Volume Ⅱ: Inflationary Expansion

"The universe is so vast and ageless that the life of one man can only be measured by the size of his sacrifice."

— Vivian Rosewarne, RAF pilot (killed during the Battle of Dunkirk)

The extended aftermath of the Unification Wars brought major changes in the organization of the rapidly demobilizing military, brought about by a combination of changing circumstances and new technology.

Firstly, new direct‐to‐cortex training techniques greatly shortened the amount of time necessary to train all classes of military personnel, including officers, making it possible for lower‐ranked personnel to obtain basic training for higher positions with relatively little effort. Secondly, the steeply rising education level of the overall populace nearly eliminated the poorly‐educated soldiers that had traditionally comprised the lower ranks of the military, further contributing to a glut of qualified promotion candidates. Finally, the end of conscription and the return of the volunteer military eliminated a plausible reason for holding some candidates back.

As a result of these developments, the officer corps underwent significant post‐bellum reform. The most dramatic was the elimination of the distinction between commissioned officers and the rest of the soldiery, based on the reasoning that the necessary "book‐learning" that went into commissions could now be compressed into the relatively short span of a few weeks. Accompanying this change was a sharp increase in the meritocratic nature of the command structure; any soldier who displayed unusual command ability or potential could be lifted easily out of the lower ranks, given relatively brief additional training, and be deployed back into the field as an officer. At the same time, officers who underperformed could be shunted into other positions or, in the worst case, demoted to the last position in which they were effective.

The consequent increased churn among the middle and upper ranks, coupled with an improved ability to more objectively assess performance in the field—or, rather, in the training exercises of this peacetime military—seemed to justify a more orderly approach to the issuance of promotions and positions. The officer corps was divided into three broad tracks: Firstly, Field Command, for officers who display unusual skill at commanding troops in the field, coupled with strong leadership qualities. Secondly, Strategic Command, for officers who display strong strategic acumen, despite what may be a lack of tactical or leadership ability. Finally, the Specialist track, for officers with unusual ability at the more technical aspects of military operations, such as logistics, fortification, and so forth. To address internal concerns, strong efforts were made to avoid locking personnel into tracks, by monitoring personnel for hidden potential or improvements in other skills with experience.

Despite continually refined usage of metrics and AI modelers, efficient allocation of personnel is still not a completely solved problem, as testified to in the current war: there is a steady stream of examples of specialist officers rising to the challenge of field command in emergency situations.

For MG officers, the three‐track system is slightly modified; Field Command is more accurately termed Field Command and Combat, and serves as a repository for magical girls unusually suited to combat in the field, for example as part of the shock troop reserves of Magical Divisions.

— Current Affairs Magazine, "A Primer on Military Organization," excerpt.

"In one moment, Earth; in the next, Heaven."

— (unknown source)

"This is nervewracking," Fleet Admiral Karishma Anand complained, pulling at her uniform nervously. "It's one thing to command an operation where you can see what's going on and have control. It's another to just sit here and wait, when all you can get is sketchy memory relays from clairvoyants."

"I know," General de Chatillon said. "But we should be glad we have anything at all, from this distance. We can't risk standard transmission on an operation as sensitive as this."

De Chatillon made a pyramid with his hands and shifted in his chair—black, explosive‐resistant, synthesized leather—nervously.

"Well, if we couldn't see anything, then we couldn't hold this little soiree," Field Marshal Sualem said sourly, glancing back and forth between the other two. "Though honestly that might have been for the best. I'll admit, sitting around here biting my nails is getting to me too. Even trying to split my consciousness, I find that my attention keeps getting pulled back to this."

"Quiet, all of you," Field Marshal Tsvangirai said, waving his hand dismissively. "I'm trying to watch."

Field Marshal Tomoe Mami watched the exchange in silence, leaning on the virtual table with both elbows, hands clasped under her chin. She watched how de Chatillon kept his eye on the Fleet Admiral, the kind of subtle gesture that, under more mundane circumstances, would have tempted her to speculate about the unmarried General. She watched how Sualem wrung his hands nervously, apparently without realizing it, in full sight of everyone in the room, and watched Fleet Admiral Xing fiddle with one of those old‐fashioned input tablets he favored.

They were meeting in the familiar General Staff meeting room, of course, except that this time Mami was viewing it through remote virtuality, as real as the people seated around her might seem. Some members of the General Staff favored their own personal virtualities, with fancy glowing tables or a starry background or what have you, but Mami preferred to keep it simple, residing in a simple replication of the cozy Carthago meeting room, with its giant mahogany table, matching wooden paneling, and framed portraits of Unification Wars commanders. Among other things, she had grown used to the feeling of the table under her elbows and the warm lighting of the miniature chandelier above them.

It didn't quite feel so cozy today, though.

On her left, Field Marshal Erwynmark's expression matched Mami's in silence and severity, so that she couldn't tell if he were devoting mindspace to the other members of the Staff, like her, or thinking about something else entirely. Like all of them, though, he was watching the fuzzy holographic video floating over the table, occupying the central display space.

There had been, in truth, nothing much to see so far in this operation; there was only the tense monotony of a MagOps team crammed into a tiny insertion ship, pilot and stealth generator taut with focus, the latter's gem fed a slow trickle of grief cubes as she worked to keep the ship invisible. One of the remaining operatives told a joke to lessen the tension, and the others laughed half‐heartedly—and soundlessly. Sound was irretrievable at such long‐range.

In truth, there was no reason the General Staff needed to turn out for a special meeting to watch this mission. Many had no operational connection to the situation. Even Sector Special Commander Mami didn't really need to. What did it matter, when she could issue no orders, when there was nothing she could do to affect anything? The fate of the Black Heart team had been sealed the moment they set out for the moon with the Wormhole Stabilizer; it was just that no one yet knew what that fate was.

It just seemed right that they should watch, when the fate of Humanity might well hang in the balance.

A part of Mami wondered where Clarisse van Rossum was at this moment, and what she was doing.

Across from Mami sat Fleet Admiral Feodorovich, the perpetually busy Admiral who constantly missed Staff meetings, too busy holding the shoulders of the salient with her fleets, preparing a possible incipient offensive. The raven‐haired, steely‐eyed woman hadn't missed this meeting, though, not when the events unfolding before them would affect everything she did from here out.

To Mami's right sat a special guest, not a member of the Staff, but invited here anyway. General Kuroi was Commander of the Black Heart, and those were her girls out there. Her youthful appearance and short height stood out at the table, even with Mami there.

"They've reached low orbit," Fleet Admiral Xing commented, for those among them who might not be familiar with small ship operations. "They're preparing for insertion."

