It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but what really do we mean by this? We do not mean that the writer, the author, or the reporter can best a warrior in single combat. Nor do we mean even that a talented satirist or reporter can truly wound those in power. Plenty of ink has been spilled on brilliant satire and damning accusations without so much as a dent on its intended target.
The power of the written word lies in the power of the ideas it expresses, and as such it is kin to ideology, and to religion, and like these occasionally serves evil as well as good. It was ideology and religion that helped end the system of slavery in the United States in an orgy of bloodshed, but it was ideology and religion that had helped build the system in the first place. It was ideology and religion that drove the Taiping Rebellion that terminally crippled the Chinese Qing dynasty, but it was ideology and religion that had supported the Chinese dynastic system for millennia on end. And it was the power of ideas, horrible ideas, that helped make Hitler immune to the condemnations penned daily against him, even within Germany, and it was the ideal of Nationalism that eventually brought him to his knees.
On a smaller scale, modest ideals permeate the microniches of society, from the aspiring chefs obsessively oiling their cutting boards—grumbling all the way about those philistines who do not appreciate their work—to the rock climbers who meet every week to scrabble their way up fragmented piles of minerals. Each of us, and each group of us, holds dear ideals that have spread their way through the nerves and sinews of society, and in a very real way, it is these ideals that have bonded society together, since the earliest days.
It is why when industrialization and modernization destroyed the old fabric of society, the world struggled so hard to find new glues to hold society together: Nationalism, political parties, new systems of ideology on a larger scale, and, on the small scale, clubs, associations, hobby groups, church groups, self‐help groups, and so on and so forth. Without a unified religious state dictating life down to those below, it was necessary for individuals to find other allegiances.
But what happens when the magnitude of the ideal is large, but the group is small? What happens when the ideas presented seem to demand a reorganization of society itself, but the ideas never percolate outside a small club? That, I believe, is a cult, and for better or worse, these cults sometimes act as microcosms of potential societies, and what might have been, in a different world entirely.
— Clarisse van Rossum, "Musings on Life, History, and the Soul."
"The eyes are the mirror of the soul."
— Yiddish Proverb
Traversing the interior of a structure through the walls, rather than through the usual corridors, was an audacious maneuver, and rarely practiced. While its value in shock and speed was clear, it generally required a powerful barrier generator capable of efficiently breaking through the wall and a clairvoyant capable of mapping an advance route and accurately predicting whether the wall that was about to be broken was important to the structural integrity of the building. Few situations really required that much speed, and most such situations could be handled much more efficiently by a teleporter. Only the Black Heart or Soul Guard ever practiced "bulldozing", for those circumstances when a team lost its teleporters.
Such was the logic that Clarisse piped through Ryouko's mind as she found herself dashing into the next room under a shower of steel and concrete debris, deflected by the golden barrier that surrounded her.
There was no time to reflect, however, or to inspect the mysterious bulbous equipment that filled the new room—with a palpable thud, Elisa was already breaking through the next wall, holding up with one arm the shield that she used to project her barrier. Chunks of material flew away from the edges of the impact area, and Elisa's yellow hair twisted with magical energy.
Then they were in the next room, a large storage area stacked with boxes.
So it went, through another corridor and several lab areas, before Gracia thought:
The next room is a hallway, with guards moving in. It looks like they've responded to what we're doing and are trying to intercept us. We should be ready.
The hallways have automated defenses, Meiqing thought.
It was a repeat of facts that had already appeared on their internal maps, but everyone appreciated the explicit reminder. The downside of breaking down walls to travel was that your opponents could easily track your movements even when stealthed, due to the clear trail of broken walls behind you. The stealth was still useful, though, by making it impossible to monitor you in real‐time.
A series of blips rang out over the group telepathic network, coordinating upcoming combat actions. The telepathic messages were unspoken, tiny snippets of intention, just enough to relay meaning. It was a fast, impersonal method of communication that reminded most people of machines, and was consequently only really used in combat.
Then they burst through the wall, Elisa's barrier shearing directly through a guard unfortunate enough to be caught on the side, causing blood and viscera to fly up sickeningly, thankfully caught by the barrier itself. A sharp, continuous buzzing noise sounded as weapons fire impacted the barrier from all sides, from automated defense systems installed in the ceiling, combat drones, and guards hurriedly backing towards covered positions along the corridor.
That was a mistake on the parts of the guards, of course.
A moment later, Ryouko teleported herself to behind the group of guards on the left, carrying half the group with her, while Mina took the other half of the group to the other end of the corridor, essentially trapping their welcoming committee between two pincers.
She immediately released a fusillade of arrows, strafing the area in front of her indiscriminately, bright green bolts shimmering as they found and penetrated their targets. Asami tore a set of automated defenses out of the ceiling with her gravity, three copies of Kyouko impaled whoever was closest, and Meiqing stood ready to bring the entire ceiling down with the weight of the earth above, if necessary.
Seeing movement out of the corner of her eye, Ryouko blinked again, finding herself looking at the dull black plating of an armored suit. She instinctively summoned an arrow into her arbalest, punching it forward with her arm instead of firing.
She saw blood and hydraulic fluid gush out, just a little, then pulled the arrow downward, searing a bright green gash into the armor of the guard in front of her.
She heard herself suck in a breath, and then the guard collapsed, and she found herself looking down the corridor.
Meiqing hadn't needed to use her specialty—their initial attack had completely cleared the corridor, leaving only twitching armored corpses, as well as a few living guards at the other end of the corridor that appeared to have been disabled by Nana, and one that was attached to Marianne's hands with a set of strings.
Ryouko saw with a not‐insignificant sense of satisfaction that many of the twenty‐odd group of soldiers appeared to have been disabled by her arrows, still active and glowing where they had landed.
