Author's Note: Again not the end of the chapter. Yes, yes I know, but this time it's not because everything got longer; it's because I decided to cut the chapter into pieces, and the proofreading is taking quite a lot of time. The rest of "this series of events" is actually already drafted, another 10000 words or so.
I believe this will be one of the shortest TtS chapters ever, which is why I had not originally intended for it to be its own chapter. Unfortunately, there just doesn't seem to be a great way to cut it otherwise.
Power Development is one of a magical girl's most crucial tasks. While every contract comes prepackaged with a set of stereotyped powers and an understanding of their usages, all too often these powers come with inconvenient, unpleasant, or downright dangerous limitations. Even beyond that, it is easy to imagine what could be accomplished with a combination of powers, and the value of having teleportation and telekinesis, or fire and ice. Indeed, great power flexibility and diversity is one of the hallmarks of being an Ancient—to a certain degree, every girl accrues more and more skill simply with age.
But unless you are willing to wait a few centuries for that nifty new power, you will have to apply yourself a little.
Fundamentally, barring energy limitations, the only major constraint on the application of magical powers among magical girls as a whole appears to be the limits of the human imagination; nearly every power that seems even vaguely possible has been observed in practice at some point. But for each individual girl, the situation is much more constrained. Nearly every girl operates, at least initially, off of her starting powers, plus some minor variations thereof. Examples of girls starting with more than one radically different power are few and far between, and most of these are wish-based.
There are two ways to extend a power set. The first, much easier way, is to work on extending variations of one's starting power. This can include, but is not limited to, obvious extensions, such as summoning ten spears instead of one, or cloaking a team instead of just yourself.
(These extensions, while relatively simple, should not be denigrated because of that. Many such simple extensions are exceedingly useful in combat.)
This can also include many, much less directly obvious extensions, many of which fall into common patterns. One of the most well-known is the so-called telecluster, the telekinesis-teleportation-clairvoyance-mind reading grouping that is notoriously easy to develop a "full house" on, with many girls possessing all four abilities to various degrees. Others, less well-known and somewhat more difficult to exploit, include the connection between electric powers and the telecluster, or between temperature powers and the telecluster, or between electric powers and illusion powers.
In many of these clusters, the connection is not directly obvious, but relatively subtle, and often relies on mechanism, creating a somewhat ironic subfield where science has contributed immensely to magical development. Understanding of electrons and protons allows telekinetics to attempt to create charge differentials, and allows those with electrical powers to try and move non-magnetic objects. Understanding of electromagnetics allows those with electrical powers to generate photons, generate illusions, or even create stealth. Examples abound.
It should not be misunderstood—a girl whose original power was telekinesis is not literally moving electrons to generate an electric spark. Only during the initial few attempts is this true. It appears that once the concept is understood, the procedure first becomes instinctual, then seems to melt away entirely, so that the new power is generated without extraneous conscious input. The existence of the mechanistic glide paths between powers hence does not seem to be something truly fundamental, but instead seems to allow scientific, rational understanding to act as a temporary crutch, to overcome some sort of failure of imagination.
For the new recruit, then, two considerations are central to power development. First is the absolute necessity of understanding the source of your power—some powers are so instinctual, purely magical, and irreducible that this yields little, but for others, the difference between a plasma fireball and a napalm fireball can be tremendous, and can imply completely different possible developmental paths.
Secondly, of course, is the existence of centuries of MSY records on the exact topic, detailing the paths taken and attempted in the past by what may be thousands of girls with powers similar to you. There is often little need to reinvent the wheel, but take care—having access to a seeming recipebook can stifle creativity, and some of the most innovative power-jumps have never been tried before. To take a well-known example, who would have thought of constructing firearms out of ribbons before Tomoe Mami went out and did it?
