"And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not."
— Søren Kierkegaard, "The Sickness unto Death"
It is an old military axiom that to control the high ground is to control the battle. Thus it is that the decisive battles for rule of a planet are always in the ultimate high ground of space. Domination of space grants a nearly complete view of the surface below, and allows the option to strike whenever and wherever desired.
Yet just as control of the hills around a city does not always effect the seizing of the city, so too does control of space not always effect the seizing of a planet. Even if unlimited orbital bombardment is permitted, a determined enemy in underground positions with sources of geothermal energy can hold out indefinitely and must be rooted out, often bunker by bunker. This requires boots on the ground.
The human doctrine of ensuring that fortified worlds hold out as long as possible is well‐known, and well‐populated worlds supplied with production facilities have at times held out for heroic periods of time. Less well‐known are human tactics for assaulting Cephalopod‐occupied worlds, a necessary task in the liberation of conquered systems. While not anywhere as formidable a task as an assault on a prepared human population, a huge military investment is still required, particularly if planetary bombardment is restricted.
Due to the sheer size of planetary surfaces, it is often impossible for planetary forces to prevent a landing everywhere on the planet, and it is often effective to simply land on an unmonitored region of the surface and establish a forward operating base. However, it is often the case that a planet must be taken quickly, to free up fleet resources for other uses, or to eliminate a dangerous military facility. In these cases, a direct assault is called for.
An assault from space on a fortified position requires exerting as much force as possible onto the target. Ideally, such a force must instantly dominate both surface and air. There is no time for establishing airfields or for the careful landing of heavy equipment—everything must travel intact from orbit to the ground as fast as possible.
To this end, the Armed Forces fields special orbit‐to‐surface ships and materiel of every possible description, from the Suriname Infantry Dropship to the Meteor Descending Artillery Piece to the entire ODASC (Orbitally Deployed Air Superiority Craft) category of aircraft, whose pilots are often called, jocularly, "Desk Jockeys".
The troops used are themselves specialists, specially trained and prepared for planetary assaults, with a heavy mage component. All consider themselves elite, with unit names like "Black Flag" and "Scarlet Purifier", and all are part of the Soul Guard elite branch of the Army.
— "Recruit's Handbook," excerpt.
Stealth Surveillance Probe OBv4r1n3, also known as "Miki" or, to friends, "Probe‐chan", was not having a good week.
There was a certain pride associated with being the newest, latest model, especially when your predecessors were not quite as… sentient as you were. It had taken a lot of innovation and questionably organic modifications to cram an AI of 1H intelligence into the chassis of the Observer Version 4 Revision 1, and while Miki wasn't quite the prototype—that would be "Proto‐chan", who she really needed to call again when she got a chance—being number three was more than glamorous enough, and it had made her newborn heart swell with pride whenever a larger ship snuck by the shipyard to have a look and compliment her. Plus, being number three meant that she could go straight into combat duty, rather than having to endure multiple rounds of boring test‐runs, accompanied by occasional embarrassing—and, if the rumors were right, downright humiliating—glitches.
As a stealth surveillance probe, it was of course natural that she would spend long weeks alone in enemy territory under complete radio silence. That had been factored into her personality design, and while she did occasionally miss socialization, the hustle and bustle of a fleet gave her headaches, and long weeks of alone time were perfect to work on her poetry and her pre‐industrial style musical compositions. Both of those hobbies were programmed into all v4r1's and were of course intended to give them something time‐consuming and energy‐conserving to do, as well as to talk about on the rare occasions they met. For the really long trips, they could shut themselves down and allow a few autonomous subroutines to take care of transit, but that defeated the purpose of having a sentience always on the lookout for incoming sensor scans.
No, what really ground her gears was the mission she had been assigned. She was designed for high‐risk infiltration missions into heavily monitored alien systems, not leisurely junkets to minor colony worlds, rogue or not. It was the kind of mission one would give to one of the plentiful v3r12's, and that Command indeed had given to a Version 3. She had read those reports, and nothing in them suggested that this would be anything but stunningly routine—certainly, there was no reason for them to force her to cancel her inaugural performance to the Pre‐industrial Music Scholars' Organization—PMSO, for short—and rush out to this uninspiring middle‐of‐nowhere colony in the Rhine Sector. Either Command wasn't telling her something or, more likely, they were just trying to keep her on her toes.
She sighed. Well, if there was one redeeming factor to this mission, it was that it was short. Two days in, two days out, and probably not much to do in between. She had allowed herself the mental rant, but she was already nearing the outer planets of the star system, and it was time to cut her FTL engines and approach the planet by sublight, just in case. She was nothing if not scrupulous, indeed obsessively so—that was another predetermined personality feature, very important in her line of work.
So she settled in for the hours‐long sublight approach, allowing herself to fall into a bit of a work trance, always monitoring her sensor feeds, always taking the least likely route to be scanned, even if she sincerely doubted that there would be any deep‐space sensor arrays capable of monitoring her approach.
