Midchilda – Low Geosynchronous Orbit
Navy Cruise Patrol Warship "Shiva"

Celica Iris-Lynnfield was bored.

Most of the crew was planetside for a day of shore leave, but Celica was stuck at her workstation, forced to sift through reams of long-range sensor data. It wasn't exactly her fault that her work had piled up, either—the captain of the Shiva had been sent a priority request from Navy Command to pick up the long-range sensor probes around Non-Administrated World #893.

So the battlecruiser—Celica was slightly annoyed with that, as well; the Shiva was not a research vessel!—was pulled from its patrol route and sent gallivanting across the multiverse to an insignificant dustball in the asscrack of known space. Even with the Shiva's advanced dimensional drive, which could make much longer dimensional jumps with shorter recharge times, the entire operation had still taken three days. The vessel had just now returned to Midchilda, leaving Celica with a tremendous amount of data to sift through.

Celica didn't know what the big deal was. NA893 was uninhabited by intelligent life of any type. The only thing that made it even remotely notable was that it was one of the planets involved in the "Book of Darkness" incident. Celica had no idea what Command expected to find there, if anything at all.

"Completed sensor packet analysis for probes A21 through A98," Tizona's artificial masculine voice reported suddenly. Thankfully for Celica, her Interface Device, Tizona, easily cut through the hundreds of pages of data, isolating the important bits and discarding the countless hours of no activity.

"How much more do we have left to go?" Celica asked the Device, which currently took the form of an impressive array of holographic terminals and input panels. Tizona's default form was that of a long double-edged knife, but he spent most of his time in this form, assisting Celica with her work.

"There are sixteen remaining sensor probe sets to analyze," Tizona responded. Celica groaned. Sixteen more sets of ninety-eight probes each. She would be here for hours. Celica quickly tapped in a string of commands, setting Tizona's beefy processor cores to work on a new set of sensor probes.

Then she got up from her chair, stretching her lithe frame and frowning at the sheer number of creaking and popping joints she could hear. At only twenty years old, she was much too young for such bodily complaints.

"Tizona, can you take care of the rest for me?"

"You'll be reprimanded for that," a soft feminine voice said from behind her. Celica whirled at the sound of the voice and smiled. The short young woman with long blond hair and pretty green eyes was Celica's only close friend on board the Shiva.

She was also Celica's assistant, an Enforcer hopeful who was assigned as an operations analyst when Celica ascended to the position of senior analyst. The girl was only fifteen years old—only a few years older than Celica had been when she completed her training.

"Can you keep an eye on Tizona?" Celica asked pleadingly. "I need to get out of here for a little while."

"Sure, Tizona likes me," Fiore said sweetly. "Go on, Celica, I've got this. It's just analyzing and sorting the data from those long-range sensor probes we picked up yesterday, right?"

"That's all it is," Celica deadpanned.

"Why does the captain have you spending your time working on that? Any one of the sensor operators could do it; the systems are virtually identical to the ones used for our shipboard sensors."

"The captain likes abusing Tizona's processing power," Celica explained. "If he had the sensor operators work on it, it'd have two of them and two primary workstations totally tied up for a week."

"I think he also doesn't like you very much," said Fiore impishly.

"This is also true," Celica responded in a bone-dry tone. "A lot of the non-mages in the Navy aren't too appreciative of us. I don't know. There's just something about him that gives me the creeps."

"Go away, Celica," said Fiore without turning around, waving a delicate hand negligently. "Go get something to eat, stretch your legs a little. This isn't going to go anywhere."

"I was rather hoping it would," Celica chuckled, turning around to walk out the door. "Thank you, Fiore. I really appreciate it."

"Just remember this next time I need a favor and we'll be even."

"Of course," Celica said as she walked out, heading down the brightly-polished corridor leading toward the ship's mess hall.

NSIS Headquarters
Cranagan, Midchilda

Admiral Chrono Harlaown studied the young woman standing in his office for a long moment. He said nothing and kept his expression neutral, a standard tactic employed by ranking military officers to gain control over a conversation.

To the woman's credit, she did not fidget. She stood ramrod-straight with perfect parade-ground accuracy, waiting for the flag officer to speak, with her hands folded behind her back.

"At ease, Agent Alphine," Chrono said eventually. He had made his decision.

The Naval Special Intelligence Service as an organization did not officially exist. Very highly-placed officials within the Time-Space Administration Bureau had created the agency as a stopgap against threats the normal military was ill-equipped to handle. Agents of NSIS were known among themselves as "Shadows," due to the highly secret nature of their work.

They were the faceless ones that didn't exist. Though, that was not entirely true for all Shadows. Lutecia Alphine certainly did exist—and in a very big way. She had played a very integral role in the JS Incident that had taken place five years ago. It was for that reason Chrono had deliberately sought her out in her exile on Mau Gram... and gave her an offer she couldn't refuse.

Alphine had worked closely with the Director ever since her partner and handler had been killed in action. While she was not the most powerful mage within the ranks of NSIS—that particular honor was held by a huge Belkan knight known as Abraham Stele—she was considered one of the most successful.

"EAID intercepted an unauthorized encrypted transmission sent two weeks ago. It was received by Captain Eli Matheson, the master of the Navy cruise patrol warship Shiva. The encryption was difficult, but we managed to pry the unauthorized message apart."

Lutecia remained silent as Chrono tapped a few commands into his holographic console, opening up a new display facing Lutecia's directions. A window materialized on the display and the fierce visage of a heavily-tattooed man appeared within.

"The exchange point is prepared. In fourteen days, bring the goods to NA447, at the fringes of IAFW-controlled space. Your reward will be waiting."

The image disappeared. Lutecia looked up at the admiral, her expression thoughtful. The tattoos on the man's face were quite distinctive—Lutecia, as a Shadow, knew the habits of many different large criminal organizations. The tattoos marked the rough-looking man as a clan chieftain of the Vartis, a large society of spacefaring pirates based somewhere outside of Bureau-patrolled space and the IAFW system.

"The Shiva's captain plans to sell Bureau technology to the Vartis?" Lutecia asked curiously.

"Not just technology, Alphine," Chrono said darkly. "We had EAID break into the man's financial records. Special Agent Stormhawk was sent two days ago to toss his house, and we found some other interesting things within.

"No, he's not just selling tech. He intends to defect, to join the Vartis and bring over the entire Shiva and everything inside it."

A chill ran through Lutecia's spine at the admiral's words. The Shiva was undoubtedly the most advanced warship in the Bureau's entire fleet, an experimental ultra-long-range cruiser. It could travel further and withstand more damage than any other craft in the fleet.

Fortunately the Shiva hadn't yet been fitted with an Arc-en-Ciel cannon, leaving it to rely primarily on linear cannons and beam turrets, but still...

"Admiral, forgive me for asking, but why is this being handled by the Shadows? Isn't this something more a job for the Enforcers?"

"They couldn't legally gather the incriminating evidence," Chrono explained. "The man covered his tracks too well—the only reason we even know at all is due to this transmission."

"So the Enforcers can't act," Lutecia reasoned.

