and all that."

"Hmph." Emerson had made a passive agreement.

"I mean, you must know how they are: women."

Guy to guy talk. Naturally. Emerson was a guy so he must've understood, right?

"I really don't." Emerson took another look down, trying to find faces to focus on, hoping that had been enough to answer. It hadn't.

"I don't…?" Itami pressed.

Emerson had seen past the language barrier, for it wasn't that particular barrier which had been causing the difficulty in understanding. The particular nature of communication between two different people holding two different common tongues had always been a difficult dance, but all language could be brought down to scale. That much was proven by how much progress was being made with the Romans. It was why Emerson had summed up what he had meant in all but two strong words:

"I'm gay."

Put as bluntly, as casually as he could, Emerson explained. Not the first time in his life he had to explain, nor would it be the last. Itami had understood that immediately as he fumbled about, reclaiming whatever awkwardness had been there and stifling it down. "Oh. Sorry, I assumed. I shouldn't have."

Emerson hadn't been offended, one hand up defensively. "I'm used to it. I'm not really the usual type, I can imagine."

Black, a hard-hitting special operator, an American; all these things checked off in the implicit assumptions Itami had made of course that made him think that Emerson was like many American SOF: masculine and female loving.

Itami straightened his lips, settling back in. Americans were weird. Emerson's radio buzzed. They were dusting off soon to head back to Yokota. "If you say so."

Oddly enough however, the two men were comfortable with each other.

"Kay, right?" Itami asked, hand out. Emerson had taken it again, a shake given. Goodbye for now.



Emerson had considered. He hadn't exactly made a friend in the JSDF yet and, all things considered, he had a good feeling about Itami. "We should reach out, over the wire. Meet up or something before whatever happens, happens. I gotta feeling we'll be seeing each other a lot more."'

"Yeah, yeah," Itami started. "I'll let you know I'm not exactly a real social guy. I'm more into my… hobbies, when I'm off."

Emerson could only motion down to the morass below them. "We're going to be on for a long time, my guess."

The USS Fallujah had been the ship that hosted the 7th MEU for its time in Japan. An amphibious assault ship, it had contained all that had been necessary for America to properly invade a beachhead on any foreign soil. A wing of F-35s, helicopters of various types, and drone launching capabilities had been the extent of its aerial capacity, it having seen its complement scrambled during the attack on Ginza.

Those same aviation elements had been doing maneuvers overhead Tokyo Bay and further out at to sea that day. Distant thunder echoing even back to the deck of the Fallujah.

A few weeks had passed since Hitman's initial visit to 1A, training and orientation for whatever was going to happen across the simply christened "Gate", well underway.

The blur of the pre-invasion steps, checklists and authorities making sure everything was by the letter, even Emerson had felt it in his Rangers relatively sequestered, removed state from the rest of the United States Forces in Japan. There was a rush to this that felt off, and he could only do his best to match the pace and tempo of a modern world that wanted to respond.

Delegates from every nation that had lost someone or something in Ginza had been arriving at Japan's doorstep, and the UNs, to be assured, or to be given their permission

"Lieutenant Emerson, we've been told to ferry over some vehicles for you and your men when the initial push comes." Colonel Pierce had explained to the man besides him, looking over the side of the Fallujah docked in port of Tokyo, off to the cargo unloading lot afforded to the Fallujah and the MEU. All of its ground element had disembarked.

Artillery guns, utility vehicles, logistic carriers all spread out like a model kit, being run over by engineers and maintenance crew. The most standout of the vehicles however had been the four, lined up right next to each other, M1A2s. The legendary Abrams tanks. Painted over in a sage, grey scheme, all the vehicles in questioned had been shedding the camo and the paint meant for a different, Asiatic countryside. Distantly, from his perch on the Fallujah's deck, Emerson could see their crews going over the checklists in their hands, making sure their war machines would roar to life as intended.

Just beyond the port however, something else had been roaring:

The Japanese public, come yelling at them at the outskirts of the port.

Their chants had been iterative: Let us handle it! Go home GI! You shall not repeat history here!

History was dead. History didn't care. Emerson internal musings had been like that recently. It was the academic in him.

Pierce pointed off toward a block of four Humvees: the distinctive angular vehicles that had carried American troops through warzones that century. All of them had turrets upon themselves, surrounded by protective glass housing, sporting Ma Deuces and grenade launchers. The same sage, OD green coloring that had been applied to all of the vehicles had been the same with those Humvees: mounted on their rear sections, motorbikes.

"Looks like we're being prepped for lurp work." Emerson pegged; Pierce nodded. Long Range Recon Patrol.

Pierce had gruffly explained. "You're called Ranger for a reason… How's the medal?"

They had brought the three of them in: Masterson, Itami, and him. A grand stage put up in the Japanese senate. A lot of lights, a lot of cameras, and dress blues put on. A lot of medals like these had been handed out recently, commendations for relief efforts in Fukushima, and then before that, Korea. The Japanese public had its heroes, and, for some reason or another, they just had to pin themselves upon the first Americans there that day.

"Howdy, lieutenant." Behind the stage as their names were being recalled and their heroics accounted: of the first fighters, and then the organizers of the great evacuation, Masterson had given out an amiable shake to Itami as they met. "You look good."

"Sergeant Masterson, isn't it?" Masterson had given the man a nod.

"Cam Masterson, at your service. You did a real man's thing, gathering people up."

There was a tic to Itami, Emerson had come to know. They chatted over text, speaking of general things, avoiding the fact that an invasion like the world had never seen was soon to be on. He was a capable man, he recollected, but not a man to use his abilities. An odd conundrum, one that didn't quite sit well with himself personally, but people wanted to live easy lives, he understood.