Finally, she approached the planet, and could see the settlement on the planet's surface, neither unusually large nor particularly special in any way, just as the v3r12 had reported. She allowed herself another annoyed sigh, and played a bit of music in her mind to cheer herself up—Tchaikovsky, and honestly more appropriate for fleet combat than surface scanning, but she liked it.
She eschewed the easy geostationary orbits, moving in for a much closer, less‐predictable, and faster orbit. It was annoying having to watch the settlement constantly zooming by underneath her as she spun around the planet, but she was of course designed to ignore such things, and with the right compensation algorithms, she could almost pretend it wasn't happening.
She unveiled her passive sensor arrays, allowing them to soak in whatever photons they saw, and brought her other sensors, some of the most sensitive Governance could design, up to full operating power. It was a delicate dance, retransmitting photons to make sure her sensors didn't visibly occlude anything, and allowing waste heat to build up in her internals, to be dumped in occasional bursts of infrared directed away from the planet, and only when she was on the opposite side of the planet. But it was her job, her life, and she stretched herself out to listen, letting herself fall into a trance, sitting together with the mountain, until only the mountain remained.
A few hours later, she was quite awake, Li Bai be damned. Her gravity sensors indicated an underground structure buried beneath the colony, at least as large as the aboveground settlement, but at significant depth, and therefore agonizingly hard to gather any details about, no matter how patient she was about collecting individual photons and gravitational fluctuations.
She needed to weigh the tradeoffs. She could probably leave the planet now, her duty done, but the information she had was maddeningly incomplete—or, she could bring her active sensors online, risking detection and even perhaps the loss of the data entirely, if she were shot down. That would be disastrous, warning the colony that Governance was onto them, losing vital information, and, least importantly, getting her killed. Sure, her last consciousness backup had been just before she left, as was standard protocol, but like most ships she hoped to reach eventual obsolescence and retirement without any philosophically troubling gaps in her memory.
She did not even consider trying to transmit her data first, then running an active scan, because that would gain her nothing—the IIC usage would be even more noticeable than the active scan, so if she were going to do that, she might as well scan to her heart's content.
She decided she'd risk one active gravimetric scan. It was unlikely the colony would have anything that could detect her handiwork, and it was even more unlikely that anything could shoot her down.
She toggled the command, and if she had been human her eyes would have widened immediately. The data poured back into her sensors, and she interpreted the results hurriedly. An underground facility—no, an underground colony, several times larger than anything apparent on the surface. Geothermal power taps that suggested a disproportionate amount of power usage, facilities of a size and complexity to suggest a population that should not be possible given the history of the colony—
Besides being obsessively scrupulous, Miki was also designed not to be easily distracted by surprise; thus, even as she fervently sliced and diced the data and pondered the risk associated with another, more detectable active scan, a part of her kept on the watch for anomalies in surroundings, and noticed when a faint gravitational echo returned from elsewhere in orbit, tremendously far away by human standards but practically next door by orbital standards.
She fired her emergency thrusters, bright and obvious as this system's star, and the impacter missed her by a scant half‐kilometer. The game was up.
They have orbital weaponry? she thought incredulously, as she hurried away from the planet with only a passing glance at her attacker, entering FTL as fast as she was capable of.
She brought her IIC system fully online, the zero‐width wormhole in her belly screaming at her gravimetric sensors as she forced photons into it. Space‐time did not like being treated like that, and made sure everyone in the area was well aware of it, but the stealth no longer mattered.
"So is the intervention force ready yet? The Directorate is not pleased with these unexplained delays."
Mami glanced up at the new arrival, turning away from the new set of maps she had been inspecting.
"Well, it was," she said, peering into Military Affairs's oddly warm—but still clearly cyborg—eyes.
"There have been some new developments, though," she said, turning back to the maps she and Yuma had been studying scrupulously, scraps of interactive paper laid out on a small, square table, set tall enough for them to stand at.
In truth, there wasn't much to see that wasn't already in the intelligence summary. The colony on the surface looked unremarkable, and everything of interest lay beneath the surface, in a fuzzily‐defined region given only the most tentative of labels. Something big was down there, something that required a lot of geothermal power, and… that was all they knew, really. There wasn't even really enough to make serious guesses about, and it was an open question why the colony bothered having an aboveground section at all. It seemed like they would have been better‐served hiding the whole colony underground, except that the aboveground structure had served to mislead the first probe they had sent—but why would the colony leaders think there was any need to mislead? The probe was only there, after all, because of the mysterious signal, whose origin was still unknown.
It made Mami uneasy to think about, but she had only sent the second probe because of the reasons she had been given for canceling the submarine route of attack. It was apparent now that Kyouko was right—the original planned deployment would have been utterly unequipped for assaulting a vast underground structure, magic or not.
