Unfortunately, the fundamental physics and functioning of the Cephalopod Paradox Drives are beyond our current understanding, and while a substantial amount of scientific speculation has been devoted to analyzing what data we have, those details are certainly beyond the scope of this discussion.
That is not to say that we know nothing about them. Despite what appears to be the aliens' best attempts to prevent thorough observation of their use—extending even to an apparent reluctance to use them for tactical jumps—we have plenty of empirical data about their practical capabilities and limitations.
The standard alien "blink" teleport consists of three phases: the "charge‐up" period, the blink itself, and the post‐blink "malaise". For practical purposes, the blink itself is nearly instantaneous and not worth much discussion.
The charge‐up period involves pouring large amounts of power into the paradox drive over an extended period of time, from a few minutes for a short jump to hours for a long one. Statistical observation suggests that this is not just a matter of power generation, since ships of similar size take an almost invariable amount of time to travel similar distances, regardless of their apparent power supply.
Then follows the post‐blink malaise, the apparent inability of alien ships to use FTL engines after completing a blink, even for mere sublight acceleration. Malaise lasts for about as long as the corresponding charge‐up period, sometimes slightly less. It is not known what causes this—and as it is obviously a huge tactical liability, presumably the Cephalopods have been unable to get rid of it.
There are two additional properties of blink that strongly influence its strategic usage. The first is an apparent sensitivity to the local curvature of space‐time; most observed blink transits connect points far outside a stellar gravity well.
The second is the paradox drive's maximal range, seemingly just over twenty light‐years. This is long enough that the border with alien‐held space is porous and heavily contested, but short enough that no alien offensive has yet endangered multiple Core Worlds, or even come close to endangering Earth, which hasn't been under direct threat since the first few weeks of the Contact War.
Finally, and closely related, there is the alien Blink Bombardment Cannon, which likely leverages a paradox drive analog to teleport its projectiles. Unlike a regular blink, in which a paradox drive moves itself, a blink cannon moves only its munitions.
This latter mode of teleportation seems more difficult: the distances involved are much shorter, with comparatively longer charge‐up periods. The resulting malaise is also weaker, making it a poor weapon for FTL interdiction. Despite these drawbacks, however, blink bombardment on a Human fleet remains devastating; a teleported nuclear or antimatter weapon is difficult to stop.
No discussion of limits should cloud the overall picture: lack of blink capability is a crippling disadvantage for Humanity in this war.
— "An Infantryman's Pocket Primer on Space Combat," 2459, excerpt.
Incident Date: September 17th, 2460.
Injured Personnel: None
〈Background: "Anomalous" grief cubes were collected in the field by local mage, after a demon spawn in the Kasamino District, Mitakihara. Despite well‐known immutability of grief cubes by non‐Incubator actors, anomalous grief cubes showed clear unusual behavior, particularly when subjected to loading tests, with a tendency towards spontaneous grief emission and reduced ultimate carrying capacity. Findings suggest clear violation of MCC P21.1‐2 by unknown actors, with unclear but potentially serious implications.〉‡
Incident: During Akiyama Protocol testing, grief cubes showed signs of imminent demon release. Testing was suspended and the rapid reaction team was summoned, but no demon release occurred. 〈A‐instrument recordings display a clear discontinuity in the data feed, and grief cubes subsequently show completely nominal behavior. First Hypothesis: Anomalous grief cubes abruptly reverted to "normal" attractor state. Second Hypothesis: Anomalous grief cubes were modified by Incubator, or other unknown actor.〉‡
Relevant Data: Available at request per DSA‐2440.
〈Followup: Institute Director Valentin was on‐hand and ordered a full surveillance sweep of the area, with no useful result. An Incubator was later questioned by the rapid release team, and admitted having been alerted to potential existence of anomalous grief cubes shortly before incident, but denied "substantial" modification of cubes and claimed not to understand what had occurred.〉‡
〈Result: Investigation into incident was handed by facility security over to Soul Guard.〉‡
— Incident Report, Prometheus Institute; Archive of the Magi copy, Filings and Paperwork Department, (MSY Internal). Sections marked ‡ in the text omitted in the Governance record by MSY request, per Data Sharing Agreement of 2440.
Yuma wasn't ready for this.
A Ceph supply cruiser full of new Raptor missiles was a scenario that was so obviously disastrous, it was hardly even worth preparing for.
But, here she was.
Most—over sixty‐three percent—of Yuma's primary consciousness was in the dwindling Command Gestalt, where it had to stay, contributing her part to the life‐and‐death work of recalculating battle plans, correlating sensor data, and coordinating assets.
The rest, however, could be repurposed.
Twenty‐seven percent of Yuma had been performing combat motor functions, split between healing Maki, repairing three nearby drones, and throwing a filigreed mace at a distant homing mine.
About seventeen percent of Yuma had been fleshing out an attack plan against a particularly vexing alien fighter, which involved shepherding groups of suicide drones for a daring feint.
Exactly two percent of Yuma had been busy agonizing over Kyouko‐nee‐chan's recklessness, alongside handling telepathic exchanges with Kana, Rose, and Rin.
All those resources were reclaimed. The attack plan was canceled, and she asked the half‐healed Maki to protect her. Reacting adroitly to this role reversal, Maki began creating body doubles, sheathed in a coat of magical paint that camouflaged them against the stars.
They needed a plan, they needed hope, and Yuma would try to use her perspective, her memories, and her knowledge of magic to make both.
She could hardly call herself Governance: Magical Girls if she failed to do that, could she?
Yuma stretched out subjective time to her combat limits and beyond, pushing her custom implants into overdrive. It took its toll on her central nervous system, burning through neurons and incoordinating brain regions in a way that would have been unacceptable in a baseline human, or even a magical girl who couldn't rapidly reverse the damage.
The fervid sensation grew overwhelming, everywhere at once, until her TacComp severed the direct connection to her physical senses and took control of her body, leaving Yuma—or rather, thirty‐six percent of Yuma—alone to her thoughts.
Alone, but not in the dark. Far from it. She had only done this rarely before, but that was enough to understand that while she was here she would see, she would hear, she would experience in a way that was impossible to explain to anyone else, in the same way that no AI could explain their subjective experience to a human.
But allegory helped, and even her own mind was forced to rely upon it partially.
She found herself surrounded by a vast pool of data, rippling under an unseen sun. The surface frothed and boiled violently, as if animated by some unseen storm, and yet never touched the tiny, one‐person patch of sand she was standing on. Around her, other copies of her stood on their own islands. They looked at each other, then at the water below, where ideas and experiences slipped in and out of her awareness as so many fish, displaying their scales for gleaming moments before vanishing below the cognitive tide.
She dove in.
The first few catches were small, slipping into her hands almost by accident. If the alien bombers were truly on their way back with more Raptors, there was only one thing to do—move their magical girls to where they were most likely to survive, and absorb whatever losses they could elsewhere. Their magic simply couldn't protect all their ships across so large a space.
