By the early twenty‐second century, the world's major religions had become a shadow of their former selves, the victims of well over a century of declining religious participation among the world's populations. Strenuous efforts by multiple generations of religious leaders had slowed, but not stopped, the trend, and signs of decay were appearing everywhere, from the Vatican's strained finances to the shuttering of religious buildings worldwide. Only by appealing to cultural nostalgia and financial support could many such buildings expect to survive, as little more than tourist attractions. Despair began to creep into the tone of the world's clergy.
Yet looming over this quiet apocalypse were the omens of something far direr, something that would upend their world just as surely it did the world as a whole…
In the decades leading up to the Unification Wars, as the world's underclasses slipped deeper and deeper into destitution, and levels of want unseen for over a century began to re‐emerge, the world's religions found themselves unexpectedly recovering membership among the masses, particularly among those of the future Freedom Alliance (FA) nations.
Faced with this unexpected bonanza, a noticeable schism began to emerge among the religious factions. Some leaders and congregations, troubled by the naked economic injustice they saw around them, spoke out fiercely against it, organizing protests and challenging local governments. Other factions drifted in the direction of open apologism for the hyperclasses, lured by financial incentives, government support, and a mindset that discounted economic issues in favor of other issues. These factions preached acceptance of the world as it was, urging followers to seek salvation in the next life instead.
The two sides competed heavily in the slums of the FA nations, as well as—much less prominently—in the subsidized tenements and skyscrapers of the United Front (UF) nations. Often, they found they had more in common with similar factions in other religions than with opposing factions of their own. As society itself fractured, so too did the world's religions.
Under these conditions, both sides quickly radicalized, at least in the FA nations. The protest factions became increasingly militant and radical, suffering under the heavy weight of government oppression. The apologist factions became more and more closely intertwined with their government sponsors, even achieving state religion status in several of the FA nations.
When events finally came to a head, with the atrocities of the more deranged FA hyperclasses shocking public and elite UF opinion, many of the apologist factions dissolved, their purpose served, their governments no longer interested in keeping the masses sedated. Others fused even more rigidly with the state, often becoming indistinguishable from the state itself.
The protest factions, however, took a different route, most burrowing underground, and many turning into or merging with full‐fledged resistance and revolutionary movements, fighting what was now obvious evil. These drew on financial and material support from their UF members and increasing amounts of clandestine and, eventually, open support from UF governments.
As the UF/FA cold wars turned increasingly hot, what remained of the world's religious organizations abandoned any semblance of neutrality, perhaps exemplified by the experience of the Catholic Church of the time. Conciliatory and diplomatic to almost the bitter end, the Church's conscience proved ultimately unable to abide the evil they saw around them, consequently drawing heavy pressure from FA governments. When the Vatican finally abandoned its traditional caution, the Pope issuing a scathing indictment of the FA nations, it found itself finally swept up in the wars wracking the newly‐disunified Eurozone. Ultimately, the Vatican was forced into exile, the pontiff himself airlifted out literally minutes ahead of arriving FA shock troops. After that, the Vatican‐in‐exile openly chose sides, exhorting its followers into holy war for the first time since the Crusades.
Throughout the Unification Wars, religious factions proved an invaluable asset to the numerous resistance movements supported by the UF within FA nations, laying aside doctrinal differences to organize and defend the people.
When victory finally arrived, the world's religions found themselves at a crossroads. In some regions, they were openly hated by the populace, who still associated them with their apologist variants. In others, their clergy were hailed as heroes for their wartime exploits. Despite the apparent chaos, however, religious leaders looked forward to the future, observing the dynamism of their fresh wartime converts, convinced they had finally redeemed themselves in the eyes of the people.
Yet in the century that followed, while Humanity as a whole boomed and prospered, the world's religions once again stagnated. Energetic, unified wartime organizations lost focus without an enemy to fight, and endless internecine bickering and fractionation alienated and disgusted newer members, many of who had joined the organization as a whole, not this or that individual denomination.
Governance, too, played a role, quietly wielding its levers of power to deliberately undermine religious belief as a whole, believing religion a threat to its radical biological and social engineering initiatives, and fearing the potential of religious conflict to weaken what it believed to be a fragile global unity. Religious organizations found their government support removed, their charitable institutions carefully replaced by secular equivalents, and countless bureaucratic obstacles strewn in their way. Meanwhile, generations of schoolchildren were constantly reminded that they had no obligation to follow their parents' religion, and were taught by instructors indoctrinated in Governance ideology.
By the mid‐twenty‐fourth century, then, mainstream religion found itself right back where it started. Their presence within the populace was minimal, their opinions had no weight on public or Governance opinion, and their memberships, relative to the population as a whole, were in seemingly terminal decline. The only consolation was that, with the advent of immortality, their core, most devoted membership looked likely to persist forever.
— Ishihara Tomoya, "A Brief History of Religion in the Post‐Modern and Future Age, Lessons from the Past," introduction, excerpt.
Warfare on a heavily developed world is a nightmare of attrition. Innovations in Human siege doctrine and technology virtually assure it, with the stated goal of extracting maximal casualties for every planet taken.
As long as a planet's production facilities and population remain intact, cephalopod invaders are forced to contend with the full productive power of advanced Human manufacturing. Drones, materiel, and even starships can be deployed in seemingly endless quantities, as long as the factories are still intact to produce them. This ensures that, while in the short run alien fleets may bypass such a planet and press on, such a planet cannot be reduced at leisure, but must be reduced relatively soon, to prevent unacceptable risks to cephalopod supply lines.
On the surface, it may appear that planetary reduction is simply a matter of mass deployment of high‐yield weapons (HYW). In practice, such a deployment requires either orbital supremacy or surface access to the planet's urban centers. Since planetary production facilities are perfectly capable of deploying and launching a wide variety of orbital defenses and even starships, orbital supremacy on a developed world is nearly impossible to obtain unless a planet's urban centers are at least somewhat eliminated.
Because of this, the cephalopods are forced into ground assaults. However, even the successful insertion of Cephalopod troops close enough to a city to deploy HYWs hardly ensures that a job is done; Human siege doctrine directs the construction of underground "redoubts" on every planet in danger of being attacked, and many that are not in danger. Whenever a city comes within plausible range of attack or orbital bombardment, production facilities are then shifted underground as quickly as possible, ensuring that production facilities can only be eliminated with actual occupation of the city.
This forces the cephalopods to send troops into the city itself—at this point usually only a pile of ruins aboveground—to contend with units and weaponry pouring out from below the surface, ready to defend every surviving structure, tunnel entrance, and piece of rubble.
Then, finally, if the surface can no longer be contested, units withdraw into the underground redoubts. These deep bunkers are designed to be supremely defensible, with sealable ventilation systems, geothermal energy sources, carbon dioxide scrubbers modeled after asteroid bases, monitoring systems, protection against sappers, manufacturing facilities, and enough structural reinforcement to resist nuclear and antimatter detonations of tremendous magnitude.
These are not impregnable, of course; nothing is. Technological advances ensure that redoubts are nearly impossible to starve out, but sooner or later alien sappers will breach the defenses enough to detonate a HYW in dangerous underground proximity. Most redoubts can withstand multiple such defensive failures, but by the time this stage has been reached, it is generally only a matter of time. Still, the alien troops tied up, the casualties extracted, and the time bought are all invaluable, and there have even been examples of colonial redoubts that held out long enough to be rescued when the world was retaken.
— Governance News Distribution, special War Strategy edition, "Stalingrad a Thousand‐fold," online article, excerpt.
Four years ago
Kishida Maki sighed dismally, head planted down on her work desk, directly into the pencil sketch she was working on. It was supposed to outline her plan for the next mural for her church, something that would at least serve as evidence of progress, but she had already given up on it. She felt no desire to complete it.
As it often did at these times, a shadow of a memory flitted across her mind, stinging all the more because of what it had once represented.
"You have so much talent! You should get some formal training and see where it takes you! I've never seen a kid draw so well."
That compliment, from her family minister, had helped set into motion her "career" in art, such as it was. Her family church, the church sub rosa, had a large community of artists devoted to the production of art for members' contemplations and admiration—one of the side effects of having a mostly unemployed society—and she had been funneled directly into it, because of her "talent".
The watercolor dispenser on her desk toggled its way through an array of colors, transitioning up and down the color wheel. She stared it, listlessly issuing the mental commands that kept it in motion. At her feet, a small cleaning drone picked up the crumpled remains of previous failed sketches, picking them up with an articulated arm, compressing them, and dumping them neatly into an attached basket.
She couldn't do it anymore. As a child, it had been easy to follow the expected religious themes and motifs without questioning. Anything to keep the flattery and praise coming.
But it wasn't enough for her, not anymore.
As she had grown older, she had tried to start drawing something outside the normal bounds, tired of the same repeated themes and images. Instead of the approbation she had expected, she had received disapproval and veiled warnings, confusing and troubling her. In the end, she had gone back and asked the same minister why the artists and mentors she had looked up to treated her so terribly, and refused to give her new work more than a cursory look.
The man had sighed, wiping the lenses of his ancient spectacles, and said:
The members of our faith are old, and used to old things. They don't like new things. It's how we've survived in this age, but it's also what's holding us back. You had to learn this someday, so that you could change it. That's why you caught my eye. I'm counting on you to revive this tired old church.
But she hadn't changed it. Her prestige had gone into sharp decline and the minister, her old mentor, had been summarily ejected from the church two years later.
I tried, Maki‐chan, the man had said, visiting her one last time in secrecy, away from the now‐hostile glares of her parents. They wouldn't listen to me, so maybe you'll listen instead. This church is dead; I know that now. I said that a church must preach to the masses, that it is our Great Commission. We weren't afraid, once. We stood together with the people, and shielded them, and guided them, and uplifted them. This new war is our chance, but instead we while away our immortal lives in fearful isolation. I–I don't know. Live well, Maki‐chan. I must find my own way from now on.
And then he had died, due to one of the few remaining civilian causes of death: demon attack.
It had taken her a long time to understand what he had meant.
Once, her church had been relevant. Once, its houses of worships had protected the people, and its ministers had stood in defiance against evil. But once the evil disappeared, they lost their way. In the face of a brave new world, with its immortal populace and quietly hostile Governance, they retreated, became disinterested in gaining new members or addressing anything about the world as it was. There was no attempt to maintain a presence in the colonies, and the advent of such radical things as magical girls, demons, and aliens drew little more than a shrug. They would be their own world, completely disconnected from anyone on the outside.