But of course, then, there were the reasons for what Kyouko had believed—what Ryouko had believed. How seriously should she take Ryouko's "vision" involving the colonists having weapons? Was it all a coincidence, especially in light of the stealth probe coming under fire? Mami had always thought that Ryouko had too good a head on her shoulders to fall for that Cult nonsense, and yet…
"As you can see," Mami said, as Military Affairs stepped over to see for himself. "Recent scans of the colony have revealed that there is a good deal more to it than we previously thought. Moreover, with the recent detection of our probe, it is almost certain that the colonists, or whoever is out there, will now expect our arrival. Given the attempted destruction of the probe, I wouldn't assume a non‐hostile reaction."
That was hardly a comprehensive summary of the situation, Mami knew, but she also knew Military Affairs was already digesting the contents of the written report. This preliminary conversation was merely social courtesy.
"Humph," he grunted, metal arm dropping onto the surface of the table with a clang. "The others will not like this. There are too many unknowns here, and given this cult's professed beliefs, the only speculation I can have about what they are doing is all too dark. This exact kind of thing is why we established a monoculture in the first place."
Mami and Yuma shared a glance. The idea of a monoculture came up frequently in online criticism of Governance, and Governance never admitted that the phenomenon was an intended goal of its policies, rather than an unintended consequence. The current culture of Earth would be propagated through the sheer success of its society, and as long as cultural variance in the colonies was kept within certain bounds, Governance could rest assured that there were no dystopias or rival human governments festering within its official domain. Beyond that, rogue colonies were allowed a certain amount of unofficial leeway, as insurance against existential threats. Governance did not suffer them to get too perverse, though, or too dangerous.
It was not an idea to be spoken about openly, Mami thought, looking at Military Affairs, who was drinking from a wooden mug filled with some kind of frothy beer. This was a secret council, however, and if they couldn't talk about it now, when could they?
True discussion couldn't really start, though, until…
"I'm here!" a cheery voice announced.
The green apparition emerged out of the ether on the unoccupied side of the table, slightly above ground level. The girl landed dramatically, bracing her arms against the table, long hair piling forward with the momentum.
"You're late," Yuma said, glancing sidelong at MG.
"Only by a few seconds," the girl insisted.
"A few seconds, objective time," Yuma said.
"It's fine, Miss Chitose," Military Affairs said, setting down his mug, which vanished into sparkles a moment later. "Let the young be young."
Yuma shrugged, and MG tilted her head slightly, obviously processing the forwarded information for this meeting. It wasn't typical for both Yuma and MG to attend the same meeting, unless the number of participants was quite small.
"Oooh," she chorused a moment later. "I don't think the MSY is going to like what we find down there."
Mami leaned forward and pointed her gaze down at the maps on the table, making it clear with her body language that it was time for business.
"Now that we're all up to speed," she said. "One point of interest is that it will be necessary to substantially escalate the scale of force commitment. Command had hoped to limit the intervention force to mages only, so as to limit the spread of anything discovered on the colony, but a commitment of that scale in pure mages would now be too resource‐draining, especially in light of the apparent orbital defenses present at the colony. We have decided to commit conventional forces instead, and the opinion of Command is that if we're going to go there, we have to go big. Cruisers, artillery, orbital‐based air power—but especially large numbers of infantry and tunneling drones. Assaulting what we must assume is an underground fortification is properly an infantryman's job."
She glanced around at the others, gauging their reactions. Nothing yet, except the usual serious expressions.
"There are, of course, veteran units with experience in colonial interventions," she said. "Task Force Rhamnusia, in particular, is specialized for this task. We will include them, but we do not believe they have sufficient force to rapidly sweep an underground fortification against resistance, if it comes to that, especially given their lack of training in underground operations. Therefore, Command seeks to assign additional forces, whatever the risk to operational secrecy."
Mami glanced around again, particularly at Military Affairs, whose approval was most necessary.
"This seems rather paranoid," Military Affairs said, frowning slightly. "Indeed, the colony has shown unexpected capabilities, but the type of commitment you are describing is unprecedented for a colonial intervention. Task Force Rhamnusia was assembled specifically to cover all possible contingencies. As for sweeping underground fortifications, outside of the special forces, no one has that particular type of training, because we have not yet found the need to assault a fortified world."
"This is not a foreseen contingency," Yuma said, looking at Military Affairs. "You must admit that a colony of this sort was not anticipated to exist."
"The MSY's experience with unknown situations involving magic shows that paranoia is really the order du jour," MG supported. "I would not be worried about the Ordo Illustrata per se, but if they've indoctrinated any new magical girls, or conducted any other sort of experimentation, it is best we move in with maximal firepower."
Military Affairs glanced at the relatively young AI with an odd expression.
"With all due respect," he said, nodding his head in their direction, "the MSY has never been exactly clear about the possible limits experimentation can be taken to. We have little doubt that the organization has not been exactly straightforward on the matter. We do not desire to contest this at the moment, but if it is simply the case that the danger here is greater than we can know to expect, then say so explicitly, and I will withdraw my objection."
"It is more than you can know to expect," Mami replied. "Similarly, Command does not believe that negotiations before intervention are warranted. We hope to achieve as much tactical surprise as possible. It will take a few additional days to gather the suggested amount of force, but we judge it unlikely that the rogue colony will be able to enact significant preparations in such a short period."
