The division between Army and Navy, seemingly obvious to civilians, is in fact often quite blurred, leading to occasional friction between the two branches of the Armed Forces. While on a lower level, the distinction between an infantryman on the ground and a gunnery officer on a starship seems quite obvious, the line becomes harder to draw the higher up in the military hierarchy one ascends. At any level higher than the merely planetary, cooperation between ground‐based and space‐based forces becomes essential, necessitating a joint command. The early refusal of the post‐Unification War Army to subordinate itself to the upstart Navy (then called the Star Navy) has led to the current curious situation, where field marshals and fleet admirals both regularly holds commands over both fleets and planets.
The distinction that must be drawn is thus more subtle than that between ground command and space command. Fleet admirals and admirals stick more to their fleets, gaining and losing command over fixed regions of space based on where they are stationed to—during times of active attack or retreat, this may shift seemingly continuously. Field marshals and senior generals stick more to a region of space, gaining and losing command of fleets as they enter their region of space.
Even then, the distinction often fails to hold well. For instance, Tomoe Mami's involvement in the Saharan Raid was a classically Naval operation, despite her appointment as a Field Marshal.
In the end, it falls upon the General Staff, as well as its extensive network of human and AI advisors, to lubricate the operations of military command, keeping the two branches working together in harmony.
One source of tension between Naval and Army commands is the management of planetary orbital defenses, particularly the composition of Orbital Command (OrbCom). While in safe systems OrbCom naturally falls under the purview of Army commanders, the advent of intra‐system combat usually adds a significant, sometimes massive Naval fleet presence to planetary orbit. While the AIs of both branches are able to ensure effective low‐level cooperation, disputes between high‐ranking human officers over the exact command hierarchy, and over the ability of both sides to requisition reinforcements from each other, have occasionally led to acrid, sometimes public disputes. It is for this reason that a planet's ground forces and orbiting fleets are usually placed in the command of a single Field Marshal or Fleet Admiral, who can arbitrate any disputes and reassign any problematic commanders.
— Infopedia article, "Armed Forces," section: "Organization," subsection: "Inter‐branch Coordination," mode: discursive, moderate density; excerpt.
While the feats performed by a magical girl are, from the perspective of the Second Law, nothing short of miraculous, if statements made by the Incubator aliens are taken at face value, they are nowhere near miraculous enough. This isn't a matter of a few orders of magnitude—the difference between the energy a magical girl displays and the energy it would take to counteract the possibility of the heat death, even under the most generous assumptions, is absolutely staggering. It is the difference between demigod and god…
There are two obvious possible answers to this conundrum, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is that this gap represents the efforts of the Incubators, who are placing a cap on the energy a magical girl may access, so that they can use the rest for their alleged entropy‐fighting purposes.
The other is that the gap represents some sort of natural phenomenon, that something intrinsic is preventing magical girls from accessing their full power. Indeed, it may not even be proper to speak of a magical girl's "full power"; it may be that this full power is analogous to the energy theoretically stored in solid matter—while it is undeniably there, not even the most clever of fusion devices can access it all.
Without the use of antimatter, at least.
One approach to resolving this question would be to ask the Incubators themselves, but the MSY, the only route of communication, remains unwilling to discuss the topic. Without this information, we are reduced to speculation on the hints that we have.
The most important hint is the ability of magical girls to achieve seemingly impossible feats on certain occasions. The most well‐known, and most verified, is of course the example set by Akemi Homura at the beginning of the current war, but careful study of the historical record, particularly of certain incidents during the Unification Wars, suggests that this may not be a limited phenomenon.
— Joanne Valentin, blog post on Irxiv, 2445, excerpt.
"Will this woman just stop talking?" the hand‐written note said. "This is sooo boring."
Ryouko frowned at the mini‐tablet, slipped to her by Chiaki, one of the few people she knew who carried an old‐fashioned tablet and stylus around.
"Maybe to you," she wrote back. "But you're just bored by anything that doesn't play music. Stop complaining."
Shoving the tablet back between their desks, Ryouko refocused her attention on the lecture in front of her. It was a unique opportunity, provided by their school—a world‐class physicist, stopping by to give a special lecture. Sure, it was simplified non‐mathematical stuff, but the lecture was still worth paying attention to anyway.
"At the center of the developing singularity," the lecturer continued, calling up a diagram on the wall behind her, "as the density of the star approaches the Planck density, a unique phenomenon occurs. The graviton boundary on four‐dimensional space‐time becomes unable to contain the pressure, and ruptures, so to speak—"
The diagram, of a space‐time surface bending, suddenly burst open.
"But of course, no true rupture occurs. The mathematical structure of the boundary forbids exit from the boundary—what occurs is more accurately characterized as a phase transition. Spatial locality breaks down, and for a moment the point of the singularity is connected with literally the entire universe—well, that is what the theory suggests, at least. That is not what most of us really believe. In any case, however, gravitons from the rest of the boundary instantly rush across the non‐locality, and within an extremely brief period the nonlocality becomes contained, connecting the singularity to only one other point in space‐time. This may be characterized in some ways as a tunnel through the higher‐dimensional space, and indeed this is what was understood in classical General Relativity as the Einstein‐Rosen Bridge, though of course this convenient mental image is not fully accurate. In fact, there are several analogies to quantum teleportation that must be considered equally valid."
The women looked down for a moment, frowning in thought.
"There a few technical details of importance here. The 'width'"—she raised her hands to make the air quotes—"of the bridge is only the Planck distance and, for practical purposes, it can transmit no matter‐energy, although information transfer is permitted. In addition, while such bridges could theoretically connect regions spanning the entire observable universe, in practice the geometry of the higher‐dimensional space greatly biases bridge formation in favor of points close in space‐time—where, of course, 'close' has to be understood on an astronomical scale. The half‐maximal radius of the probability distribution depends on the mass‐energy of the singularity. Those of you familiar with IIC technology will recognize that it is this property that dominates the energy‐distance relationship of transmission nodes."
The lecturer frowned again, then smiled slightly, looking bemused, toying with her hair.
"Well, it is also true that for well over a century, it was believed that there was no way of expanding the width of the wormhole, even with exotic matter. While there is no direct evidence that alien wormholes are directly analogous to what I am describing here, the circumstantial evidence to that effect is fairly strong. Obviously there is something here we still don't understand. But of course, if science were so easily solved, it would be boring."
The lecturer stopped, looking around as students raised hands to ask questions. It was then, and only then that Ryouko looked closely at the physicist's face.
"Joanne Valentin," she said, out loud in surprise. "But why haven't I ever—"
That revelation, as startling as it was, was immediately swamped by another, much greater revelation.
I know how my power works, she thought, with an instinctive finality whose source she could not trace. The memory had struck her like a thunderbolt, seeming to seize her attention and force her to remember, in the middle of the most dramatic of possible moments.
She would have liked to investigate that fact, but there were more important issues at the moment.
Ryouko looked up at the fracturing space‐time above her, the anomalous stars in their three‐dimensional bubbles.
My teleportation range is constrained by the amount of energy I can pour into a single singularity at once, which in turn is limited by how well I can bend space‐time around me. But if the space‐time around me is already significantly warped…
She blinked, as ideas began to appear in her mind, new bounds and limitations on her magical ability, but also new opportunities.
I can get us out of here, she thought, with astonishment.
Girls! she thought, spinning around to face the rest of the team. I—
Ryouko stopped. Instead of the living, breathing team she was expecting, she found the rest of them standing around, as if frozen in time, Clarisse with her hands spread in front of her to project a barrier and time acceleration field, Nadya lunging forward at Ryouko, mouth open behind her visor to yell at her.
Yet, despite the circumstances, it did not seem as if they were truly frozen in time. In fact, her team, and the world around them, seemed strangely, indefinably fuzzy, and too white. In fact, it almost seemed like she was—
"You may want to hold off on teleporting out, at least for the moment," a familiar voice said, from somewhere to her left.
Ryouko spun around and stared, just for a moment.
The woman stood in front of her, in an absurdly elaborate layered white‐and‐pink dress. Impractically long, flowing pink hair framed an ineffably familiar face, one that at the moment looked strangely amused. The last time Ryouko had seen that face, it had been winking at her.
Behind the woman's back, a pair of abstract, transparent wings spread outward, though at the moment they seemed ghost‐like, almost invisible.
"You!" Ryouko exclaimed, pointing at the woman with her right hand.
A moment later, she realized how inappropriate the gesture, and her response, had been, and she snapped her hand back, hiding it within the palm of her other hand as if it embarrassed her.
The woman bowed her head slightly, in the polite fashion.
"For the record," she said, smiling, voice melodious, but strangely childish. "That vision with Valentin‐san would have happened regardless of my meddling—it's more of a magically‐induced memory than anything. Most magical girls understand how their power works the moment they contract. For others—it takes a special moment. Contracts are funny like that. And since I know you're wondering, I require certain catalysts to grant visions—well, easily at least. The ribbons I gave Homura‐chan are an example, but Clarisse‐chan's soul gem will serve in a pinch. Actually, it only works at certain historical moments, and I usually use it to give visions to her, but that's all details. She doesn't know I can do it for anyone else. There's metaphysics here—I used to know her, things like that."
Ryouko just stood there listening, gaping. The woman spoke with seemingly idiomatic Japanese, but it seemed off somehow, just like—
Just like Mami and Kyouko's Japanese, she realized.
"You knew them, didn't you?" Ryouko asked.
The woman chuckled.
"That is just like you, isn't it? Might as well ask while you're here. Meanwhile Clarisse‐chan is lying low, trying to pretend like she isn't there. All very characteristic."
"What?" Ryouko asked.