But, of course, two ways to extend a power set were mentioned. The other one, the acquisition of a de novo power, is notoriously difficult, requiring mind-numbing amounts of focused meditation and practice attempts, in a seeming attempt to pull something out of pure vacuum. For this reason, it is not recommended for new magical girls. For more experienced magical girls, however, it can often be the only way to overcome a confounding rut, and the rewards of a successful power acquisition can be immense—entry into the telecluster, for example, or the acquisition of ranged powers for a melee girl who formerly had none. However, development beyond, for example, a pathetic electric spark, requires much additional investment.
Some puzzling gaps in the Accessible Power Set still exist, however, despite generations of attempts at breaking down the walls. Some of the missing niches, such as precognition, appeared to have once been filled, before turning mysteriously empty. Others, such as the direct summoning of antimatter or a large chunk of uranium-235, appear to have never existed at all, and have never been successfully achieved, despite repeated carefully monitored attempts. There exists, in the eyes of many, a hypothetical Magical Protection Principle, wherein powers which pose too much of a direct risk to human survival simply never manifest, no matter how seemingly logical one may seem. The mechanism of such a principle is, of course, unknown, and the Incubators deny being involved.
—Excerpt, Magical Girl Introductory Manual
"Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt."
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
"Hmm. So I lived after all."
Those were the first words relayed from Clarisse, when they succeeded in bringing her soul gem back up to a reasonable level and it was safe to have the suit wake her.
"Is that a surprise?" Nadya asked.
Clarisse started to sit up, but Ryouko's gentle restraint kept her on the ground, which was composed of the fine metallic grey sand that characterized this particular moon of Orpheus, with its relatively thick, reducing atmosphere.
"That attack is supposed to take the life of its user," Clarisse said. "It was the one and only thing its original user ever did as a magical girl. She had an interesting wish. I took the bet that, in my current empowered form, I would somehow make it through."
"That's quite a bet to take," Nadya pointed out.
"I didn't live this long by not taking any risks. You can discover some pretty interesting things that way. I only regret—if I had known I was going to do that, I could have done it earlier, and Ying-zhi wouldn't be a piece of jewelry right now. The truth is, I'm not that surprised."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," Ryouko said, feeling like it was what she should say, even if it felt strange coming from her mouth.
"I'm fine," Clarisse insisted, trying to sit up again. "I'm back up to 20% and climbing. I'll be okay."
"It was more my fault than anything," Nadya said. "I didn't—I wasn't decisive enough. I could have made better decisions."
This time, Ryouko let Clarisse sit up, expecting her to stand up, but Clarisse only joined Nadya in peering intently at the sky. Ryouko wasn't sure whether she should try to say anything, or keep quiet.
"So it's still there, huh?" Clarisse asked rhetorically, referring to the wormhole hanging in the sky above them.
"I'm afraid so," Nadya said. "Do you think you could manage whatever the hell you just did again? I haven't seen anything like that since New Athens."
Clarisse shook her head.
"Not for a couple of days, at least. I'm sorry."
"Well we need to think of something to take down this last stabilizer core, then," Nadya said. "According to Gracia, they're just free-firing their orbital artillery at the last one now, without us even being there—it seems they've figured out we can tell what's real and what's not. That's going to be difficult to get at, especially with our barrier generator on ice."
"I just had a terrifying thought," Misa said, appearing next to the rest of them. "What if we're wrong about these damn wormhole stabilizer cores, and blowing them up doesn't really do anything? The aliens have surprised us all before, and it's shaking my faith that even though we've destroyed all of them but one, the damn wormhole stays perfectly intact. I mean, no one had any idea they were even capable of turning this wormhole on."
"You mean you didn't have that thought before we arrived here?" Nadya asked, shaking her head. "It doesn't matter. We have to operate on the information we have. Those cores look important, the core was important in the only other wormhole we ever saw, and we haven't found any other source of power or gravitational distortions. If we blow up the last one and nothing happens, then we can discuss further."
