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

Once solely the province of science fiction writers, it was the theories of Volokhov, combined with the military use of cortical implants, that first paved the way for the intentional alteration of human and AI consciousness. 〈Today, the military routinely performs prodigious feats of mind‐bending, ranging from the subtle expansion of awareness that comes from military‐grade tactical computers, to the mental combat gestalt of Maximal Command Mode, within which the AIs and commanders of a military task force partially fuse their mental states, in order to ensure optimal command and control.〉①

It is Governance that performs the most complicated mental gymnastics, integrating as a matter of course the operations of thousands of individual Representative minds into a greater super‐Representative whole, forming a hierarchical pyramid of sentiences representing greater and greater numbers of lesser sentiences, while still allowing these lesser sentiences independence of thought, action, and will. Directorate‐level Representatives each represent the opinions of hundreds of thousands of lower‐level Representatives, which at the lowest level reflect the opinions and beliefs of actual constituents. It is disturbing, perhaps, to consider the state of human representatives—or indeed, the AIs—installed at any level of the hierarchy. Seemingly enslaved to the opinions of so many others, they still seem resolutely independent.

The illusion of free will, then, is preserved. Looking at the mathematics, it is easy to see how this is possible, but remove the goggles of theory, and the intuition boggles.

[…]

According to the equations of Volokhov, consciousness is less of a discrete entity, and more of a fluid, existing across a vast spectrum of possible strengths, and, with the proper tweaking, capable of mergers, splitting, and other feats that are not typically thought of in conjunction with the idea of "mind".

Where the theory runs into perplexity is not within its own edifice, which stands refreshingly paradox‐free, but in contact with a truly alien, unexpected development: the idea of souls, introduced by the Incubators. The idea of soul gems carrying "souls"—minds, even, perhaps—as discrete entities runs counter to the grain of the consensus established by Volokhov, and the intersection of the two technologies introduces a host of unsettling questions. What happens to the "soul" of a magical girl installed within the Governance hierarchy? Does her "soul" expand to cover the underground processing cores that offload computational load? Does it remain distinct somehow? Can the symbiotic advisory AI, fused so directly into the mind of the Representative, influence this "soul"? What of the magical girl's mysterious powers?

〈Similar questions apply, of course, to the military.〉①

Instead of sweeping these issues under the rug, as has been done so far, I think humanity would be better served to study these issues closely, and develop an understanding, before the contradictions introduced by them arise to plague the current system.

— Joanne Valentin, DS Physics, 2445, "Volokhov and Soul Gems: What we must study," opinion post to IntSci networked science platform, written for popular consumption, excerpt.

Fundamentally, the goal of stealth is always the same. Firstly, any particle or field that passes into the region of the object being stealthed must appear on the other side identical to if it had passed through vacuum or air or whatever the medium of relevance may be. Secondly, the object being stealthed must not emit any additional particles or fields of its own.

All of this is, of course, far more easily said than done. Any ship traveling through space, for instance, will obviously have a strong need to "see" its surroundings—but even passive sensors must absorb something from the environment, and active sensors are naturally much worse. It is theoretically possible to absorb the particle, perform your measurements, then reemit a similar particle out the other end, but this is an immense technical challenge, and not completely solved. Further, in certain cases it may be impossible to safely absorb the particle without being detected—numerous stealth detection schemes exist that use quantumly correlated particles as part of the detection framework.

Further, it is easy to get lost in a discussion of particles and fields, and forget that within star systems starships encounter a much higher density of stellar material, including micrometeorites that may contain a macroscopic number of atoms. Clearly absorption and reemission is out of the question in this case, and the watchful enemy observer may notice the subtle realignment of stellar material. Enemies performing active detection may of course simulate a similar effect with the deployment of vast numbers of microdrones, which serve a similar purpose.

Even avoiding the spontaneous emission of radiation or material is a severe technical challenge. Every stray internal EM transmission must be brought under control, heat emissions from the engines and passengers must be somehow stored, radiation from decayed exotic matter must be dealt with, and so forth. Further, acceleration of any kind must be very carefully done—conservation of momentum ensures that something must be left behind altered, regardless of the propulsion system used, so extreme care must be taken about accelerating in the presence of a watchful enemy.

All of this must be added to the simple fact that it is impossible to maintain stealth if your ship must pass through a large piece of solid matter or a forcefield. The best fixed defenses will make liberal use of such devices to construct as much of a wall as possible, presenting an obstacle course difficult for even the best stealth ship.

— Military Science for the Precocious Child, online magazine, article title "Stealth Technology," excerpt.


Ryouko stared at the opposing wall of the room she was seated in, HSS Raven's spherical stealth generator chamber. She could have had it play some entertainment for her, but she wasn't quite in the mood for that.

They were in transit to the planet Orpheus, traveling at around 90% lightspeed for stealth reasons, a journey that would take about a half‐hour, from their perspective. She supposed she should have been apprehensive, but instead found herself introspective, thinking back to the conversations she had had over the past day.

Closing her eyes, she visualized part of a conversation with her mother.

"I didn't raise you this old just for you to die on me!"

"I know, mama."