Xing apparently liked commenting, since it was often quite clear that everyone could get the relevant information from their implants and didn't need him to say it explicitly.

This time, though, what little chatter there was in the room quieted down, as they watched the operatives put on breathing helmets, holster whatever conventional weapons they thought necessary to bring, strap on their equipment packs—complete with personal stealth generators, grief cubes, and anti‐grav to lighten the load. One of the girls, Mami knew, was exceptionally rare: a pocket dimension generator, capable of storing and conjuring equipment from her hands. She would be carrying the heavy weaponry, and the PAYNE nuclear device.

With a staccato of light flashes, muted by the clairvoyance, they transformed, their armor following the transformation—customized and enchanted by MSY specialists to bear the process, rather than just vanish as clothing did. The moon didn't have a standard oxygen atmosphere, and there was no sense taking the risk that the aliens would vent the atmosphere of the facility once the alarms went up, as they had in the past. Sure, the operatives could push on, but operating on no oxygen cost a lot of magic.

They could have put on spacesuits after the fact, as the Magi Cæli did, but here every bit of added efficiency mattered, and customized armor fit into the scheme, even if permanently enchanted objects were still surprisingly difficult to make.

Irrationally, Mami couldn't help but think of certain children's shows she had seen in her childhood, but she pushed the thought away. Not right now.

The girls gathered in a cluster in the middle of the ship, a few of them pressing hands together in prayer, probably to the Goddess, though there was a slight chance one of them was from a more traditional religion. Mami could have looked it up, but what did it matter?

This was it.

Atmospheric insertion was one of the riskiest portions of the mission. Alien sensors were exceptionally good, and they had no magical stealth generators capable of concealing an entire ship moving inside the moon's relatively thick atmosphere—it was too difficult to hide the reentry shockwave, even on the gentlest possible anti‐grav assisted descent.

They had considered the options in the planning meeting beforehand.

There were stealth generators capable of causing incorporeality, but those rare girls also couldn't conceal the whole ship, nor could any of them maintain it for longer than ten seconds or so, which didn't even bring up the magic compatibility issues they had with each other, and with teleporters. Plus, even assuming they managed to land the ship somehow, they also had to somehow launch the ship back up at the completion of the mission, after the aliens had realized they were there. It would have been suicide.

Instead they were doing something that was hopefully much simpler. A teleportation relay. The safe distance to the surface of the moon, just under one hundred eighty kilometers, was too long for their teleporters to make the jump in one go, but multiple teleporters—in this case, four—could span the distance to the interior of the facility, with the tiny intervening periods covered by a stealth generator, who could now handle the much smaller mass. They would go to work, hopefully be fully recharged by the time they were done, and perform the same relay back up to the ship at the end. If one of the teleporters died, the ship was to try to go lower. If more than one died, then the instructions for those on the ground were to die bravely.

The girls in the hologram in front of them nodded to each other, colorful helmets bobbing up and—and the scene shifted, to a view looking downward at the same cluster of girls, dozens of kilometers further down, in sudden freefall. Several of the girls raised hands, pushing the group horizontally to slow them all down. They had to cancel their remaining orbital velocity before they reached the ground, which necessitated these gaps between teleports. There was a main telekinetic, but self‐propulsion was one of those powers that almost every veteran had, either naturally or self‐taught, so there was no reason they couldn't help. The whole affair was almost a Rube Goldberg machine, but it was the only way.

It was interesting to realize that though they could see the girls with the aid of the clairvoyant and the assent of the stealth generator, they were indeed stealthed.

Twenty seconds later, and the scene shifted again. Now they saw nothing but ground. Of course, the girls themselves could look around and see the spherical horizon, but Mami and the others were looking straight down.

Another twenty seconds, and some of the girls lowered their hands. Mami knew that there was still velocity to cancel; it was planned meticulously, and one of the goals of the training runs had been to waste as little time as possible exposed in the air before teleporting into the facility proper, behind their forcefields. Still, they were almost there. Just once more—

The hologram washed out in a sea of blinding white, so that even with their ocular implants and the intervening layer of virtuality, the General Staff recoiled instinctively. Then the hologram vanished.

"What the hell was that?" Tsvangirai demanded.

A new image appeared in the hologram before, this time a readout and remote scan of the moon. Most of them leaned forward to look. A few stayed put, already reading the message internally.

Long‐range sensors indicate detonation on the surface of the moon, Machina thought, unnecessarily. Probable antimatter explosive. Estimated yield: 10 megatons.

There were a few seconds of stunned silence around the table.

"Well, fuck," Sualem said, finally, breaking the ice.

"They detonated an antimatter explosive?" Feodorovich asked, face stony.

"With our stealth, it was probably the most reliable way of ensuring elimination," Xing said, eyes downcast. "If they turned their base forcefields on, they could withstand it, if they detonated the device high enough. I doubt any of our operatives could have. Even if they did, they're irretrievable now."

"How the hell did they know?" Anand demanded incredulously. "How?"

"Stealth generation doesn't work perfectly with teleportation skills," Erwynmark said. "At each teleport, the people being transported switch places with air at the destination. In this case, there's a pressure effect. The air lower down is higher pressure. So there's an outrushing of air at the point of departure that the stealth generator can't cover. It showed up in our simulations, but we didn't think they could detect it in just sixty seconds. Or, it could be something else."

The table reverted to a deathly silence.

"I should leave," Tsvangirai said, finally. "My men will need me."

"We should meet," Mami said, gesturing at him, swallowing whatever she was feeling. "There will be a lot to do. No doubt, the aliens are already moving to cover the moon with heavier defenses. There is no more need for us to pretend."

"Yes," Erwynmark agreed stonily. "We have already discussed the failure contingency. We should implement it as soon as possible. Dismissed."

Mami disconnected.

She wasn't in her own cabin, as would have been possible. Instead, she was in a meeting room on her flagship, with Tsvangirai, some of the other Staff members in the area, and a special guest.

She put her hand on the shoulder of the girl next to her, Kuroi Kana, who had also disconnected.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Are you alright?" Shen Xiao Long asked, as Mami headed into her room to take a brief nap, an exhausting fifteen hours later.

At that moment, Mami still held in the back of her mind the image of a certain magical girl, a stealth generator, preparing for a critical mission, a little over a day ago.

"I won't disappoint you," the girl had said, smiling at her loving Matriarch.

Mami didn't think disappointment was Kana's problem right now.

"I'm fine," she said, before letting the door close behind her.

"You couldn't save me."

Mami looked around in a panic, desperately trying to localize the source of the voice, which seemed to come from everywhere at once. Somehow, the complete blackness of her environment, the complete lack of any indication of where she was or what was going on, failed to even register. Not while the voice was there. The maddening—

"You miserable failure."

