Black screen. The narration, with the voice of Clarisse van Rossum, begins.
Narrator: They say that we are doomed.
Chaotic lifeboat. Women and children crying. It is cold and windy. In the middle of it all, Van Rossum, as a teenager, huddles alone, cradling something in her hands, crying softly. Suddenly, an eerie violet glow becomes apparent. Cut to Black.
Narrator: They say that we must die young.
Van Rossum, about 16, in costume, jumping among the rooftops with Claudia van Hoof. Van Rossum barely manages to dodge a searingly bright yellow, laser‐like beam, but it hits instead van Hoof, whose scream cuts off abruptly. Cut to Black.
Narrator: They say we bring violence and turmoil wherever we go.
Chaotic Second World War battle scene, in the middle of winter. German tanks and infantry advance on entrenched infantry. Concussive explosions from raining artillery shells, appearance of dive bombers. Some tanks go up in flames, in stark contrast with the white and brown surroundings. Russian infantryman emerges from trench with anti‐tank explosive, as comrade fires machine gun to clear surroundings. Infantryman with explosive is shot, collapsing with a gasp into the mud and snow. Explosive detonates in his hand a moment later. Cut to Black.
Narrator: They say it is hopeless to fight fate.
Shot of early 21st century Mitakihara City from above, sunrise. Camera pans in towards the top of one of the skyscrapers, where Van Rossum, about 30 in appearance, stands alone on the roof, hands behind back, watching the sun rise. Finally, the camera zooms in, showing a side view of her face.
Narrator: I say it's time for a change.
Van Rossum closes her eyes, turning away from the camera. Her hair sweeps over the camera. Fade to Black.
— Transcript, trailer for Historian, 2354, Mitakihara Studios (Internal MSY distribution only.)
〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
〈In the past few weeks, I have grown increasingly concerned about the level of stress the Marshal is under. Obviously, this is unavoidable, but it would be good if we could find some way to get her some relaxation. Perhaps the closing of the current campaign will provide a measure of relief. Designated Telepath says Marshal is suffering from increasing frequency of disturbing dreams, perhaps related to past trauma, but is unsure what to make of it. Soul gem appears safe at the moment, but I have told Karina to keep an eye out. Will continue to monitor situation.〉⑤‡
〈Access to sections marked ‡ restricted to: Shen Xiao Long, Atsuko Arisu, Charlotte Meitner, Sakura Kyouko, Chitose Yuma〉‡
— Shen Xiao Long, Designated Monitor, report to Designated Psychiatrist Atsuko Arisu.
Cover me! Nadya Antipova demanded, voice filled with angry urgency. Pulling one of these damn things out of the sky isn't paddy‐cakes! I need someone to keep the fire off me!
Have some damned patience, Zheng Ying‐zhi, their barrier generator, answered, tersely. I'm getting on it.
It made quite a sight, the raven‐haired team leader Nadya in her crimson, uniform‐like costume, reaching upwards with gloved hand, trying to pull an alien sky defense station—a "flying fortress"—out of its sky. Nadya was reputedly the strongest telekinetic alive, but a flying fortress was enormous, and from where they stood underneath it, it blocked out the sun and a good portion of the sky. The bulbous, massive structure, with its protruding spherical spires, looked like a Daliesque interpretation of an underwater castle, and was hardly aerodynamic—but of course it didn't have to be, since it had antigrav generators on a scale beyond the imagination of even the most ambitious human engineers.
Another way to put it was that it was basically an atmospheric version of an alien cruiser, but that sounded less poetic.
Despite their firepower, though, this class of vessel had one feature that kept them away from the front lines, serving instead as area denial stations. They were, in essence, giant sitting ducks, incapable of taking a sustained assault from heavy ground weapons.
There Nadya stood, among the smoking ruins of an alien point defense system and the scattered limbs of its infantry garrison. Next to her, Ying‐zhi crouched on the ground, scowling as she aimed her chu‐ko‐nu at targets in the sky. Above and around them, her shimmering golden barrier deflected both incoming fire and the never‐diminishing swarms of alien attack drones.
Two other girls focused on damaging the fortress's generators remotely, Misa Virani, face full of concentration, summoning lightning bolts out of the clear blue sky, the other, Annabelle Smith, squinting down the barrel of her sniper rifle, of the magical, laser‐firing kind.
In the midst of the chaos, Ryouko crouched on the ground under Ying‐zhi's golden barrier, watching her soul gem dump its corruption in a handful of grief cubes. The teleport in, her first combat use of her maximal range, had taken a lot out of her, obliging her to stay in place recharging her soul gem, staying out of combat as she gathered energy for the trip back. They had practiced before this, but Ryouko hadn't realized how strangely useless it would make her feel to stay in place doing nothing while the others did the heavy lifting.
Even if she had possessed the energy to do more, she seriously doubted that the rest of the team would have allowed her. The rookie teleporter was both too powerful and too untrained to be allowed to risk herself.
As a bit of a practice mission, they had been assigned to destroy an underground airship production facility, located roughly under the spot where they were currently standing. Indeed, calling it a practice mission seemed a bit of a misnomer—the only distinction from a real mission was the fact that the assignment had been carefully chosen so as to maximally test some of their abilities, without exposing them to unwarranted levels of danger.
At the moment, it would have helped immensely if they had some trees to give them cover, but they didn't, nor did they have an illusion generator with them. Instead, they were standing on a large empty patch of ground, surrounded by sparse vegetation. It was exactly what one would expect out of an airfield, in other words, at least one that was large enough so as not to be worth trying to camouflage.
Have you found it yet? Nadya demanded again, addressing Gracia Perez, their telepath‐clairvoyant, who crouched on the ground nearby. Accompanying her were three other girls: Juliet François, Mina Guyure—their other teleporter—and Eva Guderian, all of whom were staying inactive, saving power. Eva was a bit of a novelty: she could make any non‐living object she touched with her primary weapon explode and, rather appropriately, her primary weapon was a prehensile whip that was capable of being extended to enormous length.
I'm still looking! the clairvoyant responded, tightly, devoting only a minor fraction of her attention to her response. This isn't that easy! Also, stealth infantry approaching on the ground.
Before she even finished the thought, the others responded to the markers appearing on their internal maps. Annabelle squeezed off a series of shots, and Misa lifted up the metal debris, using a burst of electricity to fire them as projectiles. Unlike Nadya, she didn't have a penchant for expressive hand and arm gestures, preferring to stand nearly still, almost stoically, as she channeled her powers. Unless she was forced to move, of course.
The markers disappeared, removed by their clairvoyant, and the other two girls returned to dispatching drones.
I wish everyone used mechanical controls instead of this electrical stuff, Nadya complained. Much easier to flip a switch than to jam the engine mechanisms from this distance.
Oh please, Misa thought, combative as ever. As if you have that kind of precision.
Do you doubt me? It's not as if your lightning is doing anything!
Nadya jerked her arms out of the air dramatically, as if pulling on an invisible rope, long hair flopping behind her back as she spun slightly, arms swinging behind her. She looked up expectantly, like a batter who had just hit what she expected to be a homerun.
