maybe on earth
maybe in the future
She walked alone.
Dull, bluish gray was all around her: in the narrow bridge beneath her feet, in the spires that reached from the darkness below to the line of light above, in the walls with their haphazard arrangements of pipes and cables. Once or twice, she almost stopped to wonder how long it had been since she'd seen anything (beside herself) that wasn't blue or gray, but she quashed those thoughts in their infancy. She had long ago resolved to stop keeping track of time or distance; knowledge of either was meaningless in much of this place, and the numbers involved were unpleasantly large.
She stopped; a large portion of the bridge, previously hidden in the dim light, had either been destroyed or collapsed of its own accord. (The former was highly unlikely, the latter just about impossible.) The nearest edge looked to be two, perhaps two and a half kilometers away, and the only alternate routes she had seen were far more dangerous. She sighed and examined a glowing, violet gem on the back of her hand. It shone clearly and brightly, though not quite as much as she would have liked.
With a grunt and a nod, she let her hand fall back to her side. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath of the thin, toxic air, and concentrated.
Wings of folded spacetime and concentrated gravitons unfolded behind her; huge, inky black wings with a span at least four times her (admittedly diminutive) height. They were not attached to her back but merely hovered at her sides; nonetheless, any observer would immediately understand that they were *her* wings. She allowed herself a tiny smile at the familiar rush of arcane energies flowing through her soul, then took a few steps back from the edge.
Then she sprinted forward and leaped into the abyss—
Someone who had not lived here long might think this was a dead place. After all, it was a barren, largely static structure of something that was more-or-less metal. What could live here?
Many things, in point of fact. Many of them were too small for the human eye to perceive. Others were too large, hulking colossi whose movements might be mistaken for an earthquake. Some moved through the network of pipes that pervaded everything, while others had no need to move at all.
Yes, there was life here, though most of it was not what the sciences of her time would recognize as living. And just like her, much of what lived, thought.
And all of what thought, felt.
She did still wonder about that. Might it have been lying? Were humans truly as unique as it had claimed? Perhaps its species was the anomaly; perhaps there were billions upon billions of worlds whose populations its kind had recruited as soldiers in the war upon entropy.
Regardless, humanity's silicon-and-copper children felt as much emotion as their creators, and there was enough fear, hatred, and anger in them that her job was much the same as ever.
Just with more things trying to kill her.
Many of which were much more aggressive than an average demon.
Not to mention much more heavily armed.
As she dove behind a wall for cover, she quickly flicked her eyes towards the source of the blasts. Once safely concealed, she played back that glimpse at quarter speed: from the looks of it, there were four Silicon Life, all looking roughly humanoid (as most of those cyborgs did, at least until the spider legs or cable-tentacles or extendable neck came out): two with railpistols, one with a gauss rifle, and...was that a xaser?
It was definitely a xaser. Terajoule, by the look of it, though the cyborg didn't have it turned up that high. That was a problem; she could handle kinetic guns, but directed energy was significantly harder to deal with.
Her powers over time had been lost long ago—in a sense, she had never actually had them—but she had more than enough spells and augmentations to compensate. In an instant, she dialled up her brain to ten times normal speed, and adjusted the limiters on her prosthetics to match. The excess heat from the overclock was dumped through nanoscopic portals into the cold air around her; a continuous-healing spell would compensate for the strain on the few fleshy bits she still had.
Then she drew her gun.
When she lost her time powers, she had also lost the vast collection of explosives and small arms she had built up. On the other hand, she had gained access to an incredibly powerful magic longbow, which she had used exclusively for a while in memory of...a friend of hers. Eventually she had started acquiring firearms again: the bow was useful when you needed to do a lot of damage in one shot to something that couldn't see you, but practically useless in close quarters.
And then this little beauty came along and made everything else obsolete.
