(the invasion starts in ch5. have patience.)


.

.

It's middle of the night at a barren landscape of a non-administrated world so obscure and insignificant it does not even have a name. A dimensional anomaly timidly appears slightly above the flat plateau of a small hill, resembling a pulsating sphere of about 2m radius.

A dozen or so wisp-like orbs, each about the size of a bowling ball made of sparkling golden light, emerge from this portal-like anomaly.

.

Far away from this rare event sits a small, unremarkable one-story rectangular building sitting middle of nowhere.

A lone low-rank TSAB monitoring agent, reading a book with his feet on the console desk, is alerted by a light 'Ding' notification sound. He takes his eyes off the book and examines the several holo-monitors displaying the world status. One of the monitors displays the local map, and a small yellow dot is blinking on it - a location quite far from his TSAB station.

"What's this?"

He pulls the holo-map display to the center of the desk so the enlarged 3D image hovers over the center. With his finger, the agent pokes at the blinking yellow dot. A message pops up with an accompanying synthesized voice.

"Space-Time anomaly detected."

The monitoring agent is curious.

"Well, well. It's been a while anything popped up. How big is this?"

A new message pops up in front of the agent.

"Trivial."

"OK, then."

The agent leans back on his chair and returns to reading.

.

As the wisp-like orbs move about probing the surrounding on the desolate hill their golden light illuminates the pitch-black darkness; like fireflies. Their purpose is not clear, but it appears they are curious about the world.

After half an hour or so of dashing around the plateau, they halt. One of the orbs fires off the magic that creates explosion mid-air; not damaging anything, but big enough of a ruckus to alert anyone monitoring the area's magical activities. Once the explosion clears, the orbs probe the surrounding again.

.

The agent is once again disturbed by a 'Ding', which is somewhat heavier and louder than the previous alert. There now is a red dot blinking over the yellow dot on the holo-map. The monitoring agent takes this a bit more seriously and leans over the desk.

"What's happening?"

A message pops up before his eyes. Once again, a synthesized voice helps him read:

"Magical discharge detected. Possible explosion(s)."

"Is it locals doing?" The agent asks.

The synthesized voice reads aloud a new popup message.

"Origin - unknown. Possibly foreign."

The agent stands up and grabs his coat.

"Keep the data-stream synced with my portable. I'm on my way."

He exists the station and enters his car parked just outside the building. As he starts the engine, several flat displays pop up and hover around the steering wheel, keeping the agent updated on the world status. The synth voice reminds the agent as he shifts the gear.

"Agent, please remember this is a non-administrated zone. Time-Space Administration Bureau interference is to be kept at a minimum."

"Yeah, yeah."

The car turns invisible as the monitoring agent drives off into the darkness.

.

The orbs halt their activities as they sense the invisible car appearing on the pitch-black horizon. Each ball of light rotates slightly as if they are facing the approaching car.

.

"Record this." The monitoring agent commands as he sees a blip of light on the horizon. The synth voice responds accordingly.

"Start recording."

"I see a smudge of yellow light on the horizon. 5 or 6km away." He squints. "Zoom in."

One of the displays shows the zoomed-in view up ahead.

"More like a blob of light balls - ground level."

.

The orbs start vibrating, still 'facing' the approaching agent.

.

"Oh, shit." The agent feels the tingling sensation of being probed.

"Warning. We are being probed."

"Yeah, I know!"

He steps on the break and the car stops abruptly.

"Threat assessment?" The agent asks his non-human companion.

"Not enough data."

The agent sighs, then nervously looks at the smudge of golden light on the distant horizon, his fingers drumming on the steering wheel.

.

The wisps, or orbs, one by one, face away from the cloaked agent far away. They group up and enter the dimensional anomaly. The last one to enter emits a magical discharge that interacts with the pulsating edge of the spherical anomaly, disturbing it, and thus closing it behind.

#

.

Meanwhile, in Midchilda, the capital world of Time-Space Administration Bureau, a man is running through dark alleys. He is on the run, constantly looking over his shoulder to see if anyone is following. The sound of the sirens and the flashing lights of the law enforcement vehicles diminish as he puts distance between himself and the pursuers.

He exits the alley and emerges onto a deserted main street. There is nobody walking around at this hour, and all the shops and buildings are locked down. The man slows down, breathing heavily. He stops in the shadow cast by the play of the clouds and the moonlight, leaning against the large window of a cafe, which fortunately has its light off. He tries to catch his breath. He looks around. The flashing lights are nowhere to be seen, and the sirens are so far away almost irrelevant. The man lets out a sigh of relief. He is dead tired from running.

'Tap'. 'Tap'. 'Tap'.

The man, startled, jumps up. He turns to see where the sound came from. Somebody is sitting alone at a window table inside the deserted cafe, tapping on the window. The face is hidden by the shadow, but thanks to the moonlight he can see a pair of custom-built pistols laid on the table He instantly recognizes those. He's heard about these particular pistols and their owner; mostly about the latter.

A feminine hand appears on the table, motioning the man to enter and sit down. Defeated, he shuffles in. The cafe door is not locked as expected. The man reluctantly sits down across the table opposite to the figure in the shadow. He can't see the face, but can just make out the silhouette of a twin-tailed female. The head in the shadow corks a bit.

"Hello. Thanks for not running away." The figure speaks in an honest tone. The man shakes his head.

"Of all the Enforcers in the multiverse, it has to be you…I give up."

He is sure the face in the shadow grinned. The man leans back on his chair, fatigue catching up. He sets his hands onto the table in abandonment, but very careful not to touch the pistols. The head in the shadow corks a bit again.

"Cuff?"

"No, miss. No need." Answers the man, meaning it.

"Good. Thank you. I'll tell the judges you were cooperative. That could get some months off your sentence." She carefully turns the pistols on the table such that the barrels stop pointing at the man. A gesture of absolute confidence and dominance.

"Thank you, miss. Now, please call your colleagues. Let me just rest a bit in the meantime." The man shuts his eyes, listening to the lady across the table making a call to the agents.