"Right," Chrono agreed. "I'm assigning this mission to you, Alphine. You must infiltrate the Shiva in the guise of a crew member, prevent the theft of the warship and protect the Bureau's proprietary assets."

"And the Shiva's captain?"

"He cannot be trusted any longer. Kill him."

Midchilda – Low Geosynchronous Orbit
Navy Cruise Patrol Warship "Shiva"

"Celica, there's someone coming," Fiore said softly, trying not to surprise the woman too much. Celica was lost in her work, trying to finish up the last few sets of data packets pulled from the sensor probes. The Shiva would soon set sail, returning to its normal patrol route and Celica would have to return to her normal duties.

"Who is it?" Celica asked, without bothering to look up from her work.

"I've never seen her before," Fiore said thoughtfully. "The captain said something about supplemental crew being added for the remainder of this patrol."

"Of course, he never bothers to tell me these things," Celica grumbled as the door chime sounded. Without hesitation Celica pressed the button unlocking the bulkhead, allowing the newcomer to enter.

Celica examined the young woman with an appraising eye. The analyst could tell that she was a few years younger than herself, but her elegant beauty, complemented well by a sweeping mane of lilac-colored hair made her look older and more mature. She wore the blue uniform jacket and skirt of a Navy clerk, her rank insignia identifying her as a warrant officer.

"Ma'am, Warrant Officer Reika Jennings reporting for duty," the newcomer said in an official tone, saluting respectfully. "Captain Matheson requested supplemental personnel to assist Operations with any backlog. I have been assigned to your care."

"At ease, Miss Jennings," Celica said, finally stepping down from her workstation and returning Jennings' salute. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Celica Iris-Lynnfield, senior operations analyst of the Shiva. This is my assistant, Enforcer Cadet Fiore. You may address me as 'Celica' or 'hey, you,' but if either I or Fiore hear you call me 'ma'am' one more time, we're going to kick your ass."

Celica could feel Fiore's laughter, suppressed as it was, about to burst from her body at any moment. Warrant Officer Jennings cracked the barest hint of a smile at their odd behavior. I guess computer nerds are no different no matter where they work, she thought, amused.

"I will do so, Celica," Jennings replied easily. Celica smiled in return, but there was a predatory edge to the expression.

"Your first assignment will be to analyze and categorize these data packets," said Celica, trying very hard not to laugh. She gestured over to a stack of memory cards sitting on her desk. "Grab yourself a seat over there at one of the primary workstations and Fiore will bring the sensor data to you."

The newcomer nodded silently and sat down at the terminal furthest from Celica's workstation. The gray-eyed woman noted that it was the one terminal she could not see from her own station. An interesting tidbit of information, Celica knew, filing that away in the back of her mind for later.

What do you think? Fiore's voice suddenly sounded within Celica's mind.

She's not who she says she is, replied Celica with amusement. I could be wrong, but I think she's a fighter, not a technician. Her movements are all wrong, and Tizona says her Linker Core capacity is 900% of the baseline.

I think you're reading too much into these things, Fiore chided her mentally. Maybe Tizona's sensors need some maintenance?

Still, I think it'd be prudent for the both of us to be aware. There's something weird going on here.

"Shiva has left the dock. All hands, prepare for dimensional jump," the captain's voice blared over the intercom. Celica glanced up from her work with an irritated expression on her face and reached back behind her shoulders, pulling her crash harness around and fastening it under her breasts.

"Strap in, kids," Celica called out, "we're about to cross half the known universe in a split second."

The Shiva began to shudder, the hull material seeming to waver between solid and transparent. Celica watched, taking a moment away from her work, always enjoying the bizarre physical display of a cruise warship making a dimensional jump.

For a long moment, Celica could see the world of Midchilda below her, as if her chair, the floor and several meters of decks and hull plates suddenly vanished. Then they returned, as if they had never actually been gone.

The air in the operations office filled with energy, crackling and splitting at the edge of sensation as the warship powered up its massive reactors, gigantic power plants that were, for all intents and purposes, essentially enormous artificial Linker Cores. The deck plates began to vibrate violently—the entire ship shook like a leaf as the reactors placed incredible strain on the ship's superstructure.

The dimensional drive fed off the enormous energy flowing from the reactors, forcibly tearing a hole in the fabric of space-time itself, allowing the enormous construction of titanium, plasteel and reinforced carbon fiber to instantly travel from one point in the universe to another.

The vibrations suddenly ceased.

"Dimensional jump complete. Shiva returning to regular patrol route," the captain said over the ship's intercom. Celica turned to her partner, a confused expression on her face.

"Fiore, can you check our current position against the patrol map?"

Fiore pulled up a star chart, comparing the patrol map to their current location. Her primary terminal made an agitated beeping noise a moment later. The blond girl looked up at her senior with the same expression on her face.

"There's a course deviation in the next leg of the patrol," said Fiore in a troubled tone. "Near Non-Administrated World #447." The girl tapped a string of commands into the console and sent the star chart to the big display on the far wall, enabling Celica and Jennings both to see.

"Well, well, what have we here?" Celica asked rhetorically, examining the patrol path, comparing it against the archived chart. "What the hell is the captain doing? Were there some last-minute changes to our orders again?"

"The duty log doesn't reflect that," Fiore said, confusion evident in her voice.

"The star chart should have been updated to match the new patrol path if this deviation was authorized," mused Celica aloud. "Only Command can update the star chart paths."

"The sensors and navicomputer will record the deviation," Fiore noted. "What the hell is he doing?"

"I don't know," Celica said, "but I intend to find out."

Lutecia, having assumed the identity of Warrant Officer Reika Jennings, did not react to the operations officer's discovery. Of course, Lutecia knew all of this already, but she would not blow her own cover unless it became absolutely necessary.

But now that it was absolutely confirmed—and was happening much faster than she had initially predicted—Lutecia had to gain access to the rest of the ship, quickly. Fortunately the admiral had provided her with a master override code which would give her absolute access to every part of the Shiva.

"Celica," Lutecia said casually, "I'm getting a little hungry. Can I head up to the galley and get something to eat?"

"Sure, but you have to bring me some pizza back," Celica said from her workstation, her hands flying across the input panels. "Do you need Fiore to show you where it is?"

"I already know where it is," Lutecia replied.

"Off with you, then, and hurry it up. Those data packets aren't going to get organized on their own."

"Okay," Lutecia said, walking out of the operations room and closing the door behind her. Celica stared after the young woman for a long moment. There was something not right about her—most people would not notice, but Celica was a very observant person.

"Fiore," Celica said after a long moment. The girl looked up from her primary terminal and nodded.

"I'll keep an eye on her from here," the technician promised. "Well, she didn't lie—she really did go to the galley, but she seems to be doing something else now. She's heading toward the command deck now."

Celica opened her mouth to reply, but the entire vessel shuddered with a violent, unexpected impact. Warning lights began to flash throughout the operations office and several alert notifications popped up on Celica's display.

"What's going on?" Fiore cried suddenly, staring openmouthed at the warning messages blanketing the display of her primary terminal. Celica scowled darkly and tapped in a few commands, silencing the blaring alarms inside the operations office.