Itami had blushed at Masterson's admiration. "Anyone would've done the same."

That wasn't true in the slightest, based on what actually happened. That's why the three of them were called heroes, and Emerson had another medal pinned over his heart. They were special because they had met those that came through the "Gate" and now were being told to go through.

They were given rewards, commendations, in between training and orientation with the Romans. Face to face time with them, as unneeded as that was. Through a glass, through safe distance, all they did was observe people that they were told came from another world with the identity of Rome.

"I've been told by Blackburn that you're going first."

Emerson had blanked as he looked down at that motorpool with the chants of protestors distant, droning out before realizing Pierce was talking to him. "Hm?"

"You'll be going first, Ranger."

manifest destiny


1. the belief or doctrine, held chiefly in the middle and latter part of the 19th century, that it was the destiny of the U.S. to expand its territory over the whole of North America and to extend and enhance its political, social, and economic influences.

Random House Dictionary, Random House, Inc. 2015.

"Saderan." Masterson had tried the word on his tongue. "Sad-air-en? Sad-ear-in? Sadairen?"

"Sergeant Masterson I don't know if it's your dumbass hick accent or you're actually stupid as shit. Sad-dair-in."

Annel and Masterson yelling at each other had been a useful tension breaker, between a Texan and a red-blooded New Englander butting heads hadn't been unusual in the group.

Corporal Black had been a Bostonian, another marksman of the group with Valentine , and he had, for a moment, understood his section leader's ire. His accent had been thick with Harvard Yard as he spoke up that moment, kicking his legs up in Yokota's Ops room. Hitman had been taking a lot of meetings and briefings in there, the room adorned with screens and a large enough table for them all. "Roman is easy enough. Up to me we would keep it that way."

Emerson had twitched a bit as he dozed, center of the table in his own chair, flanked by both Masterson and Bannon. "We don't call Iraqis Sumerians."

"Called them Hadji, didn't we?" A Hitman called out.

"Not in front of me." Specialist Ava had been more than willing to confront. The man had been of the particular blood to be offended. The son of Kurdish refugees and all that that entailed. How many people had been personally affected by Islamic extremism before they had gotten into the military? Ava had been one of them.

As far as how Hitman was composed Emerson had always found it peculiar, clashing against his expectations after his handful of assignments. Colorful was a word he used. A third had been women, all of them from up and down the United States, not too much shared between them save the Ranger tab. Divorcee, deadbeat dad, former teacher, former cop, dead dad, would be Olympians… hopefuls and nihilists, outspoken and reserved. It was a miracle they had all been in line, and, distantly, Emerson had thought that they held together for his sake, and they did.

They needed to be together for what was being asked of them:

Tip of the spear.

The wooden door of the room had opened and the now familiar sight of an Asian-American spook had been revealed, folder in his hand as usual.

Blackburn had walked in and the Rangers beat back the urge to stand at attention. The man didn't hold rank but he was clearly in command. "Hitman." He greeted.

"Spook." Masterson greeted back. Blackburn could only smirk as he threw his folder onto the table up front and leaned against the blank space of the wall where the projected would throw up.

"You know you figure that my JSDF counterparts would be able to keep a secret but, hey, nothing is sacred now apparently." That secret being what Colonel Pierce had told Emerson that day. The good lieutenant had kept it under wraps for as long as he could, but word had leaked amongst JSDF personnel over this fact: The Americans would be going in first. More specifically: Hitman; Rangers.

"Japanese personnel on base seem to take it personally." Bannon commented, finger up against her cheek.

"Well, why would us Americans be first to respond on what is, according to them, Japanese land?" Blackburn bellyached.

"But that's it, eh?" Doc pointed out. "We're going first?"

Blackburn had nodded. He had had outlined it in the briefing room, a month later to officially state the rumor that had been propagating throughout the JSDF and USFJ. Other companies and platoons had jeered, some had been relieved, but all had held Hitman in higher regard with the blessing they had: They would be the first Americans over. More than that, they'd be the first moderners over. They'd get the first cut of fresh meat.

"You will insert twelve hours before the Special Task Force and maintain security on a perimeter surrounding the insertion exit. Now, if you've kept up on your studies, we know what this hill is called, right?"

"Alnus." Emerson answered with some of his Rangers affirming.


The language translations had been coming along. Lots of Latin, lots of something new. Names, places, who and what, they were easy enough.

The name of their enemy had been revealed then, when gesturing to the flag of a dragon on a purple, royal backdrop. Most of the men and the beasts had answered the same: Saderan.

The Saderan Empire, or Kingdom, some political entity which entitled itself to conquest and imperial might so much like Rome. That was the enemy.

"Hitman will insert with an element of victors," Humvees, "and maintain position before the first armored elements of the JSDF and the 7th MEU make their way through. Japanese want a ceremony in broad daylight, hence the delay. Some real George Bush Mission Accomplished shit."

Blackburn had been moderately dispassionate during all of this, and to be fair, most of Hitman. These were mission orders.

However, there was something more: Emerson had been told to show up in their civies. Regular clothes. Jeans and shorts and tee shirts and flannels. "Lieutenant Emerson, we'll forward scouting reports from our drones of the immediate AO, however be advised you will not be engaging unless engaged."

"We were engaged about a month ago, don't you remember?" Masterson leered.

"You know what I mean, Sergeant Masterson. Go ahead and take on 60,000 men and dragons with your AR, see how far you get."

Masterson had only raised his hands placatingly. He got the point.