The near end of the fortress exploded—or, speaking specifically, one of the larger bulbs shattered in slow motion, sending out pieces of debris that tumbled slowly and eerily through the air, before finally starting to head downward.
The structure as a whole shuddered—but it didn't fall.
That's generator number three, Nadya thought, both relieved that she had actually succeeded and annoyed that the ship hadn't started falling. I can't believe that thing's still in the air!
With another, almost casual gesture of her hands, a set of missiles descending on their position spun out of their trajectories, impacting with the cloud of drones that was constantly bombarding their position.
Incoming, Gracia warned, the texture of her thought unreasonably clinical given what was about to happen.
The sky above them, previously dominated by the fortress, turned into a blinding, pure white. Ying‐zhi visibly struggled with the effort of keeping the barrier intact, dropping into a kneel, face strained. The ground around them seared away, the soil visibly getting lower by the moment, clumps of liquefying soil seeming to float off the surface briefly before disintegrating.
I thought the heavy laser cannons were destroyed! she thought accusingly.
That's what I thought! Nadya responded, reaching upward again. I don't know where they got more!
The light faded abruptly, leaving Nadya blinking in surprise. The ground stopped vaporizing before their eyes, instead presenting them with a smoking, blackened surface, baked eerily smooth, except for the wide circle they were standing on, which they could now see was several centimeters higher than the area around them.
"Never call me useless," Misa growled, looking unexpectedly insulted by Nadya's previous comment regarding her lightning.
They could now see that the formerly cloaked cannon had been shattered, metal fragments floating slowly outward in the fortress's antigrav fields. The pieces continued to discharge static as they tumbled.
"I wasn't—" Nadya began.
Got it! Gracia thought, seeming to finally wake up from her self‐induced trance.
Without any further prelude, the four of them—Mina, Gracia, Juliet, and Eva—vanished, Mina teleporting them to the alien base's deep underground production facilities, its location finally identified.
The ground underneath them shook as the team went to work. A moment later, with a grunt, Nadya went back to work on the fortress above them, trying to disable a fourth generator.
A few moments later—roughly seventeen seconds, according to Ryouko's chronometer—the four‐person demolition squad reappeared on the surface.
We're done here, Gracia thought, walking towards Ryouko. Let's go.
Her thought had an air of finality to it.
Nadya visibly strained, making one last try at taking down the alien airship.
Leave it, Nadya! Misa thought, tone bordering on insubordination. There'll be other chances.
With obvious reluctance, Nadya dropped her arms, turning and heading for Ryouko, face annoyed. She took one last look upward at the flying fortress, obviously damaged—among other things, it was still visibly venting smoke from several massive holes—but still defiantly afloat.
When they had all reached her, Ryouko took a breath, and reached in deeply for the required power…
"But I still don't understand why it's funny," Ryouko said, giving the girl next to her a queer look.
"They all thought she was German the whole time," Mina explained, "but of course she's Dutch. So when one of them made a Hitler joke, it set her off."
"But that's terrible," Ryouko said. "Look how distressed she is."
"Of course it sounds terrible if you make me explain it like that," Mina said, exasperated. "But it was obviously funny."
"Give it up already, Mina," Eva said, rolling her eyes and looking bored. "Her personnel file says she doesn't get humor. Let's get back to the damn movie."
They were watching a movie in their newly assigned house, within a former civilian living complex deep in one of the secure areas of the planet. More precisely, they were watching Historian, a century‐old MSY biopic about the MSY's most famous historian, Clarisse van Rossum, that of course Ryouko had seen before. Even more precisely, while they were physically within Eva's room, they were watching the movie within an accelerated virtuality, to save time within their crammed, self‐assigned training schedule. They were about to start serious simulation training, practicing in silico for both the insertion onto the moon and the mission afterward. The intelligence available about the layout of the alien facility was limited, so they would be running through various scenarios based on the layout of other captured alien structures, exotic and novel to the human sense of aesthetics.
In contrast to that, the virtuality they were currently in was a comparatively dull replication of one of the rooms they were staying in, where they were seated watching the movie play on the back wall. They could have opted for something more immersive, such as a movie theatre‐style "inside the movie" experience, but the whole point of the exercise was team‐bonding, and it was difficult to do that if you couldn't see each other, or if the main characters were constantly walking around you.
Besides, everyone knew that the pure "in‐head" experience was inferior to what you could get with movie theatre equipment, or specialized computing resources, such as had been on board the Zhukov. If they had wanted to watch a lower‐quality implant‐generated virtuality, they could have done it on their own time, without the need to gather everyone.
Amazing, how quickly a technology like that could become routine. After all, Ryouko hadn't had any access in her civilian life.
"My personnel file says that?" Ryouko asked incredulously.
"It says a lot of things," Eva said. "Look, it's not important. Let's just get back to the watching, okay?"
Ryouko felt an elbow in her side, and turned to find Juliet giving her a narrow look. She should let it go, the look said, and Ryouko even received a slight bit of telepathically‐conveyed annoyance.
Juliet wasn't much for talking.
Ryouko let it go, leaning back against the sofa behind her, which was made up of those self‐assembling modular furniture pieces that were so popular on Earth. Next to her, Misa sat upside‐down on the sofa itself, her head inclined over the edge to watch the movie, long hair draping onto the floor, while her bare feet were planted into the wall behind them. Ryouko wasn't sure how exactly the girl could be comfortable "seated" like that, but by now she knew better than to question the eccentricities of centenarians.
"Now that you're here, you might as well stay," the on‐screen version of Tomoe Mami said, framed within the boundaries of the wall, holography giving the scene the illusion of depth. "We could use your experience and power."
Misa paused the movie, as Nadya entered the simulation, choosing to enter through the virtual door instead of just materializing in thin air.
"Sorry I'm late," the team elder said. "Had some things to take care of. I hope I haven't missed too much. And Misa, really, you could stand to show some decency every once in a while."
"It's not like I'm doing this in reality," Misa said. "Stop being such a stick in the mud."
Nadya grunted at the ancient idiom, before seating herself into an empty slot on the sofa. The movie resumed.
"I'd be glad to stay," the movie version of Van Rossum said, "but sadly that's not how it works for me. Now that everything is over, I have to get going."
At that moment, in almost eerie synchrony, everyone in the room lost their focus on the movie, body language clearly signaling that they were reading some sort of urgent internal message.
The movie paused again, as Eva groaned at the arrival of yet another interruption.
"A new team member?" she asked rhetorically, in annoyance and disbelief. "At this stage? What is command thinking? No offense to you, Ryouko, but it's been hard enough integrating one new member—"
"Not just any new member," Nadya said, voice hushed, looking back up at the screen. "It's—"
"Clarisse van Rossum," Ryouko said.
After a brief bout of hurried discussion, they decided that it wasn't worth trying to hide their awe and surprise: they would travel out to the city starport—which now served as a military airfield—and greet her as she got off the transport. It had been sudden; even Mami had conceded as much in her message to the team. The message explained that Clarisse had filed an unexpected and sudden personal appeal, requesting Mami to assign an escort for her to a particular moon of the gas giant Orpheus. Something big was going to happen there, Clarisse had been sure, even if she couldn't explain what.
