Like the naval destroyers of old, starships of the nebulous "standard frigate" type are the least glamorous fellows in the fleet. Unlike their stealth frigate cousins, they rarely make individual headlines or attract the attention of celebrity rumor mills—but as a whole they take pride in their versatility, in their unshakeable élan, and in their sheer numbers. Across every far‐flung outpost and shipping lane of the Human diaspora, and through every nerve and sinew of the Navy, standard frigates have made themselves at home, confident, and thoroughly indispensable.
Part of the secret behind the standard frigate's versatility is that, like all generalist terms, "standard frigate" is a misnomer, a historical, colloquial term that elides the diversity of an incredibly broad class of people. There is no single frigate who can do all the jobs which frigate‐type starships are asked to do. Often, the categorization reveals little more than the ship's approximate tonnage, with the term "standard" indicating a lack of special stealth or magical girl association.
A frigate's formal class is thus much more useful in establishing their role, ranging from the sublight orbital‐bound Defenders, to the patrol and escort Exquisites, to the anti‐fighter/bomber Valiants, current mainstay of the Fleet. A standard frigate might protect a planetary surface from bombardment, guard a civilian or military convoy against a Cephalopod raid, screen a deep‐space installation, or brave a withering storm of alien fighters, bombers, drones, and missiles amid large‐scale fleet operations.
Each class of standard frigate represents a unique design intended to fulfill a specific mission suite. Classes are then further subdivided into variations specialized for certain subtasks or local celestial environments. Missions run the gamut, including shipyard defense, carrier bomber screening, intrasystem surveillance and reconnaissance, orbital fire support, landing craft escort, suppression of enemy space defenses (SESD), "drone swatting", mine clearing, and so on.
From a logistical and economic point of view, these frigates range widely along the tradeoff between flexibility in service and expense of production. Valiant‐class frigates are expected to be among the fastest ships produced, accompany the deep‐space fleet on operations, and serve passably in almost every space‐based environment. As such, they are produced at great expense primarily in Core World shipyards, at the end of long supply chains in metamaterials, nanites, and precision electronics.
At the other end of the scale, Defender‐class frigates solely focus on planetary orbit, and could nearly be classified as unusually‐mobile orbital platforms, if they'll forgive my saying so. They could be manufactured en masse from an orbital foundry using little more than some asteroid matter—though, when possible, extensive customization is added for local planetary conditions.
Pitched deep‐space combat is thus dominated by the difficulty of targeting. The lack of independently‐FTL weapons on both sides—aside from the dreaded, but quite costly Cephalopod Raptor missile—means that tracking and hitting a target moving at relativistic speed is often impossible. Effective attacks therefore rely either on saturation, extensive use of guided missiles, or, most riskily, matching velocities with a target. Short‐range FTL use is possible but rare, impeded by the difficulty of establishing an FTL bubble and ramping up to speed in a crowded, contested, oft‐interdicted environment.
Velocity‐matching is the hardest scenario to discuss, so we dispense with it first. To start, it must be said that this sharing of trajectories is usually at the relativistic scale only, and two ships with "matched velocities" can readily engage in elaborate maneuvers involving, in absolute terms, considerable differences in speed, distance, and direction—enormous differences in any other environment.
Next, it goes almost without saying that matching velocities with an enemy to achieve better targeting also gives that enemy better targeting on you, and so such fights between even opponents tend to be short, violent affairs, with enemies sometimes helping achieve the velocity match, effectively consenting to the "knifefight". Combat here is dominated by the use of short‐range but hard‐to‐dodge lasers.
This is between even opponents. In practice, knifefights are principally used to an attacker's advantage, typically against a victim too damaged to escape or fight back effectively, or when one side has a sharp local advantage in numbers. Cephalopod dominance in the field of laser weaponry, particularly in the superior range of the Sarissa laser system, ensures that Human frigates grant their opponents a healthy degree of respect.
Leaving aside these close encounters, guided missiles, then, provide the bulk of the effective frigate‐to‐frigate firepower on both sides, ameliorated by extensive anti‐missile capabilities, again on both sides. Fired from advantageous trajectories with a substantial store of onboard fuel, they can track and kill even the most evasive target—provided they are not intercepted by anti‐missiles, defense drones, clouds of smart dust, or even well‐placed relativistic exhaust. The opening phases of many fights are thus characterized by a massive deployment of both missiles and missile countermeasures.
A special comment must be made here about the alien FTL Raptor missile (not to be confused with the alien sublight Ravager missile), though they are rarely deployed by alien frigates themselves, but rather by bombers, larger ships, and fixed batteries. Essentially a miniature, intelligent starship, these weapons strain the limits of detection and evasion for a standard Human frigate, and can pursue one into FTL for an appreciable length of time. Raptors play a fearsome opening role in fleet combat and hit‐and‐run raids alike, as the aliens often seek to seize a solid initial advantage. Fortunately for us, however, even the Cephalopods are hesitant to sacrifice FTL engines in great number, rendering Raptors a less‐than‐constant threat.
Finally, there is saturation. Widely regarded as the least effective of approaches—space is a big place, after all—it is nonetheless always used simply because it is cheap. Missile complements eventually run empty, but a battery of kinetic guns firing clouds of proximity‐triggered guided projectiles, or disruption drones, or corrosive smart dust, can keep going almost indefinitely—and even rocks can be deadly at relativistic speeds. Standard frigates work hard placing swathes of these constant hazards throughout or before enemy zones, seeking to confuse, disorient, and overwhelm.
— Excerpt, Naval Doctrine in a Day, HSS Arminius, 2461 edition.
"We have talked much about how curious it is that, of all the magic powers, the Incubators share only telepathy. Is it properly even magic, or just souls talking to each other? Why is it that, seemingly, they can only talk to those with potential? And why is it so hard to read the core of their minds?"
"Recent experience shows that this is no isolated problem. These Cephalopods can be mind‐read, as Ms. Giovanni so fortunately proved. But, as with the Incubators, everything except their surface intentions and sensations seems so alien as to be indecipherable."
"We are missing something here, then. Could it be so simple as a problem of understanding?"
— Kuroi Kana, from Proceedings of the Telepaths' Guild, 2440.
Chaos raged around Yuma, a storm of violence impossible for even the most heavily‐augmented soldier to follow. Spasms of hard radiation, missiles sailing by in glowing infrared, blossoms of smartdust, all against the backdrop of the starry void.
Yuma took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the recirculated air of her suit.
She dove, propelled forward through that frenzied void by a burst of red and green magic, some of it her own, most of it donated distantly by Charlotte. The physical hazards of the situation didn't bother her—she traveled with a phalanx of companions, a hundred spiraling hammers, each capable of engaging and destroying any drones that dared attempt to reach her. For the radiation, there was her zone of healing, a wave of green magic that could rebuild her almost immediately from anything short of an antimatter detonation.
She knew she cut out a striking profile, a streak of bright green tracing across the stars, obvious to every Ceph sensor in the area.
It didn't matter if they saw her, since they couldn't stop her.
Yuma summoned a hammer, a cat‐eared design she hadn't used in a long, long time, then multiplied its mass a thousand‐fold so that it would hit like a truck—if trucks traveled at a significant fraction of the speed of light.
As she flew, she passed the shattered hulks of her former picket ships, dead to the early Raptor barrage. She weaved her way past infrared missile streaks, marked by the gestalt as heading not for her, but for Kyouko's still‐distant ships, and briefly joined a couple friendly missiles heading the other way, providing them cover.
Finally, she vectored toward the nearby sparks of radiation and gravity distortions, where alien frigates swarmed around a fragment of the former asteroid, now animated by Rose‐Merline into an ad‐hoc defense platform.
What she saw—what her sensors saw, what Arisu's clairvoyance saw, what the gestalt saw—would have been dizzying to most, but not to her. The thoughtspeed of a magical girl, the expertise of an Ancient, the custom lace of cognition‐supporting implants she had installed—these guided her to her target, an alien frigate caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Part of her considered the possibility of shouting out her attack, à la Mami‐san, but even if no one could hear her…
She braced for impact, reinforcing her body with a surge of magic as the silhouette of the frigate filled her vision.
She slammed into its shield with an explosion of energy, telekinetically forcing her hammer home. Her body braced against the impossible strain, and a blast of radiation dazzled her eyes in every spectrum.
But the predominant color was green.
The shield failed an instant later, optical distortions spasming outward like a funhouse mirror. Yuma barely slowed as she smashed into the hull, cutting through the reinforced nanocomposite like so much paper shoji.
Yuma halted herself at an internal corridor, only her magic preventing the ship from buckling where her feet hit the floor. That magic flowed sinuously into the cracked composite beneath her, a sickly green hue soaking into the alabaster walls, the ceiling, and two unlucky nearby aliens. At her command, they collapsed to the ground, bodies decrepit and shrunken.
She left everything else as it was, even the support drones scurrying away in alarm. Her allies needed the ship intact.
Rin dove through the new hole in the roof soon after, spinning into a kick off the wall that sent her storming into the bridge. Rin's powers derived from a detective proficient in martial arts, and that, amplified by magic and power development, was a derecho of fist and foot.
Yuma charged after her, Jeannette in tow, but their support was unnecessary—the pilot was already dead at the helm, all but broken in half. The other personnel were in similar condition.
She and Jeannette kept moving, turning immediately towards the engine room in one smooth arc. They had to be done before any surviving personnel or the ship AI could attempt, say, an emergency self‐destruct.
Jeannette thrust her hand into a console, phasing through the surface to pulse in injections of white magic. An ornate set of binary digits spewed into the air, trailing sparks, as she rewrote the alien AI.
She relayed Yuma a mental map, and Yuma followed it to the frigate's forcefield generator. They needed it back online before the rest of the alien flotilla realized the ship was being commandeered.
She placed her hands on the surface of the machinery, reaching into it with her magic to understand what ailed it.
As she had thought, the generator wasn't damaged; it was temporarily out of power, drained from the burden of trying to prevent Yuma's entry. It just needed a recharge to come back online. That was something she could provide.
She had her suit queue up more grief cubes as she began pumping in power. The simple task gave more of her cognitive shards time to evaluate the battle—they had been too occupied just managing its present.
Surviving the opening fusillade of Raptor missiles had been a near thing, a feat worthy of magical girls their age, but other than HSS Raven, Yuma's security escort had been too distant and too vulnerable to save.
Still, those mostly uncrewed ships, controlled by AIs with regular backups, had bought valuable time, nearly twenty seconds, enough for Charlotte to teleport the Spec Ops teams and other mundane personnel off the asteroid before its destruction. Furthermore, by absorbing the Raptor missiles, the primary payload of the Ceph bombers, they spared Kyouko's more valuable outlying fleet, which was only a little less vulnerable to Raptors.
In the usual pattern, a bombing was the end of it—the target didn't typically survive—but this time, the bombers' escorts had lingered behind for clean‐up. It seemed the aliens knew they had valuable, wounded prey.
Indeed, the situation was poor. Yuma's fleet was down to just Raven and a few of her support drones, and Kyouko's approaching squadron of MSY ships couldn't match or escape alien fighters and frigates. If either Kyouko's fleet or Yuma's team suffered many more casualties while separate, they'd be enveloped and annihilated.
Nor could they count on reinforcement. There were reinforcements scrambling from Yenisei, but they would likely arrive far too late to matter.
At least Yuma could discern the contours of the alien escorts' plan, now, hidden in the ephemeral vectors and formations of their attack. Once seen, it was simple, even obvious—keep Kyouko from linking up with Yuma for as long as possible, and rely on simple attrition to do the work. The odds were stacked in their favor.
The countermove was obvious too: use brazen attacks to make the squid focus on Yuma's Ancients and Raven, wait for a thus less‐scathed Kyouko to link up with them successfully, and don't die in the process.
Luckily, that had been her first instinct.
Done, she thought, pulling her hands away as the ship's forcefields came back to full power.
By then, Jeannette had successfully taken over the ship's AI and helm. It was a brutal affair, seizing control of a sentient being, but Yuma could find poetic justice in it. Someone had done the same to MG, after all.
It says a lot that they managed to bring frigates to this attack, Rin thought, as Yuma returned to the bridge. Frigates are not generally equipped for raids. This was a complex operation, something like Spec Ops. Which means they know what they're here for.
Yuma frowned, dedicating one of her cognitive shards to Rin's point, unwilling to shift her primary consciousness away from the battle.
Jeannette says the armament of this ship is unusual, Rin commented. More hard radiation bombs, less anti‐ship weaponry. Lots of novel adjustments. Either this is a new model, or they came equipped to bear.