But beyond that…
The alien bombers might be targeting the reinforcements from Yenisei, rather than them? No, that didn't make sense—there was no reason to do that when they could just eliminate their target right away. It was wishful thinking at best.
Yuma's lungs burned as she swam deeper.
Another catch: Yuma knew more Raptors were coming, but the aliens here didn't—they had been mind‐read too much for it to be otherwise. She could make them pay for that operational security. Kyouko's ships, the ones that would likely be lost anyway, now had a small window to make very risky attacks, attacks the aliens wouldn't know to expect. Then, when the bombers arrived, their erstwhile escorts would already be tied up.
That was better, but it still didn't really give them a way to survive after the aliens shattered Kyouko's fleet.
The weight of water above Yuma grew more and more oppressive, until it began pouring in through her mouth and nose. The reinforcements were too far away for even a stolen alien fighter to reach in time; stealth sufficient to escape couldn't be maintained against this quantity of dust and drones; there was no way they could survive long enough to charge a blink to their reinforcements with stolen alien ships—
She was shocked out of her laments by the splash of water on her face, and the crash of something plunging through the water. She opened her eyes to sunlight. When had she surfaced?
Yuma watched Kyouko pull her spear out of the water, dappled by the forest shade. They were walking along a stream, on a trip to the countryside, long ago, and Kyouko had decided she was hungry enough to try her hand at fishing.
"Nee‐chan!" Yuma yelled in confused anger, before diving again into the water.
The wide blade of Kyouko's spear could never have actually picked up anything. All it could do—had done—was slice a poor minnow nearly in half.
Yuma surfaced with the writhing creature a second later, blood spilling, and applied a burst of healing magic. It didn't deserve this.
She knew what would happen now. The fish would jump back in the stream, and Kyouko would scold her for wasting magic on something so frivolous as the life of an animal.
Instead, Kyouko looked her in the eye, and Yuma remembered where she was.
"Look again," Kyouko said.
The fish was an unformed idea, detritus from the gestalt: a bitter thought from Captain Vera, before the loss of HSS Raven, of detonating her ship's exotic matter in a suicidal attempt at hindering alien maneuverability.
It seemed nearly irrelevant, but something about the concept had hooked into her thoughts, had caused her instincts to fish it out of the water. As Kyouko stared at her, face fading out of view, she focused her attention…
A starship's core was a terrible tool for FTL interdiction—cores were designed to not detonate, and even when they did, it was trivial to just… fly around the disrupted area. SHERMAN rounds—precisely engineered for maximum gravitational havoc, and accelerated along the spine of an entire battlecruiser—they were not.
But, having considered the topic, there was a major source of exotic matter nearby, and it wasn't trapped in cores: the alien resupply cruiser, with fuel and weapons enough for a small fleet. Relying on its stealth, the ship had brought no dedicated escort, and even lay near a plausible retreat course towards Yenisei.
That observation began forming the kernel of a plan. A pauper's plan, one pocked with holes Yuma didn't know how to patch, but something. Good enough for hope, at least.
She was out of time.
Yuma let herself return to the real world then, her vision coming back into focus as the magic coursing through her brain brought it back to full functionality.
In a testament to the severity of their situation, the gestalt adopted the framework of her plan after just five seconds' deliberation. That it leaned heavily on uncontrolled variables and luck, on best guesses and optimistic performance projections, was immaterial—no better alternative could be found, even if Yuma didn't like it. Something had to be done quickly, if they were to have any chance at survival.
The gestalt wove together details as best it could: ship deployment charts for the pre‐bombing diversions, blink range calculations for reaching the alien cruiser afterward, team compositions for boarding and defense, and final magic compatibility consultations, for turning seized exotic matter into the FTL interdiction they would need to escape. Precalculation was essential: there likely wouldn't be a gestalt for such work after the bombers returned.
However desperate their situation, though, just having that set of calculations, that plan seemed to be enough for the younger magical girls, who buzzed with desperate hope as they began putting new orders into action. Yuma wasn't even sure Kana had been right to worry about their confidence—there were no new girls under emotional suppression.
They were putting too much faith in their elders, Yuma decided. They believed her and Kyouko and the other Ancients, rather than the objectively abysmal odds.
But if it kept them fighting…
That's not a bad plan, Maki thought, flying beside her. If we can get to the supply cruiser, then we can hoist them with their own petards. It's worth a shot, at least. I'm impressed you thought of it.
Don't be impressed yet, Yuma thought.
Yuma had Maki grab onto her, arms around her waist, so that her hammer could pull them forward through the void with the kind of speed only an Ancient could muster.
The human flotilla had organized itself into a defensive sphere, a mutually‐supporting crust of ships and drones and materiel crushed in the grip of the larger alien force, the entire assemblage moving towards Yenisei and its reinforcements. Now they rearranged themselves within that vice, in a deceptive choreography of drone, starship, and magical girl that redirected valuable personnel and ships away from the predicted direction of the bombers, while less vital assets moved to replace them.
The most protected human ships, those which held the center of the running fight, were ironically not human at all: an alien fighter seized by Jeanette, an alien frigate manned by mind‐controlled squid under Charlotte, and another alien frigate transformed by Rose‐Merline, who had reluctantly sent her living hunk of asteroid to be sacrificed.
Alien ships were the only ones that could blink to the cruiser, after all.
Yuma and Maki could only see glimpses of the dance, the barely perceptible exhaust of nearby ships and drones, sparkling in the infinite night, accompanied by the staccato flash of weapons fire and missile detonation, like white paint flicked across a black canvas.
Pretty, isn't it? Maki thought. In any other context, I'd stop to watch.
Yuma didn't think it was pretty. The surface couldn't make up for the substance, in her view.
Still, she watched it too, through the optical surface of her helmet. It was novel, at least.
They were some of the first magical girls to arrive at their new positions, along with some of the other Ancients. They arranged themselves defensively around the alien ships, with more physical mages like Nadya farther out, and finesse‐based girls like Maki closer in.
As Maki gave her cover to heal Jeannette's fighter, Yuma found herself sorting through a barrage of news, most of it bad.
First, there was a clairvoyant sighting of the incoming bombers, only a couple minutes out.
Second, she experienced, through the gestalt, the beginning of the sacrificial breakout attempt by their outer ships. The bombers' attack vector had been correctly predicted beforehand, but to little avail: the attack was failing to meaningfully distract or damage the alien ships.
Third, there was news from home. Now that Yuma's cover had been blown, MG and Nova had triggered a preemptive tidal wave of TCF repair, trying to get ahead of anything the other conspiracy might attempt—and they had attempted a lot. Nothing as bad as Yuma had feared, but enough to cause a disaster for Yuma and Governance PR.
