To Begin

One – I just had to finish the stupid thing. Ending the last installment with a great big red-dripping question mark was a huge mistake. It goes without saying that this story won't make much sense if you haven't read Osaka vs. the Space Monster and Chiyo-chan and the Rise of the Destroyers.

Two – It creates a parallel to the Godzilla films that amuses me: the "Just When You Thought We Were Finished" effect. Toho keeps making the "last" Godzilla movie, but do you think they ever really will? I sure hope not.

Three – The challenge of writing a quasi-believable future-fic set in an Azuverse warped by the presence of a 100-meter-tall radioactive dinosaur and repeated alien invasions was just too good to resist. I'm curious to see if I can pull it off.

Four – It's as good as any a way to try and modify my style. For one thing, I'm trying to do away with irritating, overlong and unnecessary Author's Notes. Um…

The airliner's cabin was practically empty, but that wasn't surprising considering its destination. Passengers were spread out among the rows of seats, running the gamut from drably-suited businessmen to a smattering of more adventurous types, but all seemed to be gripped by the same foreboding. The sun was just setting behind them and they were rushing towards the darkness in more ways than one.

Near the very back, against the wall where the stewardesses couldn't bother her, rested a young woman on the knife's edge of adulthood, who from her appearance could have been anywhere between sixteen and twenty-five. Her long, willowy form was folded uncomfortably into the cramped seat, head lolling to the side as she dozed. Orange-red hair spilled down over her narrow shoulders and the back of the chair, gleaming prettily in the sunset's light.

Sadly, even as a weary, caffeine-dependent twenty-something, Chiyo-chan was still terminally cute. Perhaps it was her doom to some day be the cutest septuagenarian that ever lived. She had long since ceased to notice or care about her adorability, taking an attitude of put-upon stoicism that was itself pretty charming.

A long, dark-red coat was draped over her like a blanket, hiding her from the neck down to the tops of her light gray sneakers. At her feet lay a laptop case, its surface festooned with stickers that said various obnoxious, allegedly witty things in English. Many of them were given to her by friends long ago and she'd cheerfully slapped them on before she was able to read them all that well. By the time she'd realized her mistake, the tradition had been established.

Gentle turbulence shook her awake. Chiyo blinked sleepily and pulled off her headphones just in time to hear the captain announce that they would be landing in about ten minutes. After a wistful moment where she almost managed to convince herself that she'd have time to finish her nap, she slapped herself awake and stretched, her spine giving a loud, gritty crack that would have been fitting from a woman twice her age.

Beneath, bronze waves gave way to a similarly gleaming city. Most of the architecture was brand new, which normally would have been heartening, but given this city's recent history it was just a sign of how much had been lost. As they passed over the bay, Chiyo happened to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be an enormous, scaly sandbar sliding into the depths. This was expected, but jarring all the same.

Fortunately, they landed without her seeing anything else that she'd regret. As the other passengers started to disembark, Chiyo stood and donned her coat with an unconscious flourish. Though it didn't show as she started down into the terminal, she had more to be wary of on this trip than any of her fellow passengers. There were hundreds of things that could go wrong, starting with…

"Ms. Mihama?"


One of the airport security men approached her with a clip-board. His face would have been bland and unintimidating if not for his sunglasses and what she knew lay behind them. "Are you related to Yasuhiro Mihama?"

"Er, yes. He's my father."

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but we'll have to ask you a few questions. If you would come with me?"

"Of—of course." Chiyo had known that her name would cause trouble, and now it seemed she would find out just how much. The young woman followed after the polite security man, visions of torture racks and hot pokers dancing in her mind…

…and emerged onto the streets of Shizuoka more than three hours later, looking even more tired and trodden-upon than before. Fortunately, they'd been considerate enough to rescue her bright-red duffel from the baggage claim while questioning her, and now she bent like a reed with its weight over her shoulder.

"That…" she said to the open air, "Was unpleasant."

"I don't doubt it," an amused voice said behind her. She whirled in pleased—but slightly flustered—surprise to face Ohyama, and was shocked anew when she realized that she was now a few centimeters taller than him. He wore a dark blue jacket and jeans, both fairly expensive, and trendy little eyeglasses that went to show that he was fashionable enough to do without peripheral vision. Either he was doing pretty well for himself or he just dressed for the effect.

"Oh- Mister Ohyama!" she gasped, "You didn't… I'm so sorry! You didn't wait all this time for me, did you?"

