STARS ABOVE SIDE STORY

Pioneer

By BHS and Forzare

PART 1: THE GHOST

December 2013

Mitakihara

Nico Kanna was the last Puella Magi on Earth. Of this she had no doubt; the Incubators were gone, their only remaining representative flung back into the past to a distant part of the multiverse, leaving only three Puellae Magi behind, herself included.

Oriko Mikuni's end had come very soon after Homura and Kyubey left. True to form, she predicted the very date and time well in advance. When the Demons came for her, she was ready, accepting of her fate. The explosion had been spectacular, consuming most of a city block as her remaining power erupted from her Soul Gem, shattered by her one of her own spells.

The other, little Yuma Chitose, had gone peacefully in her sleep. Nico had cradled her, holding her close and being careful not to wake her as her Soul Gem turned black and disappeared. She had let out a contented sigh as her last breath, and her small body had faded away in Nico's arms.

Now Nico was the only one left. All alone.

She was surprised that she hadn't gone mad by now. Six months of solitude, of fighting Demons by herself in an abandoned city, with only the clones to talk to. In all the stories she used to read, such things drove the hero insane. But she felt… calm, at peace with herself. Lonely, of course, and sad at times, but not consumed by despair. Despair was something she couldn't afford to feel.

She had a mission to complete.

"Another piece of wire, please," she said to Clone Mirai without looking up from her work. In a moment, she felt the clone nudge her, dutifully presenting her with a short length of copper wire. "Thanks."

Clone Mirai nodded and grinned happily, then turned around to go sit on the bench with Clone Saki and the others, who were waiting patiently for her to finish.

The clones had some small degree of autonomy, but they didn't talk, of course. Nico could make them talk, if she wanted to. If she wanted to, she could even give each of them a facsimile of a personality, enough to sound and act like her long-dead friends… but that would consume far too much power. Besides, she thought, if she started doing that, interacting with them like they were real people, there was a danger that she might start believing it. That would be the beginning of a downward spiral that would never be reversed. She couldn't afford to go mad like that; she had a mission to complete.

The arc light flared in the reflection of her goggles as she welded the wire into place. It was a somewhat clumsy job, but her calculations told her it would do its work. She had checked and rechecked every step of this process, running every simulation she could think of, accounting for everything that could possibly go wrong, from simple malfunctions to Demon sabotage. Her project was sheathed in as many layers of protection as she could manage: a titanium alloy exterior, heat-absorbing ceramic tiles, critical circuitry and power relays protected by casings of solid lead. She had programmed in multiple redundancies, in case one of the many batteries failed. Even a few basic magical wards were thrown into the design, in the unlikely event that a Demon should encounter it out there.

As a result of all these precautions, her project was hardly much to look at. It was a bulging, shapeless hodge-podge of dozens of different materials, the size of a car and three times as heavy, laden with antennae, solar panels, and broadcasting dishes. On its underside were three rocket engines, connected to an enormous fuel tank buried deep inside the structure and surrounded by heat sinks. Sleek and aerodynamic, it was not… but then, it wasn't meant to be. It was meant to be noticed, to make noise, to scream its presence to anyone or anything that could detect it.

Nico Kanna was building a deep-space probe. She was placing a message inside it and flinging it out to the stars, as one would a fling a glass bottle into the ocean, in hopes that someone, somewhere, would find it. Once the probe was complete, she would record that message and place it in the probe's cargo hold, along with all the information on humankind that she could store on a single tablet.

On the day of the launch, she would stay just long enough to start the automated process that would guide the probe on its journey. After that, she would incinerate her Soul Gem in the firestorm of its liftoff. It would be a quick and near-instantaneous death, probably even painless, the best death she could ask for. Then, at last, she would be free.

She didn't have much time, she knew… a few months at best. The death of the world was fast approaching. Every day, there were fewer people broadcasting on emergency radio frequencies, fewer survivors begging for help online. The internet was collapsing as servers failed across the globe, one by one, as the number of people who could maintain them dwindled. Orbiting satellites were crashing to earth, their guidance systems disrupted by fluctuations in the magnetic field. A month ago, the International Space Station had come down, its wreckage causing a tidal wave that decimated what was left of the Philippine Islands. People used to assume that when the end came, it would at least be quick, but this was not the case. Vittoria's murder of the earth was slow, torturous and lingering even after the Demon Mother's own destruction, as if she had fatally poisoned the planet's very core.

It didn't matter. By the time the Earth did give out, Nico would be long gone… or so she hoped.

Satisfied, she stopped for the night, packing up her tools and stuffing them into her backpack. Nico placed a basic magical barrier around her workspace, transcribing runes in the air and setting them down in a four-meter circle around the project. Though the odds were slim that there were any thieves around who could successfully scavenge anything useful from the probe, it was better to be careful. She put far too much work into it to have to replace parts now.

"Come on," she said to the clones. "Let's go find some dinner."

The seven Pleiades, one Puella Magi and six clones, set off into the ruins of the abandoned city, leaving the probe behind in the silent street.


One good thing about living in Japan: there was no shortage of vending machines. And vending machines were a great supply of non-perishable food. Nothing healthy, of course, but plenty of stuff with more than enough calories to keep a Puella Magi awake and energized.

Nico sat atop an overturned car, the steam from the self-heating Cup Noodle ramen wafting upward and wreathing her face, providing relief from the chill. The clones all stood or lounged around in various places on the street corner, awaiting further instructions. She cast a quick glance over them, taking stock: Clone Umika and Clone Kaoru were together, as were Clone Saki and Clone Mirai, of course. Clone Kazumi appeared to be asleep on a wrought-iron bench; Nico wondered if she could possibly be dreaming, before deciding that was a ridiculous thought... clones couldn't dream. Clone Satomi had her eyes on a large brown rat that was busily scurrying to and fro, possibly scrounging for scraps of food, and-

Nico dropped her chopsticks. There was one extra.

The girl was dressed simply; a pair of overall jean shorts, a short-sleeved t-shirt, and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat… completely ludicrous for this time of year, even given the ruined climate's effect on the seasons. She sat hunched down with her knees up to her chin, drawing circular designs in the dust underneath a piece of upturned asphalt. Her clothes and body were filthy with dirt and grime… presumably her face was as well, but her features were in shadow and couldn't be seen.

Slowly Nico climbed down off the car and summoned her signature weapon, a simple crowbar. It wasn't totally outside the realm of possibility that this girl could be a survivor, but she had seen enough dirty tricks from Demons in her time to be on her guard. Besides, she had remembered to set up wards this evening, she was sure of it… Anyone coming near them should have triggered an alarm. So that meant that either her magic had stopped working, or the little intruder was exceedingly clever. Or lucky. Or both.

Step by step, she crept up behind the strange girl, crowbar at the ready. An odd choice for a signature weapon, but it served her well. When she was close enough, she raised the crowbar, mentally prepared herself to unleash a spell, and reached out to grasp the girl's shoulder…

She spun the girl around and recognized her immediately.

Looking back at her was her own face.

"Hello, Nico," said Kanna Hijiri. "It's nice to see you again."

END OF PART 1