More importantly, the reinforcements from Yenisei had been delayed. Screening the armada for compromised AIs had triggered a full‐blown internal firefight, corrupted drones and weaponry turning on their erstwhile allies and inflicting considerable damage.
They were back underway, at least.
Finally, she had dared to peek at Vlasta's status. To her surprise, she was alive, if in fugue and unstable condition. More predictably, most of Raven's crew was dying or already dead, the latter including Captain Vera.
It felt deeply wrong, knowing she would save more lives fighting out in space than by rushing inside Rose's ship to follow her calling, as a healer.
Kyouko was right—she didn't belong out here. She missed Earth, both its trees and rivers, and its vast, endlessly deep maze of servers. She was sorry she had come out here, sorry that everything she was working on was at the mercy of an impossible battle.
She let that regret pass through her, then steeled herself for what was to come.
It hurt Kyouko, on a level she couldn't quite explain, to just float there.
It was one thing to lose a fight, another to have your life be in imminent danger, and yet another to know others were dying in your name. In her long life, she had done all those things, enough to even get used to it.
But she had never done all of those at the same time, never had to just watch as more damaged, less‐necessary ships moved towards the bombers, certain of their fate. It was noble, even heroic, and Kyouko could do nothing.
It inspired feelings of—what? Gratitude? Inadequacy? Despair at how empty it all seemed? All the emotion in the world did nothing at all right now.
An ironic thought for a magical girl.
Yuma thinks we're all going to die, Kyouko‐chan. Please tell me she's always like that.
Kyouko grimaced at Maki's message.
She doesn't think that. Not quite, Kyouko thought. I know her. She thinks we have exactly as much a chance to survive as the computers estimate. Which is not high, I know.
Don't give me that! You know that means the same damn thing! Both of you are being way too cold about all this. It's not okay if you die out here! Both of you are acting like it is.
Kyouko started to protest, saying she had been trying plenty hard not to die out here, but she realized that wasn't entirely true. She had been throwing herself into combat with a mixture of panache and fatalism, the kind of sublime acceptance of one's fate that made combat easy.
I don't know what to say to that, she thought. I'll try harder. That's all I can promise.
Kyouko felt Maki's angry stare, knowing it only hid a core of fear. Fear for Kyouko, fear for herself—the kind of fear Kyouko had long ago buried into an unreachable part of her heart.
She cast her gaze out at the assembly of magical girls circling with her around the alien ships. Right now it was difficult not to imagine how vulnerable they were to a cluster of Raptor missiles. Or hard radiation bombs. Or anything, really.
It was absurd, trying to second‐guess Yuma while bombers were bearing down on them, but Kyouko needed to think. If she had anything real to contribute to their survival scheme, she needed to come up with it. Just as Yuma had.
Yuma's plan had serious weaknesses. For one thing, it relied on completing a blink with stolen alien ships, which had never been done before, even if Rin claimed to be certain they could pull it off.
Far worse was the question of seizing the alien supply cruiser. The problem was two‐fold: first, it relied on the cruiser remaining complacent as the human ships tried to blink. If the cruiser simply moved out of range, paranoid about an incoming human gambit, their whole idea was shot.
Moreover, there was a critical window, right after they blinked next to the cruiser, but before they seized total control, where the cruiser had too many dangerous options. It could attempt to self‐destruct, for example, or it could try to split the human forces, accelerating away while their ships were stuck in blink malaise. It might even blast their ships to pieces, depending on its armament.
None of these perils were singularly fatal to the plan, but cumulatively, they were pretty damn close.
Ideally, they would be able to disable the cruiser ahead of time, in a way that wouldn't be detected until it was too late. Right now, though, none of them could even get there ahead of time. One obvious idea was to exploit the returning alien bombers and sneak something aboard—some magical girls, perhaps, and Rose had even suggested incorporeal bombs during the fevered plan detailing.
But they needed the cruiser's exotic matter intact, which meant that bombs were too unreliable—and combustible—for the job. They simply didn't have the right magical stealth to hide a significant mass for very long—the odds were better to jump the cruiser with everybody all at once.
Nor had consulting an earthbound computing cluster—IIC bandwidth‐limited as that was—generated any better ideas.
Kyouko began to circle their remaining magical girls, draining her magic to prepare clones. They were now few enough, and close enough, that she would be able to put a body of hers beside almost everyone.
She could see the others making their own preparations, magic lighting up every part of the spectrum, in dozens of shapes and sizes.
It was frustrating. Even if they could sneak someone to the cruiser, they needed someone who could disable the ship as a whole, just for a while. Yuma didn't have enough scope, and Jeannette couldn't fully suborn such a powerful, distributed AI. There just weren't very many magics that operated on that scale. Even a demon miasma wouldn't reliably cover a full cruiser's volume.
Though—could it be that obvious?
Yuma, you've considered attaching supersaturated grief cubes to the bombers, right? To disable the cruiser with a miasma?
Demons had never shown a taste for the emotionless Cephalopods, it was true, but Ceph technology was still vulnerable to the miasma, sensors and communications equipment in particular.
Of course not, Yuma thought back immediately, annoyed. That would be…
Kyouko could imagine the objections, especially after own recent encounters with the subject: the restricted‐access, level five classification, the danger and finickiness of trying to time their use, the pointed Incubator complaints after the Shimada assassinations. In principle, they could even be court‐martialed for effectively gifting a bunch of grief cubes to the aliens—a potential intelligence disaster.
…a very good idea, Yuma thought. You're right. We should try it.
It had taken Yuma a while to bring herself out of her malaise—a kind of fatalistically rigid focus on the tasks she had assigned herself.
Kyouko's idea carried in it another real kernel of hope, another improvement to their chances. It was up to her to help implement it, in the last few moments before the bombers arrived. If only Kyouko had come up with her idea sooner…
If only Yuma had come up with it at all.
A supply drone dropped three dozen used grief cubes in front of her, venting them directly into a funnel of her as‐yet invisible magic, where they hung suspended. They were stark even against the blackness of space, oozing an unsettling glamour that seemed to consume the starlight, like a constellation of dark stars.
She raised her hands, cradling a brightening sphere of green, then blinked twice. She filtered out the stars around her, the other magical girls, the ships, the combat—until that ball of green magic, filled with cubes of black, grew to dominate her vision.
Grief was a form of corruption, of entropy, just as the Incubators had always implied. Yuma liked to think of grief cubes as almost like little trapped black holes, always hungry for more grief, but unable to escape the confines of their box.
Forcing that box just a bit wider required pushing the grief in. Doing that required the ability to manipulate grief, manipulate decay.
But what was a healer like Yuma but a magical girl transferring damage and decay from an injured victim into her own soul gem?
Even when working for Oriko, she had always been good at grief manipulation, though she had never been able to fulfill Oriko's dream of doing it without net magic cost.