She remembered, then, what Kyouko had said once about her bloodlust, and dismissed the arrows. She felt a little sickened, realizing she had left the arrows active just so she could count her "kills", so to speak.
She wished she knew just what it was that came over her in the midst of combat.
Alright, we have to keep moving, Kyouko thought. Marianne, Nana, finish those guards and let's go.
Marianne transmitted a sense of refusal, then shook her head.
Something is wrong, she thought. The implant structure of these guards is… is—
These guards aren't adults, Gracia thought, eyes widened, looking between the armored figures that Nana had disabled. Reading their minds—these are teenagers.
The other members of the group looked at each other, and then Marianne gestured at the armored figure she held in her control.
A moment later, the seals popped off the neck area of the suit, the guard reaching up ponderously to her helmet and pulling it off slowly.
It was as Gracia had said—the face that stared emptily back at them was a teenage girl, a few years older than Ryouko, blonde hair tied back in a small ponytail.
Without realizing what she was doing, Ryouko looked down at her hand, and at the blood that stained her hand and sleeve.
For a moment she saw the dream again, saw her hands coated in blood after a battle—
But that had been squid ichor, not red human blood, and—
Emotional suppression activated, Clarisse thought, and Ryouko felt the sense of numbness she hadn't realized was washing over her fade away, replaced by a sense of cold calm.
Ryouko looked over at Asami and saw in her face that they were both suppressed.
She felt someone touch her hand and looked down in surprise, finding that the blood on her hand was gone.
Don't leave something like that there, Elisa thought. Bad for the health.
What's going on here? Kyouko demanded, voice carrying a note of pain. Are these the children we're looking for? Gracia, read their minds!
From what I can tell, this guard is far more heavily implanted than any civilian would warrant, Marianne thought. And more heavily implanted than any of the of the civilians aboveground were. It should not be this easy for me to control a civilian with an implant hack. Either these colonists were heavily modifying their children, or…
Her voice trailed off for a moment, before she forced herself to finish:
…or we're looking at whoever was growing in those tanks we just saw.
With visible reluctance, Gracia gestured at one of her mind‐controlled guards to approach her.
I'm going to need most of my focus to read deep memories; Nana, can you disable the rest of them?
Nana nodded, raising her right hand. With a flash of violet light, the other guards under Gracia's mind‐control collapsed to the floor, unable to move without functioning suit servomotors.
It's done, she thought. Be fast, keeping all this technology disabled will tax my strength.
Gracia nodded, as the helmet of the guard in front of her disengaged.
She placed her hands at the side of the head of the girl, who had black hair and Asian features, in contrast to the guard under Marianne's control.
The group stood there for a long moment, holding their breaths, until Gracia opened her eyes again, keeping her hands on the other girl's head. Her face looked like she had chewed on something particularly unpleasant.
She was definitely vat‐grown, she thought. She has a whole lifetime of memories, but it's obvious they were artificially introduced, because they haven't made any impression on her soul. None of the memories before she was about twelve are real.
Gracia let out a breath.
It looks like Kyouko was right; they were constantly urged to make contracts. Apparently, they lived down here, and they were told it was their destiny to contract.
Did any of them actually contract? Kyouko asked.
Not that this girl has ever seen, Gracia thought. Apparently, after about three years with no contract, her mind started rejecting the false memories, so they…
Gracia paused for a long moment, closing her eyes for a moment.
Well, she doesn't actually have any significant memories after that, not that I can find, Gracia said. There's clearly been a lot deleted. The thing to know, though, is that it's hard to keep memories suppressed or maintain fake ones with technology. Even the best telepaths can't do it perfectly. The soul always remembers. This was done pretty poorly; if you give me another five minutes or so, I can extract what's missing.
We don't have five minutes, Kyouko thought.
Wait, there are telepaths that can make fake memories? Meiqing thought.
Why did you bring rookies anyway? Elisa asked, sounding annoyed. This really isn't the mission for them.
I know we don't have time, Nana thought. But we're already here. We need information. We can't just keep on going with nothing to go on.
We've also got girls under emotional suppression, Marianne said, gesturing at Ryouko and her two friends. They won't be combat‐effective enough unless we can bring them out of it. We can take some time to try.
Kyouko gritted her teeth, before tearing her gaze away from the girls prostrate on the ground in armor suits.
Alright, fine, we'll take five minutes, she said. But we can't keep standing here like sitting ducks. First let's move everyone with a few short‐range teleports. Then, we can hide under the stealth. Ryouko, Mina, each of you take half the group. We'll make four jumps. Leave the extra prisoners.
I think I can take you off of suppression, Clarisse thought.
Are you sure? Ryouko thought.
Yeah; it's not terribly strong anyway. Better not stay on it too long, anyway, or the backlash will get you.
The world seemed to come slightly more into focus as the emotional suppression receded. Ryouko looked at her hand again, now clean of blood.
Outside of the moment, she felt better. Well, not really better per se—more like she could successfully disassociate herself from what had just happened by fixing her gaze squarely away from the corpses that littered the area and focusing on the task on hand.
Clarisse had already automatically coordinated which team members she would be taking—Ryouko would be taking most of the team, while Mina, by far the more experienced of the two, would take the remainder of the team and the "prisoners".
It was straightforward, Ryouko, Mina, and the two clairvoyants coordinating rapidly and repeatedly to perform exactly four teleports, until they found themselves in what appeared to be… living areas.
Oh Goddess, Mina thought, as they found themselves looking at a row of bunk beds which had clearly been hastily abandoned. Clothing lay scattered about on the floor and on the bunks, or accentuated desks piled with books and ornamental trinkets. The walls were painted a cheery pink and adorned with posters of what appeared to be the cult leader and some of the guards.