These were the things she learned, in the aftermath of his death, surfing the shoals of the internet alone, and talking to the schoolteachers that were more than glad to open the mind of an interested student. She found the kinds of answers that her church, almost smug in the news of her mentor's death, would not provide.
That was when her own faith had begun to slowly fade. The spectrum of Humanity was almost unimaginably wide, with myriad opinions, ways of living, and belief systems. She made new friends, outside the circle of her church, and under the now baleful eyes of her parents, began to realize just how much her own beliefs derived from nothing more than their influence, something darkly hinted at her by her instructors and Governance textbooks. Without their influence, what superiority did her beliefs have over those of anyone else?
She had begun quietly drawing new artwork, things that had nothing to do with her church, and posting it online anonymously. There she got praise and meaningful criticism, rather than useless icy ostracism.
She closed her eyes and stopped toying with her paint dispenser. She tried to remember what it had once been like, when she had really believed in all those stories about prophets parting oceans and curing diseases and making food out of nowhere.
She had looked far and wide, but as far as she could see, there was only one thing verifiably supernatural in the world, and that had nothing to do with clergy and everything to do with Incubators.
As a child, when everything was new and every drawing was fresh, painting had been exciting, endlessly fun. When she could believe in what she was drawing, when the narrow field of paintings enjoyed by the community had still seemed wide enough to be worth exploring…
Well, it had been exhilarating.
A new religion, for a new age. One that was young and fresh, and could appreciate new forms of art. One with answers for this brave new world. One with truths that she could believe in.
That would be nice. But where was it?
I'm so tired… she thought, letting the thought trail off.
That can change, you know, a voice thought into her head, clear and sharp. At that moment, it seemed almost clarion, nothing like the telephone calls she was used to. Clear, sharp, and resonant with her soul, in the way that should have answered the prayers she once said.
She opened her eyes.
Perched on the boxy white‐and‐red watercolor dispenser was a creature instantly recognizable to an entire generation of schoolgirls, trained to recognize an Incubator by sight and told almost nothing else.
It seems you have potential, the creature thought, its tail swinging back and forth. Do you have a wish prepared?
Maki sat up, peering at the Incubator in front of her for a long moment.
The Incubators are demons, her mother had once said. If you ever see one, you should cast it out, and tell us immediately.
"Can I have some time to think about it?" she asked, finally.
I will not rush you, the creature thought, since your potential does not seem too unstable. I would advise you not to speak to your parents, though.
"I wish to have something I can believe in again. I wish to have something I can paint wholeheartedly again."
Present Day, Present Time
"I'm surprised to see a girl like you out in a place like this."
Maki blinked in surprise, looking up from her sake, which she had been staring at in contemplation.
"Mo–Sister Sakura!" she said in surprise, staring up at the teenaged face of the Church Founder, shadowed by the dim and oscillating light of the dance club.
"You almost called me Mother, didn't you?" the girl asked rhetorically, sounding disappointed. "I don't get why everyone insists on calling me that behind my back. Makes me feel old, even if I can't really deny the truth anymore. And please, don't call me sister out here."
Maki stared for a moment longer.
The other girl wasn't speaking particularly loudly, but she didn't have to, not with Maki's enhanced hearing. Otherwise, it might have been drowned out by the loud music in the background, which was some sort of neoclassical‐techno fusion. She had never been a fan, but the dancers seemed to like it.
She had spoken to Sakura‐san before, but always in passing, in greeting, or perhaps while in front of a church mural. Never extensively, or in a setting like this.
"This seat taken?" the other girl asked, and Maki shook her head vigorously no.
The girl sat down in the chair across from Maki and watched her seriously, as if to see what she would say. During the ensuing silence, a service drone delivered something exotic‐looking in front of the Church founder.
A margarita, her TacComp indicated, a moment later.
"Why are you surprised to see me out here?" Maki asked, finally, smiling awkwardly.
"You're always cooped up in your room painting, except for demon hunts. And you know, you're a bit young. Not saying it's a bad thing—it's just why I'm surprised."
Maki shrugged, a bit more elaborately than was necessary.
"I used to go out occasionally before I contracted," she said. "I thought I'd try it again. No particular reason."
"That's unusual, isn't it? You would have been a high‐schooler."
"A little," she admitted. "But not unheard of."
"Strange to go out alone, isn't it?" the girl asked, swirling her drink in its glass.
Maki almost answered immediately, but instead waited for the other girl as she downed the drink in one gulp.
"Well, I haven't found much in the way of company since I moved to Mitakihara," Maki said.
"How unfortunate. It's terribly lonely without company."
It was on the surface a perfectly normal statement, but something about the Church leader's voice sent a shiver up her spine. Something about the tone—
She suppressed a startled motion. She had remembered, suddenly, what exactly it was they said about Sakura Kyouko. Sakura‐san's dalliances were legendary; it was said that at one point in the past, she was taking home a different girl every night, occasionally more than one. Since then, she had cooled down, especially after founding the Church of Hope, but, the rumors said, she had never entirely stopped, something which set teeth gnashing among some of the more conservative elements of the Church. Among girls of a certain orientation, it was whispered that she could show you quite a good time, at least until she got tired of you. It was not wise to expect more.
Maki was indeed of a certain orientation, something she had discovered since she had fallen out with her parents. It was how she had heard the whispers.
Her breath quickened in her throat.
The Church founder sighed.
"I definitely know about not having company," the girl said. "October Three is coming up, and I've worked myself to death in the preparations, but I've got no one to share the stress with."
"Please, call me Kyouko."
"Kyouko‐chan, this wasn't really a chance meeting, was it?"
The girl watched Maki for a moment, before allowing her mouth to widen into a mischievous grin.
"My reputation precedes me," Kyouko said, seeming amused.
The founder leaned forward, allowing her luxurious hair to fall in front of her shoulders. Maki grew suddenly aware that Saku—Kyouko's outfit, while not exactly revealing, wasn't exactly modest. She was close—very close—and Maki imagined that she could feel the other girl's breath.
"Are you averse?" Kyouko asked.
Maki swallowed nervously, trying to think of the right thing to say.
"On the contrary, I'm delighted," she managed, finally.
"Hey," someone said, poking her in the cheek. Maki batted the arm away.
"Go away," she murmured, annoyed that she had been interrupted just as she was about to get to the good part of the memory recording. "I'm still on break."
"The team is going down to the canteen for food," Lieutenant Colonel Patricia von Rohr said, ignoring her complaints. "I'm not going to let you lounge around here. And I hear: Asaka has made time to come down too."
They didn't see the Brigadier General quite as much nowadays, a natural consequence of the fact that Asaka had more responsibilities to contend with than hanging around with two of her staffers, so her appearance was mildly notable.
She squinted at the unkempt‐looking Patricia. The light in the small room was provided by the softly glowing ceiling panels, which somehow contrived to make the other girl look particularly grungy. Maki doubted she herself looked any better. Freshening up was relatively low on the priority list.
She checked the time. It had passed midnight in Japan, which meant it was now October 1. Kyouko had never been big on anniversaries, but Maki wondered if she remembered, or still cared.
She still had yet to quite get used to living here, in this deep underground bunker, with its low ceiling and occasionally claustrophobic passages. Given the relatively fixed nature of urban warfare, both sides had plenty of time to dig in and, with the presence of cheap digger drones, that meant tunnels. Kilometer after kilometer of tunnels, bunkers, supply depots, and command posts. The Human tunnel network even had the additional virtue of connecting to the city's deep fortifications, an even deeper reinforced bunker system, hastily elaborated when it became clear that planetary landings were possible.
Their own situation was not so dire as to need the deep fortifications, thankfully. The planetary surface and space were both still heavily contested, including the city above their heads. There were plenty of buildings still standing, but unless one were actively involved in holding a position, it was advisable to withdraw to the tunnels whenever possible for better protection and significantly better amenities, and in case the squid decided to ignore their own troops in the city and throw a few antimatter devices anyway.
That meant that warfare for magical girls was, by and large, a matter of teams occasionally sticking their heads aboveground, helping to seize or defend a particularly important point on the battlefield, and then disappearing before they could be specially targeted. The hard work of staying above ground holding a ruined factory, or assaulting a position, room‐by‐room, was left to the infantry and their accompanying drones, who could better absorb the consequent casualties.
"Not that I want to pry…" Asaka began, as they sat down to a meal of synthesized rice and fish. Overall, the canteen was one of the nicer underground rooms, having been constructed long before the assault on the planet. It was brightly‐lit, had chairs and tables reminiscent of a fancy school cafeteria, and nice wall murals, including a giant tactical map of the city on one wall. Only the low ceiling served as a reminder that they were underground; vertical space was precious, due to the extensive cooling requirements of the deeper levels.
"That inevitably means you're prying," Patricia commented, looking at the other girl from the corner of her eye.
"Hush," Asaka reprimanded, waving her hand to shoo her. "Okay, fine, I'm prying. But I really want to know what went down between you and Kyouko. She seemed majorly angry you were leaving."
"She doesn't want me risking my life out here," Maki said. "We had a fight about it."
"I don't think she's really the type to get that angry over something like that," Patricia said.
"I won't let you risk your life out there!" Kyouko shouted, face twisted and angry.
The girl started to angrily fling her arms, but stopped just in time, realizing that her room—more of a niche, really—was not large enough to safely do that in.
"Do you have any idea how selfish you're sounding?" Maki retorted. "There are millions out there fighting and dying, and you're saying I have to stay back because you want me to."
"I don't care if I'm being selfish!" Kyouko fumed. "I—Why do you even want to go anyway? I thought you were an artist!"
"I'm going because I'm an artist! I want something new to draw, and if I go now, I can deploy with Patricia and Asaka. It's an opportunity!"
"What kind of reason is that?"
"The only thing that matters to me!" Maki said, starting to get truly angry. "What is it with you? My art is what I care about, and you can't even pretend to give a damn! In fact, I think you're trying not to!"
Kyouko started to say something, then stopped, stymied by the unexpected truth of that.
"Why do you work so hard to stay detached?" Maki asked. "Why is it so hard for you to show interest? I've tried showing you my art, I've tried talking to you, and you blow me off every time."
She clenched her eyes briefly, surprised by unexpected tears.
