CHAPTER 24: Covert Ops
TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra
Second Recovery Ward
Small though it was, that was the first sound Towa Akagi had made in days… or whatever passed for days here. Kirara Amanogawa didn't much care. After staying by Towa's bedside for so long, praying that she would talk to her again, wake up, stir, do something, anything… Kirara seized onto that sound as if grasping for a raft on a stormy sea. Likewise, she seized Towa's pale, delicate hand, clutching it tight to her breast as she cried out to her. "Towa-chi…!"
"Nnn," said Towa again. It was a little stronger, a little louder this time. Just a little.
Kirara almost wept with relief. "Geez, Towa-chi, you had me all worried! Shame on you..." Her lips tried to form a smile. Tried.
"Mnnn," said Towa. Her eyelids fluttered. "Ki…"
"Yeah, it's me, I'm right here. I'm right here." Calm, thought Kirara to herself, I've gotta stay calm. Let her breathe. Let her adjust first before… Before you tell her what happened. God, how would Towa take it? Knowing that Haruka and Minami were-
"Kirara," said Towa in a fluttery whisper. Her head turned in the direction of Kirara's voice, her normally immaculate apricot curls spread over her pillow in disarray, looking like blood on snow.
No, thought Kirara, banishing that last thought. Bad image. "It's gonna be okay, Towa-chi. Somehow. Y-you wouldn't believe this place," said Kirara, trying to push down the trembling in her voice. "It's amazing, you can make just about anything except food. That's why I had them move us to this ship, it's the only place where anyone can get half-decent donuts-"
"Cure Twinkle," said Towa.
Kirara's blood turned to ice. That voice. That wasn't Towa's voice.
The elfin princess's eyes opened, burning crimson with hatred and malevolence. Her hand wrenched from Kirara's grip, shot upward, and closed around her neck, squeezing…
Kirara couldn't make a sound, silenced not only by the hand crushing her windpipe, but from the weight of despair crushing her spirit in a far more savage way. This couldn't be true. Had to be a nightmare. Not her. She was supposed to be gone forever…
Like something out of a horror movie, Towa - no, Princess Twilight - rose from her bed with unnatural stiffness, her back ramrod straight. Her hair fell around her in a curtain, silver streaks racing through the loose red curls as if something were bleaching them. Pale lips curled into the cold sneer that Kirara remembered so well. "The false princess," she whispered, each word dripping with loathing. "The false princess dares address me as if… as if I were one of her worthless friends…"
Dark spots danced in Kirara's vision. Running out of air. Unable to transform. Helpless. With her remaining strength, she reached out to touch her, not the sick mockery that was Twilight, but Towa, the Towa she knew was underneath. The Towa she lived with at the Academy. The Towa she loved… The edge of her palm brushed the princess's cheek.
At once, the grip on her throat loosened. A great shudder wracked Towa's body as she let go, sending Kirara to the floor in a heap.
"Remind me…" gasped Kirara, sucking in great lungfuls of air, "... not to try… waking you up… again…" As soon as she had enough breath, she chuckled. A shaky, timid sound, not like her usual laugh. "... You're a worse… morning person… than my mother…"
"What… what… what was I- Kirara!" Towa flung herself over the edge of the bed so hard she could have broken it. "Kirara, I am so sorry! What was I doing, are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"Be… fine…" said Kirara, wincing as she rubbed her sore neck. "Just… a minute. You've got… a good grip..."
"Kirara!" Towa flung herself at her best friend, embracing her so tight that the breath was almost driven out of her again. "Kirara, I could have-"
"Shh. Easy." Kirara whispered and patted her back. "Easy, Towa-chi. I'm okay. Don't cry."
There was a muffled sob from somewhere in those red curls. Red, Kirara noticed with a chill, streaked with a few strands of silver.
"How…?" said Towa, giving voice to Kirara's next question. "How could I have… have changed back into her, even for a moment?"
"I-I dunno." A few days ago, Kirara would have thought that impossible. Then everything went to hell, as soon as-
That woman. The light dawned. That woman with the mirrors. Nehelenia. I cut off her hand when she was-
No. Oh no. Oh God, Towa-chi, what did I do…?
"I cannot," Towa sobbed, prim and proper even in the depths of terror and despair. "I cannot become her again, I cannot… Kirara, help me…"
"I-it's gonna be fine." The words stung Kirara as she spoke them. Lying to Towa wasn't like lying to anyone else. Poor Towa was still so trusting, so innocent, even all this time after being freed from the nightmare of her existence as Twilight. Lying to Towa, even if it was just to reassure her, made her sick to her stomach. But what else was there to say? "It's gonna be fine," said Kirara again. Her eyes blurred with moisture.
Rapid footsteps outside the doorway. It swished open to reveal a young woman whose appearance threw Kirara for a loop the first time she saw her. The wolf ears and tail weren't so different from some of the more exotic costumes she had seen in fashion magazines and on runways since she was little, but seeing them move for the first time? That was something else altogether. "Princess Towa's vital signs just went berserk!" said Alph. "What happened?!"
From the floor, Kirara looked up at her, trying to convey with her eyes what she couldn't say out loud in front of Towa. No sense upsetting her further. "A nightmare," she said with emphasis. "It spooked her. She's- she's okay now."
Alph caught the hint. The younger girl's request to transfer to the Arthra's more advanced medical facilities came with a brief description of what happened to them in their world. Just like with that Viluy woman, it seemed some sick mind selected the perfect opponent to fight these girls who called themselves Princess Precure, one who routed them just as easily as the Will routed the TSAB forces. The nightmare queen, Nehelenia. Alph's claws dug into her palms. Basic scans of the princess's body were inconclusive, given that her physiology wasn't exactly humanoid standard, but that shadow they picked up in her chest, the one they had assumed was a technical error… it wasn't. Part of Nehelenia remained inside her.