The MSY was not in the habit of denying Clarisse's requests. There had been a lengthy discussion, in which Clarisse had insisted that it was essential she be on the moon itself, at the allotted time.
But there was only one way that was possible.
As they headed out in their roomy group vehicle, they speculated wildly on what this new development meant for them, their mission, and humanity as a whole.
"Van Rossum travels all the time," Nadya said. "She has the luxury of her own ship, nowadays. That doesn't mean every place she visits is important. It's not every day you can have an Asunción or St. Petersburg. But this smells big. We all know our mission is important. This just emphasizes it."
"Is she a good fighter?" Eva asked, leaning back in her seat. "I mean, I know about the movies and such, but you know how they blow things out of proportion."
"She's five and a half centuries old," Ying‐zhi said severely, long hair falling over her eyes as she leaned forward, "and she lived through times that were a lot worse for our kind than anything that followed. She must be a good fighter."
"Even among girls my age, very few have seen her fight," Nadya said. "Except for a few obligation demons every year, she mostly just glides along. The last time she did any fighting of note was during the Unification Wars, and I'm at least half a century too young to have seen that. Yes, I know, amazing."
She glanced sternly at Misa, who had been clearly about to make a snarky comment about Nadya's age.
"Anyway, I'm as curious as the rest of you," Nadya finished. "They say that normally she has very little power, but the closer she gets to an event of major historical importance, the greater her power gets."
"She's a member of the Church's Theological Council," Gracia said thoughtfully. "They say… that is, the rumors say she interferes in historical events, at the Goddess's direction. The left hand of the Goddess, in other words."
At her side, Juliet nodded sagely, but Mina made a face and said:
"The Goddess does not interfere in worldly affairs so rudely. What happens is predetermined. It does not make sense—"
"Okay, let's not have this discussion right now," Misa said, cutting the other girl off with an outstretched arm. "Your cult can argue about this on your own time. What I want to discuss is how this affects our chances of success on the mission."
"There's speculation that the nature of her wish makes her immortal as long as humanity survives," Ryouko said thoughtfully. "Since after all, one can't witness history if one is dead. If true, it could improve our odds."
Seeing skeptical looks, Ryouko appended:
"Well, I read it online."
She shrugged to indicate that she was just stating it as a matter of speculation.
Annabelle chuckled slightly.
"Or I suppose it could mean that this mission is about to fail in the most catastrophic way possible," she said.
"How is one mission supposed to destroy all of humanity?" Misa said. "At worst, it fails catastrophically and we all die, but Clarisse survives somehow."
"You are both too cynical and too morbid," Nadya said. "Don't scare the new girl. Look, she's turning pale."
Ryouko was not, in fact, turning pale, but she decided she should try to play along, casting her eyes to one side. It probably wasn't a good acting job.
"Anyway," she said, an awkward moment later, "what I've never understood is, if she's supposed to witness all of history, how is she supposed to see anything from before she was born?"
"Let's not overthink this," Nadya said. "Whatever the case, she's here, so let's work together to try to make this a successful mission, okay?"
They responded to the platitude with various assenting noises, though the discussion persisted, and Mina, Gracia, and Juliet continued to glare daggers at each other, probably still arguing the topic via either telepathy or transmission.
Do you want to introduce yourself to Clarisse? Ryouko asked her TacComp.
As tempting as that sounds, the TacComp in question responded, I think it'd be better if I didn't, since you're keeping me sort of a secret from your team here. Also, are you sure you want to admit to her that you named me after her?
You named yourself after her, Ryouko said, slightly miffed.
Sure I did.
Ryouko decided to leave Clarisse out of any upcoming conversations with… Clarisse.
Instead of stopping outside the starport, their vehicle caromed down a newly opened access road onto the landing area itself, though they were obliged to step off near the entrance, far from the designated loading areas, and watch their vehicle drive off.
Ryouko took a moment to take in their surroundings. The gray surface below her feet appeared identical to the material that paved the ground surfaces of Mitakihara City—it probably was identical, she decided, though she wasn't about to test it by deliberately falling and seeing if the surface softened briefly.
Like Acheron, Apollo was a hot planet, befitting its name, but whereas Acheron had been an inferno, Apollo was at that moment merely hot. It was high summer, but compared to Acheron, Apollo was positively pleasant, even if they happened to be near the unpleasantly warm equator.
The city they were in, Waset, lay at the edge of one of the planet's many sandstone deserts. Consequently, the air smelled faintly of dust, of sandstone baking under the sun.
Well, according to her enhanced sense of smell, it was actually dust, thruster exhaust, three different types of plant pollen, permacrete, Eva's slightly obnoxious perfume, and the odors of no less than eight different humans—female, around her age.
Dust was the most prominent, though.
They walked over to the designated landing point, standing carefully out of the way of where her ship would descend. Ryouko watched expectantly as the frigate‐class ship descended out of the clear blue‐violet sky, braking its initially fiery descent on thrusters and antigravity. For a starship it looked unusually aerodynamic, even sporting diminutive wing stubs. Like all small ships that might venture into hostile territory, it was covered in a metamaterial sheath that helped the ship blend into its background, though without additional stealth enhancements, it did little more than make it less conspicuous.
As the ship settled into a gentle almost‐vertical landing, wheels coming to a rest on the gray permacrete ground, Ryouko thought back to the matronly, nondescript woman who had questioned her at the Theological Council meeting. It was hard to believe she was finally going to meet her.
It was thus a substantial surprise when what appeared to be a teenager stepped onto the descent ladder, wavy hair and pretty freckled face complementing fashionable white dress and blue shirt. As she watched, the girl stretched luxuriously, bulky travel bag at her side.
The girl saw Ryouko looking and grinned, descending rapidly down the steps, bag dutifully walking itself down the steps after her.
"I'm Clarisse van Rossum," she said as she reached the bottom step, bowing gracefully. "Though I suppose it's a bit old‐fashioned to be giving my name, now isn't it? It's been a long time since I've been this young. I'd forgotten how much more energetic you feel. It's the better combat form, you know, so once I knew I'd be doing something like this, I figured I'd better make the change."
The group stared back at her blankly, except Nadya, who looked thoughtful. The team leader reached into the gift bag she had been carrying, extracting a large glass bottle filled with a clear transparent fluid. Before Ryouko could endeavor to move her head so she could read the front side of the Russian label, Nadya stepped forward, presenting the bottle, looking self‐satisfied.
"Oooh," Clarisse chorused melodiously, looking impressed. "Non‐synthesized vodka. High-quality too. Oh, Nadya, you shouldn't have!"
The two girls embraced warmly, as the eyes of the rest of the group collectively grew wider.
"How did you get something like this so quickly?" Clarisse asked, looking the other girl in the eye, hands still on her shoulders.
"I always have some stashed for special occasions," Nadya said confidently, smiling.
"Then let's save it for after the mission," Clarisse said, "to celebrate victory. But surely we can drink some of the synthesized stuff tonight, when we have time. It'll be bonding."
"You know her!" Misa blurted out finally, the first to speak.