"It hurts, you know?" she said. "I promised myself I wouldn't get attached to you, because everyone says you're going to get tired of me, but it's been nearly a year now. This is the longest you've ever stayed with anybody. It's a damn farce! Is it really that important to you not to—"
She took a breath to steady herself.
"When this Church first granted me a combat exemption, they told me it was because of my talent, that you personally requested it. I thought you meant my art. But no, I realize what it is now. I'm nothing but a toy to you. Do you know you say her name?"
Kyouko blanched, perhaps the first time Maki had ever seen her discomfited by something Maki said.
"Wh—Who?" Kyouko asked, a second too late.
"You know who. Sayaka. Miki Sayaka. You've let her name slip out a couple of times. I've seen that old picture you carry around. I've seen what she looks like. She's almost my twin. Is that really it? I know there's something eating at you, but is this really it? You've pined for a girl for four hundred years, so you seduce the first one you see who looks like her? Grant her an exception to military service for her "talent" without even looking at any of her work? I really am just a body to you, aren't I?"
She stopped, breathing heavily, as Kyouko looked back, wide‐eyed, the seconds ticking by on the ancient analog clock on the desk.
"Goddess, you really are just like her," Kyouko said, finally. "You're not going to listen to me, you're going to get yourself killed—"
"Shut up!" Maki said. "You listen to me! I'm not going to stand around here being your–your… Not anymore! That's why I'm leaving. Because I don't want to know that I'm sitting around here while others are dying, because you took a fancy to my body. But I'm still willing to stay. I'll stay and keep painting for the Church, if you promise me you'll tell me what this Sayaka was to you, and stop treating me like–like some sort of embarrassment."
Kyouko stared back at her, and Maki could see, unexpectedly, that the girl was on the verge of crying.
Maki opened her mouth to say something—
"Fine," Kyouko said, voice quiet and empty, turning abruptly away from her. "You can go. This is over."
"What?" Maki asked. "Look—"
"You said you'd leave, so do it! Get out of here! I don't need your face tormenting me anymore."
"I said get the f— out!"
They surfaced inside a now‐abandoned factory, one of the heavily‐defended strongpoints that anchored this part of the line. They had no teleporter with them to transport them around covertly, but they did have a stealth generator, and it was under her auspices that they exited the building, after having spent a moment to chat with the building's garrisoned infantry. The squid knew, of course, that this building contained one of the tunnel entrances, and were fond of plastering the area with missiles and shells if they spotted someone important leaving. The building's point defenses would probably take care of it—that was how it was still standing, after all—but no reason to tempt fate.
The objective was simple. There was a well‐defended alien strongpoint in the vicinity, in the still‐standing ruins of a particularly tall residential tower. It served as a nest for a large number of extreme‐range snipers and a substantial number of relatively heavy weapons, and also provided an excellent vantage point of this area of the city. Their job was to retake the building, allow the infantry to garrison, and then leave.
They traversed the intervening distance at moderate speed, maintaining transmission silence, though of course they could just use telepathy. To reduce the possibility of being spotted because of any objects they might kick aside accidentally, they scattered and took slightly separate routes, opting to jump off the sides of buildings rather than running along the ground, still remaining barely within the stealth generator's field of effectiveness. It was a less predictable and less easily noticed route, and the Human infantry manning the buildings were informed to temporarily not fire on anything they might notice.
It was not that the stealth would fail to conceal something as obvious as a pebble being kicked across the ground; it was that the pebble would appear to spontaneously shift position after the stealth passed by. The rain was a theoretical concern, too, but thus far the aliens had not evinced the ability to notice magical girls based on infinitesimal changes in how wet the ground was.
Human buildings were built fairly resiliently nowadays, so that unless a particularly powerful weapon such as an alien particle cannon were fired at an area, the majority of buildings away from the epicenter of a major detonation tended to have at least an intact superstructure. Thus, the landscape they traversed, while flattened in some areas, still had a large variety of standing buildings, ghostly, shattered, and generally ruined, the masonry torn off and contributing to the substantial amount of rubble in the streets below. The planet wasn't dense enough to warrant core world style traffic tubes and endless skyscrapers, so the buildings themselves were reasonably short and separated.
The productive capacity of the city of Heliopolis was mostly in tunnels below it now, and the civilian population, except for necessary manufacturing workers, had had time to evacuate, so in a war‐making sense the fact that the city was a gray, shattered husk was not too significant. In a human sense, though, she had to feel sorry for those whose homes and lives had once been here.
It seemed entirely appropriate to Maki that it happened to be raining lightly, giving the mid‐afternoon scene even more of a grim pallor.
They arrived at the boundary of no man's land, peering up at the tower they would be seizing. Around and behind them, the local infantry companies had already gathered. The infantry knew that they were there, but were unable to see or otherwise register their presence.
They waited for the signal.
Then, the infantry and drones around them stormed forward, pouring out of the buildings and rubble, under a sudden barrage of covering fire, artillery bombardment, and missiles. They reached new firing positions if they could, but despite the drones trying to block damage and the optimal trajectories they attempted to take, many fell on the way under a storm of both invisible and tracered laser fire, which blinked on and off rapidly, striving to expend valuable energy only on actual targets. Their own support fire strove to keep the aliens suppressed, and carefully timed cruise missiles screamed inward, most intercepted out of the sky. Their tactical air support dove in from the sky, releasing their payloads.
The beginning stages of the attack were designed to look just like all the ones that had preceded it, which had failed ignominiously. Besides providing a distraction, it helped indicate where alien weaponry was concentrated, and which fields of fire would be necessary to avoid.
Then they moved out, as quickly as they could, vaulting over most of the battle on the ground. They had to be judicious about obvious magic use; otherwise, it'd tip the alien defenders off. They would wait until they got close to drop the stealth.
They took up positions on the buildings surrounding the tower, standing on rooftops and within crumbled window frames. They eyed attack points: laser battery and sniper positions, open windows large enough to jump directly into, staircases and other locations where it might be possible to quickly ascend the building. They coordinated by telepathy, trying to convey mental images as best they could when imagery was needed—still not a refined art for most girls.
Ready? Patricia thought, somewhere on the other side of the building.
Then stealth drop in five—on mark, Patricia thought, knowing they could all be relied upon to know exactly when five seconds was, based on internal chronometers.
Maki watched the time, then, just before the five seconds were up, launched herself off of the rooftop she was standing on, vaulting the distance between buildings.
Without looking, she knew that Patricia would have seized control of as many of the local alien drones as possible, while someone else would be releasing a substantial quantity of their own. Near her, a staccato of well‐placed magical bolts disabled alien personnel in the nearby windows.
Maki paid it only partial attention, focusing instead on her own actions. In the nearly insensible duration of time it took her to cross the gap, she summoned a set of her signature apparitions—ghost missiles, other magical girls, or even just giant black sheets—at various locations around the building to draw fire or block vision.
She dove into the window opening, just as the stealth protecting her disappeared, swords already in hand, crossed in front of her.
She knew what she would find: the inhabitants of the room firing desperately at an illusion of a magical girl charging at them through a doorway inside the building, and therefore not facing in her direction.
There was no time to think about it. The movement of her dive carried one of her swords straight through one of the infantry still covering the window. She spun, dodging the volume of shrapnel automatically ejected from the alien's suit, a common design feature now that being killed by melee was a frequent issue.
It almost felt like a dance, the way she turned the spin into the momentum necessary to cut another of the aliens in half, then thrust forward, impaling the remaining two before dodging away from the shrapnel again. Sparks flew from her blades as they sliced through forcefields, and high‐velocity shrapnel dented the walls behind her. Too‐late laser fire impacted the walls, illuminating her as she moved—steel‐blue breastplate, metal gauntlets and boots, short hair, no hairpins.
Then she spun one last time, slicing one more time through the aliens she had impaled before they even began to fall.
All of that before any of them had any chance to respond, but she stayed alert, taking the time to make sure that each alien—and each suit—were truly incapacitated. A long time ago, before Kyouko had pulled her out of the ranks, she had almost been killed by one of the suits trying to exact revenge, regardless of whether the alien inside it was already dead or not.
During that brief period of examination, she might have been in risk from the building itself—from booby traps, for instance, or a floor of the building primed to self‐destruct—but she didn't have to worry about that.
Secured, someone behind her thought.
She turned to look at the other girl, who had followed her in and currently had her hand on the wall, keeping her eyes closed as if she were communing with the wall—which wasn't actually a bad description of what she was doing.
It's a fairly large building, Maki thought. You sure?
Well, the girl thought. I have enough enchantment on this building to have the traps and some of the defense equipment disabled, at least. I only have complete control of around five floors, though.
The girl smiled, the expression vaguely predatory among the mass of tangled, curly hair.
They never expect the walls to try to kill them.
Maki checked the information that was scrolling into their information systems, now that there was less need for transmission discipline. The hallways in front of her had been cleared, according to the girl next to her, so she had no need to go out and check or clean up. The infantry were already moving through the lower floors to occupy the building, now that the crippling firepower from before was mostly neutralized. The entrance into the squid tunnel network had already been sealed. Engineering and counter‐sapping details would move in to prevent any possible attempts to collapse the building from below. The top had significant anti‐missile and point defenses, but they were mostly irrelevant for defending against an infantry assault.
We should help clear the top of the building, and do it quickly, Patricia thought from somewhere. One of them might have explosives and try to self‐destruct. But for safety, most of us should go back.
A list of the ones that were staying followed, including Patricia herself, Maki, the stealth generator, and a few others, including the enchanter. Maki nodded to herself. It made sense.
Just another day.
When it was all over, she took a moment to look out one of the windows near the top, watching the exhaust trails of fighter aircraft elsewhere in the ruined city and listening to the thunderous rumble of distant shells landing.
If you're listening, I hope all of this is for a good reason, she prayed silently. And if you'll forgive a selfish question, I wonder if you, in your human life, ever had to deal with—well, were you and Homura—no, I'm being silly.
She turned to join the others in leaving. She certainly had something to believe in now, but it would be nice if, once in a while, the divine would actually answer her.
Maybe she could try the Ribbon again.
"So I really want to know: What kind of name is Acheron anyway?"
Ryouko and Asami glanced at each other, then at the girl sitting across from them, looking back with such earnest eyes. Meiqing sported an unusual hairstyle, one of those asymmetric ponytails that were vaguely in style, which she kept in front of her right shoulder.