Masterson and Blackburn had been clashing for weeks and Emerson wasn't quite sure if he wanted to get between his friend and the CIA station chief. "You get a week off, put your affairs in order, have some fun, and then we're putting you through."

They were dressed down right now, all things considered. Plain clothed on an Air Force base that was ground zero for all US military assets dedicated to what was now known as the Ginza Incident.

Words, definitions, names and titles, so many had been learned, a new, ancient yet new language on all of their tongues from countless days and nights studying.

"I thought I left this behind in Bozeman." Bannon grumbled during a night in particular, having been knee deep in linguistics studies. The woman had been from Montana, and she had been fairly educated, even compared to Emerson. Her rough and tumble disposition now however had been made of her, subject to what life she had lived since she was a younger woman.

"They say if you learn one thing new every day, you'll live an extra ten years." Emerson had encouraged as the entire platoon of his sat amongst each other in a ready room turned study lounge.

"As if I need another ten." She spit in return.

A thought from Emerson. "Japanese SOF not up to snuff?"

Blackburn shook his head. "Japanese SOF is still on deck above the 38th. Hazama tells me they're having SOG group up a little later, but, as it stands, you and the 7th MEU's Force Recon team will be the only SOF on call with the Special Task Force."

"What's Force Recon's prerogative?" Attached to the 7th, there was a Force Recon team attached.

"Hard military asset knock outs. Your deployment, is, of course, more nebulous, broad. We get to work better that way."

"To what ends?" Emerson asked.

Blackburn had considered the answer for a few moments in his head. "To the ends we find over there."

Open ended missions.

"How are we finding it then?"

Masterson had smirked at Emerson's question lines. He was a text book officer in a sense. The older Ranger had thought he'd be so adverse to it when he first came to Japan, but Emerson had that spark of measured youth and an equally damaged cynicism that had made his West Point tic work.

Emerson had meant really nothing by it. It wasn't his place to think about that idea: open ended missions with ends not readily defined. By that measure he wouldn't think about how long he'd be out there or what he was going in the stead of.

"Play it by ear." Blackburn answered. The Rangers of Hitmen all shuffled uncomfortably. "Oh don't give me that. We're dealing with a Roman-Imperial society and, you should all know, we're digging up a lot of stuff about them that the United States is charged to disassemble. You think the world public would be quite welcoming to the fact slavery might be on the table?"

Rome was built by men and women in chains, and it had taken indeed, more than a day.

"Slavery happens every day in this world, sir." Emerson had recounted. "I've been there, in the markets in Yemen."

"And that's unfortunate Emerson, but Yemen doesn't matter. This place does now."

That was how fickle it all was, in the end. The history of any Humanity, wherever there was power to be had, it was built on the backs of those subject to it. Slavery, in all of its forms, was something they knew was wrong, and how easy it was to punish the enemy for it. It mattered because they were the enemy. American foreplay across the Middle East was always in anticipation for a mission. A mission that Emerson had hoped would never come.

"Are we there to reform, or to punish?" Emerson asked again.

Blackburn had shrugged. "Depends on the direction of the JSDF. Our actions, in the end, will be dictated by them."

"Then why are we there at all?"

Emerson had very much been a new Ranger, Blackburn pegged as he asked. It was a tragedy the Forever War ended, the CIA spook thought.

"Because people need to die and you are America's shooters. You have your orders."

It was so easy for him to just retreat behind the papers, behind the orders and play out a part. And yet… He had killed people. He had been of the unfortunate kind on that Earth to kill, in anger, and in necessity. He had cast men down with shots through their hearts, and the upper limit of Human morality and decency had been put asides. There was nothing more above him to stop what was about to happen.

Japan had been attacked, and thus they would fight there.

Emerson sucked in his gums as he repositioned his thinking. "Anymore specifics on our operation parameters?"

"Not really, it's pretty simple as far as actual mission conditions are. We'll fill you in in the hours before about relevant AO information regarding weather and observed enemy force composition."

"And the after?" Masterson took his time to ask. Bannon nodded in agreement to the question. She never spoke up during these briefings or meetings often as to not strain her voice.

Blackburn had an answer. "You'll be deployed into Recon Teams. RCTs. General Hazama will be forming groups and we'll have Rangers attached as necessary. Least he could do for us. From there you'll be pathfinders and first up as far as inward territory pushes go. Meet and greet or shake and bake if it comes down to it. It's why we need you all up to snuff on your local stuff."

"And, per chance, how are we getting there? Just using what they had?" Doc had asked, one of Hitman's most observational members.

"Correct, with your vehicles."

"Seems a bit dangerous, don't you think?"

"It's all good. I mean, they walked over that entire distance, remember."

Smaller details were passed over in the walk down from that. Gear, logistics, immediate battle plans and rules for engagement. Nothing they hadn't done before. The fact that the same had been said for here as it had been for the Third World had meant something as the familiar, uncomfortable pattern of pre-mission briefings were given.

"We leave Yokota at zero dark of the day in vics toward Ginza. From there last preperations will be made and you'll be underway. I'll follow with the main force."

"You know how to gun, spook?" Masterson had been as skeptical as always with Blackburn, but the man nodded.

"I did my time." Was all he said before he looked at his operators for the duration. That was all that was needed before the Rangers were let free for the week, but, as always Emerson had raised his hand and his platoon had internally groaned. Though it was a good question, in the end.

"We have a name for this operation?"

Hitman was interested then.

What was the name of their crusade?

"Operation Odyssey Ultimatum."

Blackburn seemed self-satisfied with that answer. Bombastic, theatrical, dramatic. What better name to invade another world with?