"This quickly, and they're already sending you on 'special missions'. I should have known. When I get my hands on—and that damned sister of mine—"

"Mama, grandpapa wanted me to give you his regards."

Her mother clenched her eyes shut, seeming to impose a measure of calm on herself.

"I know," she said, after taking a deep breath. "I'll tell you the same thing I told him. Just stay alive. That's all I want. This family and its insatiable—"

Ryouko opened her eyes, frowning. She had realized something.

"Don't die, okay?"

"Come back alive, okay?"

She had heard variations of that phrase over and over, almost since she had contracted, from sources as disparate as her psychiatrist, a distant ancestor, and a would‐be lover. It gave her the distinct impression that she'd be letting a lot of people down if she died on this mission.

You know, I've been thinking, Clarisse began.

Ryouko leaned backward, resting her head against the polished white surface that covered the interior of the ship, one of the pieces of modular furniture that were scattered ubiquitously around Raven, waiting to be summoned for usage.

About what? Ryouko asked, finally.

If there really is a Goddess of magical girls, Clarisse thought, then it seems rather unfair that upon death, you get to go to some sort of afterlife, and I'm going to end up rotting here.

Ryouko thought about that. Over the past few weeks, she had grown increasingly convinced as to Clarisse's sentience. At the same time, she didn't feel as if she had truly internalized the fact. It was something she knew intellectually, then proceeded to ignore as she lived her life.

A rather disturbing image flitted across the surface of her mind: herself, soul gem shattered, with Clarisse still alive in the remains. Was that even possible?

She shuddered, slightly.

Does it bother you? she asked Clarisse. There are religions that grant an immortal soul to AIs.

Yes, but this one seems to have actual evidence for it, Clarisse thought, brushing past her point. I don't mind dying. I just don't like how unfair it would be.

That's an… interesting way of looking at it. Of course, all this afterlife stuff is mostly speculation. From what I understand, it derives mostly from some statements Akemi Homura may have made once. I wouldn't think about it too hard.

When Clarisse didn't respond, Ryouko blinked, looking around her to see if anything had changed. Nothing had. Mohammad Berriman was still seated in a chair in the middle of the chamber, seemingly staring intently at the roughly four‐meter cubical box in front him which controlled the ship's stealth systems. At the moment, the side of the box was impassively gray, Mohammad choosing to use an internal interface rather than the external visual display, so it appeared as if he were staring at nothing at all.

Ryouko was far too used to that sort of behavior to find it strange.

Seeing her looking, Juliet François stepped away from Mohammad, who she had been impassively looming over. The girl walked over towards Ryouko, her thoughts radiating a sort of quiet confidence. Everything was fine, she was implying.

A set of furniture blocks moved themselves next to Ryouko's seat, shaping themselves into an extension that would turn her simple chair into something resembling a park bench.

Juliet sat down next to her on the newly assembled bench. Ryouko found them looking at each other, the other girl's hazel eyes level with her own green. Using her telepathy, the girl transmitted a brief wave of concern.

I'm fine, Ryouko thought.

The other girl continued to stare at her.

Really, Ryouko insisted.

Juliet shrugged, and began stroking her braided ponytail, which she had thrown over one shoulder.

I'm sure someone has asked this before, Ryouko thought, and I'm sorry if I'm being rude, but is there a reason you don't ever speak?

The other girl looked at her out of the corner of her eye, appraisingly. She seemed to be making some sort of decision.

Finally, Juliet thought:

Gracia says you have internal turmoil. Not at peace. We've asked; they say you've had a vision, yet you have not joined us. Gracia says you think about the Goddess. And that your TacComp is different. Like a second mind. Very confusing.

The words came out awkwardly, tersely, and a bit hesitantly, as if she were performing a task she hadn't done in a long while.

Ryouko's reaction to Juliet's words must have shown on her face, because Juliet added:

Teams like this, the telepath often acts as MHD surveillance officer. She is concerned about you. And naturally, we are very curious about the Goddess. She also says… that the texture of your thoughts is strange. Secret for now, but we want to ask—

Juliet paused for a moment, wearing one of her common impassive faces, one Ryouko had difficulty ever reading.

—are you hiding something about this mission? A revelation? If it bothers you, perhaps we could help you understand it.

Ryouko felt a moment, but only a moment, of quiet rage at the unwarranted intrusion into her thoughts.

Then she took a quiet breath, reminding herself that she learned to expect as much, in close company with a telepath, and that over the course of their training, she had come to regard the telepath Gracia and the always‐quiet Juliet as friends. The two of them had reminded her of old‐style nuns during the quiet prayer ceremony they had held earlier, in a way Clarisse and Mina had failed to achieve.

I don't know any more about this mission than you do, Ryouko thought, finally. I've received visions, yes. But none of them tell me anything about what's going on here.

Visions? Juliet repeated back to her. You've had more than one?

Ryouko mentally reviewed the syntax of her last sentence. Yes, "visions"—that was what she had said.

Damn Standard and its declensions! she thought, even though she knew very well that telepathy carried no ambiguity, regardless of what surface language was used.

There were multiple parts to my vision, Ryouko amended. None of them were particularly enlightening.

