Celica Iris-Lynnfield stared blankly at the sprawled corpse laying on the metal deck before her.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
"In for a penny, in for a pound," she muttered to herself aloud, glancing around quickly before reaching down to search the dead man. She didn't know his name, but he was a sergeant with the Security Division of the Naval Special Intelligence Service—the very same unit that Celica herself worked for as a systems analyst.
Until this very moment. The die had been indelibly cast; Celica's Interface Device emitted a soft chime as it altered its physical structure, switching from active mode to a suspended state. While in standby, the Device resembled a silver earring set with a shard of blue-white crystal.
It only took her a moment to find what she was searching for. The Security Division sergeant was a mage—he carried a Belkan-designed Armed Device in the shape of a broad-bladed ax. Celica did not desire the weapon for her own use, but the sergeant's Device contained security access codes that would be necessary to make her escape.
She had to move quickly. A general alarm hadn't yet been sounded, but it would be only a matter of time before someone noticed that three Security Division officers were no longer at their posts. Celica figured she had five minutes at the most before the whole facility was locked down.
"Tizona," murmured Celica in a low voice, "switch to Interface Form."
"[Interface Form]," the blue-white shard intoned in a clear masculine voice. Flashes of argent light blazed from the center of the jewel as mystic energy shaped into a floating, translucent holographic console consisting of multiple windows and touch-sensitive displays.
Celica went to work immediately. With her Device in Interface Form, she would be extremely vulnerable to attack—Tizona could not even bring up an autoguard barrier in this operational mode. All of his processing power was diverted to breaking through the Armed Device's security measures.
"Target Device is keyed via Linker Core signature," Tizona reported, not unexpectedly. Celica knew that most modern Devices, even simple weapons such as an Armed Device, were keyed to the unique signature of their owner's Linker Core.
This wouldn't pose a problem for Tizona, Celica knew. The man was dead, else Celica would have instructed her Device to simply scan the man's Linker Core and obtain the proper frequency. Without that luxury, Tizona would be forced to try and break through the defenses with brute force.
Celica felt sweat beading on her forehead as massive amounts of information scrolled across Tizona's three main displays. The Interface Device was leveraging all of its processing cores for this task, looking for any weak spot that could possibly be exploited. The Armed Device was outfitted with an extremely limited type of AI processor—it was no match for Tizona's multi-core, fully-unlocked AI processor array. The very same type of parallel processing unit inside Celica's Device was utilized for modern Unison Devices. Unlike those marvels of modern Belkan Device design, Tizona lacked his own Linker Core.
It only took a few short moments before Tizona's prodigious processing power broke through the Armed Device's feeble defenses, yielding up the proper frequency to activate the device. Celica sighed in relief as Tizona emulated a Linker Core's signature, "spoofing" the Device into yielding access to its internal memory.
"Transfer port access codes acquired," Tizona reported somberly.
"Let's get going, partner," murmured Celica softly. She stood up, never once having touched the fallen mage's Device, and glanced briefly at Tizona's virtual terminal.
"[Blade Form]," the Interface Device stated. Argent flashes of magical energy swept away the display terminals and reformed the raw mana into the shape of a silvery-white, thirty-centimeter-long blade, capped with a blue-white pommel jewel. Celica gripped Tizona's hilt tightly and broke into a run, barreling down the hallways as fast as she could.
The blare of the base's general alarm began to sound before Celica cleared the hallway. A computerized voice-over on the PA system crackled to life.
"General alarm has been sounded. Sectors Three, Five and Six will be sealed in ninety seconds. General alarm has been sounded. Sectors Three..."
Celica ignored the alarm. It was just as much as she expected, after all. The dead guards would not have gone unnoticed for long in a facility like this, but it was likely the disabled security cameras that told the guard post something was amiss.
Tizona's glowing jewel began to flare with blue-white energy. Arcs of lightning crawled across the blade of the Device, surging into Celica's body through the hand that gripped the weapon. She shuddered as she felt a burst of energy and strength surge into her body.