"The ship is being boarded," Celica explained. The warning messages spoke of hull breaches, damaged shielding systems and armor plating in certain sections. However, life support was still active and the emergency containment fields remained on standby.

Celica was smart enough to know what that meant; an unknown craft had attached itself to the Shiva's hull and cut through it using some sort of specialized boarding device.

"That shouldn't be possible," Fiore objected. Celica knew she was right; the girl knew the Shiva's sensors and detection systems inside and out. Surely the enemy craft would have been detected long before it could get close enough to attach itself and cut its way through the hull.

Celica frowned deeply as her workstation terminal beeped an error code. Tizona's displays suddenly went dark as the link to the Shiva's core computer was suddenly terminated.

"Something is not right here," Celica said grimly. "The primary workstations have been severed at the main hub. We can't access the core computer from here anymore."

"What are you going to do?" Fiore asked, alarmed.

"I'm going to find out what the hell's going on," Celica said, stepping off her elevated workstation terminal. "Tizona, Blade Form!"

"[Blade Form]," the Interface Device repeated obediently. Blue-white light flashed, consuming the array of holographic displays and input panels, the magic energy allowing the Device's intelligence to alter its physical composition into that of a long, double-edged knife.

"I'm going with you," Fiore said resolutely, clutching her own dormant Armed Device, Glanzfaust, in one hand. The small bracelet would reform into a heavy armored gauntlet fitted with a mid-range blaster at Fiore's command.

Celica wrestled with her own thoughts for a long moment. She was sorely tempted to make up a reason to leave Fiore here in the operations office, but with the primary terminals cut off from the core computer, leaving her here would be useless.

"All right, let's go," Celica said. "Tizona, Set Up!"

"[Barrier Jacket: Electron Form]."

Blue-white light flashed brightly, removing Celica's dark-blue Navy uniform and skirt, leaving behind the woman dressed in the protective clothing common to mages of the Midchildan style—the Barrier Jacket.

Celica's Barrier Jacket consisted of a skintight, sleeveless black bodysuit, trimmed with electric-blue detailing. Lightweight armor plates protected her waist and torso; her feet were covered by black leather ankle boots. Her hands went into black fingerless gloves, and the whole ensemble was finished by a heavy charcoal-gray duster that fell to her ankles, left open at the front.

"Glanzfaust, bestow me my armor," Fiore said softly.

The bracelet, the dormant form of Fiore's Armed Device, began to glow brightly with green light, flowing across Fiore's body and reforming physical matter, leaving the girl dressed in her knight's armor.

A white tanktop and green vest covered her torso; her arms were left bare, her right hand encased to the elbow in a heavy gauntlet of dark metal. Armor plates protected her waist over a brief pale-green skirt; the girl's long blond hair was bound back in a single thick ponytail. Her feet and shins were encased in heavy plated greaves that reached her knees.

Appropriately armed and armored, the two young women made their way out of the operations office and headed through the corridors that would take them to the bridge.

Celica was already on edge; the halls were eerily empty. This was a Bureau warship—sure, it spent most of its life patrolling uninhabited sections of space, examining dead worlds and shadowy places where even more shadowy characters might congregate—but it was still a vessel built for battle.

The fact that Celica and Fiore encountered no one at all profoundly worried the gray-eyed analyst. Having been boarded by hostile forces, the vessel's corridors should be virtually clogged with Bureau clerks and marines, armed with a grim determination to protect the lives of their comrades.

"Coming up on the lift to the bridge," Celica whispered. Fiore nodded silently, brandishing Glanzfaust and tensing for a potential battle.

Unknown contact detected, Tizona's voice echoed in Celica's mind. The Device had switched to thoughtspeech to avoid prematurely giving away his mistress's location to a potential enemy. Celica was thankful for Tizona's forethought.

Configuration? Celica wanted to know.

Modified Mid-type. Linker Core scan suggests the target was not trained by the Bureau. Core logic most closely matches Iron Fist Clan of the Vartis.

Shit, Celica cursed inwardly. Tizona's answer was not unexpected, but it was unfortunate. These were not enemies to take lightly.

The Vartis were a nomadic group of raiders. They had no homeworld of their own—most were malcontents, criminals and thieves who had escaped justice by leaving Midchilda. Several decades before, a powerful rogue mage and starship thief named Ryan Vartis had done just that, leaving the world in order to escape a murder charge. The Enforcers spent a good deal of resources searching for the man, but he was a master of illusion and stealth. He had simply disappeared.

After many years had passed, most in the Bureau had forgotten all about Vartis, having their hands full with new incidents to solve. When Bureau survey shuttles and smaller fast-attack vessels started to disappear, it was widely speculated by the Enforcers that Vartis had become active again, spurring an extensive manhunt. Several Enforcers left to hunt the man down, but none ever returned.

Celica knew they were dangerous. They possessed far more magical power and technological complexity than any of the other large pirate organizations. It was rumored that for every five members, one was a mage of at least C-rank.

Well, we're about to find out if that rumor is true.

"Glanzfaust!" Fiore cried, dropping into a fighting crouch as the pirate rounded the corner. Celica watched in amusement as the man nearly dropped his spear-like Storage Device as Fiore's steel gauntlet, wreathed in verdant fire, slammed heavily into the man's face. The gauntlet detonated on impact, sending the astonished pirate slamming heavily to the far wall of the corridor.

"That won't be enough," Celica clucked disapprovingly. Fiore smiled sheepishly and brought Glanzfaust to bear, sighting down the length of her gauntlet, firing a vicious barrage of green-glowing magical projectiles from the blaster barrel fitted on the Device's main body.

The pirate managed to raise a defensive barrier, but Fiore's attack overwhelmed the shield, shattering the field as if it were made of glass.

Celica smiled and took advantage of the opening Fiore had created.

"[Pulse Lancer]," Tizona said as a quartet of blue-white magic missiles slammed into the man's unprotected body. The projectiles exploded one after the other, hammering the pirate with powerful shock waves. Celica watched in satisfaction as the light of consciousness left the man's eyes.

"Is he dead?" Fiore asked.

"No," Celica replied. "His Barrier Jacket protected him from life-threatening injury. I'll go ahead and restrain him so he won't cause us any trouble later. Tizona?"

"Yes, mistress. [Static Field]."

Blue-white arcs of crackling lightning flared into existence, binding the man's body firmly to the metal deck plating. He probably wouldn't wake up for a few hours, Celica figured, but there was no sense in taking an extra chance. This particular bind wasn't one she had to constantly maintain, but it was also fairly simple to dispel.

"Shouldn't we contact the main office and send a Mayday?" Fiore asked. Celica nodded briefly and sent a mental command to Tizona. The Device flashed with blue light once, then was dormant. Celica snarled in frustration.

"Damn it, this is not good."

"What's wrong?"

"The whole ship's covered in a powerful jamming field," Celica explained. "We won't be able to send or receive any transmissions until the field is taken down."

"What do we do, then?" Fiore wanted to know.

"We take the ship back, of course," Celica said with a predatory grin. She motioned for the Enforcer cadet to follow, heading down the corridor toward the turbolift that would take them to Shiva's command deck.