"They just seem way too happy to blast their own control equipment and trained personnel," Misa responded, shaking her head in turn. "You'd think some of that fancy equipment would actually be important for something."
"Do we know we're safe out here?" Clarisse asked, pushing herself up off the ground, soul gem now at 40%. "I mean, we're standing out here in the open, on the surface of the moon. I don't see what's keeping us from getting shot at from…anything, really. Or receiving an up close and personal nuclear weapon detonation, like the last team."
Nadya put her hand to her visor, imitating a girl putting her head in her hand.
"We don't," she said. "Not really. But nothing has happened yet. Still, we're pressing our luck, standing around out here like this, even if we've been trading off using our stealth powers. That's why we have to think of something, fast."
"Well, if none of us have any better ideas, I actually have one," Misa said. "I almost did it earlier, actually. It's terrible and desperate, but it might work."
Share it with the team, then, Nadya thought.
Well, Misa began, but stopped abruptly, spotting something over Nadya's shoulder. The others turned to look.
Gracia had been standing on a small boulder with Mina and Annabelle, watching the horizon, but now she was looking at the sky, utterly ashen-faced, with the other two staring at her in confusion.
A moment later, the news showed up on their internal interfaces.
HSS Raven had been discovered, had come under fire—and Gracia could no longer find it, or any trace of Juliet, who she had been quietly keeping magical tabs on. She hadn't yet managed to find any debris from the ship, but the conclusion was inescapable: the ship, their only way home, had been obliterated. They wouldn't be going home.
Before Ryouko had even fully processed what had happened, Misa started laughing spasmodically, dry and high pitched.
Well, she thought. I was going to have you girls hold onto my soul gem for me, but that's not even that relevant anymore, is it? Nevermind, I'll still give it to you. Maybe you all will come up with some kind of miracle, some way to stay alive on this moon until we get rescued. I have faith.
Without really understanding what was happening, Ryouko staggered on her feet, but found herself propped up by Clarisse's hand. They made eye contact for a moment.
I don't understand, she thought, relaying the thought privately. My wish—I thought—
It's not fulfilled yet, is it? Clarisse thought back. That's alright. Neither is mine, I don't think.
I feel selfish, worrying about that, when Juliet is dead up there. But I can't—I can't seem to care about that right now.
She wasn't sure why she even mentioned it, and immediately regretted it, realizing she had sounded a bit incoherent.
Clarisse glanced at her, though, and thought:
I wouldn't worry about something like that. We're all entitled to think about ourselves, at a time like this.
Then Clarisse bent her head for a moment, and Ryouko thought for a moment that her skin glowed just a tiny bit violet—but then she blinked, and the glow was gone.
"Listen up!" Clarisse said, startling Ryouko with her sudden change in tone and body language. "I know we're all shocked by the news, but we still have a job to do! I know I don't have to tell you that. I'll have you all know—"
She walked away from Ryouko to the front of the group, talking as she walked, then turned dramatically, pinning each girl in turn with eyes so bright they were almost glowing.
"I personally have no intention of dying here," she continued, "and neither should you. We'll find a way! We'll hijack a ship or something. And just to reassure you, if you're still worried, if you die, I'll be right there to collect your memories, and the Goddess will show up for your soul! Now, I know a lot of you don't believe in her—"
A light chuckle, as she rubbed her hands.
"—but she exists! I've seen her myself! If she turns out not to exist, you can come back as a ghost and call me a liar!"
It should have been absurd, the girl in her violet armor, face behind a visor, standing on a rock in grey metallic sand, body framed by the black alien sky, but, unbelievably, the unorthodox speech seemed to pep the group up a little, granting them a bit more energy. Even Ryouko felt a little better, and she saw Gracia and Mina bow their heads reverentially.
Ryouko remembered her childhood, reading about the things Clarisse had done, trying to imagine what it was all like. Clarisse's charisma was part of the legend, her incredible ability to rally people in even the most dispiriting of situations.