Nadya turned and looked at the rest of them, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, yes," she said simply.
"But you said—"
"I said I've never seen her fight," Nadya said. "Not that I didn't know her. You girls always underestimate me. You don't live two centuries without meeting a few people."
Clarisse pursed her lips.
"It's not nice to toy with your juniors like that, Nadya," she criticized. "Come on, I'll introduce myself."
To Ryouko's surprise, Clarisse headed directly for her, hand outstretched.
"I do believe we've met before, after a fashion," she said, "And here you are again. You're an interesting girl."
Ryouko shook the hand hesitantly, meeting the woman's—girl's—eyes with confusion. Surely, Clarisse couldn't be talking about the Theological Council encounter—but what else could she mean?
Ryouko glanced away from the other girl's eyes, looking down at the floor. She had spent so much of her childhood reading about Clarisse's exploits that she seemed almost a mythological figure to her. Now that she was here, shaking her hand, she didn't know what to say.
"Her too?" Misa asked incredulously.
Ryouko looked at the rest of the team, and found the team's Cult members—Juliet, Mina, and Gracia—looking at her with both surprise and sudden interest. Unlike Selécine, they had no idea about Ryouko's visions and previous contact with the Cult, possibly due to the secrecy surrounding the team.
Clarisse moved through the rest of the team, shaking hands and smiling charmingly. It was almost unnatural for a girl who looked so young to exude so much charisma, but at this point Ryouko was beyond being surprised by that kind of thing. She was sure that Clarisse was at the point now where she could turn it on and off like a switch, similar to the other Ancients she had met. In fact, judging by the way some of the girls blushed, she was sure Clarisse could have gotten into someone's pants in record time, had that been her goal. Actually, come to think of it, what was Clarisse's sexual orientation anyway?
Ryouko frowned abruptly. The train of thought she had just completed…
…is literally the dirtiest I've ever heard out of you, the other Clarisse opined. It's unusual, you know. My preinstalled models were telling me to expect orders of magnitude more, at your age.
Was that comment really necessary? Ryouko asked, rhetorically.
I thought it was notable, Clarisse responded. It shows a certain growth, coming from you. Also, don't look now, but your idol is looking at you.
Of course, Ryouko looked immediately, and found Clarisse giving her a thoughtful look. Seeing her looking, the girl smiled slightly.
The moment ended when Juliet appeared near Clarisse's shoulder, causing the historian to shift her gaze.
"Your–your autograph," the soft‐spoken girl requested, obviously making a strenuous effort just to say the words.
Clarisse turned away to fulfill the request, as the others crowded nearby.
Later, the historian thought, and for a long moment Ryouko was unsure if the thought had been real, or if she had only just imagined it.
Despite a strong group inclination to spend some more time socializing, both Nadya and Clarisse pointed out that time was starting to seriously run short. It was time to head to the city's specialized training center and start simulation training, and it was probably best that they socialize later, once they had completed their intended training and started the rest and relaxation period that would immediately precede departure. Unlike Ryouko, it was expected that Clarisse would blend in naturally with the team without an extensive preparation period, and could certainly be relied on to perform well in combat.
Despite her significant seniority, higher rank, and the evident willingness of Major Antipova to defer command to Colonel Van Rossum, the historian insisted that the operation was Nadya's to run, following orders readily. In addition, she felt obliged to add that:
"As you all know, my power varies with how close I am to an important historical event. Because I fight so rarely, the system has only evaluated my powers during relatively weak periods, since I obviously didn't take time out for recordings when the situation was critical. We could have it guess at my power, but it might be better to practice with me weak."
Initially, she dazzled the others by performing feats that were normally never the provenance of a single magical girl, performing short‐range teleports, launching fireballs, and erecting magical barriers. As promised, however, it soon became clear that despite the variety of her powers, the simulation was making her weak—the teleports were invariably very short distance, and the fireballs were incapable of penetrating the shielding on alien armor.
Still, she was obviously very experienced, and next to her Ryouko felt almost inadequate. Occasionally, the old bloodlust came back, and she could lose herself in the heat of combat. More often, though, she found herself embarrassed. It wasn't that she performed poorly, not quite—but the rest of the team, even the newcomer Clarisse, was like a well‐oiled machine, anticipating orders before they arrived, eliminating threats before they had even had the chance to appear. Ryouko simply wasn't that good, and it bothered her.
And despite their skill, they still failed more missions than they succeeded, dying ignominiously in the middle of a randomly generated wormhole stabilizer layout.
Finally, they entered the most stressful of the simulations, the full immersion simulations—the ones they wouldn't know weren't real.
There was so much enemy firepower, and the facility was just so big.
They were the only ones left. As a team, they were already critically wounded, missing one of their teleporters, their clairvoyant‐telepath, and a substantial portion of their grief cubes. At least they had managed to hold on to their PAYNE nuclear device.
On raids such as this, everything relied on mobility and deception. Cephalopod facilities were nowadays equipped with numerous redundant systems and countless decoys, designed to mislead MagOps teams. They had brought precision sensors, including gravimetric detectors, but it had hardly been a surprise when on initial entry, they found an array of no less than a dozen gravitational anomalies, each the potential location of a critical subsystem. It was tempting to teleport to the one directly under the massive ring above the facility, but experience showed that it was no more likely to be the right target than any of the others.
In the relatively cramped interior of such a major facility, the biggest danger was booby traps, directed explosives and hard radiation bombs pointed down clear lines‐of‐sight in literally every room, wired to fire regardless of whether any alien personnel were still in the area.
As such, they had to stay constantly on the move, probing new locations over and over, taking as unpredictable a course as possible. Anything less risked the squid turning on some kind of internal forcefield and detonating another antimatter explosive in their sector of the facility. It was doubtful that the aliens had another forcefield of such power, beyond the main forcefield protecting the exterior of the facility—and besides, even the aliens had to have some compunction about blowing a large part of their own facility sky‐high—but they couldn't afford to take chances.
But since Ryouko was the only remaining teleporter, the constant teleportation was starting to take its toll on her.
"This isn't it," Nadya growled, as the results came back from the sensor pack on her back, salvaged from one of the other girls, now dead. Another decoy.
It was difficult to deny the abject disappointment that appeared on all their faces, as they stood nervously attentive in that vast cylindrical room. Around them lay the ruins of what had appeared to be an engineering observation room, littered with the corpses of alien personnel and shattered consoles. The austere metallic‐seeming walls were pitted with large blackened holes where Clarisse had barely managed to detect waiting traps. Behind a row of consoles was a row of windows, behind which a yawning spherical cavity carried a massive, floating gray sphere at least the size of a house. All for show, apparently.
The main entrance, circular in the alien style, was sealed shut by a massive radiation door, which Nadya had forced closed behind them. Beyond that door lay the smoking, radioactive ruins of the corridor they had entered from—and barely avoided death in. Back there Ying‐zhi had consumed everything she had left to save them, leaving behind not even a corpse.
We have to hold it together. I know it's just the few of us left, but we still have a chance!
Those words, which Misa murmured to the remaining group by telepathy, seemed designed to reassure herself more than anything. Still, Ryouko was glad to hear it, since her own faith was wavering.