The spell amplified the operating speed of Celica's body, mind and Linker Core. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl, the warbling of the base alarm becoming indistinct and distant. She felt as if she were moving at normal speed, but to any external observer it would appear as if she blazed past five times faster than any human could run.
It was a dangerous spell to use and overuse—Celica knew well the neurological and Linker Core damage she could sustain from too many consecutive Overclocks, but it was much more dangerous to be caught by NSIS Security Division mages. She was an analyst, a computer operator and a hacker. She was't even remotely helpless in a fight, but the Security Division mages and the active Field Division agents were specifically combat-type. More than one or two at a time and Celica would have a serious problem.
Even under the amplifying effects of Overclock, Celica didn't want to go toe-to-toe with a high-ranked combat mage. If that happened, she would never escape. Celica pushed her body and Linker Core harder, feeding off the insane acceleration granted by her spell. The transfer port was one of the most lightly-defended parts of the base; it was a one-way door, leading only out. Visitors to the NSIS headquarters were required to transfer in through the TSAB headquarters building in the center of the city, a few miles away.
Since nobody could enter through the port, it was not well defended. Celica knew that once the general alarm had been sounded, the base commander would begin moving mages and soldiers to that location to prevent her escape. She had to get there quickly.
Celica began to slow her run, knowing that her perception of time's flow was distorted and slowed while Overclocked. The laws of physics still played by the rules outside of the spell's effect. If she did not give herself adequate space to slow down, she would surely plow headfirst into a wall or door. She skidded to a stop less than a meter short of the door leading to the transfer port.
"Now to see if those codes are good," murmured Celica aloud. She aimed Tizona's point toward the sealed door and nodded.
"Access granted," Tizona intoned as the doors slid open soundlessly. Celica stepped through the threshold and fairly leaped onto the transfer port, initiating a dimensional jump.
"Dimensional coordinates 475F-A01D-3342-C72E. Activate transfer."
Celica's vision exploded with brilliant multicolored light as the transfer took effect, collapsing the wave effect around her and reforming it elsewhere. The operation wasn't entirely instantaneous, and as she faded from view, she managed to catch a glimpse of a squadron of Security Division soldiers burst into the transfer port room.
Admiral Chrono Harlaown, Director of Naval Special Intelligence Services, frowned heavily as he tossed the datapad he had been reading to the desk. This was not what he wanted to see this early in the morning.
The dark-haired man rubbed his tired eyes and coughed once. The job had been becoming increasingly difficult as of late, the hours long and exhausting. His wife had already been expressing displeasure concerning his frequent absence. It had been made worse by the fact that Chrono could not tell her anything.
The NSIS was the dark side of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. It was a natural side effect of a military and police force that had strongly grounded itself in very specific traditions and morals. Outwardly, the TSAB presented itself to the people of the Interdimensional Administration of Free Worlds as a band of heroes, powerful mages that defended the innocent and protected the weak.
As far as that went, it was mostly true. Chrono, highly placed within the hierarchy as he was, knew the true reason. Why the TSAB recruited mages so young and why the TSAB worked so hard to instill heroic ideals and morals within their most powerful members.
It was a fail-safe. The leaders of the Administration knew very well the death and devastation even a moderately-powerful mage could wreak. The TSAB made a point to recruit them young, before they had formed their own views on the multiverse, on the concepts of good and evil.
So far it worked fairly well. Powerful mages rarely went rogue and morale within the military forces was kept quite high. But as any solution, it was a double-edged blade and carried with it other problems. The white knights of the IAFW could not participate in many missions necessary to the survival of the government and the people.
Thus the TSAB created the Naval Special Intelligence Service. Outwardly it was nothing but an intelligence-gathering division of the Naval Forces; a small unit of spies and scouts that passed along vital information to Naval command.
It was not a complete fabrication, Chrono thought idly. The NSIS did complete a great many intelligence-gathering missions, but it was not the unit's true purpose. The NSIS Field Division agents, colloquially known among the unit as the "Shadows," were the wet-work specialists of the TSAB. Operations that were "darker than black" were routinely completed by the highly-trained and capable agents under Admiral Harlaown's command.