She could only imagine what she must look like, staring into an orb of magic, tendrils of coarse, oozing grief visibly streaming from cube to cube. She forced the decay to concentrate in some of the cubes, filling the gap with some of her own grief, the expenditure of her own magic.
It was all pleasantly self‐contained, and she did her best to ignore the images the uncontained grief insinuated into her, all despair and hallucinations. She would have liked to go faster, much faster, but the process could only be rushed so much.
Then, she stopped, blinking until she again remembered where she was, and why.
I'm done, she thought. It had only been a few seconds.
A group of magical girls surrounded her: teleporters and specialists, among them Ancients like Kana and Arisu, as well as a girl who could turn objects incorporeal, Amaranth.
They would have one chance to get it right, one chance to use the confusion of battle to slip the grief cubes onto the bombers, where they would make the journey back to the alien supply cruiser, just in time for the subtle instabilities Yuma had introduced to trigger a demon spawn.
They were very nearly out of time; the first missiles were arriving.
Do you really think this will work? Amaranth thought, as she split away with her payload.
It has to, Yuma thought.
She could never forgive herself if it didn't.
Unfortunately, their plan, however clever, did nothing about the immediate threat, which they would have to survive in the usual, inadequate way.
Kyouko would have liked to look away as the faster‐than‐light missiles rained down on their defensive shell. Bursts of radiation illuminated fragments of hurling debris, the muted outlines of alien bombers, the glowing wisps of smartdust.
Instead, she could only clutch her spear, hard enough to crush steel.
When the time came, she—every copy of her—lunged forward into battle, a battle that she would see from dozens of perspectives, side‐by‐side with the others:
—vaulting off a friendly missile at incomprehensible speed. From a few photons her eyes performed an impossible feat, perceiving an alien missile and bomber heading the other way, distorted by length‐contraction. She cast her net before her for the barest of instants, and the collision radiated energy in every spectrum.
—wave after wave of missiles: Ravagers swarming, Raptors appearing too quickly to react, and stealth Wendigos, hard radiation warheads dark on their sensors. Their clairvoyants picked out most of them, but only most, and she threw herself at one, enveloping its radiation with her magic and her soul. That would save the girls around her, at the cost of only one body.
—she was unable to protect her bodyguards, far too young, blown apart before her eyes. There was no time for shock, only time to push her way through the expanding human wreckage, stretch her hand out for what she could save. In one hand, a green soul gem; in the other, only shards.
—missiles simply could not turn as tightly as she could, and she easily got inside the turn of the one tracking her. She sliced it as she passed by, careful to avoid the shrapnel, even as she lunged into another. She would not last here, but it was only one of her—
—at her side, despite her efforts, the human ship sheared apart, reinforced nanocomposite tearing apart like tissue as radiation and superheated debris blew through the interior. She dodged—and still lost an arm, sliced clean through except for a flap of flesh. She finished severing it herself—it would only slow her down now—as her blood vessels sealed themselves off and she spun through the void.
—and then it was all done, their fleet was a collection of wrecks, their three alien ships and four remaining human ones racing away from that graveyard in unison, magical girls rejoining them at the last second.
Low on power and grief cubes, Kyouko dove into the side of a ship. As her soul gem recharged and the drones brought fresh grief cubes, she reabsorbed the memories of her lost clones, casting all the death and failure into the pit of her soul, where she could look at it later.
She knew from those memories that Maki had survived, in no small part because of how closely she had stayed attached to Yuma, and felt relieved.
It seemed selfish, somehow, to care about that when quite a few others hadn't made it back, or had returned only as a glowing gem.
She didn't want to dwell on those thoughts, so she checked on the result of the grief cube mission—whether or not the supersaturated grief cubes had been successfully slipped into the bombers. She had preferred not to distract herself mid‐combat.
They had succeeded after all, though the casualty report was painful. Kana had collapsed unconscious after teleporting back, alone, carrying no fewer than four soul gems, including that of Arisu; Yuma was working on getting Kana back in action.
Kyouko swallowed, then closed her eyes, summoning her clones once again.
Her rest was over; it was a relief to be needed back in space.
For Ryouko and her team, the pulsar mines had become a grueling race against the clock.
The fleet had thrown more ships and MagOps teams into the mines—whatever wasn't absolutely necessary to defend against incoming bombers and fighters—but that hadn't relieved them of any urgency, or quieted the sense of desperation that underlay all that they now did.
Nor had it removed Ryouko's personal thorn in the flesh. Reassurances from Azrael, Clarisse, and her own magic notwithstanding, she wondered what threat might lie inside her own head.
At least assault team casualties had fallen, now that the hazards of the mines and their gaps in space‐time were better understood. Rather than targeting the control staff of a given sector, it was more efficient to teleport right next to the stabilization equipment, destroy it, and leave. Patricia's team had stayed with them—the added stealth generator meant they no longer even got welcome committees.
They also hadn't encountered any more blockades on Ryouko's teleportation.
That's number six, Ying‐zhi thought, managing to sound a bit positive. We're getting pretty good at these.
They were taking a rare moment of rest, recharging their soul gems inside a quiet logistics room, safe under a bubble of stealth that drained the color from the world around them, the steady drumbeat of fleet updates tuned low.
Still, Ryouko paced the area, unwilling to relax. The break only gave her time to think: on the failure of the mission, on how she had been caged by the blink interdictors, on the natural feeling of the alien information packet bursting open in her head.
Earlier, Ryouko had pinned a Cephalopod to the ground, and as its head turned to face her she had suddenly feared that it would speak to her. Somehow, she had expected she would understand it.
She knew she wasn't taking all this well, but she didn't know what else to do, other than try to lose herself in combat, no matter how much it disturbed her afterward.
The only other recourse was to lean on Asami and, well, she wasn't here.
No one had responded to Ying‐zhi's encouragement, and Ryouko had to resist the urge to say something needlessly snarky. Mina eventually saved her by pitching in:
Yes, we are. And I know what you're all thinking. The fleet is taking losses, and we won't be able to trigger a pulsar glitch, so there's not much to celebrate. But we're still doing real damage, and we're still on track to make it out of this alive. Just the damage we've already done might take the squid years to repair. We just gotta focus on getting out of this, for our own sake.
Some of the others nodded vaguely in response, helmets bobbing up and down, and a second or so later, Ryouko followed. It didn't really satisfy her, but what could?
While we have the time… Patricia thought.
She waited for Ryouko to register that the message was directed solely at her.
Not that I should distract you more, but I've been collaborating with Clarisse on some of the data for your uh, brain module.
It struck Ryouko that she didn't really want to learn more, not in this context, but there had to be a reason Patricia was telling her this, so she stopped pacing and signaled Patricia to continue.