"Well?" the girl demanded, raising and clenching a fist in a gesture of demand. It made her look less, rather than more, serious.
"Sounds like a fine name to me," Asami said, sounding slightly bored. "Vaguely Greco‐Roman. Governance loves names like that."
"The river of pain," Ryouko said, reciting the information off of an internal reference, her eyes unfocusing. "One of the seven rivers of Hades, it is known primarily for being the river across which Charon ferries the souls of the dead. In Dante's Inferno—"
"Yeah, yeah, see?" Meiqing interrupted, addressing Asami. "Hades. Hell. Why would you name a planet after that?"
Acheron was, of course, the minor colony world they were being sent to garrison.
"Maybe it just sounds cool," Asami shrugged. "Besides, it's not like the Greeks thought of Hades in the same way Christians think of hell. And doesn't this planet have vol—"
"Susana, what do you think?" Meiqing asked. "Susana!"
She shoved the girl next to her, who opened her eyes and looked at the others, briefly confused, before her TacComp played back the audio recording of the conversation.
"I think it's a fine name," she said blearily. "Sounds nice. Not like anyone does much dying nowadays anyway."
"But we do dying," Ryouko felt obliged to point out quietly, complete with botched grammar.
"We're almost at the arch‐boss," Susana said, obviously not quite paying attention, curly blonde hair settling over her face. "So I'm a bit distracted right now. The low transmission throughput is annoying. On the other hand, if I can talk you guys into finally joining, we'll be glad to power‐train you."
They demurred, and the girl closed her eyes, going back into whatever VR game she was talking about.
"So my point is, it's just not an auspicious name," Meiqing finished.
Ryouko shrugged, and took a moment to look around her. Their subsection of the training cohort was traveling to their destination via transport ship, and frankly the multi‐day trip was somewhat boring. They took unnecessary long naps in their individual cabins, chatted up crew members and other passengers, used the rec rooms, and explored the ship, but it turned out that three days could feel like a surprisingly long time to be cooped onto even a large ship, especially with very little need for sleep. The whole thing served as a dull contrast to their previous onslaught of simulations, which presented them with planet after planet and combat situation after combat situation.
So at the moment they were half‐heartedly sitting around one of the ship's lounges, swilling non‐alcoholic drinks and chatting desultorily in the red plush couches, having been unable to agree on which recreational pastime they wanted to do next. Sure, there were things to read, or holographic board games to play, or VR things to do, but… it just didn't feel exciting anymore. Not to her.
At the moment, she, Asami, and Meiqing were practically the only ones there, though Susana and the other four in the game were doing something together as a… clan? Was that what they called it? In any case, they hardly counted as conversational partners, so it was really just Ryouko and the other two, as well as the fully‐functional bar robot—no one had been intrepid enough to ask alcohol of it yet.
Ryouko had spent quite a deal of time staring out at the stars on the way to their training planet, but had eventually finally tired of staring out the false window at the electronically regenerated starfield. So it was here as well, though at the moment she found her eyes being drawn out the window again. The refiltered starfield looked the same as it had the whole trip, but she couldn't shake the urge—
A sharp green light at the edge of her vision interrupted her thoughts, and she looked at it in immediate surprise, intuiting the source.
"What was that?" Meiqing asked.
Her soul gem ring had been glowing softly the whole trip, and they had mostly learned to ignore it, but this had been different—a sudden, unexpected, piercingly‐bright flash.
"I don't know," she said, quite honestly. "I'm not sure why it glows in the first place, and now this flashing—"
The gem flashed again, just as brightly, casting the area in a harsh, green glow.
"Hmm? Is something going on?" Susana asked, green eyes opening again, probably alerted to the situation by her TacComp.
Asami stared at the gem for a moment, then closed her eyes. Ryouko knew the look by now, having seen it in simulations as she searched in the distance for alien hover‐troopers.
"Laplace," Asami asked out loud, addressing the ship. "Are we scheduled to rendezvous with anyone sometime soon?"
"No," the pleasant sounding ship's voice replied, a hologram of the white‐haired mathematician appearing in front of them, hands clasped behind his back. "We will not be meeting any other ships until we approach Acheron."
Ryouko's gem flashed multiple times in sudden sequence as Asami said:
"Are you sure? I sense something in the distance, but it doesn't feel like FTL engines. It's very faint, though."
There was a pause, while the hologram visibly dipped his head in thought.
"Noted," the ship said, in a slight affected French accent, tugging nervously at his collar, eyelids fluttering over his mismatched eyes: one normal, one tattooed "I/O" in the AI style.
"I will pay closer attention and signal the convoy defenses," he continued. "The aliens very rarely raid this deep in Human space, however. There is nothing on my sensors, nor are there any known astronomical anomalies in the area."
"Okay," Asami said, looking worried.
"That seems at least a little concerning," Meiqing commented. "You really have no idea what it is?"
"I don't know," Asami said, closing her eyes again. "I don't like it."
It was only about half an hour later that Asami, whose increasingly troubled demeanor had weighed down on their conversational milieu, opened her eyes one more time and said quietly:
"I'm certain now. There are ships approaching. I don't have enough experience to know everything for certain, but they're moving much faster than any of the ships we passed near New Athens. Laplace says nothing in the Human fleet travels so quickly."
Ryouko and Meiqing stared at her in shock. They had expected something of the sort, but for the past half‐hour Asami and Laplace had sat in deathly quiet, leaking no hint of their internal conversations.
The eyes of the game‐engrossed mages around them snapped open, some of them jerking slightly with the remnants of their last in‐game action, as they were force‐quit from their simulation, in response to the ship's declaration of battle stations.
"I can't believe it's really true," Ngo Thi An said, a moment later. "Susana told us something was going on, but—this is supposed to be a safe convoy route! It's far out of range of standard alien raids. Why us?"
"I don't know," Laplace said, clasping his hands in front of him, his period costume suddenly seeming garishly out of place. "It could be a test‐run for new tactics, or something like that. Fortunately, we have plenty of warning, since they're not even on my sensors yet. I've called for help, the crew has been alerted, and I've placed my engines into emergency acceleration. With this degree of advance warning, my—our—chances are much better than they would be otherwise.
"Pierre," Ryouko asked. "Just what are our chances? The eight of us are here—"
"I know," the ship interrupted, glancing at her. "But you're untrained for this kind of combat. I know you've had vacuum training, but space combat can easily get overwhelming for new girls like you. That's why that training is separate."
Laplace placed a hand on his balding head—the ship had chosen to imitate an older period of the Frenchman's life.
"I'm not defenseless," he said, "And our chances are better than you might think. Consult your TacComps. Let's see what I can do, okay?"
The ship looked around at the others. When they said nothing further, he said:
"There's a reinforced passenger compartment near the cargo area. There will be emergency space suits and external access ports nearby. Wait there. Hopefully, it won't be necessary."
Then he vanished.
The gravitational distortions appeared on his sensors a few minutes later.
His readings matched, as he expected, the characteristics of the Cephalopod long‐range fighter class, the only class of vessel that would show up at such distances and in such low numbers, with the general goal of raiding shipping and commerce, while their bomber brethren targeted vulnerable facilities and planets. They had never been recorded to attack this deep in Human space, but there was a first time for everything, he supposed.
If HSS Pierre‐Simon Laplace had had features with which to express it, he would have smiled grimly. As it was, he had to imagine the smile to himself. On other occasions he might have toggled some of his internal displays amusedly, but many of those were powered down now, every last joule diverted out of non‐essential functions.
There was a reason he was referred to as a "convoy", despite consisting of only one crewed transport ship. Sure, he wasn't accompanied by frigates or cruisers, but he was hardly without protection. Smaller droneships swarmed around him, ranging from relatively large FTL‐engined gun platforms, to smaller attack and defense drones—and even further down to tiny motes of smartdust, designed to mitigate laser intensity and confuse sensors. The smaller drones rode in the FTL‐bubble formed by the larger ships.
In these drones lay his primary hope of survival. To fulfill their functions as long‐distance raiders, alien fighters were extremely light, lighter even than the ubiquitous frigates, and carried very little in the way of drone complements. With their forcefield shielding and extreme acceleration abilities, they were still difficult to destroy despite their relative flimsiness, but it meant his drones and weapons would not face interference, and would be essentially free to operate up until the point they were directly destroyed by enemy weapons fire.
And if that didn't work, he had a forcefield generator of his own, unusual for a ship of his relatively small size. That came courtesy of his specialty in ferrying valuable cargo.
He had asserted earlier that, since he had warning, they had relatively good chances. He had meant it. These kinds of raids relied heavily on the element of surprise, the fighters using their Paradox Drives to blink in somewhere undetected, then racing up to their target at the kind of FTL speeds that only they were capable of. In the moment their FTL shells merged with the target's, they would release weapons, traveling at nearly the speed of light relative to their target, where they could literally drop rocks out the window and still be extremely dangerous.
This first pass was the most dangerous, and often annihilated their unprepared targets. Usually, given the extreme speed of the fighters, there would not be time between sensor detection and weapons deployment for the target to mount an effective response; the odds were generally not good.
If finishing‐off was needed, they would fly back to do it, a process that often took substantial lengths of time, given the fighters' tendency to substantially overshoot the target on the first pass. If the target looked mostly intact, the second pass usually never happened; an evading target, even a cargo ship, was difficult to target at high relativistic speeds, and it was often necessary to pull up alongside at low relative speeds, which risked fighter loss.
That was where their chances lay.
He kept his metaphorical eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching ships. His chances were better than might otherwise be expected, but he didn't want to get valuable mages killed just because he fudged a calculation—especially since it would impact the career of his mental backup when it was activated to replace him. There wouldn't be time for him to observe the weapons drop and respond; he had to predict it, and preempt it at precisely the right moment.
Laplace had been doing this a long time, and had survived his share of similar scrapes; the captain and other crew accepted his suggested plan in its entirety, without suggesting amendments. They'd be useful in other stages of the fight—if there were other stages—but these early stages, with their high‐precision, high‐speed maneuvering, was all on him. The pilot was responsible for navigation, not combat maneuvering, after all.
He cruised in his cloud of escort drones, giving no sign that he had been given warning, even showing a few signs of the kind of panic that'd be expected of a vessel that spotted unexpected adversaries, hastily shifting drones around in an attempt at defense and gunning his engine in a seeming attempt to outrun the fighters. Unseen, he stored thruster power instead, not really using his full speed.