It was all well and good, but somehow, she had imagined it being…different than this.
Somehow, it seemed—
—too effective? Clarisse asked, voice whispering in her head, eyes looking at her. Yes, it is. Actually, I'm using a mild form of mind control to apply a moderate morale boost. It's a little bit cheating, but…
Clarisse didn't finish the sentence, and Ryouko let out a breath. It was cheating, but as Clarisse alluded to, it probably didn't matter.
You know, Ryouko thought, to her TacComp. Even though I talked with Asami earlier, I still don't feel satisfied. I feel…
Regretful? the device supplied.
Yeah. And I guess I should be glad I talked to my parents, but I don't really know. I feel like I should be crying or something right now, and maybe thinking about them more, but I don't have that feeling.
I don't think there's a right way to face death, her TacComp thought. And for all we know, you would be crying if Clarisse weren't here. Besides, we're not going to die here.
You heard me, the device thought. I'm stuck inside of you, and I'm not going to let myself die that easily. I don't have a cushy afterlife waiting for me, after all.
Ryouko knitted her brow, legitimately surprised, but before she could decide whether to pursue the topic further, Misa signaled to them that she wanted their attention.
Alright, the girl said. This is the plan.
She put her fist to her mouth, clearing her throat, the rhetorical nature of the gesture emphasized by the visorplate between her mouth and hand, tanned skin and long hair barely visible underneath her helmet.
I've noticed this for a while now, Misa said. But this moon is actually storing up a tremendous charge differential between the ground and the region immediately above its atmosphere. I'm not sure exactly why, but I assume it has to do with its current interactions with Orpheus's magnetic field. Ordinarily, lightning discharges would keep the charge from building up too much, but for some reason that doesn't seem to have happened here—I think it might be all the conductive metal on the surface dissipating the ground charge. Anyway, this planet's atmosphere is ripe for a massive lightning storm, or even a single discharge.
She paused, looking around to make sure they all followed.
I've been reluctant to use my lightning so far, partly because we've been indoors so much, but also because I've been afraid of accidentally triggering something too massive. Now, for the last wormhole stabilizer core, I can try to use my body to channel all the electricity deliberately at the forcefield, but…well I can make my body a conductor, but only up a certain point. You put enough electricity into something, and it will fry. I can use magic to protect myself, but for something like this, I don't think I'd have enough power to keep my body intact.
She stopped, taking a breath, then held up her hand, and to their surprise, discharged her soul gem into her open palm, walking over to Clarisse.
I have the most confidence in your survival, out of everyone present, she said, handing over her gem. Please take care of it. We'll teleport a hundred meters from the stabilizer core, and then one of the teleporters can drop me next to the core. I will use as much magic as I safely can, and sacrifice this body to try to take it down. Don't worry about me. This isn't my first body. I'll be okay as long as you get my gem out. I…don't actually know how you're going to do that, but this whole thing is a long-shot, so whatever.
She stopped the telepathy, looking at them, clearly done speaking. The others stared for a long moment, until Nadya stepped forward, embracing her old comrade briefly.
I'll be there when they resurrect you, she said. Count on it.
Misa nodded, and it seemed to Ryouko that the girl's eyes were briefly misty. Though Ryouko would never admit it, it confused her a little—by the girl's own admission, it wasn't her first body, so what was there to be sentimental about?
Clarisse cleared her throat, getting their attention.
I don't mean to interrupt, but we do have to move quickly, if possible, and before we do, we have to decide what we'll do after the wormhole goes down, presuming we succeed. If we do intend to survive, that is. I actually have a proposal now, for what it's worth, Clarisse thought.
That I was buying time until I thought of, Ryouko thought, completing the sentence mentally. She didn't share that particular thought publicly, however.
