"The will of the Goddess manifests itself in many ways: in the fire and lightning of our army, in the protection she gives to deliver us from darkness, but in no way more strongly than in the hope that she plants in the hearts of mankind." – First Prophet of the Goddess.
Genesis, Diana decided, scored a very solid six on her "middle-of-nowhere" scale. While it lacked the more nuanced indicators of unimportance that the poorer colonies possessed—vaguely colored tap water, faulty interplanetary communications lines, and the ever-present whir of ongoing terraforming projects—it did very well in the "general air of hopelessness" field, and Diana could hardly ignore the fact that the vast majority of the populace was seemingly comprised of Hierocracy officials, off-duty military personnel, or drunkards.
Well, that wasn't fair. Diana knew that she had only labeled the suspicious teenager sprawled opposite her in the shuttle terminal a "broke drunkard" because it was a conveniently simple explanation. Really, if she looked closer, despite the unidentifiable stains on the boy's shirt and the uncombed mess of his hair, "drunkard" didn't add up. He wasn't really acting drunk, his clothing was in the unmistakable red-and-white fashion typical of somebody with a daddy in the Hierocracy, and he looked too well-fed to pass for a colonist.
The kid shifted as Diana passed her gaze over him a second time. Like a daddy-long-legs curling up, he drew his lanky arms and legs a bit closer into himself each time he moved. It was moderately amusing, and Diana had to suppress a chuckle.
Yawning, Diana craned her neck around, making a show out of examining the mostly-empty terminal. The only thing keeping her here was her late shuttle. "So, why were you hiding from those Hierocracy guys? Did you kill a man or something?"
The teenager looked up. He seemed older than Diana, too old for her high school, and now that Diana had a closer look at his features, he was definitely Japanese, which only made it more likely that he was some rich boy with Hierocracy connections. Clearly he had gotten himself into some shenanigans, and now he was stranded in some backwater colony for some stupid reason.
Yeah, that made sense.
The teenager rubbed his glasses with the cuff of his dirty robes. "Yes, I am hiding from the Hierocracy at the moment, though I doubt that the men and women who came earlier were specifically looking for me. And I also doubt that you are actually looking for an answer as to why I'm hiding."
Diana shrugged. "Well, no. It just seemed good etiquette to ask. I wanted to properly acknowledge the blatant mysteriousness of the situation. It only, uh, seemed proper to, you know…"
Diana trailed off, waving her hands vaguely in the air. "Yeah. Anyways."
The teenager sighed. "So why are you here?"
"School. Real stimulating stuff, let me assure you."
"You have classmates?"
"Art club only."
"And the other members of the art club?"
"The art club is too cool for there to be any other members besides me."
The teenager nodded. "Oh."
"If we're going to be playing the questions game," Diana said, "it's only fair that I at least get to make guesses, right? You're here because, uh, you're a radical, even though you're probably from a core sector, given that you're Japanese, which means that you're one of those weird core radicals who doesn't really have anything to complain about. A pacifist, maybe?"
"I wouldn't joke about that," the teenager said, limbs once again moving a bit closer to his body. There was an almost audible ping as Diana's words bounced off of the teenager's armor.
Diana shrugged. "Well, I mean, you never know. We're pretty far from Earth right now. Himmelsschloss authority sure isn't as potent out here. Admittedly, though, I sure as fuck don't really know much about what I'm saying right now. You aren't some sort of heretic, right?"
"I could teach you canonized litanies to recite at noon so obscure that you've never heard of them in your entire life."
"Hierocracy kid. Right. Gotcha," Diana said. "Well, sorry. It was hard not to notice. The last place I was at was closer politically to the Hierocracy, which was probably where the funding for the neo-realist exhibitions came from. But, hey, you go here, and the only reason anybody who's not a native looks like a Hierocrat or a soldier is because the only goddamn purpose this place has is as a travel stopover. I wouldn't be surprised if you could whisper a couple heretical thoughts around here and not get thrown into a cell."
The teenager snorted, moving his limbs away from his body for the first time as he crossed his arms. "Would you?"
"Probably not. I'm too disinterested, now that I think about it."
"That's what I thought," the teenager said. "Don't try to be too witty or clever. It doesn't work as well when you, by your own admission, don't really know what you're talking about. You might think that some backwater colony has limited Hierocratic influence. But it's impossible to truly separate yourself from the Hierocracy unless you actually board something extremely illegal and make your way to a Separatist world. Which, of course, you haven't."
Diana stuck out a tongue. "You never know, Mr. Know-it-all."
The teenager, disinterested in replying, slumped a little bit deeper into his chair and stopped speaking. Behind the thin metal rims of the teenager's glasses, Diana could see his gaze gradually slide back and forth between the terminal's doors. Occasionally he would glance back at Diana and then look away just as quickly, in quick succession identifying the looming silence between them, feeling the urge to fill it, and then failing to come up with any meaningful discussion. Diana shrugged and yawned. She didn't care enough about the kid to continue interacting with him any further. He was just another person, one of several dozen billion that lived their lives in the galaxy, and all Diana felt obliged to do with them was make the sophomoric remarks.
There was a rustle of motion as the teenager turned around in his chair to check the time. Diana's own shuttle back to Mars was scheduled to arrive nearly half an hour ago. At first, Diana had shrugged and continued to laze about, but such a delay was definitely abnormal enough to shake her out of her snug shell of apathy.
Reaching into her backpack, Diana retrieved her computer. Her eyes rested on the insignia printed on the side of the computer: a hammer, with a long, flowing tassel attached to the end, encircling a gilded gemstone. Modern computers were engineered and manufactured by the Hearth. Even the rarest AI could trace its origins to the military's need to calculate firing solutions between two ships light-seconds apart both moving at fractions of c. All holographic 3D displays had originally been used on starship bridges by commanders who needed to account for the third dimension. It was one of the pieces of trivia that she had absorbed: something sufficiently obscure and scientifically relevant to be considered "witty." Acting smart didn't really work without being smart.
Brow furrowed, Diana began to investigate the source of the delay. Ordinarily, the Hierocracy bulletin in front of her would have informed her of the inconvenience, but no such notice appeared. Nothing on the local news channels seemed to indicate anything unusual about the Genesis travel network, either.
"Weird," she muttered. "What the hell's going on?"
With a cheerful chime, the bulletin board in front of her flickered on. Words began crawling across the screen while simultaneously being played on the PA system: "A planet-wide shutdown in transportation is underway. It is unknown when transportation will recommence. Please await further instructions. Remain calm and hold the faith."
Diana blinked. "Well, this isn't suspicious at all."
The teenager's body stiffened as the message ended. "Something's wrong."
"No, I'm sure there isn't a problem at all. What are you talking about?"
Abruptly, the teenager stood. "Excuse me for a moment." As he left his chair, he slipped a communications device around his ear. After moving some distance away from Diana, not that it really mattered, a small red light on the communications device blinked on. Diana could see his eyes slip out of focus. She had never seen anybody manage to pay much attention to their surroundings while engrossed in the voices bouncing around inside their head. A few magical girls, maybe, but everybody else was very single-minded.
Diana didn't feel any shame as she stared at the teenager. She had an excuse: she was bored, and something evidently interesting was taking place. Her life wasn't idyllic enough for her to savor it and guard it jealously from any possible disturbance: if she wallowed in self-doubt enough, she could realize that she didn't have that many friends, that she lacked drive, that she was all too complacent with her flaws. But it certainly wasn't boring enough for her to long for release from an imaginary prison. What fulfillment might she seek when the hole in her life was small enough that nobody well-adjusted was ever bothered by it?
The suffering of the world, she thought, was too far away to make an impact. She placed suffering on her lips during her daily prayers, and she had hope and its promised relief placed into her ears and eyes in Hierocracy-issued pamphlets and textbooks and broadcasts. It was just an idea that she knew had practical applications, like the Goddess, or hope, or salvation, but none of it would ever apply to her, no matter what she was told. She was too cynical to believe them and too opportunistic to not take the more outlandish of the Hierocracy's words and mock them. She knew that ultimately, she made herself too cynical to take suffering—that catch-all rallying cry, that driving purpose—seriously.
It had moved Prophets and soldiers and a Goddess, but she didn't believe that it would ever move her.
The teenager was agitated. Diana could see his lips uncurl for a second, baring the teeth underneath, and she could see his temples shift as his molars grinded. As Diana continued staring—and now she couldn't help but feel the tiniest bit ashamed (I'm such a stalker this is seriously creepy)—something else slid itself under the anger. It made the teenager's actions and gestures more wild, his posture looser, and his hands more jittery. It was panic, which was gradually precipitating into fear.
