In the space between dimensions, a ship sailed silently through the void. It vaguely resembled an electrical plug, with two thin prongs stretching forward from a bulky, rounded main body in the back. Its outer hull was a mix of white plating and black steel, giving it an almost unfinished look. And near the front of the main body, exactly in the center of the ship, sat the main bridge.
The bridge was a wide, spacious room, also shaped roughly like a U. This time, the U opened up to the back of the ship, with two doors at the tips of the U and a raised platform in the center. Only that rear wall, with the doors, was an actual wall; the entire rest of the wall surface was given over to a screen offering a panoramic view of the dimensional void outside the ship. Overlaid on that screen were a few indicators displaying the ship's status, none of which showed any problems.
On the broad floor of the bridge, four or five uniformed bridge crew tapped diligently away at their work stations. One of them turned back and looked up at the raised center of the bridge, to address the uniformed woman sitting there.
"All engines at full power, Admiral Lindy. We will arrive at Time-Space Administration Bureau headquarters in approximately three hours."
The woman he was addressing stood up and smiled. Long green hair, tied up in a ponytail, contrasted somewhat sharply with the precise blue uniform that she was wearing. Furthermore, despite her military bearing and well-kept uniform, the smile came easily to her face, as if it was perfectly natural for her.
"That's excellent news, Alex," she replied calmly. "Let me know if anything out of the ordinary happens."
"Of course, ma'am!" he replied with a sharp salute.
Replying with a more relaxed salute of her own, Lindy sat back down. Sighing, she mentally reviewed the events of the last few days.
I'm glad we were able to bring the Book of Darkness Incident to a satisfactory conclusion… she mused. We have Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate to thank for that. Had we gone with standard Bureau procedure, we would have done a lot more damage.
Barely five days prior, the Time-Space Administration Bureau L-class dimensional cruiser Arthra had been through a battle. An artifact from a forgotten past had emerged on an otherwise unremarkable world, unadministered world number 97. It was a powerful magical artifact that had nearly brought genocide to the entire world, and stopping it would have meant causing almost as much damage with the Arthra's equally powerful magical cannon.
Thankfully, some of the allied mages from that world (all two of them) had managed to devise a method to destroy the artifact without causing any collateral damage. The resulting battle had been short and fairly significantly one-sided, ending with the finishing blow from the Arthra.
With the mission concluded, the Arthra had stayed on for a day or two to ensure that clean-up was properly completed, but now it was returning to headquarters. Reports had to be filed, after all. And accompanying it back to the Bureau's main branch were a few… special passengers.
"Admiral Lindy," someone asked as they came onto the bridge through one of the doors in the back. Turning, Lindy realized that it was Nanoha who had just tried to get her attention. Rather than a military uniform, the young girl was dressed in her usual school uniform, and Raising Heart hung in its typical place around her neck. With her was Fate, dressed in the same uniform.
"Nanoha, Fate, hello!" she greeted them warmly as they walked up to stand behind her. "How is Hayate doing?"
"She's fine," Fate reported quietly. "She's sleeping right now in the sick bay."
"Do you think she'll be able to walk again soon?" Nanoha wondered out loud.
Any response to that question was lost as a siren howled through the bridge of the Arthra. Lindy's gaze snapped to the bridge crew below, seeking an explanation. The siren faded as quickly as it had come, though, falling silent before anyone could say a word.
"What just happened?" she demanded sternly, holding her gaze on the bridge crew below.
"Admiral!" Alex yelled, studying his readouts closely. Without looking up, he reported, "The sensors picked up several dimensional tremors… no, a series of full dimensional rifts! Originating from a nearby world!"
"What?" she demanded in shock.
"All were very small-scale disturbances only, ma'am," he continued with the report. "And somehow, each one vanished as quickly as it appeared!"
"That shouldn't be possible…" the Admiral murmured. "Amy!"
"Working on it, Admiral!" a voice came back over the bridge's intercom system. Deeper in the main body of the ship, in the combat information center, Amy frantically tapped away at her console, analyzing what little sensor data they had.
