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 decades since the original Cephalopodan incursions, much has been learned about the aliens' physiology, nearly all of it from the dissection of alien corpses, due to the stubborn alien refusal to submit to live capture, as well as the seeming impenetrability of the encryption protecting alien data cores.

Despite the common nickname "squid", the Cephalopods are in fact far more similar to octopuses than to squid, resembling squid only in elements of the layout of their grasping forelimbs. While any analogy between terrestrial animals and sentient aliens is bound to be flawed, the aliens share substantial superficial and deep similarities with octopuses. In terms of appearance, alien skin has a similar, rubbery texture, the eyes and the head strongly resemble the common octopus, and the prehensile forelimb tentacles behave much like their terrestrial counterpart. This resemblance is further reinforced by a set of tentacles that ring the mouth, believed to be useful for feeding.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between alien and octopus is in the nervous system, which anatomical studies have found to be substantially decentralized compared to terrestrial vertebrates, leading, among other things, to the common military knowledge that a Cephalopod's body will often continue resisting even after disconnection from its head. (Indeed, it is speculated that the decentralized processing nodes, a notable feature of alien implanted enhancements 〈upon which elements of the design of the Version Two TacComps were based〉②, is 〈itself〉③ based upon alien studies of their own physiology.)

The similarities between the Cephalopods and octopuses end abruptly, however. While anatomical evidence strongly suggests that the Cephalopods evolved from an ocean‐dwelling organism, their physiology carries numerous adaptations necessary for survival on land. Microscopic scales covering the skin prevent desiccation, the eye membranes do not resemble those of octopuses, a set of ear holes has appeared on the head and, of course, any gills that may have existed have been replaced by a set of lungs, whose design resembles that of terrestrial birds. Further, while the four alien forelimbs may be reasonably described as tentacles, they are more rigid and less flexible compared to the octopoid counterpart, and the two hindlimbs, which the Cephalopods rely on for locomotion, are heavily modified for weight‐bearing, and are no longer prehensile. Perhaps most dramatically, Cephalopods contain a rudimentary internal skeleton, which is believed to an evolutionary novelism specifically intended to support large bodies outside the water.

In addition to the adaptations for land, the Cephalopod body design carries a number of adaptations almost certainly associated with the emergence of sentience, including a series of calcium shells protecting important nerve clusters and a set of fine, secondary tentacles protruding from the distal ends of the forelimbs, serving a role analogous to the human hand. In addition, Cephalopodan eyes display a substantial amount of white sclera, likely serving a role identical to the similar adaptation found in humans: enabling other members of the species to readily identify where an individual is looking, useful for social communication. This eye design, strikingly "human" for an octopoid alien, is often considered disturbing by human soldiers.

Mysteriously, no evidence has ever been found of a system of organized sound production, explaining the utter lack of alien vocalizations on the battlefield. It is not known how the aliens communicated before the advent of implant‐to‐implant communication.

[…]

No description of the Cephalopods would be complete without a description of the extensive network of cybernetic and mechanical implants found in alien corpses. This system of implants is believed to be exactly analogous to the one customarily installed in humans, providing communication, life‐support, anti‐aging, and augmentation functions, as well as providing a self‐destruct capability that has yet to be successfully circumvented. These implants are evidently more advanced than the human equivalents, often making use of biological motifs not previously experimented with in human designs.

— Infopedia article, "Cephalopod (alien species)," section: "Physiology," mode: discursive, moderate density; excerpt.

Ever since Field Marshal Erwynmark's Saharan Raid encountered and destroyed the first of the alien Wormhole Stabilizers, much ink has been spilled speculating on the purpose and functioning of these enigmatic devices—and speculation is what it really is, since the stark lack of information about alien society and economic structures precludes any truly accurate analysis of the situation. While the subsequent development of more precise gravimetric sensors has allowed the detection of a number of similar structures throughout the alien sectors bordering Human space, a number of fundamental questions remain unaddressed, and controversial. It is unknown, for instance, where these wormholes lead, whether their purpose is primarily military or civilian, and whether their presence is confined only to border regions.

Common sense, and hypothetical simulations of space‐faring civilizations, suggests the likely answer: that the wormholes are used as a transport network connecting distant alien worlds, including the still unidentified alien core worlds, and that their purpose must be both military and economic. However, this kind of straightforward reasoning also leads to a number of conclusions about the current war that have since proven entirely untrue, leaving many scholars reluctant to adopt a common consensus—some have suggested, for instance, that the alien wormholes lead not to some local sector of the galaxy, but to distant sectors, distant galaxies, or even the far side of the observable universe.

Even more perplexing than the question of purpose is the question of function. In many ways, the wormhole stabilizer found by Erwynmark fulfilled the predictions of early modern physics, which suggested the possibility of wormholes stabilized by some at the time undiscovered exotic matter. Indeed, similar designs were considered by Project Janus, as a means of interstellar travel, but advancements in Field Theory suggested that such wormholes were, in fact, impossible, leaving the topic of wormhole construction to gather dust until the Saharan campaign. Yet despite the efforts of theoretical physicists, little progress has been made in divining a mechanism for alien wormhole function, leading a few ambitious physicists to lobby the military to make a greater effort to attack another one.

As always, the only other known sentient aliens, the Incubators, remain frustratingly quiet on the topic…

— Shizuki Ryouko, primary school essay, excerpt.


"Goddess," Gracia said, looking at the viewscreen.

The group of them, all nine magical girls plus a few members of the crew, had gathered in ship's frontal pilot's area, after an urgent summons from the captain. Of course, they could have watched on their internal displays, but some things were just better seen collectively. Even Raven's avatar had appeared for the event.

For a while, no one spoke, demonstrating just how well Gracia's sentiment had illustrated their reactions. They watched on passive sensors as the alien wormhole executed its opening sequence, the false‐color gravitational sensors showing a region of space folding itself into an arrangement that, up to now, Ryouko had only ever seen in speculative physics. A spectacular display of high‐energy EM radiation, bright enough to be worth comment even on its own, rounded off the show, demonstrating that the amount of energy used in the wormhole opening was at least an order of magnitude beyond even the most powerful starship weapons.

Finally, as the radiation dimmed, it became apparent that objects were appearing within the region of space that constituted the wormhole opening: blink cannons, heavy carriers, battlecruisers, and other capital ships, along with thousands of smaller ships that couldn't be identified at this distance with their sensors.

It was Misa that broke the silence:

"So what now?" she asked, voice quiet, turning towards Nadya. "What do we do? We haven't practiced for this."

They hadn't. While this particular scenario had been included on the list of possible complications, it was considered unlikely enough to warrant low priority for direct simulation. They simply hadn't had time to get to it.

The group of them, even the ship's captain and pilot, turned to face Nadya and Clarisse, who happened to be standing together. By virtue of seniority, they were the undisputed leaders of the mission, and the crew of the ship was expected to defer to Major Antipova.