The communications device blinked off. "Hey," Diana said, rising out of her seat, "let's, uh, skip the part where you tell me that something's wrong, or the part where I have to ask you if something's wrong, and go right to the one where you tell me what's wrong."
"Will you believe my words?"
"Identify yourself first. This could all be one very elaborate prank, and I don't want to play the sucker's role."
Reaching into robes, the teenager withdrew a small, unassuming ring, not adorned with any jewelry or visible engravings. "What do you think the odds are that I have stolen this ring?"
Diana's eyes widened. "Extremely low. So you actually are some high-ranking Hierocracy official?"
"I am related."
"Well if you're just some Hierocracy official's kid, then that doesn't make me trust you all that much. Tell me your name."
"If I am devout enough to carry this ring, then I have no reason to hurt you. At the very worst, this will end up being an embarrassing waste of time for you."
Diana shrugged. "Is it really too much to ask for your name?"
The teenager's eyes jumped upwards to the ceiling. For a moment, he was silent. Then, he moved his eyes back to Diana and spoke. "You are different in some ways, granted, but you still maintain the same religion as the rest of humanity. I cannot tell you my name. I will be having no martyrs on this day."
"Oh, that's nice," Diana said, staring back with a flat gloss in her eyes. "I mean, it's not like everything would be easier if you just told me who you were. Sorry, but when you combine that sort of excuse with your looks and your sealed lips, it only makes people more curious."
"I'll tell you my full name later. For now, call me Yoshio. You need to trust me, believe me, and do exactly as I say. Do you understand?"
Yoshio's voice, never wavering once, was flat and level. He was trying too hard to cover up. Diana knew that his red-and-white robes didn't denote a member of the military. This was a boy, dressed in the clothes of a bigger man, who, by the random number generator of fate, had happened upon the right information or circumstances. Somehow, something was spiraling out of control, and there was nothing this boy could do but talk to her about it.
It was hard to feel detached now. It was hard to be cynical. Diana was fairly certain that the appropriate response was fear.
"Soon, the military will call for an evacuation of the entire planet. Magical girls will be deployed to aid in the evacuation. People will panic, and not all of them will make it out. I am guaranteed to make it to a safe location, so you will be coming with me."
Diana swallowed. "Why is Genesis being evacuated?"
"An attack is coming."
"Even a planet like this has a defense fleet. If the rebels are stupid enough to launch an all-out assault on a planet owned by the Hierocracy, we should still be able to chase them off."
"The attackers are not rebels. They contradict all expectations and prior human knowledge. That is why I cannot tell you anything: because what I can tell you is only conjecture, and neither of us needs that right now."
Diana nodded slowly. She was in a classroom, and her mind was being stuffed with information that displaced what had previously occupied that space. Fifteen minutes ago, life was predictable. Now, she was being given instructions like the planet was about to abruptly stop turning. At least, fifteen minutes ago, life had seemed predictable. Diana, after some thinking, came to the conclusion that order had been thrown into chaos some time ago, and only now the actual effects of whatever great cataclysm had shaken the foundations of life could be felt.
"I am going to meet with the military at a rendezvous point. They don't know you're here, with me, but they will let you evacuate with me."
Diana threw up her hands. "Woah, wait, okay, I've been following along pretty well so far, and I've been doing the whole 'trust you' thing, but why is the military going to let some random teenage girl get on with them?"
"They will listen to me."
"Are we going to have to waste time arguing with the military—"
"They will listen to me."
Diana was silent as she followed Yoshio out of the shuttle port. About her in the streets, people hurried along and leaned against the sides of buildings. Vehicles moved up and down and left to right along airways and roads. The towers were shorter and not as shiny as the ones on Earth, but they still displayed red and white roses on the flags unfurled on the rooftops. Diana could delude herself into believing that they were on Earth, light-years away from insurrectionists, nestled between row after row of world-fortresses capable of deploying an endless legion of glowing starships at a moment's notice.
As much as she liked to be apathetic or put on apathy's veneer when disinterest fashionably suited the topic at hand, Diana still had her trivia. And as much as she liked to pretend that what she read didn't scare her, once she managed to see the words not as projected casualty numbers but as actual corpses, she was scared. She knew how well-protected Earth was, so she knew how much she and her companion were not protected at the moment.
Everything was loud. The air was stuffed with noise, even in a backwater like this, with turbines and personal transports and miasma containment centers, and Diana tried to wade through the useless filler to hear something that might indicate an incongruity or a disturbance. There was nothing.
Yoshio had somehow managed to commandeer a transport for the two of them. There was another symbol printed on the side: the same gilded soul gem nestled in the hilt of a two-edged sword. Diana was vaguely familiar with the specific details of the intertwined origins of the Hearth and the Armada, enough to know why the two military organizations had similar insignias.
"Get in," Yoshio said, opening a door. "I'll drive."
"Where'd you learn how?"
"That is really not an issue of any concern."
The vehicle jolted forwards and upwards, driving Diana back into her seat. "This is your first time doing this, isn't it? You're like some awkward high school virgin, except when you fuck up we both die."
"That's a bit overdramatic, isn't it?"
"Look," Diana said, putting a hand against the vehicle's door to steady herself, "don't pull this bullshit with me, okay? You've spent the last half hour telling me that I have to trust you, that something is about to attack this colony—I have the right to be stressed out and worried, okay? Can we agree on that? For fuck's sake."
Diana turned her head away from Yoshio. "Sorry."
"Both of us are going to be fine."
"How can you say that so easily? Yeah, we're going to be fine, just ignore the fact that I'm traveling with some stranger, while apparently the world is falling apart around us, even though everyone is walking the fuck along like everything's all right. Aren't these people—"
Around them, gigantic display screens plastered across the building walls flashed to life. It was the evacuation order, just as Yoshio had predicted. The people in the streets below reacted with confusion, but order rapidly took precedence. Evacuation orders were very specific. The people had instructions to follow.
The brief thought that the people looked like ants from up high flitted through Diana's mind. Then, she felt disgusted with herself. They were people, human beings, who were most likely disoriented and scared for their lives. And they could think, too, which made the fear all the more real, didn't it? If people could think, then they could know, with very real certainty, that death was the end.
Diana felt her palms itch. Her fingers felt too rigid, and her joints too frozen, for her to move to scratch.
"We," Yoshio said, repeating himself, "are going to be fine. You believe me, right? 'The Prophet turned to the lost and the broken, preyed upon by despair, and said, 'Fear not, for I bear message from on high that salvation is near. Doubt not, for doubt yields to weakness and surrender. Believe, for the words placed on my lips by the Goddess tell you that good shall prevail.'"
"Scripture?" Diana asked.
We are going to be fine, Diana repeated to herself.
The transport sped past a church. Diana craned her neck to look at the edifice of white marble and stained glass. Towering behind the main church, twin containment chambers rumbled as wall after wall of prayer-enhanced, miasma-suppressing bunker slid into place as per evacuation protocol.
"Have you ever seen one?" she asked.
Yoshio's nose scrunched up. "Yes."
"Why aren't your eyes hollow, black husks, and why isn't your mind a tortured hellscape of pain and trauma?"
Diana didn't inflect at all as she delivered her lines, and only returned the flat, unamused stare that Yoshio gave her.
"You doubt what the Hierocracy has to say about demons? They are very ugly," Yoshio said.
"A demon doesn't look ugly in a picture."
"You're not stupid. You know why it doesn't look ugly. You're just leading me along."
Diana sank a bit into her seat. "Yeah."
There was nothing but the hum of the transport's engines for a while.
"You need propaganda to scare people," Yoshio said, "because they need to be scared. A demon does not look scary or ugly in a picture. It does not look evil. Behind a pane of reinforced glass, though, a demon is very real. A facsimile cannot replicate, nor can words convey, how a demon is ugly. It is worse for the magical girls."
"Yes. Another purpose that propaganda serves is to dispel rumors and lies while disseminating the truth. Much of what you know about demons is either a distorted truth or an unashamed lie. Magical girls could always see demons better than humans. Even after the war with them—"
"Even though you're nominally religious," Yoshio said, shaking his head, "you're still a skeptic."
"No, I'm perfectly willing to believe every claim regardless of substantiation that the Hierocracy makes."
"There is evidence. Even if every human alive during that period is now dead, the Incubators confirm that the demons were in hiding before the revelation of the Goddess."
"I wouldn't be able to tell if an Incubator was sitting on my lap right now. How is that supposed to be valid evidence for me? Is 'have faith' supposed to be the answer to every question?"
Yoshio remained silent. "No, it's not."