Mami hoped that her careful wording, conflating High Command with the MSY—who did indeed now compose a large portion of High Command—would get the conversation back on topic.
"Very well," Military Affairs said, closing his eyes and stroking his slight beard. "I do not believe the rest of the Directorate would necessarily approve of skipping the negotiation phase, but I will trust that Command knows what it is doing."
The AI glanced between the other three.
"Will that be all?" he asked.
"Yes," Mami said. "Unless you want to discuss operational details."
"I will leave that to the military," Military Affairs said, getting up from the table. "It's not my place. Just don't cock it up."
Having made explicit his position, he turned to leave, stopping only when MG touched his arm, the two AIs exchanging virtual eye contact—and presumably, some other form of communication.
Then they both vanished, and Yuma sighed loudly.
"He's right, Mami," Yuma said, shaking her head. "Maybe it's nothing and we're all overreacting, but I don't think this situation augurs well. I don't have to tell you that. Don't cock it up. Minimal casualties, both sides, if possible."
"If possible," Mami said, turning her head away. They both knew that the history of colonial interventions was checkered, especially when it came to casualties.
Then she signed off.
"And so it seems like we've earned ourselves a bit of a delay, as it will take some time for the necessary reinforcements to gather here on San Giuseppe," Kyouko announced to the auditorium, standing next to a holographic reconstruction of the planet's surface with Nana and Marianne. "The closest units are already here; be sure to welcome them. We will be assigning additional training regimens for those of you who are least experienced, but I think a half‐day of free time right now would not be unwarranted. Dismissed."
The crowd of magical girls began getting up to leave, murmuring in disturbed conversation. It had been unusual for Kyouko to call a full, physical briefing like this, and the speculation had been intense. Once they had all gathered on San Giuseppe, they were supposed to board a cruiser bound for the mysterious colony; instead it seemed they would wait on the planet a bit longer for even more force to gather.
"I wouldn't say we exactly earned a delay," Ryouko heard a girl behind her say. "I'd prefer an easy mission with no breaks to a hard one with a week of vacation."
"I think we all would," another girl said. "But it's not like we have a choice. Free time is free time."
"Free time, huh?" Ryouko said.
Asami looked at her, and for a moment Ryouko was quite certain of what "free time" would be spent doing.
Then Ryouko heard the ping of an incoming message, and tilted her head to read it. It wouldn't have drawn her attention if Clarisse didn't think it was important for her to read.
〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
I just got a surprise reassignment to a new mission. 〈Apparently, they think someone with earth manipulation powers will be useful—something about an underground bunker or something.〉⑤‡ But anyway, I'm sure I don't need to tell you guys about that; it looks like we're on the same assignment! They just told me! Anyway, I'll be on‐planet in only a half‐hour, and apparently we're in the middle of some kind of time off? We should do something!
〈Access to sections marked ‡ restricted to a limited number of individuals.〉‡
This was a surprise indeed, and Ryouko glanced over at Asami, who she assumed had gotten the same message.
Indeed, Asami's brow was knitted as she read the message, before she relaxed, shaking her head glumly.
"Come on, there'll be other chances," Ryouko said, patting her girlfriend on the back. "I'm sure you'll think of a way to slip away. Whatever we're doing, we should invite Azrael."
Asami looked up at her.
"You think?" she said.
"I think it might be interesting."
"Hiking, huh," Azrael said, peering skeptically at the path laid out in front of them, dirt trail leading into a dense grove of alien trees. It looked… almost like Earth, except for the giant ferns interspersed within the forest, and the brilliant red vines that climbed many of the trees, displaying luscious scarlet‐red fruit. This "bloodfruit" was quite popular on San Giuseppe, despite the common knowledge that they would have been absurdly poisonous without toxin‐neutralizing implants. Asami had, of course, told her all about it long before they even got to the trailhead.
Ryouko understood the skepticism in Azrael's voice. Knowing what she knew of Azrael's life story, she doubted the girl had walked more than five hundred meters in her life, and probably stayed out of forests, which were nasty areas to try to fly in when you had a wingspan measured in meters. Azrael had still insisted on carrying her wings with her, but they were so outrageously bulky that, in the end, the only recourse was for Azrael to simply wear them, so she could control what they were doing. Meiqing was told that the detachable wings were the result of a wish, which she accepted readily enough.
Meiqing was also the one who had suggested going hiking. According to the tour guide, San Giuseppe had some breathtaking rock formations, and by climbing to the top of one of them just before nightfall, it was possible to see some truly breathtaking auroras.
Ryouko sighed, kicking the ground with one boot. Listening to tourist brochures could get one into strange situations, if getting kissed by Asami in a volcanic hot springs was indicative of anything. Perhaps that was why her girlfriend had agreed with the hiking idea so readily. Or perhaps it was simply the girl's xenobiologist proclivities showing.
"Come on," Asami yelled, from in front of them. She had decked herself out fully for the trip, complete with walking stick, hat, and massive backpack, when realistically with their enhancements and magic, they could have hiked in the nude and been perfectly fine. It wouldn't have surprised Ryouko if Asami had a portable laboratory kit in that backpack.