"Our orders in this situation remain unchanged," Nadya said. "We observe the situation, and if we think we see an opportunity, we go. Nothing changes; not for us."

To Ryouko, it seemed as if she were making a special effort to appear level and authoritative, turning her head so that she made eye contact with every team member, making sure they saw her gaze.

Every team member except Clarisse or Misa, that was. Clearly, Nadya expected them to remain firm without any additional encouragement. It was in these kinds of things that one could discern the makeup of a team.

Clarisse, for her part, was staring into the middle distance, wearing the blank look emblematic of someone focusing most of her attention on something internal. Ryouko wondered: Was she consulting some internal interface, or something magical?

"We have to move in now," she said abruptly and incisively, turning to face them. "We have to move immediately."

Where Nadya's look had been calming and firm, the commanding gaze of a Veteran, Clarisse's gaze was the fiery, willful stare of an Ancient, the look that dared anything and anyone to cross her path. After having seen it multiple times, from different girls, Ryouko had come to think of it as the "I've lived through five hundred years of shit, this nonsense is not going to bring me down" look.

Some of the other girls visibly quailed, before Clarisse, apparently having realized she was doing something wrong, blinked the look away, adjusting her tone to be less harsh and more level, while still carrying a strong undertone of authority.

"Alien reinforcements are pouring through the wormhole," she explained. "If they're smart, they will already be reconstituting their fleet patrols around the stabilizer. Right now is probably the least defended it will ever be. We have to either move now, or not go at all. And I think, given the situation, we have to make the attempt."

"She's right," Nadya said, without missing a beat. "I don't think it makes sense to wait. We were on the verge of going anyway, until this happened. The moment isn't quite perfect, but I don't think perfect is ever going to show up for us."

For a moment Ryouko was reminded of the attack on her transport ship, what seemed like an eternity ago. There, with their lives in danger, she had felt obligated to take leadership, because she wasn't sure who else would. Here, there would be none of that. They had a chain of command.

With Nadya's comment, the discussion was over. The pilot nodded, turning his head back towards the front to initiate the insertion. Raven said a farewell, dissolving her avatar so that she could focus on the mission at hand. The crew members dispersed back to their posts, while the MagOps team continued to stand around nervously, with the exception of Juliet, the stealth generator, who peered at the rest of them, then walked off to join Mohammad at the stealth controls. They knew that in such situations she preferred to be alone, so no one followed her.

It wasn't realistic to ask one magical girl to personally cloak the entire ship, not for the entire duration of the mission, but it was definitely possible for such a girl, focusing intently and with careful coordination, to detect and correct any problems with the ship's technological stealth, or even to apply some magic to enhance it during critical moments. In a well‐guarded area like the vicinity of the wormhole stabilizer, it was certainly not an easy task, and Juliet would be spending the rest of the mission huddled next to Mohammad, soul gem placed near an ample supply of grief cubes to deal with the strain.

Of course, it would be advantageous to have tactical stealth while on the ground, but they couldn't bring Juliet, who would stay on the ship. Even without her, however, their team had considerable concealment abilities distributed between the various members: Zheng Ying‐zhi could tune her barrier into a pretty good group invisibility, Annabelle could grant anyone in physical contact with her temporary—very temporary—incorporeality, and Gracia was capable of blotting the team's presence out of the awareness of any enemy minds in the area, including AIs. That wasn't even counting Clarisse, who had informed everyone that now that she was getting close to the wormhole, she had access to at least one variant of excellent group stealth, though, as she put it, she might not have precise mastery over its use.

Generally speaking, stealth wasn't even expected to be that useful on this mission. Unfortunately, the very nature of what they were attacking guaranteed that both sides knew what the likely targets were, and further guaranteed that the locations they'd be going would be heavily defended, crisscrossed with sensors, and packed with alien personnel. Magical stealth was good, but without full incorporeality, it was risky to rely on it in an environment where even a single misstep might trigger a veritable potpourri of booby traps. They had tried it in the simulations, and it generally worked better to just go in guns blazing.

The team was well‐stocked with experienced veterans, all of whom had numerous tricks up their sleeve. It made Ryouko feel a bit… under‐experienced. She simply hadn't been contracted long enough to work on developing her powers, though she had been diligently reading the training recommendations. Teleporters tended to develop clairvoyance relatively easily, apparently, because the vast majority of teleporters instinctively exerted limited clairvoyance to ensure their landing spot was safe—the only exception was a few rare teleporters who needed line‐of‐sight with wherever they were going. Similarly, it was recommended that Ryouko focus on easing the restrictions on her current teleportation, using various tricks to try to get around the requirement that she had to always teleport herself, or the shape restrictions on what she was teleporting, and so forth. Alternatively, because she was adept at teleporting objects through touch, she might try to develop other contact‐based abilities, which included such advanced techniques as moving only the electrons to create an electrical spark.

Thus far, she had only succeeded in somewhat increasing her mass conveyance limit, a feat she felt she could be justifiably proud of.

"Let's go to the recreation room," Nadya suggested, shooing the other girls out of pilot's area. "We shouldn't be underfoot here."

They ended up sitting or reclining in various locations around the room, which was better‐equipped than its equivalent on most other frigates, sporting more beds and entertainment consoles. None of them were in the mood for entertainment, though, so instead they held awkward, halting conversation. There was a nervous mood in the air, and collectively the tension was far more palpable than it had been during most of the simulations. At this stage of the insertion, all they could do was wait—everything counted on the skill of their support crew, of Raven and her pilot in avoiding any potential hazards, of Mohammad and Juliet in keeping their detectable emissions to an absolute minimum, going so far as to even reroute particles and photons from one side of the ship to the other. They knew from briefings that they'd be facing down powerful sensor arrays, plentiful drones, minefields, and even clouds of smart dust, designed to radiate brightly upon unexpected contact with a large object.

It was the fact that they had to sit around that was the worst part, and most of them made do by fiddling with their personal hardware—Nadya with a set of monoatomic needle blades, Misa with a portable reactor, shock gauntlets, and pack of railgun slugs, Annabelle with R‒15 Repeller explosives, and so forth. Ryouko, for her part, was packing a variety of explosives, both remote detonable and contact sensitive. Taking some advice from Mina, the other teleporter, she was also bringing a pair of daggers, laser‐cutter gauntlets, and a small, personalized carbine—something suited to her hands, not the bulky monstrosities carried by the infantry. Teleporters didn't really need mobility assistance or keep‐away devices—they needed ways to deal damage and, in Ryouko's case, close‐range damage.

"You know, back during the Unification Wars, I was in a few missions myself," Clarisse said, swiveling her head to look over the group. "People would tell each other stories. You girls know any?"

They stared back at her blankly.