Start your memory extraction, Kyouko ordered, looking at Gracia.
Already on it, Gracia thought.
Meiqing looked away, finding a far corner of the room to study. Ryouko wouldn't have wanted to be in her shoes, finding out so much of this for the first time.
Marianne, for her part, was already tapping into the electronics in the walls.
If it wouldn't give away where we had been, I'd tear down these posters, Elisa said. It sickens me.
I wonder if some of the girls we… we killed lived here, Asami thought.
Don't think about it, Nana thought immediately, grabbing the girl's shoulder. Not now. There's no way we could have known.
We didn't have to break down the walls like that, Ryouko thought. If we had just teleported like we did now, they would have lost track of us.
We had to get there fast, Tammy thought. Kyouko was right. Now that they know we're here, anything could be happening.
At least these beds haven't been occupied for a while, Kavitha thought. If they were just here, the heat would show up on infrared, and it'd be our fault they moved.
Damn it all, we should have realized they might detect a telepathic signal headed out, Mina thought. We weren't thinking.
The leadership here— Elisa began.
Quiet, all of you! Nana snapped, grabbing Elisa's arm. Now is not the time to do this. We stay focused on our objective, and we finish the mission. Remember your training.
What is our objective? Elisa thought. Are we really going to leave once we learn what happened to the children? That was our objective, and it certainly doesn't look like that's all we're doing here. We're winging it.
According to the local electronics, the girls here were age twelve to seventeen, Marianne thought, withdrawing her strings from the walls. I could tell you their names, but that wouldn't be very informative. There's nothing else of interest.
Are there any older girls? Nana thought. If so, where are they?
I don't know, Marianne thought.
Look at the posters, Meiqing thought, pointing at one of the near walls.
They turned to look, at a holographic poster of one of the guards emblazoned with the bright white letters "YOUR BIG SISTERS ARE HERE TO HELP." The guard stood posed, firing her weapon at an invisible enemy.
"Are they training to be guards?" Asami asked. "For what?"
Ryouko looked over at Kyouko. Through it all, she had merely stood silently, watching Gracia do her work. Ryouko, too, wondered about Kyouko, wondered if she was going to merely stand there quietly while all this was going on.
Finally, mercifully, Gracia withdrew her hands from the subdued guard on the ground, looking up at Kyouko.
It's… worse than I thought, she thought, voice torn. It looks like after she began to reject her false memories, they told her that they were going take her up to her 'parents' on the surface. Instead, they chose to install implants for total thought control. She's been forced to be a guard here for years. I'm just glad she wasn't awake for most of it. At least her core personality circuits haven't degraded too much. Fortunately, this is probably repairable with microsurgery. Maybe a little magic in the worst case.
I didn't ask for her prognosis, Gracia, Kyouko snapped, with a trace of anger.
Gracia looked up at her in shock.
Sorry, sorry, that was uncalled for, Kyouko thought hastily, apologetically. The situation is getting to me.
Gracia sucked in a breath.
Well, she thought. It looks like these girls were told that the underground complex was a bit of a boarding school, focused on getting as many contracts as possible. If they didn't manage to contract by the end of their stay, they'd return to the surface and return to their parents. That was the story anyway.
Gracia took another breath, trying to calm herself.
My guess is they couldn't get the memories to stabilize in the long run, so they decided to 'draft' the older girls who were starting to develop memory problems to be guards. Two birds with one stone. It's disgusting.
How does that fit in with this, though? thought Marianne, pointing at the "Big Sister" poster behind her with her thumb. This seems to suggest they knew what was going to happen.
Gracia shook her head.
Maybe just a horrifying sense of humor? They were told that the guards were just female colonists. The idea was that the guards would help protect them, if the evil people outside the cult ever came for them.
Kyouko looked down at the ground, bracing her arm on her spear.
So how many magical girls are we going to be dealing with? Kyouko thought. The way potential seems to work, clones like these have a much lower contract rate than you'd think. But even one is too many, or we wouldn't be in this mess.
That's the thing, Gracia thought. In the entire time this girl was… awake, there wasn't a single contract. The 'school' administrators were getting visibly frustrated. Her memories from after becoming a guard are… sporadic, so maybe there were some contracts after that, but at least for the first five years, there was nothing.
Well, there's at least one, Kyouko thought.
Gracia let her eyes drop down towards the floor.
Before we left those other girls behind, I think some of them were waking up, she thought. Nana disabled their implants, the ones that were keeping them functioning. I could hear the terror. I'm glad I don't have to hear it anymore, but I'm sorry we left them there. They can't even move in those suits, with their electronics disabled.
Kyouko gritted her teeth almost audibly, and Ryouko felt an acid horror seem to well upward from inside her. Clarisse didn't offer to suppress her emotions, though, and Ryouko didn't ask. Kyouko had been right. For better or worse, she would have to learn to deal with these things as they came, without letting it inhibit her functioning.
But there were other rookies in the group.
Kyouko stood up taller, holding her spear to one side and turning to face the group. She seemed to abruptly exude leadership, and Ryouko recognized what it was—an Ancient mind trick of sorts, derived not so much from magic as from force of will, though sometimes spiked with quite a bit of magic.
Girls, Kyouko thought. This is an abomination. I don't have to tell you that, but it goes deeper than that. When we founded the MSY, the goal was that no one should ever have to suffer as we did, ever again. We thought we had succeeded, but here we are, facing an abomination against everything the Goddess has ever stood for. These girls have suffered, but don't think only of their suffering. Think of all of us who have suffered, over the long arc of history, crying in the dark. We fought, and we killed, for worse reasons than the reasons we killed those guards, out in that hallway. And yet in the end we still lived. So too shall it be here. We're trapped here, with limited grief cubes. We cannot wait—soon, those on the surface will wonder what happened to us. Soon, they may bash down those doors, and kill all the armored guards they find inside. We have no way of warning them about the tragedy that will occur.