The group turned to look at Clarisse, who took a moment to check that they were all paying attention before conveying, in heavily accelerated telepathy:
"Well, it seems to me that we're inevitably going to have to spend some time hiding out on this planet. That could be weeks; it could even be months—or it could be a day. It all depends on how the battle above us turns out. Obviously we can't stay anywhere near the alien base, even if we blow it all up, but if we stay on the surface for any extended period of time we're going to be spotted easily by orbiting observers.
She paused rhetorically for a moment, before continuing.
That's why we shouldn't stay on the surface. We will teleport a great distance from the base, then either dig or use clairvoyance to find a suitable location underground, and then we will stay there. The primary constraint on how long we can hold out is grief cubes, and unfortunately our supply is not that vast. However, I do have a few time manipulation powers on tap. Usually, they are used to make your enemies slowed, but in this case, the goal would be to slow our own personal time, so as to drag out grief cube usage. A temporal stasis, of sorts.
Again she paused, checking to see if they understood.
Unfortunately, there are a number of caveats here. The first is that we will be very vulnerable while slowed-down—if I kept myself slowed-down, it might take me so long to deactivate the power that we will all be dead by the time I finish, purely from the lag in reaction time. At the same time, I can't place myself outside the field, since the whole point is to reduce grief cube usage, and if I'm generating the field, I will be the biggest consumer of all of us. We will have to rotate having someone on watch outside the field, so that if something happens they can buy time while I shut down the field.
The second caveat is that my access to all these powers is contingent on being near a major historical event, and temporal manipulation is not one of my native powers. If the event ends, my access to my powers will rapidly deteriorate. It depends on whether the resolution to this event is sudden or drawn out. If it is sudden, I can buy time by slowing time to delay the deterioration, but eventually I will lose access to the power entirely. I don't have a great solution for this, unfortunately; we will have to see.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, we can't think only of personal survival. There is a chance that we may destroy the wormhole stabilizer, but the aliens conquer the system anyway. In that situation, they will likely rebuild what was destroyed. We don't know why this moon in particular was chosen; they may choose to rebuild the stabilizer somewhere else, in which case this last point is moot. But if they choose to rebuild on this moon, it would be our responsibility to try to destroy it again, if only to buy time. When my ability to slow time runs out, we may find that we only have one choice. We have to be mentally prepared for that possibility.
Her speech done, she clasped her hands in front of her, bowing her head slightly.
I can't honestly say I'd ever thought I would be in a situation quite like this, but I've always taken life as it is. At my age, you learn that you can hardly do anything else. The plan I just outlined is convoluted and desperate, but I think it would be our best chance. That applies to the plan Misa suggested as well. I think the time for talking is over.
There was a long pause, greatly exaggerated by the relative speed with which Clarisse had been communicating. Finally, the pause was broken, not with words, but with the appearance of an operational brief within their TacComps. Misa had taken the time to elaborate on what she had described earlier, but the broad strokes were the same. Members of the team fiddled with elements of the plan, usually the parts involving themselves, but no major revisions were made. It was going to be fast, even by their standards—it was either going to work, or it wasn't.
When the time came, they gathered around Ryouko. It had to be Ryouko, because it was too far for Mina—Ryouko had carried the team out here, as far as she could manage without overly taxing her teleportation resources, which she had been husbanding so that she would be able to make the jump back to their ship when they were done. That was obviously not relevant anymore.
As she always did before performing a jump like this, she took a deep breath. She reflected that if she was going to die here, at least it was on an alien world. The Shizuki Ryouko that had made her wish would have said that it was better to die like this, than to live her whole life on Earth. She did not disown that opinion, but now that she was faced with the prospect, she found herself more ambivalent than she would have expected.
And then she made the jump, and there was no time to think.
They reemerged at the point chosen by Gracia, a small ledge near the edge of the region voluntarily devastated by the alien orbital artillery, almost exactly one hundred meters from the device. The rest of the team immediately set to work securing their position, while Ryouko, Misa, and Clarisse continued with the plan.
