P R E L U D E
The cycle turns: faces come and go; people are born and die; ideologies and artistic movements come in and out of fashion; cities are founded and grow old on the ruins of their predecessors…civilisations rise and fall. The cycle turns.
Sometimes the turning is slow and leisurely. Rome's empire lasted a thousand years; others did even better. Once there was a civilisation that spanned planets, and was ruled from the Moon; that lasted a very long time. But the cycle always turned.
Sometimes, it turns more quickly than anyone expects.
722 YEARS AFTER THE FALL
The full moon rode high in the sky over the greatest city in the world. It was a perfect, cloudless night; the air was pure and still, the stars brilliant; and the moonlight reflected off a thousand thousand rooftops: off towers and spires, minarets and radio masts, tall glass-faced buildings and low, sprawling apartment centres; and, deep in the heart of the city, in the centre of a broad area of darkness, off a great, glittering dome that seemed to catch the moonlight and cast it back, like a giant, glowing eye.
It was after midnight, but parts of the city still bustled. The central district was as busy as ever; but then some things never change. The streets were filled with light and sound, with moving vehicles humming past—and always, everywhere, with people, their faces strange under the pale blue glow of the street-lights.
From a pool of shadow, two pairs of eyes watched the traffic intently. It was not heavy, but it was moving at a steady pace, and there were few gaps. The faint, electric hum of the motors was deceptively quiet, and most of the cars were painted a deep blue that seemed almost black in this light.
At last, the owner of one of the pairs of eyes thought it saw a chance. A tiny figure leaped out of cover, streaked across the road—having to dodge between two cars in the middle of the street—and vanished into an alleyway on the other side.
The other traffic-watcher sighed. A few seconds later, inevitably, a much better opportunity came along, and the second watcher followed the first.
It was very dark in the alley, but the two figures could see well enough. The first of them was a small tabby cat. It had an odd marking on its forehead: a simple white circle. The second was a larger cat, pure white. It had a mark, too: a golden crescent.
The white cat said, "I don't think they saw us." Its voice was male, and sounded rather tired.
The tabby said, "What's it matter anyway? They're not gonna pay any attention to a pair of cats." It was female, and quite young.
"They might, thanks to you," the white accused.
"Geez, you gonna bring that up forever? One little mistake!"
The white cat stared at his companion indignantly. "You spoke to a human! And not just any old human, one of the Serenity Council!"
"He was offering me a fish! Anyway, how was I supposed to know he was a Serry?"
"The uniform should have been a big hint," snorted the white. He cocked an ear suddenly. There was a faint humming sound coming from somewhere.
"It was dark!" the tabby complained. "Anyway, what about that time when you—"
The humming sound was louder now: a deep, bass drone. It had been building for some time, but so gradually that neither had noticed until almost too late. A faint breeze stirred the dust in the alley. Then, suddenly, it appeared: a huge, dark bulk, drifting slowly overhead. As it crossed the alley, the humming was magnified tenfold. The machine—for it was a machine, clearly mechanical—was marked here and there with words and logos, but they were almost invisible, drowned out by the banks of spotlights mounted in the machine's base, lighting up the alley for a few seconds as they passed.
The tabby cat froze in place as the light caught her, looking terrified. The white cat nosed through some rubbish, as if perfectly unconcerned. Then the floater moved on; the sound shrank to a faint hum and was gone, and the cats relaxed again.
The white cat abandoned the rubbish he had been examining with such interest and said, "Still think I'm being paranoid?"
"It was just a coincidence," said the tabby. She didn't sound too sure of herself, though. "You see Opals on patrol every night."
"All the more reason to play it safe," argued the white.
"But—ahh, what the hell." The tabby gave up. After a moment she added, "Y'know, you looked real cute there, playing with that old junk, Artemis."
The white cat, Artemis, snorted. "Yeah, yeah. At least I acted like a real cat, instead of just freezing up."
"Actually, I'm pretty sure a real cat would have frozen up," said the tabby innocently.
"Well, you'd know, wouldn't you, Bendis?" snapped Artemis.
"I knew it!" shouted Bendis. "I knew it! You always bring that up whenever I'm winning an argument!"
"I do not!"
"You do too!"
"I do not!"
"You do too!"
"I do—oh, for heaven's sake. This is ridiculous!"
"You always say that, too," grumbled Bendis.
Artemis stared at her for a second. "You know what?" he said in a low, reasonable tone. "Someday soon you're going to be old enough to leave. I've taught you just about everything you need to know to be able to carry on the search on your own. You'll be able to branch out, perform the mission all by yourself. And you know what else?" His voice was starting to rise now. "When that day comes, I will be very glad."
There was a long silence. Then Bendis said, "I think you've only said that one about five or six times."
Artemis spat. "You're impossible! Just like your—"
"Oh, no you don't!" Bendis was angry now, really angry. "I'm fed up with being compared to her! You hear me? I don't wanna hear it again!"