They have been sitting there in silence for a minute or so when a call comes for the Enforcer sitting across the table. Something about a dimensional anomaly in a world the man has never heard of.

#

.

It's a bright late morning the next day, and the monitoring agent huffs and puffs and grumbles as he walks up the hill on foot. He doesn't seem to mind returning to the scene of last night's curious event but finds it bothersome nonetheless.

The top of the hill is a small clearing of the plateau, on which stands a twin-tailed woman, in her early to mid thirties, clad in a grey-black double-breasted wool coat, white skirts, and brown leather boots over knitted black knee-highs.

The mini-explosion last night left a singe on the soil she is standing on. She is intensely staring at the void above the ground where the anomaly had appeared.

A sudden wind blows across and the lady's coat flaps, revealing two pistols holstered at her waist.

"Good afternoon, madam. Are you the Enforcer from the Capital?"

The woman turns around, beams a smile, and extends hand after returning the salute from the agent.

"Good afternoon, agent. Enforcer Lanster. Teana Lanster." They shake hands. "Sorry to impose myself on you with such short notice. I understand it is actually your off-duty hour after an all-nighter, yes?"

"No problem, madam. I didn't expect you to be arriving here before I did, though."

"I'm an early bird."

The agent motions to the surrounding which is nothing.

"But I'm curious what brings you out here. I mean...yeah, it was odd, but not really...a MAJOR incident."

"To be honest with you, I don't even know what I'm looking for."

The agent raises his eyebrows.

"It's a pet project of mine because I have this...hunch." Adds Teana with a quick smile.

"Well, that's good enough for me. It's quite lonely out here all by myself."

The agent and the Enforcer laugh. He starts to go over the last night's incident as he pulls out a holo-display to show the lady the recordings from the last night.

#

.

In a quiet corner of Cranagan, the capital city of Midchilda sits a large compound belonging to Sail Force. One building, in particular, is so attention-repelling one would not notice it if not for the sign that reads "Time-Space Administration Bureau Naval Intelligence Directorate".

A vintage motorbike passes through the compound security check and enters the parking lot. Once parked at a "Guest" spot, orange-brown haired Teana takes off her helmet, putting on the Executive Office issue beret.

She enters the Naval Intelligence building, walks past another security check in the spacious yet rather empty lobby, and takes an elevator to the second top floor.

She exits the elevator to yet another lobby, which is occupied by a young naval lieutenant sitting behind a neat desk next to a double door. The lieutenant checks the time.

"Hello, madam. Miss Lanster from Executive Office?"

"Yes, lieutenant. Teana Lanster. Is Deputy Director in?"

"Yes, madam. I will let him know you are here." The lieutenant stands and knocks on the double door before opening. He enters two steps in, salutes, and announces the arrival of the guest. A manly voice spills out of the room.

"Oh, she's here? Please do show her in, lieutenant."

Teana walks into the office, not waiting to be shown in.

Deputy Director is a handsome dark-haired man, in his mid-thirties, dressed in his impeccable Sail Force admiral's uniform. Currently, he is the acting director of the directorate but insists on being addressed by his official title, Deputy Director. The Bureau has tried many times to fill the vacant chief spy position, but all the candidates have declined, not wanting to risk being overshadowed by the impressively decorated deputy. The man himself has declined many times the Director title, as he believes he still lacks the critical 'punch'.

"Really? Just a few steps walk, and we have to go through this formality?" says Teana.

Deputy Director stands up, walks around his desk and greets Teana with a warm smile.

"Hey. I don't want to upset my lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir." The lieutenant acknowledges the effort.

Teana and Deputy Director hug and air-kiss as the lieutenant leaves the office. They sit at the coffee table in front of the desk.

"Long time no see. How have you been?" He asks first.

"I'm busy as always. How are the twins?

"Ah, they are at that teen stage...you know what I mean. Oh hey, how is everyone coping with the restructuring?"

Teana scoffs.

"It will take more time for everyone to get used to it. After all, we got yanked out of Sail Force..." She shakes head and continues.

"Anyway your sister has done an excellent job keeping things together... Everyone is pretty happy."

That brings a smile on the man's face. The lieutenant brings in the coffee, sets them up on the table, and leaves.

"Everyone looks up to her, so you should be really proud." Teana adds.

"Maybe I should go back?"

"Well, we'd be glad to have you back EX-Enforcer Harlaown."

Deputy Director Chrono Harlaown chuckles.

"Oh, you flatter me. So...are you here to see your senpai or the Naval Intelligence officer?" Chrono inquires.

"I'm afraid it's the latter, senpai."

She activates her device to display a holo-image. The image shows a smudge of golden light in the dark on the distant horizon. She pops out another image, which is a zoomed-in version of the previous one. The smudge of golden light now appears to be a blob of light orbs. Deputy Director examines the images silently.

"It goes like this. A dimensional anomaly appears out of nowhere in the middle of nowhere, these things come out, make some noise...nothing too harmful, but just enough to grab the attention of a local TSAB monitoring agent, and then...they go back." Teana explains.

"That's it?"

The Enforcer pops out a dozen or so more such images.

"And this has been happening here and there...so far only in the non-administrated worlds, but at seemingly random places and random times."

"Random occurrence of an activity that follows a protocol..." Chrono comments, to which Teana nods.

"Exactly. There is more; These things...these light balls. They make some noise so of course, the local agent goes to investigate."

"Naturally."

"And it looks like these light balls are capable of detecting and probing cloaked mages."

"What makes you think that?" Chrono is curious.

"All the local agents I interviewed told me that they sensed the probing scan as they approached the anomaly. I crosschecked against their device logs and the story checks out; Directed mage scan." Showing the interview transcripts she continues.

"The monitoring agents are mandated to keep their presence hidden from the locals there. Which means, when they go out to investigate, they are cloaked."

"The light balls can't probe what they can't see, but since they do, they must be able to detect cloaked mages. I get it...but the agents use pretty weak cloak magic, though." Chrono comments.

"Yeah...Still, I have a bad feeling about this."

"I think I know why, but please go on."