Navy Cruise Patrol Warship "Shiva"
Command Deck, Section 4

Lutecia Alphine smiled proudly as the tiny insect summon lit on her outstretched finger. The little bio-mechanical creature had completed its simple but important mission—it had disabled the electronic lock and alarm on the door leading to the captain's quarters.

Lutecia knew time was short. Secrecy was all but forgotten—the Vartis pirates had already boarded the Shiva, and it would only be a matter of time before they managed to secure the bridge deck and take over control. The lilac-haired summoner held little doubt as to what would become of the Shiva's crew.

Knowing the bloodthirsty reputation of the Vartis, Lutecia thought darkly, they'll probably just push us all into the airlocks... and then open them to space. If the radiation out here doesn't fry us within seconds, they'll get to watch us slowly asphyxiate.

Lutecia very slightly cracked the door leading to the captain's quarters. She was not terribly surprised to see the room was not empty; the captain, Eli Matheson, stood on the other side of the spacious quarters. A man Lutecia recognized from the intercepted transmission sat behind the captain's personal desk, his scuffed boots propped up insolently.

The two men were arguing, she realized quickly, and neither of them had detected her presence just yet. Lutecia nodded silently to the insect closest to her. The tiny summon flashed briefly with understanding as it flew through the ajar door. It only took a moment before Lutecia was able to listen in on the conversation between the traitorous Matheson and the pirate chieftain.

"This isn't what you promised me, Fulton!"

"I really hate to say this, Captain," the pirate leader purred, his voice oozing sarcasm, "but I'm changing the terms of our deal. I take the Shiva and all of its technology,and in return, I will spare your worthless life."

"Damn you, Fulton! What about my payment? The position you promised me in the Iron Fist Clan?"

"Oh, that?" Fulton threw his head back and laughed uproariously. "That was a lie."

"You bastard—"

Lutecia heard the sounds of scuffling and the meaty thud as a heavy fist connected with the captain's face. Feet skittered across the deck plating as the man struggled to stay standing, but the blow was more an insult than a true attack. He did not fall.

"If you want, I can amend the deal again," Fulton said menacingly. "Your—well, I suppose it's my ship, now... has been taken over by thirty of my best men. They're over half mages, Captain—not a one lower than C-rank." The man spat contemptuously. "They've already disposed of your precious marines. That means your ass belongs to me, Captain."

Lutecia frowned at that. The Shiva, being a patrol warship, had a complement of thirty-six marines, much tougher and more experienced in combat than the ordinary Bureau clerk. If the hijackers were able to defeat three full squads of TSAB marines...

Analysis complete, Asclepius spoke within Lutecia's mind. Linker Core scan results: Midchildan style, close combat specialization. Rank: S+.

Lutecia's heart sank slightly. The Vartis pirates had certainly stepped up their game for them to obtain such a powerful mage. She turned her mental attention back to Asclepius's scanning systems and probed deeper. Lutecia considered the risk of discovery to be minor—the pirate leader was distracted, and the young summoner was quite skilled at clandestine probes.

Linker Core signature abnormalities detected. Trace levels of N23 metabolites detected through atmospheric analysis.

Lutecia nodded. She almost expected that; true mages with a rank of AA or higher were exceedingly rare. According to Asclepius's analysis of the data the wasp collected, the pirate leader was an N23 addict.

Originally developed for Linker Core research, the magical compound N23 could be used for recreational purposes at high doses. The effects varied from user to user, but typically all subjects who consumed high doses exhibited intense euphoria and a drastic increase in Linker Core capacity and magical throughput. The drug did tend to cause Linker Core instabilities, however, and over time, tolerance was built up. Eventually the addict would have to take near-fatal doses of the drug to feel any effect.

An old memory floated to the surface of her mind; several years previous, EAID had finally located the last of the known N23-producing labs. NSIS Command assigned Abraham Stele to destroy them. As far as she knew, he had been successful. The Vartis pirates must have recovered the formula for the drug and established their own production facility to quickly bolster their own magical strength.

The admiral won't be happy to hear that, Lutecia thought grimly.

The argument began to die down. It was time for her to move. Lutecia recalled the wasp and quietly made her way back down the corridor, heading for a small maintenance room. Each deck had one, located aft, and Lutecia's override code should allow her to enter uncontested.

The door slid open silently and she slipped inside, sealing the room behind her. Asclepius glowed briefly as the Intelligent Device scrambled the door's activation circuits. Short of blowing the door off its hinges, so to speak, nobody would be able to follow her through here.

The maintenance rooms held access hatches to the space between each deck, allowing technicians to make repairs on parts of the ship that could not be reached from the decks themselves. Lutecia could use the crawlspace to reach the bridge.

The captain could wait. Securing the Shiva and protecting the Bureau's assets were her primary mission objectives. It would be an easy, if troublesome, task to kill the traitorous Matheson after she had completed her primary goal.

This is going to be a long day, the summoner grumbled to herself.

"How many more do you think they've got on here?" Fiore wondered aloud, stepping over the unconscious body of a fallen pirate. The bridge deck was thicker with enemies—already they had taken out four with surprise attacks.

Celica shook her head. "No real way of knowing. That jamming field is so powerful it's screwing with Tizona's instruments. He can't get a good reading beyond fifteen meters."

"We've taken out five so far," Fiore pointed out hopefully. "That's good, right?"

"If it's really Vartis pirates, they've got at least twenty on board. Vartis raiding parties are organized in units of ten and they rarely bring only one unit. For something the size of Shiva, I'd bet that there's at least three units, maybe four, spread throughout the ship."

"Hunting them all down isn't going to be easy."

"You're right about that," Celica stated. "These ones haven't been too impressive, either... it's only going to get rougher from here. If we can get to the bridge, Tizona and I can access the core computer and lock down the helm. They won't be able to make a dimensional jump or activate the maneuvering thrusters."

"Then it's just a matter of rounding the rats up."

"Easier said than done," Celica murmured. "We don't know what's waiting for us at the bridge. The Vartis are unpredictable and dangerous, and the leader of this group is likely a powerful mage in his own right."

Fiore glanced at the doors lining the corridor leading to the bridge. All of the panels had been disabled through magic, sealing them shut, and the mage who had done so didn't do a very neat job of it. The control panels were blackened, the small status displays dark.

"They've been sealing off sections of the ship," Fiore noted.

"Another tactic to prevent the crew from mounting an effective resistance," said Celica seriously. "The crew complement of Shiva is one hundred seventy-five, not including our three squads of marines." Which have likely been killed by now, Celica added silently.

If it were she hijacking the Shiva, the marines would be the first targets she would eliminate after commandeering the bridge. They were the most dangerous, three squads of twelve combat-seasoned Bureau clerks. Given the chance, they would be able to take the ship back.

We can't count on them, Celica reminded herself. The double-door leading to the Shiva's bridge was just ahead.

"Stay frosty," Celica told Fiore. The younger girl nodded and hefted Glanzfaust menacingly. Fiore was young and inexperienced, but she had the potential to be one of the best Enforcers in the Navy. Her current stint as a data-sifter was just a stepping stone toward her eventual destiny.