Amanogawa, Alph thought at her.
It took all of Kirara's control not to cry out in shock. Wh… she thought. Her response was jumbled, mixed together with pervasive worry and a fog that indicated lack of sleep. What-
Telepathy, Alph thought with a mental sigh. It's sort of standard where we come from. Don't try anything too complicated right now, just think back 'yes' or 'no'. Can you do that?
Y-yes, thought Kirara. Still shaky, but clearer.
Good. Alph was a pro at this; she had to be, after all those years spent defying Precia right under her nose. Listen: I know you're upset and angry. I am too. These people… That last word was sent with such venom that Kirara winced. They make innocents like Fate and Towa suffer, just for their sick pleasure. I know Fantine doesn't want us to fight, but… A pause, during which Kirara felt the wolf familiar's defiance stewing within her, ready to boil over. But Nehelenia, Viluy, Joker, and everyone else in Dead End who are hurting people need to pay. Do you understand?
Kirara almost nodded before she caught herself. Yes, she thought.
Good, thought Alph. I'm… I'm planning something. Something secret. Putting a small group together. I'm not sure how it'll work yet, or even if it can be done… but if it does work… Her eyes bored into Kirara's. We'll be taking the fight to Dead End, and giving them hell. So what I need to know is: are you in?
This time there was no hesitation. Kirara wrapped her arms tighter around Towa and thought back with a clarity that was astonishing for a beginner: Yes.
Good, Alph thought. Her face remained neutral, but Kirara felt something that suggested a beaming smile just underneath. I'll keep in touch.
Arthra's Portside Docking Bay
"Careful of the step, Naru."
Naru Umino shot her husband a look. "Gurio. Don't be a mother hen."
He turned away, sheepish. "I just don't want you or the baby to get hurt."
A sweet, light kiss on his cheek. "I know. I'm sorry. Here, this should cheer you up… look around."
Gurio Umino looked, and there was no disguising the giddy flash behind the thick lenses of his glasses. There was the science geek that Naru remembered from their school days. "Oh, wow…" he whispered, drinking in every panel, every bulkhead, every square centimeter of deck plating. "Incredible. This is incredible."
Beside them, Provisional Nurse Balzac Yugo beamed as he helped Naru through the hatch's threshold. He recognized that kind of enthusiasm. Kids on Mid-Childa grew up around ships like this, and even they were awed at the sight of cruisers like the Arthra. For someone from Earth, who was used to technology that had only taken them as far as their moon... "L-Class," he said with no small amount of pride. "She's a state-of-the-art transdimensional inspection cruiser. The facilities are limited right now while we repair the damage, but we should have more than enough to keep the two of you - sorry, three of you - healthy and comfortable."
Naru blushed. "I still can't believe you even let us on board. I mean, we're civilians, we're not heroes like Usagi-chan and the others-"
"Nonsense," said Yugo. "From what I hear, you stood up to Dead End. That makes you heroes enough in our eyes."
Naru's blush deepened by a couple shades.
"So what's your propulsion system like?" Gurio couldn't hold it back any longer. His hands twitched with nervous energy. "Is it fusion-based? Gravity-based? Warp drive?"
"Controlled magical tempero-spatial manipulation," said a voice from the hatch on the opposite wall. "With crystallic fusion reaction drives for sublight travel. I can go over the specs with you in detail later if you'd like." The boy approaching them couldn't have been older than thirteen, but the officers on deck bowed to him just the same. Several of them seemed quite intimidated by his presence. He bowed to the Uminos in turn. "Yuuno Scrya, Deputy Manager of the Infinity Library, and provisional TSAB Cadet. Welcome aboard."
Gurio bowed, and Naru tilted forward as far as she could manage.
"Um, Gurio and Naru Umino," said Gurio as he pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "I'm a coder, and my wife runs a jewelry store."
"Oh!" Yuuno smiled up at him. A kindred spirit. "My specialties are actually research and archeology, but I studied coding in preschool! What sort of code do you work with? Akashic Mass Division? TransElem, maybe?"
"That's right, I forgot, you're from Nanoha's world! I'm sorry, that must have sounded really confusing."
"It did, but if you can explain it to me... Are those binary-based code languages, or-"
"Oh God," said Naru, casting her eyes up to the ceiling. "There's two of them."
Gurio looked at her like a bespectacled, wounded puppy.
Sigh. "Go on," she said. She waved a hand and failed to suppress a smile. "Geek out together. Nurse Yugo can help me get set up, right?"
"Of course, ma'am."
"Naru, are you sure? I can stay with you if you need to-"
"And miss seeing the warp drive or whatever?" Naru clucked her tongue. Unthinkable."You'd be moaning about it for weeks. Go. I'll be fine."
She could only imagine that her husband's reaction was similar to what he must have been like on Christmas mornings as a kid. Gurio threw his arms around her with a manic grin and a rush of thank-yous, and it couldn't have been more than ten seconds before he and Yuuno launched together into an avalanche of science-speak that left her far behind.
"Crystallic fusion, you said, right? Dilithium crystals?"
"I recognize those!" Yuuno laughed. "I saw quite a bit of Terran science fiction while I lived there. It's not that far off, actually. The engines are powered by a strong electromagnetic field, generated by exposing a tantalate crystal to radical fluctuations in temperature, which produces a charged ionic stream-"
Amused more than annoyed, Naru turned to the nurse. "Do you understand any of that?"