This time, the voice gained a certain substance. It sounded young, female, and the identity of its source danced just beyond Mami's ability to grasp. It was a voice that should have been sweet, should have been sitting at her table happily eating cake and drinking tea, rather than hurling accusations.

Mami shook her head in confusion. Cake? Tea? Why was that imagery suddenly coming to mind?

"What a miserable senpai you are," the girl said. "You don't even remember who I am, do you? But I guess that's not surprising, given how many others you've forgotten."

"Who are you?" Mami demanded, unable to get over the intense pain of not knowing.

"When's the last time you even thought about me?" a new voice demanded.

This voice had a tone and nuances different from the previous voice, but its powerful emotional impact was unchanged.

Mami spun on her heel, realizing for the first time that she had a heel to spin on, and saw her first hint of color in this black world.

"Why didn't you stop me?" the short‐haired girl demanded of her, cape fluttering.

The girl stabbed her sword outward, stopping just short of Mami's neck, so that she flinched backward.

"You knew something was wrong," the girl said, sword pointed accusingly. "Kyouko begged you to do something, but you didn't act. You felt it even before she told you, and you didn't act. Instead I died."

"I'm sorry, Miki‐san!" Mami pleaded. "It was a mistake, I know. But we didn't know what was going on!"

"Humph," Sayaka said, pulling back her sword and turning away. "It's always Miki‐san, Miki‐san. You can't bear to call anyone by their personal name, can you? You might get close to yet another girl you can't save."

"That's… that's unfair!" Mami protested.

"What terrible excuses you've made for yourself," the girl said, voice now dripping with disdain and mockery. "'We didn't know', as if that excuses anything. And Kyouko knew. You knew she knew, but you never asked. You still haven't asked. You don't want to face it, so you tell yourself she doesn't know either, but you know the real truth. How many lies do you tell yourself, just so you can sleep at night?"

"I didn't want to break it," Mami said. "I finally had friends and, and—"

She stopped, unable to finish, and just stared at the other girl, eyes wide, breathing heavily. She stared until the other girl shook her head in pity and walked away, slowly fading into the darkness.

"You said I could do it, senpai," a new voice said, "but you failed me."

Mami turned to look at the new girl, whose sable costume was barely visible in the darkness.

"I was one the MSY's brightest stars," the girl said. "One of its most powerful. You recruited me to your 'Soul Guard'. You told me I would be great. You said I should be the one to watch alone from the roof, even when I was worried about being alone. You said I could handle it."

The girl dropped her face, seeming to cry softly.

"You should have known it was a trap," she said, tears streaming down her face. "Why did it take you so long to come save me? All you saved was a corpse."

Mami's eyes watered in sympathy, her mind replaying the ancient memory, of her favorite prodigy, the young one with the silly laugh who could cook together with her, falling out of the sky. She remembered how empty her eyes had looked, her soul gem crushed and shattered within the fist of Eirin the Elusive.

"I'm–I'm sorry," Mami managed, through the tears. "I wasn't experienced enough. I wanted you to experience fighting on your own. I've regretted it my whole life."

The girl shook her head.

"Your regret didn't save me. You should never have let me go alone."

Mami looked down, unable to respond, as this girl faded away too, this time without even walking away.

The next voice sounded familiar indeed.

"You let me leave," Homura accused, appearing in front of her.

"I tried to stop you," Mami said. "But you wouldn't let me. And then you hid from us. If you had just come back—"

"You knew there was something wrong with me for four centuries, Mami," she said. "You just left it alone. Why? Were you that afraid of losing my friendship? What kind of coward are you?"

"I–I tried, Homura," Mami insisted. "But you wouldn't listen. You sent Atsuko‐san home crying. I couldn't fight you."

"You knew I was a time bomb," Homura said. "You should have tried harder."

"How could I?" Mami demanded. "How could I risk losing you?"

"You could have held on no matter what. Why did it matter to you what I thought of you?"

The girl harrumphed, shook her head disdainfully, flipped her long hair, and walked away into the darkness.

"I just wanted to be left alone," a new voice said. "My only crime was to refuse to bow down to your precious MSY. You hunted me down and killed me."

"You wouldn't let us capture you," Mami said weakly, avoiding the girl's eyes. "I had no choice. I had to take the kill shot. It was in the instructions."

"Did you really have to?" the girl asked. "You could have just let me go."

"It had to be done," Mami insisted, "We offered you every possible incentive, and you wouldn't concede. You were interfering with our grief cube harvesting. We couldn't just let that go."

"How else was I supposed to survive? You knew I needed the cubes."

There was an accusing silence, before the girl continued:

"If what you did was so noble, then why didn't you ever do it again? The first time, you wanted to do it personally. After that, you stayed away. Eventually, you quit. Why?"

Mami bit her lip.

"Murderer," the girl breathed, eyes sharp, before disappearing abruptly enough that Mami jumped.

"She wasn't even your biggest victim," the first, original voice accused, again without source. "Eventually, your MSY grew even larger, and then it found that there were other organizations that had copied it. You could have lived together in peace, but you destroyed them, tore them apart and picked up the pieces."

"That's not true!" Mami insisted, looking up, wishing she had someone to point at.

"That's not true," she repeated, quietly. "We negotiated whenever we could. Most mergers were completely peaceful."

"But not all of them, miss diplomat. You know that. And how many others were 'persuaded' by your Black Heart? How many people did your precious Yuma‐chan have to kill? You don't even know, do you? You don't want to ask."

"I did everything I could," Mami said. "It just wasn't possible to convince everybody. I wasn't personally involved—"

"Why was it so important?" the voice, so terribly familiar, demanded. "Why? Why did your MSY have to rule the world? Why did you want that kind of power?"

"The world needed us!" Mami argued. "The world was falling apart. We had to be unified, so that we could do what was necessary—"

"Some saving you did! Your MSY got power, and then sat on its hands while the world burned. What did it matter to you?"

"I tried!" Mami said. "We tried so hard to get things moving, but we just couldn't convince the voters. We—"

"While you dithered, trying to win consensus, tens of millions died, and billions suffered," the voice continued, ignoring her. "If you had acted earlier, the war might not have been so terrible. Every year you wasted was literally millions of lives. You should have been harsher."

"We couldn't do any better!" Mami insisted.

But even as she insisted, her mind wandered back to the many, many times she had flipped through the casualty reports, taking in the numbers, the faces of the dead, until she had learned to stop, for her own health.

"You keep saying that!" the voiced pointed out, gaining power and volume and harshness. "You didn't know, you didn't have enough experience, you didn't have enough power! Why all the excuses? Why couldn't you just do it? Why did you let the decisions of others take precedence? Today you ordered another batch of girls to their deaths. How many more men and women are going to die because you won't do things correctly? Does Erwynmark know who he's trusting?"