The ship watched the milliseconds tick by, as the other ships came inexorably closer. As he usually did, he spared a moment of thought for his girlfriend, the cruiser HSS Jeanne d'Arc, who he always thought had a rather aesthetically designed hull. He also took a moment to think about HSS Flavius Aetius, though they hadn't spoken to each other in, what, a year now?
Then he disregarded his emotional subroutines and returned to the task at hand. He waited.
Then the fighters finally achieved a barely subluminal relative speed, enabling a FTL shell merger. At that exact moment, they released their relativistic payloads, as they passed perpendicular to Laplace's trajectory. Also at that exact moment, Laplace accelerated hard towards its relative zenith with fully charged engines. Defense drones poured into the space now vacated, prepared to deflect, detonate, or otherwise eliminate whatever weapons had been launched, which turned out to be an incredible seven Ravager‐class anti‐ship missiles—raiders rarely expended more than three on a single ship, and each fighter only carried one.
Stymied by the unexpectedly rapid shift in trajectory of their target, the missiles attempted course correction, but had essentially no time to do so at their speed, especially with interference from the drones. Three suffered immediate guidance failures, confused by interference thrown their way by the drones, and flew off onto pointless trajectories, completing their detonation cycles in futile locations—because of the duration of engagement, the missiles had to begin detonating literally as they were being fired. Another one was lanced by a drone laser midflight, its rapid, immense explosion completing only after the explosion itself had already left the original FTL shell, keeping the near‐lightspeed velocity of the original missile. Relativistic effects applied: time appeared to pass slowly on board the missiles as observed from Laplace, and their explosions were compressed into turbulent discs from Lorentz contraction.
Another two missiles barely missed, and instead rammed his thruster exhaust—which was naturally being vectored downward to propel him up—and were torn apart. An expanding cloud of hot gas was generally harmless, except when rammed at near‐lightspeed. The missiles were much too flimsy to survive that. It was a trick he had learned from HSS Jeanne d'Arc back in the day.
The last one came hair‐raisingly close, finally intercepted by the sacrifice of a drone gun platform at nearly the last moment.
Then came his turn, as the streaking fighters, moving too fast to significantly adjust their original courses, ran into a field of suddenly deployed drone mines, accompanied by a crisscross of laser fire from his lower gunners. His laser cannons were woefully underpowered, but at this kind of range they were difficult to dodge, even with FTL sensors. Human gunners chose and extemporized general firing strategy, while his own subroutines corrected for the natural error humans made targeting at relativistic speeds and decided exact timing. It was as efficient a division of labor, processing‐wise, as was possible.
The fighters, at the extreme speed they were traveling, could not respond, and their forcefields lit up with a brilliant staccato of mine explosions and laser impacts. Of the seven, only six managed to survive to streak out the other side, less than a millisecond later, with one of those six substantially damaged.
He allowed himself a moment of satisfaction as the fighters overshot, surging far into the distance. Then he wondered why a fighter squadron on a deep raid would waste seven expensive missiles on one transport ship. Still, now that they had utterly failed, it was likely they would withdraw, and his crew was already exchanging congrat—
No, wait, were they coming back?
Why would they come back?
If the ship had had teeth, it would have gritted them, as it braced for extended combat.
"Tch," Meiqing vocalized, observing the latest developments on her internal interface. "I thought it was over."
Ryouko rubbed her shoulders where the straps of her seat had dug in when g‐forces overwhelmed the ship's gravity stabilizers.
"Laplace, what are our chances now?" she asked.
"My apologies," the ship's voice responded instantly from the intercom, perfectly pleasant. "My computational resources are currently in emergency allocation mode. I will not answer low‐priority queries."
It was not a particularly reassuring response, and a slight murmur passed through the assembled passengers: the eight magical girls strapped to seats attached to one wall, and the assorted Governance officials, military officers, and two civilian traders strapped to the others, all wearing magnetic boots.
Unlike the others, the eight of them had been allocated a low‐bandwidth connection with the ship's current situation, which they followed avidly on their internal monitors. Though not directly in the ship's chain of command, they were temporarily under the command of the ship's captain, and of the ship itself—considered equivalent in command authority.
That was what the regulations stipulated, anyway, according to their TacComps. Thus far, however, they hadn't been asked to do anything but sit tight. In the back of their minds, though, their TacComps were doing their best to implant a last‐minute burst of emergency tactical knowledge. Little could be done in so short a time, except to thrust into memory a few hasty short‐term templates of space combat knowhow, templates that would quickly fade, but the attempt had to be made.
Ryouko gave Asami's hand a reassuring squeeze, since the girl seemed extremely tense, her eyes darting to and fro, back and forth, as if trying to follow something she couldn't see—which was probably exactly what she was doing.
Then Ryouko focused on the information they were being given. It really wasn't that detailed; just a vague spatial diagram of where enemies and larger drones were relative to the ship, along with damage estimates. The diagram swirled dizzyingly as all the participants, including the ship itself, maneuvered and spun through space, the group as a whole still moving toward distant Acheron at high‐FTL speeds.
She requested field command mode, and her visualization slowed down dramatically, so that she could discern the to‐and‐fro of weapon launches, if only barely.
It's so fast! she commented to their group. How on Earth do magical girls keep up?
In truth, no one is sure, Clarisse surprised her by responding. Your reaction and attack speeds are nearly preternatural. The kind of instincts that MGs have—there is a lot of suspicion that they contain elements of precognition, but this has never been proven.
But if we're traveling FTL, and there are FTL weapons and sensors, doesn't that already include elements of reverse causation, in a relativistic sense? Susana interjected. What does precognition even mean in this context?
She seemed unfazed by what sounded like Ryouko responding to herself, or what was, on closer inspection, a very unusual TacComp.
That is a very good question, Clarisse thought. The answer to that is unknown, since precognition is not a well‐studied topic. Now is not—
She was interrupted by spontaneous cheering as one of the fighters, the most damaged, disappeared from the screen, detonating under a barrage of gunfire from the ship's aft guns. Compared to the alien fighters, their transport might as well as been a sitting tortoise—but a tortoise in its shell was hard to crack for fighters designed for deep space raiding instead of sustained exchanges of fire.
Ryouko watched the situation quietly, even as Clarisse continued to regale the others with informative dialogue. The alien fighters were taking damage, but not fast enough, not by her eye. The transport was losing drones too quickly. Soon, weapons fire would start making it through to the ship itself.
As I was saying, now is not the time to discuss this, Clarisse said. The relevant equations for this kind of combat take a while to learn, and it is at any rate too rapid for you to do them in your head. It seems, though, that magical girls have an excellent instinctive grasp of pseudo‐relativistic combat, which some ascribe to the Incubators, though they have never confirmed nor denied this.
There was brief pause, in an interim of time that was almost imperceptible to the outside world.
In any case, Clarisse thought, as some of you have already realized, the situation is growing dire. Your TacComps will fill you in.
Before Ryouko could ask, the knowledge appeared in her mind: their TacComps had taken the opportunity to network and, as the most computationally proficient, Clarisse had naturally taken the lead.
What do we do? one of the girls asked.
We have to help, Ryouko thought, having already reasoned it through. Now that it's come to this, the longer we wait, the worse the situation. Laplace!
There was no response.
Laplace! Captain Makuza!
〈Brace for impact,〉 Laplace thought, nearly devoid of affect.
The detonation, when it came, was surreal in its seeming languor. First came a rumble that seemed almost gentle, from her time‐slowed perspective. The right edge of the metal ceiling above buckled inward, just barely slow enough for her to perceive—
And then it shattered, briefly expelling shards of metal before reversing, turning concave instead of convex. A sudden rush of air through the new two‐meter‐wide hole testified to the fact that their compartment was now open to vacuum.
She clung to the seat straps that kept the torrent from drawing her upward, and the ship lurched. Screams sounded around her, until muted by the loss of air, or just as likely, Emergency Safety Packages.
Lung and sinus pressures safely equalized, Clarisse thought. Damage minimal. Drawing on emergency oxygen reserves. Vacuum survival mechanisms activated.
A man on the other side of the room, one of the assigned crew members, unbuckled himself and advanced, gesturing for calm.
"Someone will be here to repair the damage soon," he transmitted. "Remain calm. We will evacuate if necessary."
Compartments in the walls, floor, and remaining parts of the ceiling opened, and legged drones crawled out, adhering magnetically to the various surfaces, breathing apparatuses in tow.
Ryouko looked up at the hole above her head, which appeared to extend through two other cargo compartments of the ship before finally reaching the vacuum of space, while Clarisse informed her that the reason it was only a hole was almost certainly forcefield mitigation of the weapon impact. Incidentally, forcefield energy stores were now down to 60%.
She took a moment to check that, yes, forcefields were unidirectional. It would be quite unhelpful to have a forcefield that funneled internal explosions back inward. Unfortunately, this meant the main forcefield was also unhelpful to prevent atmosphere from escaping.
She ran through her reasoning one last time, to make sure her logic was sound. As far as she could tell, it was, and Clarisse raised no objections.
We have to go! Ryouko asserted, releasing her straps and standing up. We have no choice!
She advanced towards the crew member, without looking back at the others. Thus far she had been the most assertive about needing to help, believing it justified by the exigencies of the situation, but now that she was here, a large part of her felt a singular reluctance to actually do it. She couldn't look back, lest skeptical or fearful looks from the others weaken her resolve or, just as bad, introduce dissension. Better for everyone that she appear gung‐ho.
Artificial gravity was still in place, she was glad to see.
She dismissed her field command mode.
"Your spacesuits; where are they?" she transmitted, now back in normal time.
The crewman, a junior lieutenant, pointed at various lockers scattered around the room.
"You mean to go out?" he transmitted.
She nodded, then looked back at the other girls, who were in various stages of standing themselves up, one by one. There was, she was glad to see, no sign of dissent, no one holding out from fear or tactical disagreement. That was reassuring.
All she knew about space combat—the mind‐blowing speed, the vast amounts of radiation being flung about, and the strange and alien physics that came into play—combined to create a terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach, which she hoped to confine to just her stomach.
But if there was anything the endless train of simulations had taught them, it was about how to shove those thoughts away, until it was a direct matter of life and death, so that one could ride on combat instinct alone, and there was no safe place to balk and return to.