"I knew they'd do this to you," he replied easily, holding out a hand to accept her duffel. "I've only been here for about forty minutes."

"Oh…" she was too relieved to be upset that he'd intentionally arrived to get her more than two hours late. "I didn't expect them to be so… rigorous. Thank you," she added as he hefted her bag. "I understand that I'm a special case, but…"

"Eh, the jerks come down hard on everyone," Ohyama shrugged. "Guess they have to, when you think about it. How have you been, Chiyo-chan?"

"Oh, you know…" she shrugged bashfully, "School." She didn't really think he wanted to hear all about how she was running herself ragged in the final stretch towards her degree, worried sick about all of her friends back home and slowly becoming disillusioned about life in general.

Ohyama seemed to catch her meaning in any case. "That's all you have to say."

"And how have you been, Mr. Ohyama?"

"Oh, doin' all right," he paused to hit a button on his keychain and a bright green Toyota Supra chirped at them. Chiyo blinked in surprise; it was an old make but very well-kept, and much flashier than she would have expected from a fellow like Ohyama. "My brother and I started this garage a few years back, and we just saved enough for him to go to Law School next year."

"Wow, really? That's great!"

"You'd never take us for gearheads, would you?" He turned the ignition and its engine grumbled with far more power than a compact car ought to have. "It pays the bills, though, and most days it doesn't even feel like work."

"It's so good to hear you're doing well," Chiyo smiled, and for just a moment the weight of the world lifted from her shoulders. "You can imagine all the horrible things we were hearing over in the States…"

"I can. But you know, it's not really that bad over here. I haven't kept contact with many people from our old class, but I'm sure they're all just fine."

"Yeah…" Chiyo agreed half-heartedly, smile faltering as she fingered an envelope in her back pocket. As they mounted an interchange, she slid slowly down in her seat and started to drift off again. Not to be rude to her old friend, but she just couldn't keep her eyes open and they were verging on a very uncomfortable subje--

"What-?" Chiyo jolted violently awake. Ohyama glanced over in bemusement as she tried to scramble back through her seat. When that didn't work, she finally settled for staring in stupefied shock. "Wh-what the heck is that?"

That stood about sixty-five meters tall, thrown into dramatic relief by the city lights. There was no really coherent way to describe it as a creature; perhaps it had been something like a dinosaur at one time, what with its general shape and the sail-like fins rising from its back, but if so, it had since been coated with strange futuristic armor and its forearms replaced with great, scythe-like blades. Its face consisted of a wide squid's beak under some kind of visor, which glowed with a faint- but menacing- red light. The monstrosity stood stock-still as if it were a perfectly natural part of the skyline… and judging from Ohyama's reaction, it was.

"Sorry, I should've warned you," he gave her an apologetic sideways glance. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"I… yeesh! What… what on Earth…?" Chiyo was still hyperventilating, but on her way back down. "It's not… dangerous?"

"Oh, it's very dangerous," Ohyama said grimly. "That's Gigan. He's one of the monsters they used to attack Earth, but now he's just sticking around to keep us under their thumb. Who knows how many people they've killed and they're already selling action figures of the damn things."

"The monsters…" Chiyo turned to watch it as they passed. "They're all still around?"

"They haven't gone anywhere, no…" Ohyama turned away from her to hide his look of dull anger. "And as long as they're here, Japan belongs to the Black Hole People."

The Black Hole People. Is that what they call themselves? Chiyo wondered to herself, watching the city lights rush past her train car. She'd only heard Asia's new masters referred to as "the Gaijin," "the Invaders," or simply "those Bastards." Not a lot of information came out of the occupied areas, especially from Japan, which served as the aliens' inner sanctum.

She got letters from her old friends only rarely, and they were all censored into a million tiny pieces. The messages were always quick to reassure her that they were doing just fine, but in the end did little to alleviate her worries, especially since none of them ever gave any sign that they'd received her responses.

It had been two long years since the invasion of the Gaijin and the dark days that followed. If she closed her eyes, Chiyo could still feel that clawing dread and see the visions of her friends in peril that had tortured her every night. She'd sobbed for relief with the letter from Yomi that had broken the silence, and since then managed to tenuously lead her life in the States, living on the scraps of news that made it to her.

Outside, the lights faded as they passed into the countryside.