The work of a Shadow often lie considerably south of legal. Theft, extortion, torture and even murder were not uncommon accomplishments by an NSIS agent. Chrono believed that what his unit accomplished here would prevent further incidents from escalating to world-threatening proportions.
"Excuse me, Admiral," a soft, feminine voice spoke over the intercom. "Special Agent Alphine is waiting."
"Send her in," the admiral commanded in an even tone. The intercom cut off and the door leading to his office opened silently. A slight woman with long lilac-colored hair swept into the office, her stride the confident, sure gait of a highly-trained warrior. She wore the dark blue uniform skirt of the Naval Forces with opaque white hose and a pair of low heels dyed to match the uniform.
"You wanted to see me, Admiral?"
Chrono nodded and tapped a string of commands into the console hovering above his desk. The door leading to his office shut itself and locked, the latch sounding ominous in the still air.
"I have a priority assignment for you," began Chrono, fixing the young field agent with piercing stare. "This is a big one, Lutecia. This mission takes priority over all of your other active cases."
"I'd like to go over the details with you, sir," Lutecia said in a businesslike tone.
"Of course." Admiral Harlaown pressed a button on the holographic console and a new window sprang into being, displaying an NSIS personnel file and dossier, containing the individual's entire history. Chrono suppressed a grim smile when the female agent gasped in shock and recognition.
"What's going on here?" Lutecia demanded.
"It's exactly as it says," Chrono went on. "Celica Iris-Lynnfield killed three Security Division officers two days ago. We have video and magical activity records to prove it; she murdered them and then utilized the outgoing transfer port to escape. We do not know of her whereabouts."
Lutecia remained silent. Her boss wasn't finished yet, and she really had nothing to say. The woman the admiral was accusing of murder was a friend—in fact, Lutecia had been responsible for Celica Iris-Lynnfield's recruitment into the NSIS in the first place!
"I don't believe Celica would kill people without a reason," Lutecia said after a moment. She wasn't terribly surprised when the admiral nodded in agreement.
"There's something going on here that we don't yet understand," Chrono said in a low tone. "This is why I've assigned you to the case and made it your top priority. Thanks to your reputation as an agent and the weight General Yagami's word carries, we were able to keep the accusations against Celica within the unit."
"There hasn't been a wide-area arrest warrant issued?"
"No, and one will not be issued," Chrono continued. "Ordinarily I wouldn't be telling you this, but this mission is crucial to the survival of NSIS. Hayate and I have spoken at length over the past few days. While the Bureau leadership values our existence and our results, the Administrative Council doesn't."
"But the TSAB is an autonomous entity," objected Lutecia, frowning. "We aren't under the IAFW's direct authority."
"We're funded by the tax revenue from IAFW-administrated worlds," Chrono pointed out grimly. "Even if they can't directly order the Bureau to dissolve NSIS, they can bog things down in negotiations, withhold funding, delay budgetary hearings... there are many ways the Administration can dictate policy to the Bureau."
"So we're trying to keep this one quiet," Lutecia reasoned.
"Precisely. The Administrative Council would leverage Iris-Lynnfield's apparent betrayal against us, leaking information about NSIS to the media and portraying us as a political dirty-tricks squad." Chrono leaned back in his desk chair, placing his arms behind his head and stretching languidly. The day had barely begun and already he felt ready to pass out.
"Why does the Council disapprove of NSIS?" Lutecia wanted to know. Chrono blinked his burning eyes a few times to moisten them before replying.
"For various reasons, but the IAFW considers the more public mages of the TSAB and the military to be a shining example of integrity, morality and strength of character. For the Council, it's a political-relations bonanza. They can milk the heroic exploits of Captain Takamachi or any other highly-visible military mage."
"What keeps the constituents happy keeps them in office, you mean," said Lutecia in a bemused tone.
"That's about the size of it," Chrono said heavily. "The Administration Council considers NSIS to be a political embarrassment. They believe that our existence and activities will turn public opinion against them; they want to make us disappear long before that happens. The egg will be on their face if a savvy reporter manages to dig up some dirt on the unit and make it appear as if the Council gave the go-ahead."
