AN: Hey guys, back with another story, and this time I'm determined to actually finish this, or at least run out of ideas on a logical conclusion point. I've got most of the plot mapped out, I've changed up my writing process (and it seems to be working, wonder of wonders), and I'm getting things beta-read.
And if anyone's confused by this opening chapter... well, in the long tradition of fanfic authors everywhere: Read and find out!
Captain Chrono Harlaown gripped the rests of his command chair as his ship, the Time-Space Administration Bureau dimensional cruiser Claudia rocked violently under him. Around him, the bridge crew cried out in surprise, but thankfully no one was thrown out of their seats, unlike the last few times they'd hit a rough patch in the Dimensional Sea.
"The distortion's smoothing out," he murmured to himself.
If it were up to him, this mission would have waited another six months. That was the earliest the projections on the dimensional distortion wrapped around what was left of Unadministered World 97 said it would be sufficiently calm to safely traverse. But it wasn't up to him, and it hadn't even been really up to the Admiralty. Not for the first time in his career, Chrono mentally cursed Fate Testarossa's name, throwing another in for Jail Scaglietti while he was at it. It had been her, spotted scurrying to UA 97's grave, that had sent the entire TSAB into the tizzy that got Claudia panic-deployed. She was that dangerous.
Not for her combat ability, though Chrono knew first-hand how scary she was in a fight. She was dangerous for the knowledge she held as the clone daughter of Precia Testarossa and a longtime associate of Jail Scaglietti, probably the two smartest scientific researchers the TSAB had ever produced, coupled with a notorious lack of scruples. There was almost no chance that UA 97 was still intact. But in the extremely slim chance that it was – and the more likely chance that there were remains – absolutely nobody wanted to risk Testarossa, and by extension Scaglietti, getting their grubby mitts on the two Lost Logia that had been on the planet at the time.
Claudia shuddered under Chrono again, drawing him out of his thoughts. Now, if only the Dimensional Sea could cooperate!
"Reverting to realspace in ten seconds!" the navigation officer called out. Everyone, Chrono included, immediately braced for impact – and for getting their molecules scattered across a dozen dimensional planes. "Three… two… one!"
With an almighty shudder, accompanied by a creaking groan from the ship's frame, Claudia exited the Dimensional Sea. And before any of the sensor techs could train their sensors on the situation, the entire bridge, with the classic Mark One eyeball, saw the impossible: a round, cratered rocky body looming, and beyond that, a planet in blue, green, and white. Notably absent were any planet-altering scars, though Chrono could admit to himself that he didn't have a very good idea of what the planet had looked like before the dislocation.
"Lieutenant Bravada…" Chrono prompted. Bravada was the chief sensor officer, filling in for Chrono's wife Amy, who was back on Mid-Childa on maternity leave. And he had been gaping out the window like everyone else when Chrono verbally prodded him. Amy would have already been giving him information.
"Gimme half a second here, Captain, there's a lot to sift through," the sensor officer replied in a rush. Satisfied that things were in hand – mostly – Chrono sat back to wait and marvel at the planet in front of him.
He'd been on the investigative team assigned almost ten years ago to find out what had happened to UA 97, after a dimensional distortion of tremendous strength had rocked all of dimensional space. It had taken some doing, but it had eventually been traced to Precia Testarossa trying to seize a set of Lost Logia known as the Jewel Seeds, essentially magical batteries that responded to the desires of whoever touched them. Definitely powerful enough and dangerous enough to create a dimensional distortion of that size if mishandled. Worse, during the investigation it had come out that Admiral Gil Graham, Chrono's mentor, had diverted the Book of Darkness, another planet-destroying Lost Logia, to Earth and bonded it to a young girl in an attempt to seal it once and for all. It had shaken him, for sure.
That UA 97 was destroyed was taken practically on faith. It had no magical population and minimal space capability. In other words, no means whatsoever to handle Lost Logia like the Book or Jewel Seeds, and no means to handle a dimensional distortion of any size.
To find it intact instead…
After about ten minutes, Bravada electronically sent over a preliminary report. Very preliminary; it was a rather short stream of consciousness easy to read but a tad difficult to parse. The basic gist was that their eyes were not lying to them, and that UA 97 was still intact. Somehow. There were also a ton of various anomalies floating around that the entire crew section was working on, but concrete answers there would take a while.
Satisfied, Chrono had just swiped away the report when a warning flashed on his screen. He tapped the holographic interface, bringing up tracking data of an incoming bogie. His eyes widened some at what the passive sensors were telling him. Based on the small size, high speed, and enormous mana emissions, it had to be some sort of mana rocket. They were also being painted by some sort of sensor, albeit a wide-area search sensor. An attack?