People had been out of the briefing room almost immediately, passing by Blackburn as he sat and used the room to himself. Better that way, peace and quiet, and fine by Emerson as long as Masterson didn't stay behind.

"Rubs me the wrong way." Was all he said to Bannon about the issue. The three of them had remained in the hallway as the rest of Hitman disseminated into the base, going off it, probably, to live out their week of freedom before the op. They should've been elated. They weren't. "The spook that is."

The three made their way slowly as Bannon gruffed in her rough voice. "I'd be more concerned if he rubbed you the right way, Sergeant Masterson."

Bannon was always more formal, more in-line, in front of him. He couldn't blame the woman, given his own responsibilities, but even then and now it felt more biting than usual. "Just a man doing his job, sergeants." Emerson had responded, flanked by his two NCOs.

How casual they looked passing by the still uniformed base staff. Only Masterson had noticed Emerson had been wearing the same clothes as he had on that fateful day.

"Comment, sir?" Bannon prodded at Emerson as they emerged out of the main building of Yokota, out to the tarmac and the way to the hanger where the Rangers were set up.

"Go ahead." Emerson answered.

"Bit hard and heavy with the interrogatives, Ell-Tee. Just saying."

"Not used to it?" Emerson glanced over his shoulder at the woman.

"Last CO was something of a nerd like you. Cared too much, didn't let us slide, you know? We know what we're doing."

Emerson had chuckled. "I think I'm charged to ask a few questions, given we're invading, don't you think?"

"Shucks, you're so young and bright-eyed Kay." Masterson had chuckled. "Makes sense someone like you would get sent into a fuckin' fantasy land."

"Oh here he goes." Bannon had been the forewarning to something of Masterson that Emerson had been well acquainted with, the several short months they all had been together. Not that he minded. The three spectrums of speech between Hitman's leaders had gone from "not if she had to", "professional observational commentary" to "my daddy was a lawyer".

Masterson's daddy was a lawyer. Mother too. Which was why his language when he really got rolling was full of the theatrics meant to sway the mind and heart.

"Who but us would be charged to go into the dark? To pick up our swords," Masterson had held his arms as if he was holding a rifle at high ready, "charge against the mongrel and uncivilized hordes because of unequivocal injustices dealt against us?"

"It was the fucking GI-reens that had those commercials, back in the day." Bannon's whispers, beneath her breath, could hardly have that volume with how she talked, speaking of Marines with swords fighting dragons. Dragons.

Masterson had held the door open out as they all passed, winking at Bannon. "I'm sorry sweetheart, daytime television died five years ago."


"But still. Aren't we the perfect people for the job? Rangers. We're Rangers. At private school some of the nerds I bullied as an absolute cool dude, they had some Dungeons and Dragons shit, and Rangers were full up in there."

"Being charged doesn't mean we're perfect for it, Sergeant Masterson." Emerson had fed into the beast of Masterson as his voice dropped into his southern.

"No, we're fucking perfect for it because those assholes killed the family of one of our own. We go over there we know what we're doing, we know why we're there. We know what we do when we have a gladiator right in front of us and a gun in our hands. That is a privilege we have: We know what we have to do, we know who we're being charged by. We are so lucky; the luckiest who ever lived maybe."

"And what do we have to do Cam?" Emerson asked in a deadpan. He had to let Masterson get this out or else it would stew inside. He knew.

"They presented us with a question: Would we be conquered; would we be victim to them. Well we have an answer. I have an answer."

Emerson never thought that he had a particularly noteworthy personality. He grew up in Brooklyn amongst years where decades happened, where black kids like him never got the chance and were pulled both ways by those who would and those who stopped them. Emerson kept his head down for many reasons.

Masterson's entrance into his life had, perhaps, been the cosmic balancer as he looked up at Japan's eternally grey sky, jets and Black Hawks above, and raised his hands up, trying to reach for the sun beyond.


War was the motherfucking answer.

Bannon had slapped the man's broader back after his theatrics, letting the air and his opinions spill out of him like grey water from the gutter. "You're a drama queen. Right and prissy, you know that?"

"Someone's gotta." He gruffed, taking the shock of pain as the three continued walking forward across the concrete toward the hangers. For all of Masterson's bombast and the question and riposte that he offered, as much as it bothered Emerson internally, what could he say to that if not agree?

The first stories of Man are of murder and repentance. Perhaps, distantly, Emerson thought, Masterson had gotten those wires twisted.

But another question: "Sergeants?" The two turned to him. "Are you two predisposed for the week?"

The two had glanced at each other in a flash of worry, but any of that was dissuaded as they realized what Emerson actually meant: Why were they walking to the cages?

Masterson, as always, had something to say: "I don't got free time no more, Kay. Not until we're over there."

Bannon had been more reserved, crossing her arms in front of each other as she looked out of Yokota, out toward Tokyo, or, perhaps, back toward America. Toward a life she used to live and a life she left behind: taken and forced from her.

The grooming standards for them as Rangers was always, somewhat, relaxed. Now the orders had come down for a little more relaxation however. Recommendation from Blackburn.

"You look like a white trash Chris Kyle." Emerson recounted one of his riflemen leer at Masterson.

"That's redundant. Chris Kyle was white trash." Masterson had dutifully answered back.

Bannon's frizz on top of her head had been growing back steadily. Almost as much hair as Emerson himself, to be honest. She had always kept to the traditional standards well enough. There was enough now however to blow in the cool wind as she considered her answer, pulling back bangs behind her ears.

"I mean, Ell-Tee, you known me to spend my nights out? I don't got much. All I have is this."