I take your point, Yuma replied, in the clipped tones of accelerated thought. But there are other deductions to be made. It suggests that the human group infecting the TCF doesn't have as much influence in Governance as we thought, if they have to resort to calling aliens for help.
Not necessarily, Rin thought. An alien attack is much more deniable than an attack by human vessels, even drone ships. And it would have taken a lot of drone ships to take us down.
Yes, but it still suggests they care to keep it deniable, Yuma replied. Whatever the case, they miscalculated. This isn't enough ships. Not if they wanted to be one hundred percent sure.
It was a bold assertion to make, given their desperate situation, but she meant it. They had a fighting chance—which was sloppy. Any well‐executed operation would have made sure they had no chance at all.
Perhaps Kyouko wasn't meant to be here, she added.
Her cognitive shard fired an alert then, a machine memory of Kyouko replaying itself at the edges of her awareness, abbreviated to save time.
…following up on some of Joanne Valentin's old travels… a local sighting that sounded very much like Misa Virani… …Tanaka‐san reported on the letter to me… …it was about Homura, after all…
She filed the insight away, tagging it for upload to an MG‐controlled server as soon as battle conditions permitted.
Then she reclaimed the resources, turning them back to the battle at hand, as their stolen ship narrowly evaded a barrage of laser fire, pulling up violently and threatening to flatten them into the floor.
This battle—really more of a brawl—defied the neat three‐dimensional patterns of major fleet combat, or even the rhythmic patterns of orbital combat. The gravity of the broken asteroid was negligible, the ships small and fast, and that had meant combat degrading into a frenetic scrum around Yuma's remnant, the alien fighters darting in and out of their frigates' drone cover, difficult to intercept, while Rose's Ancient‐fortified rock dodged, diverted, countered, or absorbed blow after terrible blow.
Arisu and Charlotte were aiding Rose; Kana reinforced the nimble Raven. Beyond all of that, long‐range exchanges raked the enormous zone preceding the mass of Kyouko's approaching ships, who were sticking close together to provide mutual support.
Well within the brawl, Yuma's commandeered frigate blasted a spread of flak and dust across the projected flight paths of several fighters, making itself felt in a combat environment that was otherwise alien‐dominated. Jeannette's magic helped tremendously—reversing the squid munitions' understanding of friend and foe would have otherwise been impossible, even with a lab and a decade of Governance funding.
They had results immediately, a curtain of programmable matter chewing through a squadron of drone escorts in time for their flak to rupture the forcefields of a passing fighter. Bereft of its own drone support, it was blinded by a barrage of EM pulses from a set of Raven's drones flying nearby. The alien fighter then began a series of frantic evasive maneuvers, failing to spot a missile that soon smashed straight into its belly.
Taken altogether, it seemed choreographed, but it was really a series of flukes, a phalanx of statistical measures and countermeasures that today, for less than a second, this particular alien fighter had rolled poorly on.
There was no time to cheer a small victory, as their stolen ship continued to weave its way away from the other alien frigates, unloading everything it had. To survive, they needed to make everything out of these initial moments.
That was a challenge complicated by the frigate's lack of a human‐compatible command interface—everything relied on the ingenuity of the AI Jeannette had enslaved. There would be no integration into the combined‐fleet Command Gestalt, a disappointing constraint when that gestalt was already so dangerously overstretched.
With that thought, part of Yuma's mind splintered off, joining the considerable chunk already given over to Command.
Then that chunk requested a bit more of herself, just a little, to watch Vlasta deploy.
Vlasta's squad exuded a kind of honed anticipation—anticipation not in excitement, but in grim stillness, the kind that watched a bloody fray and simply waited silently.
Emotional suppression was strictly off—it wasn't necessary, not yet.
They were waiting for Kuroi Kana to teleport them to an alien frigate, the second to be targeted after Yuma's. Human Spec Ops squads like Vlasta's were meant for ground combat, normally, but here every warm body had to be put to use, and if they could pretend a frigate was a ground command bunker, then that's where they would go.
Still, they were nervous. Not because of the sense of impending combat, or even the mismatch between their training and the target, but rather the sheer uncertainty.
Their implants ensured that they knew, on the level of instinct, when the HSS Raven would finally pass close enough to perform the teleport. The problem was, that instinct wasn't quite right. Not when a last millisecond change in the conditions of battle—the target ship changing course abruptly, or Raven herself needing to evade—could scramble the timeframe, or even cancel the insertion entirely, something that had already happened twice.
And this was all assuming, of course, that the Raven would stay intact through the final approach, a dicey proposition in and of itself. Raven's complement of drones was nearly depleted, and even at a distance she now relied heavily on Kana for defense. That meant Vlasta's squad would be on their own once deployed, and moreover that it'd be some time until Kana and Raven were back in a position to teleport them out.
So they waited, in an awkward circular formation only regularly used by MagOps to fulfill the needs of certain kinds of teleporters. Two of them had their weapons raised, two others knelt to give their comrades clear firing lines, and Vlasta crouched as part of a trio, intending to vault into a new position the instant after the teleport. Sets of drones clutched to their legs and sides, attached with a variety of arms and coils.
Kuroi Kana was seated a small distance away, cross‐legged, eyes closed, and completely still. Having no innate sense for magic, it was only Vlasta's combat interface which put the lie to the statuesque image: the Ancient was fighting off the squid, claw and tooth, with every ounce of her ferocious might.
As the time approached again, a ring of black magic bubbled up through the solid floor. The bubbles accumulated and undulated until they surrounded all the Human Spec Ops, bathing them in an eerie glow.
Vlasta felt the familiar rush of combat hormones burning through her, energy‐intensive support systems spinning up all at once—shock absorption, fine‐grained circulatory regulation, advanced reflex augments, subjective time dilation. These would integrate with her suit, some even drawing on it for auxiliary power.
Many thought they had sacrificed a piece of their humanity for what they did, that their combat enhancements diminished their soul, every new chemical or computer knocking off another chip.
What a laughable notion.
Go, Kana thought, and the world churned in a sea of black, until Vlasta glimpsed somewhere new through the receding froth.
Alien personnel were standing at their stations around a frigate's bridge, as yet oblivious, the dream‐like details smeared.
Then the world snapped into focus.
Vlasta slammed herself directly into a passing crewman, crushing it—him? her?—into the wall with killing force. Around her, a roar of firepower and precision grenades—projectiles equipped with the minimal guidance necessary to latch onto a target and shred it into a fine foam—tore through the bridge. In front of her, two of her drones applied similar devices to passing alien drones, blowing them apart in a shower of metal and sparks.
She knew without looking that the room was clear—more than that, she knew the exact position and status of every squadmate and every drone and all that they saw. It was a situational awareness that was as natural as breathing, and strained the relevant regions of her brain to the point of light damage.
So before she had finished slamming into the bulkhead, she was already redirecting her momentum, turning it into a roll behind the portable cover deployed by another pair of drones. From there, she could cover her team on the angles she knew were exposed.
As she and the others found transient safety, explosive charges blasted the AI's central computing clusters, crippling the ship in a way that just killing the bridge officers wouldn't. That completed the first phase of the attack.
But as she brought her weapon up over the deployed cover, she knew things hadn't gone quite to plan. The AI was crippled, but an unexpected internal forcefield had sprung up around the engine room, barring their way to the FTL core and the most natural way to destroy the ship.
Their combined computing power quickly decided that attempting to overpower the forcefield was too ambitious. Instead, they had enough explosives to take out everything else of value. Once Kana pulled them out—hopefully beating any potential self‐destruct sequence—what remained of the ship would be at best a drifting FTL core enmeshed in a forcefield, a meaningless soap bubble, even if some of the crew still survived in the engine room.
Assignments rippled across the local network. Three members of the squad sprinted out to plant charges, advance drones clearing the way. Their targets included weapons control systems, the stealth generator, and several choice segments of hull in between. They would set the explosives on short timers, then get the hell out.
Even as the explosives were being set in place, they received bad news.
"Your ship's forcefields are down," Kana transmitted, verbal message appended to the more straightforward machine language. "They must have somehow drained the power. You're being targeted. Raven's trying to fly back while keeping us in between you and the nearest enemy fighter, but her modeling says you have just seconds before another one's in range. I'll try to interdict them too, but it won't be easy."
Callously sacrificial tactics were a squid specialty, of course, but knowing about that helped them little. With the barest minimum of warnings, and an accompanying overlay of anticipated zones of impact, they braced themselves, getting into safer spots and activating internal damage control modules.
In truth, even the most extensive of implant modifications could do little against the violence and speed of an unguarded starship strike.
She lost two members of her squad immediately, Dobrica and Wulandari, shredded so quickly even her augmented mind couldn't resolve the intermediate steps—one frame they were whole, and the next they were not.
There appeared to be no nearby hull breaches, but the shattered inside of the ship made it clear they had died to spalling. Not that it really mattered what had killed them: there was no tactical adjustment to be made, no real way to respond.
She was damaged too, her implants had informed her.
"—barely able to deflect the attacks," a garbled transmission said, missing the critical command header that should have preceded it. "Able to miss FTL core. Will try my best. I'm sorry."
The voice pounded in her head, resonating with an unfamiliar pain, dulled to a distant roar by a healthy dose of implant‐mediated pain control.
At least that's still online, Vlasta managed to think, getting back on her feet, painfully aware that she and the four other surviving members of her squad were in bad shape. Besides the fact that her own internal diagnostics weren't entirely online, what she could see was terrible, ranging from the fact that her legs were operating by backup wire rather than nerve, to her sudden lack of one lung, to the rather large piece of metallic composite that had disabled her right arm. It would have all been much more distressing, were it not for the emotional suppression, which had turned on nearly full blast.
Though the rest of her team was already regrouping on her for a potential teleport—some carrying others—she reached a decision, one she knew her squadmates all agreed on.
"You need to leave us," she transmitted. "It's not worth the risk to you or Raven."
There was no response, and she couldn't even be sure she had been received.
Then the room lit up again, a warning red overlay signifying that local data sources expected them to be impacted across nearly the entire port side of the ship. Underneath the emotional suppression, she found herself apathetic, almost amused. Her connection wasn't good enough to communicate, but it was good enough to let her know how screwed they were.
She wasn't surprised, then, when the world went pitch‐black before her, and it took her a quarter‐cycle to realize that she was not yet dead.
It took another quarter‐cycle for her to realize that her optical implants hadn't adjusted yet, and she was actually floating in space, her immediate view blocked off by Kana, who was floating in front of her with hands raised, and Kana's magic, which had blotted out the stars.
To say that Raven wasn't really built for straight‐up fleet combat was, at best, a mild understatement.
There were stealth frigates that were intended to participate in fleet combat, of course. But even those inelegant brutes were intended to stay hidden and move quickly, deploying a critical mass of magical girls at critical locations in a battle.
Raven wasn't one of those, let alone a standard frigate actually suited to this battle, and while she enjoyed the quality of her stealth drive, and didn't back away from fights, she could have used a bit more muscle right now.
She lived for battle. It was just, she preferred the part where she swooped over the corpse of an alien ship and gathered up her team, sending off a parting pair of clean‐up drones for good measure, where she gleefully imagined that they'd peck out the eyes of the shattered squid vessel. So much more elegant.
In this fight, unfortunately, the squid were having most of the fun.
She wove her course into an intricate helix, strewing the area behind her with as much relativistic exhaust as possible to try and shake off the drones tailing her. With so many course corrections, it'd be hard for anything to match her velocity, making her targeting cross‐section small indeed.
It was standard small ship tactics, dosed with desperation. She had very little left from her own smartdust and drone reserves, but still had plenty of fuel—the aliens had plenty of drones and firepower, but would have to conserve fuel if they had any intention of returning home from this deep in human space. Thus far, they had not shown the kind of aggressive maneuvers that suggested they had given up on that.
Pulling out of her maneuver, she fired her main kinetic batteries at the nearest alien frigate—while she would have loved a hit, realistically she just wanted the bastard to move. Captain Vera and the rest of Raven's crew were counting on her to stay alive, and that meant staying out of any close‐quarter laser knifefights.
On her own, she wouldn't have minded going out like this—she had already died once, after all, it wasn't so bad—but her captain and crew weren't inorganic enough to have backups.
She had finally found a good nickname for Vera, too, even if Vera hadn't yet figured out why she was "Virginia".
Her close‐in gunners, firing spreads of proximity mines, strafed the nearby area with complete abandon, knowing that here, so far away from Sakura Kyouko's support ships, there were very few friendly drones to accidentally take the hit.