The theological debate provided a momentary distraction for Diana. When speaking or arguing, she could let the words take precedence over the mind. Theological debate, in her experience, never presented any questions that would require her to use the mind as opposed to the mouth.
Klaxons sounding throughout the city shocked Diana out of her unthinking haze. Evacuation centers were locking down. The skies remained calm and unperturbed.
Diana tried retreating into her mind, but found no comfort there.
Yoshio took his eyes off the transport's controls to examine Diana. "There is," he said, "yet another benefit to Hierocracy propaganda. 'Have faith' is not the answer. It has never has been. The faith practiced by fools who draw blinds about their eyes to hide their impotency—the blind faith—cannot be an answer. But faith, whether or not it is blind, keeps people comfortable."
Frowning slightly, Diana narrowed her eyes at Yoshio. "I don't want to be comfortable," she said, her words sharpened around the edges. "I want to be fucking informed."
"Yes," Yoshio said. "That is what most people say."
Diana turned her head to examine the outside scenery. "When are we going to get to your rendezvous point?"
"In about ten minutes. The base isn't located near a major population center."
"We go off-world, right?"
"As soon as possible, yes."
"So what happens to all the people we leave behind?"
Yoshio looked away from Diana. He drew into himself, like he was the recluse from the shuttle terminal again. "There are ships going off-world attached to the evacuation centers."
"And the people who stay on-world?" A perverse sense of curiosity drove Diana forward, prompting her to ask question after question. "What about them?"
"Please," Yoshio said, his eyes a film of regret, "don't make me say what you already know."
The black shadow of death hovered over Diana for the rest of the trip to the rendezvous point. She tried to ignore it, and she tried to mock herself for it. Neither worked. All the wit in the world was useless to suppress the fear of death. In a moment of desperation, Diana reached for faith—offered up some prayer to a Goddess that might not even have been listening—and found nothing.
Military personnel swarmed around the transport as it landed. One of them gave Yoshio a questioning look as Diana followed the teenager out of the door.
Yoshio fixed the man with a hard look. "She's with me."
"As you wish."
Yoshio turned to Diana. "See?" he whispered. "No hassle."
"Who the hell are you?" Diana asked. "'My Lord?' If he's addressing you like that, what the hell are you doing on some Goddess-forsaken colony world?"
His mouth slightly open in surprise, Yoshio looked away from Diana. His posture, previously straight and erect, slumped low. "It is a complicated story."
The soldiers gathered around the pair abruptly stopped speaking amongst themselves. Diana looked around to find whatever had attracted the soldiers' attention.
Someone had entered the hangar. Her shoulders were pulled back, her lips were drawn in a thin, solid line, and her steps clacked against the stone floor.
Her face seemed to have been taken from a forge and then plastered onto a human being. Short-cropped blonde hair framed her face. All the men in the room were taller than her, though Diana noted that she herself was still shorter. The girl would have looked ridiculous in the uniform worn by grown men, so she wore a military tunic of purple.
The uniform of the men was a dark, striking navy blue, with collars and caps to confer significance and professionalism and formality. Most of all, it spoke of strength. The men of the military wanted the world to know that their profession was operating the arks of war.
The uniform of the girls was a softer purple, without medals, and without much decoration. On a practical level, it would've been absurd to transform from one decorative outfit to another, so the uniform was kept simple. It didn't convey grit; instead it conveyed wonder and awe. These were not the dirty soldiers.
The magical girls—the mahou shoujo—were pure and clean, for they, said the men at the pulpits, were the Will of a benevolent goddess, and they, along with the words of the Prophets, would lead the human race out of despair.
Their gazes glancing downwards in deference, the soldiers murmured their respects as the girl approached Diana and Yoshio. Diana guessed that she and the magical girl were about the same age. As the magical girl drew closer, Diana shifted a bit in discomfort—it was hard not to feel inadequate. She wasn't enough of a special snowflake (doomed to bear the burden of despair, and in that burden, elevated to greatness) to warrant an Incubator seeking her out and recruiting her. Volunteering to join the mahou shoujo was, well—
Yoshio had said it earlier. He wasn't having any martyrs. Neither was Diana.
As the girl drew nearer, Yoshio himself didn't bow his head. Instead, he stepped forwards and, after a moment of halting hesitation, extended a hand.
The magical girl smoothly took it in her own, smaller hand. "Christine McDonnell," she said. Diana watched as Yoshio's eyes were drawn to the ring on Christine's hand, before he quickly glanced back up at the girl's face.
"I've been tasked with bringing you home," she said. "Forgive me if I behave strangely, because this entire situation is very strange to me. If you, my Lord, were in any branch of the military, I'd be brining you home in chains. Instead, I'm doing it on a flying carpet."
Yoshio bristled for a second, before the fight crawled out of him and he returned to his previously hunched posture.
"And you're bringing along a stray."
"I'm not a stray," Diana said, her voice a note too shrill. A second passed, and then she took a step back. "Ma'am."
Christine shrugged. "You coming along has absolutely no practical impact on the operation, so as long as you stay out of the way, I couldn't care less whether or not she boards. That being said, it'd be in your best interests to follow us."
A second passed in silence before Diana nodded. "All right."
"Very well," Christine said. She turned to Yoshio and glanced up and down the teenager's lanky, skinny frame. "This way, my Lord."
A twinge of discomfort shot through Diana. She didn't vocalize her complaints, but given that she was being associated with Yoshio, she would prefer that he actually displayed a spine. Christine wasn't mocking him—Diana was certain that whatever position Yoshio held in the Hierocracy would make that some form of heresy—but the undercurrent in the words was there, woven in by a girl disdainful of two people wasting her time.
The two of them were led deeper into the military installation that they had landed at. They moved through a swarm of activity, as technicians and gunners dressed in their work uniforms hurried along with places to go, and the occasional girl dressed in the purple tunic paused momentarily to acknowledge Christine. The facility was austere, aesthetically clean, and visually powerful, with towering bunkers and hangars visible outside the windows. Diana noted all of this as she let her eyes wander the halls. She was moderately familiar with the architecture that the military endorsed—its history, how it had been developed by those select magical girls, whose influence grew within the military, with artistic inclinations…
That was art: a statement, an interpretation of reality. It was something to analyze. It required thought.
Diana didn't share her interests with anyone, though. That would be pretentious.
Behind her, Yoshio looked uneasy. Diana nudged him with her elbow. His face pale, Yoshio looked up.
The military personnel surrounding them emanated a vaguely intrusive air, so she only raised an eyebrow to communicate her concern. Yoshio seemed to only look sicker.
"What is it?" Christine asked, noticing Yoshio. Her steps picked up in frequency. "Is there a problem?"
"A hunch. The implications of the hunch are unknown to me, though."
Diana couldn't help herself. "Yoshio, are you really going to be uselessly vague to the military as well?"
"I am not being uselessly vague. I am just letting you know that, somewhere, right now, through nonspecific means, the situation we are in has become measurably worse. I do not know where, or why, or how."
Christine's jaw tensed. "Duly noted."
"We are heading towards an orbit-capable transport, correct?" Yoshio asked.
"And have you notified the civilian population that there is an attack?"
Christine sighed. "I'm not going to rehash an argument that people more clever than us have had dozens of times in the past. You know that we haven't. Are you uncomfortable with it?"
Blind faith, Diana thought, that the Hierocracy and the military will keep the civilians safe.
Fear gripped her limbs, and she stumbled forwards as her feet tripped over themselves. Biting her tongue, Diana stared straight ahead, ignoring Yoshio's querying look.
We are going to be fine.
Word placed on lips—what did any of it mean? If the promise of salvation had no practical backing, then what use did conviction have? How did the words stand without action?
Finally, Yoshio answered. "We should be doing more for them," he said. "We are the ones who promised to save them. That being said, yes, I am uncomfortable, but I will not stop you."
Christine blinked in surprise. "Well, yes. We should…"
The rest of her speech trailed off unintelligibly. Christine's eyes searched Yoshio.
Yoshio didn't flinch under her eyes, until one of the soldiers cleared his throat as they stepped through doors leading outside of the facility and declared, "We're here." The words seemed to shock Yoshio out of whatever trance he had fallen into, and a second later he averted his gaze to the floor.
"Huh," Christine muttered once Yoshio had looked away, scratching the back of her head.
Half an hour later, Diana and Yoshio had been escorted to one of the living quarters aboard the ship. The room occupied that comfortable zone between overstuffed and barren, with a couple religious icons and texts decorating the walls and shelves.
Christine busied herself by keeping watch outside. Occasionally, Diana would peek outside and see the communications device strapped to the magical girl's ear glowing red.