"I—you can't—" Mami spluttered, frustrated.

"And the worst part is: you've forgotten all of it! That's how you deal with it, isn't it? You just don't think about it, you avoid thinking about it, or you tell yourself lies. You never face anything. Your friends have died, because you're too scared to risk facing the truth! You've even forgotten—"

Mami's eyes snapped open.

She was briefly lost, eyes flittering back and forth, more confused than she was usually when waking from a dream.

You're needed on the bridge, Machina thought simply, as the contours of her Admiral's suite finally resolved around her.

Did you wake me? Mami thought.

Yes, Machina thought, in the exact worried tone that Mami herself often used. Honestly, that was a bit of a concerning dream. Are you alright?

Mami sat up, taking a deep breath, gritting her teeth slightly.

I'm fine, she thought. Nothing I haven't been dealing with since forever.

If you say so, Machina thought. You should use a grief cube.

"The squid are hitting our supply routes hard," Ryouko had relayed to her warrant officer. "Division plans to concentrate and drive them back. Leave it! Let the others finish the job. Get everyone accounted for."

Ryouko always felt disappointed when forced to leave a job half‐done, but it was frustratingly routine. A high‐priority target would be scouted, she'd be called in to cripple the defenses, more standard units would follow in their wake—and then they'd be told to leave, to go somewhere else and attack something else, or help to stabilize the line somewhere, or just go back in reserve somewhere.

It was efficient allocation of resources. Using powerful MG‐enhanced units for standard frontline duty was to be avoided if possible, to maintain flexibility and minimize risk. Usually it wasn't possible in the kinds of situations their MG‐concentrated Magical Division got committed to, since they were often kept in reserve precisely for more difficult situations, but they made the attempt. That meant that once command calculated that local victory was assured, they would get instantly removed.

She understood that, but it was annoying to leave without the satisfaction of actually blowing something up.

It also meant that when a scouting party had sent back word about a hidden alien Processing Center in this sector of the line, she had been surprised to see that she and her platoon had been committed without the support of any of her fellow MGs. That implied that something was up, somewhere.

The platoon hadn't managed to reform in its entirety, though. A certain Corporal Singh failed to reestablish contact—attempts to reach her by comms had been fruitless given the heavy alien jamming, and attempts to scout the infantryman's last known position had run into unexpected resistance. Apparently, she had gotten cut off somehow in the midst of the jammed chaos.

Traditionally, there were two options. Ryouko could order a probing attack to try and recover the infantryman. Alternatively, and more cost‐effectively, she could wait and hope for the best. Generally speaking, it was out of the question that she would venture out personally to retrieve what was only one missing infantryman, and frankly it was almost certainly a loss.

She had gritted her teeth slightly, thought about the training that told her not to go, and decided that, as a teleporter, she could mitigate the risk.

"Standby and continue the concentration without me," she had relayed. "Sanchez, Hu, Zhang, with me."

Strictly speaking, the speech, even of the non‐verbal form, was unnecessary. They could follow her commands via their internal displays and mental readouts perfectly fine. Humans, though, were talkers.

It wasn't really possible to read her warrant officer's face, not when that face was hidden inside a visorless armored helmet three times the size of her head. She didn't need to, though, to imagine the Egyptian frowning in disapproval—though something about the mental image bothered her.

"Respectfully," the man had relayed, armored fingers shifting on his enormous weapon, "is that really necessary? It would be a risk—"

"I'll be careful, Omer," she had thought. "We have stealth generators for a reason."

"You always do this," he had thought. "It's not a good idea."

Ryouko had ignored him.

That was how she now found herself in yet another stretch of this interminable jungle, invisible behind her stealth, flanked by flying cloaked point defense drones—PDDs. She had teleported in, bringing with her the three armored infantry—all from squad B, to make sure they had good cohesion—who advanced cautiously, drones at their feet working to clear a path through the foliage and vines. They walked in silence in their sound‐suppressive boots, green armor doing its best to obscure itself in the foliage, which was relatively easy, given that the density of plants above them turned the area into a sort of twilight, despite the bright, hot star in the sky. She wore the boots too, though of course they had been transformed to match her costume. They were particularly important when every step you took was full of branches, acid‐filled insects, singing—yes, singing—grass, or whatever other dead giveaways this endlessly inventive ecosystem chose to produce.

The planet Giungla was not, she thought, creatively named, given that the word just meant "jungle" in Italian. The name certainly got the point across, though. The planet was practically swimming in nitrates, and had somehow developed a biosphere in absurdly close proximity to its parent star. Coupled with an enormous abundance of atmospheric water that would have been a surface‐covering ocean anywhere else, its plant life had access to tremendous amounts of energy and, with the low gravity, could grow enormous. That, in turn, motivated herbivores of every size and description, from tiny insects to land animals larger than anything the earth had ever seen. With the resources available, both sides could afford to get creative.

Of course, it made most of the planet quite pernicious for heavy weaponry. Which still didn't make it pleasant for the infantry.

Even with the canopy above them, the heat and humidity would have been crushing for a non‐enhanced human. Thank the Goddess for implants.

That was another thing—apparently, the Cult's internal swearing mechanisms had spread throughout the military, spoken fervently by true believers, and sardonically by everyone else, though at this point it mostly wasn't ironic anymore. The training courses encouraged budding mage officers to internalize the vernacular and use it, for bonding reasons with the troops. Ryouko couldn't help but think that was self‐perpetuating.

Ah, training courses, she thought. Come to think of it, that felt like almost yesterday.

Again, she felt a slight sense of… déjà vu?

This damn planet must have low‐level neurotoxins or something, she thought.

The intelligence had been good, fortunately. This patch of jungle was empty. The resistance the scouts had encountered had merely been unfortunately placed, an alien unit probing into the accidental gap between Corporal Singh and the rest of the platoon.

"The hell is she doing, anyway?" Corporal Hu thought. "When communications are jammed, you maintain either visual or short‐range contact if at all possible. It's in the damn field manual."

They were all at least "Corporal". MG platoons were staffed with experienced veterans, not green privates. It showed how much the core of the platoon was valued.

"Don't judge," Sergeant Sanchez thought. "It's not always possible. You know that. She was caught being too aggressive when her squad came under heavy fire. It's in the damn unit history. Aren't we encouraged to be aggressive? She's probably pinned down."

She was eyeing Sanchez for promotion to a platoon‐level position.