"You show a little respect to your—"
"No!" Bendis shouted. "I'm fed up with this!" She bounded a few steps away, then looked back. "I've got better things to do than listen to you burbling on about the good old days, do you hear me? I've had it!"
And suddenly she turned tail and ran off. Artemis stared after her for a few seconds, not believing it; then he spat a curse and gave chase. But she had a good head start; and after all, she was much younger. He stopped after a little, breathing hard.
"Damn," he muttered. "I'm definitely getting too old for this…"
The night passed. In the light of a bright, sunny morning, Bendis made her way down a side street. She moved a lot more slowly than she had a few hours before. She looked tired and somewhat bedraggled.
She was muttering to herself, a bad habit that Artemis had never managed to break her out of. But what did she care?
"Geez, who'd have thought finding anything to eat would be so hard?" she mumbled. "Maybe the old fart does have his uses, after all." She stopped and began to wash herself. Her fur tasted vile. "Bleah. What a night…"
Involuntarily, she remembered: Running down the street, outdistancing Artemis easily. Dodging a boot being thrown by a drunken old man. Running away from a powerful, vicious-looking, scar-covered tomcat. Sneaking into a restaurant kitchen and trying to steal some food; then dashing out of the kitchen followed by an angry cook, who threw a bucket of dirty water after her. Trying to sleep on a sheltered rooftop. Finally, at dawn, fighting a seagull for a scrap of something that had looked marginally edible, and getting a good pecking for her efforts.
"Maybe I should try and find him again," she muttered. "He should have cooled down by now—"
The sudden sound of voices cut her off. She looked around frantically, spotted a likely-looking hedge, and ducked into it just as five children walked past, chatting with each other. Their school uniforms were dark grey, with gold piping on the trouser legs and sleeves. Bendis watched them go by thoughtfully.
"Schoolkids. If there's a school near here, I might be able to beg some food…"
Keeping a safe distance, she followed them.
Artemis waited for some time in the alley, but Bendis never came back. By mid-morning he decided that she wasn't going to. Still he waited, though, trying to work out what to do next. It was the first time they'd been separated since he started taking care of her, and he was more worried than he cared to admit. Oh, he talked about sending her off on her own, someday soon. But when it came down to it…
She might go to the backup contact point, he decided at last. Can't hurt to check, at least.
He set off. The streets were actually emptier by day, and he made rapid progress. Still, it was a long way, and it took more than half an hour to reach his destination.
It was a three-story stone building, around sixty years old—which made it a very old building, in this city. The name that was carved into the masonry above the main entrance was a single word in the English alphabet: OLYMPUS.
The bottom floor was devoted to retail shops and a food court; the upper two were a gymnasium and health club. The Olympus did a prosperous business with the keep-fit crowd, especially considering the eccentricities of its owner. It was open twenty-four hours a day, and was usually pretty busy for at least sixteen of those hours.
Artemis made his way around the side of the building, and (with some difficulty) up the fire escape. There was a window half-open on the third floor. He risked a quick look—nobody was around—and jumped inside.
He was in the private rooms of the gymnasium's owner. Pappadopoulos Itsuko was half Greek: an unusual combination, even here. She compounded this with a variety of other minor oddities; living in a suite of rooms above her own gymnasium was only one of them.
One of these days, Artemis thought, she's going to get caught out. And then there'll be hell to pay.
He heard footsteps, and hastily ducked under a table. A moment later, someone came into the room. Artemis breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was Itsuko herself. She was of average height; her hair, cut very short, was a pure, dazzling white, but her face was startlingly youthful. She was wearing a well-cut business suit that made the most of her excellent figure.
Artemis watched her for a few seconds, then walked calmly out from his hiding-place and jumped up on the desk. He and Itsuko stared at each other, motionless, for what seemed like a long time.
Then Itsuko said calmly, "Artemis. Welcome back."
"It's been a while, Rei."
She blinked, then scowled. "I hope I don't have to remind you about my name again."
Artemis sighed. "Oh, come on. You're being paranoid. Do you really think anybody would recognise you, after all this time?"
"You're standing in a country ruled by a group who call themselves the Serenity Council, and you think nobody would recognise my old name?"
"Yeah, but Serenity was…different."
Itsuko made a face. It might have been anger…or regret. "She sure was. But the little kids still play Serenity-and-her-Senshi games. They watch that godawful viddy program. Hell, a couple of years ago I took a look at the history textbooks the schools are using these days. We're all in there. There's even a photo of me." She shuddered. "I've never been so glad I changed my hair."
Artemis looked interested. "Hey, am I in there? Or—" Itsuko gave him a withering look and he shut up.
She stared at him for some time. Then: "As you say, it's been a while. What…eighteen months? So how goes your search?"