"The light balls deliberately call out for the agents, and when the agents get there all they do is just scan and get out."

Chrono muses about it.

"Certain something, which is magically proficient enough to pierce through TSAB cloak magic, is gauging the Bureau's strength."

"At places where we are weak in presence."

"Now I see why you came to me. Sorry but Naval Intelligence has nothing on this."

Teana looks disappointed.

"But these things must come from somewhere."

"Naval Intelligence is not an all-knowing, all-seeing god. I say there are two possibilities. One. They are coming from where we don't have our eyes on. Two. They are coming from within, right under our noses."

"I can deal with the latter, but not the former. What do we do?"

To this Chrono scratches his head.

"Yeah, that would be a worlds-collide case where we know nothing about the world we are about to collide." He calls out to his lieutenant to get the car ready. "Let's go talk to an expert. We have a consultancy contract with Yuuno."

#

.

Teana and Chrono are sitting side by side at a large table situated in a study room of Infinity Library, patiently waiting as the Chief Librarian, Professor Yuuno Scrya, about the same age as Deputy Director, sitting across the two, goes over the holo-documents and images arranged in front of him.

.

"This is most interesting." Says Professor after an intense reading session.

"Yuuno, what's your opinion on this?" asks the man who pays the consultancy fee.

"This group of light balls...orbs? Anyway, these look like some kind of wide-area surveillance magic."

"We at the Office think so, too." Teana agrees.

Professor is intrigued.

"If their purpose was only to lure and probe the local TSAB mage, they would do so immediately after coming out of an anomaly. But they are not doing that.

Do we know what they do before our monitoring agents arrive on the scene?"

Teana checks her files.

"No, but my guess is... they look around?"

"Probably sampling the elements of the world they are visiting...I mean that's what I'd do. Have they ever appeared in the same world twice?"

"That's...a question mark. There are no such "reported" cases, but you know TSAB does not have agents in every single world." Teana answers.

"True, true. Let's assume for now that they haven't appeared in the same world twice. What does that tell us?"

Chrono answers this time.

"Systematic search by a process of elimination."

"Exactly. That means some form of memory - ticking off tick boxes. That's record-keeping and querying."

"And communication... that is if whatever or whoever sending out these orbs are not working all alone. But Professor, we could also say the same thing about any mage in the TSAB worlds." Teana comments.

"Well, then this whole thing becomes just some mage poking around the worlds. Is that a crime?" Yuuno points out.

"No."

Chrono leans over the table, slightly irritated.

"OK, guys, for the sake of my job let's say it's coming from the outside. What does this intelligent, sentient whatever it is...what does it want? What's it looking for?"

Professor points to one of many holo-displays in front of him.

"I don't think this has caught your eyes, but look at this. This is a log from an agent's device when he was probed. You see on top of the general scan, it's hitting every port regardless closed or open."

Teana had, in fact, spotted it, but what with the whole thing being a pet project, she had not given it much thought. Buried under a mountain of other records, there is a minuscule detail. She sees it now. A port is open...and Professor points to the log from the same agent's vehicle. The probe scan had traveled upstream through the channel. Then it repeats.

"Holy shit...how did I miss this?" Teana puts her hands over her head.

"Here, the agent's vehicle was acting as a relay between his device and the monitoring station. Why is that?" Professor is honestly curious.

"Simple. For a better network quality and a farther reach. It's a standard setup."

"I see...anyway, crosschecking with the log from the station..." Professor browses through the documents. "OK, here it is."

The probe had once again traveled upstream. It was again hitting all the ports, but couldn't go any further.

"Makes sense. Monitoring stations in the non-administrated worlds are pretty much on their own." Teana explains.

Professor smirks a bit.

"Note the time stamp on the station log...and this recorded video. When it becomes clear it cannot go any further up, they leave."

#

.

Professor Scrya is speaking in front of an audience, mainly comprised of men and women in armed forces uniforms. Chrono has booked a large conference room in Sail Force HQ for this occasion. The meeting is chaired by Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lindy Harlaown, a long-haired naval admiral of impeccable career, about the age of late fifties or early sixties. She has distinctive dotted marks on her forehead of which nobody really talks about.

"What do you think is the purpose behind all this, Professor?"

"The very fact that they are doing this is proof - it shows whoever sending out the surveillance at least knows about TSAB and the Bureau's presence in various worlds." Professor continues his analysis.

"Scanning the network would be an attempt to determine a node's importance. Basically, the more sub-nodes sending data to you, the more important you are...and I believe that's the reason why we haven't seen the orbs appearing in the same world more than once. They have so far failed to locate sufficient presence of TSAB in the worlds they have visited."

He looks around the gathered generals and officers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I believe, an intelligent and magic capable civilization is trying to make contact with the Bureau. It knows about TSAB but doesn't know where to go. Hence it's bruteforcing the multiverse in search of us."

Sample the local elements, and look for a trace of development or civilization. Survey the agents and their connected network, and determine if the world contains a sufficient number of important people with enough density. 'At least, that's how I would do it.' Yuuno thought.

"Madam Admiral, Executive Office would like to add there remains the possibility this surveillance is carried out by one or more mages residing within TSAB jurisdiction, who may or may not purport to identify, with or without malicious intentions, the worlds where TSAB presence is either thin or non-existent." Teana butts in much to Lindy's amusement. 'Did she really just say that in one breath?'

"Naval Intelligence?" Chairwoman of the JCS tosses the ball to her son.

"We are all in agreement that TSAB presence is being probed. Professor summarized it perfectly; somebody is bruteforcing the multiverse… However, our assessments diverge thereafter."

Diverge they do. Professor Scrya believes it's an unknown civilization trying to make contact with the Bureau, preferably a higher ranking official as the first contact than a mere local monitoring agent.

On the other hand, Executive Office thinks the whole thing is either a mishap of a curious mage or a conspiracy for a later crime - some drug farm and/or an uprising staging platform.

"Madam chairwoman, Naval Intelligence is of the opinion that an unknown force outside our charted maps is cataloging TSAB weak spots for possibly a later invasion."

"In summary: we don't know?" Lindy scoffs.