He was correct, of course. Keeping within short‐range contact was unusual for infantrymen in most situations. Despite the vast numbers of infantry being poured into the armed forces, the majority of contested worlds contained a very low density of troops, by historical Earth standards. Urban battles tended to be denser, obviously, but out in the hinterlands, it wasn't rare to find a single infantryman or group of infantrymen alone in a full square kilometer. Of course, the clouds of drones balanced it out somewhat.

"Do we even know if she's still alive?" Zhang thought.

"No," Ryouko thought. "That's what we're here to find out. If one of you were out there, you'd want me to do this."

There was silence for a moment, as they continued to follow their search path.

"Well, sir," Sanchez thought, finally. "As a point of fact, we might not want you to do this. After all—"

"Yes, yes, I know," Ryouko thought, a bit testily. "Might not be worth the risk. But this situation is more than low risk enough. I'm not leaving her out here."

That ended the conversation, as they worked their way around one of the enormous "megatrees" that dotted the relatively low‐gravity planet, each peering into the foliage and low‐lying mist with enhanced vision, relying heavily on their infrared. Ryouko, especially, with her doubly‐enhanced vision, made the effort to look.

The three squad members were each about two and a half meters tall and a meter wide in their ultra‐dense, self‐healing armor. The suits didn't have a transparent faceplate—too much structural weakness, better to go with embedded optical fiber. Ryouko always felt kind of silly standing next to one in her dress.

She frowned. That thought about the dress had a weird flavor to it, though she couldn't put her finger on it.

She had been feeling strange all day.

In any case, the assault rifles the infantry carried were behemoths, the outsized cousins of the weapons she had once practiced with. It wasn't that a magical girl couldn't handle the weight—it was that their hands literally couldn't reach around to toggle the trigger. Plus, they were bulky, though there did exist "small‐hand" models that some girls favored. Personally, Ryouko was dubious about wielding a weapon that was taller than she was, but she supposed it probably made you feel powerful.

There were uses to having a gun, though, including the SW‒155 she had holstered. For instance, guns now came with camera scopes and varying amounts of sophisticated sensors, so that one could "see" something just by pointing the gun at it. This was useful for, for example, firing out of cover without sticking your head out.

Of course, the assault rifle wasn't even the main component of a standard infantryman's firepower. For a true accounting, it wasn't even sufficient to count the sniper rifles and assorted light and heavy weaponry that came with each platoon, or the high‐power low‐use lasers that came with all projectile weaponry, or the numerous weapons that came with the suit itself—melee blades, shock devices, and cutting lasers in both arms, a grenade launcher in the right arm, three miniature missiles in the other, and so on and so forth, all capable of being cannibalized for armor repairs if necessary.

The primary contributor to overall unit firepower was the countless drones that accompanied it. Limited by their varying degrees of size‐dependent intelligence, alien and Human drones often fought each other to partial stalemate—with a moderate alien advantage—so it was occasionally possible to forget they were there. Complete drone dominance by one side, however, led rapidly to fatalities on the other side.

Ryouko never forgot, though, if only because she was obliged to teleport a swarm of drones practically any time she went anywhere. Fortunately, there was no such thing as "personal" drones, so personnel could often be shuttled between locations on their own. That still left moving personnel to empty locations, moving drones around to prevent the line from becoming unbalanced, carrying drones with her for safety reasons when she wanted to conduct a deep penetration…

The small ones, especially, seemed to see no problem with getting in her hair when ordered to "make contact".

Ryouko felt suddenly uncomfortable. Not because of thinking about the drones—she wouldn't get uncomfortable just from that—but because… well, she couldn't tell.

"Do you smell that?" Sanchez asked. "Smells like fighting, somewhere nearby."

They stopped, taking deep nasal breaths to force air past their modified nasal passages—the suits deliberately allowed a filtered set of molecules into the internal air stream, for precisely this reason, though of course it could be turned off, adjusted, and so forth.

He was right; that was indeed exactly what it smelled like. If Ryouko had been unsure, she could have consulted Clarisse about what the smell probably meant.

Without any "verbal" prompting, they changed direction, attempting to track the source of the scent. A quiet tension settled over the group; they were headed into a probable battle zone. They would know soon whether Corporal Singh had survived, or whether the fighting was merely her drones making a programmed effort to return to the line.

Sure enough, it was only a few short minutes before a mental ping alerted Ryouko—and the others—to the fact that one of their more intelligent drones—a missile‐bearing flier—had come into contact with one of hers. A quick relayed query indicated that, while communications were still sparse, dependent on occasional drone relay, the soldier in question was alive so far as the drone knew. In addition, friendly drone numbers in the vicinity were way down, and reinforcements, particularly air support, would be appreciated.

Hu chuckled.

"Not much chance of air support here," he thought.

They knew, though apparently Singh didn't, that the local heavy air support—the gun platforms, the AI heavy fighters and bombers, and the Aer Magi—were currently being held mostly in reserve, with the rest embroiled in a massive air superiority contest over their own local supply centers. They wouldn't be helping anytime soon.

The most important piece of information to come out of the exchange, though, was a set of relatively up‐to‐date location markers, indicating the infantryman's last reported position, and the positions of known alien forces and firezones.

Without needing prompting, Clarisse placed her into "field command" mode, a combination of the time‐slowing combat trance used by infantrymen in active combat and the more immersive command mode used by generals and the like. Neither the field command nor the combat trance was used by magical girls during active combat, because of interference effects—and because their instinctive hyper‐fast combat responses were more effective anyway—but the field command mode was useful out of combat.

She studied the situation for what was to her a long while. Singh was indeed pinned down, unable to shift out of cover without drawing withering fire. Her drones were experiencing heavy attrition and would soon be unable to provide meaningful cover.

Ryouko had brought a large group of drones with her, but because of her mass limitations, it was nowhere near the full complement that usually accompanied even one infantryman. Consequently, they would provide only a small degree of assistance.

In terms of local awareness, the positions of some stationary alien laser turrets were well‐localized, but the positions of mobile elements, including any actual personnel, were only vaguely known.

She took a breath, pondering whether or not to risk breaching her element of surprise. It would likely have been possible to just perform another teleport, retrieve Singh, and get out, but she wanted to do a little damage. Bloodthirst, if you wanted to call it that.

It was probably worth the risk.

She held out her hand, and the pack on her back extended its robotic arm, disgorging the equipment she requested—five tiny surveillance drones.

She enchanted them, just a little, attaching them to a set of five homing arrows, designed to dissolve and disappear before reaching their targets, to lower the risk of being noticed as anything unusual. It was a trick she had only recently acquired, along with the homing arrows themselves. Said arrows took a lot of time to prep—but she wasn't in active combat, after all.

Then, as the other three stayed on guard, she elevated her crossbow arm and fired in the vague direction of where most of the interposing forces were.