As she expected, the alien frigate evaded her fire—but as it moved, it revealed a pair of Ravager anti‐ship missiles, launched from within its sensor shadow.
That was not a novel gambit—few things were in the relentlessly optimized field of ship‐to‐ship frigate combat—but there was little she could have done to guard against it, with her complement of defensive materiel so low. There simply hadn't been the resources to release anti‐missiles prophylactically.
But, she had pre‐gamed potential scenarios, and did what she had to—release the remainder of her defense drones and fire three point‐defense missiles behind her as she continued to evade. That would empty her reserves, but her tactical models suggested that it was the bare minimum action for a reasonable chance of survival. As the fleet mantra said: resources exist to be used.
Even if there were other threats soon to follow.
She didn't spend much of her sensor attention watching her back, as her final drone flotilla provided that crucial coverage. Instead, she scanned her way through the field of potential enemies in front of her, where her drones could and would not follow. Some enemy ships were engaged in longer‐range fire with Kyouko's ships, but others were clearly changing course to attack what must have looked like an easy target.
Unfortunately, unhappily, she didn't really think they were wrong.
Something flashed across her flank, burning through a sector of her forcefield and searing a scar across her armor. Not quite enough for a breach, but painful, forcing her to isolate the destroyed circuitry.
A Sarissa medium‐range laser, which she hated like all other frigates, because they were difficult to dodge and because human technology had no equivalent. Without smartdust, Raven's forcefields would be taking unmitigated hits from now on.
But she was still up, and that's what was important.
The way things usually worked for a stealth frigate in combat followed a specific pattern—get in close, endure inevitably being detected and having to go hot, drop off your cargo, stick around long enough to pick them back up, then make your way back as fast as possible to friendly ships. After that, you would refill drones and other materiel from a supply ship or capital ship, then go in for another run. It was risky work even at the best of times, but it was worth it for the occasional takedown of a major alien vessel.
In a way, what she was doing still fit in with that. She was in the "recovering cargo" stage, working towards recovering Kana and the others before breaking contact.
But that was only in a way. She wasn't exactly in a situation standard doctrine covered: firstly, there wasn't a supporting capital ship in the picture, only a few of Kyouko's ever‐forthcoming supply vessels. Second, she had been revealed from the start: her state‐of‐the‐art stealth systems might as well have been a decorative collection of scrap metal. Thirdly, she was relying on Kuroi Kana for protection, which was both embarrassing and downright terrifying. Fourth, she should have been delivering a Magi Cæli team, not mundane Spec Ops. Finally, rather than attacking capital ships, they were attacking frigates, which threw the usual cost‐benefit analysis right out the rear airlock.
The riskiest bit was almost over, though. She had almost caught up to Kuroi Kana, who had split off a few seconds earlier to retrieve what Spec Ops she could, and once she teleported back on board, they could finally retreat towards Kyouko and resupply.
Then she sensed two alien fighters coming in for another pass. She had nothing meaningful left for them; they had been too fast, and were now too close.
She felt angry, and just a bit numb.
That was it, then, she thought, even as she turned to minimize the damage, activated what damage control she could, and sent her crew complement to their prearranged shelter stations.
She broadcasted a smoldering diatribe at the squid—not that they would, or maybe could, read it—and then emptied her mind.
Captain Vera didn't waste any time pondering the remarkable fact that she was still alive.
Many of her ship's systems were even still responsive, falling back onto less‐sentient decentralized subroutines. Even part of Raven's AI was still operating, individual modules that could still provide some value, even if they no longer formed a coherent personality.
Vera felt sorry for that, though she had every reason to be a bit preoccupied at the moment.
She pushed herself off of the ground with both arms, realizing then that both of her auxiliary wrist ports had stayed stubbornly connected, explaining how she was still tenuously connected to her ship—there was no way wireless would have provided the necessary bandwidth.
She leaned on her arms against a console, glancing at the shards of AI core which had cut across the room and at the ruined command chair she had once sat in. It was a minor miracle the circuitry still worked well enough to tie her in, one that she couldn't spend any time appreciating. Nor could she mourn the loss of Raven, the friend she had known for only a short while—even if she had every reason to expect to meet Raven's backup in due time, if she survived.
By artful evasion and nearly blowing out the forcefield power systems, they had mitigated much of the bombardment from the fighters, enough that the armor had been able to absorb most of the damage. Over half the crew was still alive, and most were already working on emergency repairs, while several complements of drones rushed to a major hull breach in the front, temporarily patched over by a forcefield.
With Raven gone, they were much less of a contributor to the Command Gestalt. With their drones and smartdust gone, they were no longer capable of meaningfully defending themselves or escaping. Having some forcefields and some weapons hardly mattered at that point, and in the ordinary course of things she'd be considering a suicide tactic, converting the ship into a pseudo‐SHERMAN round by detonating the exotic matter in the ship's drive core and impeding alien navigation—anything was better than simply dying in place.
But they weren't out of cards to play yet.
Kuroi Kana teleported into the staging area of the ship then, bringing with her the survivors of the Spec Ops team.
"Well I'm glad to see you," Vera transmitted, with the kind of dry understatement that so often vexed Raven. "We could use some help."
Shit, Kana thought.
She sat down on the floor, closing her eyes and steadying herself with almost inhuman speed.
Bring me your wounded, Vera heard her think. I can help them, but they need to be closer.
The message echoed into the ship's comms, even as Vera focused on taking over the duties of the ship's dead pilot. With the lack of a ship AI, that seriously drained her command attention, but right now navigation was more important than anything.
She changed the ship's course, steering it hurriedly and evasively toward Kyouko's onrushing vanguard, trusting Kana to use whatever magic she had to attempt a defense.
According to the calculations, trying to save Vlasta's team had been a justified effort, a dose of added risk to recover an asset that might still be useful in boarding other ships. Combat was an endless series of informed gambles, and sometimes, you got burned.
With the eyes that had once belonged to Raven, Vera looked at the stream of drones and magical girls that stretched outward to receive them. Her fate—the fate of her ship and its crew—rested with them now.
Ceri Jordà was one of the few experienced flight leaders in Kyouko's force.
The best of the Magi Cæli, those with training and experience, were naturally almost all at the front, not lurking somewhere where the Church of Hope could easily request them for even the shortest of missions. She had been on leave, hard‐earned after a year of patrols culminating with the Battle of Orpheus—and even after that, weeks spent helping shepherd alien remnants not‐so‐politely out of human space.
The truth was: returning back to civilian life, staring into the abyss of the family she no longer had, roaming the bars for companionship, or blankly trawling the internet or Grapevine, simply hadn't felt like much of an improvement to her. Even the blandishments of her MHD shrink, which had been so warm and empowering in the early years, had felt hollow and distant, the subtle telepathy powerless to really make a mark on her.
Somehow, when Sakura Kyouko herself had come knocking, she could tell in the old woman's eyes that she understood what it was like to feel no taste for life, a sort of desperation for meaning.
She had joined the Church for that, not for a strange doctrine about an illogical Goddess and her fervent followers.
She hadn't expected she'd be back out here so quickly.
We need to get over there and in front of Raven, she thought. It's not going to last much longer unless Kuroi pulls a miracle out of her ass.
Not all of us can make it that quickly. Is this really wise? We're going to be strung out.
It's not so much a matter of wisdom as whether we really have a choice, she thought. Kuroi Kana is a crucial asset. Those on board the ship are valuable personnel, if we can just get them back intact. We can take a little risk.
With that, she gathered herself and sprung forward, adding to the acceleration of her suit with a hefty dose of her personal magic, which scorched her back with airless fire. She pushed herself far beyond the formation, with only two others able to trail behind her. They would have to do.
She did not begrudge them their doubt. It was natural for a group inexperienced with space combat to misjudge the situation. Up here, the relationship between magical girl and starship was much different than between magical girl and infantryman, in a way that was difficult to instinctively assess.
She arrived in time to find a swarm of alien drones trying and failing to reach the husk of Raven, bobbing and weaving their way through a haunted graveyard of their former brethren, puppeted by Kana with black wisps of magic. The drones, dead and alive, formed an angry cloud of metal encompassing the frigate.
Bracing herself, Ceri dove in, releasing a wave of fire in front of her that carbonized incoming missiles and smartdust alike.
Finally, Kana thought, as Ceri pulled abreast of the ship. The Ancient's impatience was mixed with relief and even gratitude.
Without preamble, Ceri's mind was flooded with what could only be described as visions, imagery of aliens in cockpits, fighters maneuvering, alien combat diagrams.
It should have been confusing, even overwhelming, but somehow it wasn't, and Ceri understood instantly.
They're about to make another pass, one of the other girls, Armelle, thought, arriving next to her. Lasers only this time. They might be out of Ravagers.
Ceri smiled grimly, even though this was, at best, mixed news. It accentuated exactly why someone like Kana had to be kept alive. That kind of clairvoyance couldn't be manufactured in any shipyard.
Ceri felt it was a nice reminder of why her work was important.
She assessed what resources they had, using her own analysis to help spare their overtaxed Command Gestalt.
One mostly crippled frigate, with limited capabilities beyond passive defense and some return fire. Four magical girls: one Ancient, but inexperienced with and not specialized for this kind of combat, not really a combat mage to start with. Two more with distantly relevant abilities—Armelle, an area‐of‐effect ranged attacker, and Amaranth, who could turn incorporeal. Both useful, but not directly suited to the moment, more so because they were also inexperienced.
And her, of course.
The four of them, plus ship and surviving crew, would have to face down nearly two dozen strafing fighters, for long enough that the others could catch up. That would not be very long in a human sense, but it was plenty of time for everything to fall apart, if their reactions weren't on point.
They faced the problem, then, that while Amaranth and Armelle were capable of eluding and dealing good damage to the attackers, neither was especially suited for defense, a role that would normally be filled by a strong barrier generator rather than Kana. Worse yet, while a group of sublight missiles gave them time to react, deflect, and defeat in detail, lasers were threatening precisely because they gave almost none—and of course each fighter could fire multiple times. They were also tricky for Kana to deal with—that she could divert lasers at all with telekinesis spoke to her finesse as an Ancient.
Ceri made the only reasonable decision then, even as her thoughts filtered into the gestalt and their group telepathic network.
Alright, Kana thought. Godspeed.
Kana provided them advance warning of the aliens' final attack angles, and Ceri wasted no time preparing, cocooning herself into her fiery wings. Even through her suit, she could feel the heat from the fire, which suffused all she could see with a glowing orange light.
She dissolved into that light, now a pale blue flame that raced outward in a growing ball of incandescence, passing through her squadmates and through HSS Raven. She enveloped the area, seeing everywhere at once, with eyes that were not eyes.
Ceri could be a barrier generator, if she wanted to.
Gotcha, bastards, Amaranth thought.
The alien fighters were clearly befuddled by the unknown magic—she had fought the Ceph long enough she was sure they had a profile on her type of magic, but this, no alien had ever seen—or, at least, seen and escaped. All but one dove aside, bombarding her wall of fire with whatever weaponry they had on board. One of them chose, or was perhaps selected, to dive straight in.
She felt the sudden roaring heat of her own flames torched white‐hot against the fighter's forcefield.
The ship slowed precipitously, completely halted, and then blew apart, its pieces incinerating into magical ash, which wafted away into nothing.
The other fighters did not get off easily—a fusillade of Armelle's bright red rockets streaked through Ceri's fire and honed in on one, its attempts at evasion seeming hapless compared to the aliens' usual elegant flight.
The aliens lost three other fighters—two when Kana telepathically seized control of one and slammed it sideways into another, driving them both into Ceri's barrier, and the third when Amaranth ghosted in front of it, leaving a small explosive inside its FTL core, immaterial long enough to let the starship get some distance.
All of that came at a cost, though.
She was not naturally a barrier generator. Everything that had been thrown at her—kinetic shells, lasers, waves of escort drones, even a number of the hard radiation bombs the aliens loved to use on magical girls—was reflected in the corruption filling her soul gem. In this form she and the fire were one and the same, so all the damage she took had to be healed back. Fortunately, she could use the grief cubes she had been carrying, even in this state. Less fortunately, there was no way for the others to give her any more, and she had already burned through more than half of hers.
Just as she was considering reverting to normal form, Kana signaled a wave of missiles, this time frigate‐launched as a follow‐up to the fighters, who were already circling for another pass—it was so much firepower that it seemed to be draining the aliens' strength elsewhere.
Will you be alright? Amaranth thought, aware of Ceri's power state.