Without thought, she slid the envelope from her back pocket and turned it over in her hands. Her first and only letter from Ayumu, and very nearly coherent (perhaps the censor had been having an off-day). Made up of loose and sketchy but surprisingly legible handwriting, it had been the straw that broke the camel's back. It finally convinced her that the danger of being a Mihama, the very daughter of the man that had led Japan's war against the Invaders, was not enough to keep her away.

Like all the others, Ayumu had started by telling her that everything was alright, but it wasn't long before she'd ruined the effect by admitting that really nothing was alright and she didn't know what she was going to do or where to turn. Reading it had given Chiyo an awful, bitter feeling like acid rolling sluggishly down the inside of her chest… oh, but the very worst part had been when she noticed the return address.

Chiyo leaned back heavily and gazed at the ceiling. Set everything right, eh? Ridiculous! There was nothing she could do, and she wouldn't know how to begin even if there were. Just thinking about the mess fate had made of her world filled her with heavy weariness. But then, she admitted as her eyes eased shut again, most things did these days…

"I'm sorry," Ayumu said with a rueful smile, "This must be awful uncomfortable."

"N-no, not at all," Chiyo waved her concern away, trying to hide a massive yawn. It was nearing midnight and she was still beat in spite of having slept all day. When they'd hugged, she felt like she was just going to crumple over the smaller woman and conk out right then and there. "I can't tell you how nice it is to see you again."

Ayumu Kasuga had hardly changed at all, though her expression was a tiny bit more pensive and sad. Too, now that Chiyo looked closer, there were faint worry lines under her eyes, but they vanished with her smile. "Holy cow, did you ever shoot up over there! Ya think it's something in the water…? Or, no, I remember now!" Her tone became mock-creepy. "It was the evil of Sakaki the Height Vampire! You musta grown up once you escaped her clutches!"

Her grin didn't falter, but Chiyo slouched unconsciously. Nowadays, Ayumu barely stood up to her shoulder. "I think I remember that. But didn't we decide that she wasn't…?"

"Maybe it's a good thing she sucked so much a' your height away… otherwise, you'd'a ended up lookin' like Kareem Abdul Jabbar!"

The younger girl laughed out loud at that. One of her first memories of her friends in America was hanging out with them and watching that guy trade blows with Bruce Lee at the end of Game of Death. "Oh, yikes! I'm sure relieved, then!"

Ayumu giggled as well, but the sound was unpracticed. It seemed that the Osakan gal didn't have much to laugh about 'round these parts. The room they sat in was arranged like your average apartment, done in soft colors that gave it a pleasant, open ambiance. It would take most people a moment to notice the subtle differences; no sharp edges on any of the furniture, all of which was firmly affixed to the floor, no knives in the kitchenette, walls that weren't blatantly padded but could obviously take a hit…

And most tellingly, the door didn't lock from the inside.

Oh, Ms. Osaka… how did you end up in a place like this? That mournful thought didn't manage to break through to Chiyo's surface, but her friend seemed to pick up on it anyway. When the mental image of a towering, glowering, sunglass-ed Chiyo putting a Size 13 footprint on Blue Three's chest faded, their expressions fell and the silence stretched uncomfortably.

"I guess… I guess you're wonderin' what happened, eh?"

"Well…" Chiyo suddenly couldn't bring herself to meet her friend's eyes. "To be honest…"

"I don't know what, really… came first…" Ayumu looked to the side, bangs hiding her face. "There was the egg, an' then… but it shouldn'ta… I'm, I'm sorry, Chiyo-chan. I never shoulda bothered ya. You came all this way because of the letter, didn't you?"

"Actually," the prodigy started, but choked herself off. She couldn't lie. "…yes. But please, don't think that you caused me any trouble or-"

"I at least owe ya an explanation," Ayumu insisted. "It's just, I'm don't think I got one ta give. Y'see, I… I… remember." The word fell heavily.

"You remember?"

"Yes! I remember… but… but I don't know what it is that I remember! An' it's, it's been eating at me all this time! I just… I know… that it's really important, that, that it tells me if I really am me, but I just can't…!" Tears were tracking down her cheeks now, but she didn't seem to notice them. "Aw, crud. I'm not makin' any sense, am I?"

Instead of answering, Chiyo crossed the table and knelt beside her so that they were eye-to-eye. "It's okay, Ms. Ayumu."

"No," she sniffled deeply, "It isn't. I'm… in shreds. But, but ya gotta believe me, Chiyo-chan… I wasn't always crazy! The voices I heard, they were real! I don't know anymore, wh-what is or isn't, but once…"

"I understand," Chiyo said gently, taking her hands. "Really, I do."