It was technically true, after all.

Juliet frowned, her emotions conveying a sense of thoughtfulness.

Want to share? We could interpret together. We could get van Rossum. She's an expert, perhaps glad to help.

The girl seemed to hesitate more than usual on the last sentence, casting her eyes downward. Was she… embarrassed?

Ryouko frowned in turn, wondering if she should actually consider it, but then the bench she was sitting on began to grow longer still, pieces assembling to create yet more space on Ryouko's left.

She looked up just as Clarisse sat down, clearly intent on joining the silent conversation.

In my experience, there is no consistent manner in which a vision should be interpreted, the historian thought, without any prelude. Sometimes they are extremely symbolic, other times extremely literal. Sometimes the Goddess just tells you what she wants directly, without any rigmarole. And of course visions of the future don't always come true, or else there'd be much less of a point in sending them. It should also be noted that not all visions are of the future. Some are of the present, some are of the past, and some show things that could never possibly have happened.

Deciding not to comment on the fact that the telepathic conversation had been private, Ryouko turned to face Clarisse, trying to ignore Juliet, whose expression was suddenly so wide‐eyed her eyes seemed in danger of falling out.

Do you think mine will come true, then? Ryouko asked.

It's difficult to say, Clarisse said. If preventing it were as simple as giving a warning, it is difficult to see why it was given so indirectly. It would have been far more trivial to give the warning to Kyouko‐chan herself, during one of her trips to the Ribbon.

Clarisse paused to think, as Ryouko chewed on the casually dropped Kyouko‐chan, complete with Japanese honorific.

Of course, it's possible the Goddess was just trying to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. After all, I doubt that was the only important thing about the vision.

Clarisse gave her a knowing look, allowing Ryouko to wonder just how much the historian actually knew. It could have been an easy deduction on her part: Ryouko had pretty clearly been holding back during the Theological Council meeting. On the other hand, something about Clarisse's tone seemed to suggest it went deeper than that—was this more mind‐reading? Or had she simply "overheard" Ryouko's admission earlier that her vision had had multiple parts?

I can't believe I let that slip! Ryouko thought.

You know, she could be reading your thoughts right now, the TacComp Clarisse pointed out. Heck, she could be reading my thoughts. There is precedent for telepaths pulling information out of Version One TacComps, much less Version Twos.

Ryouko cringed internally, realizing that it was a good point.

I don't think I like telepaths, she thought. And yes, I know she can probably hear that too.

As a community, telepaths don't really believe in privacy, the historian Clarisse thought, turning her head away from Ryouko to face the opposing bulkhead. It's part of the culture. But enough about that. As long as you believe none of your visions pertain to this mission, then you don't have to discuss it now, though I'd love to hear about it later, if there's time. Actually, I'm not just here to mind‐read and chat.

With a violet shimmer, Clarisse's legendary "Tome of Memories" appeared in her hands, eliciting a gasp from Juliet and a jerk of surprise from Ryouko.

This is always awkward, Clarisse thought. But since I have good reason to suspect I'm the most likely to survive this mission, I've been asking everyone involved in the mission if they want their memories stored with me. You know, just in case.

Ryouko and Juliet stared at her, and then she continued:

There's no pressure, just to be clear. I'd be glad to perform the operation in case of… well, permanent death, but given the nature of the mission there might not be time. It's totally up to you, but if you have any secrets you might not want me to know, then… you probably shouldn't. And it's pretty intimate, psychologically speaking.

For a moment, Ryouko thought she saw a predatory gleam in Clarisse's eyes, but before she could decide if it was real or not, it vanished.

I'm okay, Ryouko thought. Thanks for the offer, though.

It occurred to her then to wonder whether memories of visions could be conveyed that way.

"I'd be glad to," Juliet said, and it took Ryouko a moment to realize that the girl had, improbably, said it out loud.

Clarisse nodded.

"Very well," she said. "Stand up."

As the girl scrambled to follow the command, Clarisse raised her hand, her soul gem ring glowing slightly.

Just as Ryouko realized what was happening, Clarisse transformed, a burst of brilliant violet light traveling outward from the ring and radiating through the rest of her body, replacing her clothing with the elaborate lacy formal dress and cap that constituted her magical girl costume.

"I need a bit more power to perform the procedure," she explained.

She stretched forward with her hand, reaching for what appeared to be Juliet's chest, then seemed to think better of it, casting a glance in Ryouko's direction.

Clarisse's whispered something under her breath, and Ryouko noted something appearing on the girl's head—

With that, both Clarisse and Juliet vanished, leaving Ryouko blinking.

Palladis auxiliis invoco, her TacComp noted helpfully. Strange that it'd be in Latin, but I believe she summoned a form of invisibility.

Why, though? Ryouko thought.

She didn't have long to wait for an answer; Clarisse reappeared a short while afterward with a startled looking Juliet, who was clutching her heart and breathing a little heavily.

"I figured some privacy would be called for," Clarisse explained to Ryouko. "You sure you're not up to it? It's quite painless."

"I'm pretty sure," Ryouko said—an understatement.