Across from her, Yoshio sat, rigid and frozen, against a hard-backed chair. His fists were clenched tight, and his face seemed paler than ever.
"Is there something wrong, my Lord?"
Diana turned around to see Christine standing at the doorway, arms crossed.
Yoshio rubbed his face in his hands. "I do not know. I feel terrible, though."
"No kidding," Diana said. "Seriously, what's gotten into you? Ever since the shuttle port…"
"I will be fine," Yoshio said, shaking his head. "It's—"
Yoshio's eyes widened as he gasped in pain, suddenly grasping at his head. A moment later, the door slid open and an Incubator walked in.
Diana's eyes flitted between Yoshio, still clearly pained, and the Incubator, which slowly, deliberately lowered its haunches onto the floor of the spaceship.
Silence reigned inside the room for almost a minute. Diana was too confused to open her mouth to say anything. The only motion was the Incubator's too-fluffy-to-be-biologically-plausible tail. Diana occasionally brought herself to stare at the thing, but she found herself looking away as soon as she made "contact" with the glossy painted marbles that were supposed to pass for eyes.
-and this one will be important.
Diana started up in alarm. "What?"
The voice that spoke in her mind was some squeaky, saccharine affair, like someone had dipped an automated AI voice inside a vat filled with rainbows and suffocated pet squirrels. Diana's eyes instantly flitted to the Incubator.
"I...you were speaking telepathically?"
Immediately after the words came out of her mouth, Diana felt like an idiot.
Yes, the Incubator said. It turned to Christine. Would you like to inform our friend?
Christine scowled. Why'd you include her, Incubator? What game are you playing?
I am not playing any games, the Incubator said. Games are an inefficient allocation of resources. I told you that she would be important.
Incubator. Diana instinctively looked at Yoshio in response to the sound of his voice inside her head. I have identified the source of the data discrepancy.
The metronome that was the Incubator's tail, swaying from side to side, abruptly paused. Have you? When the Incubators could not?
There are many things the Incubators can neither do nor know.
Christine's scowl deepened. If you two are done having your pissing match—
The demons' mutations include starship capabilities comparable to Hierocracy fleets, Yoshio said. How far away is the nearest battleship ten kilometers long or larger?
It's out of the system. The last report said that it was two hours away, Christine said, her scowl gradually giving way to a look of befuddlement. Why…
I want you to send orders to whoever's necessary to tell it to hurry up. Meanwhile, we evacuate this ship.
The Incubator hopped onto a table. Ah. We have identified the discrepancy in the demon's behavior. This is indeed an unprecedented development.
Christine walked over to confront the Incubator directly. Just what is going on?
Several points within the miasma headed towards Genesis could not be observed by the Incubators. The fact that miasma existed within interstellar space at all, light-years away from the nearest source of human emotion, was interesting enough, but this was a truly puzzling point. As it turns out, those points, which Yoshio detected, were all warships.
The Incubator licked its paw.
The demon attack force is of such size that it will easily obliterate every single ship in orbit around Genesis within one hour. Yoshio knows this. Only the inbound battleship will be able to combat them.
Two invisible hands took hold of Diana's lips and clamped them together. An incoherent buzz of white noise drowned out all sensible thought. The very real idea of her imminent death came to the forefront of her mind.
"Demons?" she asked, the words forcing themselves out of her mouth. "That's impossible. All the miasma on this planet is contained, isn't it?"
They come from deep space. It is quite the anomaly. This sort of behavior violates previously-held beliefs regarding miasma formation and demon behavior. The enemy has changed on a fundamental level. It has always been said that there are no rules regarding demons but this one: that they want to bring you all to despair and will do anything to achieve those goals. They are an enemy exactly as foolishly persistent as those who birthed them. After out-smarting the demons for centuries, it appears that they have now gained the upper hand once more. Prevailing Incubator theories concern discrete siphoning of human emotion from poorly-policed rebel colonies, something that would take, over the course of possibly centuries, the concerted efforts of several—
Shut up, Yoshio said. He stood and began to pace back and forth. After a second, he pointed at Christine, who started in surprise. How large is the battle group currently defending this system?
Christine took a moment to recover from her shock before replying, Four cruisers, seven destroyers. Additional specifications are available on the intranet, but your communications device won't be granted clearance. We'll have to swap it out if you want access to the files. I'll send a request to the on-ship Hearth representative.
Given my estimates on the size and firepower of these demons—though, admittedly, gauging how dangerous they are from flashes of vision and how sick I feel is a very imprecise practice— we can hold out for longer than one hour.
Christine's eyes flitted downwards, and her face drained of the energy and authority it had once held. Our best hope of survival is an estimate?
When my life is taken from me, I will, in whatever little time I have left, deign to conclude that I am unalterably dead. Until this event happens, and not one moment sooner, I will rightfully assume that I will continue to live beyond whatever hurdles I may face, and I will act accordingly. Your duty is to get me out of this system alive, correct?
The Incubator tilted its head, but Diana couldn't tell what the gesture signified. Was it amused, or was it questioning? Could the Incubator even be described by either of those adjectives?
Yes, my Lord. Christine answered.
Her face wasn't dark anymore. A pang of envy shot through Diana. The magical girl had certainly not been afraid for very long. The way her jaw was set, and the way her shoulders squared themselves made her hard and sharp, like steel. Yoshio, too. There's no use, Diana privately thought, in rising to a challenge only to be cut back down.
The next fifteen minutes passed by in a blur of activity. By that time, the news had spread telepathically, from Incubators invested in the continued survival of as many humans as possible, to the mahou shoujo at the top of the chain of command, down through the ranks of the soldiers manning the ship. They readied themselves for war, as firing cells were charged and primed, and engine drivers hummed to life.
Yoshio and Christine had left the room long ago. Only the Incubator remained, silently observing Diana. She toyed with the thought of conversing with the thing. There were dozens upon dozens of topics that she could subtly mock the Incubator on—how it was staring at a little girl, how it took on this arbitrarily cutesy shell, etc.—but she couldn't find it in herself to speak. She felt too cold.
Yoshio, she thought. Yoshio…
Diana didn't know why she was calling out for the teenager.
It's no use, the Incubator said, jumping off the counter that it had been sitting on and walking towards her. Only I can connect you with him, and it would be rude to distract Yoshio-chan in the middle of his preparations, wouldn't it?
Diana blinked at the use of diminutive suffix. Are you familiar with him?
Why don't you do anything to stop this? Diana asked. Can't you just erase the demons?
Sadly, the Incubators do not possess the means to directly interfere with what you experience as the universe. We must act through various media, excepting the creation process for a magical girl, wherein we utilize still-mysterious emotional energy. It is estimated that, in the event that the Incubators were to directly interfere in this conflict, irreparable structural damage would be inflicted upon the third, fourth, and fifth dimensions. As an analogy, imagine two ants locked in battle. Firing a weapon at one of them to stop the fight will kill both.
The Incubator leapt onto Diana's lap. She was too shocked to offer protest. The demons are coming. Would you like to see?
Diana's lips twitched. I'd be absolutely thrilled to witness the vaguely-referenced demons from outer space. Looking upon the face of some eldritch monstrosity would make my day.
I do not understand the human construct of sarcasm.
Slowly, Diana licked her lips. Show me.
As long as it was being shown, it wasn't being experienced. If it was on the other side of a screen, or whatever interface the Incubator would use to show the demons to her, then she could pretend that it wasn't happening to her.
As you wish, the Incubator said.
The room melted away to be replaced by the black backdrop of space, dotted with glowing stars. Far in the distance was a point of light brighter than all the others—the sun of Genesis' system. Diana was a disembodied set of sensory systems, floating in the void. She tried to look at her hands, yet nothing appeared. After the initial disorientation, the sensation was nice. She was detached from the universe, and all she had to do was observe.
Everything was quiet and still. From this far out in the system, Diana knew that it was impossible for her to see Genesis, let alone the ships orbiting it. It was as if this was some sort of meditative chamber for her to calm her nerves in.
Come and see.
Diana yelped, whirling around to pinpoint the source of the Incubator's voice. What? What is it?
As if in response, something moved in the corner of Diana's vision.
One wildly specific memory came to the forefront of Diana's mind. It was a reflex without rational backing, something that popped up uninvited. She had been seven years old, attending Religious Studies at her elementary school. The teacher was an old woman, strict and unforgiving. She didn't remember the face. She only remembered the words.
A demon, the teacher had said, was like every single bad dream you had ever had, rolled up into one horrible thing. The language had been toned down for the children's benefit, yet even so, not many of those within the class had understood. For them, and for her, praying to the Goddess was a matter of routine. It was something that they did, and the consequences were distant and easily dismissed.