I don't know, Ceri thought, honestly.
There was no need to say more than that. Given the circumstances, they knew it wasn't worth the risk of Ceri dropping her barrier, and whether Ceri consulted the gestalt's projection of her magic usage or her own instincts, the answer was the same: Uncertain.
Everything now counted on how quickly they could reunite with the rest of their force, and how much damage the aliens could deliver before then. If Ceri could just keep the barrier up long enough, then they would make it. Even if she dropped it a bit early, it might still be enough.
The others did what they could, Kana using her telekinesis to force missiles off course, Armelle throwing up a wall of rockets, and HSS Raven's crew picking two off with well‐placed flak—but that still left a good half‐dozen to burn up in her barrier, which flickered with painful strain.
She cycled through her grief cubes with the avidity of a forest fire through parched grass and tapped dry.
Then the fighters began to return.
This time, they didn't just strafe. Instead, they matched velocities with the Raven and its mage escorts, pummeling Ceri even as the others rushed to take them out.
The rest of her team was almost here…
You can't hold this, Kana thought. Drop it, drop it now!
The message washed away for a moment, as Ceri felt her focus slipping. Would it even matter, if she did? There were so many—
She canceled her fire form then, the giant wall of flame contracting into the shape of a phoenix, then the shape of a human.
The alien fighters dove in immediately, and Ceri watched helplessly as their blows poured down on the ship.
One of the fighters then abruptly blossomed into a rose of debris, and fresh colors of magic began streaking into the fight. Backup was here, it seemed.
Or perhaps it was just her mind playing tricks on her, Ceri thought, smiling grimly. It had a bit of an unreal quality to it, the fighters dancing across the stars, the magic taking on the colors of the rainbow—and she had lost track of the Raven.
Then she toggled her soul gem eject, releasing the adhesion between gem and body and allowing her suit to cast it out into the void, away from the fighting as much as possible, for a potential recovery. Her soul gem cover had limited onboard guidance and telemetry—perhaps that would be enough.
Ceri was no stranger to soul gem exhaustion, after all. She knew she was running out of time. She would have to count on her team to catch it—catch her.
She felt the swirl of her own regrets blacken the world, and knew there was no fighting it, no maintaining her grasp on reality. It would take her where it wanted, and then she would either come back, or not.
Ceri saw again the images of her childhood—her parents, her siblings, filtered by what even she recognized as saccharine nostalgia.
When the aliens had come, she had been on another habitat, taking in schooling for a specialty in astrophysics, a topic she had once thought she loved.
When the time came, you wished for vengeance, the voice said. You wished to kill the monsters. But you didn't wish for your family back.
"I damn well know that," she said, through lips she knew she didn't have. "Don't put me through this shit again. It was stupid, okay?"
But the words stung. It was impossible for them not to. They came from her, after all.
After all these years, the guilt still gnawed at her, the ghostly apparitions of a happier life, a more normal life playing at the edges of her mind.
She hated having to go through this. In waking life, she was over this—a combination of time and MHD work had plugged up the wounds, even if she still felt uncomfortable in sedate, civilian life.
But that didn't matter here. It never had.
"Well that's enough of that," a voice said, a searing light that filled her soul.
Ceri's mind seemed to clear in an instant, and when she looked up at the woman standing over her, it was with a sense of… surprise? Awe? Trepidation?
She shook her head at herself and stood up from where she had been, apparently, curled up on the ground, taking a moment to pat off her costume. She knew, of course, that a moment ago she had been in combat, and should have just been a soul gem barreling desperately through space.
Instead, she was in a field of starblossoms, a memory from one of the few times she had visited a planet as a child. Looking on it, she felt the irrational sense that, wherever she was, things were going to be fine. Serenity, some might call it.
And as for the woman standing before her, which had replaced the apparition haunting her…
Well, however terrible she was as a member of the Church, she could recognize a psychopomp when she saw one.
"I don't suppose you're here to offer me a chance to go back," she said.
"That's not generally how that works, no," the woman said, still facing away from her. She was holding one of the blossoms and wore a wide‐brimmed hat with a simple white sundress. Whatever Ceri might have expected the hypothetical Goddess to look like, it wasn't this.
Well, actually, the pink hair was close.
"I was hoping for longer than this," Ceri said, crouching to pick a flower. "But I guess that was always a bit silly, given how dangerous my combat role is."
She stopped, arm half‐extended, staring at the flower she had intended to take. For a moment, she thought she could see through it, somehow. There was no flower, there was no her, there wasn't even a Goddess. Yet here she was.
It really hit her for the first time that she was dead.
"I suppose I should just be glad there's anything at all," she said. "Before you take me to the next world, can I at least ask how things went in that fight? I died there, after all."
The woman turned her head towards Ceri then, slowly, eerily. She found her gaze drawn compulsively to the deity's eyes, even as she found herself afraid of what she would see within.
"Ceri," the Goddess said, as she felt the edges of her soul begin to tear open. "You don't need my help for something as simple as that."
Yuma learned of the destruction of the HSS Raven as she was preparing to leave the second frigate she had seized.
Kyouko's magical girl escort had gotten to the Raven piecemeal, and too late, but most of them had survived. Kana had even managed to teleport out with many of the humans on board, just in time. The alien fighters had pulled back. But still.
Not good enough, she thought, allowing herself a little dismay —just a little. She didn't allow herself to check this time how Vlasta was doing.
Yuma took a deep breath, settling herself. With Raven out of the picture, it was only more important she and her Ancients continued to make an impact, eroding the alien advantage as much as possible . Without dying, of course.
Alright, let's go, she thought, looking at Rin.
They turned and sprinted towards the ship's airlock. They wouldn't have stayed even if Raven had survived—the two of them did little good just standing there watching Jeannette direct the new ship. Either they needed to go outside and escort, as they had with the first frigate, or they needed to go group up with Kyouko. Every second they wasted was potential losses elsewhere, in a fight as tight as this.
Yuma didn't spare a glance for the stars visible through a hundred fist‐sized holes in the hull. The wheels in her head turned constantly, interfacing with the gestalt, evaluating their current location, keeping up a constant chatter between her implants and Rin's—deciding simply what to do.
As the door to the airlock opened itself to pure vacuum, though, they stopped. Having beaten the optimal launch time by a few seconds, a shard of Yuma now took the chance to look out into the void. To human eyes, there were few visible signs of battle—the field of stars was nearly untrammeled, and it was impossible not to hear the voice in the back of her head, the ancient instinct warning her not to jump off the cliff, because she was assuredly not coming back.
Most human ships came with a small catapult for just this kind of deployment. Here, it was again possible to borrow Charlotte's telekinesis, but it would be better now to let her focus on Kyouko's girls.
Rin picked Yuma up and vaulted into space, accelerating nigh‐instantly to an incredible, bone‐shattering speed. Moving so fast it seemed like teleporting was part of the skillset of a martial artist, in movies anyway. That was the excuse Rin had used to develop the power.
Yuma followed the trick with one of her own, summoning her hammer in front of them, growing its mass, then dispelling it, conserving momentum only the second time. Newton would not have liked the disrespect to his laws.
She felt a massive pulse of radiation slam into them, and felt her soul gem strain against the effort of healing off the damage. As a group, they had plenty of grief cubes, especially with Kyouko's added stock, but this style of fighting was enormously magic‐expensive. It could not be kept up indefinitely.
But then, neither could anything else in this fight—missiles, drones, smartdust, exotic matter fuel—it would all run out eventually, if the battle didn't end. At some point, the alien ships would have to turn away to ensure they could even return home. Assuming they cared to, and assuming they lived that long.
They flew in a great arc, passed the living asteroid fortress, and then a series of colored streaks announced that, as promised, some of Kyouko's teams were finally managing to reach them. The maroon‐colored streak peeled off, a junior shield generator that would be joining them for another push forward, grief cubes on hand.
The new girl exchanged the most perfunctory of electronic greetings with them as they turned, angling towards another alien vessel, navigating by fleet sensors. There was no question of Yuma and Rin simply retreating to safety within Kyouko's arriving fleet.
There was no safety.
To Ryouko, fighting without her teleportation was like fighting without an arm. Worse, actually—she would have more easily handled a missing arm. Firing her arbalest only required one of those.
Indeed, she barely did anything at all as her squad bulldozed their way through the station, seeking urgently either the device blocking Ryouko's teleports or—less likely—another way to get Asami back to the wormhole before the Ceph could shred it. Ryouko stayed safely in the back as the others did all the work, her usual "combat mood" remaining frustratingly out of reach.
As her team advanced with near‐reckless haste, they were forced to simultaneously conduct an important debate.
Her wormholes are a physical effect, Asami thought, answering a question. Like my black holes. For us, the manipulation is the magic. Neither of us have managed to generalize it yet.
There's literally only one teleporter using wormholes! Simona thought. Why build a trap here specifically?
That may not be the intent, Amane thought. For all we know, it's part of a system with some other purpose. It may not even be combat‐related.
So she said, and Ryouko had to agree with the logic. After all, it wasn't that her magic wasn't there, it just… felt like she was out of teleports, like she needed to recharge, only her sense of when she would never drew closer.
She couldn't shake the unnerving feeling in her heart, though. It felt personal.
The group came to a momentary halt, their rampage across the circular doorways and nearly‐cylindrical alien hallways stymied by the appearance of a massive, station‐wide forcefield.
Ryouko looked back on the path behind them, strewn with debris and gutted walls. Caution required that they preemptively destroy every piece of unrecognized equipment they came across, and a controlled singularity was a very effective tool of destruction. None of the previous forcefields—powered by local generators—had stood any chance when Asami's weapon could carve straight through forcefield and generator alike with little fanfare.
This one was different. The generator was far away—it was not easy to know where—and Asami's black hole was not passing trivially through.
The station lurched, once, hard enough to have thrown them off their feet were it not for Ying‐zhi's barrier, which rippled warningly. That served as their indirect reminder that they needed to get a move on.
What kind of forcefield blocks black holes? Simona thought.
Alien ones, Asami thought. Well, some of them. The main starship ones all give resistance.
She tried again to force her way through, the collision of black hole and forcefield forming an almost kaleidoscopic lensing effect, the natural lensing of the black hole amplified and magnified throughout the area.
Well, whatever is blocking my power, it's behind this forcefield, Ryouko thought, feeling the discordant hum of her soul gem pulling at her. Probably not a coincidence.
It was a dilemma, and one they did not have time to ponder. They were still in the core of the station, buried a full half‐kilometer away from its surface. According to the fleet clairvoyant now tasked to them, nearly all of that remaining distance was solid composite or machinery, and the aliens had blown the more human‐sized tunnels leading to the surface. Getting out the hard way would take most of the few hundred seconds the fleet gestalt estimated they had before their wormhole was unsalvageable.
Well, we ain't got much of a choice, Amane thought. This is gonna be expensive.
She signaled Ying‐zhi and another girl, and the two formed up as Amane fell back, taking over barrier generation for the team. Ying‐zhi dropped her own barrier, and then resummoned it in the shape of a sharp, golden nail.
The other girl pulled out her signature weapon, an oversized metal mallet with a pulsejet engine attached, and as Ying‐zhi's nail contacted the alien forcefield, she gave the mallet a roaring swing.
There was a tremendous burning light at the very tip of the impact, accompanied by a reverberating roar that defied description, seeming to transform the entire sequence into a single, silent instant.
Then Ying‐zhi's barrier shattered like glass, the mallet slamming into the forcefield. Both barrier and mallet were dispelled before any stray pieces hurt someone, but the healer rushed in anyway to tend Ying‐zhi.
Before they could recover, a message arrived from Command: a MagOps team with a teleporter of sufficient range had been reassigned from a gravity modulator to their rescue, and would be there within two minutes.
Ying‐zhi staggered to her feet and cursed. The fleet could scarcely afford another team being pulled off the remaining gravity modulators.
Ryouko chewed her lip. She had wanted to learn what was blocking her, to see what was doing it and to prove to herself that it wasn't, somehow, directed at her specifically.
But there was no justification for making another attempt on the forcefield. The new teleporter, when she arrived, could pass right through it.
Perhaps, with her help…
Even then, it was hard to rationalize. Not when the aliens were so close to forcing the wormhole back open—close enough that they were getting glimmers of direct contact with Adept Blue. Not when spending any extra time here at all was a needless risk, prodding at a possible trap.
It bothered her enough, though, that she still had Clarisse file a suggestion to the group network, proposing one attempt with the new teleporter to search the station beyond the forcefield. To her surprise, Asami responded before anyone else.