"Not much, ma'am," said Yugo. He ran a hand through his hair. "That's part of why I'm still only a PFC."
"- temporal-spatial claudications. They're essentially convincing wormholes to open up where they need them. Bigger ones are called 'world gates', and the ones at the Crossings, the biggest world gate facility, are powered by harvesting energy from an active Type-O giant star."
"Really? That sounds fascinating, I'll have to read those. Who did you say was the author?"
"Diane Duane, she's the best. The way wizardry works in her series isn't like other fantasy novels at all, it's more like… programming code for the universe."
"Similar to ours, then. For us, most of the time we travel from place to place using variants of Transporter and other spells, but we generally need ships like the Arthra or her teleportation pods to go between dimensions."
Around the corner and down the corridor, Alph's ears twitched and swiveled in the direction of the two excited voices. Little of what they said made sense to her, beyond the basics, but the basics were all she needed to hear. As they drew closer, she took a breath and stepped out from the corner-
- and Yuuno Scrya very nearly planted his face into a soft and bountiful but very unfortunate part of Alph's anatomy. "Wha- Alph!" The boy's cheeks burned cherry red. "I-I-I'm sorry, I was so wrapped up, I wasn't watching where I was going!"
"Uh," said Umino, whose train of thought came to an abrupt, screeching halt. The woman his new friend had almost bumped into was… well, he knew of quite a few PC games starring women with wolf tails and ears and wardrobes and… attributes like that. In fact, he used to own quite a few of those games, and Naru had been less than thrilled when she found that out. I'm a married man, he told himself, then repeated it as a protective mantra: I'm a married man, I'm a married man, I'm a married man, and Naru would murder me if I even thought about doing anything! I'm a married man-
So focused was he on the recitation that he missed quite a bit of Alph and Yuuno's reunion.
"- heard you both talking about wormholes and dimensional transfer spells," the wolf girl was saying, thankfully oblivious to the effect she was having on Umino. "I'm working on a project that's involving those a bit. You're an expert with Transporter, right?"
"Well," said Yuuno, "I wouldn't call myself an expert, but-"
Now the wolf girl stood up and faced Umino directly. "And you." The deadly serious expression she wore drove any potentially inappropriate thoughts out of his head… as did the pointed fangs she possessed in lieu of a human's canine (oh God) teeth. Little fangs were so cute when they were a character trait of kemono girls in games and anime, but when a real, flesh-and-blood one was staring you in the face like that, and her fangs could hardly be called "little"... "You know about that kind of stuff, too?" she said.
"Er," said Umino, who broke out in a sweat much colder than the one moments ago when Yuuno asked him about coding. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and tried to force his suddenly tight throat to let some air through. "I… I know a lot of math and physics. Earth-based math and physics. The rest is mostly science fiction trivia, I don't really think-"
"Close enough," said the wolf girl. "I'm Alph. Come with me, let's talk somewhere private."
The only thought that made it through the white haze that filled Umino's skull at that moment was this: Oh God. Naru is going to kill me...
The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Three
This was the Yayoi Kise that Yui Nanase wanted to see. No longer holed up in her room all day, churning out endless pages of black scribbles. No longer cutting herself off from everyone. No longer lost in misery and despair.
They had been spending more and more time together lately. Not doing much, just talking. Of course it was still hard to cope with the loss of her friends, and of course she still frequently needed to have a good cry… but now Yayoi was alive in a way she hadn't been before.
I guess sometimes meeting your heroes is a good thing, Yui thought with a smile as she saw Yayoi's eyes wander over to the framed and autographed picture on her desk yet again.
The autographed picture and its frame were real, not Immaterial, because Yayoi insisted. It took calling in a few favors from Fantine and the Arthra to get them, but somebody managed to locate a real, solid pen, a camera, and a picture frame. Now it stood there in a place of pride: a photo of Usagi Tsukino with her arms around a starstruck, tearful, radiantly happy Yayoi, flashing her trademark double peace signs. The inscription, scrawled in sloppy hiragana, read: To Yayoi Kise, my biggest fan. Don't give up! Love, Usagi Tsukino - Sailor Moon.
"You're looking at it again," Yui chuckled.
"Uwah~!" Yayoi squeaked and jumped three inches off the bed, flushing pink. "S-sorry! I got distracted again…"
"I don't mind." If it helped her, Yui thought, by all means Yayoi could stare at the picture all she wanted. "I mean, Sailor Moon. Not an actress or a cosplayer, but the real one. I'm not half the fan you are, and even my jaw dropped when I first saw her."
"Don't say that." Yayoi twiddled her fingers. "I don't think I'm-"
"You're kidding, right?! I think you remembered more about her adventures than she did. Did you see the look on her face when you brought up that haunted house episode?"
A soft giggle. "That was a really weird one."
"So it's okay to fangirl over her," said Yui. "You deserve it."
"I just hope I didn't take up too much of Usagi-san's time. She is one of the leaders, you know. She and the others have to be busy, trying to save all our worlds and stuff."
"You know her as well as anybody. If Usagi-san says you're not a waste of her time, she means it." Smiling gently, Yui leaned against Yayoi's shoulder. Someone with her level of talent shouldn't be so insecure about herself, but for some reason, that feeling was pretty much universal among artists, no matter what universe you were in. Yui often felt that way herself. It was one of the reasons she felt such closeness between them.
A soft, warm cheek brushed hers. "I really can't thank you enough. We barely even knew each other, and you knew exactly what I needed."