As the miasma passed over her, Diana felt her mind be seized by the swirling blackness around her. It was twisted and warped, dissected and examined, before ultimately being tossed aside.
She felt cold, dark, and empty, and most of all, she felt so afraid. Teeming just beyond the feeble protection of her skin, and the even feebler boundary of her ego, was malice and hate and, worst of all, despair.
Her eyes, driven wide with horror, passed over the grotesque figure before her. Diana's own imaginary viewpoint began to shift as well, traversing the huge distances that separated the demons in mere seconds, granting her a view of the entire fleet. Arm after incorporeal arm reached out beneath vast swaths of dull-gray robes, dragging the giants closer to their destination. As the robes fluttered and gaps in the overlapping squares that hid the demons' faces appeared, Diana saw serpentine bodies, and festering wounds, and teeth, and, once, a single glowing yellow eye that twitched and jerked erratically.
What are these things? No demons are like this!
They have undergone extensive mutation. It is quite interesting.
But how? Where did they come from?
Diana looked away from the demons, closing her eyes tight.
Take me back.
When Diana opened her eyes again, she was back in the room aboard the ship. The Incubator sat before her, perched on its haunches, still staring at her with its wide, open smile.
The Incubators do not know where these demons have come from. It is certainly a mystery to us.
Klaxons began sounding throughout the ship. Diana looked up to better examine the flashing pattern that now played itself against the wall.
Why did you show me?
Shouldn't that be obvious?
Diana's jaw clenched. Answer the question, Incubator.
I want you to know the stakes. The practice of lying seems to displease humans, so I will not say that you can stop this destruction. You can certainly mitigate it, though.
Beyond the walls of the room, firing teams buzzed with activity as silent telepathic communications filled the minds of the workers. Focusing chambers were adjusted and calibrated, AI targeting supercomputers were constantly fed new data, and directions to repair or replace machinery were sent to semi-automated mechanical systems. Faith and belief had both been all very well and good for the purposes of containing and suppressing demons in the past, but that tactic had evidently failed.
Light flashed down the length of the ship, each laser cannon going off one after the other. Then, darkness and silence reigned. A quarter of a second, one half, as light invisibly raced across the vast emptiness of space. The holy fire of the Goddess' Armada traveled forth until it found its target, and then it cleansed them with fury and destruction.
The demons were torn apart by the explosions, miasma dissipating, detritus from the demons' bodies hurtled into deep space, and still they continued to come. From gaping maw and outstretched hand, beams of light poured out, lines stretching hundreds of thousands of kilometers across before hitting the human ships, slicing them into pieces.
In her room, Diana could do nothing but sit, in silence and blindness, and wait.
The other mahou shoujo you've recruited, Diana thought, were they afraid?
Diana shook her head. How can you be afraid, when you have all that power at your hands? Can you imagine it? Someone, just shaking in their boots for fear that they won't be able to protect themselves while they can blow up a fucking city block at will.
Again, I do not understand the human construct of sarcasm.
The ship shook. Yoshio and Christine, she thought. Are they all right?
Yes. Perhaps you would like to pose a more specific question. Humans are notorious for failing to recognize the pertinent queries. Too vague, too often. It is a curious phenomenon.
Will they be all right if the battle continues the way it is?
That is extremely unlikely.
In her pocket, Diana's communication device began buzzing. Puzzled, she placed it on her head. While voices began to speak into her mind, the actual auditory PA system turned on inside the room as well.
"The ship has been boarded. Military personnel will receive further instructions. To all civilians, please remain in place and hold the faith."
"Boarded?" Diana said, forgetting to use telepathy. "By what?"
Boarding is a battle strategy occasionally used by humans, so it would stand to reason that the demons would be aware of it as well. You use magical girl strike teams. What do you think the demons use? You don't think, just because they're mutated, that the miasma cannot spawn the demons you humans have grown familiar with, do you?
The Incubator contorted its leg to scratch its back. Using that human rhetorical device was quite unpleasant. Of course you think that. I had no reason to pose a question that I already knew the answer to. Kyubey is probably negatively influencing my conversational patterns.
The room rumbled, starting low, and then growing louder and louder. Almost imperceptibly, the air began to shimmer.
Outside, Diana could hear battle raging. She heard the high-pitched hum of plasma weapons, the loud bangs of explosions, and, worst of all, the tortured screams of the wounded and the dying.
You should duck, said the Incubator.
Out of the cacophony of sounds, Diana could very distinctly identify the sound of labored breathing, drawing closer and closer to the room. It was distorted, too deep to be human, and too rattling to be anything but terrifying.
Diana dove to the floor a second before a beam of light burst through the wall. For a second, everything was a blur of motion and confusion. When she looked up, the demon was still there.
There was another explosion of some sort behind her as Diana turned to run. Around her, the ship was in very predictable chaos. Fires burned, twisted and broken pieces of metal hung from the walls, and sparks flew. They hadn't put in her in a crowded area of the ship, so there weren't very many people around. She was alone.
Diana began to run, too scared to pay attention to the bolts of light zipping over her head. She had enough self-preservation to duck as a piece of the ceiling was struck by one of the bolts and sheared straight off, glowing and steaming. It fell to the ground behind her with a clatter, sending her stumbling forwards.
Somehow, the Incubator was still beside her, calmly walking along. Your worry confuses me. Escape is a very viable option, but unnecessary exhibition of the emotion panic diminishes your chances of success.
Please, go away, Diana thought.
As the demon lurched towards her, the air rippled from the strength of the demon's horrible, bass rattle. The miasma surrounding her was almost tangible, and running felt like trying to move through water.
Diana veered to the side as the ship deck immediately beneath her feet exploded, covering the hallway with smoke. She had ducked into one of the side corridors that branched throughout the ship. Pressing herself against the wall, she listened for the breathing of the demon.
At the other end of the corridor, three demons burst through the wall. After a second, they all turned to look at Diana.
Diana squeezed her eyes tight. She didn't give a fuck if it was going to hurt or not, she just didn't want it to happen at all.
A wailing scream jolted Diana out of her shock. One of the demons no longer existed from the waist up, its tattered robes now dissolving into thin air while its disembodied legs spewed miasma. The others turned to the new combatant.
One second passed in a blur of red and gold and steel humming through the air, and when it was over, only the echoing screams of the demons and their grief cubes remained.
Christine was cut and bloodied, which caught Diana's attention first. But, even leaning on the massive two-handed longsword at her side, even with the cape trailing at her back torn and stained, Diana couldn't help but be awed. She moved with grace, despite the colored armor that covered her from the neck down. As she walked towards Diana, she caught a glimpse of the symbol printed on the back of Christine's cape: a golden lion, the same color as Christine's hair.
This was the Will of the Goddess, and for a moment, Diana could believe that she would be saved.
"Are you injured?" Christine asked, breathing heavily.
Mute, Diana shook her head.
"Good," she said. Letting her sword rest at her side, Christine leaned against the wall and ran a hand through her hair. "Those bastards. They take the effort to put their weakest demons into one of those mutated ships, have it cross several hundred thousand kilometers of empty space so we don't blow the landing pods to hell with point defense—and for what? To spite us?"
Actually, this is consistent with previously documented demon behavior. Whereas a human fleet might run a boarding operation to capture high-ranking personnel, retrieve sensitive information, or secure hostages, I hypothesize that the demons are using boarding tactics for a twofold objective. First, to cause despair amongst the human ranks, thus bolstering the potency of their own miasma. Second, to deter potential magical girl strike teams from launching offensives into their controlled space, which would possibly disrupt miasma circulation among their forces. This is truly a coordinated effort by the demons, taking logistics, available firepower, and higher-thinking strategy into consideration—these demons might be demonstrating sapience. It is truly a remarkable event.
Diana slammed her head against the wall. "Goddess above, did I miss you."
With a grunt, Christine lifted herself upright once more. "Yoshio and I were separated during the fighting, and I need to find him. He was my responsibility, and if I fail to do anything else, I'm at least bringing him home safe. You're coming with me."
"No, it's cool, I think I'm pretty safe with the Incubator over here."
"Right," Christine said. "Incubator, link me up with him again."
Several seconds passed in silence, and all Diana could do was stand there, excluded from the conversation. Then, Christine nodded. "I've got his location. Come on."
Diana stood, letting the tension seep out of her body. There was still a ball of fear curled tight in her stomach, but standing next to Christine, in her costume, Diana felt her body relax. Behind them, the Incubator padded silently along, tail, as always, swishing from side to side.