Ryouko looked up at the ceiling, checking the mission time. Soon they would enter their pre‐determined trajectory around Orpheus, engines silent for maximum stealth. They would wait until an exploitable opportunity in the alien defenses appeared or, if that failed to occur soon enough, make their move anyway.

Right now there was nothing to do but wait, and hope.


On board the HSS Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, Mami let out a breath.

Within a simulation there was no reason to breathe, of course, but it still seemed like the natural thing to do. Unlike the practice runs she had participated in earlier, there would be no preliminary discussion with the other commanders, no conversations reviewing various aspects of the upcoming operation, no social banter. The commanders of the other fleets knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew when to do it.

Mami's fleet was the most conspicuous, sticking out like a sore thumb, assembling so much force in such a relatively small area of space that the squid couldn't help but notice—so much force that, indeed, they couldn't have concealed it even if they had been trying to.

The element of surprise was reserved for the other fleets, Gul's fleet divided between the system's asteroid belt and Oort cloud, and Anand's fleet gathering in the depths of space. True, it wasn't expected that their attacks would succeed, but that didn't mean they had to be stupid about it.

Because of that, there would be no direct communication, not until the attacks had developed and mutual radio silence was pointless.

Roland Erwynmark materialized at her side, as she stood brooding in her virtuality, the Kepler‒37 system hanging in space in front of her like so many toys in front of a child.

"IntOps reports that Raven is approaching start position," Erwynmark said, peering at her from the corner of his eye. "According to the schedule, it is time to start, Mami."

Mami closed her eyes for a moment.

"I know," she said.

With a thought, the scale of the simulation changed, and she now stood among her own fleet, her virtual avatar hovering like a ghost within the core of her battle formation: Euphratic Sector Fleets I through VII, arrayed in the rarely‐used Drill formation, a sharp V‐shaped cone that was field manual approved for offensive fleet operations, as opposed to the more common C‐shaped Shield formation that was seen in defensive operations.

Both sides were heavily reliant on their capital ships, but the human fleet was vulnerable to flanking by the faster alien bomber fleets, so they had to rely on formation to protect their battlecruisers, rather than simply fly interceptors around wherever necessary, as the aliens did. On the offense, however, the battlecruisers had to be able to close in on their targets, so the Drill placed the battlecruisers near the tip, with a very heavy concentration of cruisers, frigates, and so forth in front, forming the point of the spear. By bending the frontal plane back into a cone, the battlecruisers were given a maximum range of possible targets to choose from; a battlecruiser's most powerful weapon, the SHERMAN cannon, was spinally‐mounted, and could only fire forward. On the other hand, the V made it more difficult for segments of the plane to support each other. Mami's own First Fleet had place of honor at the spearpoint, and the other fleets were arrayed at various locations along the cone, but for the battlecruisers this was a complete abstraction, since they had been mostly detached and shifted into the tip.

Mami took another breath. Erwynmark was right: it was time.

She broadened the horizons of her mind, using her Field Marshal's cortical implants to stretch her perceptions wide, drawing into herself the processing of Machina, the thrumming power of HSS Zhukov, the rhythms of her fleet. She allowed herself to listen in, for just a moment:

Squadron E‒6—Avenging Angels—in standby positions, members report nominal—

Reactor power at 400% baseline, indicators green—

"What are they doing up there? Why aren't we moving? My thrusters itch!"

"Your thrusters do not 'itch.' Calm down. I, for one, am not in such a hurry to die. I have family, you know."

"You have backups! Any more talk like that, and they'll retire you."

"As if—"

"I hope Mami knows what she's doing."

"I hope any of us know what we're doing."

"Fair enough—"

In the distance, she sensed Erwynmark and the other admirals of the seven fleets doing the same as her, settling into command on board their respective ships, taking control of various aspects of fleet operation. No sense in having other flag officers in the area, even on observation, if they weren't going to be used.

Her awareness of the world expanded, the implants gently releasing the strictures of her merely human perception—those strictures that, for better or worse, applied to magical girls as well. Instead of seeing only what was in front of her, her field of view widened, reaching around her, so that she could "see" in every direction. She grew gradually aware of events far distant from her, of Apollo and Artemis's orbital defenses and remaining ships huddling into desperate defensive positions, of tens of millions of ground troops and colonial militia fortifying, bracing themselves for what was to come. Only the other fleets—Gul's and Anand's task forces—stayed out of her awareness, the need for radio silence inhibiting communication.

With the sensors of seven fleets, she saw the electromagnetic emissions of the world around her—radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X‐ray, gamma—the colors of the spectrum, augmented by the subtleties of wave polarization and single‐photon effects, revealing unimaginable forms of sensory perception. The throbbing of the fleet's FTL drives, the flexing of space‐time around them, the Field Theory that underpinned it all—she understood it not with a painfully‐learned physicists' grasp of the world, but at a deep instinctual level, as the ships of her fleet did.

In the depths of her mind, she felt something fundamental shifting, pieces of her personality rearranging around something new. Slowly, she began to regard the constituents of the fleet not merely as tools at her disposal, but as limbs of her body. Erwynmark thought, and commanded—Zhukov thought, and commanded—Machina thought, and commanded—and it became difficult to separate their actions from her own.