Now it was Yui's turn to blush. Her glasses actually fogged up a bit. "I-I mean," she stammered, toying with the end of one of her braids. "Artists have got to s-stick together, right? Especially us quiet ones…"
"Not just artists." Yayoi's golden curls swished as she shook her head. "With the way things are, everyone's got to stick together, but us especially. People like us aren't as brave or strong or grown-up as someone like Usagi-san, but we can still support each other. We can still be here for each other when we need it."
Several seconds of silence followed, during which Yui swore the pounding of her heart against her ribs was loud enough for the entire Lighthouse to hear. "I…" said Yui finally. "I think I'd like that."
Yayoi's small fingers entwined with Yui's. "I'd like that too, Yui-chan."
The Lighthouse, Vertex Point One
Usagi Tsukino sat by herself in the dark Immaterial facsimile of her bedroom at the old house, the only other light coming from the blue-winged floating spark that was Fantine's avatar. She didn't really know why she insisted on talking to Fantine here, only that it felt somehow more… appropriate to bring up the matter in private. She sat on the floor by the desk where she struggled so many nights with her homework, hugging a copy of her favorite old throw pillow to her chest, watching the spark bob gently up and down.
"Fantine-san…" she began, then stopped. How to even begin?
"It's all right, Usagi," said Fantine. "You know you can talk to me about anything."
"It's…" Usagi chewed on her lip and hugged the pillow tighter. "It's about the Three. You said that if Sakura, Madoka, and I could all become these… Three…"
"You might be able to restore everything back to normal, yes."
"So… so what does that mean, exactly?"
A long pause from the spark. Its bobbing slowed. "For Sakura, it means regaining all the Cards she lost, and attaining full mastery of her abilities. Becoming the mage that the great Clow Reed foresaw as surpassing even him. At full power… Sakura could command all the elements, see into the past and future and other timelines, even reverse death itself."
Usagi took time to think that over. Sakura seemed so… normal to her. It was difficult to imagine someone so sweet and earnest wielding powers like that. "And Madoka?"
There was a much longer pause this time. "Madoka… rewrote the rules of her universe, and became an essential part of it. In her ultimate form, she would be… well. There were those that considered her a Goddess."
That was even harder to imagine, but Usagi tried not to dwell on it. One more question to ask, the most difficult one of all. "And… and what about me? Does becoming your… what was it? First? Does that mean becoming Eternal Sailor Moon again, or Neo-Queen Serenity…?"
"No," said Fantine. "In your case, Usagi… it would mean far surpassing all the powers that you've known, and becoming someone greater than Sailor Moon, greater than even Neo-Queen Serenity... possibly the purest force for creation and rebirth in all the universes. Usagi, becoming the First of the Three means becoming… Sailor Cosmos."
The blood froze in Usagi's veins. Sailor Cosmos. From one timeline, she remembered that name. At the climax of the final battle against Chaos at the Galaxy Cauldron, the birthplace of all souls and all stars, she remembered little Chibi-Chibi transforming into… into someone both familiar and a stranger at once. Her last ally, after everyone else was gone, or worse than dead. Just before she threw herself into the Cauldron, she remembered the touch of a phantom hand, and-
Her memories after that were jumbled and unclear. Being immersed in the Cauldron was like being dead, a disembodied spirit… and simultaneously like being connected to the universe, to all of creation. It was in that state that she heard/saw/felt the presence of Sailor Cosmos as she spoke to the Sailor Quartet, the four Senshi from Chibi-Usa's time. Cosmos was a figure of uncanny beauty and even greater mystery, a Senshi resplendent in white and pearl and silver, who said that she ran away from a future even farther away than Chibi-Usa's... a future devastated by an unthinkable war against Chaos, reborn as Sailor Chaos. Weeping, she told of death and destruction so total that nothing could be saved, even if the war ended… so she sent an aspect of herself back far in time, to urge Sailor Moon to destroy Chaos completely while she still had the chance.
Things were never that simple. Destroying Chaos while it was merged with the Cauldron meant that nothing new would ever be born. People, planets, stars, solar systems, the entire galaxy… when the time came for all of them to end, they would simply… stop. No reincarnation, no rebirth. The cycle would be over. The universe would eventually be at peace, only because no one would be left to fight in it. The peace of the grave.
Usagi hugged the pillow tighter to her chest. Far worse than the idea of that final, awful silence was the memory of being tempted by it. Standing on the Cauldron's rim, more alone than she ever thought she could be, the galaxy scoured of life, and the essences, the very souls of her friends and loved ones, melted away to nothingness by Galaxia's hand… After having lost everyone and everything in the most complete way possible, the temptation to join them all in oblivion, to just stop… Stop fighting, stop hurting, stop killing, stop living...
That temptation had only lasted a moment. When she threw herself into the Cauldron, invoking the full power of not just her Silver Crystal, but all the Sailor Crystals in existence… it was with the certainty that there had to be a better way. Her last thought of that life before she plunged into the Cauldron's ethereal waters and dissolved still resonated here and now, clear as a bell: Even if it's painful, even if the fighting never ends… I want to live… I want to continue living in this world...
That was the decision Usagi made, not just for herself, but for the universe. And then-
Usagi's thoughts become more confused than ever. Half of her remembered returning to the ordinary life she dreamed of for so long, and half of her remembered her ascension, the birth of Crystal Tokyo and the new Silver Millennium, the beginning of a new age. Either way, whichever path was real, if either of them was, it was at that point that she considered her life as a Sailor Senshi to be over.