A long several seconds passed, everyone waiting expectantly for a verdict. "Amy…" Lindy finally prompted.
"No good, Admiral!" she was forced to report. "There's just not enough information here to figure out what's going on!"
"Is it possible for a more severe rift to develop?" Lindy asked in response.
As if summoned by her words, the alert siren went off once more. On the screen, a display popped up, with one particular point highlighted. "Another rift, ma'am!" Alex reported almost frantically. "Larger than any of the ones from the first group!"
By the time his report had finished, this second siren had also fallen silent, and the flashing indicator on the screen quieted. "Again?" Lindy confirmed.
"Yes ma'am, this rift has faded as well."
Lindy sighed in something almost approaching frustration. "We can't just ignore the potential threat here," she calmly muttered. Turning back to Nanoha and Fate, she continued, "I am sorry for getting you two caught up in this. If you like, we can try to send you two back to Earth…" she trailed off as she realized that Nanoha was already shaking her head.
Almost smiling, Nanoha replied, "We'll help out, however we can." Fate nodded her assent, blushing slightly.
Lindy rewarded them both with a grateful nod before turning back around to face the bridge crew. "All hands!" she commanded in a ringing voice. Automatic computer systems took her commands and projected them through the ship's intercom system. "Prepare for dimensional transfer!"
The ship's engines hummed powerfully as it tore open a gate in the dimensional void. Without any further hesitation, the TSAB warship made its way into one of the many worlds of the dimensional sea.
What greeted them was a scene defying all expectations. The Arthra had warped into orbit around a massive gas giant, dwarfing the frigate-sized Bureau craft by several orders of magnitude. A short distance away, a moon sat next to the gas giant, large enough to be a planet in its own right. And while the planets were large, they were at least partially normal… the ring-shaped world, clearly constructed by someone, that was hovering in orbit nearby was most assuredly not.
"What… is that?" Lindy demanded in awe. A series of informational graphics popped up on the main screen, displaying the planet, the moon, and the ring-shaped construct.
"Ma'am," Alex began, "it appears the inner surface of the ring is a livable planetary surface, with an atmosphere nearly identical to ours."
"Admiral!" Amy's voice cut in over the intercom again, interrupting Alex's description of the ring. "We're picking up a number of other ships in this area… it looks like there's a battle in progress!"
A new display popped up on the main screen, eclipsing the other information already present. On this display was a map of the battlefield. The edge of the gas giant filled the entire upper part of the screen, with the mysterious ring a short distance away from that. Approaching the ring was one solitary ship, confronted by ten more in a loose formation on the other side of the ring. As they watched, one of those ten dots flared and disappeared. The Arthra observed the entire scene from behind and off to the side of the lone ship, around its 4 o'clock.
"Amy, send out a signal to all of those ships," Lindy commanded. "Maybe we can figure out what's going on here once we've stopped this battle."
"Captain, we've taken out three of the enemy battlecruisers, but we're still vastly outnumbered here," Cortana's voice reported calmly.
"Just hold out as long as you can, Cortana," Captain Keyes responded with equal calm, staring out the window in front of him. The expanse of space outside the bridge was anything but peaceful; flares of light marked the presence of exploding fighters and missiles, and in the distance, sunlight gleamed off the fleet of Covenant ships. Oddly enough, none of them had fired any of their heaviest weapons, but Keyes wasn't about to question the small favors. Besides, the sheer number of Covenant boarding craft that had already docked with the Pillar of Autumn was enough of a problem.
Just as he was about to ask for a status report on the battle within the Pillar of Autumn, though, Cortana suddenly reappeared over the console. "Another ship has just appeared out near the slipspace entry point!" she reported urgently.
Keyes's brow furrowed in surprise. "Ours or theirs?"
"I'm looking into that now," she replied, "but… it doesn't appear to match with any known UNSC or Covenant designs."
The question was interrupted by an incessant beeping. Cortana's avatar frowned. "Incoming signal from the unknown ship. Parsing the data now."