Mami knew many officers who were almost addicted to Maximal Command Mode, the mode only used by senior officers of a fleet in combat, that a simulation only approximated. Many waxed almost rapturous about this kind of expanded perception, this sense of being part of a greater whole—but, personally, she could hardly think about it without shuddering. She hardly felt human anymore.

But that was a secondary consideration, the idle wanderings of only a small part of her consciousness. There were more important things to attend to.

Across the fleet, a sense of expectation emerged, as AIs ran final checks, officers braced themselves in their command chairs, and chatter died down. Even without a formal command, the mood of the higher officers easily percolated downward, all the way down to the fighter pilots being told to pull closer to the larger ships.

Finally, the formal countdown started, ships accelerating, matching velocities, warming up their FTL engines. Throughout the fleet, human officers, gunners, and pilots activated their combat modes, accelerating the pace of their thoughts, so that the tick of the passing seconds seemed to stretch into eternity.

BEGIN

Rather than springing from any one source, this single monumental command seemed to come from the fleet itself, millions of individual chronometers reaching the designated moment.

With no need for stealth, the fleet could move as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not only were they constrained by the need to reach the alien defenses at a combat speed below the speed of light, their ability to accelerate and decelerate, especially for the larger battlecruisers, was rather constrained. As such, the trip was a nerve‐wracking ten‐minute affair, spent within the enormous collective fleet FTL shell. The impracticality of FTL combat made it unlikely they would be intercepted halfway en route, before they reached the fixed defenses and FTL interdiction that would make it impossible to continue, but it couldn't be entirely ruled out.

The planet Orpheus began to loom larger and larger within her field of vision. The fleet was already decelerating. Soon they would reach optimal exit distance, the FTL shell would dissolve, and the aliens would be waiting.

But first—

As they approached the exit point, speeds dropping, a massive wave of alien "Raptor" missiles entered the shell, ramming straight into their approach. Carrying cheap FTL drives, the missiles were capable of independent FTL travel and, more importantly in this context, capable of entering other FTL shells without being shoved aside. With a relative speed greater than the speed of light, the length‐contracted missiles would pass straight through the fleet in a matter of seconds, but that wasn't the point. The point was what they intended to run into on the way. Firing a single Raptor at a single FTL ship was tantamount to wasting a missile on a practically guaranteed miss—firing a wall of Raptors into a fleet was another thing entirely, given that the core of said fleet had a ship density of greater than one ship every ten square kilometers. Further, the explosive charge of the average Raptor, already quite potent, would now be nearly meaningless in comparison to the sheer kinetic energy its mass would carry in their reference frame.

Of course, this was standard tactics for the aliens, whose Raptor missiles served as a constant reminder of the relative infancy of human FTL technology, which could in no way afford the expense of placing a FTL drive on a self‐destructing missile.

Knowing from painful experience that the Raptors would be coming, the fleet had already deployed countermeasures, in the form of its own preceding wave of counter‐missiles, and a phalanx of mines, drones, and other point defenses.

There was a moment of blinding crossfire, as the missiles from both sides slammed together in a devastating relativistic firestorm, fast even by the standards of Mami's accelerated thoughts. Cataclysmic amounts of energy poured outward, filling the EM spectrum with activity.

Minor damage to ship sector 10‒K, Zhukov thought. Damage control en route.

Mami did not feel pain—that would have been counterproductive. Still, the ship and personnel losses ate at her viscerally, and she felt her awareness shrink, just a little.

Forty‐four thousand, the human part of her thought. My God, and we're just getting started.

Seconds later, the FTL shell dissolved, and the battle began in earnest, the formation of the fleet smashing into the wall of missiles, lasers, and projectiles emanating from the alien defenders, their own weapons answering, so that the plane of impact became a wall of fire and roiling chaos.

Hundreds of thousands of frigates and millions of droneships twisted and weaved their way through the chaos, seeking to evade, deflect, or destroy the incoming rain of death. The cruisers and light carriers unloaded their defensive magazines, their MC complements helping them to stand like rocks against the stormy sea.

The overall speed of the formation slowed to a crawl, so that there was no longer any need to consider relativistic effects when examining the front as a whole, but for the smallest ships, many of which were traveling at a substantial fraction of the speed of light relative to the larger ships, it was a matter of life and death. Traveling fast made you hard to hit, but it also made your own targeting difficult—and you did not want to run into anything, including the ubiquitous enemy self‐sacrifice drones. At relativistic speeds, the only remotely realistic targets were the ships of cruiser size and up—everything else, you had to match speeds with if you wanted to do anything to them, which of course made you their target as well. To counter interceptors, the larger ships deployed prodigious amounts of firepower, coupled with almost literal walls of flak and drones.

The Magi Cæli operated by slightly different rules, of course.