"But now, I'm jus' so messed up," Ayumu shook her head. "Y'know, sometimes- aheh! Sometimes I think back, and I remember us… oh, God, this is so stupid… I convince myself that we stopped an invasion of blue-skinned aliens who were using a golden, three-headed dragon to attack Sendai!"

"Um…" Chiyo looked at the floor. "Ms. Ayumu? We, um… that really happened."

"What?" Ayumu's eyes grew to the size of saucers. "Y-you're kiddin'! Really?"

"It did."

"No way! You're just messing with me!"

"You know I wouldn't do that, Ms. Ayumu."

The Osakan gave a small, disbelieving laugh. "You know, I don't know what I know anymore. If somethin' like that is really true, then maybe… so, so could you really fly with those, uh… those thingers on your head?"


"The, uh," Ayumu put her hands on either side of Chiyo's head and flapped them.

"My… pigtails?"

"Yeah! Yeah, that's it!"

Well. There went that glimmer of hope. Chiyo floundered for a few seconds before finally admitting, "Um… no. I… I don't think I ever did that. I'm sorry."

"Shucks. I always did have trouble keepin' my dreams an' reality separate, though."

"It's been a lot harder ever since Sendai," Chiyo said understandingly. What was this? Ayumu seemed sad and desperately confused, but not psychotic! Why in the world was she being kept like this? And what was with her eyes? They were always a little unfocused and misty, but now they seemed even more so. Almost as if she were sleep deprived as well, or—Chiyo fought down an irrational burst of anger--medicated.

"Please, don't be mad at them for me," Ayumu squeezed her hands. "I mean, 'least I'm safe, right?"

"But…" Anger fled, leaving Chiyo empty. "What about the others? Weren't any of them there for you? What about Yomi, or Sakaki, or Tomo…?"

"Oh," Ayumu smiled sadly. "Tomo-chan was always there for me. She was wonderful."

"B-but where is she now?"

"You didn't know? Tomo-chan… she's gone."

Chiyo emerged unsteadily into the corridor and leaned against the wall, trembling, eyes wide and vacant. Gone? What did she mean, gone? It couldn't possibly mean what it very obviously did.

"Are you all right, Miss?" her escort, one of the nursing assistants, asked kindly.

"Y-yes. I'm sorry." Chiyo straightened herself and followed him down a dimly lit hall. The spaces between rooms were very pleasant as well, rife with this sort of creaky, grandfatherly ambiance. The large room where the tenants often took their meals and held social events was positively beautiful, and the whole place seemed arranged to give all who entered a sense of peace and well being.

It wasn't working at all.

"Excuse me," Chiyo asked, still dazed, "May I ask you something about Ms. Kasuga?"

"Uh, sure."

"Why is she here?"

"Well," he seemed on the verge of holding his peace, but continued with an effort. "You caught her on a good day. Most of the time she does pretty well, but she has these… breakdowns. Every two or three weeks, it seems like."

Chiyo swallowed. "Breakdowns."

"Yeah, if that's the word for it. She doesn't become violent, though, it's almost as if something's attacking her. Oh, but I wouldn't worry, Miss… the doctors here are the best in Japan, and if they can't help her, there's no one who can."

"Ah… th-thank you." Chiyo's weariness reached a new peak. About to conk out? Forget that, she was just going to skip it and fall over dead. Gone…

Even though their letters were passing through the butchering blades of 'Washington Irving,' (the censors never put their real names), Chiyo had still managed to arrange for a place to stay during her visit. Her voyage took her by taxi into Tama Ward, down the shadowy streets of a nice little suburb that had been carved out a tract of unspoiled forest only recently. The place had the feel of a rural neighborhood, though it was hard to be fooled with the lights of Tokyo garishly painting the 2 AM sky.

With a tortured grunt, she hauled her duffel from the taxi's trunk and started unsteadily down a long driveway. The house she trundled towards was small, tasteful and unassuming, exactly the sort of digs she expected its owner to choose. Trees still crawled up between the houses and screened them from each other. This area would be a wonderful home for…

Chiyo stopped dead, bending even more pathetically under her bag's weight. A large cat, at least half a meter long without counting his short tail, padded silently into the middle of the driveway and sat down in her path. His coat was dusty tan, covered in dark brown spots, and he stared at her sharply with wide, gleaming yellow eyes.