"So this must be it after all," said Usagi, as a great hollow opened in her chest. "This must be the war that the other Cosmos ran away from. If I'm destined to become her, then-"
"Usagi," said the winged spark. "I don't want to give you false hope, but… In my experience, nothing is destined to happen, because… because every possible outcome is already happening, somewhere in the multiverse. Do you understand? There are infinite parallel realities, and infinite facets of those realities. What separates them all… is choice. Every choice, even something as simple as… as choosing whether or not to get up in the morning, splinters into a new reality. Does that make sense?"
Usagi nodded, trying to grasp the concept. That sounded more like Ami's thing… Something stabbed her heart, and she cringed. Ami.
"But your choice at the Cauldron," Fantine continued, "it was… it was a ripple in the surface of a still pond. You chose to find another way, to sacrifice yourself for the sake of everyone… and that choice changed things at a fundamental level, in your own universe and in all of the others. You found hope, when hope should have been impossible. Was impossible. What you did back then meant more than I can possibly explain… so please," she said, floating closer, "Please don't think that your fight didn't matter, or that it doesn't matter. Please don't think that you have no choice but to follow the path of the other Sailor Cosmos. There's always a choice, Usagi. Always."
Smiling through silent tears, Usagi cradled the winged spark and brought it close to her chest. It was faintly warm. "Thank you, Fantine-san."
Her avatar's wings fluttered. "I hope that helps."
"It did. But…"
"If there's always a choice, doesn't that mean… there's a choice, even for you?"
Fantine grew very, very quiet.
The Lighthouse, Sekigahara Training Grounds
"That's it," said Rei Hino, leaning over the smaller girl's shoulder as she guided her hands. "Stand straight, feet apart, and slowly pull back on the string."
"Yes, ma'am." Madoka Kaname's voice trembled a bit. Though it was growing easier each day, Rei was still intimidating to be around. Her glowing red pupils reminded her too much of those scary creatures Homura called "Incubators", and the first time she saw real, smoking embers fall from the red streaks in her hair, it gave her a terrible start. Rei couldn't help it, of course. She was a victim of Joker's cruelty, as they all were. However scary she might be, though, she was willing to help Madoka regain some of her lost skills.
Archery training came first. Madoka had already rediscovered that the bow and arrow were her signature weapons as a Puella Magi, but when it came to shooting correctly… well. It was a good thing Immaterial didn't burn easily. After that unfortunate incident, Fantine suggested that she practice with Rei, a fellow archer from Usagi's world. According to Fantine, it would do them both some good.
Their choice of venue was the newly-established communal training grounds a few floors beneath the Crossroads, within the Lighthouse's central spire. Of course, there were no reasons that they couldn't set up a spot in one of the Vertex Points, since lack of space was never a problem, but it was Nanoha's idea that a shared, fixed space for practice and exercise might help increase morale. Nanoha was the decorated military officer, so the others deferred to her wisdom. Once that was settled, it was again Nanoha's idea to name the space Sekigahara, after the site of the historic battle that unified a war-torn Japan, symbolizing of the unification of their forces. Madoka wasn't much for history, but she agreed that it sounded like a good fit.
Though the training grounds could be anything for anyone who used them, they were usually fixed in the shape of endless rolling grassy hills, extending from horizon to horizon. Fourteen meters away stood a row of mato, targets marked with concentric circles, with several dozen arrows peppering the mock soil around them at odd angles. Madoka wasn't particularly accurate yet. This time, though…
"Focus," said Rei. "Remember shin-zen-bi: truth, goodness, beauty. When you shoot with the correct technique and the right attitude… the beauty should come naturally."
The bowstring trembled. Its tension dug into her drawing glove so hard that Madoka's heartbeat thrummed hard in her fingertip. Now that she was aware of it, she felt her knees wobbling slightly… Come on, focus! Shin-zen-bi. Shin-zen-bi.
"And…" said Rei. "Release!"
That part she could do, at least. The arrow leapt from her grip, sailed over the grassy hills, and buried itself in an outermost ring of one of the mato.
"I…" Madoka blinked, unsure of whether or not to believe her eyes. "I hit it…! Hino-san, did you see that? I really hit it!"
"You certainly did!" Half of Rei remembered saying something quite similar years ago, a month into her first archery lessons, and it was that half that grinned with pride. "Well done, Madoka."
"Wait until I tell Homura-chan, she'll be so happy…!"
Nothing much seemed to make the Akemi girl happy, or anything other than indifferent in Rei's limited experience, but she did have a soft spot for Madoka…
More than just a soft spot. That thought was from her Rei 1 side, naturally. That girl's got it bad.
Tch, thought her other side. Don't be improper. That's none of your business.
Why not? We're all stuck here together, I should at least get to know the-
Damn. Too much. Rei tumbled to the grass, her existence warping…
"Hino-san! Hino-san, are you okay?!" No matter how many times she saw it happen, Madoka was always concerned whenever Rei… flickered. That was the only word she could think of to describe it.
It was endearing, in a way. "I'll be fine," said Rei, though her voice was strained. Forcing herself to stay together through sheer willpower (or stubbornness, or whatever she chose to call it) was hard enough when both sides were in concert.
"Are you sure? We could take you to see Nurse Balzac-"
"Nurse Balzac has better things to do, I'm sure," said Rei, trying hard not to sound too testy. The last thing she needed was to be poked and prodded and fussed over like a lab rat… on that, both sides of her were in full agreement.
Madoka opened her mouth to argue the point, but before she could speak, she heard the telltale whoosh of air that signaled an arch opening. Several meters away, two other girls stepped through the crystalline doorway that had just sprouted from the grassy field. Both were deep in conversation.