"Tizona, open the door," Celica murmured. The Device complied with a flash of electric-blue, the door sliding open soundlessly.

The bridge crew were lined up along the port side of the bridge, their mouths gagged with strips of rough cloth, their hands and feet bound with shimmering magical binds.

The pirates stood on the starboard side, a motley collection of men and women dressed in mismatched combat fatigues and Barrier Jackets. Several of the pirates carried low-end Storage Devices, while others gripped modern linear rifles or primitive chemical-based slugthrowers.

It was hard to believe that such a ragtag group of thieves had managed to hijack the Navy's most advanced warship. Of course, without the good Captain's help, they never would have even gotten close, Celica knew.

The leader of the Vartis pirates sat insolently in the command chair, his legs crossed and propped up on the console. Upon hearing the door open, the man swung his feet down and stepped down to the bridge, scrutinizing the two intruders for a long moment. Then he shrugged.

"Kill them."

The dozen pirates and thugs on the port side suddenly exploded into motion. Mass weapons were brought up and fired, the still air filled with a hail of fast-moving metal slugs. The mages among the group activated their Devices and added blasts of glowing energy to the deadly barrage.

Fiore planted her feet firmly on the deck and brought her Device forward, holding her steel-encased palm outward.

"Glanzfaust, Cartridge Load!"


A green-glowing Belkan magic circle materialized in midair before Fiore's outstretched palm, bringing up a wide forward defensive shield that easily blocked the physical projectiles, the bullets disintegrating upon contact with the barrier.

"[Pulse Lancer]," Tizona barked as eight glowing points of blue-white light streaked forward with frightening speed. Celica intentionally targeted the pirates armed with mass-based weapons—correctly assuming they were not mages and could not easily withstand a magical attack.

To their credit, the Device-wielding pirates managed to bring up defensive barriers in an attempt to protect their non-mage allies. Fortunately for Celica, the shields were not solid enough to block the shots of an AA-ranked mage, even one who wasn't a warrior by trade. Tizona's magical blasts shattered the protective domes as if they were delicate glass.

A storm of homing bullets unerringly blasted into the bodies of the gunmen, knocking them to the deck heavily.

"Fiore!" Celica cried, dodging a brilliant blast of magical energy. The young Belkan knight nodded and charged into melee, slamming her heavy gauntlet into the midsection of a Device-wielding pirate.

The man doubled over in agony, the breath blasted from his body as a result of the hammer blow. Fiore wasn't done; using the counter-force of her blow, she pivoted on her left foot and slammed her plated boot into the man's head, snapping his neck back and sending him crashing to the deck.

The other pirates stared at the petite girl, their jaws collectively dropping in astonishment. Fiore was deceptively delicate, but the girl was packed with explosive power.

Celica took advantage of the momentary distraction, brandishing Tizona as she rushed into the fray. Melee was not her forte—Celica usually preferred to blast her enemies at range when she fought—but there just wasn't enough room in the bridge of the ship. She definitely did not want to inadvertently blast a hole through the hull.

The remaining five pirates were all mages, armed with variations on the standard-issue staff-type Bureau Storage Device. Some were heavily customized and modified, scarcely resembling the original weapons. Others were obsolete models no longer in use by the Bureau. Most were in poor condition, likely due to heavy use and inadequate maintenance.

All of them, however, were aimed at Celica and Fiore. The pirate mages responded to the defeat of their comrades with a roar of rage, loosing a thunderous barrage of glowing death.

The air filled with magic bullets. Celica put her long, muscular legs to good use, weaving and dodging to avoid the projectiles, trying to get into melee, where the ordinary Mid-style Devices would be at a disadvantage against Tizona's hybrid design.

Celica could hear the pirate leader laughing uproariously as Fiore beat a tattooed female pirate into unconsciousness. The man was testing his minions, watching how well they handled themselves against two powerful mages.

The red-haired woman decided it was time to end the show. She looked down at her Device and nodded. Tizona understood.

"[Overclock]," Tizona said ominously.

Celica's body blazed with crackling arcs of blue-white lightning. She felt her Linker Core pulse and resonate as the spell fed power back through her, momentarily boosting her abilities to extreme levels.

Time seemed to slow down to a crawl, the pirates' movements appearing as if they had been mired in a thick, invisible mud. It was only too easy for Celica to dodge the lazily-sailing blasts from their staves.

Tizona flashed brilliantly as she attacked.


Celica felt her hand guided by Tizona as the two of them, together, completed a complex, dizzying flurry of slashes and stabs, the Device's blade glowing fiercely with argent flame. Every swing connected, striking flesh or armor, and every hit detonated in a tiny but powerful explosion of magical light.

The red-haired woman reversed direction and bounded forward, not bothering to examine her handiwork; Fiore would take care of any stragglers. She could see now that the pirate leader was no longer smiling. The man had taken out his own Device and was in the process of ever-so-slowly dropping into a combat stance.

Celica charged forward recklessly, brandishing Tizona with murderous intent, but she had miscalculated. The pirate captain sidestepped at the very last second, Tizona's razor-sharp edge missing his throat by less than a centimeter.

A tremendous heavy blow crashed down on the back of Celica's head, sending her crashing against the deck. Agonizing pain radiated from the point of impact, and Celica's vision began to blur around the edges. The man had struck her hard enough to blast through the defensive enchantments of her Barrier Jacket.

"That should slow you down," the pirate leader said, chuckling. Celica frowned and clambered back to her feet. Her eyes widened as she realized her opponent was speaking the literal truth—her perception of time and motion had returned to normal. Celica's Overclock effect had been dispelled!

"How the—?"

The pirate leader grinned fiercely and whipped around a heavy metal tonfa so quickly that the air whistled. So that's what he had struck her with, Celica realized.

"My Storage Device, the Silencer," the pirate leader purred. "It is very useful for killing mages, as I'm sure you've noticed."

Fiore, be careful, Celica whispered into her friend's mind. That Device can dispel magical effects on whatever it hits.

"Let's see what you've got," the pirate leader hissed viciously, leaping forward, Silencer spinning around in a dizzying arc. Celica parried the blow with Tizona, correctly gauging the power behind the strike, deflecting her opponent's arm up high.

"I'll show you what I've got," Celica said, smirking. She took a half-step back and lashed out with her right foot, catching the man squarely in the groin.

The pirate leader's eyes bulged and he wheezed in purely masculine agony, but the man was too experienced to allow the pain to compromise his stance. Enraged, he went on the offensive, striking blow after blow with Silencer, but Celica somehow managed to parry each blow.

"Damn," Celica murmured. Her wrist ached abominably from the repeated deflections and parries—the pirate leader was physically powerful and definitely skilled in close combat.

Fiore took advantage of the pirate leader's focus on Celica and darted in, kicking high, driving the man back a few paces. She wound up and threw a devastating right hook that went wide, missing the pirate's jaw by a centimeter. The man was on the defensive.

"Tizona, do it," Celica ordered. The Interface Device complied, conjuring three fiercely-glowing motes of electric-blue light.