"The usual," Artemis said, stifling a sigh. She always asked that. It was one of the reasons he didn't come to see her more often.
Itsuko shook her head. "I have to admire you. I…gave up hoping, a few hundred years ago. You're the only one left who believes."
"The cycle will turn, Rei. She promised. The Senshi will be reborn."
This time she did not comment on the name. "Artemis, they can't be. The cycle is broken. There is no heir to the throne. Princess Usagi died. Serenity died. There's no-one else. No heir to be reborn in this time or any other time. It's…it's just over."
"I don't believe that," said Artemis flatly. "The Queen died trying to send the souls of her people forward, just as her mother did. She may have succeeded. The princess may be reborn."
"The princess died right at the beginning of the…the trouble. That was months before Crystal Tokyo fell. Artemis, she's gone."
"She'll be reborn. I have every confidence. You'll see." But after a moment, Artemis added in a low, painful voice that belied his certainty, "If she isn't…then what's the point in going on? What am I for?"
"The same as me," said Itsuko. She spoke gently, but there was hidden steel in her voice as she continued: "To survive. To remember. And just maybe…to act. To be ready, if it wakes again. We're the last two left, the only two who survived the battle. If the trouble comes again, we may be the only ones who recognise—"
"Some help we'd be," Artemis muttered. "A cat and an ex-Senshi."
"I may have lost my powers, but I can still fight. And so can you."
Artemis snorted. "Sure. Anyway, we're not quite alone. Remember, there's still—"
"Oh yes, your protege." For the first time, Itsuko smiled. It changed her face. "What was it…Bendis? How is she? When are you going to bring her to meet me?"
"Well, that's sort of why I came today. I was hoping she'd be here already—"
Bendis prowled through the school grounds. Her stratagem had worked better than she'd ever dreamed. She was feeling pleasantly stuffed, and it was only mid-morning.
I wonder why Artemis never does this? Begging from schoolgirls is so easy! But then, he always tries to be so dignified. Wonder if he was always that way?
She found a likely-looking spot in the sun and lay down to bask for a little. It really was a lovely day…and the sun was so warm, it was blissful in fact, and she'd just eaten better than she had in weeks…She wasn't going to go to sleep, of course; that would be too cliched. After all, she wasn't an earth cat; she was just going to lie here for a while and relax…
And she woke up, to the feeling of hands stroking her back. Good hands, too, that knew the right way to treat a cat. This isn't a school, she thought blissfully, relaxing into the feeling. This is heaven.
"Oh, it's purring," said a voice. "Here, let me."
"There you go," said another. A different set of hands took over. They weren't as skilled, but they were still very good. Bendis rolled over onto her side, her eyes still shut.
Oh. Ohhhhh. Don't stop. Hey, don't—! Ohh. Oh, yes. Yessss…
"Maybe you should adopt it, Nana-chan," said the second voice, amused.
"I don't think my parents would let me," said the first voice regretfully. "What about you, Iku-chan?"
"Oh…no," said a third, rather hesitant voice. "I couldn't. Maybe if it were a dog…"
A dog? Bendis almost said it aloud without thinking. Why would anyone prefer a dog?
The first pair of hands took over again. She writhed in delight. "I think it prefers you, Eitoku-kun," said the first voice. It sounded envious; but that was silly. Why don't both of you take me? I'm yours! Just keep stroking!
"Hey, a kitten!" said a fourth voice. "Oh, it's so cute! Where did you find it? Can I hold it?" A new set of hands touched her fur—
And Bendis yowled in shock, leaped up, and ran at top speed for the nearby bushes. She plunged into them without pause and kept on going, running, running from the touch of those hands, that touch that filled her with a sense of—of—
She came to a halt as the panic faded. What had it been? It wasn't pain; the hands had been firm but gentle. Surprise? But the first set of hands had been more surprising. No, it had been something else. Something quite unexpected.
Artemis had warned her it would be like this, the first time. Her first contact with the power. The touch of another world; the overpowering sense of difference. But she hadn't been paying much attention…
Nothing new with that, some traitorous corner of her mind said; but she paid it no heed. She had more important things to ponder.
The owner of that fourth pair of hands was touched with power. Part of something greater. Unmistakably. Charged with special powers and abilities, and born to wield them in the service of the Queen and the defence of the realm.
A Sailor Senshi.
Now what do I do? she thought wildly. Artemis never told me what to do if this happened! But of course, Artemis wasn't here. She'd have to find him and tell him—
Tell him what?
Bendis ran back to the bushes and peeked out. But there was nobody there. The humans had left. Bendis' heart sank.
One of the girls at this school was a Senshi. But which?
She was going to have her work cut out for her…
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
By Angus MacSpon
Based on "Sailor Moon" created by Naoko Takeuchi
Next: The Serenity Council is looking for two talking cats. Artemis is looking for Bendis. And Bendis is looking for a Senshi…