We can't, she thought. I know what you're thinking. But it doesn't make sense, especially when whatever it is actively weakens you.
Amane, Ying‐zhi, and Simona signaled their agreement, the Command Gestalt signaled its agreement seconds later, and that was that. There would be no time to solve the mystery.
They waited uneasily, local space‐time protesting its treatment by the aliens with repeated, amplifying jolts. Finally, their rescue team arrived in a literal thunderclap, sparks snapping through the air around them.
Let's go, the teleporter, Oda, thought, from behind her winged goggles. Behind her, Ryouko was surprised to see Azrael, and surprised at herself for feeling so relieved at the prospect of traveling with another friend.
They had already received the bare minimum information they needed for the teleport—stand facing Oda, no need to touch each other, the trip would be a bit vertiginous, Oda needed to raise her spear—and with that, they were off.
The experience was entirely different from any of Ryouko's trips—rather than an instantaneous transit, it instead jolted them through the intervening distance, so that they got an intimate view of the inside of alien machinery, composite armor, and finally, space.
When they reappeared in orbit, they were already in an optimal arrangement, individual bodies pointed in the direction of motion, Oda's magic having rearranged them as they traveled. Ryouko's suit had to make only minuscule adjustments to her velocity and orientation, and Clarisse took care of any potential disorientation, offloading enough spatial reasoning that where they were, where she was, was intuitive.
It was, Ryouko had to admit, more convenient than her own magic in that regard.
I've dropped us into a slightly lower orbit that will take us away from the station. My range isn't like yours. Can you teleport now?
What went unsaid in that question were a number of details filled in by the Command Gestalt: the rescue team had a stealth mage, and so with Asami's gravitational protection, the two teams could expect to survive outside a ship where neither could alone. Their current orbit would start making close passes to the HSS Marianne Rialle within thirty seconds, close enough to transfer over for protection and transport, but the faster and therefore strongly preferred plan was a follow‐up teleport by Ryouko straight to the wormhole.
I can, Ryouko thought, holding her hands over her chest. It was a relieving feeling, enough for her to almost tune out the battle raging around her.
Then she shuddered, turning her head even as the gravity sensors on her suit started alerting.
A quarter‐orbit before them, the sphere of the wormhole's mouth suddenly billowed open, its gravitational lensing effect obvious against the emissions from the pulsar. It was unhealthy, whirling erratically, a vengeful specter that alternated between blotting out the stars and glowing eerily in unpredictable parts of the spectrum. Each time it flared, it tossed aside a number of unlucky human starships caught in the wake.
They could only watch for an impatient dozen seconds, waiting for their lower relative orbit to bring them close enough for Ryouko to make a maximum‐range jump, their suits compensating for movement as both teams crowded around her, making for a colorful show against the backdrop of space.
The environment around the wormhole was, impressively, the most dangerous they had faced yet, and when Ryouko finished her teleport, slumping into her suit with brief exhaustion as her soul gem recharged, they did so with Ying‐zhi's barrier already up, absorbing a gravitational environment that threatened to tear them apart. Ryouko could have chosen a safer location, but it was imperative that Asami get as close as she could.
The portal through space warped and crackled, emitting sheaves of newborn radiation that hinted at the immense stresses inside. As Asami raised her hands to try and take control, hair swirling under the influence of unseen magic, the surrounding world shifted and stirred, the apparent position of the pulsar skipping below, behind, or above. Through the tortured space around them, it was possible to even observe temporal anomalies, electromagnetic radiation red‐shifted or blue‐shifted unpredictably.
It was no wonder that human ships had hurriedly evacuated the area, after having spent most of the battle defending the wormhole reopening site from alien drones and potential surprise attacks. For now, they seemed very much alone.
The dozen‐plus girls arrayed themselves in a small defensive shell around Asami, Simona settling into the meditative pose she used to enhance others' powers. Ryouko watched the wormhole with eyes and sensors that were more than human, in more ways than one. Somehow, it looked a bit purple. Was that a natural color?
This is difficult, Asami thought, a claim well‐supported by her soul gem activity readings.
For the girls not actively concealing or defending the team, like Ryouko, the only thing to do was to submerge into the gestalt, which was still pondering how exactly the aliens were using their pulsar mines to manipulate the wormhole. The scientist in Ryouko—alongside the scientists of the fleet—was darkly fascinated by the opportunity to see those mines in action, despite the circumstances. To bottle up space‐time, after ripping it away like fruit from a tree, was a profound and inexplicable feat.
Even with Asami's contributions, answers weren't forthcoming, and the question had to be asked: Was this even worth understanding? Scientifically, of course, but practically it seemed likely they would have to destroy the alien mining infrastructure either way.
Something about it nagged at Ryouko, a vague uneasy feeling she couldn't dispel, similar to how she had felt when her teleportation had been inhibited earlier.
I don't think you should ignore that, Clarisse thought. Yes, Asami knows gravity better than you, but we're standing at the mouth of a wormhole. Maybe you can help?
Ryouko shook her head in dismay, but not in disagreement. Clarisse was right. What was she doing just watching? She could at least try.
Though, of course, she didn't know what try meant here.
She jetted her way up to Asami, placing a hand on her shoulder, and fixing her eye on the writhing sphere of the wormhole, searching the depths of her unease, casting about with her magic sense for the nature of what was happening around her.
I have them at a stalemate, Asami thought, as the kilometers‐wide opening in front of her seemed to shudder slightly. But I'm kind of stuck here, and I need Simona's magic just to keep this up. Can't quite close it. Can't even make it safely traversable. We're in real trouble if we decide to abort.
She didn't add that maintaining this deadlock was very expensive, the point accentuated by a few human drones reappearing on their local maps, braving the now‐milder gravitational storms to haul in a supply of grief cubes.
It was a worrying result. But with Clarisse's help, Ryouko was making progress on her own front, and inferences were now working their way through her mind. Clarisse had been aggregating physical data on the wormhole and pulsar mines for a while, and coupled with Ryouko's magic sense, they could now discern patterns—familiar patterns, both in an instinctual sense, and because she still remembered what she had seen in Dr. Tao's lab on Eurydome, when she had been teleporting herself to exhaustion.
Whenever she made too many short teleports, it became harder and harder for her to continue, until eventually she couldn't at all, leaving her stuck—even if she still had plenty of magic. Something strange happened to space‐time; something that she could feel right now, in sections of the pulsar mines.
In retrospect, that made perfect sense. Ryouko tore at space‐time to make her wormholes, and the Cephalopodan mines tore away pieces of space‐time too—normally for containment and transport, but now just to yank at the wormhole. The initial physical action was the same, so of course the physical reaction was the same. There had to be a connection to what had blocked her from teleporting earlier.
But there were more immediate applications to work through.
If repeatedly tearing at space‐time made it progressively more difficult to accomplish, then the enormous alien mines were likely working on duty cycles, and a much narrower attack could now be planned, prioritizing only the operational regions which Ryouko could identify.
That was the good news. The bad news was, with this effect isolated, a subtler process could be detected. With Asami and Simona frustrating efforts against the wormhole, the aliens were adapting their approach yet again. Ryouko had not personally seen a blink cannon in action, but if she understood what little humanity knew about them, then the aliens were building a giant ad hoc one out of the mines. And Ryouko was pretty sure she understood correctly, because Clarisse had been ceaselessly replaying the relevant lectures from Vlad and Dr. Tao at speed in the background of her mind.
I'm just doing what needs to be done, Clarisse thought. I'm just helping the association process.
No, it's helpful, Ryouko thought. I'm just frustrated with the situation. You're doing the right thing.
Ryouko was surprised then by a tiny sense of satisfaction, even pleasure from Clarisse. She had said the right thing, apparently.
Clarisse was definitely helping, of course, and the TacComp's recent upgrades enabled her to run a few gravitonic simulations locally. That was enough for Ryouko to pick out a strange relationship between the activity in the alien mines and the oscillations in the mangled wormhole Asami was wrestling with.
And that reminded her…
…of when you teleported the Orpheus team off‐world, taking advantage of the destabilized alien wormhole, Clarisse thought. The aliens are trying to exploit our wormhole the same way.
Ryouko felt a queasy feeling sink into her gut. That explained how the aliens expected a blink cannon to work, when all past evidence suggested that the energy costs outside of low‐gravity environments were ruinous.
A disquieting thought rose back up from her gut, and caught in her throat: the Cephalopods knew the intricacies of space‐time better than Humanity did. They knew space‐time better than she did, even when it came to her magic. That magic might cover the absurd energy costs involved, but its tricks were not hers alone—they were also the squid's.
That's not good, Amane thought, in a masterpiece of understatement, as Ryouko's last update hit the gestalt. What do we do now?
Ryouko gritted her teeth, even as she mentally heard Command shifting teams into an emergency attack on the pulsar mines.
I can invert the process, she thought. Or rather, if they're going to hijack our wormhole, I can hijack it first. If we act now, I can teleport most of us from here into the mines immediately. But there's no telling what we'll find in there, and I… hate to split us up right now.
By which she meant, she hated the notion that she would take most of the combined team away from Asami, leaving her only scantly protected. More than that, Ryouko hated the notion that they be separate at all, and knew Asami would hate it worse.
There was no space at a time like this for such sentiment, however, and no sooner had she vocalized the thought than the order came through for them to make the attempt. A part of her regretted even bringing it up, but how could she not?
"The danger is admittedly extreme," Ying‐zhi said, using the in‐suit audio. "We have limited intel, we'll be deep behind their lines, and they'll be ready for us. But I have high hopes anyway, because it's always like this, and we still always come out on top."
"I suppose you can consider the separation incentive to come back alive," Azrael said. "I certainly don't expect to die here. Not after I made it out of… where I came from."
They were obviously addressing her, and Ryouko felt a cringe of embarrassment. Was it that obvious?
She overcame that, though, when she felt a ping from Asami and looked over. The girl wasn't looking back, focusing her attention on the wormhole, and Ryouko was at the wrong angle to see her face.
Still, the emotions that followed conveyed all that was necessary. Asami understood the necessity of splitting up, but she was scared, and angry. Scared for the both of them, but especially Ryouko, and angry at herself, because she was letting the squid do this to them.
Ryouko did manage to see Simona's expression—at least, what Ryouko's implants claimed it was, through an opaque helmet, for only the fractional second before the girl hid her face—and felt an undefinable guilt.
She didn't let herself think too much about that.
It took an unusual amount of time—a solid three minutes—for the gestalt, and the team, to decide on the proper way to divide the magical girls around Asami. They were heading into completely unknown territory, and for all their hundreds of variations, even the simulations had failed to really cover a situation like this. Couldn't, really. Unknown unknowns were harder than anything.
Both Asami and Ryouko's team would require a barrier generator, and there were three to go around, but Ying‐zhi, the one most capable of defending against gravitational effects, would be going with Ryouko. Asami was somewhat capable of protecting herself, after all, and Command could rush reinforcements over, but she would still receive Amane, the more experienced of the remaining two barrier generators.
Azrael would be going with Ryouko. While her natural comfort with three‐dimensional navigation was most useful in space, they didn't have any other MGs capable of mind‐reading or attempting mind‐control—versatile abilities when attacking an unknown base.
Where to put Simona was the easiest, yet most painful choice. Her ability to enhance another's power might make or break an attack on the mines. But the aliens were fighting as hard as ever to rip the wormhole to shreds, and Asami needed Simona's assistance, so Simona would stay with her.
This time Ryouko didn't try to catch Simona's expression.
Asami would also get the stealth generator, but in the end, no one was making it home if they didn't disable the pulsar mines, so the other members of the combined team would be sent with Ryouko.
While this decision was being made, Ryouko spent her time focusing on what she needed to do. She had harnessed an existing wormhole once, at Orpheus. She had a much better understanding this time of how it would work, and could even review it with Clarisse. But this time, there was no Goddess in her ear, giving an implicit guarantee of success. This attempt, and its result, would be hers alone.
When it was time to go, she felt as ready as she could ever be, watching the others assemble around her. At her instruction, they formed as compact a ball as possible, Simona taking the opportunity to hold her hand, filling her with power, but tensing to let go, just before the teleport.
You've got this, Oda thought. According to the gestalt's battle simulations, Ryouko was disturbingly likely to find her teleportation blocked again after they arrived, and Oda's lightning‐based teleportation might have to bail them out a second time.
Ryouko realized, then, that she had almost forgotten something.
She blinked over next to Asami, the universe around her snapping into a new configuration, and grabbed her hand. The suits were in the way, but it would have to do.