"- that your FIGHT Card would make it easier, I agree," Nanoha Takamachi was saying, "but there's no reason you can't practice Strike Arts without it. You have more than enough magical power to learn the basics, at least."
"Me, doing martial arts?! Hoeee~!" And that could only be Sakura Kinomoto. She sounded baffled by the very idea. "I mean, I've never even really used the FIGHT. Martial arts have always been more Shaoran's and Meilin's thing..."
"Maybe you could ask Meilin to teach you what I can't, then? Oh, hello! Pardon us." Having belatedly noticed Rei and Madoka, Nanoha bowed in their direction.
After a second, Sakura bowed too. "S-Sorry! We didn't know the training grounds were being used!"
Another bow from Madoka. "N-no, it's our fault for not telling anyone ahead of time! If we're all going to use this place, we should really make a schedule or something."
"There's no reason not to share," Rei climbed to her feet and brushed stray blades of grass from her robes. "It's more than big enough for four of us."
Whoosh. To the southeast, a second arch opened. The girl in black and pink armor paused in the doorway, goggling at the unexpected company. "Um," said Cure Black. "Did we all have the same idea? I don't believe this..."
"Five of us," Rei amended. One of her eyebrows twitched. "It's still fine, we can-"
"Oh, come on!"
This time the new arch formed to the left of everyone else. Even by the eclectic standards of those already present, the newest arrival stood out: not just the shorts or the midriff-bearing halter top that left little to the imagination, but the furry, pointed, white-tipped ears and bushy orange wolf tail poking out the back of said shorts.
Four out of five of them lost their trains of thought entirely at the sight of her. Only Nanoha seemed to take the underdressed wolf familiar in stride. "Alph-san, good morning! Is Fate-chan up yet?"
"Still sleeping," said Alph. Her tail twitched back and forth in the awkward silence that followed. Everyone but Nanoha was staring at her. "Um. Hi?"
There was a round of embarrassed greetings and introductions.
"Actually," said Alph once they were finished, "I was hoping to meet Cure Black." She swiveled to look at Black, hands on her hips. "That's you, right?"
"Um," said Black. Those ears. That tail. A brief but fierce mental battle waged in Black's mind, between one side wanting to gawk, another side chastising that first side for its rudeness… and a rogue splinter faction urging her to reach out and pet the wolf girl's tail while she still had the chance, because it looked so cuddly… No, no, no. Black shook herself and tried to snap back to reality. "Yes, ma'am...?" What she could possibly want with her, Black had no idea.
"And you're Rei Hino. Sailor Mars," said Alph, rising to face the shrine maiden. "I've read about some of your battles in the data Fantine's shared with us. It's an honor."
Rei's gaze turned frosty. If there was a point here, she couldn't see it. "Thank you. Is there something you need?"
"There's-" Her eyes flicked over to Nanoha for a moment, to the red, shiny burn marks on her palms and fingertips. "Oh, never mind. It's not important, I can come back later." As she turned to leave, her tail following half a step behind her, she waved over her shoulder. "Enjoy your workout, everyone."
That was all Nanoha heard. "Bye, Arf-san. Tell Fate-chan I'll have breakfast ready when she wakes up."
Madoka waved as well, as did Sakura a moment later, who had to rouse herself out of a sudden, intense longing to see for herself if those ears were as soft and fluffy as they looked.
As for Black and Rei, though, they heard something else from the wolf girl just before she stepped through the arch: a telepathic message, with instructions for them both.
I'm holding a meeting tonight on the Arthra, in the starboard Ops center. Anyone else who's tired of sitting and waiting, come at 1900 hours ship's time. Keep this quiet. Whatever you do, don't tell Fantine, and especially don't tell Nanoha.
"Ahhhh, mouuuuu~! Why do they have to make this thing so big?!" Erika Kurumi's cry of frustration rang throughout the empty corridor. Her voice and footsteps preceded her by quite a few seconds as she stomped down yet another stretch of spaceship hallway that looked just the same as the last dozen. "Seriously! The least they could do is put up signs in a language I can read! Starboard Ops, starboard Ops… where the heck is starboard Ops?!" At least now, after reluctantly asking a passing crewman for help, she knew that starboard meant the right side of the ship. Without the tip, she might still be wandering somewhere near what was apparently the portside stern, God knew how many hundreds of meters away from where she should be. The glowing holographic script that identified the hatches she passed was of no help whatsoever; it was all in Mid-Childan Standard. Numbers she could make out, but letters were a different matter.
"I should get one of those fancy talking wands they have," Erika ground her teeth together as she grumbled to herself. "One of those could tell me if I'm going the right way. Stupid space army, keeping all the useful stuff for themselves. Their uniforms are really boring, anyway. Not at all like the ones in the sci-fi shows on TV. Someone needs to hire them a designer. Where the hell is starboard stinkin' Ops?!"
Up ahead, someone athletic and severe poked their head around a corner. "Kurumi-sempai? Is that you?"
"Oh, Iona, thank God!" Erika broke into a run. "I thought I was gonna be lost for weeks."
Iona sighed. What was it with Precure and directions? "You're looking for the meeting place too?"
"Eh heh… you heard…?"
"I think most of the deck heard," said a voice behind her. "Geez, Eri-rin. This is supposed to be secret."