Meiqing carried only some light provisions, and was otherwise dressed similarly to Ryouko and Azrael. She smiled slightly, gesturing at them to get on the trail already.
Ryouko shrugged, glancing at Azrael, and then stepped forward, walking onto the light red soil of San Giuseppe's forests.
She stopped a moment later, confronted by Asami's hand, which was offering her one of the dreaded bloodfruits.
Ryouko faked a smile, and took it into her hand, biting down into the fruit, knowing that the blood‐red fruit dripping out made her look like some kind of carnivore, as it did Azrael, who was doing the same.
It… wasn't bad. An interesting blend of sour and sweet and bitter, it worked her way down her taste buds. She also knew the bite she had just taken could have killed multiple unenhanced horses.
"Oh, look, it's a starbird!" Asami exclaimed, pointing up at red and black bird flapping through the air on four wings.
The bird stopped on a tree branch and Asami peered at it intently, clearly taking a zoomed‐in picture.
Azrael looked at Ryouko, as if to ask: Is she always like this?
Yes, she's always like this, Meiqing thought, answering the question before Ryouko could. I think it's endearing, though.
It is, a little, Ryouko agreed. She gets so excited.
Azrael sighed slightly, trudging along the trail.
I usually ignore small birds like that. I like to kill giant geese and annoy the eagles. It's good fun. But right now I envy that bird.
Azrael shook her head at herself, walking ahead of Meiqing and Ryouko. Asami was by now far ahead.
Meiqing halted midtrail.
"What does she mean by that? She hunts geese?"
"She flies a lot," Ryouko said, passing Meiqing on the trail. "It's her whole life, basically. Come on, don't lag behind."
"Simple" hiking, under excellent conditions on clear trails, without any rock climbing or other difficulties thrown in, was mostly a leisure activity, a way to kill time gawking at scenery without straining oneself too hard. Even with the moderate incline it took them little effort to maintain a brisk pace, although they stopped frequently to take pictures of various fauna with their ocular implants. Even without their military implants or their magic they would have done fine—the hike was designed for civilians, and modern humans had little to fear.
On the way thus far, they had seen five different types of four‐winged bird, what looked like a mini‐pterodactyl, several colorful lizards, and the affectionately‐termed "bear‐deer", which looking startlingly like a bear but was in fact a rather large herbivore. Ryouko knew this because Asami had grabbed her by the arm to point out each and every one of these encounters. In truth, Ryouko was not terribly interested, but she could see the stars in Asami's eyes, and knew not to say anything. That, and Clarisse kept reminding her to "just go with it."
So she did.
Gradually, even Azrael seemed to get into the mood, starting to comment on the odd dynamics four‐winged flight must produce, and how it was really only optimal on insects, though she could see how it might help with the placement of the center of gravity. According to her, San Giuseppe must have had an odd evolutionary history. Meiqing, for her part, opined that the forest soil was probably too cakey to use easily as a shield.
To each their own, I suppose, Ryouko thought.
Azrael keeps staring at your back, Asami thought, sidling up next to Ryouko, for a moment finally sated with bird‐watching.
What? Ryouko thought, suppressing the urge to glance back.
Yeah, and she keeps blushing, Asami thought. I think she has a thing for you. Kind of weird, considering her age compared to everyone here.
You think everyone has a thing for me, Ryouko thought. Stop being so protective.
She's looking at Asami too, Meiqing thought, surprising Ryouko, who hadn't noticed that Asami was sending her telepathy to both of them.
What? Asami thought.
Though Ryouko's back mostly, yes, Meiqing thought. Maybe she has a thing for exposed backs?
Ryouko suppressed the urge to pull down self‐consciously at her shirt.
You're the one who bought me this thing, she thought, glaring at Asami. And insisted I wear it.
It looks cute!
It's too small!
It's supposed to be small!
"You're missing the view!" Azrael yelled, from somewhere behind them.
They turned to look, and found Azrael standing on a scenic outcrop they had missed, leaning on the handrails to peer at something.
They scurried back to join her, finding that as they stepped off the trail towards the outcrop the trees thinned dramatically, revealing—
They were now on the edge of a steep drop‐off, beneath which it was possible to see the top of the forest arrayed on the plain below them. The primal arboreal wilderness stretched off to the distant horizon, accentuated by the nearly‐setting sun in front of them. At regular intervals, the flat ground was broken by a towering mesa similar to the one they were climbing, smooth at the top, with patches of vegetation on the side, as well as the occasional cave. Birds of prey circled in the air in front of them.
It was breathtaking, causing Ryouko to remember some paintings she had seen online, rather than real life.
Next to her, Asami gasped involuntarily.
"You know, there are people who think San Giuseppe used to be occupied by a sentient alien race," Meiqing said, leaning onto the handrail herself. "It said so in the online brochure. No one is sure how these rock formations were made, so there's some who think it was artificial."