It would have been a bit much to review five fast‐paced video feeds at once on her own, but her TacComp easily picked up any slack there might have been.

Two alien stationary laser batteries, as expected. Two infantry troopers, easily more than a match for any Human infantryman. Three of those pernicious "Hydra" flying missile launchers on patrol, looking for an opening in Singh's defenses to fire. And… one of her arrows seemed headed for empty space, high up in the branches of one of the trees.

A sniper, probably, her TacComp thought. Or something else cloaked.

Yes, she agreed. Best to take whatever it is out first.

She relayed an order to Singh to stay put. The order might take a while to reach her, but she doubted the infantryman would try and move. Without wasting time saying it, she ordered the three infantrymen to provide a distraction by taking out the Hydras, which were close by, but not to give the probable sniper a clear shot at them until it—aliens were it—was taken out.

A map laid out in her vision, showing the locations of the laser gun, the infantry, and the possible sniper. It showed blue dots for where she might want to teleport, and indicated what she might want to do when she got there. This attack plan also imprinted itself directly into her mind, of course.

She held out her hand again, and this time received some smart grenades. They were small—she could fit four in her hand—but potent. There was no pin to pull; instead they primed on mental command, and detonated a specified time after leaving an infantryman's hand. They could also be detonated on command, but the reliability of that depended on alien interference, which made it often useless.

Given the alien propensity for shielding, they were designed to blast out a wave of secondary explosive pellets that detonated on contact, reshaping themselves to take advantage of the Munroe effect for armor penetration. In the last stages of detonation, a series of monoatomically‐edged shrapnel pieces were hurtled through what was hopefully a breach in the armor, carrying aggressive nanites intended to wreak havoc on a soft interior. Besides being generally effective against armored targets—which was practically everything above a certain mass—they were also good against alien forcefields which, in many ways, behaved like armor. In that case, there was a reasonable chance of temporary forcefield failure, though the shrapnel nanites usually failed to do more than superficial damage to the armor below the forcefield. At very close range, there was an excellent chance of forcefield failure.

An intricately crafted weapon that was, sad to say, reverse engineered from the aliens.

It was important, because the forcefields somehow blocked her ability to teleport things—or parts of things—via the ground. It also didn't use any of her magic, always a plus.

She took a breath as her PDDs clung to unobtrusive parts of her body.

When she exhaled, she was in the air above the part of the tree where the "sniper" was. In that same moment, she released the arrow.

With an explosive display of green sparks, the sniper's shields failed, and the arrow tore straight through one of the limbs of the sniper, the now disconnected terminal end beginning to fall. Ryouko's second arrow was already ready, and this one was a headshot.

Aliens could penetrate Human non‐magical stealth, but it required some of their better sensors, and only their best sensors could give, for example, an indication of where the soul gem was. That was important.

She teleported out a few hundred milliseconds before drone light laser fire tore through where she had been, and this time she appeared right next to one of the laser batteries, its turrets gleaming and menacing even in the limited light. She teleported right back out, leaving a single smart grenade behind.

She repeated the feat above the next battery, the two alien infantry in their multi‐limbed suits pouring firepower blindly into the sky. At each stop, she dropped another grenade into the mist and plant cover below her, taking a moment to peer into infrared to make sure she didn't bomb the wrong side of a hedge or hit some sort of tree or electric vine, while the PDDs she carried with her deflected away projectiles that happened to be heading in her direction.

Then, spotting the detonations in IR, she picked a useful intermediate patch of ground to teleport onto, not even bothering to touch the ground with her hands. She teleported ten meters into the air, carrying with her a thin shaving of the ground and only part of the two alien infantry members and the laser cannons. She didn't feel anything block part of her teleportation, so she knew she had got them all.

She would have liked to stay to see for herself, but it was safer to keep moving.

Her last jump placed her next to Singh. Since all the jumps had been short‐range, she had been able to execute quickly; it had been thirteen seconds, by her internal chronometer. Of course, there was also her limit on the number of jumps she could do in a short period, but she wasn't close to that yet. She was, however, approaching the limit of her stealth generator. Fortunately, she was essentially done.

Corporal Singh looked up at her in surprise and fear from where she was prone, pointing her weapon at Ryouko. It would have been a hazard were it not for TacComps, which generally prevented accidental discharges. The woman was in cover behind what they called a "hedge", which was really a tangled mess of surprisingly resilient, poisonous vines that the local macrofoliage used to dissuade herbivores. On close inspection, it was shockingly intricate, and substantially attenuated even the heaviest automatic fire. It would have been more memorable if she hadn't seen hundreds of variations on the theme in the last half‐hour. Giant trees with appendages that lashed at you if you got too close. Dense undergrowth that hid pools of acid. Vines with an electric charge. And so on and so forth.

She touched the woman's armor, and they returned to the others.

"Nicely done," she thought, when she found that the Hydras had been neutralized successfully and quickly.

They gathered around her, making contact, while she charged a longer‐range teleport. As many drones as could make it returned to her, but many were too far, or were necessary to provide some measure of cover. It was an acceptable loss.

Ryouko had time to reflect that her style of fighting was rather impersonal, which both relieved and slightly disappointed her.

She reappeared at the far end, simultaneously shimmering back into visibility as her stealth system disengaged. She felt strangely disoriented, in a way that wasn't typical for her.

They had arrived at yet another region of the plant‐infested jungle, and were greeted by the quiet rumble of distant orbital bombardment, and the slightly louder "silenced" rumble of a Suvorov heavy tank passing by them on their right, navigating carefully over a path that had already been carved through the underbrush by numerous other vehicles, crushing resurgent plant life under its treads.

It was just one of what appeared to be an endless stream of such vehicles appearing in her tactical awareness. Each such self‐aware tank was large enough to be easily quadruple the size of her old bedroom. The one she was looking at was topped by a large contingent of armored infantry, weapons drawn but otherwise at ease. In the background, drones flew their way among the trees, or skittered their way along the ground, mostly unobtrusive. The sky was only barely visible through the concealing canopy overhead.

"Hey," Asami said, her head appearing next to a bulbous protrusion near the rear of the tank—the forcefield generator, if Ryouko remembered correctly.

Ryouko winced at a pinch of pain in her head.

"Is everything alright?" Singh asked. "Were you injured in the fight? Maybe one of the nanodrones got you."

Is everything alright, Clarisse? Ryouko thought.

Your readouts are nominal, "she" responded.

"I'm fine," she said. "All of you, go find your squad."

Ryouko jumped upward onto the armored vehicle to join Asami. Tanks and other vehicles, such as self‐aware artillery, were a popular location for infantry to relax on the move. In the safer rear areas, this practice was moderately encouraged, since the forcefields carried by heavier vehicles also served as partial protection against sudden attacks, though it was often wise to quickly move somewhere else, depending on the manner of attack.