She's talking about me, her TacComp explained. I guess I should have expected I couldn't hide myself.
What are—how are you—
Not like I know any better than you do, Clarisse thought. I'm just here. I figured I should stay quiet.
"Listen up!" the Goddess interrupted, turning away from her, pink hair swirling. "You destroyed the wormhole stabilizer, which is quite an accomplishment, but it's not enough. As it currently stands, the battle is lost."
The woman reached in front of her with one gloved hand. In front of it, what appeared to be a portal swirled open, showing Ryouko the bright, sunny landscape of a different world—the bright, sunny, ruined urban landscape.
The Goddess turned back around, gesturing at Ryouko to approach with her other hand.
Ryouko stepped forward uncertainly.
"This is only a vision," the woman said. "Don't worry; you're not going anywhere. I couldn't do that if I wanted to. I'm just giving you a little perspective."
Ryouko looked up, and they made eye contact.
For a moment, Ryouko lost herself in those golden pupils. Those weren't just eyes, a part of her whispered irrationally. They were windows to something. Within those eyes, on the other side, there were worlds upon worlds, soul upon soul upon soul—
And then she felt herself being shoved, the Goddess pushing her physically into the portal in front of her, so that she stumbled forward and fell—
We have to hold the line here.
That was the implied message being relayed downward from high command, probably from brigadier general Shirou Asaka herself, who, as Patricia well knew, was more reluctant than most to issue orders to hold "at all cost." And yet that was the general tenor of the directives being handed down.
Her barrier generator, a relatively new recruit named Shen Qing Lan—though she preferred "Anne"—kicked open a door in front of her, dashing forward out of the building, barrier raised, as the rest of Patricia's personal bodyguard followed her lead. They had to stay on the move, stay mobile.
I can't believe things turned out like this, she thought, again to herself. It served no purpose, grousing like that, but it made her feel better, just a tiny bit.
It had seemed like such a routine affair, at first, or as routine as things got in wartime, even in such a situation as this. She had been informed about the new wormhole, of course—everyone in the system had, as a matter of course—and fleet resources were being diverted from throughout the system to try and contain the situation. That included, of course, fleets in orbit around the planet Apollo. With their departure, the aliens had decided to act aggressively, drawing upon their reserves to effect a wave of landings onto the planet, including directly into the capital city of Heliopolis. It was a sign of how bad the situation had gotten that the aliens felt bold enough to skydrop directly into the defenses of a major urban area, but the situation was bad in a lot of places, and alien dropships and transports were dropping through the overstretched orbital defenses at a murderous pace.
Sector seven has been compromised—reported landings in rear of sector five. Buildings 7A, 7B, and 7D report themselves completely surrounded; command post seven is no longer mobile and cannot hold. Major Baygi requests artillery bombardment of current position.
Lieutenant Colonel Patricia von Rohr paused, understanding the ramifications of an officer calling down an artillery strike on his own position—but she only paused for a moment.
Approved, she thought. Tell Sectors 8 and 9 they must hold to the last man. This line must be held at all costs until we receive our armor reinforcements.
Patricia gritted her teeth. The battalion's command structure was dangerously overstretched, and she had lost so many officers—including her primary tactical deputy, the unit's mobile AI cluster, and the already‐dead Major Baygi—that they were struggling to maintain command cohesion. The loss of organized command was the death knell for a unit, so even with the liberal distribution of field promotions, Patricia had been forced to take on more and more personal command, micromanaging individual squads and even soldiers in a way that she would never have to do normally. There was only so much she could handle, and she had already been forced to more or less stop paying attention to her own surroundings, allowing her TacComp to move her body in autopilot. It was a problem, because it deprived her of the ability to use her own powers, but she was being forced into an unpalatable tradeoff between command efficacy and magical power usage, between command efficacy and how effectively she could defend herself and use her magic to penetrate the enemy networks.
This isn't the kind of mission this battalion is intended for, she thought angrily, at—who? Fate?
There was no one to blame. Her artillery battalion was designed as a rapid‐reaction fire support formation, usually held in reserve except when acting as support for other units. The battalion was composed of specialists for the role—medium‐range missile launchers, medium‐range artillery, and long‐range snipers. From a magical girl perspective, the battalion contained a mixture of distracters, artillery, and specialists, which was common vernacular for "girls that had powers that aided dodging", "girls good at long‐range bombardment", and "miscellaneous", respectively.
Patricia herself fell into the category of "specialist", but she led this particular battalion for a reason. From a combat perspective, her most useful skill was her ability to enter the otherwise impenetrable alien networks. In terms of specialists, the battalion also contained a mind‐reader and a clairvoyant—combined, the effect was to create a battalion unusually skilled at penetrating the otherwise inscrutable alien command and communications structure, both for disruption and simple intelligence‐gathering. Magical girls capable of penetrating alien networks, such as Patricia, were very rare, and very valuable.
She sighed, quietly.
There's at least three things wrong with this situation, she thought glumly.
The first was that instead of acting as support for other units with heavier firepower, they had been sent out to crush an alien landing personally. They didn't have the right equipment for that. She hadn't been too surprised, though—their resources were stretched thin, and when the warnings began arriving from the Aer Magi and Magi Cæli units above them that alien dropships were inbound, into a sector where they were the only remaining reserve unit, Patricia had ordered her battalion to ready itself for combat, because the implication was obvious.
The second was that, as she had discovered when they arrived on the scene and she tapped into the alien network, the scale of the alien landings was an order of magnitude beyond what had been expected, and were accompanied by a heavy armor and air thrust from troops already planetside.
The third was that except for the shattered remnants of defensive units that they had picked up on the way there—now temporarily reassigned to her command—there were no other units in the area to prevent a crushing breakthrough. The only thing preventing breakthrough at the moment was Patricia's own interference in the alien network, sowing confusion, misdirecting commands, and delaying force concentration, while also directing artillery at threatening units in the rear. It would only work for a while, though—eventually, they would sort out their command issues, and either way, no amount of command interference could hold back truly overwhelming force.
Thus, they had to hold the line. There was no one else to do it. All they had to do was hold out until Asaka was able to gather the necessary reinforcements and send them forward in a counterstrike.
It can't take that long, right? she thought.
Requested reinforcements inbound, she received finally, almost as if on cue, the thought relayed to her all the way from Asaka herself, somewhere in her command bunker, causing Patricia to physically sigh in relief. Patricia knew without being told that the thought had likely made numerous jumps on its way to her, passing from electronics to magical girl telepathy to electronics to telepathy over and over again, until it finally reached her. One advantage to telepathy: it was unjammable.
She also received a map and timetable for the expected arrival.
This is… not really what I was hoping for, she thought, noting that the arrival wasn't anywhere near early enough.
She did not bother to relay the information further; it would propagate itself automatically to everyone relevant. Doctrine held that for maximal combat effectiveness, it was necessary that every single soldier, down to the lowest private, understood their entire tactical situation.
Patricia's "command post", a mobile grouping that consisted of her, her bodyguard troops, and their cloud of drones, was currently in the process of dashing between a set of buildings in the rear. Higher officers had actual physical buildings or vehicles as command posts, filled with computing equipment. Lower officers rarely got that luxury, simply because such posts were obvious targets and required a lot of protection. They relied instead on mobility.
I'm here, her newly assigned second magical bodyguard relayed, appearing on a nearby rooftop and diving dramatically out of the sky in a blur of blue. Kishida Maki was not a teleporter, and was thus not really capable of filling the role once held by Xochitl Isi, Patricia's teleporter, who had been killed in the initial attack. However, Maki was an illusion generator, and could perhaps provide enough distraction for Patricia to escape sticky situations. They could only hope that would be enough.
Plus, it helped that Maki's ability gave her the ability to cross the battlefield to Patricia relatively safely.
The two friends nodded at each other, then at Anne, and the rest of her bodyguard moved across the rubble‐strewn roadway.
Alright, she thought, allowing her legs to carry her across the rubble‐strewn street. We only have to hold—
It took only a slight mental ping, the slightest intimation that something was wrong, to send her into a powered dive, using her powerful legs to launch her across the remainder of the street, then converting her forward momentum into a roll so she could keep moving.
Moments later a barrage of laser fire fusilladed the area she had been passing through.
Damn it! she thought, as her bodyguard troops responded immediately, snipers and auto‐railguns opening fire from temporary positions in the buildings above onto the group of alien stealth infantry that had appeared in the street—a rare Exterminator strike group, specialized for the elimination of commanding officers, magical girls in particular.
Some of the positions fell silent immediately, terminated by other alien infiltrators. Deprived of their easy kill by Patricia's well‐timed dodge, the aliens were switching to Plan B: deprive her of an escape route by seizing the buildings around her, then finish the job before the human forces in the area could try to save her.
Patricia was painfully aware that if she had been more focused on her powers, rather than the functions of command, she could likely have detected the aliens before they arrived. Clairvoyants were rare enough to be precious on a battlefield, but her ability to pick up on drone activity, both friendly and enemy, meant that she could mostly accomplish the same purpose when it came to stealth detection.
She followed the instructions of her bodyguards as they ushered her inside the building she was next to, flanking her sides.
Patricia took a moment to scan the path ahead for alien drones as they hurried through the ground floor of the building, participating only perfunctorily in the decisions being made by her bodyguard troops. On a tactical level, she had to trust that they knew what they were doing, better than she did.
Instead of heading for a secured room in the lower reaches, they continued navigating the building. Patricia knew what this meant: they didn't think they could secure the building well enough for safety, so they would be making a run for it instead, hoping to breach the alien perimeter.