Clarisse put her fist to her mouth, making a show of clearing her throat, as the others leaned in slightly.

"This is a bit of a morality story, I guess," she began.

"Two starving citizens are foraging for food, when they spot in the distance the glimmer of the newly constructed city of El Dorado. One of them, a former History Professor, comments to the other:"

"'You know, there was once this rich Roman named Marcus Crassus. His greed was notorious, he ruthlessly exploited the poor, and he owned countless slaves. You know how he died?'"

"'How?' the other asked, a little annoyed, since he was getting tired of hearing these stories."

"'He got greedy for what he didn't have. He was the only prominent politician at the time without any military success. He used his wealth to fund an invasion of Parthia, a disaster that cost both him and his son their lives. According to legend, the Parthians killed him by pouring liquid gold into his mouth, so that his desire for wealth could finally be satiated.'"

"The other man grunts, and says:"

"'I'm not impressed. Look at those bastards in the city over there. You think they're going to drown in their gold? I wouldn't count on it.'"

"'Karma works in strange ways, my friend,' the other man replies."

"A while later, by a coincidence, they return to same spot, only to see a bright flash in the distance. Before they realize what's going on, they see a gigantic mushroom cloud rising from the distant city. They stand there, and watch a while, and finally the skeptical one says:"

"'I guess you were right after all. They got the fate of Crassus.'"

"The professor smiles slightly and says:"

"'No, they didn't. This is better. It's not just the mouth.'"

Clarisse watched them, expression deadpan.

A moment later, Misa began laughing hysterically, lying down and rolling in her cot, enough that Ryouko was briefly concerned she would knock over her equipment.

Finally realizing what was expected of them, the others chuckled nervously and awkwardly, clearly more a show of politeness than anything. Gracia looked faintly disgusted. To Ryouko, the humor seemed a bit… off‐color.

"You shouldn't have tried that," Nadya said, rebuking Clarisse lightly. "This generation is far too puritanical to enjoy that kind of humor. Besides, it's a terrible joke."

"I didn't really think it would work," Clarisse said, looking off into a corner. "But I just thought I would break the tension. It really was a popular story, back during the war. People loved it. Look, she loves it."

She pointed at Misa, who had finally recovered enough to sit back upright, coughing slightly.

"If that's the quality of joke you're going to tell, maybe we should play some board games instead," Nadya said drily. "We could play chess or something."

"That old solved game?" Annabelle asked skeptically.

"You're not supposed to look up the answers while playing," Nadya said, glaring at the girl. "It's honor system."

"You only want to play it because you're better than any of us," Misa commented, shaking her head mock‐sadly. "Honestly, trying to play board games with someone as old as you is just asking for it."

"It's just because you don't take it seriously enough."

"It's a game! We're leaving the ship in seventeen minutes!"

Watching the exchange, Ryouko's eyes slid from Nadya's affronted expression over to Clarisse, who was smiling slightly. She wondered if Clarisse really was as "bad" with jokes as she had appeared.

Clarisse stood up, cracking her knuckles for no reason that Ryouko could discern.

"Five minutes, lightning chess," she said, addressing Nadya. "Let's do this."


Fortunately, the imminence of their "drop" was enough to put a limit on Nadya's post‐game grumbling about the time control. As they assembled their equipment, a silence naturally settled over the group, and Nadya dropped her disaffected face like a mask, returning to the serious, vaguely detached look that characterized her in combat situations.

So far so good. The very fact that they were still alive proved they had yet to be detected. Only five more minutes and they would enter orbit around the wormhole stabilizer—another three and they would be in position.

As subtly as she could, Ryouko swallowed. She didn't think of herself as cowardly, but at the moment she felt herself hoping desperately that they could make it back. That would require two things: that they successfully complete their mission, and that she and Gracia Perez both survive the mission. She did not ordinarily need a clairvoyant at her side to find her way on a teleport, but it would be necessary in this case, with the kind of stealth HSS Raven would be under. Furthermore, it would be impossible for Raven to maintain a stationary position relative to the facility—even achieving such a position momentarily for the upcoming insertion would be a difficult maneuver. Even if she could see where to teleport, that would be useless without a reliable way to signal the ship—such as might be provided by a telepath with extremely long range, like Gracia. It was also possible for her to teleport near the ship and signal it from there, but they would be pressing their luck more than enough as it is.

Reaching for the enchanted armor they had been given, she froze.

Clarisse, did you say something? she asked her TacComp.

No. And that's the kind of question you should never have to ask me.

She frowned, but proceeded to pick up the armor, holding it in one hand. She had already practiced this multiple times, but no matter how many times she did it, she couldn't quite convince herself the armor would really integrate correctly with her costume, the equipment bag on her back, and the gauntlets, even if the armor did seem to pulse with a faint trace of magic.

She unwrapped the piece of smart‐fabric she had been using to cover her soul gem—the excessive glowing during a FTL trip could be annoying—and almost instantly covered it again, instinctively. The glow had been searingly bright, brighter than she had ever seen it, bright enough to briefly cast the entire room in a pale shade of green.

"No offense," Misa said, "but I hope it's not going to do that the whole mission."

"Try dimming it," Clarisse said.

"What?" Ryouko asked, blinking.

"Dim it," Clarisse repeated. "Just think that you want your soul gem to stop glowing for a while. It's what I'm doing; otherwise mine would be driving us all crazy. I can taste how close we are."

Ryouko, who had literally never before considered the possibility, took a breath and willed her soul gem to dim its glow—and she felt it respond, so that she knew even before she removed the fabric that it would be normal again.

"Why now?" Gracia asked out loud. "It's supposed to respond to FTL engines. We've been next to one for an hour. Why is it brighter now?"

Zheng Ying‐zhi pointed behind her with her thumb, at—well, a bulkhead, but implicitly something outside the ship.

"It's not a FTL engine, but that thing out there is certainly something."

Ryouko kept her thoughts to herself, trying to stay focused. But the ring—it definitely bothered her.

She took a breath, then transformed, allowed herself to do what came naturally, the magic flowing over the enchanted suit, reacting with it, and—

Suddenly, she found herself looking out the inside of a transparent visor. Not the fiber optic relay favored by most infantry armor—an actual visor, so that magical girls could see straight out, a combat consideration important enough to weaken the armor in a critical region, given the surprising number of powers that were dependent on direct line‐of‐sight.

Ryouko turned to face the others, the armor literally weightless on her body. Standard armor, made of ultra‐dense metamaterial, was too bulky to wear, the internal servos too slow to keep pace with her reaction time, but this was magical armor, and didn't have those limitations. It was too bad these kinds of armors took so much time and dedicated effort to make.

She didn't like the appearance of the armor, though, which, even though it eliminated the dress she normally wore, still managed to invoke the same aesthetic, with plenty of perfectly frivolous protrusions and extensions serving as decoration.