"You're having headaches too?" Asami asked. "So am I. I got a pinch of pain just now, actually. The implants are supposed to prevent it, but I think it's this atmosphere. All the nitrates. But if only I had time to study the plants here. They're fascinating!"

Ryouko noted that the girl had her stealth projector on, but only projecting an energy‐cheap layer of green camouflage. Well, that had been obvious even before she got on the tank, unless Asami had grown a new layer of green skin. Ryouko checked her energy reserves, then followed suit. It looked it was going to be one of those operations.

"What's going on, then?" Ryouko asked, even though she was already starting to receive the answer, her tactical and strategic readouts updating rapidly in the presence of so many transmitters. "I know we're concentrating, but I didn't know we'd be bringing this much armor."

She craned her head to look back at the line of tanks and other armored vehicles.

"We're concentrating even more heavily," Asami said. "We're performing a mid‐tactical counterattack. It seems the squid are hitting hard at the Tupi supply routes. Harder than expected. It's going to take more metal to push them out than originally thought."

The Tupi Clearings referred to a geographical area that, for various reasons, had much less plant life, a crucial feature on a planet where a set of clearings was significant enough to get a name, like oases in a desert. Besides being a major military supply route, they were also part of a major connecting artery between two of the planet's three major "cities"—which Ryouko honestly found to be little more than small towns. Besides the motley crew of research scientists determined to bend the native plant life to human will, these towns also played an outsized role in the agricultural productivity of the entire sector, exporting valuable phosphates and nitrates so cheaply that many of the sector's colonies found it uneconomical to perform chemical fixation.

"You should talk to your platoon," Asami said, a moment later, looking at Ryouko.

"Yeah," she said, agreeing.

She pushed herself off the vehicle, landing in the soft moss below with a slight whump, then jogged back in the direction of her platoon.

She found about a quarter of it congregated on top of a tank about four back in the line, camouflaged armor blending with their tank's own camouflage to look like some sort of bulbous moving plant‐thing. Given the nature of the planet, that possibility couldn't entirely be written off, especially if the aliens were relying on air or satellite surveillance trying to peer down through the jungle canopy. It seemed adequate enough.

"Good to see you made it back, sir," her warrant officer greeted, as she squeezed her way onto the vehicle. "We were concerned when you took so long."

The man had lifted his headpiece to say it.

"Just decided to shoot a few things while I was there," Ryouko said. "I like to stretch my legs every once in a while. I'm back now, aren't I? How are things? Everyone up to speed on the new attack plan?"

The officer frowned, seeming about to say something. But then his expression cleared and he said:

"Of course. We'll be ready when the time comes."

"Good," she said, a little awkwardly.

Warrant officers were absolutely vital to magical girl commanded platoons, performing a significant amount of the leadership and direct command, particularly when the "lieutenant" was peeled away to form part of a shock spearhead, which was apparently in just about every major attack and counterattack. Warrant officers such as Omer were considered "tactical specialists", part of the Field Command track, though the difference between them and many standard officers was often blurred.

She nodded, then scrabbled further up the hull to talk to one of the squad commanders.

This part of leadership didn't come naturally to her. She just didn't interact naturally with her subcommanders or any of the soldiers. It was to some degree unavoidable—no one newly assigned was any good at it, given the differing backgrounds, ages, and unique command situation—but she still felt she wasn't doing as good a job as she could have.

The goal was to earn respect and protectiveness. Not just respect for skills—that tended to come automatically, given the obvious difference in battlefield performance—but respect for intelligence and orders.

Protectiveness was necessary because you were more valuable than they were, and tended to come by default. Not only was it part of the indoctrination, but it took minimal—or, actually, no—effort to accidentally remind everyone of their own granddaughters, somewhere far, far away. If one really wanted to, one could play up the cuteness factor and try to gain added mileage that way—Asami was already the darling of her platoon, though she hadn't been trying for it—but it wasn't actually necessary. Ryouko, too, made no effort to cultivate anything like that, but she had a sneaking suspicion her platoon thought her cute anyway. If only she were taller. And had gotten a different dress…

She shook her head at herself. She had no idea what was bothering her so much today, but every once in a while, she got the biting feeling she was forgetting something important.

In any case, respect was a different beast entirely, especially given the massive age disparity at play. Soldiers were perfectly willing to trust magical girl centenarians, but most of those held much higher officerships. Trusting a green teenager did not come automatically, and had to be earned by constantly being on the ball and giving good orders.

There were some platoons where the magical girl was, command‐wise, just a battleflag, with the platoon sergeant having taken over all real command duties. Besides being somewhat humiliating, it also terminated your chances of serious promotion—if all your best skills were in direct combat, and not in tactical or strategic command, why make you do what you weren't any good at? Most likely, you'd get shifted into a pure‐combat shock group. It was not a recipe for a long lifespan.

That was what Ryouko thought, anyway.

With that in mind, she made the rounds of her unit as they approached their staging area, hidden and partially cloaked in a strangely treeless patch of ground underneath the canopy, trying to talk to everyone. She scrounged up all her social skills, with Clarisse advising her the entire way. It was disturbing when your TacComp was noticeably better at it than you were.

At one point their stream of armor rerouted around a known miasma, the magical girls gaining an extra frisson of nervousness, even though they knew the DV units would take care of it.

Finally, they reached the staging area, the infantry jumping off the armor and moving to their starting positions, in the meantime performing maintenance checks, ensuring propulsion units were up to speed, and so forth. Ryouko, for her part, stocked up on grief cubes, the drones and grenades she liked, and an assault rifle. On top of that, she added a supplemental backpack to the one she already carried, full of support drones, and called another set to accompany her.

She did one last check‐in with her platoon, at their almost‐frontline starting positions, then left to join her battalion spearhead nearby. The majority of the time, the platoons were kept mobile and not expected to operate in close coordination with each other, but the battalion organization was useful for more organized actions—such as a tactical assault. Some of the more veteran and higher‐ranked girls were organized into pure‐MG "shock groups", but joining one was a career commitment away from higher command, one not generally imposed on newer girls.

When all fifteen of them had gathered into reasonable proximity—defined as close enough to quickly group together and attack, but far enough so as not to be easily killed by a lucky bombardment—Lieutenant Colonel Elena Santiago addressed them briefly, by telepathy rather than standard messaging.

Good afternoon, ladies, she thought. You're all experienced enough now that I don't need to go into too much elaborate detail. The clairvoyants have already mapped out the area we're attacking into. This salient is still on the move, so stiff sides, mushy interior, as you'd expect. But because it's on the move, don't be surprised if your initial objectives aren't exactly where the map says they are.