They ran through a maze of corridors and offices, whose now‐useless walls and furniture served only as a depressing reminder of the civilians the building had once housed. The single‐piece colonial furniture had been torn to pieces, either used to help barricade doors, or simply reprocessed for energy by one of the many soldiers and drones passing through. The walls were white, interspersed by patches of the smartwall ubiquitous on Earth and the occasional half‐functioning holo‐poster.
They burst back into the open from one of the service entrances of the building. The group of drones taking point fell to pieces in a barrage of fire, but the infantry that followed leveled suppressing fire at the origin of the shots, losing two members. A moment later, Anne dashed through the doorway, raising a protective barrier that provided just enough cover for Patricia and Maki to run past and into cover on the other side, in an alcove that had apparently once served as the entrance into "General Tso's Gourmet Chicken", a one‐story structure that seemed out of place in this city center.
Anne followed immediately afterwards, taking only a moment to look askance at the restaurant sign. Around them, torrents of laser fire took their toll on their supporting bodyguard troops.
"We're taking too much attrition, sir," the sergeant in the area commented to Lieutenant Kishida, who was already moving out.
Three human armored vehicles appeared around the corner at the end of the street, drawing alien fire as Maki dashed outward, her movements a blur. A column of blue platforms appeared in the air next to the building across from them, as the vehicles disappeared into a pool of paint, having served their purpose.
Maki scaled the building, jumping from wall to platform to window and back out again, hardened platforms dissolving into dye as she used them. Illusory copies of herself followed her movements upward, while apparent bullets, projectiles, and suicide drones showered into the alien positions from a variety of plausible angles, disappearing as they struck the alien shielding, providing additional distraction as she eliminated machine gun nest, sniper, rocket launcher, twin swords slicing and dicing the alien infantry.
As Maki worked her way back around towards Patricia and Anne, a quiet rumble above their heads drew their attention.
Anne slammed her hands upward, materializing a barrier just in time as the alien explosives finished detonating, bringing the structure down around them.
How the hell did they guess we'd go here? Anne cursed, as she angled her barrier to force the collapsing ruins of the—fortunately small—building away from them. They had moved forward, away from the building, and Anne unleashed another curse, this time in a colonial dialect of Chinese Patricia's TacComp didn't bother to translate.
Without quite knowing why, Patricia dodged rightward, just in time for a barrage of bullets to miss her. With her bodyguard squad still in chaos from the building collapse, they had lost suppressing fire—and Patricia had been flushed briefly into the open.
Redirecting more of her consciousness back into personal protection, she began to dodge—right, then left, then forward. Anne was new and, frankly, not as powerful as Patricia would have wished. She couldn't keep up this level of deflection for long.
With a burst of power, she seized control of a few of the alien drones that had been firing on her, turning them on their old allies, while Anne clapped her hands desperately, summoning wave after wave of sonic shockwaves that rattled and shook the buildings around them, dislodging pieces of masonry and collapsing windows. Patricia had to hope that all of that, plus the barriers Anne was still throwing up, would buy enough time.
Patricia! Maki thought, conveying a clear note of desperation.
Patricia spun around, already trying to jump away, but she knew, seeing the missile coming, that it was too late.
And then a blue caped figure landed in front of her, five meters away.
"Maki!" she yelled, as the detonation started to resonate in her ears. Glancing around, she saw Maki's signature apparitions begin to fall apart—she was either dead, or nonfunctional.
No, not dead. She could still sense the girl's power, just a little.
"Situation critical," Patricia relayed to anyone who would listen, as she had already been doing for minutes now. "Anyone capable of assisting please help!"
With that, she dissolved the last of her tactical command mode, diving forward into the explosion's area of effect, where debris was still raining downward. No longer constrained by attention issues, she summoned a full flight of drones to accompany her and absorb any incoming fire or shrapnel. Into her hand she summoned her signature weapon—a large dull‐gray drone‐launcher that wrapped around her arm.
Found it! she thought, as one of her drones was able to grab Maki's soul gem and fly towards her.
Turning around, she reached outward, co‐opting every alien drone she could find, while still summoning yet more of her own. Breaking into a run for cover, she used the alien drones to wreak as much havoc as she could with the alien battle coordination, as she raised her arm, launching fusillade after fusillade of everything she thought would help: explosive suicide drones here, EMP drones there, flying stinger drones into the air, gun platforms into the windows nearby.
She was still in trouble; they still had yet to break out of the alien perimeter. She needed—
A barrage of kaleidoscopic beams appeared in the sky above her, raining onto the contested area in front of her. Each behaved differently—some detonated on contact, others curved and twisted through the air as they sought out targets—but there was no mistaking what this was.
Cavalry's here, a feminine voice explained to Patricia, as she finally reached cover behind the remains of a stone bench. Alpheus Squadron, at your service. Shirou Asaka authorized us to rush ahead of the column, since we heard you needed help.
Patricia looked up, optical implants adjusting to the glare of the sun, at the group of girls that were darting among the buildings, on a variety of magical jet packs, rocket boots, and diminutive wings. True fliers were rare, so these were substantial reinforcements indeed.
She nodded, as she noted that her support troops had managed to take up new positions around her. As she placed Maki's soul gem into better storage in her equipment pack, she prepared to return to tactical command mode, already holding in her mind's eye tactical maps of the armor entering combat, arriving almost literally straight off the factory floor.
But something made her stop, and take one last look at the corpse she had left behind. It was gruesome, with torso torn away from legs and most of the skull missing. Unlike infantry, magical girls planetside wore no armor, so when they bled out, they really bled out, relatively speaking.
Patricia had seen its like before, in the weeks before, but she still shuddered, and turned away.
She looked up, as another wave of dropships broke through their air defenses.
It was beautiful, in a way, like a meteor shower—but these shooting stars brought death instead of wishes. Reviewing the tactical situation, she could see that Asaka had barely stabilized the situation, the reinforcements that were now arriving forming the opening salvos of a massive, desperate counterattack. It could work, but it was risky—if the aliens had even more reserves, it would finish them. That was beyond the control of anyone on the ground.
She peered into the distant sky.
What on Earth is going up there? she thought.
Surfacing from the vision, Ryouko coughed, stomach churning slightly, but the flood of borrowed memories was relentless, and she was drowned once again…
The mental alarm, so familiar over the past day, had screamed painfully loud in her mind, tearing her away from the bosom of a half‐hearted rest trance. It continued to tug at her attention as she and the infantrymen in her vicinity scrambled to mobilize, hastily checking weapons and power levels on their armor suits—most of them had remained standing, something that was surprisingly easy to tolerate if you were willing to abuse combat mode.
It was like an itch she couldn't scratch, one that clung at the depths of her mind until it was satisfied, and would not let go.
"Tell me, Lieutenant," she complained, as they began to power‐sprint down the hall, her suit transmitting the audio. "Why is it that these kinds of alarms don't leave us alone when we've clearly already gotten up, started rushing down the halls, and activated full combat mode?"
"I believe it's to help keep us focused, sir," the lightly‐bearded man replied, looking perplexed. "Combat statistics show it helps improve response times."
"Yes, Lieutenant, of course," she responded, a little drily. It had been a rhetorical question, but the lieutenant was a literal man, as she was slowly learning. There had been a lot of personnel transfers recently—those with naval training transferred out of the station, those without transferred in from other sectors. Only today had they learned what it was all about.
As they traversed the corridor, she took a moment to glance out the holographically‐simulated station windows, looking inward towards the super‐ship assembly area at the core of the Pollux Shipyard complex, and at the dusty, partial golden orb of planet Apollo that dominated the horizon beyond. The shipyard as a whole was actually a series of tethered space stations, arranged in concentric circles horizontally and, to a lesser degree, vertically around the central assembly area, and furthered serviced by other stations elsewhere in geostationary orbit. In ordinary times, steady ship and space elevator traffic provided additional raw materials both from the planet below and from space above. The complex was placed in relatively high orbit, to make the safe capture of asteroids into the shipyard easier, but also couldn't be too high, to facilitate transfer of goods to and from the surface below.
In such ordinary times, the rings of stations would often serve as feeder subassembly areas for the main assembly area, where the largest ships of the fleet would slowly take shape. At any given time, the shipyard would likely be assembling any number of frigates at the periphery, a smaller number of cruisers near the center, and, at the very center, perhaps a carrier. Only on rare occasions would the shipyard turn its attention to the assembly of a battlecruiser.
She had seen herself, a few times, the initialization of such a battlecruiser assembly. It was majestic, in its own way, the slow tugging of the captive asteroid into the central assembly area, the stations shifting orbits to make way, the small fleet of worker ships and drones on standby. Finally, with almost painful slowness, the asteroid would dock, the injection stations would make contact, and things would begin. For months the work would proceed nonstop, crews drilling into the asteroid, drones of every size—down to the microscopic—working to turn unrefined iron‐nickel into military‐grade metamaterial composite. The foundries, fabrication facilities, and microassembly plants of the shipyard would churn out the countless computing cores, nanoassemblers, transmission relays, and engine parts that went into an undertaking of this magnitude, while the station AIs gathered to design and assemble the kernel of a new battlecruiser AI, the economy of the planet below shifting its weight to accommodate the task. It was the only time the central assembly areas ever truly served their true purpose.
Now, though, there was no such megaproject. The shipyard and its supporting stations were devoted fully to the task of churning out orbital defense stations, Guardian‐class cruisers, and other planetary defense accoutrements. The shipyard itself had been outfitted with a substantial number of fixed defenses: FTL interdiction generators, anti‐ship railguns, and countless flak emplacements. The once mostly‐civilian personnel were now reinforced by a military garrison that tripled the population of the station. Space was at an absolute premium.