Sighing, she had the armor extrude a grief cube to the location of her soul gem, holding the cube in place under the armor, which was extra‐thick in that area, though you couldn't tell looking at it from outside. She waited until she was sure the gem was over‐primed, then returned the still partly‐empty grief cube to storage.

Magitech armor. It was convenient.

The others were already ready, waiting for her to prepare herself. Gracia was already scanning the approaching moon with her clairvoyance, searching it for a good initial insertion point. It was unfortunate that the vast majority of clairvoyants were vision‐only; alien sensor interference prevented them from getting a precise lock on gravity distortions at even this close distance. That was not even counting the giant distortion that was the wormhole itself, perfectly capable of driving poorly‐calibrated sensors wild.

There. They had now reached low orbit, though they would not linger here, as the ship needed to drop lower, low enough that the facility was within Ryouko's teleportation range, while simultaneously eliminating any relative velocity it had with the ground, working its engines to avoid going into freefall. Only after the team was gone would it push itself forward, achieving the horizontal velocity necessary to hold orbit.

"I can only imagine the level of surveillance they must have around us," Annabelle said, gesturing around her, the suits relaying the audio in and out. "If it weren't for Juliet, we'd have already been vaporized."

The others nodded, faces visible through their visors, then approached to make the necessary physical contact.

Ryouko took a breath, dispelling tension she could feel coiling inside her. This wait was interminable.

I think I have something, Gracia thought. It looks important enough to blow up. That's all I can promise at this point.

Ryouko took another breath, doing her best to internalize the details of the location Gracia was displaying telepathically to the group, a large white and gray room full of strange, bulbous computing equipment and unarmored alien personnel. Ryouko would be burning her reserves just making the jump, so she was expected to actively rest after the insertion, but the rest of the group needed to actively plan what they would do, and what powers they would use, updating the group interface with the information.

We're at insertion position, the captain announced, what seemed like an eternity later. Give or take a meter per second or so. Relatively. You know the drill.

She looked around at the rest of the group, and they nodded at each other.

She closed her eyes, holding in mind the image being projected to her by Gracia. She reached across the distance, a distance so great she had to strain, forcing herself through the gap, reaching, until something tore—

There was no room for error. Even in a human base, it simply wasn't possible to knock out part of the facility without putting everything on alert. They had to move hard, and they had to move fast, lest the aliens catch their breath. Everything was possible—and had happened before, on different missions—including the aliens voluntarily detonating a large part of their own base, hiding the rest behind powerful internal forcefields. The last tactic had stopped being used after human MagOps teams had learned to blink out at the first sign of a major nuclear or antimatter detonation, but it meant that both Ryouko and Mina, the other teleporter, had to stay on constant hair‐trigger alert, always ready to gather the entire team and leave at a moment's notice.

At the moment, that last statement applied mostly to Mina, since Ryouko was still heavily in the grips of necessary soul gem recharge, leaning on her knees, the world seeming to swirl slightly around her as the suit fed her grief cubes. At the moment, she had to rely on the others.

The others had not wasted a single moment, each contributing whatever they could to the group defense at the moment of insertion, after they collectively canceled their remaining relative velocity with basic telekinesis. Ying‐zhi had thrown up a barrier around the entire team, with a bit of stealth added for good measure, shimmering gold casting the entire scene around in sharp relief. Misa's attack was more invisible, but likely just as effective, emitting a massive electromagnetic pulse to disable whatever she could in the area, her body floating off the ground slightly. Eva, who was already crouching, detonated the ground in a ring around them, on the theory that more explosions was always good, as long as they weren't pointed at you.

The others carried out more specific responses, responding to threats as Gracia identified them, multiple telekinetic pulses and explosive rifle shots emanating outward in the space of a few seconds. Clarisse dispensed with the pleasantry of holding back her power, identifying targets herself while rapidly firing magical beams from her fingers.

In short, it was a scene of utter destructive chaos outside the barrier, and even with vision of the full EM spectrum, it was difficult for Ryouko to make out anything through the cloud of explosive shrapnel, crisscrossing beams, and equipment discharging electricity. Only Gracia and Clarisse's inputs to the team's area awareness gave her any semblance of what was outside—that, and the vision of the room she had been given earlier.

Then, a few seconds later, it was over. To conserve power, everyone except Ying‐zhi removed their area defenses, and Nadya made a gesture with both hands, clearing the area of smoke with one large gust of wind.

The devastation was total. In a circular ring around where they had landed, the ground and ceiling had been seared black, and the heavy reinforced wall was nearly gone entirely, scattered piles of smoking, still‐melting debris the only testament to its previous existence. On the ground, ruined equipment lay in large chunks, along with piles of blackened corpses that couldn't even easily be identified as human or alien. The smell of it all offended Ryouko's nostrils, which automatically diverted anything acrid enough to be damaging. The rest merely confirmed her visual observations: the burnt byproducts of a thousand different constituents burning, organic, metallic, plastic, ceramic.

On one side of the room, the shattered remains of what had once been a transparent observation window led to a large spherical cavity, carrying a floating gray sphere the size of a house—the sight was familiar from the simulations. Something about the sphere seemed slightly off, almost as if parts of it looked farther away than they should. Genuine gravitational distortions, or a cheap metamaterial imitation placed as a decoy? It was difficult to tell.

A slight shimmering indicated the presence of an alien forcefield, and if this particular structure was the correct target, it would be a forcefield strong enough to deflect everything short of a nuclear attack—and even the weakest nukes, for that matter. If it were authentic, it was their job to destroy it, once they were sure the area was secure.

Ryouko felt her soul gem, buried under the armor her suit, viscerally throbbing. Somewhere, deep within her, she felt—were the gravitational distortions within the stabilizer facility this intense?

She looked up at the ceiling above her head, now patterned with burn marks, but instead of looking at that, she felt compelled to look through it somehow, to smash through it and fly upward with powers she did not have.

Ryouko, her TacComp thought, sharp and loud in her ear, and Ryouko came out of her reverie, realizing with embarrassment that she had lost her focus at a moment such as this.

Did the alien scientists know if this core is legitimate? Nadya asked, directing the question at Gracia, the group telepath.

No, she responded. As expected.

The others had already settled into their roles. Gracia continued surveillance, as Nadya and Eva immediately deployed their gravimetric sensor packs. The long‐distance teleport had drained her reserves, but now Ryouko felt herself slowly regaining power, and though she now kept an iron grip on her attention, trying to maintain her focus, a part of her speculated on the unarmored aliens they had just massacred: Were they scientists? Technicians? Were such specializations even relevant to the squid?

No matter; they were working on the wormhole stabilizer, which was all that mattered.