"What about you?"
"Oh, I'm yesterday's hero. Nobody remembers and nobody cares. I don't have a nearly public enough position to worry too much about the muckrakers. Digging up dirt on me would be a wasted gesture. Not to mention most of the agents here at NSIS—unknowns whose considerable talents have been assiduously hidden from the rest of the citizenry."
"I see," said Lutecia quietly, but it was plain that she did not. Chrono would never have made it as far as he had within the Bureau's command structure without being at least a fair judge of character.
"Alphine, answer this question for me."
"There have been only a handful of incidents where NSIS agents have gone rogue. They have done so for various reasons. Why do you believe NSIS takes a hands-off stance to the capture of these rebellious agents?"
Lutecia's eyes narrowed suspiciously and she did not immediately reply. She was smart enough to see where Chrono was leading her.
"A visible and damaging rogue element within NSIS would give the Administration Council just the excuse they need to start a hearing and an inquiry into the fitness of NSIS as a military unit of the Time-Space Administration Bureau's Dimensional Fleet," Lutecia reasoned.
"Correct. Celica Iris-Lynnfield is that visible and damaging rogue element. The video and sensor records clearly show that she murdered three Security Division officers. If the Council catches wind of this..."
"... we'll all be out of a job inside of six months," finished Lutecia grimly. "With all due respect, Admiral, there's something not right here. Why would Celica kill three security guards? Why would she leave the facility... as if she were... being chased..." Lutecia's eyes widened slightly as she made the connection.
"It doesn't make sense to me, either," the admiral said. "That's why I'm giving the mission to you and to you only. I don't want anyone else in NSIS on this—anyone at all, do you understand me, Alphine? Not even Agent Stormhawk."
Lutecia stiffened at the mention of her friend Victor Stormhawk, a fellow field agent who was a not-quite-but-almost sort of partner. They did not work together officially, but they were close enough. Chrono knew his agent well; Storm would have been the first person in the unit she would have gone to.
"Celica is his friend, too," Lutecia murmured quietly, displaying more of her emotions than she had since the start of the briefing. Chrono's steely gaze did not waver, but a hairline crack appeared in his stoic expression.
"I know this is hard for you, Lutecia," said Chrono in a much gentler tone of voice. Lutecia looked up at her boss, her reddish-brown eyes shimmering with unshed tears. "But this is precisely why the mission is going to you and not someone else. You know Celica, you care about her. You also know the hate that seethes within the Shadows when one of our own turns on us.
"I can trust you to bring her to my office—alive."
Thirty-six hours earlier:
Outer City Ruins
Celica's dove-gray eyes fluttered briefly as she struggled to pull herself from the blackness. Something had obviously gone wrong—she had been unconscious, and her head throbbed horribly. Rapidly-drying blood streaked down one side of her face from a clotting laceration on her forehead.
"Good morning, Mistress," Tizona's mechanical voice said with as much feeling as an artificial intelligence could muster. Celica couldn't see the Interface Device, assuming he had switched over to Suspend Form uncommanded in order to reduce mana consumption while she lay unconscious.
She lightly fingered her right earlobe, feeling the reassuringly-warm crystal shard that was Tizona.
"Ow, my head... what the hell happened, Tizona?"
"The transfer port was destabilized by our pursuers," the Device reported promptly. "We did not arrive at the correct dimensional coordinates. According to my calculations, we arrived with an error margin of point-eight-three meters. You struck your head on a partition, Mistress."
That explained it well enough. The Security Division soldiers chasing her must have attempted to recall her in mid-transit. The system would have been unable to lock onto her carrier signal with Tizona's auto-barrier raised, but the disruption caused by the attempted recall was enough to destabilize her exit by slightly less than a meter.
Celica was hardly a master of movement magic, so she suffered the malady known as "transfer sickness" upon utilizing a dimensional transfer. It brought disorientation, nausea and dizziness for a short period of time after utilizing movement magic.
This fact, combined with her off-target re-entry into realspace, was just enough to cause her to whack her head on the armored partition wall.