He quickly dismissed that idea. No smart military would fire off just one missile at a target. Too easy to spoof or shoot down. Still…
"Gunnery, get me a targeting track on that bogie. Just in case," he ordered. "And backtrace it. I want to know where this thing came from."
The order was swiftly and effectively carried out, and then it was time for the waiting. The tense waiting of wondering whether this was an attack, and anticipation of a brief but intense spurt of violence. In the end, it wasn't anything the crew did that ended the tension, and much sooner than expected at that. The bogie, still very far away, started decelerating in a surprisingly Newtonian maneuver. It was quickly apparent that the bogie was planning to match the Claudia's velocity vector. And shortly after that, Chrono was given answers as to where the bogie had come from in the first place.
"UA 97 is supposed to be a non-magical world," Chrono said weakly. "So what is that doing there?!"
'That', the sensors had determined and put on screen, was a castle, of tan stone with a central domed building and two smaller, also domed outbuildings, built on a jagged hunk of bedrock that looked for all the world it had been ripped out of the ground at some point. A reasonable assumption, considering it was sitting unmoving at that Lagrange point between UA 97 and its moon. That all screamed 'magical'.
"Captain?" said Gunnery. "The bogie's stopped, 100 kilometers out. Pulling up a visual."
Chrono wrenched his gaze away from the castle to the new feed. Once again, he found himself wondering how the earlier surveyors had missed the clearly blatant signs of magic.
The bogie was a person in a blue and white Barrier Jacket, what was clearly a Device of some sort clenched in her left hand. A mechanical frame in the same color scheme, a rocket booster from the nozzles in the back, wrapped around her limbs, though it was open in the front. The mage's features were concealed by a metallic helmet, probably for oxygen supply. The oddest part was the lack of a visible power source. No mage could propel themselves as fast as this one had solely on their Linker Core.
"We're being hailed," one of the communications officers announced. "Just need to match the frequencies…"
Chrono glanced curiously at Bravada, who had walked up to his chair. "Yes, Lieutenant?" he asked.
"Well, we're still doing detailed scans, but we found… well, I thought it best to bring it up immediately," Bravada said. "We focused on large macro-level changes and any active Lost Logia. The former was a wash, aside from the system's ninth orbiting body fusing with its moon, but…" He gulped. "Captain, we detected two active Jewel Seeds."
That… was bad. "Where?" he hissed.
"Well, sir, that's the thing. One of them's in there-" Here he pointed at the floating castle still on screen and Chrono felt his stomach drop into his shoes. "And the other's there."
Chrono followed Bravada's finger to the mage sitting outside in space. Now his stomach was below the deck plates. "Explain," he got out through gritted teeth.
"Captain, as near as we can tell, that mage has an-" Bravada gulped again. "An active Jewel Seed fused to her Device."
Chrono desperately wanted to yell and rant and rave about how impossibly reckless and stupid that was. How it was a cosmic injustice that that mage hadn't splattered their essence across this entire solar system. But frankly, at this point his quota of life-shaking revelation was exhausted for the day, and he had a first contact in his lap to take care of. So all the yelling and ranting was shoved into a box where he could scream about it later.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," he said instead, very calmly. "Let me know when you locate the remainder."
Bravada left, and Chrono was given a few minutes of calm to think over the situation and, well, calm his feelings. First contacts were complicated, but the kind of complicated for diplomats and lawyers. In this case, the obvious orbital capability meant some privacy, and an ability to deal mostly with a small, singular group. He also had an overriding emergency to handle first before serious diplomacy. So, phone home to drop this live grenade in the diplomatic corps' laps, and focus on getting the Lost Logia situation under control and finding Testarossa.
Right. Doable. Not reason to scream into the void.
Even after all that, Chrono still had time to get a little bored before communications figured out how to patch through the message and begin auto-translating it from existing language data.
"-and intentions. I repeat: this is Nanoha Takamachi of the Magical Defense Initiative. Unidentified vessel, you are trespassing in Earth orbital space. State your intentions and allegiance. I repeat-"
The message looped on from there. It was firm, direct, and given the Jewel Seed lodged in the Device (which he could see near the center of the shaft now that he knew where to look) the implied threat was obvious and more than a little frightening.
"Can we respond?" Chrono asked.
"We can," came the nervous response.
"Then get me a connection to her."
It took some fiddling, and a bout of ear-splitting static, but they connected. "Miss Takamachi, this is the Dimensional cruiser Claudia of the Navy of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. We are in pursuit of a dangerous criminal and have reason to believe she came here to retrieve some very dangerous artifacts that were lost in this region ten years ago. I assure you, we mean no hostile intent."