Two heavy laser emplacements preparing to fire, Gracia thought, the first explicit combat communication since they had inserted. One turret was at the other side of a long claustrophobic corridor that extended from one of the gaping, ruined walls, while the other, also distant, was concealed behind one of the side walls that had managed to survive the previous devastation. Alien facilities were all designed so that there was a relatively clear line of fire from at least one such weapon into every single nook and cranny, so the news was not surprising—the only question was how to deal with it.

Annabelle moved in to take care of the one at the end of the corridor, raising her sniper rifle—the magical one, which was an ornate white and blue, with flower prints.

I'll deal with the other one, Misa thought, waving off Mina Guyure, who had been moving to take care of it.

Before the others could comment, she stepped directly into the line of fire, palm raised. That alone was unusual—Misa usually never bothered to move her body parts to channel her magic.

In the next moment, Annabelle fired, the shell's exit velocity so fast that even their enhanced senses couldn't begin to track it. At the far end of the corridor, the laser turret shuddered, exploding into a shower of metal pieces before bursting into flame. It clearly wouldn't be firing anything.

Ryouko knew from previous conversations what had happened, though. Heavy laser turrets all had a relatively strong forcefield for protection, so in the ordinary course of things, Annabelle's relatively weak magical projectile wouldn't have had much effect. This, however, was where her magical ability came into play, allowing her to briefly render herself or anything she was touching incorporeal. A special exception clause in her power description allowed her to also apply this to projectiles fired from a weapon she was carrying. The duration of this ability was terribly low—milliseconds, actually—but it was more than sufficient for a sniper bullet to bypass a forcefield. That was, of course, its intended purpose.

In the next moment, the other laser fired, the rare x‐rays that scattered off the air appearing resplendent in Ryouko's enhanced vision. It accomplished little, though, because Misa fired back, melting and shattering the wall in front of her. The two beams, each about the diameter of a soccer ball, met head on, canceling in a spectacular burst of diverted energy that saturated the area with a torrent of radiation. For a moment, the radiation output dazzled Ryouko's vision—but then Ying‐zhi grunted, retuning her barrier, and the radiation faded.

Yes, it is possible for two lasers to cancel, Clarisse thought, before Ryouko even thought the question. If the two beams are exactly out‐of‐phase. That can't really be done with two lasers going in opposite directions—she must be doing something very exotic with the collision point.

Ryouko hadn't seen her do it before, even in simulation. Had she simply never bothered to log this particular use of her abilities in the databanks?

Smiling manically, Misa leaned forward, appearing to physically drive the laser forward. As she poured more and more energy into the beam, the point of intersection began to shift away from her, moving faster and faster. As it progressed, the rounded walls of the corridor beyond the melted wall, thoroughly irradiated, glowed in Ryouko's vision, dumping radiation back into their surroundings.

Finally, Misa forced the beam back into the laser cannon itself, which had emerged from a large opening in the wall at the end of the corridor. A small forcefield defending the laser struggled briefly, glowing frantically bright in an attempt to dissipate the energy, and then failed. Then came the bright flare of an explosion, the laser cannon detonating so violently the ground shook slightly.

There were a lot of unarmored alien personnel sealed in the rooms along the corridor, Gracia thought, seemingly awestruck. The radiation has mostly killed them. And that explosion—an infantry squad was trying to deploy down that corridor, with the laser providing covering fire. I don't think they expected that.

Misa just smirked slightly.

Of course not. I didn't need to be so showy, but you labeled the interface with their approach, so I thought I'd take care of it. Of course, they're not all dead yet.

In response to that, Mina extruded a rounded metal object from within her suit—a modded anti‐personnel mine. She seemed to regard it for a moment, as an indicator light flashed on, indicating it was armed—then it disappeared, as if it had never been there at all, leaving not even the trace optical distortion Ryouko knew she left behind when teleporting.

A moment later, Gracia confirmed through the area awareness that the remaining infantry were dead. It had been one minute since Ryouko had teleported in.

Compared to Ryouko, Mina had a much shorter teleportation range—but, unlike Ryouko, she was not required to personally accompany all of her teleports. Ryouko felt a moment of jealousy. On this mission, she was explicitly forbidden from venturing anywhere on her own, even on split‐second bombing runs. It was too risky for the team's only way off the planet.

They returned to their positions, staying on the alert, away from the two corridors and their clear lines‐of‐fire. Under the protective cover of Gracia's clairvoyance, it was doubtful that there were any threats out there to fear, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Carelessness was what got you a bullet in the head from a stealthed sniper, an injury that even a magical girl couldn't keep fighting through.

Despite the trace of showboating that could be sensed in Misa's demeanor, they all knew that had there been no approaching infantry squad, she would never have wasted so much energy on merely looking cool. Indeed, even as they were discussing the issue, Misa's grief cube storage ticked downward by two.

Well, I've got mixed news, Nadya thought. Mostly bad, though.

They stayed at their positions, taking in the news silently. The good news was that, according to the sensors, they had gotten very lucky—they had landed on their very first try on a major concentrated source of gravitational distortions, of the sort that even the aliens couldn't afford to build a dozen decoys of—or so they had thought, but here they were staring at twelve of them on their local sensors.

By studying the distortions in the sky above them, it was at least possible to count how many of sources were real, even if alien sensor interference prevented proper localization. Based on the wormhole stabilizer in the Saharan system, the expectation was that there would be one source—but instead there were four. They knew that they were standing next to one of them, but the other three, obscured behind exotic matter reactors, were impossible to distinguish from the decoys without getting close.

Is it possible they constructed four of these cores? Annabelle asked, sounding slightly bewildered. These things are supposed to be expensive! We only brought two PAYNE devices!

We don't know if they're authentic, Clarisse thought. But it also doesn't matter much. If we can't tell the difference, we have to keep destroying them until we've shut down the wormhole, and to be safe, we should probably destroy all of them. But… if there are any decoys, then it is very likely that the one we're standing next to is authentic. I have—I get very lucky in situations such as this, whenever my allies or I must make a random choice. There's no other real way to describe it. It's one of my powers.

She sounded almost reluctant to discuss the issue, and Ryouko realized that in all her reading, she had never heard about this particular power of Clarisse's. Was it somehow a secret?

Are you sure? Nadya asked.

Yes, Clarisse thought, suddenly decisive. If there is only one authentic core, it is this one. We should use a PAYNE device on it. With any luck—and this time, I mean the kind of luck that's beyond my control—it will be the only one and we will be done. Either way, we must move quickly. The longer we stand here, the higher the chance the aliens will think of a way to hurt us without damaging the core behind us.

Do it, Nadya thought, without further elaboration.

Annabelle disgorged the device from the bulky pack on her back, the robotic arm of the pack gingerly placing the smooth spherical device, about twice the size of her head, into her hands.

The Portable Adjustable Yield Nuclear Explosive was one of the most compact nuclear weapons ever manufactured by humans. An antimatter‐triggered pure fusion device, it could be calibrated to deliver a yield of anywhere from twenty kilotons to one megaton of TNT, all in a terrifying, backpack‐sized package.