"If it's artificial, then the makers had wings," Azrael said, leaning forward over the bright permasteel rails. "Mesas like this are natural spires, and I can feel the thermals they must make."
Before any of them could stop her, she vaulted over the railing, dashed to the edge of the cliff and dove off backwards, dropping shockingly fast before reappearing in front of them, wings not even flapping in the air current.
Haha, I knew these would come in handy! I'll see you girls at the top, if you ever make it there!
And then she was off, spinning in the air, her human form turning into a small dot in the blink of an eye.
"Well," Meiqing said, finally, a full ten seconds later. "Is she always like that?
"That sounded like a challenge," Asami said decisively, looking at the two of them. "Let's go."
Despite Asami's and Azrael's assertions, they did not in fact rush to the top of their mesa, still stopping to take in the scenery, and Azrael rejoined them just before they reached the peak, complaining that they were slow. Meiqing countered with the assertion that with a little magic she could have ridden the ground itself to the top, and Asami pointed out that she could ignore gravity if she chose to.
Ryouko decided not to point out she could have gotten to the top faster than any of them.
They found themselves sitting on benches in front of the endless plain before them, mesas sticking out of the ground like so many stools, broken only by the end of the forest to their right, where the woodland transitioned into grassland, then into the distant urban center they had come from, whose glow imprinted itself on the sky. The sun was beginning to set, and above them, where the twilight was turning into night, the sky was beginning to be riven by the promised aurora, bright green, red, and purple, a consequence of one of the star's frequent geomagnetic storms, whose forecasting was paid for by the planet's tourism industry.
"I'm surprised no one else is here," Ryouko said.
"There's paths to all the mesas," Meiqing said. "When you set out, they deliberately allocate it so that the visitors are spread out evenly. With the war, there's not very many tourists anymore, so it's mostly locals."
"I might get a summer house here," Azrael said thoughtfully.
They sat there for a little while, watching as the sun—which seemed a little brighter than Earth's sun—slowly dipped into the horizon. The streams of light passing through the sky brightened and shifted wondrously, and Ryouko watched, entranced. She was not terribly fond of animals or the wilderness, but this—this she could get behind.
Then, when the sun had finally vanished below the curved edge of the world, Asami grabbed her by the hand, pulling her away from the stone benches they had sat on. Ryouko looked back to see if the others would follow, but saw instead Meiqing meeting her gaze, shaking her head slowly.
The air was beginning to fill with an undeniable chill, and though she could shrug it off easily, it contrasted sharply with the warmth of Asami's touch, which felt hot in her grasp.
"Ah, to be honest," she managed to say, as she allowed herself to be pulled closer to the edge of the mesa. "I would feel a little embarrassed out here, with the two of them back there—"
"This isn't about that," Asami interjected, sounding deliberately offended. "I just wanted to get a better view."
Silently, Asami pulled her through a small grove of stunted trees clinging to the top of the mesa, until they were at the very edge of the mountain. Here there were no handrails, and one small step would send either of them into the abyss.
"Okay, I admit, this also makes me a little nervous," Ryouko admitted, peering over the edge.
"Oh, come on, both of us have plenty of ability to save ourselves if we fell," Asami exhorted. "Let's sit."
Asami set the example by dropping to the ground, neatly placing her legs over the edge. She raised an arm to Ryouko, offering.
Ryouko smiled sardonically, taking the offered hand, and taking her own seat at the edge of the abyss, next to Asami.
For a moment they sat there, hand‐in‐hand, and then Asami used her other hand to turn Ryouko's head towards her, and kissed her full on the lips.
Ryouko took a moment, eyes closed, feeling Asami stroking the back of her neck, then pulled back, gasping slightly.
"I thought this wasn't about that," she said.
"It's not," Asami said. "I wanted to talk."
Ah, Ryouko thought.
She wasn't sure she liked the sound of that. It sounded ominous.
Asami looked out over the void in front of them, the forest below them now dark and menacing, even in the light of the storms above them.
"I'm scared, Ryouko. I don't know how else to put it. I'm scared of what Kyouko‐san was talking about, this mysterious colony we're supposed to secure. I'm scared of what we'll find there, and I'm scared… I'm scared of dying."
Ryouko watched Asami's face, and for once the girl did not look at her.
"Well, the Goddess—" Ryouko began.
"I'm not afraid of what comes after death," Asami interrupted quietly. "Of course I'm glad we apparently have a cushy afterlife to go to. But what kind of afterlife? Do you know? Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. I don't want to go yet. I'm scared of missing out on life."
Asami grabbed her hand again, meeting her eyes.
"Moments like this, worlds like this, kisses, and yes, you know. All of it. I feel as if we have a whole life to live, and I want to experience all of it, whatever we can. We have eternity, Ryouko—it's like Governance says: billions of our ancestors are buried under the dirt, without the chance we have. But now, I feel like, by going on these missions we're going to throw it all away."
Ryouko closed her eyes, then looked away.
"Why are you here then? You didn't have to come; I told you."
"Weren't you paying attention?" Asami snapped. "I said we. We. Not I."