Well, the comment I want to make is that when it activated, it dumped a good amount of some unknown signaling molecules, as well as firing in a pattern that was highly correlated with the information you were receiving, the—
I'm going on too long. The point is, Clarisse thinks the molecules are custom neuromodulators, and I agree. Those are very common in implant design, because they allow you to send global signals across a system that won't leak out into anything else. That gives us a chance to analyze what exact pathways lead in and out of it. Based on that, we think it's most likely a communication device, and not much else. You can feel safe.
That's not how I would have explained it, Clarisse thought. You could have just said it was safe.
I thought she would want to know why, Patricia thought. Though maybe that was too much detail.
I would want to know why, Ryouko thought. Though none of this settles the real question of why there would be such a damn thing in my brain. I have enough nonsense to deal with.
I have a feeling that if we get the answer to that, it won't be from detailed study, Clarisse thought. Anyway, it's time we started getting ready to head out.
A shiver of embarrassment passed through Ryouko, and she focused her attention on the world again, hoping she hadn't been holding the team back. She wanted to destroy as much of this place as possible.
She wanted it all to be over, she wanted to be back with Asami, somewhere stable, where she could stop and process it all.
Failing that, she hoped, guiltily, that this time they would at least have some real fighting.
She was still thinking about that when Oda's lightning disgorged them into a ghostly black‐and‐white hallway, the close twin of hallways they had been in before. The world around them wavered and twitched, as if viewed through an intense layer of static, but it was still possible to make out patrolling alien drones, alien personnel encased in protective bubble shields, and even details of the light, emanating from the ceiling in a slow, pulsing rhythm that gave the whole scene a nightclub quality.
They landed silently near those aliens, in front of a menacing laser turret, where the aliens had prepared a field of fire. An alien drone flew into their stealth field almost immediately, but, not sensing anything amiss, and with Azrael divining its route, it failed to run into anything.
They quickly identified the key stabilization equipment encased in the walls. It would take only a few seconds to destroy the machinery, and they wouldn't even need to fight the alien soldiers—they only had to defend themselves briefly.
Stop, Ryouko thought, physically grabbing the girl about to plunge her sword into the wall, and pulling her away with perhaps too much force. Something is different.
It was a combination of things. Her soul gem always reacted to exotic matter, and this time the reaction was much stronger. Besides that, she couldn't shake the sense that something… else was here. Something lingered at the back of her mind, as if someone was waiting telepathically for her to reply.
It took a long few moments of anxiously standing still and eyeing the nearby aliens nervously for her point to be entirely understood.
Everything looks fine on the grav sensors, Ying‐zhi thought. Only minor discrepancies from the previous sites. Can we risk an active scan?
I can try to cover it, but no promises, their stealth generator thought. This isn't my usual thing.
Ying‐zhi thought about it, but only very briefly—decisions had to be made quickly.
Then everyone get ready for a fight. We might have to do this the hard way. I hope you're right.
Ryouko didn't need Ying‐zhi's meaningful glance to know that the last line was directed at her.
I hope I'm right too, she thought—but she kept that to herself, instead lighting up a bolt for her crossbow in anticipation.
She wasn't concerned that her soul gem was lying to her, just that it might be reacting to something irrelevant.
They arranged themselves into position as well they could, getting out of obvious fields of fire, raising barriers, and placing themselves where they could wreak as much havoc as possible, if necessary. Azrael monitored the minds of their enemy, looking for the slightest glimmer of intention to attack.
Ryouko, for her part, fired a single bolt into the ground, attached to a string.
Ying‐zhi toggled the active scan, and there was an instant of suspense, stretched thin by subjective time dilation.
Then Azrael gave the signal that they needed to attack.
Just because the aliens knew humans were there didn't mean they could see anyone, and their blind‐firing was ineffective. Still, the magical girls acted quickly, to minimize the risk of any surprise explosions or radiation bursts.
As weapons fire began to break out and alien personnel began to fall, Ryouko performed her part of the job: teleporting a horizontal slice of the floor, a dozen centimeters thick, above the alien personnel, dropping it onto their heads, with herself on top.
It was a standard ploy—distract by manipulating the environment and destroy before the enemy could adapt. Ryouko had seen it done with rockslides and avalanches and twelve centimeters of alloy was in some respects worse than both.
The alloy landed on personal shields that were already failing from a barrage of attacks, with a noise that sounded like a staticky implosion.
There wasn't much left to do after that; the other magical girls had already neutralized the main threats, and the rest was rapid mop‐up, though Ryouko got to fire a few homing arrows into the mass of enemies—no explosives, not with one of her allies slicing her way through the area.
Still, it was satisfying, and the smoking, green‐strewn ruins took some of the edge off her frustration.
Then they turned their attention to the results of the active scan.
This particular mining site had more exotic matter—a lot, lot more, enough that it could have easily overwhelmed them had they relied on Oda's non‐instantaneous teleport. Since it hadn't shown up on passive sensors, it was tempting to guess that it had been set up as a trap.
Well, now we know, someone thought, unfazed by how close they had come to dying. Let's exit a different way.
That put Ryouko in the uncomfortable position of having to ask for another pause.
Not yet, she thought. There's something else here.
It would have been difficult to explain in words, so she sent it as a sensation instead, relaying the difficult to describe sense of expectation in the back of her mind.
The question was, what was she supposed to do about it? Only one answer immediately suggested itself: answer the call.
I don't need to point out how risky that could be, Oda thought. Not to mention, the longer we stand here, the more chance they detonate the machinery next to us without being polite enough to wait.
Listening to her has always worked for us before, Mina thought. Even before this mission. She's worth putting our faith in.
Mina had been with her at Orpheus and X‐25, Ryouko knew, and made no bones about thinking that Ryouko had divine guidance. Ryouko couldn't even deny it.
But she also knew what the others would be worried about. With all that was going on in Ryouko's head—her literal, physical head—who knew how reliable a vague sensation of hers could be?
Let's give it a shot, Ying‐zhi thought finally. But we're making a safety jump at the smallest sign of trouble.
So with part of her will, Ryouko prepared herself to teleport far away, with much of the team gathered around her.
And with the rest of it, she tried to reach out and touch whatever it was that was waiting for her.
Nothing happened for a couple of seconds, and Ryouko started to worry that she was mistaken, that she was imagining things, that all of it was a product of whatever was in her head or worse, her desire to bury it all with the adrenaline of combat.
But a response came while she was still in the midst of twisting those possibilities through her mind.
It would have been difficult to convey in words. She got that there were words, somewhere in there, buried in a mass of strange transmitted sensations and garbled half‐thoughts, confused enough that she found herself surprised it wasn't throwing her own thoughts off‐kilter.
What is this? she thought, implicitly asking Clarisse if she had any ideas. Someone injured? A telepathic attack of some kind?
I don't know, Clarisse thought. But the implant in your brain is activating again, same as last time.
The message repeated again, and this time she was able to make out an… overriding meaning, or perhaps just a prevailing sentiment. Perhaps she could even hear the word.