I'm ready, she thought, blinking herself back to her team.
She closed her eyes, and stretched herself outward, reaching for the place where the aliens were trying to breach. It was already so, so weak…
"Damn it!" Kyouko snapped, heedless that the others could hear her over the suit radio.
The aliens were tenacious, ferocious, and overwhelming, and the screening groups near her ships were taking the brunt of it, held together by a thin assembly of drones, smart mines, and magical girls. Together they strained to stay coherent and mutually supporting, even as they worked to get into a position where they could lay into their enemies, who were obstinately, annoyingly, staying just out of range. As they did so, the fighters harried Kyouko's ships, obviously hoping to kite them to death with their superior reach.
This frustrating situation had forced them to continue using Yuma's Ancients as risky frontline raiders. They were already amidst the aliens, voluntarily or not. If they got some damage in—and especially if they kept seizing ships—it really helped the combat projections.
Things hadn't worked out with Raven but, if one tallied it all up like an Incubator, even that had been a fair exchange—a one‐for‐one trade of frigates, and a swap of some fighters and materiel for a veteran magical girl. They could have done even better if they hadn't gambled on saving the Spec Ops squad. Then again, they needed to do better—this wasn't a fair bout of chess, where equal trades would lead to a draw. It was more like a match where they had started off with far too few pawns.
Kyouko gritted her teeth. She didn't like that kind of thinking. But they hadn't been prepared for this fight. Against Cephalopods, she had far too many magical girls for the number of ships she had. She would have easily traded some for a single military‐grade cruiser.
Her mistake. She had known this was a possibility, and then she had let secrecy and poor communication restrict the scope of her response. Now, out here in the black depths of space, she was losing people.
She spun herself into a new position, riding the point of the giant spear she was using as a platform. As she turned, her hair blasted out a spiral of airless fire, destroying a wave of alien smartdust that had dared to approach.
At least Yuma's Ancients were holding up, even if none of them were natural frontline fighters. On top of the ship raiding, they brought a welcome injection of well‐developed magic—long‐range clairvoyance, improved telepathy, multi‐target mind‐control, telekinetic movement, all the general stock‐in‐trade arts of magical girls like Kuroi Kana and Atsuko Arisu.
Even so, Kyouko would have preferred Ancients more like herself, capable of contributing seriously in more… tangible ways. Sending out Ceri's group had stretched her defenses, and even with seriously‐in‐advance forecasting from Arisu, a barrage of missiles had just now nearly broken through, absorbed at the last second by a decoy starship, an apparition of Maki's magical paint that stubbornly presented itself on every sensor as the real deal.
It took Maki only the briefest of moments to sketch out a replacement, but that was enough time for an enemy drone wave to pierce the perimeter and begin swarming soft targets.
Two magical girls went down—damaged, but still fighting. Recoverable, but only for a few more seconds.
Kyouko swallowed a bitter oath—at Maki for being slow? at herself for not being there?—and launched a wave of javelins instead. They flew out from her in what looked like a standard volley of projectiles, heading directly for the flotilla of alien drones. The flotilla moved to dodge—and then the javelins turned into massive nets of chain, snarling themselves around the alien drones before dissolving in fire.
Kyouko's assortment of ranged tricks was limited, but they were all coming in handy.
What do you think, Elizabeth? she asked, addressing one of her bodyguards. You reckon we got the next wave?
It will be close, the girl thought. We barely kept this one from hitting the ships. But Nadya's flank is holding up, and we're bleeding them here.
As if to accentuate that last point, a flurry of yellow arrows flew past Kyouko, honing in on targets somewhere in the distance.
Kyouko returned a confident grin, even as she slashed her spear downward in front of her almost heedlessly, catching a long‐range kinetic projectile mid‐flight and sending it off into the abyss. One might think what was basically a giant alien bullet fired at unfathomable speeds would be extremely visible, but it really wasn't—except in infrared, where it glowed white with the heat of firing.
All magical girls had an innate sense for such incoming attacks, but it was nice also being able to see them.
Her TacComp informed her that alien fighters had been detected making another approach. She checked the details; the ferocity of the alien attacks was beginning to flag, and the fighters were showing signs of a fixed resources shortage. If her fleet could keep this up, the aliens would have to commit their frigates to decide the fight.
That was a big if, of course.
Kyouko took a moment to concentrate, dialing in a big expenditure of magic.
It was still a bit disorienting, splitting herself into multiple copies. Unlike the simpler Rosso Fantasma of her youth, each of these clones brought the full Kyouko, the whole shebang, so to speak. But that meant there was no longer one true copy, and she never knew whose eyes she would end up seeing through—and she found afterward that she had the memories of each one. Even her soul gem, which otherwise could not be divided, seemed to switch back and forth between copies, perhaps explaining why her clones couldn't get too far apart.
She never quite got over the experience of looking at herself though, blinking back at what was now a thicket of nearly three dozen copies, each making eerily similar expressions, probably thinking the same thing she was.
Looking good, one of them thought, and she almost rolled her eyes.
She formed ranks into a wall formation, her clones arranging themselves into alternating rows that obstructed passage, equipped with nets and fire as well as spears.
Among the Ancients she had always been one of the fastest, and coupled with the exceptional level of coordination she could achieve with… herself, she could compensate for a lack of range. It also helped make up for the fact that she wasn't always the best at working with others.
Collectively, she watched the proverbial horizon, thoughts coordinated, information thrumming between implants.
She anticipated an assortment of missiles, but only a few came, easily dealt with by a wave of homing spears. It seemed the most recent attack on Raven wasn't a fluke—the aliens were running low on Ravagers.
That meant the fighters would have to come closer.
She—every version of her—froze still for a few seconds, settling into a diamond pattern not unlike the pattern of her own chain wall.
She watched a half‐dozen fighters barrel closer, then smiled wickedly as a barrage of arrows flew through the gaps, courtesy of the twin archers behind her. The bolts of magic whipped her hair, ignoring physics.
One of the fighters blew apart immediately, the arrows bombarding it blinking past its shields and impacting straight into the front hull. It showered the area in a spray of debris and radiation that glowed iridescent in Kyouko's vision even as she tracked the others.
Another took a similar impact, but didn't explode so gratuitously, instead spiraling off course, barely managing to turn away.
It spun off into the distance, where perhaps it might repair itself and return, or more likely, would just retreat. None of the humans could afford a risky pursuit.
A few other fighters took big hits, and Kyouko noted with satisfaction that this was as much damage as her girls had managed to inflict in the entire fight leading up to now, not counting those with Yuma's high‐risk teams. Close range was not doing the aliens any favors.
The aliens had of course noticed Kyouko's wall of clones, and they unleashed a lethal barrage of kinetic fire, waiting until they got a bit closer to follow up with lasers and, perhaps, radiation.
Perhaps they thought she would evade or break formation, giving them easier targets and time to close—clumps of clones to blast, or an isolated girl for multiple fighters to focus on.
Instead her smile grew wider as she pointed her spear forward, echoed across the formation as it thrust forward telekinetically, a wall of chains appearing in front of her to seal off the projectiles.
By now there were hundreds of her, replicating outward in an ostentatious display of magic. Nothing in front of her would live, and the aliens were still on inward trajectories.
They quickly realized the danger, and those caught in front tried to turn—but a cloud of drones and mines lined the edges, coordinated by the gestalt, and accentuated by homing arrows from the twins.
As she gained speed, she saw the overwhelming glow of the aliens detonating hard radiation bursts. Surely she made an attractive target, but she had addressed that particular weakness long, long ago, after a politically‐motivated assassination attempt. If the Ceph wanted to try, they were centuries too late.
Not your lucky day, she thought, homing in on her prey.
Even the most basic of magic barriers was a better buffer for radiation than one's own flesh, and she was a specialist in using her chains to restrict movement in combat—had to be, really, even with centuries of work on her speed. Radiation shielding had been easy to learn, once she had recovered from her injuries.
And as for using a spear against a forcefield—well, there were plenty of magical girls who could project a stronger shield than a squid fighter.
Three of her closed in on a fighter, weaving expertly in between its close‐range laser bursts. She herself got to deliver the killing blow, dragging her spear through shields, hull, and critical components in one gesture that carried her out of the shrapnel zone.
She knew she made it look easy, out here in zero gravity, but on the ground that much force would have overturned a skyscraper, and she had done it backhand.
Well, perhaps not that easy. The alien counterattack had caused her to lose her bearings briefly, and as she regained them, she spotted one of her clones nearby. More accurately, part of one.
She grimaced as the head dissolved back into the magical ether. Those memories would be unpleasant, but, well, it helped to keep her grounded.
So too did the deaths, a pair of girls who tended the rose garden of her church.
It stung, all of it stung, but they were not truly gone. Few could say that with more certainty than her. The tragedy was the life cut short, but it was not without consolation.
The other consolation was that for now her forces had survived, and even more than survived. The alien fighters were by all appearances limping away, and it wasn't clear if they would be coming back without frigate support.
She dismissed her clones, choosing one closer to one of her ships as her new body. As she felt her consciousness draining back into one host, she had one more thought, collectively this time, sharpened into defiance by her losses.
You want a fight? she thought, directed at the aliens. Then come at me, if you dare.
She peered out into the darkness, waiting to see if the aliens would answer the challenge.
Ryouko reappeared inside yet another alien facility, only to be hit almost immediately with a sense of déjà vu. It was all the same: a sudden uneasy feeling beginning in the pit of her stomach, her magic incessantly warning her that she was stuck, the time until she could teleport frozen at max. The world around her was syrupy, too tough somehow.
This time, at least, the experience wasn't so unexpected.
Huh, Azrael thought, when they were done clearing the room. Ying‐zhi had pinned one of the aliens to the floor with her barrier, and a tendril of tar‐black magic flowed from the Cephalopod's head into Azrael's outstretched hand, bubbling along its length and dribbling onto the floor.
The aliens are surprised by the wormhole suppression effect, Azrael thought. Some of it here is natural from the mining, but most was induced remotely right after we arrived.
The aliens don't always share intel with their grunts, Ying‐zhi thought.
Yes, but I'm getting the distinct sense that this isn't supposed to happen, Azrael thought. The technology is…
She paused, the oozing magic in front of her quickening and widening. An ornamental gold ring snapped off the alien's forehead and hung in the air, suspended in Ying‐zhi's barrier.
Forbidden somehow, Azrael finished. Not in the religious sense. Just, they're not supposed to be using it. Not against us.
She was silent for a few seconds.
Are you done with it, then? Ying‐zhi thought. Not to rush you, but we can't stand around waiting.
No, I think I'll keep this one for now, Azrael thought. It's magic‐expensive, but I think I got someone useful.
Ryouko looked around the room. Aliens of various… types, she had come to think of it, lay strewn across the floor in a dozen distinct meetings with death. This wasn't quite where the aliens had been trying to work their science, but it was close.
And unlike with the gravity modulators, this room did have a viewing window, which glowed an unsettling pale white.
She couldn't drop her guard, even with the room ostensibly secured, and when she moved for the window Ying‐zhi and Oda followed her, just in case—and because they, too, wanted to see what was on the other side.
The angle of the window was such that without getting close enough to look down, all you could see was the curved ceiling of a large cavity, from which hung a number of tentacle‐like metallic tubes, reminiscent of the manipulators common with both Human and Ceph drone technology. As she walked over, she could see that they were attached to large, oval machines of some sort, which even bore strange, unreadable markings on the side, etched into the metal.
Fascinating, Clarisse thought. The aliens never use their written language outside of display consoles. To see it written out like this is quite unusual.
Ryouko nodded silently, though they both knew the machines weren't the main sight. The glow from the window came from something below the floating machines, something which emitted radiation throughout the spectrum in a way nothing in Clarisse's records matched, with no spectral lines at all.
When it first came into view, her eyes failed to truly see it, a soft‐edged white circle that was just there, with no visible texture, no connection to its surroundings, nothing that gave it away as more than two dimensional, other than simple binocular depth, like a graphical glitch in VR. She couldn't even be sure how far away it was.
Only as she got close to the glass did her suit sensors start to verify that, yes, some of the strange gravitational readings in the area seemed to be coming from the object, if it was an object.
Not all of the readings, though.
One of the machines started to move languidly, and it took a few seconds to register what was strange about its motion, and why its color seemed to shift as it progressed—its time was unstable, relative to their room.
So? Any ideas on how to destroy this thing? Oda thought. I don't fancy trying to ride a bolt through an environment like that, and we don't have a black hole to just fling at it. Wish Asami didn't need to maintain those, we might have got one for the road.