"You've grown up too, huh?" She knelt, sloughing the bag off and setting her laptop case down. But when she reached out to him, the great cat just backed away from her. "Aww, you don't recognize me? I guess I can't blame you… sometimes I don't recognize me."

Slowly, warily, the beast came closer, finally drawing near enough to sniff at her outstretched fingers. Before he could render his judgment, though, the house's front door opened and he bounded back towards it, going from fierce predator to playful kitten in an instant. He swished eagerly around his master's legs as she emerged, but for once her attention was elsewhere.

In spite of Chiyo's newfound height, Sakaki still looked enormous to her. She stood silhouetted in the doorway, dressed in a dark green turtleneck and blue jeans, half-bending to scratch Maya's ears distractedly. Even with the distance between them, Chiyo could see that she was a little haggard herself; she'd obviously waited up in spite of the fact that Chiyo knew how hard they worked her as a veterinary assistant and specifically asked her not to.

(In a brief, astronomically expensive phone call before the trip, Sakaki had told her where she kept a spare key so that she could let herself in. In retrospect, Chiyo realized that this hadn't been a smart move, as the call had probably been tapped by at least three separate agencies and illegally besides.)

Sakaki's beautiful raven hair was even longer and her expression even more grave than in their High School days, but she still carried herself with a soft and gentle air. Chiyo wordlessly closed the distance between them and they hugged, Maya pawing jealously at their calves. After a few seconds, the prodigy went limp in her arms and let out a long sigh.

"That bad?" Sakaki asked sympathetically.

Chiyo mumbled something into her chest.

"Am I going to have to put you to bed?" That time, her deep voice held a faint trace of humor.

"It'd be nice, thank you…" Catlike, Chiyo seemed to become about two kilos heavier. Sakaki took three awkward steps with the girl draped over her before Chiyo hopped back with a soft giggle and started back for her bag. "Sorry."

Sakaki shook herself mentally; after years of professionally handling small, adorable, fluffy creatures, she had mostly overcome her "cuteness overload syndrome," but it was still possible to blindside her. And she definitely wasn't expecting her young friend to be every bit as cute as she had been nearly eight years ago (though it was a different flavor of cute, to be sure).

"Hup!" Chiyo hauled the duffel skyward yet one last time and was nearly overbalanced by it. After a Sakaki helped her wrestle it into the house, the younger woman thanked her politely, said that she looked forward to talking with her in the morning and then collapsed bonelessly on the couch, out like a light before she even landed.

Sakaki gazed at her fondly, marveling at the fact that they had finally met again in spite of their separate busy lives and the trifling matter of their homeland's conquest by alien invaders. Finally, though, she switched off the lights and turned in; she had to leave for work in less than five hours, after all.

The moon hung heavily over Birth Island, pouring gorgeous silvery light over its ugly landscape of broken, lifeless rock. In the distance, a town on the mainland glowed like a beacon over the ocean. If ever there was an island that nobody in the world had any good reason to visit, this was it.

But now a small boat bobbed away from it, bearing a frightened young woman that had done her part in this little drama and now didn't need to do anything more than lie low and hope for the best. There had been no funny business with tests, alternative guardians or reincarnation this time; the proper Soul of Light had been called upon and carried out her duties admirably.

A pearly egg, smooth and bright against the jagged dark stones, quickly grew as the creature within neared its cataclysmic birth. And in its shadow, two tiny, identical women watched the boat disappear into the night. "It was boring this time," the twin on the left complained.

"It went exactly the way it was supposed to," her sister corrected.

"Exactly. She wasn't nearly as interesting as that Kasuga girl."

"Honestly, sister, I think that I could do with less objects of interest in our life. You realize that absolutely nothing has gone to plan since that one came along?"

"It's hardly her fault. If anything, it's on us."

"But even this time things went awry. There was nothing wrong with the Soul, but Mothra has never been weaker! I can't help but think that there's something… screwing with us."

"It'll work itself out," Lefty said airily. "I'm sure this is all to a purpose."

"But we're the ones who make the purposes! We're the shadowy manipulators!"

"Sometimes I wonder." The Shobijin suddenly cocked her head to the side, looking troubled. "Oh… do you hear that?"

The sisters stood in silence for a few seconds. "Yes. It's faint…"

"A spirit is crying out. Nothing is right…"

"It's such a sad voice, such despair… but beneath it, the promise of rage…"

"The promise of battle…"

"But who will answer?"

Lefty looked out over the ebon waves. "Who indeed?"