"How embarrassing," murmured Celica as she stood up, placing a fingertip against the gash in her forehead. Sure enough, the corner of the partition wall was smeared with blood. "How long was I unconscious?"
"Eleven hours, forty-seven minutes, fifteen seconds, Mistress," Tizona reported helpfully. Celica's jaw went slack in dismay. She had been unconscious for nearly half a day! She took a deep, ragged breath and forced herself to calm down. NSIS had no idea where she was. They would not think to look for her here, of all places.
Celica sighed exasperatedly, closing her eyes and drawing upon raw mana to heal her wounds. It was taxing; Celica was not a healer, but even the greenest recruit could wipe away such a minor injury.
She felt her body grow hot as the magic poured through her, the cut on her forehead tingling and itching. After a few minutes of effort, the wound was gone, leaving behind only the faintest scar.
Celica ran her fingertips across the scar and scowled. A skilled healer could have repaired that scratch in thirty seconds or less without leaving a scar. It would serve as a reminder to always raise a kinetic barrier before making a hastily-calculated dimensional transfer.
"I'm hungry," said Celica, apropos of nearly twelve hours of unconsciousness and pushing twenty hours since her last meal.
Brilliant blue-white energy poured forth from Tizona's beam aperture, a solid column of raving magical power blasting through the thick walls of the abandoned complex. Celica held tightly onto her Device's long haft as the counter-force pushed back against her.
Tizona had radically altered his form in order to facilitate bombardment spells, lengthening the hilt into a haft slightly less than a meter long. The dagger blade that made up the bulk of Tizona's body in Blade Form was bifurcated, spreading apart a few centimeters to allow a clear field of fire for the sparkling blue crystal aperture.
The wide beam of destructive power slowly faded as the spell completed, leaving motes of blue-white light hanging in the air, falling to the ground like snow. Celica sighed softly and relaxed, Tizona's blade section drooping toward the ground.
The Device's exhaust ports flared open and vented coolant gases. Invisible magical residue still hung heavily in the air as Celica opened her eyes and examined her handiwork. She still had it apparently, even well after training and years of sitting at a desk.
"Structural integrity eighty-nine percent," Tizona noted aloud. "Targeting error rate below point-five percent. Good shooting, Mistress."
Celica chuckled slightly in spite of herself and her situation, peering through the two-meter-wide hole she had bored through several thick concrete walls sheathed with lead. Starlight shone dimly through the wide opening, leading Celica outside and into the world.
Unfortunately the edges of the walls she had blown through still gave off a significant amount of radiant heat. She would have to wait until the melted edges of the concrete cooled down.
Celica's head still throbbed from her collision with the metal partition wall. Her stomach contracted and growled pointedly. She was uncomfortable, but not quite in the realm of miserable just yet. At least she knew where she was and what she intended to do.
"Tizona, Blade Form."
"[Blade Form]," the Device complied and with a flash of blue-white, the long-hafted staff reformed itself into the shape of a large dagger. Celica gripped the hilt tightly as she started to gingerly pick her way through the holes blasted through the old concrete bunker.
NSIS was likely abuzz with activity after she killed the three Security Division officers. They would be utilizing all of their resources to track her, but she had taken special care to ensure that the destination of her transfer would not be easy to extrapolate.
The ruined section of the city on the outskirts of Cranagan would be a good place to hide for the time being. Enforcer patrols were regular and predictable; thanks to Celica's occupation, she knew the schedule for each and every patrol sent through the old city ruins. The quality of officers sent was usually fairly low—patrol duty in the ruins was considered something of a punishment.
It would give her the time she needed to analyze the information she stole. Celica knew damn well that she would wind up either dead or imprisoned for the rest of her natural life unless she managed to figure out what all of this meant.
As one of the most senior computer analysts within NSIS, there was very little of the TSAB computer network she did not have access to. During a routine analysis of new data on the long-term stability of artificial mages, Celica ran into something she should never see—an error proclaiming that her access was denied. Parts of the database had been sealed off by persons unknown, requiring security credentials above her admin-level clearance.