Kyouko turned, pointing her spear in the general direction of where they suspected the magical girl blocking their exit was.
We know where we must go, and in the end we may have to kill to get there. Girls who were raised here may not listen to reason and may be immune to our stunning magic. In the end, we may have to kill for the greater good. Such has it always been, and we must take solace in knowing that their sacrifice will not be in vain.
Kyouko had walked over to Meiqing and Asami, who stood together, still with the vaguely glass‐eyed expression of the emotionally suppressed.
Don't worry, she said, grasping Asami's shoulder. We can pull through this. We just have to have faith in each other. We won't let the crimes committed here continue, and we cannot falter.
To Ryouko's jaded ears, the sermon‐of‐sorts sounded forced, even backed by an Ancient's considerable charisma. She could see that the other veterans felt similarly.
But Meiqing and Asami lost their glass‐eyed look, blinking up at Kyouko with what seemed to be a slight sense of wonder.
Let's go, girls, Kyouko thought. We'll stay in stealth, travel the normal way, and teleport when convenient. Hopefully, we can evade any other guards and get to the bottom of this. I can't promise we won't have to kill anyone else, so I have to remind you not to hold back in a fight. Sometimes people have to die. There's no other way. Come on.
Elisa and the others seemed somewhat mollified by the show of leadership, and the enunciation of what seemed to be a reasonable plan. Ryouko's tactical interface indicated that the group had agreed to divide into two groups centered on the two teleporters, but traveling together.
Sometimes people have to die, Ryouko echoed in her mind, sighing.
I wonder, she thought.
They crept their way forward through the facility, avoiding concentrations of guards, teleporting past obstacles, and generally taking what started to seem like the most circuitous possible route. It hardly fit with the idea that they needed to resolve the issue as soon as possible, and Kyouko was starting to show poorly‐concealed impatience.
Through it all, Ryouko felt a gathering sense of trepidation. It would not be long until they reached the location where Gracia had signaled they were being blocked from. It was of course entirely possible that the magical girl in question had moved, in which case Gracia would have to give away their position with another attempt at communicating with the surface, but Ryouko, and indeed the team as a whole, seemed to share an odd certainty that their quarry would be right there waiting for them.
It certainly seemed likely to be that way as they got closer to the location and the outer "walls" on their clairvoyance started to close in even tighter, starting to provide a serious impediment to the random jumps Ryouko and Mina were expected to make. It felt claustrophobic as a teleporter, being limited like that, which no doubt contributed to Ryouko's sense of apprehension.
Whoever is exerting this suppression field must be using a tremendous amount of power, Marianne thought as they grew close. If we weren't in a hurry, we could just wait her out. She can't be getting many grief cubes down here.
I don't know how many demon spawns a giant group of teenage clones and mind‐controlled guards will make, but I'm willing to bet it's not nothing, Kyouko countered. It's possible she has plenty to hunt down here.
What I want to know is, surely this colony must have had some magical girls outside the clones, right? Nana thought. Otherwise, why haven't they been destroyed by demons?
There were demons everywhere when we landed, Kyouko thought. Remember? I'm willing to bet stupid shit like this clones thing is related to that. Those things aren't exactly friendly on the sanity.
But then where are the magical girls? Nana thought.
I don't know, Kyouko thought. I hope we're not about to find out.
Shouldn't we be able to sense them by now? Ryouko thought. Or at least the one girl, if she's really burning so much power? It should be possible to sense the soul gem, unless that sense is being blocked too.
It probably is, Kyouko thought, with what seemed to be a sigh.
It looks like we're approaching the central geothermal borehole for this section of the bunker, Meiqing thought. I wouldn't be surprised if that's where they're holed up. It's going to be a big room, though, so be ready for that.
I'm glad I brought you, Kyouko thought, with what sounded like complete sincerity. Otherwise we'd be flying blind.
Meiqing tittered nervously—not out loud.
I… I can't honestly say I'm glad to be here.
It's a learning experience, rookie, Elisa thought. Buck up.
We killed all those girls, and you want us to buck up? Ryouko thought—to herself, not to the group.
We're getting really close, Meiqing thought. The next room will be right up against the wall to the power facility. I don't think there's a doorway, though.
Just in time, too, Mina thought. All this teleporting is costing a lot of grief cubes.
We should pause in the next room, then, Marianne thought. I can use my strings on the wall and see through it that way, since it's just one wall. I bet whoever it is isn't literally blocking the photons landing on the wall.
Agreed, Kyouko thought. We can take a moment to regroup and plan. Not too long, though—if I were them I'd be constantly sweeping the neighboring rooms with guards.
A few moments later they found themselves in the room in question, an extended utility closet strewn with what appeared to be drone parts. As promised, Marianne immediately fired her strings at the opposing wall, closing her eyes.
I'm going to try to send you all what I'm seeing with telepathy, she thought. It's going to take some concentration, so stand by for a moment.
A few second later, Ryouko felt a series of mental images impinging on her mind, distracting in the same way she imagined hallucinations must be. Kyouko and the other veterans seemed unperturbed, but Ryouko found it difficult to watch her surroundings and the imagery at the same time.
Don't worry about it, new girls, Kyouko thought. Just close your eyes for now.