But many of the personnel had left only recently, and at this particular moment, the sky around the shipyard was filled with seemingly endless combat, the back and forth of the shipyard's fleet defenses, stripped barer than they had ever been, being placed under severe strain. The defenses of the shipyard itself now fired constantly, and damage control teams hurried back and forth to repair damage. Alien starships and insertion teams constantly tested their defenses, no longer being fully contained by the outer defense lines.
It was difficult, knowing that the fate of the station, and thus by extension her fate, rested primarily with the performance of the fleet jockeys in the sky around them, rather than anything within her direct control. She was used to it, though—had to get used to it, given her assignment to a vulnerable orbital shipyard.
Around her, the squad assigned to her made small talk, smiling or joking, the few newer replacements looking nervous. The platoon had separated into squads, advancing down various parts of the large, circular recreation area they were passing through, as civilians in the area looked on nervously. The lieutenant, her subordinate, had joined a squad on the far end of the room, behind the large cylindrical arboretum that decorated the center of the room—or rather, what had been an arboretum, but was now being used as a sleeping area.
The squad accompanying her at the moment was militia, volunteers to transfer up to the station for a chance at something greater, maybe even a promotion into the regular forces. Initially, that had meant obsolete weapons and gear in a well‐defended location like the shipyard. Over the years, veterancy had dulled the distinction between militia and regular military, and about a year ago they had started receiving shiny, brand‐new weapons and armor, erasing any meaningful distinctions that remained.
Often, in land units, the militia was separated out into their own divisions, even their own armies, but up here at "The Station", having a separate chain of command would have been unduly cumbersome, so separation only occurred at the platoon level. It suited her purposes fine.
She frowned under her faceplate, disturbed at how slow and intermittently information was being relayed to her. Usually, by this point in a rapid response she would already have substantial information about the nature of the threat they were dealing with, whether it was a search and rescue for civilians, whether it was an outbreak of alien minidrones that had snuck through the defenses, or whether it was one of those rare alien suicide insertion teams, launched in the hopes of finding a soft spot in the station's defenses where it happened to lack magical girl cover. They were having more luck today than she wanted to think about; much of the shipyard's mage garrison had been shifted elsewhere, either to defend the reaches of high orbit or to try to interdict the increasingly severe alien landings on the cities below. Radiation and antimatter sensors were sensitive enough that insertion teams couldn't sneak truly dangerous weapons through the forcefields—but that didn't mean they couldn't wreak absolute havoc with conventional weapons and explosives.
It was difficult to think about mages without thinking of—
"Cut the chatter," she ordered, decisively. "Something's up. This isn't an ordinary raid. We're walking into a communications black hole. We don't know what's in there. I want this taken seriously. Stay frosty; stay on your toes. Get the civilians out of here."
Her order applied not just to them, of course, but to the rest of the company, including several platoons that were advancing on the alarm area, a large cruiser engine subassembly facility, from different directions entirely. All around the room, individual squads scattered into covered positions along their axis of advance, as the civilians who had been lounging in the area began to hurry out the other way, agonizingly slowly from her mildly time‐slowed perspective, used as she was to the lightning quick movements of her soldiers in their power armor.
Of course, the details of her command had been relayed in machine language long before she had finished talking, but it was good practice to give verbal instructions whenever you could spare the time.
The company converged on the facility, individual members of each squad taking turns dashing forward into cover positions suggested by their TacComps, as smooth as a well‐oiled machine, accompanied by drones scurrying and flying into useful support positions. As they moved into the entry corridors to the subassembly area, she took a moment to mull over her options, processing the information she was receiving over the local networks. According to the station AI, station defense could not immediately spare any mages for them, though some would be moved over as soon as possible. The subassembly facility was considered valuable, more valuable than the paltry lives of her whole company, if need be, especially considering they weren't contributing directly to the battle in the skies above.
She activated the full extent of her combat enhancements, performance statistics flooding the lower levels of her consciousness.
"We're going in," she said, having already received the concurrence of Station Command. "Go, go, go!"
"Be ready for heavy jamming," she heard one of the lieutenants say. "Remember that we have no signals from inside the facility."
"Careful with your fire in there," another said. "Some of those engine components are quite volatile."
The various platoons had, of course, started moving in the moment the orders had been fully relayed, including all the nagging details the lieutenants had said, but it still felt good to say.
In situations such as these, speed was of the utmost. Entryways were often slaughter points, so it was critical to get as many people through and into cover as soon as possible, so they could provide suppressing fire for anyone that followed. A swarm of drones, including several large ground drones, would rush in first, followed by the squads taking point, who had the unenviable position of probably taking the most casualties, but someone had to do it, after all.
And yet, when she herself burst through the doorway with her squad, going last as befitted the company commander, she found the platoon scattered around her seemingly casualty‐free, even among the drones—seemingly, because their near‐field and long‐range communications had gone dead, leaving the various officers to issue their orders the old‐fashioned way—by hand signal. Looking around, she could see elements of the other platoons in distant positions behind robotic assembly arms, containment units, and standing on several floors worth of walkways. The facility was large, large enough that her hundred‐some soldiers seemed to melt into the surroundings, and large enough that she couldn't spot most of the other platoons.
The normally active assembly robots were quiescent but undamaged, and the human personnel of the facility seemed to have collapsed where they stood, though some showed signs of having tried to escape. From infrared, it seemed like they were still alive.
"Be careful of stealth," she said, out loud over external speakers, lifting her enormous weapon. Privately she thought: What the hell?
"Let's sweep our area," she said. "And try to pass information back and forth. Hopefully—"
She felt herself being flung aside with sudden, concussive force. With accelerated reactions, she managed to start turning midair, so that she landed into a roll, stopping behind a nearby storage container, back slamming into a railing.
She barely managed to orient herself, already firing at the red area where her TacComp calculated that any enemies were likely to be. She heard an explosive crumbling, and noted that the entryway they had entered through was collapsing on itself, that the aliens were firing at the doorway.
Gunfire began sounding throughout the area, and a specialist in her squad fired a wide‐dispersal area‐denial shock grenade from her suit arm, designed specifically for revealing stealth units in close combat. Their small drones peppered the area with careful fire and miniature explosives of their own, exchanging fire with a large set of suddenly uncloaking alien drones, while two of their large "dog" drones dashed rapidly back and forth, trying to make physical contact with an alien trooper, which was emitting some kind of repulsive field. Even with heavy alien jamming in the area, the drones were intelligent enough to cooperate well.
It didn't matter, as both drones fell apart a moment later, sliced cleanly in half by laser cutters from an invisible source.
The specialist fell to the ground a moment later, clutching briefly at an apparent wound in his abdomen, the brief shimmer of an alien stealth trooper passing by, revealed by the grenade. As others tried to track the trooper with their fire, falling back, she loaded a grenade into her arm—standard concussive—and launched where she expected there might be more troopers.
She fell backward with the rest of the squad as another member fell, firing on the sparks of shields activating where she had launched her grenade—a good guess, after all.
As she did so, her mind raced, even by the standards of the accelerated combat mode. Part of her sought to coordinate with her squad, her TacComp overlaying several new recommended positions over her visual field. Another part of her wondered at the strange alien tactics: Where was the laser fire? The barrage of explosives? Even the concussive grenade that had hit her group was relatively weak.
Why haven't we taken down any alien troopers? We should have gotten some! Unless—heavy shielding? Commandos? Do they have commandos? Why did the specialist go down so quickly?
Stopping to allow her weapon to reload, she turned and dashed for one of the new positions indicated by her TacComp.
Half‐way there, a searing laser shot out of the ground where she was about to step, and she barely managed to dodge out of the way—but the laser hit her heavy assault rifle, which immediately ruptured explosively, scarring her armor.
She swore, tossing the weapon away, still running. Some sort of new landmine—this was a trap!
Reaching her new position, behind a robotic auto‐assembler, she glanced back at the rest of her squad. Over half the members were now missing, two of the others had lost function in major limbs, and one had lost his weapon. They were still fighting, but the situation was dire.
She noted that the sound of gunfire in the facility, once thunderous, was starting to palpably lessen. They were losing badly.
I brought my whole company! How many of them are there? How could they sneak in so many?
What is the point of this exercise? she thought despairingly. To trap and annihilate one human unit? Destroy the facility? Is that worth how many troops they sent? Because they can't possibly escape now.
Another set of explosions, and she found herself dodging manically, as the walkways above her head began to fall to the floor.
Then she stepped on another mine, and this time the laser seared off her hand.
She didn't stare at it in shock, or feel any pain—the combat enhancements ensured that. Instead she dodged, trying to find another safe spot, the gaping wound at the end of her arm already beginning to seal.
And then she felt a sharp, piercing pain in her gut.
She looked down, at the blood pouring out of the wound, as she fell to the ground, suit power failing inexplicably.
Core systems un… respon— her TacComp began, before stopping, just like that.
For a moment, she could still see, her vision blurring, the shimmer of an alien commando passing over her.
She had left her family, everything behind, because—
Then the world blacked out.
Medium‐range transit nearly complete. Task force prepare for ready stance.
That triggered a wave of nervous telepathic chatter in Nakihara Asami's flight wing, which had been on edge nearly the entire trip. Asami herself, however, stayed quiet.
You okay in there? You seem a little out of it, her wingmate Hosna asked.
The telepathic words, unexpectedly clarion, cut through the fog that had settled over her mind, causing her to blink in surprise, behind the faceplate of her flight suit.
"Oh, I'm fine," Nakihara Asami insisted. "I'm fine. Just watching the sky."
"Watching the sky" was a Magi Cæli euphemism that had developed for the practice of using one's magical powers to search the sky, whether it involved clairvoyance or, in Asami's case, gravity powers. Asami, however, was a bit prone to zoning out while doing so, which had caused the phrase to acquire additional connotations when used by her wingmates.