Uh, she thought. Obviously she had no answer to something like that.
No, wait, Clarisse thought. This makes more sense to me now. This isn't normal telepathy. This is… some kind of garbled machine transmission. I can see parts of it in the firing patterns, but your brain isn't structured to handle something like this, and I don't think it's giving the right responses.
Ryouko didn't know how to interpret that.
I'm receiving thoughts from a machine, that expects me to be a machine? Ryouko thought, unsure if she was even making sense.
None of us understand how the aliens really communicate, Clarisse thought. I know that's not really answering your question, but do you mind if I forward this to Patricia? She might be able to help. The parts of this I can read look like an authentication request, and I can't break something like that. Not without magic.
Sure, I think, she thought, though she didn't really feel sure. Just, what else was she supposed to do?
It took her an effort to contain her emotions, which couldn't help but notice the tension in the air, the way everyone was staying taut to teleport away at any moment, huddled around her. No one could be sure if it was the magical girl instincts, the implants, or the veterancy that kept anyone from reacting prematurely.
That pressure ate at her, and she found herself wishing, not for the first time, that Asami was here to reassure her, or just to be there. It was a need she felt acutely as she watched Patricia consider what she had received, while the rest of the team seemed to wait impassively. Ryouko couldn't tell if anyone else was as bothered as she was, or just doing a better job hiding it.
A moment later, Patricia shifted her position in the huddle, making her way over so that she could touch Ryouko on the head.
If I'm going to work my magic on something like this, better that I have some contact with the source, Patricia thought. I just hope whatever is shielding the thing in your head doesn't interfere with this.
Ryouko felt the equivalent of a telepathic knock on the door, one magical girl to another, asking for privileged mental access. Even with all the relevant context, it still took her a leap of faith to allow it, reversing the training Gracia had ingrained in her before.
She felt the slow rush of Patricia's magic surging into her mind, with a pounding that felt like she was carrying the ocean inside her head. She could sense Patricia rooting around inside, her presence unavoidably intrusive.
It took a good deal of effort not to double over, though she did put one hand on her head.
Ah, there we go, Patricia thought. How kind of it to get out of the way.
Patricia sent the last few words one by one, displaying effort even as she didn't explain what exactly she meant by "it".
A second later the pounding was gone, and Patricia had pulled her hand back.
That's as far as I'm going to get, she thought. I've never seen anything like it. A computer system with access to telepathy! Well, kind of, it seems different from our own. On a different channel somehow. There's a lot to think about here.
What does it mean? Ryouko thought, before clarifying. What does it mean that I can hear it?
Patricia made a strained expression.
I don't know, Patricia thought, to everyone.
Then, only to her:
I imagine it means whoever put it there meant for this to happen.
She waited a moment for Ryouko to digest the thought, then added:
I was able to bypass the authentication system for a bit, but my ability to project my magic beyond the local systems is limited. You should examine what I retrieved. I know it's already in your head.
As if summoned by Patricia's words, the images filled her mind.
More than images, she realized. She felt a kind of understanding, deeper rooted than any human cortical dump. The aliens were indeed configuring the pulsar mines into an ad‐hoc blink cannon, as they had thought, though the process had been almost completely dismantled by the human attacks. A blink cannon was quite simple in principle, once you could make wormholes in the first place. Lacking a stable gate on both sides, range was limited, but you could, with some effort, project the necessary gravitational effect to your exit point. It involved a certain kind of resonance, involving either very flat or—unexpectedly—very curved space‐time, not unlike her own teleportation.
She felt the sting of something sharp in her head, and almost reacted violently, only barely realizing that it had been Clarisse trying to get her attention.
Sorry, I had to get you out of that somehow, Clarisse thought. You were entering some kind of induced reverie. Probably related to the, uh, alien telepathy.
By then, the rest of the team had caught up with what was going on, at least superficially, and Ryouko felt rushed to get back in sync with them. She didn't want to seem like she was…
What? Losing her mind?
I need to know what impact this has on our mission, Ying‐zhi thought. Has anything changed?
We have a better idea of what the aliens are up to, Patricia thought, relaying Ryouko's findings. And that we've already nearly got them neutered. There's only a bit more left to do.
Indeed, the updated orders just came through, Clarisse thought.
Then let's get back on the move, Ying‐zhi thought.
They were already gathered around her, so Ryouko needed only to wait for the others to destabilize the exotic matter stabilizers, which they would do from a distance this time: Oda threw her spear into the wall, with an explosive charge embedded in the front that would detonate almost immediately after they left.
Ryouko found it difficult to think about anything other than what she had just learned. After all, what did her own teleportation do, other than open a wormhole with no stabilizer on the other end?
This time, when she tunneled through the fabric of the world, she felt unusually aware of the details. She didn't know exactly how, but this time, she noticed the small pulse of energy, the brief glimmer of what was on the other side.
There had to be other possibilities.
"I think I've got it stabilized! We can leave soon!"
That personal message, sent by Asami via the gestalt, blew a breath of relief into Ryouko's team.
Their pace of operations had slowed, as more and more of the other magical girl teams had arrived at the mines, allowing the fleet to begin gradually lightening their load, allowing them to proceed a bit more methodically, even as they were still all against the clock.
The exact timing of Asami's message left much to be desired, however.
Ryouko, Clarisse thought.
Ryouko ignored that, focusing on keeping up a barrage of arrows on the group of enemies packed in front of her. They needed to keep up the pressure, or else—
Ryouko! Clarisse thought, and this time the voice grabbed a disorienting amount of her attention, snapping her mind out of her intensely‐focused state.
I was getting carried away, she realized, as the greater context of their mission flooded back into her perception.
What? she demanded anyway, frustrated with the interruption.
We're withdrawing, Clarisse thought. Besides, you got them.
By "got them", Clarisse meant that the alien security forces crowding the access ways in front of them were pulling back, leaving behind dozens of corpses.
The aliens had managed to regroup a bit, encasing their remaining machinery in portable, volumetric forcefields that made it impossible for many teams, Ryouko's included, to operate purely from stealth.
We didn't 'get them', Ryouko pointed out. They're just regrouping closer to the device. They're fighting us to the death, so that's the only way this will end!
For our purposes now, you got them, Clarisse insisted. Again, we're withdrawing, so let's regroup and get out of here.
Are we just going to let them go? Ryouko asked, making an angry noise inside her suit.
Clarisse didn't answer this time, knowing full well Ryouko was arguing out of pointless frustration. Now that Ryouko was a bit less… focused on combat, the information packets accompanying Asami's message were clear: the aliens were down to only a fraction of the pulsar mines left, with several other teams still continuing their attack. Once those were done, there simply wouldn't be enough left to continue interfering with Asami's wormhole, a fact verified by information Ryouko herself had retrieved from the alien systems.