"[Pulse Lancer]."

Celica sent the magic missiles streaking unerringly for the man's head. She meant to knock him unconscious, end this fight quickly. But the pirate leader had other ideas; he reflexively brought Silencer up to bear. The Device's unusual magic-dispelling aura caused Celica's attack to vanish as if it had never been.

"Now that wasn't very nice," the pirate snarled contemptuously. He whirled around and kicked at Fiore; the Belkan knight brought Glanzfaust up and blocked the attack with the armored gauntlet, but the force of the blow still sent her skidding backwards, struggling to stay upright.

This isn't going to be easy, Celica thought grimly.

Lutecia poked her head out of the small access panel in the deck plating, peering around to make sure she was alone. The corridor was empty; Lutecia levered herself out of the maintenance crawlspace and shut the access panel behind her.

According to Asclepius's engineering diagram of the Shiva, she should be on the command deck within a moment's walk from the bridge. The sounds of combat reached her ears—either the pirates were fighting amongst themselves, or members of the Shiva's crew were fighting back.

Lutecia hoped it was the latter, but she would take infighting among the hijackers, too.

The lilac-haired summoner bounded down the corridor, reaching the double door leading to the bridge itself. The door was closed, and the sounds of combat became louder. The fight was on the bridge, she deduced, and it was still going strong.

"Garyuu, let's finish our mission," Lutecia murmured softly.

With a flash of black-purple light, the insect guardian Garyuu appeared. The alien creature was not just a summoned monster, an expendable conjuration that Lutecia held with force of magic and will. Garyuu was an intelligent servant, almost a familiar in a way, who was utterly loyal to Lutecia.

He was also a strong warrior, particularly devastating in melee and unarmed combat. Lutecia's greatest strength lie in her ability to summon an army of insectoid creatures to attack her enemies, but in the cramped confines of the Bureau warship, Garyuu and her wasps were the most potent weapons she held.

The door to the bridge slid open soundlessly and Lutecia stepped into a raging battle. Two female Bureau mages were locked in a vicious melee against a heavily-tattooed man—the pirate leader, Fulton. Lutecia immediately recognized the women fighting against him as the officers from the operations office.

"Garyuu, attack," Lutecia said softly. The insect guardian nodded and charged, razor-sharp blades springing from hidden sheaths above his wrists. The black-armored creature tackled Fulton bodily, knocking the man off-balance, but not off his feet.

A flash of purple light exploded around Garyuu, so intense that Lutecia was forced to shield her eyes. When the brilliant glow ceased, Garyuu was gone. The summoner's jaw dropped in astonishment. She knew Garyuu hadn't been killed—or even severely injured—but somehow the summoning link anchoring the insect guardian to this dimension had been severed.

"His Device dispels magic!" Celica shouted in explanation.

Properly enlightened, Lutecia grimaced at the unfortunate fact. Her summons were anchored to this dimension through her own magic. By striking Garyuu, the pirate leader had disrupted that connection, sending Garyuu back to his dimension of origin.

Even without Garyuu, I'm not defenseless, Lutecia thought angrily. She sent a mental command out and dozens upon dozens of her wasps began to gather, hovering around her body protectively. The pirate would have a hard time striking her insects.

"Insects, go," Lutecia commanded gently.

The wasps flew toward Fulton, slashing and striking against his body. A veritable cloud of the bio-mechanical creatures surrounded him, partially obscuring his form. The pirate mage swung his tonfa wildly, occasionally striking the insects. Lutecia winced as a few of the wasps exploded from the impact, the tiny summons delicate enough that the physical blow destroyed them before the magic-dispelling club could unsummon them.

Celica didn't hesitate, taking full advantage of the opening Lutecia had created. She sent a mental command to her Device.

"[Cannon Form]," Tizona said. The Interface Device quickly altered its physical form, elongating the hilt and widening the pommel into a shoulder-brace. The dagger blade bifurcated and split, revealing a blue crystal aperture from which bombardment attacks could be fired.

Celica brought Tizona up and braced the weapon against her shoulder. A blue-white Midchildan magic circle blazed under her feet as she powered up for a devastating blast that would decisively end the battle.

"[Plasma Cannon]."

A torrent of blue-white fire poured from Tizona's aperture, blasting through the air and barreling directly toward the pirate mage. Lutecia's insect summons scattered at the last second, narrowly avoiding being instantly incinerated by the attack.

The pirate leader regained his wits and brought Silencer up to defend, shouting out a defensive spell and planting his feet firmly against the deck. The Device's magic-dispelling power was not enough to completely nullify Celica's attack, however. The rogue mage's shield crumbled under the assault, the blast of power sending him slamming against the starboard bulkhead.

"Fiore, now!" Celica cried.

The Belkan knight grinned fiercely and rushed in, Glanzfaust blazing with brilliant green flame. The Device's cartridge system cycled twice as it saturated its mana reservoir, preparing to deliver a debilitating blow that would send the pirate captain into unconsciousness.

"Magma... Hammer!" Fiore roared as she charged, her gauntleted right fist pulled back for a devastating blow. Green fire wreathed the mage's body as she struck—

"[Flash Move]."

—the deck of the ship. Armored metal plates buckled and consoles erupted in a shower of sparks as the powerful melee attack missed its mark and instead tore a gaping hole in the deck plating.

The pirate captain stood, his patchwork Barrier Jacket torn and damaged, but still very much alive—and very dangerous. The man grinned a death's-head smile.

Celica's eyes widened in horror as the pirate captain whipped Silencer around, pointing the shorter, open end of the tonfa baton directly at Fiore's heart.

"[Striker Shot]," Silencer said, the Device's sultry female voice sounding a death knell.

The aperture of the Storage Device flared with deadly power and a narrow midnight-blue beam of intense heat and energy tore through Fiore's chest. The beam slashed through her Knight's armor as if it were naught but tissue paper, utterly ignoring all her defenses.

"Fiore!" Celica screamed, watching the young girl fall to the deck. Blood pooled underneath her body as she struggled weakly, trying to stand up, but it was clear that there would be no saving her. The extremely focused beam of magical energy had pierced Fiore's heart.

"C... el... i...—" Fiore croaked. She coughed wetly, blood bubbling up from her lips and running down her pale cheeks. Her eyes fluttered weakly. Celica let out wordless cry of anguish, rushing over to aid the fallen girl.

"Not so fast, bitch," Fulton snarled, brandishing Silencer threateningly. "You're next."

Celica came up short and shot the pirate captain a glare so cold that Lutecia felt shivers run up her spine. Tizona whipped around with frightening speed, magical energy swirling in the air as the weapon changed forms, returning to its dagger shape.

"I will kill you," Celica snarled, breaking into a deadly charge, Tizona's gleaming blade leading. The pirate captain stared disdainfully, bringing Silencer up for a second lethal attack.

"[Striker Shot]."

"[Overclock]," Tizona countered. Wreathed in argent fire, Celica's body moved at impossible speeds. The midnight-blue beam of incandescent death scythed through the spot where her head had been only moments before. Celica moved, dodging and charging into melee range.

"[Vertical Cleave]," Tizona shouted viciously, the Device mirroring his mistress's emotions.