Emerson knew the tone as he nodded at her, they arriving in that gaping mouth of a hanger and seeing their cages waiting for them.

Bannon's cage was next to Emerson's, so, as much as Masterson was loathe to leave their company, he meant his words true and serious: He had stuff to do, gear to prep, and his discretion was that he was going to do it in cargo shorts instead of a BDU.

Emerson's cage was rather uniform, if not a little bare. These cages meant for the more special operations types, or, at least, more SOF than him, were a new experience. It hadn't been what he had gotten in Africa or the Gulf, where door kicking for Americans was out of style and highly discouraged. The fact he was given one here, meant for either his deployments into a wartime China or even Malaysia, there was something there from his education that screamed out at him.

"I didn't take you for a lifer, Sergeant Bannon."

Emerson had sat onto the stool on his cage, looking at his rifle before him.

This was his rifle, there were many like it.

He hadn't fired a gun before joining, but, it turns out, he was pretty alright at it. Pretty alright in the Ranger world meant good apparently. It was a little more front heavy than he would've liked, the sensors and lasers needed as called for his position in the squad needed, but he had kept it all together cleanly, a black cloth wrapped around the handguard keeping the wires still and kept.

For the time being, those designators and lasers weren't outright needed, so he had started the long job of unwrapping and unequipping.

Bannon had chuckled in her throaty way of laughing. "I didn't take you as uptight, Ell-Tee."

Emerson had nodded, pushing asides his .45 pistol. .45 was the order: stopping power was needed for any engagement with foot mobiles on the other side.

"I think it's a bit unfair, anyway," Bannon started. In her cage she was messing with her AR's magazines, refastening the mag-pulls on them, "To be assuming like that. Obviously, we can't predict the future."

"I mean-" Emerson had felt a little odd. Bannon, and Masterson for that matter, had a few years on him. Few years, and a few more bodies, especially. "Is this what you want your future to be? You and Cam are the only ones coming up on ETS."

Ramirez had just signed on for another five years to Emerson's surprise. The man had just turned forty.

"It's a plan, Kay." Bannon sighed. "And Cam's right, you know. It's nice to know what you're doing."

A silence passed between the two of them, Emerson glancing at the photo of his family on his work bench: He should've been talking more to them, but Opsec was clear, and he couldn't get distracted. He couldn't dare to unload this to people who wouldn't understand.

"You think he's gonna be okay? Cam?" Emerson didn't turn to look at Bannon through the chains, but the foley of her equipment had stopped. She took longer than Emerson expected, but he had helped her along. "I'm asking you as the platoon sergeant."

She breathed out. "I don't know. He left Trace behind, that's what he tells himself. Let his family die. That's a lot. It's a lot for me, for the platoon, yeah, but for him specifically? Somedays it just looks like he's blaming himself for it."

Emerson had seen the way Masterson ran his PT. How much teeth grinding, how much sweat he let off. The pain was good for him.

"That's not fair of him."


"He sounds so confident though, in him knowing what to do." What to do. Those words stood in for something else. Orders, not given by Command or officers, but by Tracy himself: Kill them all. "I just hope it's not the only thing in that god damn head of his. It's not healthy."

"You would know?" Bannon asked accusingly.

"Yes. I do." Emerson did know what it was like to want to kill someone, and, for some reason, for some trust that Bannon had found in Emerson in the months she had been under him, she had known what he said was true.

The silence after that was broken by light footsteps, unmistakable to the Hitman leads:

"Ah, shit, you too?" Loke had timidly said, with her Mk18 in hand.

"Welcome to the party." Bannon nodded.

A week promised for relaxation and leisure, just before the deployment. It was a cruelty to think that could be actually done.

Bannon was right, Emerson realized as more and more of Hitman returned to them.

This was all they had in the end.

One by one, the Rangers returned to their cages.

"Hey, spook, you didn't have no SEALs or black ops boogeymen go in before us eh?" Masterson had been as peppy at zero-dark as anyone. Ginza was dead. The entire area from ground zero cleared from civilians in a nearly mile wide radius. The only ones there: the military personnel. They stood on the rooftops, on the streets, guarding, patrolling.

Standing at midnight's watch before the Gate, Blackburn had looked at Masterson's cat call from the side, he talking with several JSDF and 7th MEU officers. The man looked so odd, dress in office clothes, but with a plate carrier on him. No response was given.

The safe zone was put out another mile Emerson knew, but even then, the protests had gone on. Just outside the safe zone the yelling of a Japanese public: yelling for everything. That the JSDF shouldn't go there, that the Americans shouldn't be here, and that the Gate should be closed.

"You got an opinion on that, Lieutenant?" Listening to the echoes, Doc had asked.

There were there now: in the dark, before the Gate and a metal dome which had been constructed around it. It was as if it had been Chernobyl. Though saying such a thing was in bad taste.

Fukushima was still on fire.

Distantly, the cries of how Japan could not afford to go there, beyond the Gate, had been heard. There was another disaster still attacking Japan. It was one of radioactive material and a natural disaster, but still: this one, the one that spawned in Ginza, it had to be answered in force.

"Not one you'd like to hear, Doc."

"Please, I'd like to hear someone other than Sergeant Masterson speak for once."

"Eh, still. It's not one I'd like to tell our doc."

"Fair enough, Lieutenant. But I'll have you know I was about one-year shy of being a full-fledged doctor. I can take a stupid opinion or two."

They were standing before the Gate, out of their vehicles as engineers and support combed their vehicles over, making sure they were ready.