Ryouko teleported the three of them immediately above the exposed stabilizer core, and Clarisse immediately activated a previously unseen flight power, keeping them suspended in the air. Simultaneously, she raised her hand, and a giant rock wall, colored sandstone red, appeared above them, the product of another of her magical abilities. Hopefully, it would shield Misa long enough from orbital artillery for her to perform the necessary channeling.
Ryouko looked around for a moment, at the empty chasm in the facility around them, Misa hanging onto Clarisse's arm, the black starry sky in the distance, partly obscured by Clarisse's wall. It was, in some ways, a wondrous sight.
Godspeed, Clarisse thought. Let's go.
They reappeared at the metal ledge, the other girls having established a perimeter around them. Ryouko looked at the wormhole stabilizer, and at Misa, who was now hovering in the air, suspending herself with magnetism to the metal of the facility around her. The beginning shots of a barrage of orbital artillery struck the rock wall, massive pieces of sandstone dislodging and vanishing as their magic failed. It clearly would not last more than a few seconds longer.
From a hundred meters away, Ryouko watched as Misa broke out into a slow toothy grin, raising one arm dramatically.
Oh God, there's more power here than I thought, the girl transmitted with her telepathy, grin spreading wider. This will be great. I've always wanted to do something like this.
She spread both arms out wide above her head.
Lord Jupiter! Father of lightning! Grant my wish! Call down the thunder!
Before Ryouko could finish processing the absurdity of the statement, and its relation to the gas giant that hung in the sky above them, a sheer, world-shattering actinic light blinded her, wiping the thought from her mind. She raised her arm instinctively to block against the glare, brighter than Sol, as her optical implants recalibrated.
Then she saw Misa, body a blazing silver silhouette contrasted against the column of light, the wrath of a fundamental force of nature. A sea of electrons swelled outward, still discharging, even gaining in strength. There was no sign of the rock wall, or any of the inbound orbital artillery.
Then Ryouko became aware of the inferno that had formed in front of her, the furious heat buffeting her face with sudden hurricane force, the discharged energy having nowhere else to go. Her nose twitched as the smell of ozone approached the unbearable.
It's not just the moon's atmosphere, Misa thought, from somewhere distant. The planet itself—the magnetic field—I got so lucky! It's a flux tube discharge!
We can't stay here! Nadya thought, to the team. This place is turning into an inferno! At this rate, we're going to all get fried!
Clarisse had already thrown up another barrier in front of them, of a different kind, blue and glowing, but the radiant heat was still overwhelming. Debris in the chasm below them started to shudder and crumble, and the ground—was it melting?
We have to stay! Clarisse responded, doing the telepathic equivalent of shouting. I'm holding her soul gem! Until we're sure the stabilizer is destroyed, we have to stay, and make sure it receives as much energy as possible.
How on Earth could it survive all this? Mina asked incredulously.
Have you seen a nuclear explosion up close? Clarisse asked. I have, and I know that the one I saw wouldn't be enough to destroy the stabilizer's damn forcefield. We have to make sure!
I hate to ask this, Ryouko said. But is she still alive in there?
Then, implausibly, the column of electricity in front of them began growing, the beam of overwhelming light tearing the ground apart as it spread outward. Ryouko's eyes flashed through the EM spectrum, and she could see that the air in the chasm was nearly gone, blown away or turned into vicious plasma. Clarisse's barrier was the only thing ensuring they still had oxygen.
It's getting hotter! Nadya said, unnecessarily.
Go! Misa urged, and this time the thought was strained, rather than euphoric. I can't sustain this much longer! It doesn't matter anymore. This is beyond my control either way. Go!
Clarisse closed her eyes, grimaced, then grabbed Ryouko, as the others had already started to do. Ryouko closed her eyes in turn, and left.
They reappeared a few kilometers from the facility, on a small metallic outcropping jutting out of the sand that bordered the facility on one side. For a moment they were tense, watching the area warily for threats. Then they relaxed, a little, and turned to look at what they had left behind.