I haven't lived this long just to lose here, Clarisse responded grimly, a moment later.
If we can't find a good spot to place the PAYNE device, then we should at least endeavor to destroy as much as we can, Nadya thought. Who knows? Maybe we'll get a major reactor and delay activation for a week or so. That's got to be something. But for now, there's still five more locations to try.
The other three moved quickly back towards Ryouko.
"I can't sustain much more of this," Ryouko said, deliberately avoiding looking in the eyes of the others, whose eyes were wide with stress, and the strain of having to deal with the deaths of their team members. It was no coincidence that the survivors now consisted of the three oldest girls—and her. All along, she had been a burden on them. Not to mention, she didn't want to see in their eyes just how dire the situation was.
Clarisse's pack opened, the robotic arm disgorging a few grief cubes, which she tossed in Ryouko's direction. The sensors on her gem were registering low, and the team knew that.
Ryouko took a breath, internalizing as much as she could about the location of the next target. Clarisse drew on her relatively weak clairvoyance, showing Ryouko what she could about a possible safe location to reappear, where it seemed like there were no enemy personnel.
A moment later, they were there, and without moving away from her the others immediately carved holes into the walls and floor where Clarisse had indicated traps were present, blowing off chunks of debris, copious amounts of smoke, and—in Misa's case—electrical ozone. Ryouko stayed tense, ready to go back at the slightest hint of trouble. From all indications, it seemed that they had landed in a storage room, since the rear of the room was stocked with rounded cubes that looked like boxes. The walls were set in a rectangular shape, which was unusual for the aliens, who seemed to prefer rounded edges whenever possible. Other than that, the room had no other decoration, save for the round entry door, and lighting that seemed to come from the walls themselves.
A moment later they were done, and the room was clear.
Following an indicator on her internal interface, they headed out the proper exit in approved fashion, Nadya blasting through the door first with a telekinetic pulse designed to act as an impromptu barrier, the others behind her.
She hardly had time to process it, so quickly did it happen.
It wasn't the pain—that was instantly repressed—so much as the shock of it.
She felt herself going into fugue, and part of her registered that she was no longer directly attached to the lower part of her body. Somehow, she still functioned, well enough to realize what must have happened: stealth units that Clarisse had missed, waiting until they were slightly separated to attack. It was likely they had been stationed at all the remaining target points. Her combat interface was now missing, and she realized that her Clarisse might no longer be functional.
She considered trying to stay awake and fight anyway, doing her absolute best to keep her eye on the fight around her, rather than look down. She even raised her crossbow arm weakly, pointing it in the general direction of some of the attacking infantry, which Misa was gamely trying to keep visible by acting like a tesla coil, a swarm of constantly arcing electric bolts forcing the squid shielding to activate.
But then she saw Clarisse fall to the floor, eyes wide with the shock of "this isn't possible", gem shattered with the rest of her hand, and Ryouko knew it was over. She launched every arrow she could, out of sheer spite, but doubted it would do much.
They had failed. Everything had depended on them, and they had failed.
Her eyes blurred, and she didn't know if it was the fugue, the tears, or something worse. What about her wish? It was still unfulfilled. If this was her end, then what had this even all been for?
She blinked, not bothering to check her gem. She wondered if she might now expect a pink Goddess to appear.
She thought of everything she had failed to do, the worlds she had failed to explore, the girl she had failed to contact. Why, at a time like this, did Asami seem so prominent in her mind?
She thought of what the girl might do now, and felt only regret.
I'm sorry, she thought.
It had all been a simulation, of course, and Clarisse the TacComp had woken her early.
She had died in simulation before, of course, but this was the first time she had felt that kind of despair at the end, because it was the first she had died thinking it was real, with the stakes so high. It was also the first time Clarisse had terminated her involvement early because of the risk that the emotion would propagate to her soul gem. Indeed, sensing the risk, Clarisse had been slowly detaching her from the simulation, in the hope that it would sufficiently dull the emotions.
But it hadn't been enough, and she could still feel the echo of what had happened.
They took a breather, then tried again.
"The locals really wanted to hit the hydroelectric plant," a slightly drunk Clarisse van Rossum said. "It was obvious there was something big there. The security, the air raids, the failed commando raid—but it wasn't going to be easy. First, if we blew up the plant, the Germans would think it was a resistance operation, and they were in the nasty habit of killing everyone in the area when something like that happened. Second, a couple of the officers' daughters were in the area, and they knew all about us—you couldn't possibly hunt demons in the area without running into them. We had to tolerate them, because if we didn't, they could bring the Germans down on the heads of the local families."
She shook her head at herself, trying to excavate the ancient memories.
"They weren't bad girls," she said, "but we hated them, and in the end, they hated us. We couldn't kill them, and they were too weak to kill us, so it was just like that. I didn't understand why my soul gem wanted me there, not until the commandos started landing."
"We met immediately. Most of the others wanted to attack immediately, not give the Germans a chance to interfere, but I told them not to be stupid. All that would do is sound the alarm. We had to think of a way to distract them. I suggested dropping used grief cubes in the vicinity. Half of us would show up to hunt when they did, and buy as much time as possible bickering over possession of the cubes. The other half would quietly move to block them from getting back to the plant, in case they got back too soon."
Clarisse looked down, frowning at her empty glass cup. Reaching over, she poured herself more amber‐colored whiskey.
"Well, that almost worked," she continued. "Except they weren't quite as naïve as I expected, and left one girl behind, just in case we did something like that. I hadn't thought they would divide their team like that. I was part of the second team, and we did what we had to. We tried to capture her, since we didn't want anyone dead, but in the end—well, a broken soul gem looks like a natural death. Three girls dead at once, no matter how natural‐seeming, would have convinced the Germans of a conspiracy. One dead girl—even the most favored daughters probably couldn't talk their fathers into killing all the locals, just for that, even if they were Nazis. Especially when the daughters in question weren't really that cold‐blooded. Not as cold‐blooded as I was, anyway. I killed her myself, you know, when the others couldn't bring themselves to do it. Being more experienced has its benefits."
Without looking up, she put her cup to her lips, downing half of it in one go. With her last few statements, the mood had switched abruptly from vaguely celebratory to awkwardly quiet.
"I stayed away from Warsaw, you know," she said, more to herself than to them. "I had a good guess about what might happen there, and after Stalingrad, I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I fought my soul gem, forced my way to somewhere a little less important, and then found myself too weak to properly restrain a girl. It is as if fate…"
Clarisse finally looked up at the rest of them, a few of whom had started to look a little queasy. Not Ryouko—she knew more about her hero than most people, and knew that her hands weren't exactly clean. However, this particular story was… different than what she remembered reading.
"Don't think I'm so drunk I've started spilling secrets," Clarisse said, voice still startlingly crisp. "I just don't like talking about it without some alcohol to dull the memory. It's not something I've ever really told anyone about. I wanted to share a little, you know? You girls are still young—even you, Nadya. You have to understand what some of us have done to try to save this world. We all have our demons, and some of the failures I've had—it still disturbs my sleep to think about. It wasn't my intention to end up on this mission, but now that I am here, I will do everything I can. I want you all to believe that."