Max it out, Nadya thought.

Are you sure? Annabelle thought.

The last time one of our teams tried to drop in here, they dropped a ten megaton warhead on top of their own base forcefields just to kill them. They wouldn't have done if they weren't damn confident in the strength of their forcefields. This thing behind us might not be the main forcefield, but if this is the authentic core, you can be sure this thing is damn powerful.

Annabelle nodded, swallowing and setting the device down, gingerly, next to the shattered window where the alien forcefield shimmered slightly. Ryouko knew that, at that moment, they were all thinking the same unspoken thought: if the aliens had, as expected, substantial inner base forcefields, then the blast would only destroy this part of the facility, and they would be safe teleporting to the other side of the facility.

If the aliens didn't, however, then that was excellent news for the overall mission of destroying the Stabilizer. It would also mean that Ryouko would be relied upon to perform a second, kilometers‐long teleport in the fractions of a second it would take for them to realize that they were about to be hit by a nuclear blast. Ying‐zhi could delay it for perhaps another second with her barrier, but that would be all that they got.

An alternative would have been to exit the facility entirely on the first shot, then teleport back if necessary, but that raised the possibility that they would trigger a distant booby trap, as might have happened to the first team. At least by staying within the facility, they knew that if they were killed by the blast, they would have the satisfaction of knowing that the facility was going down with them—and in the end, it was more important that the facility be destroyed than that they survive.

Again, Ryouko found her eyes drawn upward. She wondered: What did the wormhole look like, up close?

Ryouko, her TacComp thought again, loudly.

Ah! Ryouko thought, barely suppressing a startled jump.

I think I'm recharged enough to make the jumps, she thought.

Good, Nadya thought, not seeming to have noticed her loss of focus. Arm the device as you leave. Three seconds should be enough, if you time it well.

They didn't want to stick around here any longer than they had.

Arming the PAYNE device was trivial, provided one had the proper authorizations preloaded into one's implants, as they all did. A quick quantum key exchange, and the device was ready and armed.

Ying‐zhi knelt down next to the device, touching it. A moment later, a small golden barrier appeared around the device. It would persist just long enough to protect the device from any unexpected attempts to explosively disarm it.

The girl stood back up, taking a breath, flared yellow sleeves shifting around her arms. Ryouko took a breath, too, as the others gathered around her. Again, Gracia transferred an image into her mind, this time of another similar‐looking core on the far side of facility—but not the farthest one, as that would have likely been predictable. This room was shaped a bit different—it was substantially larger, with a much higher ceiling. Other than that, it was not much different from the room they were standing in—at least, the way it had looked before they arrived. There was the same alien personnel ambling about, holding pieces of equipment with their tentacle phalanges, and the same bulbous equipment and control panels. The only difference was there that now appeared to be several alien infantry squads, stationed at a surprising distance from the core itself.

Receiving the mental confirmation that this was the right place to go, Ryouko began charging her teleport.

In the last moment before she completed the jump, as she could already feel something starting to rip, she armed the device, setting it to three seconds, as she had been instructed. A timer appeared in the corner of her vision.

It had been two minutes since they first teleported into the facility.

They jumped.


This time around, they received a welcoming committee.

That was not unexpected. Not only did it stand to reason that the aliens would mobilize to defend the rest of the facility, but Gracia's clairvoyance had of course shown them some of the defenders beforehand.

The initial stages of their entrance were standard—Ying‐zhi immediately threw up a barrier, Misa performed an EMP, and Nadya blasted a wave of force outward, trying to clear the area. The barrier and telekinetic repulsion came in handy immediately, as a wave of fire and debris immediately assailed the group from all directions, the blast wave carrying enough energy to easily overcome the telekinesis and impact on the barrier, which glowed with a sharp golden light as it worked to deflect what was going on around them.

Conventional blast, Ryouko's TacComp informed her. At this distance, the radiation should have arrived first, and there's been nothing significant yet. This is something else.

So the alien base had strong internal shielding, as they had suspected.

A moment later, the ground underneath shook violently, the likely aftereffects of the nearby nuclear explosion.

Even before the smoke cleared, the barrier came under a storm of laser and projectile fire. Each individual impact caused that part of the barrier to flare with light, large ripples traveling outward, as if from a stone dropped into a pool of water. There were so many impacts, however, that the glow of the barrier was once again nearly uniform, and the surface of the barrier was a storm of interference patterns.

Ryouko's eyes automatically cycled through the electromagnetic spectrum, searching for a frequency on which she could discern anything useful about their surroundings, but every frequency was blotted out with far too much radiation to effectively see—more than just relying on the natural infrared afterglow of the explosion and the ultraviolet of their lasers, the aliens were clearly using a blinding device as well.

It was not a big issue, though; Gracia, who was using her clairvoyance and telepathy to maintain a form of generalized combat awareness, had already informed them what the situation was—the explosions, which had come from EMP‐hardened explosive devices, had served to deliberately demolish around them a wide, nearly hundred‐meter section of the facility. Now they stood completely in the open, the holes in the floors above them forming a tower of concentric circles, culminating in a roof open to the starry sky and Orpheus above. Through the opening, the alien wormhole, visible through Gracia's clairvoyance as a bright spherical distortion in the stars above, seemed still resolutely intact.

A shower of debris and dust, the aftereffects of the explosion, continued to break off and fall downward, some of it peppering Ying‐zhi's barrier, as the nearby superstructure of the facility trembled under the combined effects of the distant nuclear blast and the adjacent conventional explosion.

At the very bottom of the devastated area, next to where they were standing, lay the putative stabilizer core, perfectly intact within its powerful forcefield. It was no longer surrounded by a spherical metallic shell, instead continuing to levitate easily in its former position—apparently everything important about the core, forcefield generator and all, was contained with the smooth, floating metal sphere. It was, in many ways, an elegant design—but there was no time to stand around appreciating it.

There were now five separate alien infantry squads firing down at them from elevated cover, carefully prepositioned, along with their accompanying escort drones, both aerial and otherwise. Not a good position to be in, in other words.

But of course, they had two teleporters—three, if you counted Clarisse, who moonlighted as one—and that was more than sufficient tactical mobility.

Clear them out! Ying‐zhi exhorted, arms raised. Standing here like this isn't exactly pleasant!

The command was unnecessary, though, since they were already moving, and this time, Ryouko had sufficient power to actually participate.

Following the battle plan presented to their minds by their TacComps, one long ago decided upon for this kind of situation, they moved out, dividing into fireteams. Mina, Misa, Gracia, and Annabelle teleported upward, seeking out the squad with the best firing position. Nadya and Clarisse sought out the squad least well‐covered by what would be Misa's new position, and Ryouko, Ying‐zhi, and Eva sought out one of the squads on the lower levels, the one most likely to come under direct fire.