It was the most beautiful thing Ryouko had ever seen.
The beauty was composed half by the aesthetics of the scene—the writhing column of white-hot electricity burning into the already scorched hole in the alien facility—the bolts of lightning that shot irregularly out of the column, punctuating the air with a delayed thunder that served as counterpoint to the constant roar of the tortured air—the alien base's internal forcefields struggling to contain the impossible energy, sections of the base already a radioactive ruin—the stark barren surface of the alien moon—the distant blackness of the unfamiliar sky—the crazed twisting of the stars above them, where the alien wormhole was clearly, finally, starting to lose its coherence.
The other half of the beauty was that of the atom bomb, of the Eviscerator laser, of a thousand artillery shells falling from the sky, of chaotic, roiling wings stretching across the sky, as black as the darkness of the human heart. To Ryouko, who had seen similar scenes only in simulation, it was an austere beauty, one of the many faces of death herself.
They watched for just a little longer, at the torrents of energy that continued to pound downward, and the whiter-than-white glow reflecting and dispersing in the thick atmosphere of the moon, coloring the sky in all those colors that Ryouko had finally accustomed herself to seeing, the thermal red and electric purple of the near infrared and ultraviolet. Cycling through the rest of the spectrum, she saw an ocean of radio waves, a column of turgid x-ray, coursing out of the sky like an angry dragon, and even the bright glimmer of gamma radiation.
She had never before asked herself what it would sound like to have a wall of unending thunder beating at her ears, from a thunderbolt that never, ever stopped. She knew now, though, even through all the damping the suit and her tympanic implants could provide. She could even feel the roar physically, as it beat violently against them.
In all that, the alien base was almost an afterthought, the cynosure of the devastation swallowed almost instantly, as if its forcefields were not even there.
The escape plan called for Ryouko and Mina to chain teleports as far as reasonable from the alien facility before looking for an underground location they could hide in, once they were sure the wormhole was truly out of commission. That last part was the most important, of course, but even if they had been set on fleeing as fast as possible, it seemed doubtful they could resist the natural human impulse to turn around and watch.
Do you think we've truly destroyed it? Nadya asked, turning her head to look up at the distortion in the sky. And even if we have, how long would it take them to rebuild?
If I were closer, I could tell you if the aliens are panicking or not, Gracia thought. But there's no reason to approach. We should just wait, and watch. As for rebuilding—we nuked the facility. Twice. I feel like we've done an acceptable job.
They continued to watch as the wormhole above them began to oscillate more and more wildly, the stars in the sky shifting wildly back and forth, fading in and out, the sky even seeming to splinter in places, as if violently unhappy with its current appearance. Ryouko began to feel a bit of unease—but also, strangely, excitement. They had done it, of course, but it almost seemed as if she were excited about the spectacle itself, as if the stars shifting in the firmament were a fireworks show that moved some deep part of her.
Finally, the light and roar coming from the facility began to fade.
You should start looking— Clarisse began.
With a loud crumbling noise, the ground underneath them jerked suddenly, and only enhanced reflexes saved most of them from falling.
Earthquake, Annabelle commented unnecessarily, as the ground continued to shake.
It's not unexpected, Nadya thought. The Saharan wormhole emitted significant gravitational distortions when it was collapsing. In fact, it sunk into the nearest gravity well as it was collapsing, for reasons we don't understand. That's why the original plan was to get back to the ship ASAP. We can only stay a little longer, and then we have to move. We don't want to be here when what's left of it hits the surface. According to the models, the space-time distortions can be extremely dangerous.
We can watch from further away if we have to, Clarisse agreed. At least by sensor.
I agree, Nadya thought. In fact, it's time we left—
She stopped, as they all registered internally that an alarm had just sounded from her and Gracia's gravitational sensor packs.
Error/Warning: Local graviton probe results uninterpretable. Local space-time does not conform to stored theoretical model.