Ryouko wasn't sure what she had expected a geothermal borehole to look like, but she had certainly expected something a bit more interesting. Glowing lights, perhaps. Instead, the room was dominated by generic‐looking metal machinery and tubing, as well as a single large dome she assumed capped the borehole proper. Throughout the room, guards stood on watch.
In front of the dome, a single girl, dressed in a hooded black jacket and cloak, prostrated herself on a prayer rug. Her soul gem shone pure white, though, bright as a star—though Ryouko felt, somehow, that it was starting to fade.
I think we've found our magical girl, Gracia thought, stating the obvious.
But where are the other magical girls? Nana thought. There must be some! And where are the missing children and clones? All that we have here are more guards.
Does it matter? Kyouko thought. We eliminate her, we salvage this entire situation. One surgical strike ought to do it. I doubt she can focus on anything but maintaining the suppression field.
Something is wrong, Nana thought. We should capture her instead.
In this situation? Kyouko thought, sounding appalled. We should just kill her!
We can't just kill her like that! Meiqing thought. We should at least give her a chance!
Not now, rookie, Kyouko thought, clearly restraining herself. We can't have qualms now. There are lives in danger!
Ryouko! Your soul gem! Asami thought.
That last thought, over the group telepathy network rather than sent personally to Ryouko, seemed so incongruous that it actually stopped conversation for a moment, and caused Ryouko to open her eyes, and to try to peer down at the base of her neck.
Her soul gem was glowing again—faintly, but still glowing, clearly brighter than the usual soul gem glow.
What are you doing, Ryouko? Elisa asked.
No, it means something, Gracia thought. Haven't you read about the Orpheus mission? It's a sign from the Goddess!
Don't bring in religion at a time like this! Elisa said, casting a sidelong glance at Kyouko—she was clearly holding back a much harsher statement.
Ryouko let out a breath, glancing warily among the other members of the team.
No, it isn't, she said. Or at least, it doesn't have to be. It actually does this regularly if I'm near something that resembles a wormhole—or at least I think. Something like a faster‐than‐light engine, or an alien wormhole. I don't think I see any reason why it should be glowing now, though.
Ryouko let her words hang in the air for a moment, aware that the words she didn't say were almost as important as the words she did say.
The natural conclusion is that there's something in the area, Nana thought. Would there be equipment like that in a power station like this?
She directed the question generally, since it was not at all clear if anyone on the team was an expert in geothermal energy.
After a long moment of silence, Marianne spoke up.
Well, I can't imagine why anyone would need anything resembling a faster‐than‐light engine for a geothermal borehole, unless the colonists have been experimenting with something radically new. Starship engines are expensive enough as it is—a power station that needed exotic matter to run it would negate much of the reason for its existence. Asami, can you feel anything in the area?
Asami shook her head.
No, she thought. But I haven't really been looking. Maybe if I had some more time…
She allowed her voice to trail off.
We should explore the area, Nana thought. Missing children, missing clones, missing magical girls—we can't just charge in. Asami, Ryouko, and Meiqing—we can escort them on a circuit of the perimeter.
It could end up being a wild goose chase, Kyouko growled. If we just get rid of the girl blocking us from seeing anything, we'll have full access to our clairvoyance, and it will no longer be an issue.
We're operating with too little information, Marianne thought. We have to learn what's going on. We can charge in and take her out anytime—it's not like these guards are going to be that much of an issue, even if we have to focus on disabling them instead of killing them.
There could be people dying out there, Kyouko thought. Every second we waste out here could be another child, and every second we spend scouting the area is another chance to get discovered.
We have no evidence for your speculation, Nana said. What we do have evidence of is some kind of device in the area that shouldn't be there. We have to know what it is. Let's go look. This has all the signs of a trap.
Well, you're not in command here, Kyouko said, glaring at Nana. Don't try to overrule me.
Ice‐cold rage filled her words, seeming to the chill the air around them.
Don't do this, Kyouko, Marianne thought. Mami—
Don't you start on me, Kyouko warned.
Just because you want to be a bloody idiot does not mean we have to follow you, Elisa said, stepping forward next to Nana to look Kyouko in the eyes. We've followed you into this mess, but we're not going to follow you into an obvious trap.
You're out of line—
We aren't the military, Nana said, stepping forward so that she was face to face with Kyouko. We're not the same. Now back off—
Kyouko let out a cry of frustration, pushing Nana away from her. Without really knowing what she was doing, Ryouko lunged forward, grabbing Kyouko's arm, and realized only afterward that she had stopped Kyouko from throwing her spear into the floor. For a moment, she gritted her teeth, feeling her magically enhanced muscles straining to restrain Kyouko's, student against mentor.
Please listen to me, Ryouko thought. You're letting your history get to you. When you brought me here, you kept saying the Goddess had some plan for me. Well, maybe the Goddess's plan was to keep you from getting yourself killed. If my soul gem says there's something in the area, then we need to find it.
She met Kyouko's eyes, engaging her in a battle of will for the first time, and realized that she was not seeing the implacable, unmovable Ancient she expected, but someone much weaker, and much more vulnerable.
Please, Ryouko appended.
For a moment she thought she had made a terrible mistake, but then she felt Kyouko's arm slacken and drop.
She looked away.
Alright, she thought. We'll take a circuit of the perimeter. Stay frosty—they'll be plenty of guards around. We don't want to do anything stupid like get their attention by hurling our weapons into the floor. Ryouko, do you think you can track the signal?
The question surprised Ryouko, who was at a loss for a moment before managing to answer:
Maybe. It depends on what this is. Now that I'm paying attention to my soul gem, I might be able to pick up if we get closer to it, but we'll have to move around.
Alright then; let's go. Let's do this quickly. Time is still of the essence.
No apologies. Not even an acknowledgment that anything had happened—but it was good enough, and the team let out a collective sigh.