There was much to be said for destroying everything just in case, of course, but they didn't have that luxury. Alien reinforcements were arriving in batches now, and orbit around the pulsar was hot with active combat. They were already overstaying their welcome.
I know it doesn't feel right, leaving a job half‐done, Clarisse thought. But what we've done here would mean a lot less if you died here. Please.
Left untouched was the fact that she was being pulled out immediately, while several other teams were left to continue their work. She hated it, no matter how she justified it to herself.
Still simmering with an irrational frustration, Ryouko allowed some of the others to screen her as they fell back and re‐engaged their stealth. In a bid to think about something else, she returned to the question that had, almost disturbingly, bothered her ever since she had downloaded files off an alien system.
She was starting to be sure she could teleport something without teleporting herself. The blink cannon design had suggested a mechanism.
The reasonable part of her was quite sure that now wasn't the right time to study something like that.
You're thinking about it so you don't have to think about how the mission is going, or any of the other stuff, Clarisse thought. You're better than this. You need to focus.
I do focus, she thought. When we're actually fighting something. And I don't know that anyone else has to deal with shocking personal revelations right now.
Clarisse didn't dispute that, signaling her that the group was almost ready to be extracted. They were just waiting for confirmation from the ship that would be their ride…
There it was, and Ryouko suppressed a twinge of annoyance at Clarisse ignoring her. She released the internal tension that held her power in check, tunneling her way into space‐time to bring them to their destination.
Again she found herself hyper‐aware of the whole process—the bizarrely precise way in which space‐time bent itself to the exact necessary shape, the underlying particles rearranging just so, so that at the right moment the membrane underlying the world would pop open, swallow the target, and reform with the target in a new location. It was a wormhole, yes, but the briefest of ones, with a far more nuanced topology than she and Asami had ever achieved in their experiments, and a transition state that involved the true void of missing space‐time.
Part of this was her new augments, she realized—the implants that had expanded Clarisse's computing power to handle conditions around the pulsar also guided her perception in subtle ways.
A successful interaction of magic and implant technology that is beyond what we can achieve, Clarisse thought, when the teleportation was finished. Supposedly, anyway.
Clarisse paused for a beat, and Ryouko sensed it wasn't rhetorical—Clarisse was hesitating about something.
There is, of course, an isomorphic holographic explanation of that teleportation process too, if you'd like to hear it. I think it makes things a bit more clear.
No thanks, not right now. That was the only part of Tao's lectures I couldn't really follow.
I think you should try. But, perhaps not right now.
They had arrived on the Magi Cæli cruiser HSS Kautilya, where an assortment of drones awaited them, scurrying to help them take off their helmets, refreshing grief cube stocks, and carrying away most of their weapons and equipment for rearming or refurbishment, following clearly marked drone trails to avoid being stepped on by the humans.
The room jerked suddenly, jostled by some unseen exertion of the remaining alien gravity modulators, and one of the drones started to topple over, dropping a few grief cubes from its tray—which were immediately picked up and returned by its neighbor, with the kind of unerring cooperation humans had come to expect.
The girls stayed in their suits, though, watching another flock of drones wheel in with replacement equipment. They wouldn't be staying for long, after all—just long enough for the cruiser to help transfer them back to the wormhole, where Ryouko would pass Asami before stationing herself on the human end of the wormhole, just in case she was needed.
She felt the flicker of frustration pass through her once more, amplified by the lack of activity. So she would be going back, while Asami did all the work.
She looked around a bit—the room they were in was a MagOps staging area, nothing but drones, equipment, and walls full of relevant combat displays, rarely relevant for a user base that was very used to cortical information dumps.
There was something she could do while she was waiting, if she wanted an excuse to work on her teleportation. Perhaps, if she just put some thought into it…
She bent over, asking one of the empty‐handed drones to temporarily abandon its current duties as she picked it up.
She started to visualize where she could send it, what she could do with it. Following what she had just observed about her own teleportation, it wouldn't be too hard to change the process. In theory, at least, all she needed to do was convince her teleportation to fold its space‐time pocket at a different location. Not around herself, but around a separate object. That was easy to say, but…
I'd strongly advise against doing this right now, Clarisse protested. It's at best a waste of magic, and the others think you're behaving strangely already.
I know what they think, Ryouko thought. But I just want to try it. Look.
She tuned out whatever Clarisse was saying, focusing herself on the drone. It fit neatly in both of her hands, with its dual‐optical devices peering up at her, and maybe, it just wanted to be somewhere else—
And then, it was, ten or so centimeters to the right, and she had to dart a hand out to catch it.
I'm going to have to stop you there, Azrael thought, grabbing her by the shoulder. With a nudge, she encouraged Ryouko to turn and face her—which felt a bit odd, since Azrael was noticeably shorter than Ryouko's aged‐up body.
She remembered then, if she had ever forgotten, that Azrael was reading her mind.
They made eye contact.
Listen, Azrael thought. I don't want you to overreact, but ever since you contacted that alien device, you've been acting very strange. I know you have a history of overly aggressive behavior in combat, but your thoughts have been getting strangely obsessive, and now you're using magic we haven't seen before. I hope you can see why we might be concerned.
Ryouko blinked, swallowing her initial rash response. Azrael was her friend, and… now that she thought about it, if truth be told, the others were under‐reacting.
So where you're going with this is… she cued, though she could guess.
I think we should screen you for some kind of malign manipulation. Between Patricia and I, we have the magic for a volition integrity check. I still don't see how such a thing would be possible, but it's worth being careful.
Mina started to say something, the protest written all over her face, but Ying‐zhi grabbed her before she could finish opening the channel. Ryouko appreciated the gesture of trust, she decided, even if it was a bit… religious in nature.
I think that's reasonable, Clarisse thought. I can't really see how it's possible either, but it couldn't hurt.
Ryouko clenched her teeth for a moment, deciding what to respond to first.
I have the distinct sense you're hiding something from me, she thought to Clarisse.
The thing in your brain has been pretty active for a while now, mostly when you're thinking about the blink cannon data and teleportation. I don't see how it could be malicious, but I've been monitoring. I didn't want to worry you any further, under the circumstances. I knew Azrael was watching too, so I thought that was safe. I'm sorry.
Ryouko had felt an unhappy anger rising within her, but the worry she could feel from Clarisse seemed to dispel it instantly. Something about the way she said it grounded her again, made her realize the absurdity of her anger at a time like this. She didn't like Clarisse keeping secrets from her—but it was justified here, and now certainly wasn't the time to blow up about it.
Not that I have a choice, she thought to Azrael. But, okay. Are we going to do this here? Don't we need to teleport again soon?
By soon, she meant fifteen seconds, which the cruiser was forecasting as their timing window.
After we get to the wormhole, Azrael thought. We of course can't linger here.
If they really thought she was untrustworthy, they wouldn't let her teleport them again, Ryouko thought. That reassured her.