There was a long awkward pause. Some of them nodded, slightly. Others stayed still, looking confused. Finally, Clarisse took a breath, getting back into the flow of the narrative.
"The Germans just weren't big believers in sending their women and daughters anywhere near the front. How were they supposed to know that was a mistake? Many girls went on their own, but none of them could have known how important it was to get to Norway. Even I was there mostly by chance. I had a devil of a time convincing the locals I wasn't a German spy, by the way."
She pointed at Eva with the pinky of her left hand, which was also holding a cup of whiskey that tilted precariously, its contents threatening to overflow onto the floor, despite being only half‐empty.
"I tell you, major wars like that are always a giant scramble for me," she said. "I can never quite tell where to go. There are things happening everywhere, and trying to travel the world when half of it is trying to kill the other is no easy proposition. It's not really the soldiers or the border guards—it's the other magical girls. They don't trust you in the best of times. And there's always those who actually swallow the ideologies involved."
She shook her head, glanced at the cup in her hand, then swallowed the rest in one gulp.
"I had to make a lot of tough decisions about where I wanted to go," she said, "but the point is that even though Europe in 1939 turned out to be a good place to be, I missed a lot by doing it. And in 1945, it was a lucky decision on my part to travel to Japan through the United States. I couldn't understand how anything in the deserts of New Mexico could be important, but that was where Trinity was, of course. Sneaking into Japan was no small feat. I had to pretend to be German. At the time, there was no more disgusting thing you could have asked me to do, but I did it. It was worth it, if you can call witnessing Hiroshima worth it."
She set her glass back down on the table in front of her with a loud thunk, then smiled slightly, turning the charisma back on as if it were a switch.
"I imagine we've had enough of stories for now. Anyone know any good party games?"
"You know, standard protocol recommends taking a nap before a mission like this."
Ryouko looked up. She had been seated in bed, playing with CubeBot by tossing a grief cube and having the bot retrieve it. Probably not the safest thing to be doing, but safe enough: the cube was empty. She had left the door unlocked, of course.
"You really wanted to talk about something, then?" Ryouko asked, watching the girl in her doorway. She managed to maintain a steady composure, but it required that she hide a mix of apprehension and anticipation. She had almost managed to convince herself that she had imagined Clarisse's earlier comment.
Clarisse stepped into the room, the door sliding closed behind her. The girl closed her eyes briefly, rubbing her hands together, before opening them again.
"I dislike dancing around the point," she said. "The MHD psychiatrists are concerned about your mental state going into this mission. Usually, this kind of a thing would be for you and Atsuko‐san to discuss, but exceptions are made for time‐sensitive situations. To wit, she would much prefer that you leave on this mission with no regrets of the romantic variety. I'm talking about Nakihara Asami‐san, of course."
Her Japanese was arguably flawless, showing none of the slight accent that characterized a speaker still partially reliant on implants. Still, the way she talked—it was almost as if she had stepped out of one of her own movies. It reminded her of… Mami?
Ryouko closed her eyes in turn, taking a deep, slightly exasperated breath.
"Does everyone know about that?" she asked, finally.
"I think so," Clarisse said, without missing a beat. "Probably, anyway. You'll find that very little escapes the attentions of our MSY overlords. It's why you can't sleep right now, right?"
The girl sat down on the bed next to Ryouko, and looking into those light purple irises, she tried to decide whether she should try to fudge the truth.
"Yes, it is," she said, finally.
"Just to be clear, while it is occasionally useful to be perceived as having god‐like powers of perception," Clarisse said, "I more or less stole that from your mind. You see this?"
With a bright purple flash, a book appeared in her outstretched hand. The leather‐bound book appeared well‐worn and ancient, and on its cover cryptic runes proclaimed simply "Clarisse van Rossum".
Just as it occurred to Ryouko to wonder how she had managed to read the runes, the book vanished again.
"I don't think you need an explanation about the book," Clarisse said, "but several of the histories in here are of noted telepaths. The distance between here and the moon we are about to go to is many times larger than the distance between Mitakihara and Berlin, but it seems distance is very much a relative thing for my soul gem. Since I'm now so close, the lock has come off of some of my powers. That includes mind‐reading, which I more or less abused just now."
Ryouko, of course, was the last person who needed an explanation of Clarisse's powers. The historian's powers got stronger as she approached an event of historical importance. Specifically, among other things, she could record the memories and powers of those she met within her book, as long as they consented—or were dead. In the ordinary course of things, it was merely a record. But at certain times, in certain places, it was something she could actually use. It was said that at such times she could be absolutely terrifying.
"I know you're not the type to share readily," Clarisse said, still pinning her with those eyes of hers. "So I'll tell you what I know. You're terrified of regretting your decision, which is why you haven't spoken to her, even though we are scheduled to leave in a mere few hours. But you know that not making the decision could be worse in any number of ways. It is immature to leave on your mission without speaking to her, or so you think, though I personally agree. I've… felt what you felt, when you thought you were dead in those simulations. You regretted immensely not speaking to her."
Clarisse paused, and Ryouko simply waited, holding her breath. She was mesmerized, and though she realized that, she found herself unwilling to resist.
"I won't presume to speak for you," Clarisse said, "and it is terrible of me to violate you like this, but there is little time. You are different. I can tell, though I don't know how. Heterosexual, homosexual—you have rarely ever thought about such things, though surely Asami‐san has, by this point. I—"
Clarisse blinked, once, and it was as if a spell had been broken. Ryouko released the breath she had been holding.
"I've only had a few relationships," Clarisse said, eyes suddenly downcast. "And nothing that could have been deeply serious. The nature of my life has always prevented it. Am I missing something? I don't really know. Over the course of my life, I've experienced a hundred, maybe even a thousand relationships, all second‐hand, all vicariously through the eyes of others. Even so, I don't really know. Atsuko‐san seemed to think that just because of all that I would know what to say to you. All I can say is that sometimes, love grows into you. It rarely happens as in the movies, with both parties in love at first sight. More often, there is one party that does the chasing, and perhaps the other party learns to like the chasing. If you are not sure, I would recommend giving it a try, at the very least."
Ryouko kneaded part of her quilt in her right hand.
"Do you really think so?" she asked. "Part of what has me so frozen is that, in the end, I don't really know what orientation I am. I've tried, I've really tried, but I can't—the urge is not there. I can't help but think she might be very disappointed, to put it bluntly, assuming she's thought it through."
She felt her cheeks color slightly. It was not a topic she felt comfortable discussing.
"You don't necessarily need an orientation," Clarisse said, looking up, but not trying to force eye contact. "Don't feel bound by something like that. It seems to me that if it's so difficult to decide, it must not matter much. If you think you and her can coexist in the other relevant ways, then this will solve itself. That's… I suppose that's experience talking."
Ryouko stayed silent, playing with her hands.
"You don't have to decide right away," Clarisse said. "I know you fear the consequences of making a decision when you might die soon. But for your own sake, you should explain yourself to Nakihara‐san. You don't want to leave regrets behind. I've experienced those memories. It's not pleasant."
Ryouko took a breath.