Pierre, support us if you can, she thought.
The ship didn't respond, and this time she didn't know if it was because it wouldn't, or that it couldn't.
But then the lockers snapped open on their own, and racks of spacesuits sped outward, and somehow avoided striking any of the girls standing. A large compartment in the rear of the room slid out, revealing an assortment of weapons Ryouko wouldn't have guessed were there: heavy laser cannon, contact explosives, missile launchers…
Thanks, she thought.
There were no grief cubes, but there was no more time left. They'd have to go with what they carried on their persons.
She reached for a suit—
Transform first, Clarisse reminded.
Earlier, transforming in front of so many people might have bothered her, but the simulations had taught her that very few people in a combat zone cared about how frilly her costume was.
There were a few moments of hasty equipment gathering, the others following her example by enchanting the suits to merge with their own costumes. Here in space, the suits provided useful direct protection—from the vacuum, radiation, and micrometeorites—as well as providing propulsion and a few other capabilities. In her mind, Ryouko stitched together pieces of a rudimentary plan, skimmed heavily from suggestions from Clarisse. Nothing fancy, just basic principles: deploy quickly, move quickly, stay moving. Keep on guard, and watch every major combatant, friendly or enemy. Basic principles, easy to forget. She disseminated it, and no one argued—of course, there was hardly anything worth arguing about.
Then, when they were done, they stood under the hole, looking up at the shattered, unfiltered starfield of an FTL shell, before the wide eyes of the other passengers, and those of the damage control crewman with his drones, who was waiting for them to leave so he could patch the hole.
Ryouko looked around her, seeing the world through a fiber‐optic‐laced helmet panel, one designed to transmit much of the EM spectrum. Direct perception was precious to a magical girl, something the designers had apparently considered, if one compared the space suit helmet with the impassive panel‐less infantry helmets.
On the other hand, she had enchanted the suit, so who knew how the panels really operated anymore?
No one seemed to be moving.
Well, here goes, I guess, she thought.
She took a breath, and vaulted upward with a sure power that seemed quite at odds with her customary build and appearance. The internal features of the ship flashed by, and then she found herself staring at the endless depth of space. Instead of the carefully reconstructed starfield she had seen all this time from inside the ship, she now saw the raw light that poured into the FTL shell, a tortured misshaped smear that failed to resemble the normal night sky in any way. The radiation would have been tremendous, she knew, were it not for arduously careful construction of the FTL shell metric. It was painfully disorienting to look at, or would have been to ordinary humans; that's what the textbooks said, anyway.
Then the ion thrusters on her suit fired, canceling her inertia, and she realized that the moment she had cleared the ships artificial gravity, there was nothing left to impede the speed of her jump, and she would have kept going otherwise. The counter‐acceleration had kept her barely within the ship's forcefield, which provided a modicum of protection as the others emerged.
It happens, Clarisse thought, having been the one to toggle the rockets. Stay focused.
Ryouko wondered for a moment why Clarisse hadn't just warned her beforehand, since the device could read her thoughts, but instead thought to herself:
None of us have any idea what we're doing.
We need to do this quickly! Ryouko thought, to the others. We have to take what surprise we can get!
To their credit, she hadn't really needed to say that; all seven of the others had followed readily in her wake.
Too late! Ngo Thi An thought.
The girl in question threw up a bright orange barrier, coursing with tendrils of light, just in time to intercept an incoming laser bombardment, both the ship's forcefield and the barrier shimmering with the effort of absorption and dispersion. Their telekinesis and magnetism specialist seized a set of missiles heading towards them, pushing them onto wildly irrelevant trajectories, one even heading back towards its source.
Damn, the squid responded fast! and How did I even know there were lasers there? competed for attention in her mind, but instead she teleported over to a certain Adriana Calderas, melee fighter and conjuror.
…Targeting… passenger… bastards… transmitter… damaged, Laplace transmitted, rather unsuccessfully.
Inside her helmet, her breathing seemed suddenly extremely loud.
It was no longer time for talking.
Sustained ship‐to‐ship combat in the presence of FTL was constrained by the need of the attacking ships to stay within the FTL shell of the defending ship or ships. This necessitated matching velocities to within at least one times lightspeed and maintaining it. Otherwise, the difficulty of getting weapons into the FTL shell, combined with the sheer difficulty of hitting an object moving faster than light relative to oneself—not even theoretically possible for most weapons, though it depended on trajectory—made an attack little more than a futile gesture. Only heavy FTL‐denial weapons, such as the SHERMAN main gun or Eviscerator laser, and various more‐or‐less reliable FTL interference devices could upset those dynamics.
Practically, this meant that the alien fighters were obliged to maintain quite low speeds relative to Laplace, which had a fairly small FTL shell only a few dozen kilometers across. If any of the fighters gained too much relative velocity, especially astern, it was liable to drop out of the shell entirely, the resulting gravitational distortions generating an enormous separation of distance.
There were various accessory details to be considered: as much as was possible, Laplace would try to maneuver within the FTL shell, as well as use its engines and those of its accompanying droneships to reshape the shell to kick attackers out. The attackers would counter this by modulating their own engines.
Occasionally, if one side had a strong advantage in engine power or in total mass, it would make the decision to destabilize the shell entirely, blowing everyone involved widely separate. It was a risky move, and rarely done.
The upshot was: the alien fighters would not be moving at fast—or even relativistic—speeds, relative to Laplace or the magical girls surrounding it.
This did not mean they were slow.
Gravity powers seem like just the thing, Asami had thought earlier, but I don't know if I have enough control over it to safely use too much power. I'm not sure I can manage it correctly in this kind of environment.
If it comes to it, do what you can, Ryouko had thought. Hold back if you have to, but you have to try.
Adriana and Ryouko maintained careful contact, as they hurtled themselves through the vacuum by combined thruster and telekinetic push, trying to match vector with one of the alien fighters, as Ryouko blinked to avoid attacks, collisions with friendly drones, and even friendly fire from the drone gun platforms and the still active Laplace. In this airless, gravity‐less environment, it was possible to achieve astounding speeds.
Despite all of that, she maintained a certain cold‐blooded focus, a mixture of battle tension, subtle desperation, and a predatory desire to take down her enemy.
Come on, Ryouko thought, eyeing an alien fighter that they were coming close to matching velocities with, its movements restricted by a steady barrage of impossibly‐fast icicles launched by one of the other girls, laser fire from Laplace, and one of the gravitational anomalies Asami was using to try and manipulate the battlefield.
As a whole, Asami, who Ryouko could barely see from this distance—and hardly had time to look at anyway—seemed to be conducting herself rather well, accelerating powerfully using a personal anomaly, easily diverting missiles and projectiles away from herself, and using a cloud of debris to mitigate laser fire. The alien fighters were visibly struggling to turn and accelerate properly under her influence. It was astoundingly useful.
Yes! the ice mage thought, as one of the fighters on the other side of Laplace broke apart in a mass of shrapnel under the combined weight of icicles, suicide drones, and the ship's aft guns.
Ryouko smiled slightly, but only for a moment.
Come on, she thought, blinking the two of them out of the path of a laser shot she had somehow anticipated. A moment later, Adriana, who she was pulling by the hand, conjured and almost instantly dispelled a ten‐meter‐wide steel wall to their left, which lasted just long enough to deflect a hurtling piece of metal debris.
When the moment finally arrived, and their velocities were closely enough aligned, she blinked directly next to the fighter's forcefields, the two of them moving in near‐perfect synchronicity with the ship. That was something she required: she could not change velocity by teleporting.
She had only an instant to take in the pitch‐black, nearly indistinguishable alien hull, the strangely bulbous design, the slightly protruding forcefield generator.
And then Adriana slammed downward on the ship with both fists, gleaming gold triangular knuckles suddenly searingly bright against the forcefield. The instant the forcefield failed under the weight of that force, two giant steel blades, shaped like triangles and as tall as the two of them combined, appeared before her fists and rammed forward into the fighter.
Ryouko blinked them out, and they were conscious of the ship's exotic matter containment failing behind them, the material blowing itself and the ship apart.
There was a very brief moment for Ryouko to review the situation. Laplace's drone counts seemed to have mostly stabilized, excepting suicide drones. This was likely due to their no longer being a serious target. Still, by now, his drone complement was quite low, and unlikely to be helpful.
Ryouko, Meiqing thought.
Ryouko didn't need an explanation. Reading the necessary information off of their internal communications, she took a long ten seconds to charge a longer teleport, as Adriana protected the two of them.
She re‐emerged next to Meiqing, Adriana dove away to fend for herself, and she turned her attention to her new destination.
How exactly does your power work, Meiqing? Ryouko had asked earlier, while they were still in the cargo hold. I mean, earth powers are nice and all, but does that even mean anything out in space?
Well, specifically, I can manipulate the outer surface of any planetary body with a sufficiently high surface gravity. The rules for what "outer surface" means are sort of hard to explain, but that's the gist of it. Not as broad as telekinesis, but I'm a lot more powerful with the things I can control. It's a tradeoff.
What defines planetary body? Ryouko had pressed. Would a ship count?
Meiqing had thought about it for a moment.
Yes, actually, but it'd have to be a fairly big ship. I can give you an exact number, but I'm thinking something maybe twenty kilometers in diameter. We're talking—well, actually, no kind of ship I know about.
But it depends on surface gravity specifically? Ryouko had asked. Not something else?
Ryouko teleported Meiqing and herself next to another of the fighters, one that was still flying freely in close proximity to another one, except that Asami had contrived to increase its surface gravity to a tiny two centimeters per second squared. Tiny enough to require essentially no effort on Asami's part, and also roughly the surface gravity of a twenty‐kilometer asteroid.
This time, Ryouko's velocity was only poorly matched, so the fighter rapidly sped away from them, but it didn't matter. Meiqing was close enough.
The fighter stopped abruptly in its tracks, Meiqing seizing the vessel and sealing its weapons ports. She hurled the vessel directly into the path of the other fighter, setting up a head‐on collision. Before the alien pilot could respond, the other fighter's AI attempted to veer away automatically, but not fast enough.
The mutual collision resulted in a satisfying dual‐forcefield failure and total destruction.
There was only one fighter left, but before it could be destroyed, it gunned its thrusters and performed an emergency exit of the FTL shell, its escape causing a perturbation that briefly sent the tortured light from that part of the sky spinning.