As they made their way onwards, the ship creaked and groaned. The noise echoed throughout the walls, loud enough that Diana couldn't hear the demon approaching, but Christine could.
She made a step to the side, yanking Diana by the collar and moving her out of the line of fire, before dashing forwards, sword poised to lunge. With a spray of miasma, she speared the demon through the head.
Diana gaped, her limbs trembling. Before her, the demon dissolved into nothingness, leaving behind the Grief Cube.
"Are you alright?" Christine asked. Haltingly, Diana nodded.
"Good." As she started to move forwards, Christine tripped and stumbled forwards. Cursing, she braced herself against the wall with the hilt of her sword.
In the center of the hilt was a gem, glowing with a dim, faint light, like the sky marred by rain clouds. Both Christine and Diana's eyes were drawn to it, as they watched darkness swirl inside. Both girls were silent with deathly apprehension.
"Pass me that grief cube."
Without responding, Diana bent over to pick the grief cube up. She almost gasped as her fingers brushed against the obsidian surface, cold and dark and ugly. It hummed like it wanted to spring up and become alive again—to hurt her, to kill her.
"Thanks," Christine said, taking the cube from Diana. Breathing heavily, she brought the cube against her soul gem and watched as the darkness was sucked away.
They walked on, but the silence between them was heavy. Christine's face was twisted with frustration, and her steps fell heavily against the ship's deck. Still shaking slightly, Diana could barely muster the strength to firmly place her feet on the ground. Only the sounds of explosions and the ever-present hum of the laser cannons firing interspersed the walk.
Eyes firmly fixed at her feet, Diana asked, "What's it like to be a magical girl?"
There was no response for some time as Christine turned the question over. Then, she said, "It's different for everybody. There are dark parts that will hurt anyone who becomes a magical girl, and there are moments of despair. We are still human. There are parts that I don't want to tell you about, because you deserve hope, and my failure to protect you shouldn't deny you that right."
Diana rolled her eyes. "Oh, shut up. I don't have a scratch on me. I'm just—just a little nervous, okay?"
When Christine turned to look at her, Diana quickly resumed the examination of her feet.
"There are still things that are different for me alone," Christine said. "I was trained for this. The McDonnell name has served both the Hierocracy and the military for generations."
The word "nepotism" almost sprang to Diana's tongue before she bit down, hard.
"And, you know, everyone else gets magical powers along with the super strength. I got a sword. One sword," she said, waving her longsword in the air. She smiled faintly. "But, honestly, that's something that I've come to prefer over the years. It makes me more attached to the weapon, as opposed to some junk that I can just toss away."
"Could you name the sword?"
Christine frowned. "I've never thought of that."
A shout echoed through the walls, freezing both Diana and Christine in their tracks. The voice was familiar.
Christine turned to the Incubator, once again engaging in telepathic conversation. This time, it only lasted a couple moments. As Diana watched them communicate silently, the urge to demand that she listen in grew, but she didn't say anything.
"Yoshio's nearby," Christine said, hurried and jittery. "He has demons on him. We have to hurry."
She broke into a run, faster than any normal human could hope to match, and Diana began to slip behind. A few seconds later, Christine rounded a corner, moving out of Diana's sight.
"Hey, wait!" Diana shouted, speeding up. Yells and bangs echoed from the corridor up ahead, yet Diana still could not see anything. There was a pattern in the white noise that sometimes sounded like a demon's breathing. As she ran, Diana wiped her hands against her thighs.
Diana turned just in time for Yoshio to be thrown backwards, his body hurtling towards her. Squealing in surprise, Diana skidded to a halt. Yoshio slammed into the wall next to her. Rolling over, he groaned.
Yoshio's plight didn't hold Diana's interest. Her eyes were fixated on the rippling air advancing towards Yoshio, the white robes, and the outstretched hand that glowed with awful light.
A sword cleaved through the demon's shoulder, cutting diagonally down to its hip. It died instantly. "Please be more careful," Christine said.
The ceiling behind Christine caved in, sending sparks and wires scattering everywhere. To Diana, very many things happened all at once.
A demon plunged down from the floor above, hands outstretched, about to envelop Christine in its grasp. Light glowed from its eyes as it reached forwards.
Christine was a blur of motion as she whirled around, reaching for her sword, lunging ahead to stab, when the demon spontaneously exploded. Diana blinked in surprise and confusion before she turned around.
Heat radiators still glowing from the shot, the plasma cannon resting in Yoshio's hand hummed. Growling, he picked himself up. "I don't believe that I'm the only one who could stand to be a bit more cautious."
Diana blinked again. The heat radiators weren't the only things that were glowing. From Yoshio's skin, there was an almost imperceptible white radiance. He walked, now, with an air of what seemed to be authority, despite the complete lack of anything that would warrant him being in a position of authority. He was just some Hierocracy kid who had his parents' ring, who had contacts in the military because the Hierocracy didn't want to have its children murdered, who had priority for evacuation…
Embarrassment colored Diana's cheeks red and made her limbs tingle. She felt very foolish, like an ignorant child.
Clumsily, without really having a clear idea of what she was doing or why, Diana went down on her knees and bowed at Yoshio's feet. Her lips, trembling, struggled to form the proper words.
"M-my Lord," she said.
As Diana looked up, she saw the pinched look in Yoshio's face, the way he scrunched his nose and cringed and turned his head slightly away when she spoke.
"So you know," Yoshio said, his voice short and strangled.
Christine placed a hand on Yoshio's shoulder. "My Lord—"
"Please don't call me that."
Yoshio' s shoulders heaved up and down. Trembling, Yoshio violently snatched his glasses off his face. Diana caught a few traces of moisture. His cheeks flushed, Yoshio rubbed his face against his palm.
"Neither of you call me that," he said. "Especially not you, Lieutenant McDonnell. I have no desire to be elevated above the thousands of people who will die on this planet today. They struggle, just as hard as me or even harder, and they pray for hope all the more fervently, but they will die. The men and women aboard this ship who fight, stronger than I could ever hope to be, unnamed, unsung, are far more deserving."
Christine backed off, seemingly unsure of herself. In a second, though, she regained her composure.
"Well, if we're doing away with formality, you might as well call me Christine, not Lieutenant McDonnell. Being addressed by my family name is stifling, at least for me."
Yoshio took a deep breath, in and out. "All right." He turned to Diana, placing his glasses back on his face.
"Don't lay down your life for me," he said. "The title Prophet only denotes that I carry the name Kaname. Who my family members are shouldn't determine how valuable my life is. Protect yourself first."
As he spoke, the glow surrounding him died down. Diana wondered what had prompted it in the first place—scripture said that it was to provide proof of the Prophet's divinity, and sometimes to herald the manifestation of the Goddess' will. She didn't bother asking.
Diana began to sputter. "Speak for yourself," she said, gesturing at the plasma gun in Yoshio's hand. "What the hell have you been doing?"
"I would," Christine said, "feel better about myself if the person I was supposed to be protecting didn't run around blasting demons all on his own."
"I can fire this weapon. I will help fight."
"You should be staying behind me."
Yoshio placed the gun into the folds of his robes. "You should be saving yourself, but I will never convince you to abandon me. You will never convince me to stand helplessly by."
The two of them stared at each other for a bit, before Diana cleared her throat and said, "Um, if you two are done standing at impasse?"
"Right," Christine said. "Now, even though it may seem counterintuitive, the safest place for any of us to be is aboard this ship. We haven't launched any magical girl strike teams, so they're all still aboard. As long as the cannons keep firing, this ship is alive. The Incubator tells me that the extant military has set up defensive lines around the engine cores. We reach them, you two get behind the lines, and then we wait for that battleship to get inside the system. Let's go."
The ship, Diana soon realized, was very large compared to one small human being. It was much larger on the inside than it had seemed from the outside. The three of them spent much of their time crawling around the ship, Diana following one or two steps behind them, hiding in their shadow. Fires and debris blocked many of the conventional routes through the ship, and in several sections, atmosphere had been vacuumed out into space, rendering those areas uninhabitable. But even where no human being could possibly be alive, she could still hear the rattling breathes drawn by the demons.
From time to time, Diana's eyes flicked to Yoshio—Kaname Yoshio, the Prophet. She felt so stupid, and for a moment, feeling stupid was better than feeling scared. Feeling stupid happened in school to normal people who lived normal lives. Feeling scared was for times like these.
She could live with being the fool, or the sarcastic one. Making sarcastic remarks was at least something that was done by people who were not under imminent threat of death. Imagining herself as a victim made the cold fog that filled the air around ruptured hydraulics feel like a blizzard.