In the opening stages of a battle, battlecruisers were usually at far too great a distance from the enemy's capital ships and fixed defenses to inflict direct damage on critical targets. Every battlecruiser longed, deep down its AI heart, for the satisfaction of shattering enemy capital ships with brutal frontal firepower—but in practice, they spent most of their time as they would now, shaping the battlefield with their FTL interdiction, directing the flow of battle with their onboard fire control, and serving as a threatening source of firepower that must be either avoided or neutralized. From within them, the field marshals, admirals, and commodores of the seven fleets, as well as the AIs of the ships themselves, choreographed the battlefield—shifting reserve forces, reinforcing battered parts of the line, withdrawing badly damaged ships, adjusting frigate attack formations, and otherwise performing the myriad functions of command, often in direct mental consultation with the ships and captains involved.

The fleet's battlecruisers fired, SHERMAN projectiles barreling through temporary gaps that opened and closed in the human lines, precisely for that purpose. Properly configured, their exotic matter cores ravaged and tore at the fabric of local space‐time, disabling FTL drive usage in the area for as much as twenty minutes at a time, an eternity in a battle such as this. Fifteen battlecruisers in one fleet formation easily ranked among the densest concentrations of human capital ships ever deployed, and the battery of their fire changed the complexion of the battle. Some projectiles attacked the flanks of the alien deployment, seeking to delay and disrupt the inevitable flanking counterattacks. Others tore into the heart of the alien fleet, disrupting entire incoming waves of squid bombers and Raptor missiles, some arriving from as far away as the moons of Orpheus themselves, from the heavy missile batteries that had spent the past weeks sprouting like mushrooms within the alien fixed defenses. Mami knew that if she could be there to see the detonations in person, she would see a night sky torn into a nightmare of impossible distortions, shattered and filled with hard radiation of every kind, streaked by a thousand ships distorted by the effects of their own speed.

The alien battlecruisers in the area responded, their gamma ray Eviscerator laser cannons carving angry swaths through the human fleet. Battlecruisers were not the centerpiece of the alien fleet, instead acting primarily as planetary bombardment and defense of last resort, but they were appreciably more powerful than the human equivalent—fortunately, there were only three of them.

She oversaw it all, shadowing the staccato, fever‐pitched tenor of internal communications like a ghost. They were still far from the wormhole stabilizer, and the aliens kept the majority of their forces near the moon itself. Cannily, the aliens hadn't fallen for the trap of moving their forces preemptively outward, to counter the obvious human attack under preparation. However, since they hadn't, their outer defenses were vulnerable and at a clear numerical disadvantage. Mami needed to punish them for that, by inflicting as much damage as she could during the brief period it would take for the alien inner defenses to reorganize and move out. Now that they had been able to directly confirm the scale of the alien outer defense, the battle simulations being run by the battlecruisers were very positive—the aliens were seriously outnumbered and outgunned, and pinned against something they had to defend. Without reinforcements, it seemed like they could be ground to dust.

But of course reinforcements would come. They had to. Mami was counting on it, after all.

As the first alien bomber waves crashed into the fleet's outer defenses, Mami allowed herself a moment to focus on the battlecruisers…

…1219‒4.193‒0.74. Firing. 1184‒4.02‒0.80. Firing. Target of opportunity: 1379‒3.91‒0.81, Cruiser, Designation Number: 2931. Firing. Disabled. 1201‒3.87‒0.79. Firing…

…Sector Epsilon‐Nu‒13 taking unexpected losses, HSS Manfred von Richthofen, scramble reserve interceptor squadrons 17, 18, 19, 20, MC squadron 7, 8 to sector…

HSS Ludwig van Beethoven confirmed lost. HSS Qiu Ying shift position. HSS Eugène Delacroix attempting withdrawal. HSS Haile Selassie reporting energy reserves down to 6.7%/critical…

HSS Robert Hackworth reports: MC losses, 15%; MC recovered, 10%; Interceptor losses, 43%…

Even abstracting intership communication to natural language introduced inevitable losses of meaning, and it was impossible for her, even in her expanded state, to possibly digest all of it. While battlecruisers out of combat were perfectly happy to socialize with each other using their human personalities, in‐combat communication involved the mutual transmission of unfathomable amounts of data, the even more unfathomable real‐time processing of said data, and a level of mental combat coordination that simply was not meant for human minds to handle. It was only in the regions of her mind directly connected to Zhukov, the regions where the distinction between her and him grew indistinct, that she could handle all that was going on, that she could make decisions with a true understanding of the situation, and while the tradition of the human military was to credit battlefield decisions to the human generals, it could not be honestly said that decisions were made by either her or Zhukov, but only perhaps by an amalgamation of both.

Blink cannon discharge, partially mitigated, Zhukov thought. Forcefield absorption: 35%. Forcefield energy reserves: −9.3% to 90.7% of combat capacity; status: stable. Sector 26‒G: lost. 26‒H: major damage. 25‒G: major damage. 26‒F: minor damage. 27‐G: minor damage. Power generation reduced by 5% to 95% of combat level. Estimated personnel losses: 550±15.

Blink cannon discharge, partially mitigated, Zhukov began again. Forcefield—

Were Mami still wearing a human avatar, she would have grimaced. All across the human fleet, in otherwise well‐protected locations, alien nuclear and antimatter devices were appearing out of thin air—or rather, hard vacuum—and detonating, taking a grim toll on critical light carriers, battlecruiser systems, MC deployments, and other convenient targets. The most valuable of all alien capital ships, the blink cannons, were making their appearance, as expected. It just showed that they weren't going to be fooling around—but of course, that was obvious, and entirely expected.