This was unusual. Celica had been assigned to complete the analysis of the artificial mage data stored within the system. In retrospect, Celica knew, she should have immediately reported the incident to Admiral Harlaown. But she didn't; she was curious. With Tizona's help, she circumvented the security systems—having helped to design many of them, it was not difficult.
The previously-sealed data now available, Celica opened the files and examined the information. It only took her a moment before she knew why they had been sealed so heavily. The newly-gleaned information on artificial mages stated that several of the gathered samples previously believed to be products of Project F displayed signs of having their Linker Cores artificially expressed.
This flew against everything Celica had ever read concerning artificial mages. The dividends of Project F created artificial humans from stored genetic material, selecting for high magical aptitude. There was a high degree of magical tinkering done as the embryo developed, all directed for the purpose of expressing a larger, more powerful Linker Core.
These samples were different. Magical examination and interrogation showed that they were individuals born without the benefit of magic's touch. Every one of the listed individuals had been born with a dormant Linker Core, completely without capacity.
Yet all of the recent tests showed that these individuals possessed some degree of magical potential. Further examination discovered that the Linker Cores did not become active until the subjects were in their early teens.
Celica cross-referenced this information with other matching information within the system. With Tizona's help and several hours of nerve-wracking work, Celica found something that made her blood run cold—a report from an NSIS Field Division agent who had been on Non-Administrated World #97 for a secret mission, and a detailed strategic plan in a format Celica had never seen before.
Celica scarcely had time to even begin reading the report when the computer suddenly rejected her access and forcibly logged her off. Someone was clearly trying to prevent her from uncovering this information, but it was too late for them. The data was already safely stored within Tizona's memory core.
It would not be long before her unknown opponent would attempt to silence her and bury the information. Her office doors refused to obey her command to lock and two Security Division officers entered using a maintenance override code. Both guards were armed with the standard-issue TSAB Storage Device in the form of a staff, yet both weapons were in a suspended state. It was then that Celica saw the guns.
The woman dropped into position and pointed the heavy-barreled muzzle of a large and wicked-looking rifle in Celica's direction. She didn't wait; it was clear these two intended to kill her without so much as a word. They were savvy, as well—instead of using magic, which would be noticed and recorded, they chose to use "dumb" weapons which the sensors would not pick up.
Tizona had saved her life as he had done so many times in the past. Celica recognized the weapon carried by both Security Division officers—they were known as linear rifles. They were deadly and highly illegal weapons that used small magical power cells to accelerate a tiny two-millimeter nickel-ferrous round to hypersonic velocities.
Tizona's auto-barrier could take a few shots from a linear rifle, but the weapons could dump an impressive volume of fire in short order. Celica knew this and her Device knew this. The Interface Device immediately activated Celica's Overclock ability in an uncommanded action, enabling her to take both guards out quickly.
No less than five seconds after she had downed both of her assailants, a third Security Division man, a sergeant, burst into the room, his axe-form Belkan Armed Device wreathed in red-gold flame. Celica wasn't sure if the man's appearance was unrelated, but with two dead guards on the floor and Tizona's blade dripping blood...
It was too late to turn back now.
Celica was alive—albeit injured and exhausted—and three Security Division officers were not. Explosive information was stored within her Device's memory and she didn't know who in NSIS she could trust. The only option she had was the most obvious one—escape and analyze the data. It was the only way Celica could see to prove her innocence. The compromised elements of NSIS would do their best to paint her in the most unflattering light possible.
Celica sighed as she vaulted over the last melted concrete wall and out into the broken and cracked streets of the outer city ruins. She set up her transfer to bring her fairly close to one of Cranagan's tourist districts, only a short distance from the Bureau civilian-use spaceport.
Celica intended to set up shop, at least for the time being, in the outer city ruins while she and Tizona worked to glean more from the data they stole. She estimated that it would take her at least six hours to go over all of the material in its entirety. Her stomach rumbled loudly, reminding her that right now, there weren't many things more important than filling her belly.
"Tizona, Suspend Form," commanded Celica softly as the ruined buildings were exchanged for dirty yet still functional storefronts and cheap apartment complexes. "Barrier Jacket, release."