The rovers and recon drones sent over, and returned, had been fine of anything anomalous. The journey itself wouldn't take more than fifteen minutes, and nothing bad would come of it apparently, in that dark void that was blacker than the night.

Ginza had been powered down, leaving only the ghostly industrial lights of an impromptu checkpoint before the Gate left. The colors of green and grey clashed. The 7th MEU's colors and camo had been that meant for China. Now the grey smear of a multicam variant had been it, the same as on Hitman. They stood in their gear in the middle of Tokyo, and the sensation for Emerson, being there without fighting, it felt hollowing.

The dead were beneath his feet, blood soaked into the ground, and yet he remained there still.

Four vehicles; victors.

All Humvees. Turreted. Two M2 Brownings, one Mk19, and one with an anti-air unit, adjusted for organic targets. Each of them ammo, supplies, Hitman had enough to set up a little FOB on their own, but it was all precaution.

"Could be a trap. Get us over there and then cut off the pass behind us."

"They wouldn't want us trapped over there." Corporal Nutt had patted down his M32. Six-cylinder grenade launcher. More firepower than most regular platoons in its tubes and on his kit. Grenadier was right for him. He'd always had an idea for angles and precision that was different than gunning.

The man had been a teacher. Emerson had overheard him talk to Annel as she held her Mk22 on her back. .338 Norma.

Within each of them, standing with their kits and weapons, had stood the firepower and capability necessary for Rangers to be who they were: Special Forces, and yet something else. Warfighters that could slug it out where SEALs and Deltas were not expected to.

"The hell are we still wearing plates for anyway?" Harris had adjusted his own rig, the man lugging his 240 machine gun. "Level 3 beats out most of the bows they're using, and not like we're gonna get in range for any of them."

Bannon, in a past life, had done her time living off the land. She'd understood better than most the weapons they would understand as primitive, used by the Imperials they faced. "Take it from me, Corporal, all it takes is one arrow."

"Hitman." Emerson didn't need to yell as the group all coalesced near him, three men walking toward them. It was who they were that made them render salute. "Lieutenant General."

Lieutenant General Hazama. A bronzen man with a sense of duty and conviction to the Japanese people. An enlisted soldier, haven risen his rank from the very bottom. He had been the man in charge of the JSDF detachment that was sent to Korea.

He was now in charge of the Special Task Force.

Familiarity was on his face as he saw Emerson and Masterson. He had been the one to pin the medals onto their chests. With a salute down the Rangers had settled.

Besides Hazama, Blackburn and Colonel Pierce stood.

"Have you all worked on your studies?"

Spoken in the tongue of Lingua Franca.

Hitman had all nodded and given their affirmatives in kind.

"Good." Hazama had said in his own native tongue, looking at these men and women that stood before him. How young they were compared to him and his JSDF. When did the American special forces get so young? "I will be honest to you, Lieutenant Emerson, you Rangers are not who I would've wanted to cross that barrier first."

He spoke directly to Emerson, chest to chest with him as the Ranger cradled his rifle in his arms. Emerson nodded, not too offended. "I'm liable to believe the same, sir."

Hazama had tilted his head at the man, nodding in turn. "But I have no doubt about what you all are capable of. I trust you will give us a red carpet on the other side?"

"Take and hold, sir." Emerson affirmed. "We're not going over there to start a war."

Pierce had an amused huff. "Wars already started."

Hazama however had turned over to Pierce. "May I remind you, Colonel, that this isn't a war."

Pierce had hardened up. The two men had been clashing since Ginza over the very fundamentals of American involvement. The commanding general had echoed the misgivings of so many of his countrymen: The Americans should not get involved. Why? The answer was plain. It was plain in the thirty-year history that preceded them all to that point.

"We'll do our job right, General." Emerson had muttered from his lips. It was the confidence prescribed in him by the virtue of his men and women.

Hazama wasn't convinced, his thick moustache wringing, but Masterson had appeared at that moment at Emerson's side. "God willing, general."

Hazama sucked in some air to his nose and then confided. "Godspeed, Rangers."

It left nothing but Americans as JSDF personnel worked in the night around them, the great metal dome casting a shadow on them even now.

Colonel Pierce had tipped his head at Emerson. "You've been briefed of Imperial troop movements, correct?"

Not more than five minutes ago the last recon from the last drone had been told to him by a specialist. Nothing had changed. An army, the same as the one that had hit Ginza in the first place, had been amassing and surrounding the exit point for the last month. Building and building, either in anticipation or preparation. The worst-case scenario: They were going to march again into Ginza. The probable: Nearly none had come back from the initial assault, and they spoke of the manmade monsters that had been this modern world.

They stood prepped.

They could never be prepared.

"No changes, sir."

"Right… Well, there's not much to say is there now?" Pierce had looked to Blackburn, a cigarette in his hand that burned.

"No there isn't colonel. The mission commences now." The CIA man had taken a look at the Gate, and they all did. The mysteries of the infinite barreling out at them. To think too long upon it would've driven them all mad.

Pierce sighed, backing down from the thoughts of what this world was about to do, and who was doing it. "The ROE is the same, to engage, you must be engaged."

Emerson shot a look at Masterson with all the worry in the world. Masterson had nothing but a stone face.

"Sorry for no fanfare, Rangers." Blackburn spoke once, looking up at the JSDF along the roofs, seeing where the bodies once piled high and the living were walking, cursed on battlefield streets. Not less than two months after they had been getting ready for a parade.

"Not like we need it."

A dog whined, pushing all to look at it at their feet: A hulking German Shepard, its own vest and combat equipment mounted stood bright eyed between the feet of Peters at the ready, leash attached to the dark man's own rig. It had only lightened some of the moods there.