The silver flame intensified, extending and shaping into an enormous blazing sword of magical energy. Celica gripped the Device in both hands and whipped the deadly blade upward, then brought it crashing down with sundering force.

Fulton screamed in horror and moved to bring Silencer up to deflect the blow, knowing that the blade formed of burning magical energy would be instantly dispelled by his Device's special ability. If only he could deflect the attack—even through the slightest contact, Silencer would nullify the energies.

Celica expected that. At the last moment, she altered the angle of her attack—instead of a heavy downward chop, she whirled around, slashing viciously at a sharp descending angle. The blazing sword tore through the man's body and Barrier Jacket, slicing him apart from shoulder to hip.

Fulton let out a horrible cry of agony that ended in a wet, strangled gurgle as his body—or rather, the two separate halves of his body—fell to the deck plating. The body cavities sagged as blood and entrails spilled out. The sharp metallic scent of vaporized blood filled Celica's nostrils.

It was over. The pirate leader was dead.

Celica took a deep, ragged breath and turned around. It was only then that Celica noticed Lutecia, already crouched beside the mortally wounded Fiore. The black gloves that held Asclepius's main body were soaked with blood as Lutecia put pressure on the wound, desperately trying to stem the flow.

Celica dropped Tizona to the deck, the argent energy blade flickering once before dissipating. She rushed over and knelt down beside Lutecia, desperately looking into Fiore's eyes, searching for some sign of life, some sign that the girl would survive this. The blue eyes fluttered once—Celica gasped in relief as they focused on her face.

"C... e... l...—" Fiore whispered, barely audible. The voice was so weak, Celica felt her heart catch in her throat. Tears flowed unheeded down her cheeks, falling to the metal deck.

"I'm here, Fiore," Celica murmured soothingly, clutching the girl's right hand in her own. Fiore's hand was ice-cold and clammy, sticky with her own blood.

"I'm... not going... to make it," the Belkan knight gasped, blood seeping from the corner of her mouth. "Cel... ica... please...—"

"Don't talk like that, Fiore! You are going to survive this! You can't die!"

"Sorry... Cel... ica...—" Fiore coughed again, blood and spittle spraying from her lips, wheezing painfully as her body struggled to prolong her life. It was a hopeless battle. Celica watched, her voice frozen in her throat as the light shining in Fiore's eyes slowly faded.

Fiore's right hand, still wearing Glanzfaust, clenched Celica's wrist with surprising strength.

"I... wanted to... tell you... but—"

"What is it, Fiore? What did you want to tell me?" Celica asked, placing her free hand on top of the cold metal of the gauntlet.

"I... I...—"

The lips mouthed the words silently, slowly as Celica watched the life leave Fiore's eyes. They stared sightlessly ahead, the body going limp, the pressure under Lutecia's hands suddenly dropping off.

"She's gone," Lutecia murmured softly.

Celica nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes, leaving streaks of Fiore's blood on her cheeks, but she paid it no heed. The gray-eyed mage reached out and gently closed Fiore's eyes and kissed the dead girl's lips gently.

"I wish you had told me sooner," Celica whispered. Lutecia watched, her reddish-brown eyes filled with compassion as the other woman stood up and retrieved her Device. The operations analyst walked stiffly toward the command console and tapped in a string of commands.

"Tizona, switch to Interface Form," she muttered. The Device complied, altering his form into that of an array of holographic displays and input panels. Lutecia watched as the mage's fingers flew over the input panels, entering in commands, altering permissions and granting administrative access. Lines of code scrolled across the multiple displays as Celica worked to regain control of the ship.

Lutecia stood motionless, staring at the woman for a long moment before she walked away without a word.

The summoner had one more task to attend to.

Eli Matheson knew he was a dead man.

The woman standing before him—the supplemental crew member, Reika Jennings. It was a phony name, of course. Matheson had been in the Bureau long enough to have heard the rumors—the silent killers who worked behind the scenes, under a blanket of plausible deniability. Those faceless, unknown agents the Bureau used for problems that could not be solved through ordinary military or political process.

They were known as the Shadows.

"I've come to kill you, Matheson," Lutecia said simply. There was no emotion in her voice whatsoever. She took no joy in murder, took no pleasure in killing. For Lutecia, it was simply her task—a task she would complete faithfully.

"No... get away! Stay away from me!"

Lutecia stared dispassionately at the man. She didn't like this at all. Her targets often fell apart when confronted with the fact that they were to be eliminated. It never made it any easier. She preferred those who met their demise with quiet dignity—but those individuals were exceedingly rare.

The once-proud captain of the Navy's most advanced warship was on his knees, blubbering and whimpering like a frightened child. Lutecia had pored over the man's dossier. He was not a mage, but his service record was well above average, putting him squarely in the company of the elite. As a reward, the TSAB had given him command of the Shiva.

And he had betrayed that trust. Lutecia felt the hatred swell within her and was thankful for the feeling. She fed that hatred, filling her mind with images of Matheson's exploits, the Bureau's trust placed in his hands.

It didn't make her task any easier, but it made it possible. Lutecia extended her right hand and summoned magical energy, sending a black-violet projectile of explosive force streaking forth from her index finger.

The single bullet of mystic force blasted through the unprotected Matheson's forehead, detonating upon impact. The traitorous officer's head exploded like an overripe melon, splattering blood and brain matter against the far wall. Lutecia watched with blank eyes as the man's lifeless body fell heavily to the deck.

Her mission was complete. The summoner felt a certain sense of accomplishment, but she did not feel pleased. The image of Fiore's innocent smile, her cheerful and animated face flashed into her mind.

This victory carried with it a heavy price.

NSIS Headquarters
Cranagan, Midchilda

"You're really pushing hard for this, Alphine. I would like to know why."

Lutecia Alphine stared hard at the admiral, her reddish-brown eyes flinty. "You've already debriefed me. You've seen the Shiva's activity logs. You've perused her dossier. What more evidence do you need?"

"I admit, she would be a tremendous asset to NSIS. Colonel Davidson in EAID would be thrilled to have an analyst with an Interface Device working under him. What I want to know," Chrono said seriously, "is why you are getting on my case about this so strongly."

"I... don't know, Admiral," Lutecia said honestly. "I haven't gotten the chance to know her well, but I... I don't know. I like her, to be perfectly frank. And..." Lutecia trailed off meaningfully.

"You feel responsible for the death of her friend," Chrono stated. It was not a question.

"If I had fought harder, Fiore would still be alive—"

"You have no way of knowing that for sure," Chrono admonished her. "Even if you do feel like you owe her, what makes you think an appointment to NSIS would be any sort of recompense?"

Lutecia said nothing.

"All right, I'll run this past Colonel Davidson. Ultimately, though, the choice will be hers. We can't force her into NSIS."

"I know that," Lutecia replied, the gratitude evident in her voice. "Thank you, Admiral."

"Don't ever mention it, Alphine. That will be all; dismissed."

Lutecia saluted smartly, turning around and walking out the door. Chrono waited for a long moment before tapping a command into the console on his desk. The office door slid shut silently and sealed; a split-second later, a second, hidden door on the far wall of his office slid open.