Ryouko had little time to pay attention to what was going on elsewhere, immediately grabbing hold of her assigned partners and teleporting out. It was necessary to assume that the others would do what was tasked of them—that Misa would effectively eliminate the aerial drone population, that Gracia would seize mental control of as many of the uppermost infantry squad as she could, that Nadya and Clarisse would effectively destroy the squad they were tasked to.

Ryouko's group also had a straightforward kill‐and‐destroy mission. Appearing in the shadows behind their assigned squad, Ying‐zhi slammed her barrier immediately downward, in an effort to disable the anti‐personnel smart mines and sacrificial drones that alien infantry squads liberally covered their rears with. Some of them detonated anyway, peppering the barrier with shrapnel, but most were rudely flung aside as the barrier plowed into the alloy flooring.

In these confined quarters, using an explosive bolt would have risked bringing the roof down upon them, along with other possible unpleasant effects. As such, Ryouko had prepared a more conventional attack, one of her most‐favored combinations: tossing a set of grenades to try to overload shielding, following by a small set of stringed crossbow bolts—now modified with a bit of stickiness—then a single, short‐range teleport, barely more than an inch, which was more than enough to disassemble practically anything.

She smiled grimly as her attack had the intended effect, sending three alien troopers immediately to the floor as critical organs and suit functions were severed, green ichor and clear hydraulic fluid gushing out of the various fracture planes.

She then performed a follow‐on teleport, shifting her position to the other side of the infantrymen she had just killed, timing her movement so it would dodge the laser fire that would immediately come from the alien squad's escort drones, as well as the explosive "death shrapnel" typically emitted by deceased alien infantry—a special trap for careless magical girls, particularly of the melee class. She then fired a series of quick, magically aimed arbalest bolts, easily destroying the drones that had revealed their positions—even the aliens couldn't afford to put forcefields on everything.

Simultaneously, Eva Guderian snapped her whip outward, the weapon snaking sinuously to its desired target, a point on the ground where the troopers were slightly concentrated. That part of the ground immediately detonated, its explosive force carefully controlled by Eva to maximize damage while minimizing the risk of unintended effects—the difference between the controlled explosion of a specialist, and Ryouko's more careless explosive bolts. Several squadsmen fell to the floor, two of them literally in pieces, tentacle limbs writhing uncontrollably, detached from the main body.

Ryouko teleported forward, briefly touching the bodies of the dead. Executing a lightning‐fast double blink, she carried the bodies with her into the middle of a group of alien squadsmen, then blinked back alone, before they had time to respond.

They paused, waiting for the damaged alien suits to disgorge the inevitable wave of death shrapnel, which Ryouko had now ensured would strafe the alien shields, rather than any of them. Ryouko temporarily dismissed her arbalest, rapidly drawing her carbine to suppress the enemy with a series of railgun bursts, while incidentally disabling a few of the support drones still crawling along the ceiling and walls. Ying‐zhi, with her chu‐ko‐nu, sprayed magical bolts rapid fire instead—the barrier generator's weapon was very similar to Ryouko's, but had a much higher rate of fire, which was what was called for at the moment.

A moment later, the death‐shrapnel detonated from the enemy suits, peppering the alien shields and signaling Ying‐zhi to slam her hands forward expressively, and her barrier changed configuration, snapping forward into a shrinking inverted parabola that rapidly shoved the alien infantrymen together into a small, disoriented group. Ryouko fired a weak explosive bolt directly into the concentration of infantry suits, using the concussion to further weaken their shields and stun their reactions.

Eva then dashed forward, relying on the other two to suppress or disable with crossbow bolts any drones that might be defending the area.

Even Ryouko thought Eva's preferred melee technique rather gruesome, the girl sliding in between squad members with her superior speed, slamming her palms through forcefield after forcefield with a blurry of arm thrusts and footwork that always reminded Ryouko of martial arts masters she had seen in movies. Each palm strike was accompanied with a burst of magic that broke through the aliens' weakened shielding, enabling Eva to make direct physical contact with their suits, so she could detonate the suits themselves, directing the explosions away from her and into Ying‐zhi's barrier on the other side. The alien infantry trapped within the area fell apart almost comically, resembling nothing so much as a group of hapless, if explosive, bowling pins. Since the suits had been entirely destroyed, there was no shrapnel to worry about.

Squinting slightly, Ryouko picked off attack drones still trying to attack their barrier with meaningless lasers, firing crossbow bolts with an accuracy that, in a past life, she would have never credited. Ying‐zhi, for her part, also swept the area with a series of partial barriers, clearing any mini‐drones that might be attempting anything nefarious.

It was now five minutes since they had teleported into the facility.

With the job complete, Ryouko and Ying‐zhi moved forward, joining Eva near the broken edge where the explosion had carved a hole in the facility. Looking out onto the other floors, they sought other targets, but they found that there was little left to do. From their perch high above Ryouko's position, a torrent of laser fire was raining down from the alien personnel that Gracia had mind‐controlled, filling the air with the characteristic popping noise of laser fire impacting metal, forcefields, and bodies. A quieter, rhythmic snapping indicated Annabelle's merciless, methodical sniping, something she knew from the simulations that only a magical girl was capable of escaping. Misa contributed by magically firing a steady barrage of the small railgun projectiles she had carried with her.

They had been too late to see what had happened to the alien squad perched on the high ground on the other side of the chasm, but they could easily see it from their combat records. From the other side of the chasm, standing behind a barrier helpfully erected by Clarisse, Nadya had unceremoniously moved the ground out from under the enemy squad, snapping the metal flooring and dropping it straight into the chasm below.

Of course, alien infantry were, generally speaking, all equipped with short‐range antigrav packs, sufficient for quickly changing elevations, and even human powered armor was sufficient to survive intact falling from such a relatively low height. Thus, simply tearing the floor out from under them was insufficient to produce a kill. It did, however, cause tremendous confusion, destroy whatever cover they had, and force them to rapidly toggle their antigrav controls. That had been more than enough for all the assorted laser beams, railguns, and magical projectiles arrayed against them to do their work.

"That'll do for all of them," Eva said, a short while later, glancing at Ryouko, engaging in a bit of rare open speech. Far above them, Misa and the others in her group engaged in the gruesome work of executing the squid infantrymen that Gracia had mind‐controlled—she simply didn't have the stamina necessary to maintain control much longer.

"That was pretty good job back there, rookie."

Ryouko looked back at the other girl, who was peering into the chasm with a serious expression. "Rookie"—no one on the team had called her that since the earliest simulations, but she knew why it made sense to use the term now. She didn't really know Eva well—not as well as Juliet, Annabelle, or Gracia, anyway—but they had been part of the same team, which meant that even if they hadn't socialized much, Ryouko still respected her. Strange, that she thought herself closer to the taciturn Juliet, even if they had hardly ever spoken.