We don't have to destroy the thing itself, only the machines around it, if I had to guess, Ryouko thought. An anomaly like this couldn't possibly be stable on its own. The real question is, do we still want to be here when it becomes unstable?
How far away can you get us if we need to bail? Ying‐zhi thought, directing the question at Oda, rather than Ryouko.
Maybe ten kilometers, it depends on how much time I get, Oda thought, leaning onto her polearm. And how much local conditions affect me. The paths here are not ideal, too much magnetic energy twisting every which way from the pulsar. I'd do better in air or simple vacuum.
She paused, making sure the others got that point. As pulsars went this one was tame, but its magnetic field density was still appreciable, even at several hundred kilometers.
Any idea what this thing is? Oda asked, finally.
A topological discontinuity, a lack of space‐time, Clarisse thought, filling in for Ryouko when she didn't immediately say anything. It stands to reason, if they're mining out pieces of space‐time, though why they'd keep the hole around is anyone's guess.
Ryouko was as surprised as anyone at Clarisse's statement, but it rang true to her when she heard it. Staring at the object—if it could even be called that—she had the distinct sense it could not be teleported into, not only because she was blocked or because it was unsafe, but because there simply wasn't anywhere to go.
Still, the anomaly wasn't what was interfering with her teleportation.
By now, the rest of the team had started to clear the corridor outside. It was one thing to talk about destroying the machinery in front of them, quite another to do it. What was the best approach? By hand? With a PAYNE device? What knock‐on effects could result? Could they escape? These were the imponderable questions they and their TacComps had to answer, and that consumed precious time.
Uh, is it just me, or is the wall on the other side doing something? Oda asked.
It was not just her—the side of the chamber opposite their window, past the tentacle arms of the machinery, had clearly started to change shape, visibly distorting in a way that didn't seem correct for what had until now seemed like a solid surface.
I'm not sure I want to find out what that's about, Ying‐zhi thought. We should—
Ryouko's combat reflexes triggered, faster than she or Clarisse could even register what the stimulus had been. Neither of the other two had reacted, and their dulled movements seemed almost stationary as Ryouko found herself shoving Oda bodily towards Ying‐zhi, then ramming both of them towards the corridor doorway with sheer force.
Deprived of her teleportation, she improvised, the arbalest on her wrist materializing and firing an achingly slow bolt at the wall next to the rounded hall entryway, trailed by a length of magical string. Another arbalest materialized on her other wrist and followed suit, all of it taking place so slowly that she could watch the magical components appear one by one.
And as she retracted the string, using her crossbows to grapple them towards the exit and rest of their team, Oda and Ying‐zhi grabbing onto her instinctively, Clarisse was finally able to register that the apparent slowness wasn't all combat reflexes—they were, in fact, slowed down significantly compared to a tidal wave of confused signals arriving from the others.
The iris door to the corridor opened with ludicrous speed, one of their melee specialists moving in and out of the threshold in a blur, backing away from the distortion zone.
Ying‐zhi's barrier flashed into place and its leading edge passed through the exit, smoothing out what would have been a catastrophic transition back to normal time. As the world outside the observation room started to slow down to their speed—or more accurately, as they sped up to match the world outside—Ryouko released one of her grapples, spinning so she could see behind her.
In the viewing window, the not‐object loomed enormous, closing rapidly nearer, clearly about to pass through.
Alright, so no more niceties, Ying‐zhi thought, as they touched ground in the corridor and quickly began retreating down its length, moving fast enough to gain some distance from the void anomaly. Where is the key support machinery?
The inner walls of the chamber we saw, Azrael thought, still dragging along her alien thrall. We can try reaching the access hatch, or we can try cutting straight through the reinforced outer walls. The machinery is heavy in exotic matter; the cuts would have to be precise in depth.
Ryouko sensed something at the edge of her perception, and the discussion ended abruptly as they took evasive measures. She slammed herself flat against the ground, and minute fractions of a second later, a fusillade of lasers seared through the air above her, Ying‐zhi's emergency barrier catching a fraction of them just a tiny bit late.
Great timing, Ying‐zhi thought, as they assessed the group of alien infantry deploying at the far end of the corridor, in the direction they had been trying to run from the ominous, oncoming white disc.
Muted telepathic cursing came through a moment later and Ying‐zhi was at Azrael's side in a flash.
The combat readouts made the story clear—distracted by the concentration of maintaining a thrall, Azrael hadn't dodged fast enough, and a laser had clipped her on the side of her neck, severing a major artery. It had sealed itself almost immediately, but the smell of blood started to fill Ryouko's nose, before Clarisse tuned it away.
Ryouko doublechecked her surroundings. The circular corridor provided no side passages, no viewing panels, and no sign of the display walls that were ubiquitous in human facilities and not uncommon in squid facilities. Instead it was just… one long walkway, with alien infantry already entrenched in front, and the white void approaching behind.
She pushed herself up off the sand‐textured floor, joining the others with ranged weapons in suppressing fire. She lobbed a triplet of exploding bolts with one arm, spinning herself into a crouch. As she did so, she spotted the alien Azrael had mind‐controlled dead on the ground, some suicide implant having seized its opportunity.
Pinned, the strain of combat focused their minds. Azrael's telepathic input indicated that the force of aliens before them was substantial and in‐depth, presumably loaded with the kinds of tricks that attrited magical girls—swarming attacks, high explosives, too much firepower to dodge. They might take losses if they tried to move forward, and for a team dependent on synergy, a couple losses could easily cascade into complete disaster—a lesson mission simulations never let you forget.
At the same time, though, they couldn't stay still. The space‐time distortions contorting the corridor would reach them very soon.
They kept up their fire on the aliens, secure behind Ying‐zhi's shield, relying on the fact that their projectiles—homing, explosive, piercing—were superior. Azrael stood back up, part of her neck an apparition of Ying‐zhi's magic, glowing golden. She reached across the gap, freezing muscles, sensory organs, and minds in place with a piercing ooze that rose out of the floor.
And as the white disc behind them moved inexorably up the corridor, their melee specialists turned on the wall next to them, carving into it with ax‐hammer, spear, and sword with an implausible level of efficacy. Once a sharply‐defined block had been excavated, Oda touched it, teleporting it directly behind the shield barricade the aliens had tried to set up, right on top of the generator.
That was not the main point, of course. Alien equipment now lay partially exposed, tubes and wire and alloy, filled to the brim with exotic matter. There was no need to speculate what would happen if they destroyed it.
Gather around me, Oda thought, as the girl with the sword readied one, last destructive slash, outlined in a disquieting white.
This time, when they teleported out, Ryouko could directly perceive that Oda's teleportation wasn't at the speed of light; she could tell without looking that they were being chased by a tremendously destructive explosion, heavily dosed with spatio‐temporal effects. She could even tell what Oda had meant about magnetic energy density—they were clearly straining against something to move.
The journey was tight—length and time convulsed at their heels, far beyond the radius their TacComps had estimated, following them even into the depths of space, and it began to seem inevitable that the rising maelstrom would overtake them.
It was hard to even feel fear under the circumstances.
Then they finally found respite within another shielded mining station and reemerged back into real space, Oda dropping to one knee as her soul gem recharged.
The others raised their barriers and began prophylactically clearing the area, but quickly stopped—it was empty of hostiles, and they had destroyed what appeared to be several drone maintenance hubs.
They relaxed, slightly. It would be at least possible to catch a breath here. Alien work on the ad hoc blink cannon must have been set back temporarily. And since Oda had been forced to target a location more or less randomly, there was no intel or detailed plan beyond that.
Work drones scurried away from them in alarm, making it clear that this outpost in the Ceph's archipelagic mining infrastructure didn't even have automated defenses. Suit sensors and magic indicated no local "topological discontinuities" either, probably not a coincidence.
Still, the station rumbled around them, gravitational echoes of their earlier work, and most of the girls carefully surveyed their surroundings—drab nanocomposite walls, low ceilings, rows of drone hubs, and almost no lighting.
Ryouko, though, was focused on something else.
She still could not teleport—the effect was following her, she was certain now—but, by some fluke of magic or luck, they were nearly atop that problem's source, probably less than two hundred meters away. Not in this drone nexus, but it might very well be in the opposite half of the room below.
I know it's not our main priority, she thought, forwarding this information. But if we could take it out, then I could teleport again, and we could be a lot safer.
Also, if I may point this out, any device that's capable of blocking wormhole formation is worth at least a passing glance, Clarisse thought. It might be valuable technology.
With Oda still recuperating from the emergency teleport, the gestalt finally acceded to Ryouko's request, which now fit neatly within MagOps doctrine—once you were loud, you had to stay loud. No sense in loitering when the enemy knew both your location and much of your power lineup, and nothing else nearby offered higher prospects as an interim target—they had plenty of essential mining infrastructure left to destroy, but not nearby.
Without teleportation, though, the exact approach here mattered. Using the hallways risked another pincer trap, among other dangers, and was simply slower; far better to cut directly through the floor.
When they dropped down, accelerating sideways midair to confuse any defenders, it was to a silent reception—the few short seconds since the teleport had been enough for the Ceph to react. In the midst of what appeared to be an automated fabrication facility lay a circle of dead bodies, rapidly cooling in Ryouko's infrared vision, surrounding a piece of equipment destroyed by explosive charges. Pieces of equipment, actually; if the forensic reconstruction maps made by their TacComps were accurate, there seemed to be two.
Ryouko had felt it early, and with a pleasure tempered by the loss of intact tech—as well as the fact she hadn't gotten to personally blow it to smithereens—she teleported Ying‐zhi, Azrael, and their healer from the air directly to the fallen aliens.
The latter two dashed into action upon arrival, the healer crouching next to the most ornamented of the aliens to place her hand on its head. Magic could not ordinarily revive even the recently‐dead, but that wasn't the intent here—the Cephalopods routinely melted their core neural tissues as part of their suicide routines, and so the goal was merely to patch enough circuits together for a telepath to profitably despoil.
As the team worked, Ryouko examined the bodies, which were noticeably different even at first glance. All of them wore richly embellished tunics, stiffer than the fluid robes she had seen earlier, and on closer inspection all of them had copper‐green external implants connected to the base of the cranial shell, with cables running down the dorsal spine, altogether the size of a small backpack. These, too, lay broken on the ground, like so many eggshells.
We're discovering new aliens all the time, I guess, someone thought, in what was probably meant as a vague joke. No one laughed.
That's strange, the healer thought. This primary nerve center is far more intact than I'd expect.
I'll take luck where I can get it, Azrael thought. Or it might not be luck, given the look of these ones.
She extended a tendril of her magic, the black ooze merging with the bright blue of the healer's magic to envelop the alien's head.
Suicide implants triggered right when we arrived, as might be expected, Azrael thought, before loading the telepathic channel with a deliberately meaningful silence.
Oh, that's odd, she thought. They're not supposed to be here. One of the two devices here was a stealth device. They were hiding from the aliens on the station too.
There was a beat while the gestalt processed this rather confusing bit of information. Sabotage? The lackeys being left out of the loop once again? The aliens here did look rather important…
They weren't given much time to ponder the issue, as the main doors into the room slid open and a barrage of weapons fire and bone‐rattling explosions rang out from an assortment of assault drones, sending some of them diving instinctively for cover. Their barriers held back any real damage, and most of the drones were picked off immediately, but they'd served their purpose, buying time for more heavily‐armored infantry to dart in, taking their own cover behind the tall banks of autofabricators.
Only Azrael didn't react, seemingly lost in her thoughts, and otherwise safe behind Ying‐zhi's barrier. Her magic flickered ichor‐green for a tenth of a second, something seeming to sneak its way up the stream of her tendril.
Azrael failed to update them, or respond to a fast emergency ping, prompting the healer to lunge over and pull her physically down, even as the others engaged the alien infantry.
I've never found anything like this, Azrael thought, finally, shocked. I've never found anything like this, not from a squid. It's…
Her spoken thought trailed off, but her transmissions filled out the rest. It resembled a structured information packet, a telepathic one, of the kind that members of the Telepaths' Guild sometimes experimented with. What was it doing coming out of a non‐magical, non‐human corpse?
Moreover, and perhaps just as troubling, Azrael couldn't parse it.
Maybe you all should take a look, Azrael thought. I can relay it.
There was a long pause before anyone had a chance to look, as most of the group engaged the aliens. Ryouko had found an alcove in a far bend of the room to crouch in, and she leveled a series of shots past a group of unidentified machines, using a mixed bag of arrow types to keep her enemies from adapting. A few flew straight, piercing a camera drone trying to dive forward. A few others rounded the corner, expending themselves on alien shielding with satisfying, loud pops. One picked an incoming grenade out of the air, slapping it back to its sender.