A woman of average height and short brown hair stepped out. She was dressed in the dark blue Navy uniform and skirt, but her rank insignia marked her as a general officer from the Ground Forces. Her blue eyes shined with authority... and not a little mischief.

"What do you think, Hayate?" Chrono asked.

"I agree with Lutecia," the woman said without hesitation. "She would be a natural fit within NSIS. Iris-Lynnfield is dependable, loyal and intelligent. She has more than the rank required. Her record speaks for itself—her assignment as the Shiva's senior operations analyst should have told you that much."

"I am not opposed to transferring her to NSIS," Chrono replied. "I worry, though, about bringing anyone on so soon after such a traumatic event."

"It's ultimately your decision, Chrono—yours and hers," Hayate said softly. "I will be submitting my official recommendation, attached to Lieutenant Alphine's request for recruitment."

Chrono smiled wearily. "I will talk to her."

"Thank you, Chrono," Hayate replied graciously, walking back across the office toward the hidden door, opened to a tunnel that would take her back to the central spire of the Ground Forces headquarters. It was one of many "black" entrances to the NSIS compound, where one of Hayate's public stature might enter without wild speculation.

Chrono glanced at the clock and sighed heavily. Another long day had ended, another near-disastrous incident nipped in the bud by his agency. The stresses of his office ground heavily upon him, but when his agents were able to pull off something like this...

"It makes all the pain worthwhile," he said quietly. Gathering up his things, Chrono turned off the lights and exited through the "black" tunnel leading to the Ground Forces spire, where he would make an appearance in his "official" office before heading home.

I wonder what Amy has planned for dinner, the admiral wondered idly.

Midchilda – Low Geosynchronous Orbit
Navy Cruise Patrol Warship "Shiva"

"I'm sorry, Celica," Lutecia said softly. "If I had been faster—"

"It wasn't your fault," Celica said glumly. Lutecia frowned at the expression that had painted the woman's face for days since the incident—since Fiore's death. Those gray eyes, usually so hard and focused, were reddened and swollen. Her cheeks were stained with dried tears.

"I still feel responsible," the summoner murmured. "It was my mission to ensure that the ship and its crew did not fall into the enemy's hands. To make sure everyone came back alive and well."

"Is that what it is?" Celica demanded, whirling around suddenly, glaring daggers at Lutecia. "You're upset that you didn't complete your mission? She's dead! She's dead and... and..." Celica's voice trailed off into quiet sobs.

Lutecia said nothing, waiting for the other woman to let it out. The summoner knew from hard experience that such feelings, contained within the soul, were like a poison for the psyche. They could be just as deadly as the real thing.

"She's dead," Celica said in a desolate tone, "and she loved me. I didn't even know... she never told me before... before she..."

What Lutecia did next surprised even her. She leaned forward and embraced the grieving woman tightly, hugging her close, smoothing her hair and wiping her tears away. Celica turned her head and looked into Lutecia's eyes, sniffling once and smiling slightly.

"Thanks, Jennings—er, I suppose that isn't your real name, is it?"

Lutecia chuckled bitterly. "It's just an alias. My real name is Lutecia Alphine."

"Nice to meet you, Alphine," Celica said, smiling bravely through the tears. "What did you want to talk to me about that's so important, anyway?"

Lutecia said, without preamble, "I work for a little-known agency attached to the Bureau, the Naval Special Intelligence Service. I hold the rank of lieutenant in the and the title of Special Agent, Field Division. The agency specializes in 'black ops,' intelligence-gathering and securing the Bureau's technological assets.

"Due to your actions during the Shiva Incident, as it's being termed, you've been offered a promotion and reassignment to NSIS. I volunteered to be the one to tell you about it."

"A promotion? Reassignment?"

"The Bureau values your skills highly," Lutecia explained, handing Celica a sealed reassignment order. Celica broke the seal with her fingernail and withdrew the sheaf of papers within, scanning over their contents slowly, trying to prod her fuzzy mind into digesting the information.

"General Hayate Yagami and the Director of NSIS, Admiral Chrono Harlaown, have recommended that you be promoted to Commander and transferred to NSIS as an operations system analyst."

"I... I don't know," Celica said after a long moment, setting the papers down on her workstation.

"It's a lot to take in all at once, I know," Lutecia replied, hugging Celica closer, smoothing her disheveled hair again. "Especially after the loss you just suffered. But I think that you'd be a natural fit within the agency. You can do a lot more good for the Bureau and the people of Midchilda there than you can on the Shiva. It's a lot more responsibility, sure... but..."

"I... all right, Alphine," Celica murmured. "You can return to Admiral Harlaown and tell him that I accept the promotion and reassignment."

Lutecia nodded and stepped back, releasing the taller woman from the embrace. The summoner's stance straightened and she snapped to attention, saluting Celica smartly.

"Understood, Commander," Lutecia said in an official tone, but her eyes twinkled with mischief. "I will return to Admiral Harlaown with your answer."

"Very good," Celica replied in the same official tone, barely able to keep a smile from spreading across her face. "That will be all, Lieutenant. Dismissed."

"Yes, ma'am!"

author's notes:

Revision 2 of The Call. I changed a few lines, made things flow better, but the largest change being the time this event takes place. Other Shadowsverse authors (including the Harem Mistress herself, RadiantBeam) advised me that Lutecia's characterization was wrong for 0081, and Miranda's absence from the story was something of a wallbanger.

So I changed a few things. This did force me to adjust some of Celica's personal history—with the changes, she's only been working for NSIS for five years, instead of seven, as of false light (year 0088 by the Mid Calendar).

I'll likely have to go back over false light a bit and make sure those chapters reflect the changes. It shouldn't be major, though.

Interesting highlights of this chapter:

-I never actually described Celica's Barrier Jacket in false light, so I decided to do it here! Yes, she really does have a Badass Longcoat.

Celica's character design is a big ol' Shout Out to the PROCEED girls from SoltyRei. Her name comes from Celica Yayoi (who, incidentally, is also voiced by Nanoha's VA, Yukari Tamura), her occupation from Accela Warrick (they're both hackers/programmers) and her personality/character design is pulled from Integra Martel.

-I really enjoyed designing Fiore, more than I thought I would. I was a little upset that I killed her off—I originally had no plans to do so, but it worked out better this way, I think. Characters that are intended to be killed off sometimes broadcast this fact before it happens and mess up the emotional impact.

-The bit about N23 is not just a plot device for this fic; it'll come back up again, specifically in an Abraham Stele-centric short (concerning the event referenced in this story).

-Designing the villain for this story was harder than I thought, but I think it worked out well. The canon Aces would have flattened him in three seconds flat, but Celica is an AA-ranked computer nerd, Fiore is a fighter, but she's only B-ranked right now (think Subaru at the beginning of StrikerS) and Lutecia was deprived of her most potent weapons by the limited space and Silencer sending Garyuu back to wherever it is he goes. So I think it went fairly well, considering the disadvantages the heroes were placed at.

Oh well, back to fixing things in false light and preparing for Chapter 6...