Ryouko nodded, allowing the others to gather around her, waiting for the clairvoyants to choose an unmonitored location to teleport to. Asami and Meiqing, the other magical girls they'd be relying on to scan the perimeter, each grabbed one of her arms, and for a moment Ryouko could almost imagine that they were still in training, practicing for a new type of mission.
But they weren't, of course. No training mission would have had anything like what she had just experienced. There were certain things that just couldn't be prepared for.
Got it, Gracia thought, indicating that she had a place for them to go.
Marianne verified the location a moment later, and Ryouko ducked her head, preparing for the jump. It had taken unusually long for the clairvoyants to find a safe location—Kyouko had been right about one thing: the facility garrison wasn't taking any chances with the power station. If anything, the density of the patrols had only increased, with the guards even going so far as to physically walk through every room they inspected. It was evident that they were worried Ryouko and the others would find the power station, but there was no sign yet that they knew their magical girl had been detected.
After the teleport had completed, Ryouko immediately glanced down at her soul gem. It was brighter, but—
No. There was something there, at the edges of her awareness, but where?
She opened her eyes, looking around at Meiqing and Asami. They shook their heads.
Nothing, Asami thought. It's strange. I don't think we've ever disagreed about something like this.
Ryouko took a moment to evaluate her new surroundings. According to her internal map, which was based on information from the clairvoyants, they had sidestepped a small distance along the edge of the station, and also gone up about two stories. They were still next to the power station, though, since the station was tall as well as wide.
Now they stood in a narrow, dimly lit causeway, with an unusually low ceiling. It was likely that it was a service corridor of some sort, intended more for drones than humans.
That didn't mean it was particularly safe, though, a point accentuated by a small, empty cargo drone that skittered through their area, forcing Elisa to step around it and let it pass so their stealth wouldn't be breached.
We should move on, Kyouko thought. Since the signal got stronger, let's just keep heading in the same direction. It's not safe to stand here.
Ryouko held up her hand to wave off the idea.
I think I might be able to figure out where it is, if you just give a moment to concentrate, she thought. Please.
She closed her eyes, trying to remember the state of mind she had used when she reopened the wormhole. What was it that Clarisse had said?
That she should empty her mind, and try to focus on nothing but the magic.
It had been a stressful day, to put it mildly. She hadn't realized until she tried to relax just how tense she was. A thousand things to worry about, a thousand disasters looming, chaos and confusion, Kyouko and Asami and the clones—
She shook her head at herself, feeling her hair unravel itself. There was only her breath moving in and out, the sharp glow of her soul gem, the thrumming of all the other soul gems next to her, some quiet and muted, others straining with effort to sustain the magic that kept them hidden. Behind it all was the stolid, flat gravity of the planet that surrounded them, unchanging except for whispers of activity, the shifting of distant oceans—
I have it, she said, opening her eyes abruptly. Whatever it is, it's just above us, right on top of the power plant.
She labeled the approximate location on their internal maps.
On top? Marianne thought. What could be up there?
I guess we'll find out, Kyouko thought.
We're almost directly on top of her, Nana thought, three teleports later.
Her? Kavitha thought.
The girl casting the suppression field, Nana thought. We're almost right on top of her.
Do you think it means anything? Kyouko asked.
I don't know.
Ryouko looked around. By now they were clearly outside of the inhabited parts of the facility. Except for the floor they stood on, they were surrounded on all sides by carefully shaped rock, along with numerous support beams and shock absorbers. Ryouko's soul gem was now glowing brightly, and it was easy for her to tell that there was something in front of her, inside what looked like a solid wall of rock.
Meiqing and Asami held almost identical expressions of consternation and concentration, and it was clear something was wrong.
I don't understand, Meiqing thought. It's not that I can tell there's anything there—it's more like there's more not there than there should be. It's like this part of the planet is shaped wrong, and the parts don't connect somehow.
There's definitely something there, Asami thought, immediately afterward. It feels really familiar, and I don't know why I didn't feel it before.
It looks normal enough to me, Gracia said. Rock, rock, and more rock. That doesn't mean there's nothing there, but it's difficult to do a thorough search when you have no idea which part of it you're looking at.
There was nothing to do but wait, really. At Kyouko's nod, Meiqing and Asami pressed themselves literally up against the rock surface, for all the world as if they might be able to go through it if they pressed hard enough.
Well? Kyouko thought.
It reminds me of being with the Magi Cæli, Asami thought. Something I felt while I was there, but for some reason I can't pinpoint—oh. Oh.
Everyone in the area immediately turned their heads to look at Asami, who seemed to shrink away from the scrutiny.
I've realized, she said, looking away. I've only ever really seen ships. And ships have FTL engines which are bright and obvious to me, even behind stealth. Squid stealth is actually really good though, and usually the only thing I ever pick up is the engines, and a faint trace of… well, something like this. I think it might be a stealth device.
A squid stealth device? Here? Kyouko asked incredulously.
Or something really similar. I don't know. But that's what it reminds me of.
I still can't see it, Gracia thought, but depending on the type of stealth, it might take me a while, especially if it's small. I have to basically scan every spot for it.
Same story for me, Marianne thought, her strings already attached to the rock surface. If it were visible or electronic, I could see it that way, but this is just normal rock, and apparently it's not visible.
Since we do have a vague idea of where it is, I could straight‐up blast this rock with my technology‐disabling magic, Nana thought. Of course, anyone monitoring it would notice right away, so it's not exactly a safe option.
Kyouko visibly gritted her teeth.
How long would it take to complete a search of this rock with clairvoyance? she thought.