Whatever satisfaction she might have bled from the achievement was short‐lived, however, as an Adamantium‐class alien trooper smashed through the machines near her with full shields, a massive assemblage of green‐black armor and grey‐black alloy cannon and white‐blue shield sparks intent on pummeling her with sheer momentum even if she killed it.
Silly to try that against a teleporter, she thought, tensing for a teleport‐assisted backstab—but that proved frustratingly unnecessary when Oda's lightning snapped into the alien's side with impossible momentum, sending it crashing into the sidewall with an explosive crunch. The lightning materialized as girl and spear a moment later, neatly bisecting the cannon.
Ryouko shook her head, adjusting her hearing again after all that noise, but it was just as well that Oda had intervened, because Ryouko then decided to examine Azrael's transmission.
The packet burst into her mind with a mishmash of images and knowledge, a reverie filled with technical diagrams and winding, looping symbols she somehow understood, an ice bath of data that almost triggered an involuntary gasp from the sheer overload.
Clarisse seized control of Ryouko's body and moved her further from the fight, signaling to the team that she needed cover, without explaining why.
Ryouko reeled under the onslaught, boggled by the implications of the fact that she could read it, not that the information in the packet wasn't itself stunning. The second destroyed device had been a blink interdictor, a countermeasure to blink cannons and paradox drives. They had never been deployed against humans before because there were no equivalent human technologies to counter.
By now, the others had noticed Ryouko's lack of response, or even responsiveness, her presence on the telepathic link the equivalent of empty static, her combat interface devoid of all but Clarisse's most cursory data feeds. The healer was moving to check her status when Clarisse finally gave them an update.
I can't think through it all yet myself, Clarisse thought to Ryouko, issuing a dense datagram to the network. There are too many variables. Too many things going on. But I can make a guess as to why a blink interdictor would affect you—their teleportation might work in a way similar to yours. It would make sense.
This is crazy, one of the other girls thought—or, more accurately, shouted, busy deflecting bullets with a scimitar. Have you always been able to do this?
I'm not even a telepath! Ryouko thought.
Can we arrange a pick‐up of all this? Ying‐zhi thought, addressing the distant fleet gestalt, which had already begun a painful cost‐benefit analysis. Blink interdiction would change the face of the war—but mission resources were overstretched to the point of snapping, and reverse engineering even intact Cephalopod contraptions was typically an endless nightmare.
As an added burden, if they intended to claim what remained of the equipment, they'd have to defend it, or else carry it with them as they moved. It hadn't taken the aliens long to start lobbing explosives at the material; it was possible that was even their main goal here. Heavier weapons might not be far behind.
And on top of all of that, Clarisse had still more to add, doing the mental equivalent of tapping Ryouko on the shoulder.
I know this is a bad time, she thought, gently, but I think this is important for you to know.
What is it? Ryouko asked, pouring every drop of her military and MSY emotional training into a placid acceptance of her TacComp's emotional and biological fiddling. On Clarisse's advice, she distracted herself by firing several barrages of homing bolts upward, hitting two Ceph in the rear of the clamorous battle.
I'll keep it as short as I can, Clarisse thought. While you were deciphering that telepathic packet, I saw a huge spike in activity from the module inside your brain. Near as I can tell, the data was all being processed there, and I detected the release of a few compounds I suspect to be novel neuromodulators.
Ryouko had no idea what to do with information like that, at a time like this.
I know, Clarisse thought. It's not something I would want to talk about right now, except it might be important for the mission and your performance. Only the commanding officers were ever even briefed on the genetic engineering done to you. I haven't told anyone about this.
Well, they already know, Azrael thought.
The two of them jerked in surprise, before Ryouko's combat instincts dampened her physical reaction and kept her on task.
Sorry, it's my job to monitor you, Azrael thought. Especially after your previous feat with the packet. I am the team telepath, after all.
We'll discuss this later, Ying‐zhi thought. We can't stay here. It won't stay secure, and Command is sending a recovery team for the goods.
With the room mostly clear, at least momentarily, Ying‐zhi manifested another barrier, enclosing the vital equipment and bodies into a shimmering golden bubble, dragging it all along the finely grained white and grey flooring, sealing them up for transport.
As she worked, the team moved into teleport formation around Oda—saving Ryouko for a potential emergency follow‐up teleport—and departed, leaving behind still‐firing Ceph amid a landscape of charred and ruined fabricators. They would head for a new mining station, with as few hostiles as possible, and try to buy some time for the recovery team.
Based on a snippet of Azrael's clairvoyance, they were able to land in a narrow storage area. It would have to do for now; they set up a perimeter, Ryouko proceeding through the standard procedure mechanically.
What do you think? Is she alright? Ying‐zhi thought immediately on arrival, making sure only Azrael and Ryouko received the thought.
Those questions carried other questions within them, like: "Can she still perform? Can she be trusted?"
I think so, Azrael thought. A magical girl can't be suborned like that. I trust her. But I can't…
The way Azrael's voice trailed off spoke volumes, and Ryouko herself leaned heavily against their healer, hidden from most of the team by a stack of alien‐sized helmets.
Now that Ryouko was looking, she could detect Azrael's mental intrusion, maybe even clamp down on it. But why? Didn't she want Azrael watching, in case whatever was in her brain did anything else?
Azrael dropped by her side, grabbing her arm to gain her attention.
She looked up at Ryouko.
I'm not trusting you just because of the mind‐reading, or because you're a magical girl, Azrael thought. I'm trusting you because I know you, and I know what you're made of, and I know that we'll be there to save you if something happens. If we can't have confidence in that, then we're lost anyway.
Ryouko wanted to believe that. She wanted to believe that her friends and comrades would support her, that her magic would protect her, that she would and should be trusted, because she was still Ryouko, and was not—not something else. It would even be good to believe that, at least for now, rather than let her mind remain choked in unresolvable fear.
But she couldn't believe it. Azrael and Clarisse could maybe believe it for her, and that would help a little, but no more.
Asami, maybe, could make her feel better. But the damn squid—
—are right outside the doorway, Clarisse thought, referencing Ying‐zhi's frantic signals. You need to focus, girl.
Ryouko tried to, and followed the hurried decision of the team leaders. They had two options: flee again, and make it more difficult for the recovery team to reach them, or stay and fight.
They chose to fight, which suited Ryouko just fine, and this time, before the doors even opened, Ryouko had teleported half her team to a room across the hall, already firing. Bolts and beams shimmered through the walls and into the aliens from both sides as they blasted through the original doorway and tried to pour in.
Before either side could do anything more, though, the Ceph were swallowed by a burst of searing scarlet light, bright enough even behind fully opaque composite that Ryouko glanced aside to protect her eyes and optical sensors.
Three magical girls appeared then in the doorway, blowing off a puff of smoke. Stealth magic, Ryouko belatedly realized.
Thought you could use a little help, Patricia von Rohr thought, as the teams united amid a passage strewn with ichor and chunks of squid. We're the pick‐up crew.
Three girls was decidedly below the standard team size, and Ryouko struggled to maintain her composure as she reviewed why: Patricia's team had taken half‐casualties, losing two girls and a body to the same kind of white void that had nearly trapped her team earlier.
For all that, she couldn't see any of it on their faces.
Patricia's stealth generator and teleporter, Mina Guyure, claimed the goods from Ying‐zhi. The two Orpheus veterans knew each other's powers well, and Mina had little trouble grasping Ying‐zhi's bubble and vanishing it with a gesture, teleporting it to the safety of a ship. Ryouko couldn't help but feel a little jealous—teleporting items without teleporting yourself too could be dead‐effective in combat.
As Mina prepared to go, though, leaving Patricia behind as a new member of Ryouko's team, the fleet gestalt sent a rare explicit directive.
〈Enemy reinforcements are arriving in outer orbit, and remaining gravity modulators cannot be destroyed in time. All orders will be reconfigured for full assault on mines proper to stabilize the wormhole and delay blink cannon construction. When the wormhole is traversable, immediately abort.〉
They were losing.
The conclusion was unavoidable now, as Maki watched one of Kyouko's clones strip the soul gem from yet another of her fellow magical girls.
Maki tried not to think about what the girl's radiation‐ravaged body looked like.
She couldn't help but feel frustrated. She knew that with her decoy ships, missiles, and magical girls she was arguably doing more than most of the girls here, but that was a scant glory when Yuma's squad was already on their third stolen frigate. Whatever she was doing, it wasn't enough.
Maki took a moment to get a grip on her emotions, waving aside a suggestion by her TacComp for emotional suppression.
She was fine, she thought. She lacked Kyouko's experience, but she had the same training as everyone else. The bad news had simply stacked up—the aliens had more hard radiation bombs than normal, the MSY paramilitary ships melted under Sarissa lasers like summer ice, the squid had learned to instantly surround any frigate Yuma approached…
Most galling, part of the problem was that the younger magical girls simply hadn't performed as expected—including herself. There had been reasons they weren't on the front lines.
She contained her rage, twisting on one of her dual swords with force that would have wrung a mammoth's neck.
Their chances were very poor now, and the gestalt couldn't come up with a better plan than stalling until, maybe, the aliens just quit, either for lack of fuel or the nearing human reinforcements. Yenisei lay between Cephalopod space and the battle, so if the aliens wanted to escape they would need to give its forces a wide berth.
Status? Kyouko asked the gestalt, the message echoed by her phalanx of clones.
Still twenty minutes out, Kana thought. Not soon enough. We've been promised an advance wave of Ascalon missiles, but…
There was no need to finish the thought.
Maki cringed as a focused barrage of lasers flashed toward Kyouko's position. Forewarned by Charlotte, Maki was able to summon a giant black sheet facing that general direction, and some drones from a commandeered ship were able to zip into position—
—but it wasn't quite enough, as she watched Kyouko lose another of her clones.
It was just a clone, but Maki knew on several grounds that they were realer than Kyouko ever let on. At some level, Kyouko remembered those deaths, even if she was good at screening it out.
Perhaps more importantly right now, clones were expensive for Kyouko to make, and a grief cube shortage was not a weight they could bear.
She watched—admired was perhaps more accurate—as Kyouko weaved her way out of a few more blasts, though her admiration was dimmed by the realization that Kyouko had been protected by a point‐defense blast from Yuma's alien frigate.
The stellar performance of the commandeered ship was almost mocking, an active reminder of just how outmatched they had been. Why were the alien ships so good?
Sensing that Kyouko needed help, Maki sent her ship apparition towards her, giving her a seemingly solid object that could screen an escape. Kyouko noticed immediately, and a good number of her clones pushed themselves onto the safe side of the ship to regroup.
They emerged on the other side of the ship a renewed force, showing no hesitation about going back in.
If it's the Goddess's will I die here, then so be it, but I'm going to get you all back home! Kyouko shouted.
Maki couldn't watch, though, as she found herself hunted by a pack of alien missiles, of which the damn squid frigates had an apparently bottomless supply, even though their fighters were out. Deprived of their original target, someone on the alien side had found the time to manually retarget them around Maki's ghost ship.
She summoned a platform of paint beneath her, turning it into a small rocket as she managed her evasion, letting concentration on her decoy ship slip a little—
Her world spiraled out of focus briefly, as something struck her side, and she instinctively detached herself from the pain, losing control of herself for a long moment.
Four point four seconds, to be exact, when she resynchronized, finding one of Kyouko's clones holding onto her. She had abandoned her position to come back for Maki.
I'm… fine, Maki thought, and she meant it, assessing the damage, her abdomen in tatters from the shrapnel of a close‐detonating missile.
Kyouko looked skeptical, but a flash of green arrived before she could say anything, flung into place by Nadya's unmatched telekinesis.
She'll be fine, Yuma thought. I'll heal her. Go!
Kyouko's clone hesitated for a moment, then turned and flew away.
Maki was glad.
Yuma distracted herself from her anger by focusing on her healing.
That idiot! she thought. She had told Kyouko not to get herself killed, and here Kyouko was, cut to pieces left and right, charging into battle yelling things about her Goddess, getting distracted by her girlfr—
Yuma, Kana thought.
What is it? Yuma asked, making an effort to keep her emotions from leaking in.
The alien bombers aren't gone. I've been searching the area around us and I saw a past‐vision of them refueling and rearming with Raptors at a cloaked supply ship. I'm informing the gestalt in half a second, and I need you to have a response plan ready. The younger girls don't need the chance to panic.