Hmpf, it ran, Meiqing thought, as they regathered near the ship.
No, Laplace transmitted, apparently having finally brought his transmitters back online. It's coming back for another pass. Check your tactical readouts.
He's right, Asami thought, without bothering to explain how she knew. But we have time; he's pretty far away.
It's likely trying to do another weapons drop, Laplace thought. I have no idea why they're so determined to destroy us today.
Then let's shoot it out of the sky when it remerges with the shell, Ryouko thought. This kind of timing thing is exactly what we're good at, or so Clarisse keeps telling me.
For once they had plenty of time. The ice mage nearby spent the time growing an icicle to incredible size: perhaps fifteen meters long. Adriana summoned one of her signature metal pieces, entrusting it for the telekinetic to throw.
Ryouko, for her part, reached deep, and summoned her Scorpion.
The giant artillery piece floated in front of her, obviously weighing nothing, and she settled in to wait the remaining seconds.
When the moment came, and the fighter appeared in their sky for an unimaginably small amount of time, it was immediately speared by no less than three projectiles, in a feat of timing that should have been impossible. They watched expectantly for the ship to tear itself apart.
Ryouko felt a sudden burning pain, one that seemed to emanate not from any one source, but from the entire front of her body. She instinctively reached up in desperation for her helmet. Exclamations of pain sounded in her mind from the others.
Hostiles ter… minated, Clarisse thought, strangely sluggish. Seve… re radiation…
〈PROTECTIVE FUGUE INITIATED〉
The alien fighter had, in a last suicidal attack, configured its core to disintegrate in a particularly radiation‐heavy manner—and ejected the core just before entering their FTL shell, entrusting its own residual shell to carry both ship and core in. It had fully expected to get shot down immediately.
You know, all in all, we were pretty lucky, Clarisse thought. My post‐combat review indicates at least ten other mistakes that could have gotten you killed, had the enemy had heavier weapons.
Ryouko grunted in annoyance, from her reclined position on the bed. She had her "window" set to transparent, so it was displaying a soothing starfield, carefully reprocessed to remove the distortions of the FTL shell. Her scant personal effects, including the now ever‐present CubeBot, lay scattered across a nearby dresser. All in all, the room was small, since space on a starship was usually precious. It contained a bed, a dresser, a small desk, and a small closet.
Read the mood, why don't you? she thought. No one wants to talk about this right now.
She raised her hand up in front of her. The peeling had finally stopped, but the red spots dotting her skin still looked angry and bloody. She wondered what her face looked like but, on second thought, had no desire to check.
Well, it had only been sixteen hours. Without an MG healer, it was too much to expect more, even with blood nanites, the full force of the ship's modern infirmary, and soul gem healing. Speaking of which, her soul gem had apparently gotten pretty low while she was out—using the Scorpion had been a mistake. She should have recharged first, but fortunately the ship, with its grief cube stores, was able to recover them.
It was fine now, though.
Speaking of reviewing the past, Clarisse thought, I was filing some of your more recent memories and discovered something rather interesting or, perhaps, disturbing.
The room faded away from her for a moment, and a familiar face appeared before her, the face of a woman with overflowing, shockingly pink hair, white ribbons, and golden eyes. The woman put a gloved finger to her lips, and winked.
Then the vision—or rather, the memory reconstruction—disappeared, and she again found herself looking at her sparsely decorated passenger cabin.
Since when could you do that? she demanded, almost indignantly.
Since I unexpectedly recovered the memory of your vision during routine filing, Clarisse thought. And, no, I'm not supposed to be able to. I must say, my confidence in the tenets of this Cult is much higher than it used to be.
Ryouko put her hand above her head, on her pillow, shifting her gaze upward slightly.
Can you do anything with it? she thought, trying to think through the implications. Broadcast it, anything like that?
No, unfortunately, Clarisse thought. It's kind of interesting. Literally the only thing I can do is play it back to you. Everything else I've tried, it's almost as if there is no memory.
That's… strange, Ryouko thought.
Yes, Clarisse thought. It's hard to explain, but I have a lot of built‐in tools that are not working on this, so I have to draw a copy manually, if it can be called that. Analogous to an artist drawing something by memory. I'm… working on it.
Ryouko thought for a moment. There was a question she wanted to ask, and it seemed relevant at the moment.
Clarisse, are you sentient?
For a moment, she thought her TacComp wouldn't answer, but then the device thought:
That's a rather sudden question.
I'm curious, and I sort of want to know what exactly I've got sitting on my spine.
There was another pause.
I think I am. But from your perspective, that's insufficient to prove anything. The only way to prove anything would be a Volokhov analysis on my current state, which would be technically challenging.
Ryouko thought for a moment.
That's good enough for me, though I don't know what exactly I'm supposed to do about it. Does it bother you being my servant?
Only if I try to think about it in a philosophical sense. Better not to worry, I think. Starships don't sit around being bothered that they never got a chance to be anything else. Speaking of which, Laplace is an interesting ship, if a bit quirky.
Huh, Ryouko thought, drawing the obvious implication that Clarisse was spending time talking to the ship behind her back.
If anything, I'd be more concerned about the fact that we're not part of the fully‐validated computing framework, unlike AIs. We're pretty well designed, and the electronic components are Volokhov‐friendly, but as for the organic components, no one knows. The designers will have to face the music sometime, and I don't know what they're going to say. The way I think about it, though, most Humans are Volokhov‐friendly, by definition, and we're made of the same stuff, organized in mostly similar fashion. Oh, I'm not worried about myself, but other Version Twos, obviously.
Ryouko just blinked, not really sure what to say in response to the somewhat confusing train of thought. It was the longest continuous chain of musings Clarisse had produced yet, and unlike so much of her other thoughts, had little direct bearing on Ryouko herself. Was Clarisse… chatting?
I guess I am talking too much, Clarisse thought, responding—as she sometimes did—to Ryouko's implicit thought. Anyway, what do you think about Asami‐chan?
Ryouko would have tilted her head if she weren't lying on a pillow.
What about her? she thought.
That's what I thought. Nothing important. You should sleep and heal off some of that radiation damage.
By the time they finally landed on the ground at Charon starport—yet another day later—most of the radiation damage had healed off, aided by the ship's substantial grief cube stockpiles.
As their ship descended through the atmosphere, the shockwave of descent mitigated by a partial anti‐grav assist, the group of them crowded the viewing ports—by this point no longer required to stay in bed for health purposes, with even most of the cosmetic radiation damage having worn off.
Compared to the cities of Earth, Charon was not a particularly impressive city. As they entered final descent, and the city's buildings began to look like more than just square insets on the gray‐and‐white ground, Ryouko mused that it would have been possible to see the far edge of the city, the point where the urban concentration began to fade and open land became more visible, from one of the taller buildings in the vicinity. This feat was usually impossible within the crowded megapolises of Earth.
They had been briefed on what to expect upon arrival. Garrison‐duty, while relatively serious on the edge of the frontier, was considerably more relaxed at great distance from the front, which was why it was possible to justify shipping newly trained girls into the area for week‐long shifts, to join a few veterans on longer‐term relief rotations. Here, the more conventional human garrison consisted of a single regular infantry division, again on a relief rotation, along with a larger contingent of colonial militia. Heavy weapons were rare.
Combat threats consisted of rare fighter raids, a theoretical risk of bombardment raids, and the possibility of commando raids to destroy or disrupt critical installations, such as its sulfur mines, whose output was destined for export to agricultural or industrial worlds. Charon was the principal off‐world trading center, whose civilian population and facilities they would be designated to defend in the event of attack.
It had sounded like a vacation when they had first read up on it, learning that the last major enemy action of note was a months‐old bomber raid on the planet's orbital fuel plants, which was after all a Navy responsibility, not theirs. Still, after the experience on the transport, Ryouko was a bit more wary of assurances that the aliens rarely ever ventured so deep into Human space.
The first thing they noticed was the blue‐green sky and red‐tinted sun, obvious even during descent. It was expected; the planet's volcanism had a decided effect on the passage of light to the surface.
The second thing they noticed was the ambient temperature as they stepped into the starport.
"It's hot," Meiqing said unnecessarily, peering up through a sky panel at the sky. "You'd think with all this atmospheric dust it wouldn't be this warm."
One of the advantages of having a universally enhanced population was that one could have much less regard for climate control of buildings. On Earth, many buildings were allowed to freely oscillate in temperature, secure in the knowledge that the comfort zones of their inhabitants were very, very wide. It appeared that the same was true of the colonies, as indicated by the fact that the starport was a very balmy forty‐five degrees Celsius, according to her internal thermometer.
"The planet is still young, so geothermal heat is still highly relevant," Ryouko said. "And we're very close to the star."
"Yeah, I know," Meiqing said automatically, by now used to Ryouko's literal‐minded corrections. "I read about the planet too."
A militia officer greeted them as they stepped into—what was this? A terminal? That was what Clarisse called it, anyway.
After they were done exchanging greetings and gawking around at the gray, unfamiliarly utilitarian starport architecture, they followed up by gawking some more on their way to the shuttle, at the rows of shops dispensing food, drinks, entertainment, and other assorted conveniences. Crowds of people milled about, doing—well, Ryouko had no idea what they're doing.
"They're waiting," the officer said, before any of them ventured to ask, clearly reciting a prepared explanation. "The transportation networks out here aren't as perfectly efficient as Earth, and a lot of people need to arrive from far away, so they get here early."
"And the shops are Capitalism," Ryouko said, making the mental connection.
The others nodded.
"Earth must be an interesting place," one of the other girls, not a native Earther, said, looking at the rest of them skeptically. She had nothing to gawk at, obviously.
"A lot of things are different out here," the officer said, smiling with a hint of sardonicism.
Whatever urge they might have had to explore and perhaps buy something went unfulfilled, as they were hustled into a waiting group vehicle. Looking out at the city, with its complete lack of aboveground traffic tubes and seemingly chaotic vehicle traffic, was an enlightening experience. Smaller colonies generally had the necessary prebuilt infrastructure to support a more elaborate traffic control system, except for cluttersome traffic tubes, but rarely implemented full traffic control as long as population density was low, usually finding it sufficient to implement basic automated driving, coordinated speeds, and the low bit of intelligence necessary to prevent stopping at intersections.