I am with a magical girl. She can keep me safe. Yoshio is a Prophet, descended from Kaname Tatsuya himself. He can guide me through this. I am going to be fine.
Diana stopped rubbing her arms against each other. Using herself as a security blanket felt so pathetic.
Her ears began to ring.
Yoshio froze, and Christine ground to a halt a second afterwards, looking at him quizzically. Diana brought up the rear.
"Um, is this some sort of Prophet super-sense issue?"
Yoshio shook his head.
"The ship is silent. Cannons aren't firing. Point defense and artillery share the same apertures, so point defense is down. The only thing left running is probably gravity and basic life support."
Yoshio's words were delivered monotonously, and his face was expressionless. His lips were dull and sluggish, as if they did not want to believe in the words that were being placed upon them.
Diana scrunched her pants up with her fists just to occupy her hands with something.
"That's bad, isn't it?"
"The ship is dead in space. Boarding ships that get close in have to exit firing range as soon as possible to avoid destruction. If a ship's guns are down, they don't have to worry about that."
"That doesn't matter," Christine said, cutting Yoshio off. "All it means is that we need to hurry."
Yoshio, after a bit of a pause, nodded.
In the background, Diana could hear a faint, distinct, pop.
The ship shook, invisible fingers wrapping around the entire massive girth of the vessel as if it were nothing but a toy. Diana's knees gave way, and she fell to the ground. Beside her, Christine was using her sword to maintain balance. "Hey, you okay?" she asked, extending a hand to help Diana up.
Diana's hands were clasped around her mouth. She didn't remember if she had screamed.
She took Christine's hand. "Being terrified sucks."
As she saw Christine's hands shaking, Diana realized that they were only doing so because she had grasped them with her entire shaking arm.
"It's not," Diana said, her voice catching in her throat as she made her way to her feet, "it's not that I'm only fifteen or something like that. If I had spent my entire life up until now in a war, maybe it'd be different."
Some expression passed through Christine's face. Diana couldn't identify it.
"Everything was so peaceful yesterday. Hope was a useless concept, because there was nothing that could make me despair. And now, when I need it most, I can't find it. You guys—you guys say that you're going to get us all out alive, but—but how can you say that?"
"It's what they tell me to do," Christine answered.
There was another pop, and then Diana could place the rhythm of the breathing that was bearing down upon them.
Her brain did not have enough time to process the information and warn the others before the demon was upon them, tearing through steel with its searing light, deafening Diana with an almighty, bestial roar. It was the kind of sound Diana would imagine that a person enraged would make—or maybe a person tortured, or one dying. This demon was different. It was larger, six arms emerged from its robes, and Diana could swear that she could see flashes of red amongst the squares that obscured its face.
It extended a hand and batted Yoshio to the side. He hit a wall and did not move. Growling, the demon, too tall to fit into the corridor, began crawling its way towards him.
Yelling, Christine dashed forward. One of the demon's hands shot out to intercept her. In one swift motion, she moved the arm to the side with her blade and then, to complete the arc, brought her sword slashing down through the demon's torso.
The demon roared again as the blade cut through its body. Growling, it turned its head to face Christine. For a moment, its body was bathed in light, and Diana couldn't help but be reminded of what Yoshio had looked like. Then, a beam of light, almost too fast for Diana's eyes to track, pulverized the floor at Christine's feet. The explosion made Diana scream as a wave of pressure washed over her.
Without immediate intervention, those two will almost certainly die, a voice spoke in her mind.
Groaning, Yoshio raised his weapon and fired two shots. The demon batted both of them aside before returning fire, and Yoshio only barely avoided being vaporized.
Like a ghost, the Incubator was there beside Diana. It didn't make eye contact with her, for it only sat there and waited for what it knew to be her inevitable response.
Humans always need to know the stakes, the Incubator said. Kybuey taught me that. They need to have the consequences displayed immediately before them. As if the eventual heat death of the universe wasn't enough. The concept of an "identity" makes humans so selfish. If I die, I can be replaced. Humans don't think that, even though it's true.
The battle played out before Diana. Between Christine's superhuman speed and Diana's preoccupation with the incubator, Diana could barely determine what was happening.
When she spoke in thought, everything seemed to move more slowly as her mind raced in comparison to the physical world. It felt unnatural, speaking without the physical sensation of her lips moving. Only now, when the Incubator had taken it upon itself to change her life forever, did the discrepancy become noticeable. She didn't want to think her way through a contract. That felt too insincere.
Is there a point? If I contract, will they live?
Almost assuredly yes.
Is there still a point in the long run? I'm scared and helpless. What could I possibly do to help anybody?
You will have power.
And can that power be used to ultimately defeat the demons?
I have no way of knowing that.
The demon turned towards her, its eyes flashing. Christine took advantage of her opponent's distraction to land another blow.
"What are you doing?" Christine yelled. "You have to get out of here!"
There are so many human beings alive. I'm just one teenage girl. What could I possibly do?
You could fight.
I am an Incubator. I would presume that you would fight to survive, but my perspective may very well be flawed.
Diana imagined herself standing at the edge of a cliff, and neither faith nor hope would hold her back from taking the step into uncertainty, and neither of them would break her fall when she hit bottom. Envy coursed through Diana's mind. Yoshio was a Prophet, so couldn't he talk to the Goddess? Wasn't that what Prophets did? If there was a Goddess, Diana prayed for her to speak. She wanted assurance. There was only silence.
We are going to be fine.
Diana did not feel courageous. She had no idea how Christine could wield a sword and dare fight the demons, and she had even less of an idea how Yoshio, an ordinary human being with nothing but a mundane gun, could even fight them. But, for one moment, even if she did not feel courageous, she was not afraid.
Diana was surprised when verse began reciting itself within her mind. She couldn't deny that the opiate was comforting, but she still didn't like it. Religious lessons in school never held her attention.
The Litany of Courage. Mankind will persevere, if not in body, then in spirit. The soul of the faithful will never succumb to fear, for the faithful knows in her heart that the Goddess shall protect her, and that those who take the Goddess' power shall stand beside her. The faithful is never alone, for she stands in the company of the many and the great, and so they are never truly afraid.
The drug soothed her, but she knew that sometime, she would wake up, and the spell would be gone.
"Cover me!" she shouted to Christine.
Christine growled. There were numerous cuts across her costume, bits of armor plating torn and broken, with blood dripping through the gaps. Rolling to the side, she planted herself between Diana and the demon, using her sword to block the hands and teeth that sought to crush her, bobbing and weaving to avoid incineration.
"I want to be free from fear," Diana said. "I want to find the strength to face despair and death on my own terms. Even if it's only for one moment, I don't want to be afraid in the slightest of whatever's coming."
Excellent. The contract has been initiated.
The Incubator reached forwards with the things that dangled from its ears.
I hear that this process is excruciatingly painful.
A couple seconds later, Diana had a soul gem resting in the palm of her hand. An empty feeling of disappointment settled itself in the bottom of her stomach. Besides being excruciatingly painful, as the Incubator had promised, the process of becoming a magical girl had not made her feel extraordinarily special. She was the same girl that she had been five minutes ago. Millions of others had undergone the same procedure, and most of them were probably stronger and braver than her.
Then Diana saw Yoshio's body lying like a ragdoll carelessly thrown on the ground, his arm obviously broken, his groans only barely audible. Even if the Goddess canonically could not directly touch the affairs of man, there still had to be a point to it all. Diana refused to believe that her contract would amount to nothing. First, that would be excessively cruel, and second, it would be unrealistic.
She would fight. It was an obligation, now.
Diana transformed in a swirl of blue-tinged light, the same color as her soul gem. The color shifted, from dark to murky to light, hints of green in between.
They're like the waves back home.
The silliest urge to paint the colors shot through her mind.
Her soul gem rematerialized on her left shoulder as a blue clasp, connecting two pieces of white fabric across her chest. Below her waist, her ordinary pants were replaced by a pleated skirt. Now, Diana understood why magical girls could wear outfits that seemed ludicrously impractical and still fight. The costume flowed around her, water in a basin, and she felt more comfortable than she had ever felt in any normal clothing. It was an extension of her body.
Diana felt new weight on her back. At the same time, her finger instinctively curled around something in her hands. It was a bow, curved noticeably inwards at the center to make a distinctive "w" shape.
Diana knew how to fight. It only made sense that she did. The Incubators wanted their magical girls to be ready to prolong the life of a mortal universe as soon as possible. In one motion, she took an arrow from the quiver at her back, fitted it into the bow, and drew the string. Her muscles pulsed as the tension in the bow flowed into her limbs. It was power. Diana derived no battle high from it, but it was still power, and that was better than fear.