Yuuno saves his two friends from embarrassment.

"You are right, madam, we do not know because we lack the information. In that regard, I'd like to propose a test that would determine the nature of this surveillance and the ones behind it."

He can tell he's got the attention.

"Please, go on, Professor."

"I propose we come down on an anomaly site in numbers. Perhaps a mixture of people representing each branch of TSAB. With sufficient mage ranks and numbers, the mission control on the other side will know they have caught the attention of the authority."

Lindy thinks about it. If it is a "We come in peace" mission as Professor Scrya believes, then someone of an Ambassador status would emerge. And if it is a troublemaker or some criminal gang, facing the authority at the other end of the anomaly would definitely discourage them to continue their activities in the future. And finally, if it really is a reconnaissance prior to an invasion, given the nature of 'reconnaissance' mission itself they are likely to retreat immediately and reconsider their options. She is about to give her opinion, but her son speaks first.

"That's a very good idea, Professor. Naval Intelligence seconds this, but we do not know when and where the next anomaly appearance will be."

'He's right', Lindy agrees. Yuuno's proposal requires keeping Bureau officials on stand-by indefinitely. Chrono continues

"I can reassign up to four companies of my field operation troops, madam. With your authorization, Naval Intelligence will station them scattered around, ready to teleport to the nearest detected anomaly in a reasonable time."

"The Office seconds Deputy Director, madam." Says Teana on behalf of Executive Office.

"Sounds good to me." Lindy is about to close the session, but she notices a raised hand in the back of the room.

"Yes, lieutenant general?"

A Ground Armament Service lieutenant general rises from her seat. She is rather diminutive for a soldier, in her mid-thirties, wearing a brown uniform jacket and skirt matching the color of her bob cut hair. She was called into the meeting on a 'need to know' basis, but not necessarily for active participation.

"Madam Chairwoman, with your permission Capital Defense Corps would like to voice its opinion on the proposed operation."

"Go on."

"Thank you, madam. Yuu-" she almost calls Professor by his first name. "-Professor, if I understand correctly, the anomalies are being opened and closed at will, am I correct?"

"That is correct." Yuuno nods.

"So, the major part of this plan is to let the gate operator on the other side, to know that on this side of the dimensional travel, here we have a significant presence of TSAB authority and officials. Correct?"

"In essence, yes. Hopefully, that will lead to them sending an envoy."

Clearly, the commander of Capital Defense is not interested in that.

"Let's assume for the moment the worst-case scenario as suggested by Naval Intelligence...so from the other side's perspective, when they survey our side and face a significant Bureau presence and activities, wouldn't they think they have opened a gate pretty close to the heart of an Administrated world?"

"Oh god..." Chrono lets out a groan. The general continues.

"And since they can freely open up more..."

Lindy has heard enough.

"Alright, thank you, lieutenant general. You heard her, Deputy Director. The operation is a go, but under no circumstances, you are to proceed if the anomaly is anywhere near a substantially populated world. Administrated zones, especially…" she adds after a thought. "Executive Office is to instruct all monitoring agents to stay out unless confirmed and approved by the Office."

.

The meeting is over, and everyone packs up to leave. Yuuno, clearly displeased, comes over to confront Chrono.

"You bastard, you never told me it would be a military meeting. I was preparing for the Cultures people."

"They can come after we are done with threat assessment." Chrono tries to brush it off.

Teana walks over from her seat.

"Wow, it went really well. And that was brilliant. Nice job, Professor."

Yuuno is not happy at all.

"Really? A previously unknown, intelligent, sentient, magic capable civilization wants to meet us, and the first thing you guys do is hijack my peaceful proposal, and turn the whole thing into a military operation? With armed soldiers as our representatives? What is wrong with you people?!"

"Hey, the last time you went and did a cultural archaeological historical civilization thing of yours, people got killed. Of course, I'm sending my soldiers first." Says Chrono.

"Oh, that's low. That is so low."

The three are interrupted by the lieutenant general running over, hugging, air-kissing, greeting everyone.

"Teana! Yuuno! and Chrono! Ah~ It's so good to see you guys. And you boys, cut it out already."

She turns to Chrono.

"Where's your sister? I thought Fate would be here."

"She's on vacation with her family. .ar.i." Chrono taunts.

"What? They went to Uminari without telling me? I don't believe this! There will be a reckoning!" the general shakes her fist in the air. "Not that I would have the time to go myself." She adds.

"Chief was working non-stop, so the Bureau forced a vacation on her." Says Teana. Her tone indicates she holds her Chief in high regard. Capital Defense Corps Commander is clearly envious.

"Damn, Executive Office has it good."

#

.

She is woken up by a distant voice from the side. An old woman's voice approaches from the right side, distant yet coming closer.

"Fail...fail...fail...fail..."

Each 'Fail' is followed by a whirling sound, resembling that of an electric drill, accompanied by a muffled scream and whimpering of a younger female voice.

The person blinks, and tries to turn to see what's happening, only to find out the entire body, including the head, is restrained on some hard flat surface. There is no choice but to stare at the simple ceiling and to whimper at the painful screams coming closer and closer.

A hooded woman appears from a side of the field of view. Without even giving a glance, she passes.

"Fail...fail...fail...fail..."

A masked figure appears in the view. The grey-black mask is rather flat, covering the entire face except for the holes for the eyes and the mouth. A thick red X is painted across the grey-black surface. The figure in view appears to be wearing a dirty black overall.

As the hooded woman's voice moves away, what appears to be the same mask is lowered onto the person's face, covering it. The person jolts in pain. The resulting scream drowns the sounds of electric drill and tooling, as the mask is bolted onto the face.

When it's done, the masked figure in front of the view holds up a brush dipped in red paint. Breathing heavily the person sees the motion of a big X being drawn over the mask. The masked figure leans over and whispers in a young woman's voice.

"Don't show her your face. Ever."

#

.

A Forward Observation Ship, named Lily, belonging to Naval Intelligence, sails through the space-time at the edge of a frontier world. It has been some uneventful days since the order came. Fortunately, the crew and the guests onboard are getting along just fine.