"I think you're right," she said. "Or rather, I know you're right. I've just had trouble actually doing it."
"I know," she said, "but there's very little time left. I'm just giving you one more kick. I'll stay here if you want, but—"
"No it's okay," Ryouko said, shaking her head. "I'll call her. Do you mind—"
"I will go," Clarisse said, already getting up.
The door slid closed behind her.
Ryouko watched it for a moment, then took a breath.
I'm tempted to make some sort of joke right now, the other Clarisse thought, but I'll save it. You want me to place a call or what? Since she's on secondary training, it's actually pretty likely that she's busy. I thought about pointing that out, but I figure some sort of voice message would suffice. I didn't want to push you.
Ryouko leaned down onto her bed.
"I suppose," she conceded. "I just feel like I'm being so rushed by events. I—whatever, just do it."
She stared at the ceiling, waiting for the interstellar communication protocol to work its magic. In truth, she would have called even without Clarisse's visit, but… she had been procrastinating. She had realized that there was a good chance that by waiting so long, Asami would be unable to pick up, and she felt cowardly for secretly hoping that she could just leave a message. Clarisse had really given her a kick in the pants, she supposed.
It occurred to her that the connection was taking unusually long. That was unusual—if someone was busy, the response from the implants or TacComp was usually instantaneous. Instead, she was simply lying around waiting. It had been ten seconds, at least.
IIC traffic volume in this area is extremely high, Clarisse thought. For obvious reasons, including that everyone has military privileges. Still, that's not the reason for the delay. The connection has been active for a while now. I think we're waiting on her.
Ryouko had figured that out for herself. She wondered why Clarisse would repeat the fact. It wasn't her style to supply her with redundant information.
"Ryouko?" Asami said, her voice cutting through the pattern of Ryouko's thoughts, tiny, slim face appearing in her vision, occupying a virtual screen that now covered the center of her vision.
Ryouko took a deep breath, realizing that the other girl, who also looked understandably nervous, could probably see her.
"Hi, Asami," she said, feeling sheepish.
The other girl shifted her eyes to the side, looking off the edge of the virtual screen.
"Meiqing said you'd call," she said.
"Yes," Ryouko agreed. "I'm surprised you're available, actually. I thought you might be busy with training."
Asami smiled slightly.
"They cut it short, actually," she said. "We've been instructed to sleep, since the fleet moves to the front tomorrow. Something is obviously going to happen."
"I see," Ryouko said.
The conversation was a bit strained, but it could hardly have been otherwise.
"I may be dead tomorrow," she said.
The words were out before she could stop herself. Viewing the reaction on Asami's face, she rushed to correct the situation:
"Sorry, I'm sorry, I meant to say that I'm going on a dangerous mission very soon. There's a high chance of not coming back. That's what I meant to say."
She listened to her own breath, angry at herself that she could botch it so badly.
"Meiqing did mention a special combat mission," Asami said, voice slightly higher pitch than normal. "She didn't mention something like that."
"Look, Asami," Ryouko said, closing her eyes so she could just say it. "I'm not good at this kind of thing. I just want to say that you've been a good friend and… I don't know. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated you being here. This is not a rejection. I just… I don't know yet. I'm not even sure I'm lesbian. I wanted to wait, but I can't wait. I didn't want to just leave, in case I never spoke to you again. I–I don't know. Everyone says I should tell you how things are, so there it is. I guess."
Of course, closing her eyes had no direct bearing on whether she could see the transmission, but the system knew enough to black out the transmission when her eyes were closed, or at the very least Clarisse could do it.
She opened her eyes again, to find Asami smiling back strainedly, with perhaps a dash of pain.
"I understand," the girl said, a moment later. "I—It's not easy, I'll admit, but I don't want to be unfair. I don't want to pressure you. I—"
Asami clenched her eyes shut, and Ryouko cringed internally at the sudden emotion.
"It seems silly, to care so much about you," Asami said. "But just come back alive, okay? Come back so I still have a chance to see you."
Embarrassed, Ryouko looked away, saying what she knew was the proper line:
"Keep yourself alive too, okay? This is all moot otherwise."
"I will," Asami said, nodding.
They stared at each other a moment.
"How is it, being part of Magi Cæli, then?" Ryouko asked, experimentally. "I know you wanted a planetary posting, so…"
Her voice trailed off, since she wasn't really sure where she was going with this. Fortunately, however, Asami seemed to perk up slightly, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"It's okay, I guess," she said. "I can't really complain, since I didn't make a wish about that. My brother told me he's thankful. That has to be enough, I suppose."
"I'd ask you where you are, but that's probably classified, right?"
"I'm guessing so," Ryouko responded.
She wanted to say something else, but all she could think of were questions that were entirely inappropriate, or else monologues about varying topics: wormhole stabilizers, colonial organization, things like that. In the past, around a hundred virtual campfires, she had been able to keep Asami fascinated with things like that, but right now she couldn't help but feel it wasn't a good time. Not to mention that talking about wormhole stabilizers might be construed as hinting at classified information.
"I guess that's goodbye for now, then," she said.
"Yes," Asami agreed. "Goodbye. For now."
The transmission ended, and Ryouko lay there for a little while longer, until Clarisse prodded her with:
Well, since we're in the process of making difficult calls, I think now is a good time to call your parents.
"Yes, I suppose I should," she said out loud.
Nakihara Asami let out a breath.
To think just a while ago I lived at home, and all I wanted was to get out. How things change. I barely remember what any of them look like anymore.
She frowned, tapping her fingers on the desk in front of her.
She's going on some sort of mission tomorrow? And our training was abbreviated so the fleet can head out today? It can't be a coincidence.
She considered a moment.
TacComp, do you think there's any way for me to keep tabs on her combat status? You know, as some sort of alert‐style thing?
Probably not, her robotic companion responded. According to the records, she is serving as a lower‐tier staff officer on board the Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, and has no upcoming combat missions. However, if what she told you is true, it is unlikely those records are accurate. Either way, there is no way for me to keep watch on classified information. In addition, I feel it is relevant to state that, as a matter of safety, magical girl personnel are usually quarantined from potentially distressing information about the activities of friends and lovers, pending MHD approval.
"Hmm," Asami said, out loud, reacting only slightly to the use of the word "lover".
The Grapevine, if it exists, probably has only unreliable information, her TacComp thought, intercepting her current train of thought. Consulting it in your state may result in negative consequences.
She laughed silently.
In my state… she thought.
You do know how to access it, though? she queried.
I had not anticipated this request, so it would take me some time to find out.
"Hmm," she said, again out loud. Maybe it was her imagination, but the device sounded almost reluctant.
The "Grapevine" was, of course, the covert information network that magical girls used to exchange information, outside the reach of Governance or, in many cases, even the MSY. It was difficult to deny information to a group of people that had universal telepathy and a subpopulation of mind‐readers.
So the rumors said, anyway. She hadn't ever had any contact with it, herself.
She looked at her hand, spreading her fingers out so that it framed the desk surface.