It was one thing knowing that intellectually; another thing entirely to undergo the unnerving experience of driving through an intersection at full speed, seemingly barely avoiding a collision. Another thing that seemed obvious in retrospect, but had come unexpectedly: "advertisements", in the form of giant "billboards" that appeared to react to whoever passed by, generally hawking tourist goods in their direction. Apparently they were encouraged to buy little souvenir volcanoes, vials of sulfur compounds, and submit‐it‐yourself designs for T‐shirts commenting on the heat. Also, there were hot springs, as if anyone would want to bake themselves any further in this climate.
Clarisse then informed her helpfully that without government privacy restrictions, advertisers would almost certainly prefer to access one's internal viewspace and advertise that way; the TacComp had already turned down numerous requests for just such access.
Still, while the cityscape was novel compared to Earth, it quickly became obvious that there was very little in terms of genuine sights and monuments. The Earth cities Ryouko had visited on family vacations and school trips had generally had their fair share of monuments and ancient buildings, reconstructed or otherwise, and one could often detect, under the shell of modernity, the shadow of history. Here, there was none of that.
And, despite the somewhat lower traffic speed, the trip was short. The city was not that large, and it was only in about fifteen minutes that they reached their designated lodgings. It was reasonably close to the city's regular infantry barracks, but separate from the base itself, as suited officer lodgings. In a fact that had been occasionally implied but never explicitly stated, it was also suitable placement for a group of what were still teenage girls, away from the considerably older infantry.
Ryouko wondered at the wisdom of placing so many of the city's magical girls in one location. On the other hand, they were still divided into numerous clusters over the settled area of the planet, and this was hardly a true warzone. Far from it, it was becoming obvious.
They were the second of the two groups of their training cohort that would be housed here, and she expected a few of the others to be there to welcome them.
She didn't expect a full welcoming committee, with all seven other girls waiting for them at the surface entrance—Ryouko still instinctively kept track of what floor entrances were on—to greet them.
It had been surprising to see them all gathered as their vehicle pulled up to the curb next to the unfamiliarly short building. It had been downright unsettling when they got out, into the warm, foul‐smelling air, onto the unfamiliar pavement, and the other girls began filtering into them, shaking hands and making comments to the effect of "Great job out there!" and "What was it like?"
It took her a moment to realize what was going on, but finally, she understood. They were heroes. Minor heroes, but heroes.
They underwent initial orientation, touring the local base with one of the more permanently stationed girls, a certain Selécine Kabila, who was on a demon hunting "relaxation" rotation. They learned that their duties were as limited as their previous reading had implied—they were to familiarize themselves with the combat resources and layout of the area, introduce themselves to local commanders, and respond to any alarms raised by the planetary monitoring systems. But, since they were only passing by on a very transient basis, they weren't expected to integrate themselves any more deeply than that.
At the end of their tour, they shook hands with a local "Major General of Volunteers"—a weird term intended to contrast with the regular military, even though the regular military was also almost entirely voluntary. Selécine then explained that, since it was a religious holiday for the Church of Hope, the Church members in the area would be holding a party later that night, and that they were all welcome to attend.
Though the girls uniformly agreed to consider it, attendance was low, only six of them RSVP'ing to the list and meeting Selécine outside the building at the designated time of 23:00 local time—19:00 Mitakihara Time—and one of them, Asami, was mostly just following her. Ryouko wondered how exactly the Cult kept up recruiting, at this rate.
It didn't matter; Ryouko had her own reasons. She had looked up what exact holiday they were celebrating.
October Three was its rather strange name. The birthday of the Goddess, one of the few pieces of information that the Cult had, based on a similar remembrance held yearly by Akemi Homura until her disappearance.
Ryouko, who had more reason than most to believe in the existence of such a Goddess, felt that the evidence was compelling enough for her to attend a birthday party held on the Goddess's behalf. It felt like the right thing to do, if she had indeed once been human. Even Clarisse agreed, now that the device had personal evidence of the encounter, though Clarisse had couched it in terms of possible future pay‐off, which seemed a little crass.
She had feared some sort of somber, awkward religious ceremony, but it turned out Selécine had not been kidding when she had described the gathering as a party. Homura had apparently once said that the Goddess would have preferred it that way.
"So after we got here, it seems like someone's TacComp had the bright idea to do some research on the jewelry you're always wearing," Asami said, watching her over the top of a giant glass of some sort of fruit‐ice concoction. "I didn't know it was a family thing."
"It's not really that big a deal," Ryouko said, looking aside briefly, putting a hand to her hair. "It just might be useful if I run into any of them in the future. That's how I think of it."
She felt awkward in her formal dress, partly because she rarely wore it, partly because it was too formal for the party and she had nothing intermediate, and partly because it seemed to run strongly counter to the fashion trends of the colony, which ran heavily in the direction of scanty—which made sense, given the heat. Then again, she would have felt awkwardly exposed wearing any of the things the other girls were wearing, and at least Asami was in the same boat.
At least there was plenty of space. She had heard that space was cheap in the colonies, but this apartment seemed huge to her eye, even compared to her paternal grandparents' place in the suburbs. Consequently, they didn't have to rub elbows with anyone, which she had never previously realized she was annoyed by—until now, that was.
"Hmm, well after this recent incident," Asami said, looking her in the eye seriously, but seeming tired, "some of them are saying that it proves you have the family stuff, whatever that means. Makes you a better catch, in other words."
"Right, right," Ryouko deflected, pretending to find interest in something happening across the room. It was not a topic she really wanted to think about.
"I don't think that's fair, if you don't mind me saying so," Asami continued. "I mean, the rest of us were there too, but suddenly it's like just because you have the family names, what you do is more memorable. Expected of you, or something. Even if you did show great leadership."
Ryouko snapped back to attention.
"What? Leadership?" she asked.
"Good evening," Selécine said, appearing at their table. This particular girl kept a young physical age, like everyone there, but was strictly speaking a Major, and for once her appearance made it vaguely plausible; the girl's sharp brown features and reserved hairstyle made her seem older than her "age".
"Am I interrupting anything?" she asked, a moment later, sitting at one of the remaining chairs.
"Oh, no," Asami said politely.
For a moment the girl just looked at the two of them silently.
"So how are you finding your drink?" Selécine asked, looking at Asami.
Ryouko missed whatever response Asami might have made, because Selécine simultaneously thought to her:
Have you told your friend why you're here?
Ryouko blinked in surprised, then hid her expression, pretending to listen to the conversation.
What do you mean? she thought, testing if the other girl meant what she thought she meant.
Your vision. The Mother made sure we were informed that you were one of the lucky ones. I take it you haven't mentioned anything to Asami here, then?
The Mother? You mean Kyouko? Ryouko thought. Uh, no, I haven't.
You call her Kyouko, Selécine thought, amused, still looking for all the world as if she were completely fascinated in the meaningless conversation she was foisting on Asami. That'd be meaningful in Japanese, but since we're speaking Standard, I can't tell if it means anything, though I thought you might call her Sakura instead.
Ryouko wrinkled her brow slightly at the strange comment, then relaxed.
Yes, she's not big on formalities, she thought. I'm sure you know about the mentorship thing.
Of course, the other girl thought. She was sure you'd come here, you know, after your experience, to celebrate the Goddess's birthday.
Ryouko took her time responding, taking a moment to listen to Asami opine happily on the diversification of fruit strains in the colonies. She noticed that, strangely, Selécine sounded much older telepathically than in speech.
It seemed like the right thing to do, she thought.
You do believe in the Goddess, then?
Ryouko took a breath, the bright image of the pink‐haired woman flashing through her mind again. She remembered what Clarisse had said.
It seems definitely likely that she exists, she thought, without elaborating.
Instead of relaying an explicit thought, Selécine relayed a frisson of amusement.
Well, I won't pry, the girl thought. But, are you interested in joining our Church? The Mother would be pleased.
Not right now, Ryouko thought, trying to convey bluntness. Maybe later, but right now I don't think I want to. After all, if I have my reading of doctrine correct, she saves everyone regardless of whether I even believe she exists or not. So, you know…
Ryouko smiled sheepishly, hoping it didn't seem weird to Asami if she saw it.
Instead of being offended, Selécine seemed amused again.
That is correct, the other girl thought. Well, we'll see about the future, won't we?
There was a moment of mental silence, while Ryouko thought further.
It'd be nice if Akemi Homura would just answer questions, wouldn't it? Ryouko thought. Instead of disappearing like that.
That surprised the other girl, who lost a beat in her ongoing conversation with Asami, before recovering and thinking:
Well, of course. Why do you think we're looking for her?
Suddenly, Clarisse pulled her attention back to the conversation, and Ryouko, based on the TacComp's recording of the conversation, was able to quickly say:
"Oh, yeah, I think durian tastes terrible, too. I have no idea why anyone would like it."
Suddenly realizing she had left her drink strangely untouched, Ryouko grabbed her pineapple‐like drink and chugged part of it, in a rather unladylike manner.
"Well, for what it's worth, I hear it tastes complete different after the military smell enhancements," Selécine said. "But, uh—"
The girl gestured in the direction of a far wall, and they turned. Ryouko's eyes swept over the rest of the room, past the larger main table, kitchen area, living area, another room that seemed to serve no real purpose except to add more space. Finally, her eyes fell on a distant 2D projection, flattening against the living room wall where most of the girls were gathered. Within the image, Kyouko was preparing to give a sermon somewhere on far‐off Earth, standing at her podium with trademark apple. She looked out over an imaginary crowd, radiating a kind of serene, happy authority that seemed decidedly at odds with what Ryouko saw normally.
The room quieted, and Ryouko settled in. This would be interesting.
"We are here to remember, and commemorate. Not just a sacrifice, but a life, though it is a life we know so little about. We are here to remember a girl whose life no longer exists, so that in our memory, at least, it will still be intact. We do not do this in exchange for future reward—our reward is assured—but merely as a gesture, a thanksgiving, so that the Goddess may remember what it's like to be human. Centuries ago, when our prophet was new to this world…"
"…and thus, as was once said, let us eat, drink, and make merry. The Goddess wants us to celebrate, and celebrate we shall. The best we can do is to strive to live our lives well, and that we shall try to do. Thank you."
The room erupted in applause, and Maki participated politely, but unlike the others, she was finding it difficult to obey the sentiment. She stared at the eyes of the holographic girl before them, those beautiful cold eyes, unbearably ancient, and wondered.