It was more than that, though, as Hosna was proving annoyingly successful at intuiting. Asami had been spending the time obsessively probing the Grapevine for news, so much so that her contact to the network, a certain Ophelia over in Dardanelle squadron, had warned her about overuse.
She couldn't help it; it was maddening to be alone out here, without a single piece of news to reassure her.
Well, technically that was untrue; apparently, Ryouko had spent a small amount of time on the surface of Apollo, training for some sort of hush‐hush mission with an elite MagOps squad of some sort. The individuals and people involved were well‐known: Nadya Antipova was famed for her powerful telekinesis skills and was a minor celebrity in Russia; Misa Virani was apparently well‐known in a city in New California for some stunt she had pulled there while on vacation—the exact details had been buried, in one of Governance's few instances of unavoidable, explicit secrecy. The team they led, along with their ship, HSS Raven, had quite a reputation, having been spotted in the vicinity of major MagOps successes on multiple occasions. Certain fans on the Grapevine had used circumstantial evidence like that to build up a substantial dossier of missions.
Even more exciting than that, at least to denizens of the network, was the sudden appearance of a certain Clarisse van Rossum halfway through their training. Asami had been forced to look up the woman, apparently an Ancient of substantial reputation who had nearly a cult following online. Her participation in an event was taken an indication that something big was going to go down. Asami was amazed that she had never heard of the woman before.
All very exciting news, news that Asami had gorged herself on like a VR addict being given access to a high‐end Governance server—or, indeed, like she herself felt sometimes, near the gravitational anomalies that ebbed outward from starship engines. It had taken a while to learn to suppress the strange giddiness that sometimes washed over her, which had already triggered some giggles in the rest of the MC training cohort.
None of it, though, told her anything she really wanted to know—what was Ryouko doing? What were her chances of survival? On this, the network remained silent, the military's secrecy for once apparently winning the day.
Now that the battle had developed to this point, only the members being held in reserve really had the time to actively speculate on what exactly HSS Raven's mission was—extra‐system IIC bandwidth was being reserved for matters of military importance. Much speculation focused on the wormhole stabilizer whose presence had only been announced to the fleet just before the current operation. It made sense, but they couldn't be sure, because there was no evidence.
So instead Asami's mind ground its gears in silence. To some degree, she was glad for the combat, which took her mind off things. It was the pauses, the occasional periods of disengagement as they returned to their support ships, or flew temporary holding patterns in their suits as they traveled between destinations, that really got her. It was so easy to just let her TacComp take over the flying, as she continued to think—
Asami! Are you in there or what? Hosna yelled again, trying to get her attention.
She startled, the intervention of her TacComp preventing her from jerking her limbs. The TacComp was capable of forcibly seizing her attention for combat reasons, but did not do so for less important reasons. Not to mention it wasn't directly capable of picking up on telepathy. Part of her envied Ryouko her new version TacComp, but given what she had said about the device—well, Asami wasn't sure about wanting something that human inside her.
Meiqing and some others from the training cohort had somehow started to suspect that Ryouko had a new version, though Asami had no idea how.
Well, it certainly wasn't me, she thought. I'll have to tell Ryouko—
Agh, I'm still thinking about her. Focus!
I'm fine, yeah, she managed to say back to Hosna, as the world snapped back into focus around her. The blackness of deep space, the tormented view of the sky from inside their fleet FTL bubble, countless starships in the sky—all of it hung around her in eerie silence, the larger ships seemingly stationary, the fighter‐class ships and drones constantly bobbing and weaving about. It was amazing, how used she had gotten to it, at least with her mind as distracted as it was now.
I told you she's not okay, First Lieutenant Hosna said, with a trace of anger, directing the comment at Yi Jong, their squadron telepath and commanding officer, or SCO for short.
Asami didn't hear the response, which Jong had probably sealed into a private telepathic channel, but she knew what the captain was probably saying—she had overheard them arguing in the hallway earlier.
"Look, I submitted the report accurately," Jong had said. "How was I supposed to know they're pushing psych‐class C's into combat now? I was expecting them to send her to a therapist, not send her out with us! If I had known, I would have exaggerated a lot more. What's done is done; we'll just have to keep an eye on her."
"It's not right, sending a rookie out like this, on half‐training to boot," Jean added, after a long moment.
"She's doing quite well, for a rookie," Jong said. "You saw the bombers she took down earlier. Look, let's stop talking about her like she's not here. You okay over there, Asami?"
"Yeah, I think so," Asami responded—truthfully, she thought. "I'm just a little distracted. I'll be okay if we start fighting."
"I think we can rely on that," Jong agreed.
Asami doubted she would have even asked if she thought the answer would have been different—the captain was a telepath after all, and could read Asami's mind perfectly well. Plus, Asami's soul gem meter served as reassurance. Sure, the maximum level was a bit lower than usual, and the depletion rate was a little high, but overall the statistics were within acceptable range.
Well, we're going to need some of those anti‐bomber skills soon, Jean commented, gesturing in front of her. We're getting really close now.
Asami swallowed, trying to push down a sudden frisson of nervousness. Up until now, they hadn't really been in the battle. Assigned to the cruiser HSS Otto von Bismarck, their task force had been held in reserve at the rear of the formation, and had consequently dealt only with the occasionally alien penetration raid—harrowing to be sure, but not at all like what the veterans had described a battle as being like.
Now, though, Anand's faltering attack had been deemed secondary to Feodorovich's much larger and more successful surprise offensive, and her fleets had abruptly withdrawn. Most of the fleet had moved to join Feodorovich, the more depleted formations pausing to regroup and repair, but much of the reserve had been transferred back in system, where the twin worlds of Apollo and Artemis were apparently under severe assault.
Form up, girls, Jong ordered. This is going to be hot.
New orders began to trickle in. The task force as a whole was going to reinforce the fleet stationed in defense around the planet of Apollo, where alien starships were starting to break open wide holes in the planet's orbital defenses. Many of the group's MC squadrons were assigned to follow them on this mission. However, some of the MC squadrons, more specialized at transport interception, would be shifted into a more defensive role, along with a small number of ships to help carry them into new positions. Some were being sent to try and screen the planet from the alien drop ships heading for the surface. As for the rest…
"You'll be covering Pollux shipyard," their squadron's CMCG—Commander, Magi Cæli Group—relayed. "It seems like the aliens are trying out a new tactic with heavily‐armed, unusually‐large stealth ships. The shipyard has already lost some important facilities to this new tactic. The hope among OrbCom is that assigning some MC squadrons with stealth‐detection will neutralize the threat."
Among other things, that meant Asami, of course, since even alien stealth systems weren't perfect at hiding the gravitational effect of their exotic matter engines, and Asami was excellent at sensing that kind of thing.
"The shipyard also needs immediate support against an incoming group of transports, so expect contact the moment you exit FTL," their CMCG finished.
They engaged their propulsion packs, rearranging themselves into a preplanned formation, Jean, Asami, and others with repulsion powers in front, Hosna and Jong farther back. The squadron's drones, which had surrounded them as a cloud the entire way forward, rearranged themselves in a similar fashion.
A few frigates, as well as the Otto von Bismarck, broke off from the main task force, combined FTL bubble breaking off from that of the main group in a manner exactly analogous to the behavior of soap bubbles. These frigates carried their squadron, along with a few others, to the shipyard, while the rest of the task force headed elsewhere.
Asami took a breath, as multiple barriers flickered to life in front of them. She gestured her arm slightly—a habit she hadn't been able to get rid of—and another barrier appeared, an invisible region of negative space‐time curvature visible only to her.
Another breath, and a small gravitational anomaly appeared in front of her. Her primary weapon, a miniature singularity, sounded impressive—and, okay, was pretty impressive when she used it—but it wouldn't have amounted to much without the effort she had to put in to amplify its strength outside of its event horizon, to make the event horizon much larger than it should have been, given its mass, and to keep the Hawking radiation leakage to manageable levels. It was a lot of work!
That was why she only kept one going at any given time.
As their FTL bubble began to dissolve, they engaged their stealth packs.
The view that appeared around her was awe‐inspiring—radiation flared into her view from a thousand sources, from energy scattering off of starship forcefields, from countless engines of every size and shape, from the shattered wrecks of countless ships. The golden orb of the dry planet Apollo dominated the sky, its atmosphere punctuated by the fiery re‐entry of countless objects—wave after wave of alien drop pods and drop ships, many intact, many shattered into pieces. Uncontrolled collisions between the innumerable broken pieces of debris created enormous debris fields in orbit, ensuring a seemingly endless rain of small, deadly projectiles onto their squadron defenses.
Before her, the numerous installations of Pollux shipyard strew themselves about, enormous concentric circles clearly labeled by her TacComp in the field of her vision. Some of the installations had clearly been blown apart, but the shipyard seemed, as a whole, intact.
The gravity—she could feel it in her heart, the thrumming of so many engines, the violent disintegration of so much exotic matter, freed from containment, all of it spiraling in the gravity well of the planet below. It was a veritable playground of gravitational anomalies.
And they were getting closer, their small formation knifing forward, directly into a large cluster of defense ships, alien cruisers, heavily‐armed alien transports, and assorted escort ships for both sides. This cluster was engaged in a densely‐packed firefight—"knifefight", according to MC terminology.