A young female operator spotting naval ensign rank notices a bleep on her console.

"Captain, a space-time deformation detected in Sector 8."

The Captain, a woman in her mid-thirties, sits up in her captain's seat in the center of the command bridge.

"Bring it up on the main display." The Captain demands.

"Aye aye, Captain. Deformation is confirmed, madam. Path forming in progress."

"Can we trace the path back to the origin?"

Another operator, a male petty officer, answers.

"We'd have to wait until the full path is formed, Captain. My sensors are ready to commence as soon as this side of the gate appears."

"Right. How long do we wait?" asks the Captain

"Approximately 20 minutes for the path, and after that another 20 minutes for the dimensional surface tear." Answers the first Operator.

"Excellent. That gives us enough time to confirm with the Mainland. Tell our guests to get ready."

.

In Lily's passenger compartment, a platoon sergeant, armed and in combat gears, walks through the hallway banging on the doors.

"Get your ass up boys! LT wants us ready in 10. Assemble at the teleportation bay!"

.

Naval Intelligence's mission control room springs into action as people take their stations, bringing up holo-displays relevant to their responsibilities. Deputy Director Chrono Harlaown hurries into the room.

"What gives?"

Mission Control's Senior Operator salutes.

"Sir, Lily reports an anomaly forming in her Sector 8. Lily is Captain Lowran's ship."

"Griffith or Lucino?"

"The latter, sir."

"Lucino? OK. Where's her Sector 8?" Chrono demands to know.

A large map appears in the center of the room.

"Oh..." Chrono is undecided. The anomaly has appeared in a non-administrated world, which unfortunately borders an administrated one.

"Yes, sir. It's far...but not quite far enough. A grey area."

Chrono thinks about it for some seconds. He needs a second opinion.

"Let...me get a second opinion. If she thinks it's OK, we are OK." He makes a call to someone.

A hologram face of Capital Defense Corps Commander appears, hovering in front of Chrono.

"Hey, Chrono. What's up?"

"Hey, Hayate, we got a report of an anomaly forming. I'm sending the map."

The hologram face, apparently named Hayate, examines the map she has just received.

"I'm not very happy with the location. What do you think?" asks Chrono.

"Hm...It's quite a distance, yes, but still uncomfortably close to an administrated zone. Better be safe than sorry."

"Alright. Thanks." Ending the call, Chrono turns to the Senior Operator. "She's right. It's a no go." He starts to leave the room. "Let's hope the local agent does as told."

.

Inside Lily's Bridge, Captain Lucino Lowran ends the communication with the Mission Control. She shakes her head.

"All crew, stand down. It's a no go. Strictly observation only."

.

At Lily's teleportation bay, a platoon of armed soldiers is standing in rows and columns. The platoon sergeant, after having a brief conversation with his superior, walks up in front of the platoon. He raises a hand, and swivels it, making a 'turn back' sign. The men disperse grumbling.

.

"Anomaly confirmed. Gate is open, Captain." The ensign announces. Lucino nods to the petty officer.

"Aye. Commencing path tracing. Captain, it's a long narrow path. Our ping's gonna deteriorate. I don't think we will have any meaningful data out of this, madam." The petty officer is not very pleased with what he sees on his console.

"Well, we try anyway. How long before the surveillance orbs arrive?"

The ensign answers with her eyes glued to the display in front of.

"They are pure mana blobs with no mass, so should be able to travel several hundred times faster than a body... and... there they are, Captain." She points at something on her display. At her side, the petty officer throws his hands in defeat.

"Captain, I'm sorry, but tracing is no good. Path quality is just too bad."

"How bad are we talking about?"

"It's like sending a runner down an inch wide rocky cliff side path in the hope that he returns."

"Oh, that bad..." The captain is sympathetic. "Let's hope we have something better next time."

#

.

Two weeks have passed and it's an evening at the Harlaown residence. Lindy and Chrono are laying down dishes and cutlery on the dining table. A pot is boiling on the stove, and the oven is running. The sound of two teens, a boy, and a girl, playing in the living room can be heard. A woman's voice, presumably their mom, tells them to stop messing around. Chrono pokes his head out to see what's going on in the living room. He comes back shaking his head.

In the past two weeks, Naval Intelligence has had three no-gos. Six times it was too far away out of reach of the teleportation range. Four times, the men arrived on the scene too late.

"I bet those men must hate you by now...all that running around..." Lindy comments.

"Oh, you bet. The company COs are not very happy with their platoons scattered all over the place." He sighs. "And the guys are not happy because...well they are soldiers so they hate 'the Man' anyway."

Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chuckles. "At least you are 'the Man'. I'm the..."

"Alright, alright, mom. Jeez, I forgot who I was talking to."

.

The doorbell chimes and the two walks out of the kitchen to greet their guests. The teen twins are excited, yelling "auntie, auntie" and "Vivio!". Joyful shrieks fill the house with lots of hugging, air-kissing, and smiling. Chrono greets the three guests with a warm smile.

"Hey, ladies. How was your vacation?"

#

.

The person with a full face mask walks behind another masked person in black overall, marching in a group of people wearing the same masks and clothes, with unkempt blonde hairs cut short. The only differences are their heights: from kid like to fully grown adult. The group shuffles down a dirty hallway, and passes another group, masked and dressed in the exact same manner, going the opposite direction. The other group is carrying baskets filled with what appear to be some root vegetables with dirt still on them.

The group passes by several doors. The rooms behind those doors look pretty much the same, with bare minimum appliances and furniture. It is some kind of dormitory.

The person's group exits the building into a desolate barren land filled with nothing but rocks and weeds. The weeds are pulled, and the roots are cut and trimmed and thrown into baskets. The sky is violet with swirling clouds. The harrowing wind blows over the rolling field, kicking up dust. The dormitory sits amidst a large city like ruin, ancient. Groups of masked people dig through mounds of rubble and dirt, some discharging light magic over the area, trying to find something. Anything.