With the two of us? With a grid search, maybe half an hour, Gracia thought. We have to literally try and look at portions of rock individually, so it depends on how big whatever it is turns out to be. I could also find it in the next thirty seconds. Or it could be an hour. It's tough to say. We just didn't bring the right type of clairvoyant.
Whatever this is, I doubt it's a red herring, Elisa thought. If you think about it, we got lucky to even notice it was there. And no one knows how to make or imitate a squid stealth device. That would require its own research project. No way this is just some kind of trap to draw us out.
There are a lot of questions here, that's for sure, Tammy thought.
Kyouko looked down for a moment, rubbing her eyes in consternation, as if exceedingly tired. Ryouko could sympathize: there were too many decisions to be made on too little information, and despite the mini‐revolt against Kyouko's leadership earlier, it was still incumbent on Kyouko to make those decisions.
Finally, she looked up.
I'm going to take a leap of faith, she said. You were right, Ryouko. The chain of events leading to you being here could have only happened after you reported your vision to us. I will take that as a sign that whatever this is is important, because it came from you. And we can't afford a thirty‐minute wait. Nana, blast the rock. With any luck, no one will be watching the thing that carefully anyway. And I don't want to hear anything from any of you about my religion.
Well, it's an okay decision on its own merits, Marianne thought. Though I don't think anyone knows the right choice here.
Be on your toes, girls, Kyouko said as Nana took a breath, gathering a ball of purple energy in front of her with two hands. We may have to get out of here pretty damn fast. If the alarm goes up, we might have to launch an immediate attack on the girl down there, in case she tries to flee. Teleporters be ready. At least if she runs we'll probably have full clairvoyance again.
A moment later, Nana released her charge, the purple glow burying itself into the surface of the rock and disappearing.
There was a moment of anticlimax as nothing seemed to happen.
Then, all at once, alarms bells rang in their heads, as their internal radiation monitors lit up with warnings of the telltale signature of a nuclear device, right in front of them.
Nuclear device, unknown status, hidden behind novel stealth device, Gracia thought, forwarding them images of the device as she saw them. It looks human in manufacture, but I don't know—
Can it still go off? Kyouko demanded, already pointing her spear at the rock in a gesture of desperation.
No! It can't! Nana thought, forestalling a whole team's worth of responses. My powers specifically disable all technology more recent than July 1945. That includes nuclear weapons! As long as no one slaps the pieces of uranium together, we're fine. It's a good thing this wasn't antimatter, or I would have just ruptured the containment.
They're not supposed to have any nuclear weapons! Xochi thought. The sensors—
You can't rely on the sensors! Agnes snapped back. Not when you have people building crazy—
Everyone calm down! Kyouko ordered. Now that it's disabled, we can take it out! Meiqing!
I'm on it, Meiqing thought.
Then, a moment later:
It's crushed. It won't fire anytime soon.
The suppression field is down! Marianne thought. I can see! They're on alert!
Alright, Kyouko thought. We have to move. Let's see—
Hello? Hello? You disabled the bomb? a new telepathic voice rang out, from far below them. Thank the heavens! Get me out of here, please! Before—
The voice cut off abruptly.
They rematerialized inside the power plant in the air, far above the girl who had been casting the suppression field. As the others descended on the surrounding area like avenging angels, Ryouko instead teleported again, straight to the ground with Xochi, one of the stealth generators, and Marianne. In a battle where the goal was disabling the enemy, Ryouko found her powers relatively useless—the best she could do was teleport to enemies and apply a careful blow to the head, seeking a knockout. It was hardly a certain maneuver, especially when it had to be done through armor.
Instead she was assigned to check on the magical girl who had called out to them, who was now collapsed on her prayer rug, not casting a suppression field or anything else.
Ryouko took a moment to glance around her quickly, at Nana, who was blasting the area with a wide‐angle disabling field, and Gracia, who was mind‐controlling everyone she could, and Kyouko, who was keeping the guards distracted with her duplicates.
Then she and Marianne knelt carefully next to the girl, still stealthed, while Xochi watched the area for danger.
She reached immediately for the girl's soul gem on the left of her chest, buried in her robe‐like costume. Pulling it off, she realized it was swirling with corruption. They had barely gotten there in time.
I'm not surprised, Marianne said. With the kind of power she was using, I'm impressed she hasn't given out already. Here, I have a few spares.
Ryouko placed the soul gem into a pouch hidden in her costume, along with the grief cubes. It would need more than that to reach full cleanliness, but it would be enough for now.
"Why would she do all this, then ask us for help?"
"I don't know," Marianne said, grabbing the girl by the back of the neck, extending her strings to the rear spinal port.
With a spasm, the girl started breathing again, causing Ryouko to realize that she hadn't been, not up until then.
Looks like her internal implants tried to activate a suicide module, Marianne thought. Fortunately, that doesn't actually ever work on a magical girl. With her soul gem recovering, the implants in question will probably get dissolved by her magic.
The girl opened her eyes then, but Ryouko was ready, pulling out the girl's soul gem and holding it in her hand. Xochi moved to pin down the girl's arms with her feet.
"Hold still. One move and she's crushing your gem," Marianne said. "It will kill you. What the hell were you doing here? Why did you ask for help?"
"I'm… still alive?" the girl said. "The suicide implant should have killed me."
"That doesn't work on magical girls. You want to finish yourself off, you should have crushed your soul gem," Marianne said.
The girl started crying softly, tears flooding out of her eyes in a steady torrent, washing into the bangs she had tucked behind her ears. Her costume looked like a modern interpretation of desert robes, or the clothing popular on Nova Terra, cascading over her limbs down the floor. It was then that Ryouko realized how young the girl looked. She looked eleven, twelve at the most, and for once Ryouko had no doubt that it reflected the girl's actual age.