Ryouko's girlfriend grabbed her by the shoulders, pinning her with a look again.
"Do you know how much it makes my blood run cold, knowing how much you're willing to risk your life? How cavalier you view all of this? I know you now. I know you'd lay your life on the line willingly, for a chance at glory, for a chance to see something new, for a chance to save humanity—or even just one person. You know what the Goddess called you? A hero. Her words, not mine."
Asami looked down.
"I knew then, if I hadn't known already, that I could never tie you down, not on Eurydome, not anywhere. I knew I'd have to follow you. So here I am, trying to follow you into the breach, and I'm scared, Ryouko. I'm scared of dying, I'm scared of you dying, and it feels so selfish."
Asami sucked in a breath, and Ryouko realized the girl was crying, just a little.
"Is it love, like in the storybooks?" Asami asked. "I don't know. But it's something. I don't want to tell you this, because I'm scared that we don't match. You seem so much happier now, but in my heart I feel cold. I don't know if we can last."
"Hey," Ryouko interrupted, reaching over and wiping at the other girl's tears with her hand, wonder what she was going to say. "Don't be like that. I can't—"
She looked down, at the small gap that lay between them, and realized that, fundamentally, Asami was right. They didn't match. Not as they were now. Ryouko wouldn't be happy one way, and Asami wouldn't be happy the other. It was—
"I don't know," Ryouko said, looking up at Asami. "Who can honestly say if they know? But I think that, for now, it is better to live the moment. Carpe Diem, as they say. Perhaps we will die soon, or perhaps not. Perhaps one of us will find it unbearable and break it. There's no sense in worrying about it so much. And people change. Maybe one day, we will wake up, and we'll find that we're happy. If you want to live life, then let's live it. Let's see where it goes."
Asami looked down at the forest below, sucking in a breath, and Ryouko watched her for a long moment.
"What is the afterlife like?" Asami asked finally, voice quiet. "I know you've spoken to the Goddess plenty of times. How is it?"
"I don't know," Ryouko said, shaking her head. "I've never seen it."
She thought back to her visions, to a misty white sky, an ethereal garden, a Goddess who seemed both old and young. She thought of Alice, returned from the dead to speak with Asaka one last time.
"I think it's timeless," she said, looking up at the aurora in the sky above them. "That's the impression I get. Eternity in a moment, like, uh, Saint Augustine. But human, somehow. Are the dead living somewhere? Are they in stasis? I don't know, but it didn't seem sorrowful."
Asami nodded, slowly.
"Maybe it's pleasant," she said. "But I'd like to live my life before I have to go to that."
Ryouko nodded, then turned to watch the abyss below them.
"Carpe Diem, huh?" Asami echoed airily.
"Yeah," Ryouko said.
She felt Asami grab her by the arm and knew what was happening, even before she was pulled down, and Asami had rolled over her, pushing them away from the edge of the cliff. She acquiesced, as she always did.
I hope the other two are polite enough not to switch into infrared, Ryouko thought.
So, uh, it's been a really long time, Azrael thought, from far away. And we were kind of wondering if it was safe to come over now.
Go ahead, Asami responded instantly. It's not like we're doing anything.
It was technically true, now.
A short while later, they heard the shuffling sound of Azrael and Meiqing making their way over to them. Watching them approach, Ryouko felt a slight twinge of jealousy—Azrael had her wings folded in front of the two of them, acting as a windbreak, and it looked oddly appealing, given how cold Ryouko had ended up.
Ryouko and Asami got up from their seated positions, walking over to meet them.
"I guess it's about time we headed back, right?" Asami asked, stretching her arms upward as if having just gotten up from a nap.
"I suppose so," Azrael said, glancing up at the sky, where the aurora still gleamed brightly, far more splendid than anything on Earth. "Despite everything, we were always still a diurnal race. Nighttime flying was always a little crazy, and it gets pretty damn cold up in the air at night."
Ryouko and Asami shared a look, whose meaning Azrael caught immediately, adding:
"Ah, no it's okay, I told Meiqing here all about it. If she's on the mission, she's approved to learn about it, though I'm supposed to limit the spread of the information."
The girl scratched the back of her head nervously, then turned away, leading the way back. Meiqing followed immediately, and the others followed a moment later, shrugging.
"Well, I guess if we're going to, uh, hang out, I've got to say a few things," Azrael said, without turning to look back at them. "I mean, it's not really typical for someone my age to be walking around with teenagers, so I'm surprised you'd even think to offer."
Ryouko and Asami glanced at each other, and Ryouko gestured with her head, indicating Asami should speak.
"Well, honestly, we just thought we'd be, you know, nice—" Asami began.
"I know," Azrael interjected. "You did nothing wrong. I am a bit of a loner, as you might have gathered. And I haven't really done much with my life outside of these colony missions. I was pretty devastated when Homura disappeared and all that."
Azrael cleared her throat.