Current estimated fleetwide casualties: 160,000.

Current loss rate: 550 sentients per second.

A small part of Mami's consciousness—5%, she could report, with Yuma‐like precision—cringed at that. It was easier if she thought of those not as people, but as a statistic. After all, the battle had barely begun, and for a fleet of this size, those casualties were hardly meaningful. Downright unthreatening, actually, considering that the alien bomber fleets and flank attacks had thus far failed to make significant progress, running aground on a veritable wall of firepower from her fleet's frigate line, dying by the tens of thousands inside specially planned MC kill lanes. None of the tactics were novel, or unusually effective—the alien outer defenses were simply too weak, and as a consequence, they were failing to inflict enough damage on her fleet, unable to stop the forward momentum of her battle line.

She pressed onward, driving the wedge of her fleet deeper into the alien defenses. Yes, it was necessary that she keep casualties down, because it wasn't expected that this attack would succeed—but if she wanted the aliens to pull their reserves away from the wormhole stabilizer, she had to at least make a good show of it. And that meant threatening to do some major damage.

Communications had been opened again with the other two task forces. Things were going about as expected, perhaps even better than expected. Alien forces had already appeared to challenge Admiral Gul, whose asteroids were making good progress through the system. Fleet Admiral Anand had even managed to achieve tactical surprise, and had had a good run of blowing up transports before the arrival of alien reinforcements. Still, the reinforcements had arrived rather quickly; here, the alien strategy—keeping their reserve intact and ready, instead of responding preemptively to gaudy threats of force from Mami's fleet—paid off, allowing them to much more easily limit the amount of damage Anand could inflict.

Even so, long‐distance scanners were showing that alien fleet density near Orpheus proper was starting to thin, as the aliens began mobilizing units to counter the various threats—the trend, at least, was good.

Mami allowed her personality to dissolve even further, settling deeper into the battle. Right now wasn't the time for high‐level rumination—not yet, anyway. Right now was simply the doing.

The alien bomber waves were not penetrating deep enough to be threatening, and multiple attacks on their flanks had petered out without even breaking the frigate line, much less the cruiser line. The alien's outer fleet defenses simply hadn't brought enough to the party to stop them. Not with a full fifteen battlecruisers in play. The battlecruisers were now much deeper in the alien fleet and had mostly run out of interdiction targets, alien bomber power being too weak to be worth devoting much attention to. Consequently, they were now free to fusillade the alien ships directly. Even with their advanced forcefield technology, alien frigates were not a match for battlecruiser firepower, and the cruisers, coming under direct pressure from human droneships, missile waves, and MC infiltration squads, were not faring much better.

The casualty numbers in Mami's consciousness continued to climb, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, but not disproportionately. Even as a statistic, a million in casualties was hard to stomach, but it was entirely appropriate for a battle of this scale.

Instead, she was now watching other numbers: ship count, estimated alien ship count, abstracted fleet strength. The last set of numbers had at the beginning of the battle indicated that the aliens had a slight chance of prevailing without reinforcements, but that possibility was now clearly extinguished, as alien strength began to plummet appreciably. More importantly, the relative balance of power was clearly favoring them more and more, and the combat simulations were indicating that if the aliens wanted to preserve their outer fixed defenses on this side of the planet, reinforcements were clearly called for. Human bombers—a rare experimental novelty, still quite flimsy compared to the alien equivalent—were even starting to conduct bombing runs on the orbital defense of the nearest of Orpheus's moons, hoping to take out some of the Raptor missile batteries.

Come on, you bastards, Erwynmark thought, on board the Arminius, the thought percolating over to her. Come on. What are you waiting for? This is the moment. You either reinforce, or you withdraw. You cannot hold here.

Even the alien battlecruisers were coming under fire now, moving forward to buy time for the more important capital ships. Their forcefields were stupendously powerful, and their Eviscerator lasers were very painful. They would only fall under the weight of extremely heavy firepower, and the effort of all branches of the fleet.

Neither Mami nor Erwynmark bothered giving the order explicitly, though their thoughts may have conveyed the idea implicitly. Either way, the battlecruisers of Fleets I through VII, some of them 18‐year‐veterans, the oldest in the fleet, knew what to do, moving in for the kill.

Long‐distance sensors are reporting that significant portions of the alien fleet defenses near the wormhole stabilizer are moving out, prepping for FTL transit, Erwynmark commented, even though they both already knew, and there was no need for a human mode of communication.

Yes, Mami thought.

It's working, Erwynmark thought.

Yes, Mami thought again, and though she was reticent, she felt a glimmer of long‐suppressed hope starting to rise. The situation resembled their successful simulations far more than their failures.

We're not there yet, though, she thought.

Yes, Erwynmark thought. Before they get here, let's do what we can.