"Khan." Peters in his deep voice bowled out, and the dog fell in line, looking at the darkness of the Gate and seeing something that they couldn't see, couldn't understand.

"On your go Rangers." Pierce had given him their grace. "We'll see you in twelve hours."

"Hitman! Mount up!" Bannon had yelled out, a sound like sandpaper, loud in the night that roared at the men and women she had been in charge of with Emerson. They all had nodded, sucked in their breaths, and faintly, in each of them, knew it would've been the last breath of air they got from this world.

Their masks went on. Some had balaclavas, some simple half-masks; keffiyehs and fabric from missions past and distant lands traveled before in the same pretense, but as they went on the form of the Rangers all melded into one. One could not tell one from the other except in the exceptional detail of gear and stature, on each of their helmets: night vision.

There was no fanfare, no great horn or gunshot, just the low rumble of American Humvees, purring before the Gate with a simple mission: get to the other side.

"Check, check comms." Emerson had clambered into shotgun of the lead victor as he thumbed his radio. "This is Hitman 1 Actual, affirm. Over."

Masterson had been driving the lead Humvee, and he hadn't need much use to call over, giving Emerson's arm a tap. "Hitman 1-1 Bravo, copy you clear."

"Hitman 1-1 Alpha. Reading you, over." Bannon had responded in trail position.

"Check comms down the line, people. When we're over there, it's gonna mostly be local."

"It's just a simple camping trip, Kay, no need to be so serious." Masterson chuckled behind his keffiyeh, hands and 10 and 2, AR in his position by his seat.

"We're invading, Cam. I don't want fanfare, but, I feel like there should be more than this." Emerson had let go, his usual rigid form breaking as he brought his gloved hands to his face. "Is this not history?"

Nutt had been on the turret in the lead victor with Emerson. "History is for other people, Ell-Tee. This is just life for us." Racking the turret's Mk19, 40mm was loaded.

"You want to be out here?" Emerson had asked of him, turning around, seeing the two other occupants in the car: Annel and Loke.

Loke flashed between two personalities for as long as Emerson had known her. She was a young woman, his age, supposedly out of place in the SOF world but yet the new norm. Sleek black hair, looking more at home in a sorority in some state school than in the gear she had now. She was competent, athletic, spunky and Masterson's third favorite in Hitman, and yet…

She was the pointman. She was good at her exceedingly violent job in an already exceeding violent profession.

"Did I tell you, Ell-Tee? That I was the first Muslim girl to make it to nationals in my neck of the woods? Hijab and all." Emerson looked at her. She didn't wear her hijab as intended anymore. It was a purple ring of soft cloth, surrounding her neck now. Annel had looked at her with sympathy, understanding even. "I thought I made history running track, I thought that… they would be better to me."

There was something haunted in her words. A haunted past of living in an America.

"People get what they're due in the end, Talia." Masterson looked in his rear view. "Some people it comes harder than others. I want to be out here, Kay."

"We all do." Annel spoke. "We have to be out here. For Tracy. It's what we have to do."

manifest destiny


1. A policy of imperialistic expansion defended as necessary or benevolent.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

The door was open. The blackness was before them, gaping at them.

"You doing alright ma'am?" Doc had asked in the rear victor, he in the back seat as Bannon settled into shotgun. Specialist Ava, Corporal Harris, and Sergeant Ramirez had been with her.

Bannon wasn't quite sure as she scratched her cheek behind her balaclava. "Tired." She answered.

"You slept almost all of last week, ma'am." Ava had pointed out as he adjusted his NODs.

"I don't think there's much wrong with that." Bannon grit through her teeth.

The switch to hit the Humvee had been pressed upon, seconds later its engine up and roaring. Bannon had checked the suppressor on her M4, making sure it was tightened as she felt for her NODs above her head.

"Is this it? An invasion? We're invading?" Harris had asked with his M240 across his lap, a flash of light from inside revealed something on the inner lid: A picture of him, holding a child, disappeared as he had seated in rounds.

"Affirmative." Bannon said with her mouth, muffled by a mask. "Look alive."

"This'll be over quick." Ramirez would know. History haunted him from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East. "It has to be."

If only.

Bannon thumbed her radio. "1-1 Alpha to 1-Actual. On your go."

It was like driving off a cliff: the feeling of what it felt like for the drivers to stamp their foot down and roll forward into a black nothingness. It wasn't even black in reality; more of the absence of anything. Yet it was solid, it was straight, it was level and traversable.

The Americans, the Japanese, in the dead of night had looked all to the Humvees as they slowly rolled forward into the black: There they would be the harbingers of two armies. Reflections on the Humvees bulletproof glass reflected those that looked inward.

Hazama had looked, side-by-side with the CIA officer that had been Blackburn.

"We will tolerate no mistakes." He told him, watching the Humvees disappear in blackness.

"Neither do we." Blackburn coolly said back, smoke on his tongue.

All of the Hitmen were braced as they crossed over that indistinct line: between reality and nothingness. A smooth transition as they were surrounded by nothingness with the Gate and Ginza behind them. All that apprehension, it remained as the seconds passed, the moments dragged on as they all scanned around them. Nothing but nothingness.

Is this what it was like to feel dead? Emerson had thought as he smelled the air and smelled nothing. There was just nothing to his senses about being there outside of what they brought in: A draft from behind them, of Ginza, coalesced with the militaria they were riding in and having.

"Freaky shit." Masterson spat through his own mask: a bandana, like the cowboys of his homeland.