"Anyway, I'm stalling for time. There's no delicate way to put this, but I'm going to have to, uh, ask you to not to wear back‐revealing clothing around me. The truth is, for my people, the back is a bit of an erogenous zone, and we kept it covered or hidden under wings at all times. Over the years, I've gotten used to showing it to people, but I still can't help staring. It's awkward and I don't like going out much because of it, but since we're friends, I thought I would mention it."
Ryouko had started grimacing, pulling down self‐consciously on her shirt. This was the last time she would let Asami talk her into wearing something new.
"I'm sorry," Ryouko began, not sure what else to say. "We didn't think—"
"No, of course it's not your fault," Azrael interrupted. "I—"
She paused, and a moment later Meiqing leaned over to her ear and whispered something, grabbing the other girl's shoulder reassuringly.
"Well, the other half of it is, I've never really had a relationship because my people weren't wired to find standard humans attractive. You've probably noticed I look pretty small by your standards. For us, because of how the aerodynamics work, the males and females were always really similar, and quite small. Honestly, I only ever… well, the MHD psychiatrist thinks it might be good for me to get some special friends—doesn't have to be anything serious—since I've always been so lonely, but I've always been too embarrassed, and—"
Azrael sucked in a breath.
"Well, I thought I'd share," she said.
For a moment there was silence, and Ryouko found herself confused as how to interpret anything about the conversation. It made sense, but…
She must be deathly embarrassed, Ryouko realized and, switching to infrared, found that Azrael was indeed blushing tremendously.
Asami, however, surprised Ryouko by hurrying forward to stand next to Azrael, dodging around the girl's wings as they approached the trail to head back down the mountainside.
"I think I understand," Asami said, "and I'm not sure what to say. What do you do with your free time?"
"Well, I spend a lot of time in simulations flying. I go to Optatum when I can. I don't really…"
Ryouko allowed her attention to the conversation to lapse. Azrael was an anomaly, forced to live her life in a culture that didn't understand or support her. However, in the end, Ryouko supposed she wasn't much different. She had never felt like she fit in on Earth, didn't feel like she fit in now. And despite Asami's enthusiasm, Ryouko still could not honestly say that she felt any real sexual attraction to her or anyone else. It was not something she understood.
Well, it wasn't fair to draw any comparisons between her and Azrael.
The fleet that appeared above the skies of the planet with the colorful military designation X‐25 was, in the grand scheme of the war, a piddling thing. A few dozen cruisers, accompanied by only a few dozen escort frigates, a few squadrons of interceptors, and a single Magi Cæli squad—far less than typical for the number of cruisers involved.
By the standards of what was necessary to seize and occupy a small rogue colony, it was, of course, undoubtedly exorbitant.
That the colony had orbital sensors was clear from their earlier experience with the stealth probe. It would be impossible to conceal the approach of a fleet of their size, so no attempt was made to. They decelerated into orbit behind an advance wave of orbital superiority drones, which made short work of the colony's carefully concealed orbital platforms before the larger ships even arrived.
These larger ships went immediately to work, the dropships and surface‐rated frigates of Task Force Rhamnusia already dropping out of hangers and heading for the planet, behind a descending wave of drones and ODASC planes. Satellites and orbital platforms spilled out of automated launch‐bays, mechanical eyes focused on the surface below.
Task Force Rhamnusia, the experts in the task at hand, was taking point, in the clear hope that additional force would be unnecessary. This additional force was held partially in reserve, even as the rest of it prepared for atmospheric entry.
This hope was not borne out; the initial air units encountered significant anti‐aircraft fire and drones, far beyond the range of what any reasonable estimate might have predicted, and began even to take a few casualties. The colonists had armed themselves to the teeth, with weapons of disturbing sophistication.
With reluctance that could be sensed in the tenor of the relayed command, the commander of the overall task force, the two‐century‐old Pavel Albescu, ordered in the orbital reinforcements. It was likely that the initial landing forces could still sweep the surface colony with ease, but the mandates of the operation were not only victory and ease, but also lightning speed and as many captives as possible, not just corpses on the ground.
There was, of course, also the matter of the underground.
Ryouko watched it all play out on the viewscreen walls of her landing frigate. She had been assigned with Kyouko and a few others as part of a pure magical girl shock group, one of the last groups that would be sent planetside.
The surprise that had struck the fleet when the initial resistance was encountered was palpable, despite what the mission briefing had implied, but it did not surprise Ryouko.
"I guess we'll be going in after all," a dark blonde mage named Elisa Alistair said, watching the screen together with Ryouko. "Well, I can't say I wouldn't like a go at these religious buggers, but I don't like the idea of fighting civvies."
Ryouko nodded noncommittally.
"I've never had a chance to fight underground," Meiqing said. "It should be totally my thing."
"Please return to the passenger area and strap in for atmospheric entry," the frigate AI thought, causing the small gaggle of magical girls to shuffle with varying degrees of haste to their seats, where Kyouko, Nana, and Marianne already waited, too senior to mingle openly with the others without seeming undignified.
Ryouko tried to relax, allowing the straps of her seat to clasp themselves around her.
She felt a reassuring squeeze on her hand; Asami smiled at her, and she smiled back.