"Uwah! Ki-Kirara-chan!" Skidding to a stop so fast that her sneakers must have left marks, Erika gaped at the fashion model who was everything she had once wanted to be… Beautiful. Famous. Respected. Tall. Now that memories of their shared battles were slowly but surely restoring themselves, Erika recalled complaining to Tsubomi more than once that she wished she and Kirara could get together some time when there wasn't a world-threatening crisis happening. Now, unfortunately, was not one of those times. Boy, was it ever not. "You're here too?!"
"I was invited," said Kirara, puffing out her cheeks. "I didn't count on getting lost."
"Kirara-chan…" Erika peered closer. "Are you okay? Your eyes are really dark and puffy." A pro model had to keep up her appearance at all times. Erika learned that from her sister on day one of Momoka's career. Someone of Kirara's caliber letting herself look like that…
"I haven't been sleeping well." Kirara heaved a bitter sigh that suggested she was well aware that her standards were slipping, and didn't like it one bit. "I should really be in bed right now, but Alph-san said-"
"- that she's planning something," said Iona, dropping her voice to a whisper. "What do you think it could be?"
"I hope part of it involves giving out maps!" By contrast, whispering was not something Erika did with any frequency. In fact, she stomped her foot for more emphasis.
As if on cue, a section of the bulkhead slid open a few meters away. Accompanied by the scent of ocean waves, a young woman several years the girls' senior stepped from the hatch. One look at her, and Erika could tell she wasn't part of the Time Space Whatever Bureau; this lady had class. It shone from her every inch, every piece of her outfit was carefully composed. "I beg your pardon, but I believe you might be looking for us. Starboard Ops?" said Michiru Kaioh, arching a sea-green eyebrow.
The three of them were struck dumb, each for entirely different reasons.
Kirara felt a pang of nostalgia and loss so sharp that she had to wince; the lady's presence, her style, and her scent all reminded her of Minami. Minamin...
Iona was struck by wonder at how someone so calm, refined and elegant could project an aura so dangerous. There was a dark and fierce current underneath her beautiful, placid surface. She's like Maria, she thought, which reopened the wounds of grief for her sister, again trapped in darkness.
And Erika's thought was simply: Dammit, another tall one?!
"Follow me." Michiru beckoned and stepped back through the hatch. "I'm Michiru Kaioh, it's wonderful to meet you. Apparently we're almost ready to start, we're just waiting on a few more people."
Erika followed. "Who's 'we', exac- holy crap. Lady, your hair's on fire!"
Just inside, the young woman seated in a lotus position on the floor fought hard to keep her focus. A muscle twitched in her cheek with the effort. Her long raven hair was streaked with glowing red, and indeed there were faint wisps of smoke rising from each stripe . "I'm aware," said Rei, as calmly as she could manage. "It's only smoldering right now, so it's not a problem. Alph-san has disabled the fire suppression system in this room, so we shouldn't have any more accidents."
"That's so weird! How the heck did mmmph."
Taking it upon herself to cover Erika's mouth with her hand, Iona bowed to the shrine maiden. "You'll have to excuse Kurumi-sempai. She can be… blunt."
"I noticed. Michiru-san, is this everyone?"
"Just two more," said Michiru after counting heads. "I'm not sure about Cure Black, but if I know Chibi-Usa, she should be-"
"Wait! Waiiiiiiiit!" Accompanying the scream, there was a storm of rapid footsteps from further down the corridor. Seconds later, Chibi-Usa Tsukino came flying around the corner, her pink pigtails streaming behind her like banners. Disheveled, red-faced, out of breath and sweating buckets, she stumbled to a stop and bent over double, gasping for breath. "Sorry… sorry, Michiru-san…! Overslept… Hotaru-chan… tried to wake me up… but…"
The assembled Precure goggled as one as elegant, refined Michiru burst into laughter that didn't fit at all with her image. "Oh, you're Usagi's daughter, all right! Welcome, Chibi-Usa-chan. You're not late at all, Alph-san hasn't started yet."
"So," said Kirara, "what exactly is this, anyway? All Alph-san said was that we're-"
Now her elegance was back as Michiru raised a finger to her lips. "All in good time. Once Black arrives-"
"Hold up! Hold uuuuuuuup!" And for the second time in as many minutes, footsteps clanged off the bulkhead walls. The others all watched in varying states of amusement as Black came roaring from the opposite direction, ground to a halt, and took on an almost identical stance to the winded Chibi-Usa, still catching her breath on the opposite side. "Dammit, sorry…" Black wheezed. "Mepple… was s'posed to… wake me up…"
Michiru chuckled. "I suppose some things are the same in every universe..."
"Blockade Territory." A complex circle of orange light appeared at Alph's feet. It was followed by a gently glowing wall that swept over every corner of the darkened Ops center… only when it finished did she relax. "There," she said. "That should keep things private. Thank you all for coming… I appreciate you putting your trust in me."
The others were all seated around a circular table. "Um…" Two seats from Alph's right, Chibi-Usa fidgeted. "You said this was about getting our friends back?"
"More than that," said Alph. Her features grew hard. "It's about showing Dead End that they can't torture, corrupt, and kill our friends and loved ones without consequences. It's about doing something, instead of just sitting here waiting for all the worlds to end, like Fantine wants us to do. It's about paying them back for all they've done-"
Kirara leaned back in her chair with a very dark, thin-lipped smile. "I dunno about you guys, but I can get behind that."
Beside her, Michiru's mask of serenity slipped just long enough to reveal the righteous anger brewing within her like a storm. "As can I."
Black said nothing. She merely pounded her fist into her palm and recited names in her mind as a litany: Honoka. Mipple. Hikari. Hikaru.
