The sunset was brilliant, streaking the Cranagan sky in shining gold and blazing orange, the buildings silhouetted against it looking like black fingers desperately striving towards the glorious beauty. The seabirds Hayate had seen the last time she'd stood at this window weren't in evidence; perhaps they were settling down to nest for the night, or perhaps they were smart enough to decide that they were going to move on to a new home not normally subject to orbital attack.
"They'd be smarter than we humans in that case," she remarked softly, brushing her fingers against the glass.
"What was that?"
"Sorry, Marshal Sebring. I was just thinking out loud. At some point I really ought to try sleeping, if I don't want to start babbling randomly about everything and anything."
"Sleep can often be a luxury for people in our position." He chuckled, then added, "Of course, if you rise high enough, you can appoint people to worry for you. By the time I woke up this morning, the entire crisis had come, been resolved, and ended."
"You're deliberately trying to make me hate you, aren't you?" Hayate said, smiling.
"Oh, no. Basic military strategy says never to start a fight with a stronger enemy," he joked back. More seriously he said, "You did a good job."
"Mistakes were made, some of them by me. I should have called the Navy earlier."
"The Navy should have considered adjusting its maneuvers schedule after terrorists stole that information, rather than assuming that the theft was an accidental failure to steal more important data."
"I could have considered calling them back earlier. When I thought of using naval power against the Heimdalls it was strictly to destroy them. A boarding party could have deployed to disconnect the weapons systems from the computer control. If I'd thought of that and requested immediate help, they'd have gotten back in time anyway."
"Of course, if you believe in prophecy, then the only person who actually exercised free will today was the younger Takamachi."
"Prophecy doesn't look at an immutable destiny and report its events. It merely acts as a predictive analysis utility. We use our computers to do the same thing, only Carim's Rare Skill has access to sources of data that we don't."
"Sources of data?" Sebring said wryly rather than curiously.
Hayate wiggled her fingers.
"Why, don't you know, sir? It's maaaa-giiic!"
"Well, that's a relief," he chuckled. "Here I was afraid it was religion."
"We could ask Vivio, but she'd probably just get mad."
Sebring chuckled again.
"Well, if nothing else, these events certainly proved your point about Heimdall's suitability as a defensive system."
"I'll try not to say 'I told you so' too many times when I address the subcommittee."
"Go ahead. With this incident cleanly resolved in a matter of hours and no loss of civilian life, your stock has never been higher. You won't have this chance too many more times."
"So terrorists nearly destroy Mid, and I end up boosting my reputation and enabling political and authority gains for the Ground Forces."
"Indeed. You've firmly proven that no system, no super-weapon, is a replacement for force coordination, and as regards the defense of Midchilda, it's the Ground Forces that are naturally placed to properly command such combined forces."
"Is something funny, General?"
"No, not really. It's just...I wonder who the first conspiracy theorist will be on the subcommittee, who decides that we engineered all this just to accomplish our ends. After all, I propose that we get rid of Heimdall, they take it under advisement, and not even a week later a perfect example of why I'm right crops up."
"That would be ridiculous. It would rely far too much on random chance and blind guesses as to how people would behave. It wouldn't be a plot so much as a gamble."
"Oh, someone will still think it, though. It's easier than looking up into the sky and saying, 'I was that close to being destroyed, by people I don't know, for reasons I don't understand, that my actions in the past and present had no control over.' It's easy for us, because it's our job to fight such things with all we have, but for others, not so much." She grinned widely and added, "You know, sir, if I find the right reporter, since I have access to all the classified incident data I could feed him the perfect scenario and split the profits from the book deal!"
"Because that's the point, you know," she went on, ignoring her own joke. "I want it to be unthinkable. Not because it's psychologically uncomfortable so people shy away from it, but because it's something that's so unlikely as to be all but inconceivable, as long as we're here, keeping people safe."
"It's a sweet dream."
Hayate shook her head.
"No, it's not a dream. It's a future, one that we're all reaching for with all our hearts."
She turned to face Sebring directly, then grinned sheepishly.
"Too sappy for a flag officer?"
The old man smiled, the deeply engraved lines in his face twisting and folding like a map, rearranging itself.
"On the contrary," he said, "perhaps that spirit is the sort of thing that we need going forward. My friends and I...that was what we felt when we pushed for the creation of the TSAB. The real fight is to keep that purity in your heart while you deal with the ordinary crises."
"Oh, that won't be a problem, Marshal."
"Not with the friends I have. Frankly, it would be harder for me to step off the path without them pulling me back on than it would be to stay true."
She turned back to the window. Did she see streaks of pink and yellow light crossing the sky? More likely just the colors of the sunset against the clouds—but no matter; she knew they'd be there when she needed them, just like she would be for them.
And really, wasn't that the point of dreams, anyway?
~X X X~
A/N: I can definitely see Hayate writing a conspiracy thriller accusing herself of masterminding the whole thing. She has that kind of sense of humor.
I'd like to thank everybody who's come this far for reading; I had a lot of fun writing Stahlkönigin, and I hope people have enjoyed it. This also marks the end of the "Steel Queen Chronicle" series of stories. I started them as a "possible future history of Vivio" story, but of course now canon has come along and started taking things in (unsurprisingly) a different direction, so should I write future Vivio-centric stories (apart from my participation with RadiantBeam's ViCia/Shadows stories, which of course are AU but not my AU; she's just being nice enough to let me play with her concepts), I'll be pulling them back into the "real" Nanoha universe as best I can.
My especial thanks go out to everybody at the AnimeSuki forums who have offered advice, corrected my errors of canon, translated spell names into German, and otherwise helped out in so many ways: JimmyC, Outlaender, GeshronTyler, RadiantBeam, Keroko, Satashi, TheShinySword, and everybody else...I couldn't have done it without you!
Oh, and if anyone is still wondering, Lt. Yaris's spell list comes from Lucia in Lunar: Eternal Blue, still one of my favorite all-time videogames.