Many of the alien transports and cruisers had now been revealed, either via direct detection by OrbCom clairvoyants or due to the weapons fire they directed in support of their sister ships. These transports were a novelty, armed with an armament of hard radiation bombs and Raptor missiles far in excess of the typical alien transport. Perhaps most disturbingly, the sheer magnitude of the stealth the aliens had utilized was staggering in comparison to anything they had done previously in the war. Not only were these stealth cruisers and cruiser‐sized transports more than an order of magnitude larger than any stealth ship previously known, the transports had also cloaked a substantial accompanying population of drones and escort ships. It was worth asking: If the aliens could cloak this, what couldn't they cloak?
Teamwork, girls! the captain ordered, raising her ruby‐tipped scepter. All at once, dozens of red lines, curved, jagged, and straight, appeared around them, passing through their formation. Each one represented the intention of a sentient enemy attacker.
Does she know how lame she sounds when she says that? someone in the squadron thought—leaving the captain out of the telepathic channel, of course.
Stealth, my ass, someone in the squadron thought, simultaneously. These stealth packs ain't worth shit.
Allowing the rest of the group to cover her, Asami closed her eyes, extending her gravitational senses outward toward the cluster of ships. She could tell… she could sense…
As OrbCom's clairvoyants had suspected—but not been able to pinpoint—not all of the alien ships had chosen to reveal themselves with their weapons fire. Quite a few, slipping past the rest, were still trying to sneak by the defenses to the shipyard.
Taking a breath inside her helmet, Asami marked the locations of the ones she could find. Once precisely located, the clairvoyants could keep an eye on them without her help—hopefully, anyway—so that ships and other squadrons in the area could do something about it.
And then there was no more time to think, as the drone cloud of their formation slammed into the cluster of alien transports, injecting yet another source of chaos and destruction into the scrum.
She projected her repulsion field forward—attempting to clear a path for her squadron through the sea of drones, weapons fire, and missiles—as the rest of the girls fired their longer‐ranged weapons, a group of robotic MedEvacs appearing behind them, some having literally just emerged from the shipyard. As they did so, they began to collectively decelerate, under the influence of their suits, Asami's gravity, and a sort of collective telekinesis, just as in training. It would not do to keep flying forward at their previous speed, which would have carried them rapidly into the alien formation, far past their own support ships. Slowing down made them more vulnerable to targeted fire, but it was also the only way they could perform any attack that was more than just a long‐range potshot.
Collectively, they searched for targets, ideally a large alien ship that just happened to be traveling at their exact velocity, or something close to it, and even more ideally one they happened to already be near.
A moment later, OrbCom forwarded them a potential target, a cruiser Asami had identified earlier, now almost directly in front of them, designation number 517, trying to make a run for the shipyard. In all likelihood, the ship hadn't realized it had been detected.
They accelerated forward, seeking to close the remaining distance before the ship, or any of its frigate escorts, noticed their sudden change in combat posture. The distance estimates in Asami's upper field of view scrolled downward, reaching 200 km, 150 km, 100 km…
Then, as they began to slow back down, Asami withdrew her focus from the direct combat for a moment, seeking to detect the location of the alien drive core—
There, she thought.
She had barely completed the thought when their group teleporter spread out her dark orange teleportation bubble, grabbing Asami, Jean, and a few others, and—
The next moment, Asami found herself within the engine room of the alien ship. The austere curved walls, white and gray, rapidly became tarnished with dark green ichor and black char marks, and the white and gray turned harsh with reflected radiation, viewed with her rapidly transitioning optical implants. Jean's barrier held back a storm of alien weapons fire, the other girls responded with attacks of their own, and Asami stepped up to the wide opening that led to primary alien drive core.
The metallic orb, almost the size of an entire frigate and glowing with blue Cherenkov radiation, hung in the air, the artificial gravity disabled in its area of the ship. Numerous tubes connected to it from the spherical walls, glassy and eerily reflective. In the simulations, Asami had always thought that an alien engine room resembled the central room of an austere temple, a shrine built to worship the mysterious spherical idol that dominated its center. To her, it seemed entirely appropriate: the alien drive thrummed with power, far more elegant and beautiful than its human equivalent.
Here, near the central core, there were no weapons emplacements, only a small emergency forcefield that shimmered in front of the core—FTL cores were delicate things, and did not function well without careful isolation.
She spread her arms outward, allowing the singularity she carried with her to rise in front of her, radioactive aura surrounding an angry pitch‐black core that, out of the blackness of deep space, was suddenly very obvious. She grew it larger, until the formerly football‐sized anomaly seemed to stand in front of her, larger than she was.
In front of her, the core grew visibly perturbed, its formerly steady glow beginning to shudder.
I'm sorry, she thought—to herself, because it wasn't really the normal thing for someone in her position to think.
Then she released the singularity, pushing it forward, maintaining her control over it, for now.
I'm done here; we need to go, she thought, as she dashed back out into the main engine room.
The teleporter spread out her teleportation bubble, and a moment later they were back outside the ship again, with the rest of the squadron.
Asami had no time to enjoy the results of her work, or to observe the rear of the cruiser breaking apart in the distance; they were under heavy attack, and already trying to withdraw to safety, which was actually a bit more difficult than charging in, because they no longer had the momentum or surprise that accompanied exiting rapidly from FTL.
The squadron already looked somewhat depleted, and a small number of the MedEvacs hovering in their area were already occupied. Ordinarily, the ships would have rushed back to the nearest friendly cruiser or frigate, but at the moment there was no immediate clear path back to friendly ships—the squadron would have to cut such a path out itself, and the MedEvacs were waiting for an opening.
Keep it together girls! Jong Yi thought. Let's make a break for HSS Abraham Lincoln!
The field of stars in front of Asami flared bright white with the detonation of a hard radiation bomb. She threw up a repulsion barrier, though she didn't expect much from it—her gravity‐based powers had the most problems dealing with light. Instead, she drew on her power reserves, summoning another singularity, which she placed in front of her. Forcibly growing it larger again, it absorbed the radiation, as well as a wave of anti‐personnel smart shrapnel that followed, arriving from another explosive.
Turning about‐face, she faced a wave of interceptors that had arrived, the group of girls now too pressed to communicate in more than brief telepathic flashes, carrying nonverbal tidbits of intent or information.
In situations like this, she had very little in the way of a direct attack—she was much more of a support fighter, using her manipulation abilities to alter the trajectories of alien ships, enhance allied maneuverability, or use gravitational anomalies to disrupt alien systems and weaponry.
She tried to maintain her focus in the chaos of the battle, retreating behind defensive barriers erected by the others, directing her attention at perturbing the delicate engine mechanisms of a group of three interceptors passing through her former position. One of the ships dropped out of formation, losing acceleration, and Jong Yi appeared at its side, slamming the ruby tip of her scepter directly into the side of the ship, where it glowed briefly red before blowing the interceptor apart in a blast of crimson light, debris continuing to travel in the ship's former direction.
Then, with the kind of telepathic snap that accompanied sudden termination, Jean, one of the barrier generators Asami had been relying on, disappeared, almost literally, her body seeming to vanish utterly in the ultraviolet glare of a laser she had failed to block in time.
The soul gem was still intact, shielded at the last moment by the girl's last‐ditch defenses, exactly as stipulated by the combat manual, and Asami grabbed it with a gravitational vortex, hurling it at the nearest empty MedEvac, while simultaneously using a gravitational eddy to divert the course of an alien missile headed towards the area.
She could almost be proud of herself, then, for maintaining her focus, but then with another snap, one of the other barrier generators died, soul gem lost, the still intact upper body seeming to mock her, and forcing her TacComp to suppress the wave of revulsion that passed through her.
Their numbers were dwindling, and the perimeter was breaking down. This was not turning out to be a good run—but at least they were almost at the Lincoln, and the prospect of temporary safety.
Rocketing backward, she dodged and weaved, even turning into a barrel roll, her TacComp working to keep her from being disoriented. Forcing herself into an abrupt deceleration that she could feel damaging her soft tissues, she gritted her teeth and spun her singularity around her, so that the interceptor chasing her rammed directly into it. As the ship distorted and collapsed, breaking into pieces, the world turned bright with radiation again, as an alien cruiser engaged with the Lincoln released a fusillade of hard radiation bombs in their direction. She swung the singularity around to block it, ignoring the remains of the interceptor, but then another such bomb detonated behind her, and she knew she had nothing to mitigate the damage this time. Someone else in her squadron would have to cover her back.
But no one got there in time.
The next few minutes seemed to pass in a blur.
Angry telepathic cursing from Hosna…
Her TacComp announcing her entry into fugue…
The cold, saving embrace of a MedEvac pulling her inside with metal arms…
The distinctly unpleasant sensation of incubation tank fluid entering her lungs…
Then she snapped her eyes up, as if shocked awake.
Her vision was tinted blue by what she knew to be the tank fluid, and various parts of her body itched where she knew various tubes had been inserted. Beyond the tank, there was nothing but the cold inner surface of the MedEvac, which after all was little more than a flying incubation tank with a small stock of grief cubes.
〈Fugue state anomaly,〉 the MedEvac thought, robotic voice deliberately warm, but emotionally lifeless. 〈Soul gem light emission dangerously unstable.〉
What am I even doing out here? she thought, raising her hand to touch her tank wall. This isn't what I wanted.
Her body hadn't been recovered immediately, and had taken substantial damage during the wait. What remained of her hand—the palm, two fingers—was embedded with small, flexible tubes, and covered with bright red sores where flesh had fallen off.
I can't even see the stars, she thought. I never wanted to be out here. I wanted to be studying plants!
Unnoticed, her tears started mingling with the tank fluid.