The battlecruisers of the fleet moved into range of one of the alien battlecruisers simultaneously, careful not to present an obvious target. The longer‐range Eviscerator cannons opened fired immediately, spearing one of the battlecruisers—Erwynmark's. Mami glanced at the damage:

Eviscerator impact, minimally mitigated, Arminius thought. Forcefield absorption: 10%. Forcefield energy reserves: −40% to 50% of combat capacity; status: recovering. Sectors 15‒18 lost. SHERMAN cannon firing energy reduced by 10% to 90% of combat level. Power generation reduced by 5%. Estimated personnel losses: 3000±50.

Damn it, Erwynmark thought.

Following standard procedure, the Arminius began to withdraw, not because it was critically wounded, but to force the alien ship to choose other targets, to distribute the damage. It didn't really take fifteen battlecruisers to take down an alien ship, once they got within range.

When they finally got within range of their cannons, the battlecruisers opened fire. There was a brief minute of furious firing, the enormous kinetic energy of the SHERMAN projectiles combining with their disintegrating exotic matter to tear at the astoundingly powerful alien forcefield, which held, and held, and held, until it finally could hold no more, buckling under the force, giving them all the satisfaction of seeing an alien capital ship break up under their cannons.

The aliens had extracted their price, though—half the human battlecruisers had wounds to lick, and the fleet had lost a displeasing amount of smaller ships. Though the damage was relatively minor, there would undoubtedly be more of it as they hunted down and destroyed the two remaining alien battlecruisers.

That unpleasant thought, though, was banished by:

Heavy carrier, Designation Number: 2, confirmed severely damaged. Unlikely to survive further combat.

Some of their stealth frigates had gotten through, and their MC teams had done their jobs, the news having only trickled back slowly; the knowledge had to be acquired by sensor scan, since the teams themselves would be seeking new targets, and would not return until the battle was nearly over. Now the heavy carrier, one of the most valuable of the alien capital ships, was dead in space, having apparently undergone catastrophic exotic matter containment failure. With elements of the human fleet closing in, it was already being abandoned.

Though it wasn't quite appropriate yet, Mami allowed herself a moment of triumph, as the fleet reorganized itself into a defense posture to meet the expected alien reinforcements which, according to estimates, were more than powerful enough to force them back, consisting of no less than at least ten heavy carriers, seven blink cannons, seven battlecruisers, and accompanying escorts.

But that, of course, was expected. They just had to hold out until the stabilizer was—hopefully!—destroyed, and it would all work out.

Mami surveyed the situation, feeling a tiny bit of satisfaction. Even in their defensive posture, elements of the fleet were still pursuing the retreating fleet they had just defeated, and other elements—the relatively untouched Fleets III and V, which had been holding the far flanks—had left formation—doing their best to smash the defenses on one of Orpheus's moons. In the bigger picture, not that significant, but it sure felt good.

No, Erwynmark thought, and it was the sudden darkness of his tone, strange to say, that first tipped Mami off that something was wrong.

Then the information entered her mind too.

Long‐range sensors reported sudden gravimetric anomalies emanating from the alien wormhole stabilizer. While small in magnitude, they were rapidly growing larger, and while superficially resembling the test runs they had seen earlier, were substantially more complex, peaking at much higher distortion levels and attaining much higher oscillation frequencies.

No, she echoed, because honestly she didn't know what other response was appropriate. It can't be! They can't be that ahead in construction! It must be another test!

Their attention now focused heavily on the long‐range sensor reports. The anomalies showed no signs of shrinking or even plateauing, only growing stronger and stronger. The kinds of readings that had never been recorded near any natural object, unless one counted unreliable astronomical observations of black holes. In fact, the last time anything similar had been recorded was near the functioning wormhole stabilizer in the Saharan Sector, destroyed by Erwynmark all those years ago.

The conclusion was obvious—obvious enough that most of their focus immediately switched back to the fleet, to their communication channels with Gul and Anand, to hold an emergency meeting. They had planned for this contingency, but it had been considered unlikely enough that they planned… well, only a little.

Only a small part of Mami's consciousness—6%, to be exact—continued to watch the progress of the stabilizer in horror. The crust of the moon under the wormhole stabilizer shifted slightly, but it was doubtful the aliens cared. The anomalies—the oscillations—became more focused, sharper. In fact, if one drew a diagram of what they looked like, it could be seen that the gravitationally distorted area seemed to be emanating from the almost fully‐constructed ring atop the wormhole stabilizer, forming a cone shape that stretched upwards, seeming to terminate in orbital space. There, at the tip, a single anomaly of unprecedented strength was forming, growing stronger, exceeding anything that had ever been seen.

And, finally, the tear, as—it was guessed, they weren't really sure—space‐time itself sheared under the strain, and the single anomaly grew in a single burst, reaching the size of a full shipyard. It stabilized, and calmed, appearing now exactly as the wormhole had at the Saharan stabilizer.

Through the wormhole, she could see stars on the other side.

The first alien reinforcements, the real reinforcements, began arriving only seconds later.

Then, the news arrived that major alien fleets had been spotted approaching the planets of Apollo and Artemis. This news, which before would have been proof that the aliens had fallen completely for the human plan, arrived with all the bitter aftertaste of biting into what should have been a sweet apple, and instead finding a rotten core.

The aliens had waited for them to commit their fleets, then sprung their trap.