Command is very worried about this alien attack, and wants it stomped out ASAP. This is a two‐division attack. Your initial objectives are given. As always, be ready to carry the momentum as far as possible. We attack in ten minutes. Assemble.

In fact, every individual soldier involved in the attack, from lieutenant general down, knew everything she had just said, as part of the general doctrine of having a maximally informed and versatile soldiery, with only outsider units cut off from the information, for secrecy reasons. Still, it helped steady nerves to hear a pre‐battle speech, even if short. Indeed, Ryouko would have done the same to her platoon, if it weren't currently necessary to minimize transmission traffic.

Instead, she decided to take a visual look at the battle map, reviewing again the divisional and lower‐level objectives, mentally peering at both tiny details and broad strokes.

We all familiar with the plan? one of the girls queried, as they gathered in a quiet group, behind one of their powerful frontline point defense systems—also known as a PDS, because the military loved acronyms.

Yes, one of the others thought. Ryouko here teleports us in behind the lines, we wreak havoc, tear about some point defenses and artillery, then carve our way back out. Meanwhile, the conventional forces hit them from the front. Susanna and Meiqing here stay behind to help them crack it.

It's always 'Ryouko, teleport this!', 'Ryouko, teleport that!', she groused. Just once, I'd like one of you to carry me there.

That was followed by the telepathic equivalent of polite laughter, even as Ryouko swallowed a sudden bout of foreboding.

In truth, Ryouko was slightly proud. She had managed to show that her mass carrying limit was higher than she originally thought, and there was the suggestion that she might even be able to carry more, with time. This would still take two trips, but it was a meaningful difference.

Anyway, Ryouko thought, shaking off whatever weird feelings she might have had. Those of you going with me get over here and touch me or each other. You know the drill. I could teleport you through the ground, but I'd prefer not to. I'll take as many as I can.

The group shifted closer to her as instructed. One of them began pulling mud golems out of the ground. An internal timer ticked downward towards zero. Ryouko took a breath—

—and she was there. She waited and watched, just long enough to see that everything was as planned: the barrier generator smashing aside any rapid response drones, mud golems running outward to smash at their target, this concentration of forcefield generators and point defense systems that protected the area from bombardment, one of the shocked alien guards already suborned by their domination‐class telepath, working quickly to turn weapons around towards the enemy. Asami reached out, smashing one generator into another, bits of debris flinging themselves toward what was now an ever‐growing clump. As they fought, their secondary backpacks opened, support drones scurrying out or taking to the air, to help contest the battlespace with the alien drones already there.

Ryouko shed a burst of magic, forcing off the alien anti‐personnel microdrones trying to bite into her, then teleported back to pick up the remaining half of the group.

Ryouko! someone relayed telepathically, the moment she arrived again.

She didn't need any further messaging, her tactical computer feeding her everything she needed to know. She blinked over to the girl making the request, then carried the two of them straight to the defense turrets in question, a hundred meters away.

The girl smashed her sword directly through one of the turrets, shield and all, then flung the other aside with a tremendous display of telekinetic force, carrying with it a set of defense drones that had been taken by surprise. Ryouko, for her part, shot an arrow she had ready through an approaching hovertrooper, and smashed her elbow into the neck of another on the ground—using a large burst of magic to melee through a light forcefield was one of the primary skills taught in training, though not everyone mastered it.

Ryouko had a moment to process the spectacle of her elbow shattering through layers of regenerative armor, glass‐like scales, rubbery flesh and brittle bone, green magic sparking, color almost indistinguishable from the bright green ichor. Just a moment to ponder the severed nerve cords, the bright metal implant wiring, and the life she had just taken.

Then she power‐kicked a ground drone that had tried to sneak up on her, and turned to look back at the other girls, just in time to spot Asami release the giant orb of smashed equipment she had been gathering in the air—the remains of what had been a large tower‐size stationary communications jammer.

The metal landed on the ground with a smash, followed by a sickening gush of fluids—the aliens used some biological parts in all their larger equipment, wherever the expense of the required biosupport was balanced out by the greater power efficiency.

Primary objective is down, Clarisse thought, reemphasizing what Ryouko could also see on other channels.

At that moment, with surprise dissipated, the main attack opened, less‐precise artillery shells raining down on now defenseless alien rear positions, while more precise guided projectiles and missiles tore into frontline fortifications, along with the firepower of long‐range mages firing from anti‐grav platforms. Without seeing it, Ryouko could easily imagine the stealth mages withdrawing from the heavy air forces, while the Aer Magi, heavy dive bombers, and fighters descended towards the alien positions, the most advanced mages operating in free flight, while most relied on some degree of technological support.

The ground shook underneath Ryouko, subtly different from the usual concussion of landing shells, and she knew that that meant Meiqing was attacking. In her mind's eye, Ryouko could see that her platoon was in action as well, the massive transmitters of the armor and support vehicles cutting through alien interference in the region for as long as they still held numerical superiority and were able to smash jamming devices.

While her platoon was part of the spearhead, the formation that would break the line so that support infantry could help hold the ground that they captured, their job was also to move heaven and earth to recover her if she got into trouble. She split her consciousness, just a little, to check on their status. Things seemed to be going fine, but they had five dead, six wounded. It wasn't realistic to ask for better than that, but these were men and women she had known and talked to.

She chose not to dwell on that.

She withdrew her attention, and refocused entirely on what they were currently doing. Their secondary objective was a nearby collection of alien self‐firing artillery, but they were already tearing through that with relative ease, the more physically‐powered girls bashing through forcefields with main force—such as a massive electric bolt—while the others applied varying degrees of artfulness in circumventing the forcefields. The AI‐controlled artillery simply didn't have enough personal defenses to counter them, nor where there sufficient infantry guards.

Ryouko, for her part, summoned her most powerful attack—a scorpion artillery piece—and smashed the projectile through three of the devices. The attack took a lot out of her—she felt tired after doing it—but the robotic arm in her bag could be relied on to apply grief cubes as needed. The attack felt novel, even though she must have done it dozens of times by now.

Air support reports massed armor reserves in our immediate vicinity, trying to respond, Elena thought. We shouldn't give them the chance.

There was a chorus of agreement, and though Ryouko would have loved to go along, she checked herself mentally, suppressing disappointment.

This attack appears to have mostly succeeded, Ryouko thought. Doctrine suggests that it is now safe for me to start teleporting my platoon members in, to give more meat to our shock and awe. Would it be alright if I left the armor to the rest of you? It's right next to us, after all.

First teleport us to the other side of that armor, Elena thought. For the surprise.

Alright, Ryouko thought.