But I didn't wish for that, did I? I made a wish about my family, when I, I don't even—
I thought I would want nothing else, but instead, now, I'd want—
She pushed herself out onto the local networks, and found to her surprise that she could still access them. That meant they must have made it back. Her attention shifted to a news bulletin:
Special Audio Announcement to the Fleet by Field Marshal Tomoe Mami:
"Thanks to our hard work and effort, the primary objective of this operation has been completed! The wormhole stabilizers have been destroyed by a special MagOps team assigned to this purpose. With this accomplishment, it may be that victory is in sight. However, this battle is far from over—"
She skipped ahead, and then heard the same maternal but authoritative voice continue:
"Unfortunately, no victory is without sacrifice, and we have lost all contact with the MagOps team carrying out this operation, and the stealth insertion ship HSS Raven has been destroyed. Let us—"
Here she heard, or perhaps imagined, a slight emotional tremor on the part of the marshal.
"—commemorate those who are missing, while not abandoning hope. The team members are as follows: Colonel Clarisse van Rossum, of Earth—"
Feeling her heart shattering inside her, she immediately skipped forward within the audio file, and heard:
"Captain Shizuki Ryouko, of Earth—"
The remaining two digits of her right hand clenched, gouging the transparent shell around the tank with still intact fingernails. Letting her hand fall away, drifting in the fluid, she began to laugh, harshly, then found she couldn't even laugh, that something was damaged.
All of it, for nothing, she thought.
〈Soul gem unstable,〉 the MedEvac thought. 〈Emergency measures enacted.〉
Then, suddenly, so quickly she barely saw it happen, she found herself ejected from the ship, drifting in the cold of interstellar space—or, at least, her body had been. It had kept her soul gem. After all, the quickest way to stabilize a despairing magical girl was to detach her from her body.
She tried to laugh again.
Then the world blacked out, as the 100‐meter limit rapidly passed.
This time, the transition was smooth, giving Ryouko no time to think before a new perspective, a new mind, took dominance of her thoughts. This time, the tenor of the thoughts felt different—efficient and powerful, yet stretched, thin somehow, as if time had worn the mind itself down to bare essentials, as if… something was missing.
She knew immediately who it was, of course.
We're actually doing it, Mami thought. We're holding on.
She would have reveled in it more, were it not for Erwynmark's death. By the time they finally retrieved his body, parts of it were still alive, and they could have regrown it—as an empty shell, since the critical neural circuits in his brain had been irretrievably lost, and unlike her, he had no soul gem as a backup. Information‐theoretic death, the loss of the information that constituted an individual, what the Incubators might call a soul, was the only true death.
It wasn't just Erwynmark, of course. There was also the team still on the moon, Clarisse and Ryouko and the others, but those, at least, she still had some hope were still alive.
Try as she might, she couldn't suppress the tiny part of her that wasn't fully devoted to controlling her fleet, which was once again filling with regret.
Why do they always die on me? Why can't I ever save them? What does it take?
She shook it off, as she had to, as she had shaken off a thousand such lines of thought over centuries of life. The work—the work was the only thing that mattered, the work that ensured that the greatest good went to the greatest number. Sometimes the few had to suffer. Sometimes it even had to be done deliberately.
She ignored the shiver that passed suddenly through her spine, focusing her attention on the task on hand. Best not to leave parts of her mind thinking idle thoughts.
The ship and troop dispositions of the system spread outward in her mind's eye, both literally in front of her and in the depths of her mind, connected to her brain with a directness unachievable by mere vision.
Eschewing the fancy virtual reality travel effects to save processing and time, she inspected the situation as it stood, the scene before her switching instantly to a side‐by‐side view of the twin planets Apollo and Artemis, which appeared as giant orbs in front of her. Despite tremendous pressure from a massive alien offensive, the urban centers of the planets, highlighted before her, were mostly holding on, just barely, despite a few unfortunate antimatter explosives the aliens had managed to slip into the defensive lines, whose damage radii were highlighted bright red on the surface of the planets, resembling painful bloody sores. As for the related casualty counts and environmental damage—that was another thing best not to think about.
As for the two shipyards in orbit around the planets, they were doing… acceptably, according to the consensus of the High Command gestalt, which forever loomed in the rear—and even forefront—of her mind. The shipyards were taking damage, and Pollux, especially, had been the victim of several insertion teams and bombardments getting through the defenses, but the modular, scattered nature of its design was preventing the damage from being too severe. As long as they survived in some form, the damage could probably be repaired.
But while all that was important, it meant little if the fleet failed in its duties. On that front, things were looking brighter than Mami would have dared hope earlier, and she had no need to go over it all again—it was her responsibility, and even at that very moment, the substantial majority of her focus was devoted to managing the fleets involved.
Yuma would say that about 75% of my consciousness was involved—no, forget it. I don't care.
With the wormhole stabilizer mission already a success, despite the apparent loss of the team involved, she—more accurately, she and the High Command—had called off the fleets deployed to the diversionary operations, reorganizing and redeploying them to new missions. Admiral Gul's fleets, ragged from ferocious combat defending the system's human‐controlled asteroids and comets, had been divided between Mami's fleet—holding back the alien fleets that had emerged from the wormhole—and Feodorovich's counterattack, far beyond the system boundaries. Anand's fleets had shown some initial success in their attack on the alien supply lines, but had lost offensive momentum. The system's operational reserves had been siphoned off to help with the crisis on Apollo and Artemis, so unfortunately, that was that, and Anand's fleets had pulled back, regrouped, and joined Feodorovich's massive attack.
Mami switched her focus to Feodorovich's fleets, taking a strategic level view of the Euphratic sector, rather than the system‐level view she had gotten used to. Feodorovich at this point had nearly as many ships as Mami did, and for good reason—Mami's judgment earlier had proven sound, and the alien's salient defenses were stripped bare. With a focused, concentrated strike, of exactly the kind pioneered by human strategists in the earlier parts of the war, the alien rear could be shattered, and without their wormhole, their resources would flag in the face of the industrial might of the human worlds.
Feodorovich was making excellent progress, tearing a deep, narrow swath into the tip of the alien salient into Human space, which was tinted angry red in her field of view. She was bypassing fortified systems, seizing strategic points on shipping lanes, re‐establishing IIC nodes, re‐establishing contact with human garrisons still holding out underground—all the things it took to grab a swathe of space and try to hold onto it. In this case, however, Mami spared herself the details, refusing the flood of information at the edge of her consciousness.
The woman knew what she was doing, and seemed within… distant grasp of achieving their goals.
Mami was now cautiously optimistic, but there was work to be done. The more efficiently they could defend the system, the more ships could be reallocated to Feodorovich. Speed was of the essence, to prevent the aliens reallocating their own forces to stop her drive—and speed required power. Basic military principles.
Yes, if I focus a little now, I can have this all over with. Just a little longer. Then I can relax.
The aliens had seemed strangely reluctant to pull back from the offensive, though. It was a tendency human strategists had noted early in the war, and one that could be exploited to profit.
Then, all at once, Mami found her attention seized by a sudden, high‐priority alert.
Ryouko again opened her eyes, and this time she found herself back in her own body, standing again on the austere, dark gray surface of the alien moon. She found herself breathing heavily from what she had just experienced. Asami, she—
She thinks I'm dead, Ryouko thought. I–I'm—
She stopped her apology midway, realizing that no one could hear her, and she wasn't really sure what she was apologizing for anyway.
Who was that woman on the shipyard?
Looking around, thinking that perhaps the vision was over, she found her teammates still motionless, frozen in the same postures she had seen them in at the very beginning.
Then again, with all the temporal anomalies that had formed in the area, it would have been difficult to rule out the possibility, were the Goddess not standing directly in front of her, hands clasped behind her back and watching the sky.
The Goddess—it was amazing how mundane the idea was starting to become, in some ways. It didn't help that the Goddess in question seemed to be humming to herself, translucent wings twitching in rhythm to a song Ryouko couldn't identify.
"Will she be alright?" Ryouko asked, finally.
"Nakihara‐san? Right now, yes, kind of," the woman said, in idiomatic Japanese. "The rest depends on other things. It's best not to talk about it."
Ryouko stood there for a moment, stymied. She had questions she wanted to ask, all bubbling to the surface of her mind, but something about the Goddess's body language dissuaded her from saying anything.
The woman sighed, then spoke in flawless Standard, twirling a part of her long, flowing hair with one finger.
"Sometimes I show up to these visions in something closer to my human form and personality. It feels refreshing to do that, and sometimes I can almost remember what it was like to be human. But most of the time, I can't. It would just confuse the girl receiving the vision. Everyone expects a Goddess to have a certain gravitas, even when the Goddess herself would rather do something else."
Still not turning to face Ryouko, the woman seemed to be studying her fingernails.
"If you think about it, everyone takes on many forms, in the course of a life," she said. "Child, woman, mother. Scientist, writer, leader. Magical girl, goddess, witch. My particular life cycle just happens to stretch over all of time. Sometimes I am excited, cheerful, and young, like I was at the beginning. Other times, I feel old, thin, sort of stretched, like too little butter spread over way too much bread. The truth is, when time itself is a meaningless construct, I am all of those things at once."
The woman sighed again, then spun around unexpectedly, almost startling Ryouko into jumping.
"It's alright if you don't understand," she said in Japanese, suddenly smiling. "I'm just toying with you. What do you think? Can we be friends?"
The woman leaned forward, sticking her hand out. Ryouko found herself shaking it, without fully understanding what she was doing. It occurred to her that this version of the goddess seemed palpably younger than the version that had been facing away from her. Did gods age? What did that even mean?
"Good!" the woman said, nodding to herself in pleasure. "Now let's get back to business."
She tilted her head upward, at the sky, so that Ryouko looked up as well, at the stars distorted by the bubbles of discordant time that floated in the air.