After a few seconds of silence, Cortana's form fuzzed and vanished, replaced by a two-dimensional picture of an unknown woman in a blue military uniform. Cortana's voice continued, "It appears to be a real-time video transmission."
"This is Admiral Lindy Harlaown of the Time-Space Administration Bureau, commanding the Arthra," the message began. The Autumn's bridge crew exchanged incredulous looks as it continued, "Your current actions present a threat to the fabric of dimensional space. Please stand down immediately and explain the current situation."
As the video ended, a low-level murmur broke out on the bridge. Reappearing over the console, Cortana practically snorted. "Either they have no idea what that Covenant fleet is capable of, or that one little ship is a lot more powerful than any of ours."
Keyes merely frowned. "Cortana, if you can, send a reply. Inform them that we're not just going to stand down because some random ship told us to. I'd be happy to talk to them, but it's going to have to wait until after this battle is over."
"Aye aye, sir," she acknowledged the order. "Your confidence in our eventual victory is heartwarming."
"Oh, I don't know about winning," he replied craftily. "We are going to survive this one though. Where's the Master Chief?"
"Cryo Two was overrun just a minute or two ago," Cortana replied. "But the Master Chief had already left, and should be here shortly." After a slight pause, she continued, "What about their survival, sir? Four of the Covenant battlecruisers are breaking off and vectoring toward the unknown contact."
"Well, I guess we'll see whether or not they have the strength to back up that order after all," Keyes murmured.
Having just finished sending a message to the other ships in orbit, Admiral Lindy turned to note that Chrono was now standing next to Nanoha and Fate, all three of whom were looking at her with varying degrees of surprise.
Chrono was the first to speak, frowning slightly. "Admiral, are you sure such a bold declaration of intent was a good idea?"
Lindy merely smiled. "We have to give them the chance to explain themselves, don't we?"
"I don't deny that," Chrono assented reluctantly. "But what do you plan to do when they decide not to be reasonable?"
Her face almost visibly darkened with something approaching sadness. Slowly, she pulled a crystal rod out of her pocket, from which hung a small red key. "We'll only have one choice if that happens, won't we?" she mused softly, looking down at the key in her hand with an almost haunted expression.
From below, Alex's voice rose. "Admiral, we're receiving a response from one of the ships!"
As he finished speaking, the forward screen was filled with the picture of a woman, or something in that shape anyway. She was entirely blue in color, and fragments of what looked like binary code streamed over her form.
"This is the UNSC Pillar of Autumn to the Arthra. Please be advised that we have no intention of standing down, although we will not attack you, and will be happy to speak with you once the current battle has concluded. The Covenant might not be so welcoming. Out."
At that, the recorded message simply winked out, and the screen's primary function as a window to the area around the Arthra resumed. In the distance, the metal block of a ship that had just identified itself as the Pillar of Autumn was just barely visible, a flare of orange light bursting from its surface as something exploded within the ship. To the naked eye, the armada of Covenant cruisers beyond that was only visible as points of reflected light.
"The… Covenant?" Nanoha asked curiously. "What was she talking about?"
"I have a feeling we're going to find out!" Amy's almost panicked voice responded over the intercom. "Four of the other ships have changed course and are heading right this way!"
As she spoke, the battlefield map reappeared. Aside from the now-identified Pillar of Autumn, there were now only eight other large ships depicted, and four fuzzy dots indicated the debris fields that used to be ships. Of the eight functioning ships, four were moving more swiftly, breaking away from the attack on the Pillar of Autumn and zeroing in on the Arthra.
A silhouette flashed into existence next to the lead dot in the formation approaching the Arthra. Numbers and letters scrolled past almost too quickly to read, detailing the size and apparent threat presented. The smooth, bulbous ship was easily twice the size of the Arthra in any dimension, and had a number of protrusions consistent with turrets of some kind.
Sighing, Lindy stood up. "Prepare to fire the Arc-en-Ciel," she commanded.