Her surroundings were much brighter now. Diana was too busy to wonder why.
The bow hummed as she released the string, sending the arrow rocketing forwards straight at the demon. She expected it to dodge or block, and then realized that, from the perspective of a magical girl, the demon was moving much more slowly than it had before.
The demon burst apart in a spray of miasma as the arrow slammed into its body. Diana had never seen a kinetic energy weapon in her life. She was mildly disappointed that the Armada had phased them out almost two centuries ago.
The ship rumbled once more, and as Diana turned around to find the source, she didn't notice Christine and Yoshio looking on in awe.
Diana gasped in surprise. The air had turned two shades lighter and had stopped rippling. As a magical girl, Diana could feel the miasma withdraw from the hallways of the ship.
Diana's mind was abruptly filled with chatter as telepathic communication lines that included all magical girls by default buzzed to life. All demons aboard the ship, along with several others, had abruptly withdrawn. They appeared to be regrouping for a resumption of traditional ship-to-ship combat.
She listened to the conversation for a few more moments before the silence that fell on her physical ears finally registered. "Uh, guys?" she said, turning to Yoshio and Christine. "Didn't we have a rendezvous point to get to? Also, I know that Prophets are famed for their ability to die glorious deaths as martyrs, but Yoshio's not looking too good, and we may or may not want him bleeding out on us."
Yoshio coughed. "I'm fine. Look behind you."
As Diana turned, her eyes reflexively squinted to adjust to the light. She stared at the light for several very long, very confused moments, trying to realize what it meant, before the exact form of the light finally registered.
Sprouting from her back were two massive, glowing wings. Slowly, Diana brought one of them forward and stroked it with her hand. They felt warm, like a blanket, and they yielded to her touch, breaking apart and flowing around her fingers.
It was one of those impossible occurrences, like actually winning the lottery. Nobody alive would ever have to be concerned about it, ever—except, of course, for one person. There were no rehearsals for something like this. There was no possible way society could prepare anyone for such a realization.
Just as I thought, the Incubator said, once again appearing after the battle was over. Ever since this attack was detected, the Incubators have been particularly suspicious that you, Diana Markos, would serve as the next host for the anomaly. You had much potential. You have realized that potential. You live, your friends live, humanity may experience that thing you speak of so much and so greatly, hope…
Lazily, the Incubator licked its paw.
…and I have a new agent that can reliably harvest grief cubes. Everybody is a winner.
Diana swallowed. "Why didn't you do it earlier? If you had told me about all of this in the first place, you could have saved lives."
Well, who knows what could have happened if you contracted earlier. The demons might well have called in reinforcements and blockaded the entire system. Now that they've hesitated, you have a small window of opportunity to escape along with the civilian evacuation crafts. I recommend you do so immediately.
"Yes, because fucking guesswork is a perfect justification for you playing with me for the last several hours!" Diana shouted. Her mind was loud and unorganized, and she was too busy channeling anger to use her thoughts to communicate. The light captured in the soul gem on her shoulder swirled, with the blue and green making storm clouds. "Why didn't you tell me? I've been running around like an idiot, with no idea what to do, and you could have just said, 'Hey, guess what, you're the new Servant! Congratulations! Make a contract and become a magical girl!' That would've worked pretty well, no? How the fuck does everyone win now?"
I am disappointed in your lack of faith in my pragmatism, the Incubator said. There is a final, determinate reason why I didn't propose a contract earlier. It would not have given me an anomaly. I have studied emotional science for quite a long time. My colleagues might have pestered you for a contract the instant they determined that you had potential. Faced with the immediate gravity of your situation, and, my compliments, a healthy sense of practicality, you naturally would have agreed. Your mindset would have been wrong. Your wish would not be sufficient to initiate the anomaly. I needed you afraid.
"And you knew that it would happen?"
Of course. You, unlike the universe, are a fixed entity. There are no variables.
Yoshio shifted, groaning. We have to go, now.
Hurrying forwards, Christine offered a hand. Are you injured?
I can be healed, Yoshio said, making his way to his feet. I've had the captain of the ship change course to rendezvous with the evacuation ships.
Diana turned towards the Incubator. "Leave. You are about as welcome in my presence as sewage."
Quietly, the Incubator walked away.
I'm not afraid, Diana said, turning to Yoshio. We don't have to evacuate, do we? I'm a Servant. I can take on the demons.
Yoshio shook his head. The demon fleet is too large, and the battleship isn't here yet. It is too risky to keep you in combat. I am getting you to safety no matter what.
What was that, earlier? About martyrs?
Let's not lie to ourselves, Yoshio said. My life preserves morale. Your life preserves actual lives. I have a Prophet's sight, I have a connection with the Goddess, and the Goddess makes it known that I represent her words. In the face of someone who represents the Goddess' will, I am nothing. I can't kill demons, and you took care of that one with one shot. If you want to make sure that all this had some purpose, then you'll value your life very highly.
Oh, come on, Diana said, burying her face in her right hand. You're nothing? I could probably smell that bullshit through the vacuum of space. Even if you weren't a Prophet, that is around ten degrees of fucked up self-esteem. My point still stands. You need to listen to yourself when you talk about martyrs.
"Are we done? The Incubator said we have a small window. I don't intend on dying on this ship. Are we done?" Christine asked, her eyes scanning back and forth between Yoshio and Diana.
"I'm sorry," Diana said.
"As am I."
"Good," Christine said, her armor clinking as she turned to lead the way. "We're done."
The evacuation crafts were guarded by the Armada, so any civilians aboard were safe. Diana didn't ask how many were still on the planet, and how many would be left behind as the Armada withdrew in the face of superior forces and a lack of reinforcement. The promised battleship would come, eventually. Every single military personnel on Genesis and in orbit, including its newest mahou shoujo inductee, knew that it would be too late.
The three of them, the Prophet, the Servant, and the ordinary magical girl, sat in a private corner of the evacuation craft. Diana had tuned out the military communication lines almost an hour ago. None of it affected her now, and she had shivered with every sector of orbital space the military had to give up. The cynical part of her, the one that had been tempered by news reports and textbook statistics, was unaffected. The part of her that was a teenage girl wondered why. The people of Genesis did not deserve to die, and the idea that they were about to be slaughtered as cattle to feed a hungry devil made the universe seem like a very scary place.
Yoshio was using a free holographic display and his newfound military clearance, which nobody had yet bothered to take away, to watch the battle unfold. Giant demons and mighty Armada cruisers were only dots, far, far away from each other, and a light-second was only a meter. His eyes darted between the dancers in the deadly ballet, watching as ships darted in and out of the effective range of the lasers, as one ship dove in too close too long and did not have the time to possibly avoid the laser that slammed into its side. He watched the battle and did not look at anything else.
Christine was lying down in the corner of the room, the red light of her communications device on.
"What are you listening to?" Diana asked.
It had been the same channel that Diana had turned off. She looked, from time to time, at the magical girl, back in her dress uniform again. To Diana's eyes, Christine looked smaller without the red-and-gold armor bulking her figure. In her hands, Christine turned over a small silver pendant that she had taken from her pocket. Diana saw the mark of the Rose peeking out between her fingers. The Rose gleamed as Christine held the pendant up to the light, her eyes not moving from the contours of the silver. It was the mark of the Goddess and those who served her.
Now, it was her mark.
The mark of the Goddess, displayed silently before Christine, did nothing as millions succumbed to planetary bombardment on a dying world, now far, far away.
Outside the door to their room, people were gathering. The good news spread quickly. Civilian evacuee, Hearth scientist, and Armada soldier alike were all just outside, right behind the wall. The weight of the hopes of humanity rested on her shoulders.
She couldn't be afraid, could she? It was very reasonable to assert that her inability to act today had been the result of a bad case of nerves. She couldn't be afraid if she was the Servant, because then, what would the point have been? Discovering that the answer to the meaning of her life was only nothingness was terrifying. That was the entire point of the wish.
She was, in truth, afraid. Whatever miracles of the flesh a magical girl's wish could perform, and however much physical strength was granted, hope was still a tiny gem, so fragile-looking as to be mistaken for glass.
As the people beyond the wall prayed, Diana knew that the prayers were directed towards her. She bore the legacy of Akemi Homura, who had delivered man out of the darkness during the revelation. But she was no legend, she preached of no Goddess, and she had never had a religious experience.
Diana knew that she was just a girl, and for all the world she wished that the people praying outside could have someone else to pray to besides a girl, alone and afraid.
3/1/2013 changes: fixed a grammatical mistake kindly pointed out by A. Kingsleigh in the reviews, and added a little snippet at the top.