"Oh, perfect!" Takamachi immediately chirped in a wild contrast to her earlier no-nonsense message. "I'm glad I don't have to blast you out of the sky."
It was a sentiment Chrono wholeheartedly, if privately, agreed with.
"Anyway, we should probably sit down together and work out a plan," Takamachi said. There was a pause, the kind ripe for pregnancy. "I'm- do you have a hanger I can land in? I can't stay out here forever…"
"A joint plan can be worked out," Chrono replied, and meant it. Having local help was handy for investigations like this when all they could contribute was knowledge of the planet. Takamachi looked to be able to provide a lot more than just that. "And the Claudia doesn't have a hanger, we use teleporters. If you could just stay still for a few seconds…"
'Captain to teleporters,' Chrono telepathically sent. 'If you could lock on to Miss Takamachi, please.'
Back to Takamachi, on screen she could be seen undoing her spaceframe. "That's great, let me just make sure this gets back to Castle Seraphim in one piece." The feed went silent for a moment, though from body language Takamachi was still talking to someone. She flashed a thumbs up and then came back on. "Okay, beam me up, Scotty!" A pause, with confusion visible on both sides of the comms. "What do you mean that's not-"
The transmission cut again, Takamachi clearly arguing with whoever she was in communication with back on… Castle Seraphim, she called it? Snickers made a round through the bridge, neatly cutting through the tension.
'Captain Harlaown, locked onto Takamachi. Sending her to Room 5.'
Chrono quickly flipped through his mental map of the Claudia. That was right next to the conference rooms near the outer hull skin. Perfect.
'Enforcers Jimny, Baleno, meet me in teleporter Room 5,' he telepathically broadcast. Standing, he addressed the bridge. "Keep us here. No sudden moves, and fire only if fired upon."
Confident his bridge crew could handle things, Chrono squared his shoulders and exited the bridge for teleporter Room 5.
So he missed a yawning portal passing by at high speed and swallowing up Takamachi's space frame.
If Takamachi cared about the two guards eyeing her after she was teleported in, she didn't show it. She just gazed at everything around her with childlike wonder. That wasn't Jimny's and Baleno's faults; with their black, spiky Enforcer Barrier Jackets and practiced Enforcer scowls, they looked quite intimidating. And while Baleno, an ordinary-looking Mid-style mage, left it at that, Jimny used a Neo-Belkan style, which meant his Device was a hefty poleaxe and he himself was a towering pile of muscle. So yes, intimidating. Takamachi just seemed immune to it.
She at least bowed when Chrono walked in, to a near 90-degree angle. "Captain," she said politely. "Thank you for having me aboard."
The formality was unfamiliar, but easy enough to mimic. "Welcome aboard," Chrono replied, bowing shallowly. From the continued presence of Takamachi's smile, he'd done something right. "Follow me, please."
Takamachi fell in behind Chrono as he led her and the two Enforcers to a nearby conference room. Despite the short distance, they passed several crew, and Takamachi greeted all of them with at least a smile or wave. Despite himself, it warmed the TSAB officer to her. Chrono had gotten very good at spotting false cheer over the years, so the very genuine warmth Takamachi radiated gave him hope that
Takamachi's cheer lasted long enough for everyone to get to the conference room and sit down, and for Chrono to send an order for tea. Then she grew deathly serious.
"Tell me more of these artifacts," she said. "Precisely how dangerous are they?"
"I'm sure you'd know," Chrono deadpanned, pointing at her Device. More specifically, the Jewel Seed stuck in the haft. "Considering you've somehow attached one of them to your Device."
Takamachi blinked, looking at the Jewel Seed like she'd just realized it was there. "Nyahahaha… whew! I thought something new had shown up. The Jewel Seeds aren't a problem, we've got most of them safely sealed. The only ones active are this one and the one powering Castle Seraphim, and we haven't had any problems with that yet."
"You'll forgive me for not finding that comforting." Sighing explosively, Chrono leaned forward and tented his fingers. "How did you even seal all the Jewel Seeds? How did you get your Device, for that matter, or that castle?" He stiffened as a terrible thought came to him. A bitter memory he could never forget how hard he tried. "How did you survive the Book of Darkness? I know that was on this planet!"
"Mou! That's three different stories," Takamachi protested. "It'll take forever to tell them!"
"I have time," Chrono retorted.
Takamachi grimaced, but she answered. "Okay, so when I was nine I found Raising Heart at a local park…"