"Y-yes ma'am!" Amy replied, voice shuddering slightly in shock and surprise. "Arc-en-Ciel, activate barrel!"
Out in front of the Arthra, three rings of light appeared, forming a channel nearly as long as the ship itself. In the very center of the second ring, the largest of the three, a fierce light began building, surrounded by a halo of rainbow-colored light.
"The Arc-en-Ciel is charged and ready, ma'am!" Alex reported in the next moment. A thin line appeared on the map display, intersecting the lead cruiser.
"Firing lock system interface, open," Lindy ordered. A column of light shimmered into existence in front of her, and resolved itself into a small bluish cube with a keyhole. As she inserted the key she was holding, the cube shaded over to red.
"Wait!" Nanoha protested. "Don't we need to warn them or something before-"
The key clicked over to the right with a decisive snap. In front of the Arthra, the sphere of glowing energy resolved itself into a devastating beam of light, impacting the lead Covenant cruiser cleanly on its bow. A green field of energy expanded outward from the impact point, enveloping the four massive cruisers.
Everything seemed to freeze for the briefest second, as if in anticipation. Then, in an instant, the screen lit up as the energy field seemed to simply explode. When the light faded, the four Covenant cruisers had simply ceased to exist.
"…we kill them all…" Nanoha finished weakly, in the silence that had fallen over the bridge.
"We had no choice," Chrono rebuked her sternly. "They offered no response to our message and were advancing on us aggressively. Firing first was the only sound option."
"But still…" she protested.
"180 seconds until the Arc-en-Ciel is fully recharged!" Alex interrupted the argument with a status report. "Enemy ships are moving!"
The four remaining Covenant ships on the monitor were scattering, opening up some distance between themselves, the ring, and the Pillar of Autumn. As they watched, the Autumn took that offered chance and dove right through the formation, making a beeline for the ring world.
Then one of the Covenant ships began flashing red on the monitor. "A-Admiral!" Amy's stunned voice cut in over the intercom. "We're detecting a dimensional rift again!"
"What?" Lindy responded. The dot representing that ship vanished off the display.
"Rift is closing… it looks like the ship went into it!" Amy reported, still clearly stunned.
The entire bridge crew just stared at the monitor, in varying states of shock themselves. Fate had gone stark white, and almost inadvertently mumbled, "Wasn't… Mother trying to travel through a rift…?"
"She failed," Chrono pointed out dryly. "Besides, that was months ago, so-"
The emergency siren cut him off. On the map, the space behind the ship began flashing red. Before anyone had the time to react, the massive bulk of a Covenant battlecruiser emerged from what appeared to be a shimmering portal of some kind, almost directly behind and above the Arthra. A swarm of smaller craft came pouring out of the large ship's hangars, and its weapons began glowing ominously.
"Get us out of here! Emergency dimensional shift!" Admiral Lindy commanded as the Arthra's shields flared with multiple pulse laser impacts. The thin barrier, designed to resist magical attacks, failed almost instantly against the laser barrage.
The bridge rocked as the Arthra twisted in space, attempting to dodge the furious rain of fire long enough to escape. Before it could vanish into the dimensional void, though, the space in front of the ship filled with a storm of fire. A plasma torpedo tore into the Arthra's portside prong, reducing it to cinders in an instant. Only the angle of the shot, from above to below, saved the Arthra from complete annihilation.
In the next moment, the world around the Arthra began to change, from the starry blackness of 'normal' outer space to the twisting colors of the space between dimensions. However, the Covenant hadn't yet finished with the small cruiser. As the dimensional void asserted itself fully, another heavy impact rocked the ship, and the clang of metal on metal echoed through the bridge.
The Arthra hung, battered, in the space between dimensions. Its symmetry was destroyed, with a smoking hole where one of the two forward prongs of the ship was supposed to be. The black scars of laser strikes decorated its white plating. Most ominously, though, the smooth, bluish-purple lump of a Covenant Phantom troop transport sat on top of the Arthra, firmly attached to the Time-Space Administration Bureau cruiser.