Even so, Ryouko was surprised to find that the comment warmed her heart slightly.

Down below them, the alien structure they had come to think of as a "core" continued to hover silently, as serenely as if nothing had happened at all.

My soul gem isn't reacting to it, Ryouko realized suddenly.

Incoming, Gracia thought, from far above them.

Ryouko and her group immediately shifted deeper down the corridor, reducing their exposure to what was coming from above: two alien low altitude fighters, on air patrol over the facility, had homed in on them, doing what they could to aid their now fallen comrades.

A small torrent of lasers and missiles headed for the area, and they struggled to deflect the attacks. It wasn't a matter of direct personal protection—the fighters, having clearly been informed of the situation, were targeting structural supports. It was necessary to try and prevent further damage to the structure of the building around them, lest the attack trigger a precipitous structural collapse down upon their heads. They would survive, but the teleporters would waste precious time pulling the team out of the rubble, time during which they would be cut off from each other, likely forced to use their powers to avoid being crushed.

Ying‐zhi moved forward, deflecting what she could of the lasers heading for them—difficult from this distance. Ryouko shot down a couple of missiles, as the rest of the team did whatever they could—or, in the case of Eva, who was not particularly useful for this kind of confrontation, focused on staying protected.

Finally, once the initial wave was over, and the fighters circled out for another run—too canny to make themselves sitting ducks by hovering in place, the team made their counterattack. Nadya telekinetically grabbed hold of one craft, while Clarisse drew upon another of her exotic repertoire of powers, overriding the electronic controls of the other. With relatively minor forced adjustments to the trajectories of the two fighters, the two ships slammed directly into each other, far above the facility, forcefields failing almost immediately. Simple, efficient, satisfying—and quite explosive, the sound reverberating in the moon's relatively thick atmosphere.

She shifted her eyes up, at the nearly black alien sky. Maybe if she looked harder—

A mental warning abruptly seized her attention.

She turned around almost instantly, dashing forward with such a speed that any normal human would have been unable to see her move at all.

Eva! she shouted telepathically, to no one in particular, because the channel that connected Eva to the rest of the team seemed now permanently gone.

Only when she was already there, clutching the girl's lifeless body in one arm, did she realize that one of her own arms had been seriously injured, still operating only because the suit's hydraulics had taken over.

"Damn it!" Ying‐zhi spat out, immediately strengthening the barrier that had been covering their rear. "Damn it, damn it, damn it! I was focusing too much on the front. I didn't think—"

Ryouko just stared into the dead girl's eyes, open and lifeless. Her combat interface fed the details to her—a sniper, cloaked far in their rear, had patiently waited for its opportunity, had fired directly into Eva's lower back, had somehow known that was where the soul gem was, despite it being encased beneath the armor of the suit. A second shot, fired almost immediately afterward, had been at Ryouko's back, and only the fact that she had turned around so rapidly, and the fact that her soul gem was in the front, had prevented anything more serious, causing the shot to hit her arm instead.

The sniper's position was now highlighted in her console, thanks to Gracia's clairvoyance. The emotions of the telepath washed over her, saying what didn't need to be said. She had lost her focus, fatigued with the exertion of performing a mind‐control and the need to watch the skies. Even Clarisse, who could have conceivably watched their rear, had been too busy dealing with the fighters.

We should— Ying‐zhi began, but Ryouko didn't hear her.

Ryouko teleported directly on top of the sniper, who was already in the process of trying to withdraw and shift locations, movements concealed from ordinary vision by an alien stealth pack. Not bothering with any of her customary ranged tactics, she dropped downward, using basic telekinesis to help clear the way, firing arbalest bolts from one arm to reveal and then disable the sniper's auxiliary stealth drones, which provided personal protection and spotting capability.

It was strangely serene, the sheer purity of emotion that she felt. She should have been unstable, but her crossbow bolts were unerring, efficiently spearing the fragile auxiliary drones, whose designs were forced to reduce armor, weaponry, and mobility in order to enable their stealth capability.

With her other arm, she slammed her elbow—her injured elbow—downward, using a magical power‐blow to melee through the sniper's personal forcefield, pushing her elbow into the alien's impassive faceplate. With her crossbow arm, she grabbed the sniper's rifle, using superior, magically amplified strength to wrench the gigantic weapon out of the grip of the alien armor, applying so much force the weapon bent forty‐five degrees, nearly snapping it in half.

The alien, now supine on the floor, grabbed wildly at her with its four tentacle‐like limbs, trying to push her away, force her arms off, and bring various melee range weapons to bear. Ryouko did not let it, using magic to force her arm down with enough strength that she could feel parts of the alien suit snapping. As one arm tossed away the sniper rifle, whose power pack fizzled and detonated, she activated the laser cutter built into the gauntlet of the arm she had on the alien's throat.

The armor resisted, but with her other arm now briefly free, she smashed her fist into the side of the alien's helmet, again and again, with no purpose other than she needed to punch, and she felt the material of the helmet shatter and fail under her pounding, starting to reveal the impassive, nearly spherical eyes of the Cephalopods.

And finally the laser cutter went through, the alien's head disconnecting from the rest of the armor, a torrent of ichor gushing outward onto her hands and body. Knowing from simulations that the alien's body would continue resisting regardless, she remembered the arbalest that was still on her arm, and turned it into the alien's chest, firing once, twice, thrice.

Where she got the presence of mind to blink away and dodge the death‐shrapnel, she would never know, but she did, drawing her dagger. After the shrapnel had impacted harmlessly onto the wall near her, she blinked right back, intent on—intent on—

Stop this! Stop this right now!

Ryouko didn't know whether it was her TacComp's words that stopped her, or whether it was the flood of neurotransmitters and electrical signaling that Clarisse was now pouring into her cortex and brainstem. Either way, she found herself brought to an abrupt halt, the red haze that had been over her eyes starting to clear. What—what had she been doing?

She looked down, at the gruesome scene before her, the alien's neck and chest cut wide open, green ichor pooling on the floor below the body, its limbs still writhing. She saw the broken side of the alien helmet, the alien's now‐ruptured eye seeming somehow to still be watching her. She checked the status of her left arm, now even more extensively damaged after what she had forced it to do. She looked at her right hand, where the ichor had sprayed over the armor which, she noted, was patterned with the exact same color as the alien blood.

Ryouko had never been a squeamish girl, but she found herself relying on implant suppression to hold back a wave of nausea, now that the adrenaline had drained from her. Bloodlust, they had said, but she had not thought—she did not think—how had she been so angry?

She had dropped the dagger that she had been carrying in her bloody right hand, which she now noticed was shaking slightly.

A moment later, Mina was next to her, appearing out of thin air. The teleporter grabbed her shoulder, and then they were gone.

It had been ten minutes since they entered the facility.