The group marches on up a hill, where old pillars and walls have crumbled and collapsed and now scattered around the hilltop. About a hundred masked people of varying heights are assembled in rows and columns, each carrying a polearm-like staff as tall as themselves, facing a circle formed by a dozen or so masked people. The person's group joins the rank, and somebody hands the person a staff.

The people in the circle are concentrating, casting a space-time interference magic. A tear on the dimensional surface appears, grows, and deepens, swirls and elongates to a pipe-like path that extends to a faraway world. One masked mage steps up to the space-time anomaly, casting a spell that summons wide-area surveillance orbs; the orbs illuminating the wasteland under the violet sky with their golden lights.

The person looks around. On the vast rolling land there are tens and hundreds of dormitory-like buildings scattered across the landscape under the thunderous sky, the buildings contrasting the ancient city ruin they are standing on; thousands and thousands of masked people toiling their lives away in this dead land.

#

.

"Captain, space-time distortion in Sector 12." The ensign alerts the Captain. Lucino immediately springs into action.

"Sector 12 is a go zone! Notify the Mainland, and get the platoon ready." She is visibly excited.

"Dimensional path forming initiated, Captain. Expected gate opening in 40 minutes."

.

Teana sits in front of a neatly arranged wooden desk, giving her reports. Behind the desk sits Chief Enforcer, a blonde woman in her mid to late thirties, wearing the same gray-black Executive Office uniform as Teana, listening to her junior officer's report.

"...and that was taken care of without much problems. Moving on..." Beeps from her device interrupt her report. "sorry, Boss. I have to take this."

"It's alright." Chief Enforcer motions Teana to take the call.

A hologram face of the Naval Intelligence's Senior mission Operator pops up.

"Miss Lanster, we have a positive from Lily. It's a go."

"Thank you. Will you kindly arrange me an entree clearance to your teleportation bay?" Teana pauses and gives her boss a 'Can I?' look. Chief Enforcer returns a thumbs up with a smile. "I will be jumping to your bay directly, and from there I wish to use the long-distance teleport to Lily."

.

The Naval Intelligence's Mission Control room is buzzing with activities.

"Sir, a request from Enforcer Lanster for permission to use our teleport. She intends to board Lily and go down to the site with our men." Reports the Senior Operator.

Chrono has just rushed into the room. He takes his jacket off, sitting down at a vantage seat; getting ready to oversee the operation.

"It's her case, to begin with. Permission granted."

Captain Lowran's face appears in front of him.

"Deputy Director, path forming is in progress. About 30 minutes till gate appearance."

"Good. Captain, to be clear...you do understand you will be overseeing what's possibly the first contact with another magic capable civilization?" Chrono's tone carries the 'you know what I mean' expectation.

"Yes, sir. I will ask before I shoot."

"Exactly. By the way, Teana will be joining the platoon."

Lucino's face lits up.

"Oh really? Gosh, haven't seen her for ages."

"Yeah, Lucino, you take good care of her. If something happens to Teana, Fate will tear your ship apart."

They chuckle at the thought.

#

.

Teana stumbles out of the portal that opened in Lily's teleportation bay. She takes a few steps forward, gets down on her fours, and throws up on the platoon leader's boots.

"Yes, madam. A mighty fine day, madam." He is clearly disturbed.

"Come on, miss. Lieutenant can't be that ugly." The platoon sergeant tries to lighten up to mood. The soldiers assembled in the bay let out cheers and hoots. Teana stands up quickly, returns salute from the Platoon Leader.

"Sorry, lieutenant. After all these years I still can't get used to a long-distance jumping."

This raises the platoon leader's curiosity.

"Is that so? Pardon my rudeness, madam, but may I ask about your background?"

"Sure. 386th Battalion, then Riot Force 6...that's where I met Captain Lowran...and the Office, then Special Duty Section 6, then back to the Office."

This impresses the Naval Intelligence lieutenant.

"Pardon my language, but holy shit. Were you with the White Devil or the Lightning?"

"The devil one, yeah. Lightning is now my boss at the Office, though."

The platoon sergeant turns to his men.

"You heard the lady! Despite the mighty impressive entrance, she packs more balls than all of you combined. Respect!" The men respond with loud voices.

.

A holo-image of Captain Lowran's face appears in front of Teana.

"Hey, Teana! Welcome aboard."

Teana excuses herself from the men to talk to Lucino in private.

"Hey, Lucino. Nice boat!" this triggers Lucino.

"A ship, Teana! Not a boat!" she shakes her head. "Sorry I can't leave the Bridge right now. Just wanted to say hello before you go down there."

"Fine, fine. We talk later when I get back."

"Our boys are good men. You listen to them, and you should be fine. Good luck!"

.

It's time to get down to the anomaly site. The platoon leader approaches Teana.

"We are making the jump now, madam. I'm afraid it's going to be another long jump for you."

"Oh, god." Teana shivers at the prospect of another long jump. The lieutenant, being a gentleman, offers his arm. Teana takes it eagerly with a smiley thank you.

The sergeant barks to the men.

"Platoon, we are jumping now. First squad goes first! You fuck up, you are out of the draw. You make fool of yourself in front of the lady, you are out of the draw. Is that clear?"

"What draw, sergeant?" asks his commanding officer passing by.

"Licking your boots, sir!"

.

"Platoon is teleporting, sir. 10 minutes till gate opening." The Senior Mission Operator reports.

"Good. Remember: Communication with Lily is to be limited to a single channel only." Chrono reminds everyone.

Mission Control relays the directive to Lily.

"Single channel, aye. Closing all other ports. Be advised that's a serious limitation on data bandwidth." The voice of Lily's operator echoes in the room. Chrono sits back in his chair, watching the tactical feed from the ship many many worlds away.

"Your show, Lucino."

.

The platoon is assembled in front of the pulsating dimensional distortion that is getting larger and larger.

"And remember. All comms are to be relayed through my device." The platoon leader reminds everyone.

The soldiers disperse and take up positions, Teana going with the sergeant and his squad. The lieutenant and his first squad stand at attention, facing the anomaly. Teana can feel the excited anticipation among the men.