"Hitman 1-Actual to all callsigns. We good?" Emerson called up on the radio, checking behind him. The headlights of each Humvee shone and they all read back.

"Hitman 1-Alpha. We're good."

The gunners, exposed nominally in their turrets, had all moved their guns around, trying to find some point, some reference. But there was nothing.

"Lock your wheels. Keep going straight. I don't know if we can do SAR in fuckin' oblivion." Masterson drawled off in his own tongue, doing so as lead victor.

This was the void. The place between worlds, literally.

"My Daddy's gon' be proud." Spoke over the air in the radio, giving conversation. His voice was one meant for radio. It instead was given to that who controlled beasts. Khan was whimpering behind the radio.

"Radio silence." Emerson spoke off. He really didn't need to give it. All of them there were afraid of opening their mouths, as if letting in some poisoned air, some unknown demon who manifested in this plane. Fantasy was real and it killed, so why not the idea of purgatory?

Invasion. This was invasion.

And yet ahead of them was no bombed out city, no ongoing fire mission or even a concrete objective. Just a whole world.

At a certain point they had driven far enough away to be caught in the middle. It felt as if to the drivers that they were spinning in place.

"No music, no nothing?" Masterson had asked with his light heart. He was having fun, knowing what was ahead of them. "By God Kay, don't you know that the drumbeats of war demand rhythm?"

The engines of the Humvees and his voice: the only sound. There was echo, deafening echo heard through their ear protection that spiraled out from them in a million directions.

The sine whine of someone putting on NODs reverberated. Bannon had looked out from her seat around in rear position.


Calculations were that they needed to drive for fifteen minutes straight. Time was indistinct, the white light behind them and the white light that appeared in front of them one and the same.

It didn't matter where they went, they would get to where they needed to go.

manifest destiny


1. A popular slogan... It was used by people who believed that the United States was destined — by God, some said — to expand...

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition

"Direct twelve. We've got our exit."

Bright white. An exit, a door like the one they came through.

Safeties were flicked, chambers racked.

"In and out. Right? Right?" Nutt had stammered, rotating his M32 GL ready.

"Get in and sit still." Bannon ordered, bringing her AR to high ready in the car.

"Secure a perimeter, Humvees set up a spread." Emerson had ordered. "If we're engaged right out of it, we make the call to stand or to retreat. Do I've got that Hitman?"


Sixty seconds out.

Loke buried her face in her hands as she made a silent prayer to a god that left her behind.

Doc had breathed in the driest air in his life as he remembered, somehow, he had gone from surviving cancer to the extraordinary circumstances of this. Was he dead all along? He thought to himself.

Annel tightened her gloves. Nomex. They were her father's. A father that had been lost to the War on Terror. She was here because of it.

Ramirez, he had lived through that war and he had remembered this feeling too well. It had been within him for so long that he had needed it.

Masterson grinned behind the wheel, reveling in that feeling as Bannon felt a silver necklace beneath her dog tags burn against her chest. It was the mark of Christ. Given to her by another man who had taken pity on her.

And Emerson; Emerson of all people, as the light glazed over them as they continued forward, blinding them he thought of the first time he was nearly killed, and had nearly killed in turn. It was the same day, the same person on either side.

He remembered that time, that moment, of every burn of pain and cut on his skin. Every broken bone and every droplet of blood out of his mouth.

He remembered that time, but nothing else. How easy it had been now for him, apparently, to shoot, to kill, and how easy it was to accept that it was him going through this.

The story of their world was lived out through them as people, and now they would connect that to another world. The thing that connected them was physically, the Gate.

It was the blood that had been spilled from it however that was what bonded the people of the two worlds together, for better or for worse.

And they were out, through, smelling air miles fresher than that of Ginza. They smelt the air, crisp, of a new world at night. It was night, and they looked up: the moon was blue. Just like so many recon images sent prior they had emerged atop a hill, the Humvees driven side by side with spacing as they parked and all but gunner and drivers poured out on rocky and hilly ground. Just as they expected. The recon rover had been politely by their side. Proof that this had been the correct world.

"Disembark!" Emerson had ordered, and the Rangers did, looking back through where they came and saw that same void, that same blackness. Pulling up the rear a squad had peaked behind the Gate itself, and saw nothing, a circular perimeter established in the immediate as their movement died down and they finally, finally took in the new world in the haze of their actions.

A clear sky above and a bright moon, they didn't need their NODs as one by one the Rangers had dared a look with their bare eyes. A mile and then some out, all to their front:

Thousands and thousands. Thousands of hundreds below.

Camp fires and the moving, unknowable mass of living things, war drums and dragons and beasts, keeping their distance, preparing their next move. Like the warbands of Rome they still remained there as they looked down on them.

What damage could they do with what they had with them? What damage could the Humvees do? What damage could they, as people, do to them?

Far greater than they would ever know.

Masterson had, upon a lump of dirt, put himself as the tallest man in every direction, looking down on everyone else. He looked down on the Romans, with all his fire, all of his promise, all of his want to kill them all.

Emerson had looked at his grand standing, expecting what never happened.

Instead of the bombast he expected, of a man with his heart at his fist and ready to go, he saw only a man with realization. He was now before them all and it revealed to him the truth:

One of life's greatest tragedies was that everyone got what they wanted.

"They're all dead. They're all already dead." Realization had been on his lips. The weight in flesh he wanted, needed, to take was now on his chopping block and it was a cruelty.

Was it a boast? A demand? A statement or an observation? Masterson could only darkly mutter beneath his breath as he took a knee and looked down and saw nothing but the promise of a war beyond which history had never seen before.