"My old senpai Mami‐san has refused to give up the fight," she said, voice suddenly serious. "With the destruction of this wormhole stabilizer, she believes she can win this battle, despite the long odds. She and Erwynmark—they believe in the value of staying aggressive, of leaving no one behind, but the currents here run deeper than they know."
She looked at Ryouko to make sure she was following, a surprisingly human gesture, then continued, ticking points off on her fingers:
"Every step of this operation has been designed to lure the human fleet into a deeper and deeper trap. First, the wormhole stabilizer placed at a location that cannot possibly be ignored, with extra stabilizer cores that not only make it more difficult to destroy, but also easier to detect on long‐range sensors. Second, pretending that the stabilizer is not operational, until the human fleet has committed itself too deeply. Finally, moving in reinforcements at an apparent snail's pace, and deliberately having surprisingly few forces in the area, leading the human commanders to think that it is still possible to win by being aggressive. In truth, there is a large fleet now gathered around the site of the former wormhole, all gathered within one gigantic cloaking field. This is the first campaign of the war where they've devoted a reasonable amount of resources to trying to win, and that fleet, cloaked on a scale unimaginable to human scientists, is their trump card, their key to finally striking a decisive blow in this war."
She stopped, and looked at Ryouko out of the corner of her eye, and a brief pallor seemed to pass over the woman's face.
"Do you understand?" she asked, voice rigid. "When that fleet uncloaks and moves out, everyone I just showed you will die. Von Rohr‐san, Nakihara‐san, even Mami‐san. Even if you escaped this moon and warned them, it would already be too late. The die is now cast, and even the destruction of the wormhole stabilizer will save nothing."
The Goddess turned, grabbing her by the shoulders, and, in what seemed like a trick of the light, Ryouko found herself looking at a young girl, clad in a pink costume much like hers, as short as she was. Indeed, she would not have seemed out of place as one of Ryouko's classmates, back on Earth.
"Only one thing can save us," the girl said, in a voice now much higher‐pitched, almost pleading. "Magical girls are the only thing that has kept humans alive in this war, and it's the only thing the aliens were afraid of. If a trained long‐range clairvoyant had examined the region around the wormhole at the right time, they would have spotted the fleet, even with stealth. If Gracia had looked just a little bit more carefully, instead of focusing on only the Raven, she would have seen them. If Nakihara Asami had been assigned to Mami's fleet, there is a small chance she would have sensed something wrong. But as it is, everyone was too distracted to look, and no one in command thought to order a closer inspection. They played Mami like a fiddle, and even after four hundred and fifty years, she is still not careful enough. Sometimes, history hinges on collective failures, and little mistakes like that. And the punishment for failure is often very cruel."
The girl clasped Ryouko's hands in her own, the gesture filling Ryouko with a feeling of familiarity she couldn't understand.
"But, it is easy to manipulate history, if you know how," the girl said. "Even if you have very little direct influence. A suggestion here, a vision there, a well‐timed demon spawn—you don't know it, but this is one of the things you were born for. Your wish made sure of it."
Ryouko stared back at the girl's eyes, those mesmerizing windows into what appeared to be another world, and had no idea what to say. What could she say, after a speech like that?
She blinked, and suddenly the goddess was an adult again, wearing that white dress.
"I know you sensed it, before I interrupted you," the woman said, pinning her with her gaze. "With the recent destruction of the wormhole, the fabric of space‐time in this area is very weak. Even without me, you would have realized that your powers are now greatly expanded, but you would have only thought to save your team, and teleport them all back to safety, away from this moon. But, just for now, you are capable of so much more. I'm not going to play around with confusing symbolism this time. Open the mouth of the wormhole again, then slam it shut on the alien fleet. Send them back home. Then you can teleport out. Do you understand?"
Again, Ryouko just stared, unable to form a coherent response.
"Of course you do," the Goddess said. "I can read your mind. You'll be fine. Come see me again when this is all over, okay? I expect we'll have much to talk about."
Then the woman pulled her into a hug, and Ryouko closed her eyes. The hug reminded her, strangely, of her mother.
"It will be alright, child," she heard the Goddess say.
She woke to the sensation of Nadya shaking her violently, trying to wake her as she stood rigidly.
"I told you, she's having a vision," Clarisse insisted angrily. "Stop trying to wake her."
"Look, I don't want to be mean about this," Nadya said, "but I don't believe—we can't have people zoning out at a time like this."
"What I would give for a team leader who actually understands the Goddess—" Gracia began.
"I don't want to hear insubordination at a moment like this—" Nadya growled.
"Stop fighting!" Clarisse said. "Both of you! That's an order. Look, she's awake again."
Ryouko was aware of how she must have looked, wide‐eyed and shell‐shocked, and what shook her out of her shocked state was, strangely enough, her TacComp.
Damn it! the machine thought. I didn't know she was going to end the vision! I was going to ask a question.
What question? Ryouko asked, incredulously.
It doesn't matter. Stop wasting time. Apparently, you have something to do.
She blinked, and saw that Clarisse had restored order over the rest of the team, which was now looking at her to see what she would say.
She took a breath.
The long‐distance sensor readings should have been impossible—there was no oscillation this time, no orchestrated build‐up. Instead, the area of the wormhole, which had collapsed with a gravitational cacophony that was probably rivaled only by a black hole collision, was stretching again, with the curvature of local space‐time rising sharply and uninhibitedly.
All at once, sensor blips appeared everywhere in the area of the wormhole—battlecruisers, blink cannons, heavy carriers, ship after ship after ship—enough to blow everything they still had in the system out of the water. Around them appeared, yet again, the mouth of a wormhole.
If it were possible for High Command, the merged AI‐human consciousness of the Human Fleet, to experience complete and utter shock, along with the stirrings of unadulterated panic, then that was what Mami experienced in that moment.
Then, a moment later, the wormhole collapsed, and the sensor readings disappeared.
What on Earth was that? Mami thought, the incredulity and sheer confusion of the thought mirrored by every battlecruiser and general in the fleet.
In her command chair, with her consciousness buried in the workings of the fleet, Mami could not see what was going on around her, on her bridge, but a moment later the intrusion alarm on the bridge was triggered, and the robotic defense systems went on instant alert. Her bodyguards, Shen Xiao Long and Karina Schei, responded even faster than that, raising a defensive barrier and preparing to attack whatever had just appeared.
"Don't shoot!" a voice urged.
When Ryouko had first contracted, using her powers felt natural, completely instinctual, as easy as breathing. Teleportation was patently impossible for an ordinary human, and yet it seemed like no trial at all.
This… well, this was different.
"I'm going to reopen the wormhole," she had tried to begin, but the combination of expectant, skeptical, and confused faces she had faced had overwhelmed her, and rather than attempt a further explanation, she had turned away, so that she could just do it.
But do what, precisely?
She ordered her armor to eject her soul gem, which it did, the gem brilliantly, blindingly green as it extruded from the front of her suit into her hands. Then she raised it upward with both arms, hoping that the fancy gesture would somehow help her.
Patience, child, Clarisse's voice urged quietly. Focus. I don't know what exactly you're trying, but you have to calm down. The gestures will not help. Empty your mind of everything but the magic.
Ryouko bit back the urge to look at the girl, instead nodding once, slightly. She brought her gem back to her chest, and closed her eyes, trying to do as Clarisse instructed.
Please, she thought.
The quiet beating of her heart, continuing its endless cycle in her inhuman chest. The slow rhythm of her breaths, drawing air in and out of the suit's pressurized atmosphere. The steady pulsation of her soul gem, in time to a more esoteric rhythm.
There it was.
A drumbeat, deep and slow, growing imperceptibly ever‐slower, on a level of reality seemingly removed from all the rest, on the same level that she felt something tearing whenever she teleported. Now that she noticed it, she was astounded that she had ever missed it. The gravitational waves that had emerged from the collapse of the wormhole still ran to and fro over the area, sending shudders through the bubbles of warped reality, ringing like bells around her, and through the patch of space‐time far above them, where the wormhole had been, and which was still weakened from its injury.
Acting on a slowly growing understanding, she prodded at the wound, operating her powers with a level of subtlety she had never before attempted, coaxing the waves around her to come back together and return to order, tugging at and pushing against the bubbles that dotted the world around her like marbles on a stretched sheet, bearing a striking resemblance to the tired general relativity analogy dragged out in every primary school.
At the center above, the chaos grew and grew, so that the already‐damaged fabric of space screamed at the abuse. She felt almost sad, but it had to be done.
For just a moment, she opened her eyes, seeing the world around her cast in green silhouette. Without looking, she knew that the girls behind her were frozen in awe, like photographic stills, some clasping hands in prayer, looking above her at her soul gem, which had floated again above her of its own accord, almost as bright as the sun. Even farther above them, the bright specks of the alien fleet were visible, stealth impossible in the gravitational storm enveloping them. The bubbles that had dotted the world around them had soared upward, were still soaring upward toward their original source.
Then she clenched one hand into a fist, sending it downward at an imaginary barrier, stabbing it with all her strength, and then the sky above her shattered.
It seemed unreal to her, even as she watched it happen, even as she grasped clumsily at the one remaining bubble, the one that still surrounded their group, feeling her power draining and her soul gem dimming.
A soul‐sapping weariness washed over her, so that she could hardly keep her eyes open.
No! I'm not done here! she thought.
As she fell downward, slowly in the weak gravity of the moon, her mind reached outward desperately. She could still find something—
There! she thought weakly, as in her mind's eye she saw Mami's teenage frame, lying back in the chair too large for her, eyes closed.
One last strain—one last effort—
She saw a row of pistols pointed at her team from half the officers on the bridge, and Shen Xiao Long tensing herself to charge.
That could have gone better, she thought.
Then the world blacked out.