The soldiers gasp as a dimensional travel gate starts wobbling. It is getting larger.

.

"Captain, dimensional surface tear detected. They are sliding the gate open, madam." The ensign reports to her Captain.

"Maintain comms to a single channel to lieutenant only. Remember our goal is to make him appear superior in the network hierarchy." Lucino turns to the petty officer.

"Can we ping this?"

"Negative, Captain." He shakes his head apologetically.

The ensign starts the countdown. "Mana blips in the path. Surveillance orbs emerging in 10, 9, 8,…"

.

Down at the site in the unnamed world in Lily's sector 12, a dozen or so golden orbs emerge from the dimensional anomaly that is a gate to the path formed in the space-time field. At first, the orbs remain motionless in front of the platoon leader and his men, but soon proceed to survey the immediate area, sampling the world's elements. The Naval Intelligence officer steps forward.

"Welcome. I'm an officer of Naval Intelligence Directorate, Time-Space Administration Bureau. Would you kindly identify yourself, and state your intention?"

The surveillance orbs freeze in space again. Teana feels the tingling sensation of being probed.

"We are being probed." She whispers to the sergeant.

"Urgh, I feel so naked."

#

.

The person notices there is a commotion around the anomaly. The circle of mages maintaining the anomaly gate is in a heated discussion. The person watches in silence, as the mage who summoned and sent out the surveillance orbs through the dimensional travel path talks to another masked mage, who nods and flies off to the large pyramid-like structure towering over the land.

.

At the anomaly site in the world designated as sector 12, the sergeant whispers to Teana.

"What do you think is happening, madam?"

The golden orbs have remained motionless for some time. Teana is about to lose her patience, but the platoon leader is standing there patiently, with a little smile, giving off a 'take your time as much as you need' expression. What a gentleman, Teana notes to herself.

"I'm guessing...they are calling for a superior."

.

The person hears something flying in very fast. With a whoosh sound, the hooded woman appears among the circle of mages at the anomaly gate. She talks with the masked mage who's in charge of the surveillance orbs. The hooded woman dips a hand into the anomaly, taking control of the orbs over from the junior mage.

After a brief period of disorienting visions and sounds, she is in an unfamiliar world. Through the sense of the orbs, she examines her new surroundings; its soil, its air, its sky.

"I don't know this world." She mutters to herself. The hooded woman shifts her attention to the men spread out across her field of vision. A small group of soldiers? Why are they here?

"A mere lieutenant...a patrol?" Her gaze wanders around and she spots Teana among the soldiers.

"No...that uniform...Miss Enforcer, what are you doing out here with these men?" She looks around: left, right, up, and finally far far into the distance. A ship.

"I see... How cute…"

.

The hooded woman is back to her unknown world of the violet sky. She abruptly turns around to face the one who sent out the orbs.

"How disappointing…You let them fool you! !"

She slaps the masked mage hard, sending the mage flying past the innocent person. As the victim hurls past with a scream, the loose staff hits the person's face, cracking the mask with a loud sound. The person stumbles, clearly shocked and in pain, but stands to attention nevertheless, whimpering slightly.

"You fools! You've been deceived!" The hooded woman rages as the minions cower in fear. She points to a nearby masked mage.

"You! There's a ship not afar. Destroy it. Show them mocking me like this won't go unpunished." She points to another. "You go punish those men!"

She dips one hand into the anomaly again, raises another in the air, siphoning the ambient magic, channeling into the trans-dimensional travel path.

.

On Lily's Bridge, the ensign operator panics.

"Captain! Massive ping coming up through our channel with the lieutenant!"

Lucino springs up from her seat.

"Shit, they saw through the hierarchy. Cut comms to the Mainland! We can't allow it to go beyond us."

"Mana surge in the path! Captain, the path is branching out." The petty officer reads from his console, urgency in his voice.

"What?! Where to?"

"It's heading our way... Captain, it's too fast!"

.

Sitting in the Mission Control, Chrono drums his fingers on the console, watching the operators trying to raise Lily on communication.

"What do you think?" He asks his Senior Operator.

"The most likely scenario is that the network probing has somehow gone up to Lily. She's trying to prevent the probe reaching us?"

"Can it come this far?"

"Better be safe than sorry, sir." But Chrono can tell the Operator is not sure of it himself.

"Alright. Tell me when she's back online."

.

Inside the freezing cold trans-dimensional path, two masked mages fly at an impossible speed. Normally it would take them days to reach their destinations, but they are being pushed by strange magic pumped into the path by the hooded woman. The mages reach a junction where the path separates into two. One heads to Lily, the other one to the world designated as Sector 12.

.

Lily's Bridge is in full swing.

"Anomaly in the Engine Room, captain! Mana surges! The path has widened! Something is heading this way, Captain! There's one more going down to the site!" The ensign shouts.

"OUR Engine room?!"

"Captain, I can ping this!" The petty officer reports excitedly.

"Do it." Lucino instructs her crew, then calls the lieutenant down at the anomaly gate. The platoon leader's face appears in front of her.

"Lieutenant, the path has branched out, and something is coming our way. And your way, too."

"Aye, Captain. Do you need us back?"

Before Lucino can answer, the petty officer butts in.

"We can't, Captain. The local dimension is already saturated with distortions as is. If we add our teleportation on top of that we risk the world collapsing."

"Well, shit. Lieutenant, I'd love to have you back, but you heard him. Stand by. Maintain comm."

The video face nods.

"Aye aye, Captain. Standing by."

.

Down at the anomaly site, the golden orbs start to slowly move towards the gate. The platoon leader notices this.

"Captain, the surveillance orbs seem to be returning."

"Obviously, their job here is done-" Lucino is interrupted by a sudden alarm going off in her ship.

.

The ensign is in a full panic mode.

"Mage approaching up the path! Estimated rank: A plus at least! He's fast! Another A plus to the site!"

"A plus?! We can't handle an A plus!" Lucino warns the soldiers on the ground.

"Lieutenant, a mage ranked A plus approaching your-" She is interrupted by her operator.