I'm pretty sure we should leave, Clarisse thought, with deliberate understatement. Breaking your understanding of reality is never a good thing.
The group, which had only scattered slightly post-teleport, immediately reformed around Ryouko. With their accelerated thoughts and actions, it was a process that would only take fractions of a second.
That was too long.
Somehow Clarisse reacted fast enough, perhaps faster than should have been possible, throwing up a barrier only a few milliseconds after the wave of pressure and heat slammed into them, overwhelmingly strong, powerful enough to knock Annabelle and Mina to the floor and hot enough to set armor damage alarms blaring in Ryouko's mind.
The hell was that? Annabelle thought, as the group reoriented behind the barrier, rapidly scanning for threats. It took only a moment for them to notice what had changed.
Instead of the almost-serene landscape that they had just been staring at, the landscape around them looked devastated, in a way none of them had ever seen before. The ground and facility in front of them seemed damaged almost in patchwork fashion, almost as if the region had been bombarded with a peculiar form of precision artillery. Spherical pockets of the facility were gone, seeming to have completely vanished. Others had merely suffered extensive damage, shattered and melted, and a few, the most puzzling, seemed to be completely intact, as if shielded by small spherically shaped forcefields specifically devoted to their protection.
The ground around them told a similar story, forming a helter-skelter pattern of circular regions that were red-hot and melting, regions that were scorched, and regions that seemed untouched. Large cracks fractured the ground like a spiderweb, testifying to the tremendous stress the crust of the planet was under.
It was the lightning that first revealed what was going on. The electricity from Misa's earlier attack had not entirely dissipated—instead, pockets of it seemed almost trapped in mid-air, frozen still. As Ryouko watched, a single surreal bolt of lightning traced its way slowly to the edge of its bubble, then, upon reaching the edge, completed the rest of its course in an instant.
Warning: Space-time distortions in vicinity extremely powerful, their sensors warned, belatedly. Recommend departure if possible.
Gracia pointed upward, and they looked.
The sky immediately above them was covered in circular distortions. Some appeared as bubbles of raging hot air, their surfaces intensely bright when viewed in infrared. Many, however, were only obvious with careful inspection—these fell slowly through the air, carrying within themselves a different pattern of stars, the fragmented remains of what had been a massive interstellar gateway—except that that made no sense.
How? Nadya asked. What the hell is this? We should have had plenty of time to escape!
We were too careless, Clarisse thought, hands stretched outward, telepathic voice strained. Remember the funnel, on the gravimetric diagram of the wormhole? The one stretching up from the stabilizers to the wormhole? When we took down the last stabilizer, the funnel must have broken apart and saturated the area. We were trapped in a bubble of slowed time.
That makes no sense! Gracia interjected.
I know it makes no sense! Clarisse thought, her mental voice galloping faster with every word. I'm making this up as I go, but it's the only explanation that fits the facts. And since I was preparing to use my time-manipulation powers anyway, I was barely able to sense time starting to slow. I'm accelerating time right now—a bit faster than the time away from the moon, actually; that's the only reason we have the luxury of standing around discussing the issue. But I didn't react quite fast enough. The remains of the wormhole have already descended on us. Eventually, they will dissipate, but not before they probably tear us apart. In fact, the temporal distortion we're standing in is sinking downwards. Unless we intend to go down with it, we're going to have to pass through the boundary, and I'll be honest: I don't think we can. Not directly. Just so we all understand the situation, I suppose, but really I'm talking too much, since I can't keep this up much longer. Mina, Ryouko, can you get us OUT OF HERE?
In response, Mina picked up one of the moon's strange metallic rocks, staring intently at it briefly.
I can't, she thought. The boundary is impermeable to me. I can't teleport the rock out.
Ryouko! Nadya thought, turning her head. Ryouko—what the hell are you doing?
Ryouko, whose soul gem light sensor had gone off the scale, was still watching the sky.