It was huge: about the size of a twentieth-century heavy machine gun. It was heavy: just over a hundred kilograms of the same not-quite-metal that the Megastructure was composed of. It was awkward: it had been designed to be fired from fixed positions and armored vehicles, or integrated into heavy powered armor, and she'd had to bolt on a grip and stock that would let her fire it from the shoulder. (She'd heard of later versions that were carbine- or even pistol-sized, but had never seen one in person.) But with her unique abilities, she could summon it from...wherever it went when she stored it, shoulder it, aim, and open fire faster than most people—or other things—could draw a pistol.
In one smooth motion, she leaned out of her hiding place and did all of the above.
The head of the cyborg holding the xaser disappeared. So did most of its torso, as a coherent beam of gravitons tore it apart down to the subatomic level. The shockwave from the impact knocked the other three to the ground, and made a significant dent in the floor beneath them—no small feat in this place. One of the ones with a pistol recovered quickly, landing on a second pair of arms extending from its stomach, and got off a few shots at her; she twitched an eyelid, and a telekinetic field sprang up to stop the bullets in midair. She ducked back behind the wall again, counted off a second and a half—an eternity to her accelerated senses—for the gun to recharge, then leaned out and—BLAM—nailed the one with the gauss rifle.
Pistol Two had gotten a hold of the discarded xaser while she was focusing on Pistol One and Gauss, and had managed to get a good shot off. Very good, she realized, as she smelled burning pseudoskin and electronics. She dialled herself down to normal speed once behind cover again, and was dismayed to find that her left ring and middle fingers were now charred, smoking stumps, and a strip of pseudoskin and electronic muscle were missing from her left wrist. She could even see a couple millimeters of bone beneath.
It was, she reflected, a good thing that she didn't bother feeling pain any more. She could live without the fingers for a bit; she'd get them repaired at the next big human settlement. For now, she needed to survive.
She decided it might be a good idea to try something different before one of them realized they could increase the power on the xaser. With a split second of focus, she popped her wings, sped herself up once again, and leaped out of cover and into the air.
As she had hoped, the cyborgs completely failed to anticipate the move, and she managed to get a clean shot off at the one that had recovered the xaser. The recoil sent her careening through the air—she couldn't brace herself well without solid ground to stand on—but there was now only one enemy left, and it didn't have much to shoot with. She recovered and slowed to a hover, ready to fire again, but the cyborg was fleeing.
She almost let it go.
But she really didn't feel like dealing with reinforcements.
She flexed her new fingers experimentally. The mechanic had been skilled enough, and seemed to have linked up the nerve wires correctly, but they were just a fraction of a centimeter too long. It would bother her for a while, but not too badly—heaven knew she'd had much worse aug jobs.
Aug jobs. She smiled at the archaic term popping up in her thoughts; it'd been centuries—at least—since she'd heard anyone refer to routine cybernetics as "augmentation". Or even "cybernetics", for that matter, save for the few historians she'd met (and historians were a dying breed these days).
With a slow, purposeful blink (for she'd always made sure she could still blink), she summoned her gun and sighted the biggest, meanest-looking demon. BLAM. It was vaporized, leaving barely a trace. Without the slightest hesitation, she sighted the next one and pulled the trigger again. BLAM.
And then it was over. She hadn't even needed to accelerate. It was odd, really—most of her magic went into fighting more mundane enemies, while the demons her powers were supposedly optimized to fight were easily dispatched with (what this era considered) conventional weapons.
She walked to the platform where she had spotted the robed, humanoid creatures, and began performing the old ritual.
Bit by bit, she gathered up the cuboid grief shards the demons had left behind, and pressed them to the gem on her hand. All the darkness and corruption—all of the despair, hate, and fear—that had gathered in that gem was slowly drained away, leaving it shining bright once more.
She knew that this wasn't the path her friends would have wanted her to take—fighting the good fight for the rest of eternity. No, they would have preferred it to have ended by now, to see her once again, finally resting in her mahou shoujo Valhalla. And heaven knew it was tempting.
But that wasn't the way it was going to happen. It had never been about what Madoka wanted, after all. It was about following her example, about sacrificing her own desires to be a beacon of hope for humanity. That was what the world had always needed, and what it needed now, more than ever.
And so, until she died or the stars went cold, Homura Akemi walked alone.