"Engine room reports an intruder, Capt...Hostile! Engine reports hostile…" The ensign seems to have lost communication with the engine room. She calls out again and again but the engine room remains silent.

"Battle stations!" Captain Lowran shouts her order. The alarm changes to the announcement of battle stations. Lucino gets on the ship's PA system.

"This is your Captain speaking. We have a hostile intruder on-board, last seen: engine-" The ship shakes with a sound of an explosion. The power whirls down significantly.

"Main power is gone, Captain." The petty officer states the obvious.

Lucio grits her teeth and continues with the announcement.

"One hostile intruder on-board. Estimated mage rank: A plus or up. Contain and eliminate with caution!"

.

At the anomaly site, the platoon leader backs away from the gate.

"Platoon, engage! Destroy this gate!"

As the medium caliber squad weapons start pouring down on the anomaly, small weapons shoot down the surveillance orbs, which when hit explode with a pop. Teana dashes out into the open.

"No!"

Ducking low in order not to get in the line of fire, Teana casts stasis magic, managing to capture the last remaining orb intact before it is destroyed, putting it in a frozen like state.

The dimensional gate can't sustain itself under fire. With a bang, it collapses, but not before a masked figure emerges from it, who is instantly met with the raining fires. To everyone's surprise, the masked mage's barrier absorbs the damage.

The masked mage turns around to discover the way back home gone, then turns back to face the men, who are alert but have stopped shooting, watching the mysterious person with caution.

The masked mage lunges towards the closest target, Teana, with a glowing yellow beam blade drawn out. Clutching the secured orb under one arm, Teana quickly draws one of her two pistols, that now has an orange blade extruding from the barrel. She parries the attack and dives backward, falling hard on her back, hitting a rock with her head.

The platoon fires upon the attacker. The masked mage shifts attention to the soldiers and makes a dash to the platoon leader's first squad. The men curse and scream in pain as they are cut down one by one. The mage zips around the field mowing down the soldiers.

Teana comes back to senses as the mysterious attacker is finishing off the sergeant's squad. She quickly gets on her knees and aims her both pistols, but the masked figure is already on her, swinging down the glowing blade. Teana blocks with one bladed pistol and shoots with the other. The shot lands on the target's stomach at point-blank range and shatters the barrier, sending the foe flying backward, crashing hard on the ground.

Teana stands up, both pistols aimed steadily at the deadly mage, who gets up; visibly shaken. The masked mage shakes off the pain, and makes another dash towards the dual pistol wielding Teana, but explodes into fine bloody mist when Teana's shots connect with the target.

As the adrenaline wears off and the post-fight horror settles in, Teana starts breathing heavily, trembling, she looks around in horror at the mangled corpses scattered around the field.

.

Another explosion shakes Lily.

"Captain, we've lost Teleportation! At this rate we are-"

"Ping complete, Captain! I have rough coordinate of the origin!" The petty officer interrupts the ensign operator.

Captain Lowran closes her eyes and thinks hard. She opens her eyes again with a firm determination.

"Change of priority. The coordinate intel outweighs everything else. Can we push it to the Mainland?"

The petty officer shakes his head.

"No, we lost too much power, Captain."

"Right. Make a hardcopy of the log and everything, failproof it."

The petty officer starts to extract the data from his console into a small mana prism. Lucio takes a deep breath and makes another announcement to the ship.

"This is Captain speaking. Bridge carries a valuable piece of intelligence that must survive at all cost. At all cost. You know what that means."

The crew, of course, knows what that means. Lily is an intelligence-gathering ship after all. The crew, each carrying a weapon, abandon their respective posts and set up defensively outside the Bridge. Some sweating, some shaking, some crying, but all have their weapons pointed down the hallway leading to the Bridge. They are determined to protect the Bridge. At all cost.

.

As the petty officer urges the mana prism to extract the data faster, to no avail, of course, there is a great cacophony of sounds; the sound of battle raging outside the Bridge's shutdoor; small scale explosion magics, gun-like rapid firing, flesh being cut open, sliced away, or torn. Lots of screams and profanity.

"80%, 82%...But Captain, how do we deliver this to the Mainland?" He asks the inevitable question.

"We will find a way."

Suddenly the outside battle comes to silence with one last agonizing scream and a thud. The ensign is panicking, sobbing endlessly with a standard issue Strike Rifle pointed at the shut door.

"Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit"

"88%! Come on! 90%! Come on!" The petty officer yells at his console, frustrated. With a loud bang, a large piece of metal that served as the Bridge's shut door flies across the room.

"Fire at will!" Lucino shouts her desperate order, taking the first shot herself. The petty officer is glued to his console and the mana prism, with his back turned to the battle happening on the Bridge. There are yelling and screaming and the clash of blades and deadly spells flying around behind his back.

"96%, Captain! Almost done! 98%...100! It's done, Captain!"

But his captain does not answer. Trembling, he realizes the Bridge is engulfed in complete silence except for his heavy breathing. He slowly turns around and gasps at the sight of the dead bodies and sliced off limbs of his colleagues.

A few steps away from him is a rather slender figure, face hidden by a gray-black mask painted with a big red X on it, in a rather tattered black overall. The intruder is held by Captain Lowran, half slumped, hugging and leaning against the intruder, blocking the attacker from advancing to the petty officer. A bright yellow beam blade has pierced the Captain's chest and is jutting out her blooded back.

Captain Lowran turns her head around to look at her junior officer, tries to say something, but dies, losing her grip on the intruder. As soon as Lucino's dead knees hit the floor, an automated announcement goes off, alerting a self-destruct sequence has been initiated.

The intruder pulls the beam blade out of the Captain and pushes the dead body aside. The petty officer looks around, hyperventilating in fear, clutching the mana prism. It has to survive somehow. Without hesitation, he shoots explosion magic at the nearest window pane. The explosion shatters the window. He dives out into space just in time to dodge the blade landing on his console.

In the freezing cold space, clutching tight the mana prism in his chest, the petty officer watches the intruder on the Bridge blown to pieces along with his ship Lily. With the last remaining strength, he turns around and shields the mana prism from the blast with his own body.