"I agree that something has to be done," said Iona, who sensed the rising anger in the room. "But as they are, our options are limited. We don't have anywhere near the right numbers for a full-scale assault."
"Which is why it's not going to be a full-scale assault," said Alph. She leaned over the table. "This isn't an all-out attack, it's a precision strike, and a rescue mission. If we can get inside Dead End, save some of the hostages, get out, and do some damage along the way…"
Erika's eyes shone. "Yeah. Yeah! A secret mission! Sneaky ninja stuff! I like it!"
"Except," said Rei, folding her arms, "we don't know where Dead End is hiding…"
"That's where these guys come in." Alph stood back with a knowing smirk. "That's your cue, you two."
A huge, holographic star map sprouted from the center of the table, bathing the room in a soft blue glow. Into that glow stepped Yuuno Scrya and Gurio Umino… the latter of whom seemed more than a little intimidated by all these serious faces. This really wasn't his field… He adjusted his glasses and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Rei and Chibi-Usa shot confused looks at each other, both thinking the same thing: Umino helped plan this?!
Fortunately, Yuuno took over. "Umino and I have been talking it over," he said, raising his hand into the holo to manipulate the map. "I know at least some of us have been trying to locate the Dead End base of operations, with little success. Any organization that has that much power concentrated in one place should be impossible to hide, but none of us have been able to find traces of it."
"Um," Umino stammered. "S-so Scrya-san and I thought… maybe they're not hiding…?"
Uncomprehending silence all around.
"Go on," said Alph to Yuuno. "Tell them what you told me."
Yuuno nodded. "We realized that if they're in a place where the normal natural laws of physics, time, and space don't apply… they wouldn't have to hide." He spread his fingers, and the map slowly zoomed into the galactic center. "A black hole," he said, his voice low. "It would have to be a massive black hole, big enough to distort any kind of sensor readings. I'm not sure how it's possible, but in layman's terms… they're not hiding their base in any one place. Not even any one time or dimension or universe. They're hiding it everywhere. It's everywhere and nowhere, both at once. Brilliant, in a way. So once we had our hypothesis, it just became a matter of finding a black hole big enough. And by process of elimination..."
As the map zoomed in, and the black void at the galactic core came to dominate the image, a tiny dot orbiting its edge grew larger and larger, features coming into slow relief…
Rei, Chibi-Usa, and Michiru all stood up from their chairs, aghast. They knew that place, they could never forget it. In another time, they all died there...
"Sagittarius A*," Rei whispered, her face draining of color. "That's… that's Galaxia's palace..."
It hung suspended above the black that surpassed blackness, a crystalline Gothic cathedral, its many spires reaching for infinity… but half its structure was twisted, fading out of sight like a dream, like something only half-real.
"What's happened to it…?" said Chibi-Usa. She felt a terrible chill, a memory of herself fading from existence, erased from time.
"We're not sure," said Umino. "Whatever's making it look like that, Scrya-san and I both think that's the reason it's acting like a fixed point in all universes. A quantum superposition."
Across the table, Erika stared. "A quantum… what?!"
"It doesn't matter," said Yuuno. "What matters is… if this is Dead End's headquarters, and we're pretty sure it is… now we have a place to strike."
Alph grinned, her fangs gleaming in the holo's light. "So we just need to mount that strike, and leave the Lighthouse without Fantine noticing. I'll handle that part."
The assembled Precure all exchanged glances.
"Black?" said Kirara. "You're our leader, it's your call. Do we go through with it?"
Black's cheeks turned pink. Making her the leader wasn't very fair, she thought. Without Honoka, she wasn't any better or worse than any of them…
"Nagisa," said a tired, small voice from the pouch on her hip. "They…" said Mepple, pausing for labored breath. "They believe… in you. So… do I. If you… want to do it…"
Honoka. Mipple. Hikari. Hikaru. "I do." Black clenched her hand into a fist.
"Count me in," said Kirara. "I have a score to settle."
"If it's to save my sister and my friends, I'll do anything." Iona stood and nodded assent. "I'm in."
And Erika grinned, pumping her fist into the air. "Let's kick the crap outta them!"
"Then there's just one more thing left to decide," said Alph. There was a giddy feeling in her heart, a rush of possibility. Everything was coming together. "We need a name. This is a covert military operation, and it needs a good name."
There followed many suggestions, at varying volumes:
"Operation Stop Dead End?"
"No way, that's too obvious."
"Operation Save the Worlds!"
"Eugh, no. Operation… um, Operation Kick The Crap Out Of Everybody!"
"Eri-rin, you're not serious."
And from Umino, something that popped out of his mouth before he could stop himself: "Operation Batman."
Again, silence all around.
Umino turned red and fiddled with his glasses. "Because… you know, you're going to beat up a guy named Joker…?"
Black, Erika, Kirara, and Chibi-Usa exploded into snorting, wheezing laughter.
A moment later, to everyone's surprise, so did Rei. Hers petered out when she saw the stares of the others.
The last one to laugh was Alph, who did so with a joyous, doglike bark after thinking it over. She gave Umino a hearty slap on the back of approval, which nearly dislocated his shoulder. "I like it. I like it! It's easy to remember, it's not too obvious, and it works. Operation Batman it is! Watch out, Joker and Viluy." Her blue eyes sparkled with something like triumph as she pounded her fist on the table. "It's payback time."
END CHAPTER 24
[Author's Note: Thanks to VDrake for the name "Operation Batman", and very, EXTRA-special thanks to Mrs. Diane Duane (yes, the real one!) for her help describing the mechanics of world gating in her books. Dai stihó, ma'am.]