Easy there, Clarisse thought. You were twelve not so long ago.
There's a difference between being fifteen and going through all this shit, and being twelve, Ryouko snapped back.
I suppose I can't dispute that, Clarisse thought.
"It's that easy?" the girl choked out. "I listened to his damn voice for that long for nothing? I could have just disobeyed?"
Ryouko and Marianne shared a quick glance.
"What do you mean?" Marianne asked. "No, never mind, not yet. Where are the colony's children? Where are all the girls that lived down here? I don't want to rush you, but we're in a hurry to find them. Was someone forcing you to cast the suppression field?"
Ryouko noticed Marianne hesitate slightly between her sentences, and could hear what she was leaving out: clones, the guards.
The girl looked around her, at first tormented, then relieved.
"Don't kill the guards," she said. "They're clones. He put implants—"
"We know!" Marianne said, grabbing the girl by the shoulders. "We know. Tell us where he took—"
"I didn't know!" she said, putting her hands to her face in visible agony. "He didn't tell us! I saw—I saw what he did to the older girls, and I wished for the Incubator to end the horror, and nothing happened. He told me that we have implants in our heads so we have to do what he says—all he has to do is push the button. So I did what he told me and—"
"You don't have to listen to him," Marianne said, trying to pin the girl with her eyes. "Tell us where the children and clones are, and we'll save them. Are they farther down?"
The girl shook her head, tears still welling in her eyes, hair tumbling around her.
"I don't know why, but they started saying the Enemy was coming for us, and we had to be brave. They turned my friends—my sisters into the guards around me."
Marianne looked at the battle around them, which was turning decisively in their favor, as expected, in large part because Meiqing had deliberately destroyed all the entrances into the power facility.
"So those are your sisters?" she said.
"Yes," the girl said, nodding.
She jerked forward, grabbing Marianne by the arm, scaring Ryouko so much that her hand actually twitched around the girl's soul gem.
"We believed in him," the girl said. "He told us you were evil, and I believed him. Why wouldn't I? I—we remembered our parents on the surface. If I didn't know the truth, I—"
"Focus," Marianne insisted. "Focus. The children from the colony above are missing, and we don't know where the man leading all this is. If they're not deeper down, then where are they?"
"This was supposed to be a trap," the girl said. "The point was to lure as many of you down here as possible, then when I died, the bomb was going to go off and kill you all. I didn't know what to do. His voice was always in my head, telling me what to do, and if I didn't listen, the implants would kill me and set off the bomb. I couldn't even think with his voice in my head."
Marianne gritted her teeth.
She could have overridden these implants easily with a bit of magic, she thought to Ryouko. But she had no way of knowing that. Don't tell her.
How could she even try? Ryouko thought. And risk setting off the nuke?
"Where are the children—" Marianne repeated to the girl, one last time.
"Not here," the girl said. "They were never here. He made it look like they came down here, then he changed everyone's memories so they'd say he was down here, but I remember. I read his mind, a little. A base on the other side of the planet."
Marianne let out a breath.
So it was a trap after all, she thought. It's a good thing you noticed the bomb.
Ryouko nodded vaguely, thinking about her soul gem, and the Goddess. Kyouko had been right. She was here for a reason, despite everything.
It was strangely comforting, in a way. She had hated the idea that anyone was directing her life, but she saw now that when the world was going to hell, it felt good to have an assurance that whatever you were doing was for the best, at least according to someone's conception of "the best".
She didn't like the sense of relief it gave her.
"Do you know where he went?" Marianne asked.
The girl shook her head.
"I only know it's underground," she said.
Marianne nodded, then dipped her head for a moment, seeming to lapse into thought.
A flash of red next to Ryouko almost startled her into jumping, but it was only Kyouko, whose arrival signaled that the battle around them was over.
"So what news?" Kyouko asked, keeping her spear pointed at the girl sitting up from the floor. "Everyone is desperate to know what's going on here."
With the suppression field down, one of their first actions had been to make brief telepathic contact with the surface, letting them know the team was alright. Since then, they had been bombarded with telepathic messages from the surface that they simply did not have time to answer in detail, engaged as they were in active contact.
"There's a lot to discuss," Marianne said. "But the upshot is that the cult leader and the children aren't here. They're hidden on a separate part of the planet. The colonists here have either been tricked or brainwashed into thinking the children were down here, but this is really a giant trap. At least, that's what she says."
Marianne looked down, regarding the girl on the floor, sneaking a quick glance at Ryouko.
"Okay, I'm here," Gracia said, dropping out of the air a moment later.
Marianne gestured at the girl on the floor.
"I'm sorry to do this to you," she said. "But what's going on here is too important for us to just take your word on this."
"I don't get what you mean," the girl said, as Gracia knelt down beside her.
Ryouko did, and the cold logic of it turned her stomach, just a little. It made sense, but it just seemed so… cruel.
She knelt down next to the girl, meeting her searching eyes with what she hoped was a reassuring look.
"What's your name?" Ryouko asked.
"My name. Ah, well, they told me my name was Sacnite. Sacnite Tafani."
The girl hugged her knees for a moment.
"I don't know what to think of that, though. I can still remember my parents telling me about my name, and why they chose it. 'White Flower', they said. But I know that memory isn't real, and I know they don't even know I exist down here. It's someone else's life, but I… I still can't help thinking of them as my parents."
Ryouko looked down for a moment, at the pale gray flooring of the power plant. She didn't know what to think about the situation, so she supposed it was better to think nothing.
She stood back up a moment later.
"Wishes always come true," she said, peering down on Sacnite. "Have faith in that."
Then she walked away, because she couldn't stand to see it anymore.