Who would have thought I had it in me? But look at me now: I spend half my time moping about, and the other half dreaming about what I'll do when we finally get our own ship. I feel like some sort of stupid teenager… which I suppose I am. That seems so far away now, doesn't it? But it was such a nice idea…
She sat there for a while, cradling her head in her arms on the desk, fantasizing about the future, about how they could explore undiscovered alien worlds together, how they'd decorate the inside of their ship, and what they'd do there…
She startled awake, looking first at the girl who had woken her—Hosna Schaefer, one of her wingmates—then at her desk, where she was dismayed to see that a pool of drool had accrued.
"Oh, so you were asleep," the girl said. "Sorry, I was just stopping by to chat. But if you're sleeping…"
"No, no, it's okay," Asami said, rubbing her head and wondering, not for the first time, what good TacComps were if they wouldn't wake you in situations like this. Yeah, sure, it wasn't an emergency, but still…
The other girl sat on her bed, and watched her as she turned laboriously in her chair. She smiled slightly.
"So how's the boyfriend?" Hosna asked straightforwardly.
"I don't have a boyfriend," Asami said automatically, the habit ingrained into her now.
"I told you girls…"
Asami let her voice trail off. Yes, maybe she had been a little too obvious about it the past few days, but for everyone to grill her on it like this—yes, she was quiet and easy to pick on, but was that really an excuse to—
"What do you think about the Cult?" she asked, diverting the topic to something else she had had in mind.
"The Cult?" Hosna repeated, tugging pointlessly on her own braid. "Nothing, really. Oh, no, you're not starting to buy into Jean's nonsense, are you?"
"It would be nice, wouldn't it, to be able to look forward to an afterlife like that?" Asami asked, rhetorically. "But I can't get myself to believe it. Probably for the better."
Hosna stared at her for a moment, then opened her mouth to say "Okay, I guess I'll leave you alone then." before finally clamping her mouth shut and standing up abruptly, looming over Asami.
"Nothing happened, right?" she asked, with a hint of worry. "You sure your gem is okay?"
Asami blinked away her dreamy state, realizing she had accidentally given the wrong impression.
"Oh, no, no, I'm fine," she said. "I was just thinking out loud."
To accentuate her point, she manifested her soul gem in the palm of her hand, showing that it still had a healthy dark purple glow… though perhaps tinged with a little black. She should remember to clean it soon.
The other girl looked at it skeptically.
"You worry the rest of us, sometimes," she said, gently. "I—take care of yourself, okay? I picked a bad time. I'll leave you alone. But, you know, we're here for you. I mean, maybe I can get Jean to talk to you, okay?"
With that awkward pronouncement, the girl backed out of the room slowly, still watching her warily.
When the door shut, Asami slumped back onto her desk again, and sighed. Only a day at most until the fleet would go on serious combat duty, and here she was using her break time pining over a girl.
Well, maybe Meiqing would serve as a useful distraction. She should call.
Corridors full of killing and blood, but no screaming. The squid, as far as was known, didn't make any vocalizations worth mentioning. So, no screaming, except in the minds of the telepaths, who took it all stoically.
Events passed in a blur. Had it been possible to ask her, she would have been absolutely sure that something had happened—but completely unable to give any details. Indeed, it would have been valid to question whether they happened at all.
None of this led Ryouko to question the reality of what was around her. Such is the nature of dreams.
When it all faded away, she found herself looking up at an archaic stone edifice, similar—no, identical—to the back side of the Cult's headquarters.
Which meant, of course, that she was standing in the middle of a rose garden.
The sky was a blank white—not the white of clouds or the blinding white of a star, but merely white.
She looked down.
The garden was in full bloom, ponderous pink flowers weighing down on thorny branches. That's right: They were all pink, weren't they? Now that she had finally noticed, it astounded her that she hadn't noticed before.
Raising a hand to reach for a flower, she was startled to see that her hand and forearm were drenched in the copper‐green ichor of the squid. There was so much of it that it seemed to soak into her very skin, forming darker‐green channels wherever her skin folded on itself. It dripped from the ring of her soul gem, and from the sleeve of her costume, and it seemed to her that the color of the ichor and her gem were indistinguishable—though perhaps the ichor had managed to coat the ring itself.
Strangely, even to her, she was far from disgusted. Taking it all in stride, she reached her hand for the flower she was eyeing, a gorgeous specimen that was so heavy it seemed on the verge of breaking its own branch. Did roses grow like that?
Somehow, despite the deliberate care she took to avoid the thorns, she pricked herself anyway, jerking her hand away violently when the pain came. She crouched to look at the injured finger, where the iron‐red blood swirled briefly within the ichor, before the wound sealed itself shut.
A movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention, and looking up, she found that she had been looking at the edge of a white dress, the kind of sundress a woman might wear while tending her garden. Said woman was looking down on her with a warm expression, and was holding a rose in her hand, her flower picking exploits having evidently been more successful than Ryouko's.
"Mama?" Ryouko asked, confused that her mother would be here, of all places.
Instead of answering, the woman simply stretched her arms out, smiling.
"Mama!" Ryouko exclaimed, jumping up to embrace the woman, recovering for just a moment the simple emotions of childhood.
She buried her head in the woman's chest for a moment, and when she looked up again, she found the woman looking pensively at the rose in her hand.
"It's probably an overplayed metaphor," she said, "but the flower really does symbolize love quite well. It's a very fickle thing, but in the end I didn't regret it. I might have regretted some choices I made, but I never regretted having you."
Ryouko released the embrace, stepping back from the woman to look her in the face, uncertainty swirling in her mind.
"Who… are you?" she asked, a long moment later.
The woman tilted her head slightly, and smiled, as if humored by the question.
"I am who you think I am," she said.
She bent over so that the two of them were the same height, and Ryouko found herself looking back into the woman's eyes. They looked normal, just like her mother's, just like her own, but she kept finding her gaze drawn back into the black pupils. There, she saw—
"Do you know why they're attacking like this? Does anyone?"
The voice was her own, but she wasn't saying it. It seemed to come from her own memory, but she didn't remember it.
"No," a girl answered, a voice she recognized as Patricia von Rohr. "No one has any idea. They just attack, and we defend. It is one of the mysteries of this war."
Then the voice of Kishida Maki:
"No, I never regretted it. Despite everything, I never regretted it."
In those eyes, she saw—
Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself looking once again at the contours of the real world.
Clarisse! she asked immediately, not even slightly dulled by post‐sleep languor. Did you wake me?
I did not, Clarisse responded. I was trying to wait for that dream to end. But now that you're awake, you might as well stay awake. It's almost time for the mission to start.
Do you have any idea what it means? Ryouko asked.
I have absolutely no idea, Clarisse thought, and I find it distressing that we're both taking that question seriously. Not that I think it's wrong to do so, considering this is another memory my processing algorithms can't seem to touch.
Ryouko frowned sharply.
But I'm nowhere near the Ribbon, she commented.
I know; I find it disturbing too.
Ryouko thought about that a moment, seated in her bed, then got up decisively, stretching one arm out so CubeBot could climb up onto her shoulder, and using the other to reach for what few personal effects she had taken off the ship.
For better or worse, it was time to go. There was a chance she could direct her questions to the Goddess herself, soon enough.