It took Ryouko a moment to get her bearings again.
Here, at the lip of the open wormhole, the world was split in twain, the alien Taklamakan Sector and its pulsar on the one hand, and the human Tigric Sector with its gate assembly on the other, divided by a swirl of light that dazzled the eyes.
As she watched, frigates and a few magical girl teams sped through to the far side. The withdrawal was underway.
She spotted Asami nearby with her escorts, and felt a wave of happy relief, releasing the tension that had clenched its way around her heart. That was followed by a sting of anxiety as she remembered that this was just a passing visit.
Simona wasn't as conflicted, though, and pinged Ryouko for attention the moment she arrived.
Finally, Simona thought, when she got close enough. I was so worried. I'd go with you if I could.
Ryouko nodded slightly, watching her carefully. She thought it was strange, that Simona would have that as a priority, rather than, say, the rushed evacuation, or the failed mission.
Then she turned to look at the girl in a colorful purple spacesuit, arms raised at the threshold between worlds, standing out in the crowd of floating magical girls, one of whom was maintaining a constant yellow‐tinged barrier.
Asami, for her part, seemed to be diligently focused on maintaining the wormhole, channeling magic constantly, without even glancing at the new arrivals. From a distance, Ryouko could just make out her grimly‐lined face.
Ryouko watched for a moment longer, intending to leave her alone, but Asami spoke first:
It's nice to see you. I'm glad you made it out.
The words were simple, unadorned, but Ryouko could feel the emotion behind them.
I'm glad too, Ryouko thought.
I heard about what happened with the alien equipment. I hope, uh, I hope everything turns out well.
Asami's voice was holding a lot back.
It shouldn't be anything serious, Ryouko thought, returning the simple thoughts in kind. They didn't need to be elaborate.
I know Azrael wants to do another magic check on you, Asami thought. Can you stay on this side of the wormhole while you do it?
That question brought Ryouko back into the moment, with Simona staring at her from the left, and the endless chatter of the fleet in her mind.
It sounded like an innocent personal request, oddly out of place in this critical situation—but it was also relayed to the group, and came attached with the stamp of Command approval, unexplained.
What? Why? Simona thought incredulously, before anyone else responded.
Azrael appeared at her side immediately, as if she had known now would be the right time to confront her.
Why indeed? she thought. I thought this might be a good time to ask you a few important questions. And you best answer quickly, given how much time we have.
To accentuate her point, Ying‐zhi and two of the others appeared alongside her.
Simona tensed, her face developing a scowl as she looked back and forth between the others. She had only just been told what had happened with Ryouko's brain module, and had a lot to work through.
I don't know what you're talking about, Simona thought, after a moment, clearly restraining herself. I told you; I don't know anything about that thing!
Are you sure? Azrael asked. Because we're about to volition check her, and if it's going to react poorly to that, it will be on your head.
I… wouldn't lie to you about something like that. If it's unsafe, I would tell you. I don't know anything. Scan my mind if you want to. Go ahead!
If you say so, Azrael thought, lifting her hand and aiming it at the defiantly‐posed Simona.
Ryouko looked away, over at Asami, who hadn't so much as turned her head at the commotion around her, then at the pulsar, around which her mental interface labeled friendly and enemy ships, as well as fast‐moving debris fields. The screen protecting the wormhole was still holding up, for now.
She thought about Simona.
Having spent a good deal of time around the girl at this point, she tended to believe that Simona wouldn't deliberately hurt her, and she definitely empathized with what it was like not to be trusted, but she couldn't fault the others' caution. Simona was an uncertain element—at best.
If you're not hiding anything, Azrael thought, her magic still streaming through Simona's head. Then why is there a hidden memory connection I can't dereference? There's a special reason you're worried about this mission, something that happened since we last questioned you, but I don't know what it is. Care to share?
That got Ryouko's attention, and she watched as Simona's face went through the motions of someone working out whether to deny something that couldn't really be denied.
Even Asami turned her head to watch.
Fine, Simona thought. But it's not as if you're going to get very much from it. Not more than I got, anyway.
I'll be the judge of that, Azrael thought.
Not long after, though, Azrael cut off her magic, shaking her head. She looked surprised by something, almost shocked.
Alright, though that's not exactly reassuring, she thought, more for the crowd than for Simona.
She signaled that she was ready to turn her attention to Ryouko, and Ying‐zhi and the others crowded in around Simona, surrounding her and continuing to question her according to Azrael's instructions—mind‐reads often missed the subtleties and finer points of inference.
I suppose it's my turn then, Ryouko thought, when Azrael got to her. Mind telling me what that was about with Simona?
After I scan you, Azrael thought. I'm sure we'd both rather it be over sooner.
Me three, Asami thought, looking at the wormhole again.
It was a flippant response, but Ryouko could tell she was nervous.
Ryouko had some idea of what to expect: a deep search like this felt like a presence looming in the back of your mind, which was only unpleasant if you chose to fight it. She found that the hardest part of it all was staying still while Azrael and Patricia worked their magic, with everything going on around her: the battle in the background, Simona being questioned, Asami still working…
But the gestalt had elected not to wait until she passed through the wormhole, acceding to Asami's mysterious request, and Ryouko wasn't in the mood to complain.
Still no signs of anything really off, Patricia thought, at the end of it.
Azrael looked Ryouko in the eye.
Akemi Homura, of all people, sent Simona a personal message, Azrael thought. Used some kind of magic salamander. Homura spoke as if she had played a big role in Simona's life, and then gave an apology which sounded rather… anticipatory. This was right after Valentin disappeared, and Simona thinks Homura might have been Valentin, which I'm going to say, off the record, is pretty plausible.
Ryouko wondered how to process this latest revelation. Homura? Valentin? What were they doing connected? What was she doing leading Simona around, then? It was probably best she save all that for later.
A shiver of empathy passed through her. If she was unhappy about being manipulated without her knowledge, Simona had suffered the same thing, but worse.
We can confront Homura eventually, if we're lucky, Azrael thought, sending Simona's memory alongside it. But don't get tunnel vision here. I just wanted to fill you in. Anyway, I've got to go keep an eye on Simona.
Ryouko watched as Azrael turned away, deciding if she should examine the memory she had been sent.
Not now, she decided, steering forward to be right next to Asami. There'd be time later, but right now, she needed Asami. This might be her only real chance.
The gestalt didn't just keep you here for me, you know, Asami thought, unprompted. They were worried that if you were compromised, you'd be most dangerous while inside the wormhole or on the other side. I hate that I had to agree with that assessment. It's not paranoia when the situation is this unexpected.
Asami kept her gaze fixed on the wormhole, and it took Ryouko a moment to understand what she said, what she meant by it.
It was within your right to worry, Ryouko thought, trying to reassure. She meant it, too.
Nevermind, Asami thought. That's not the main reason I asked. I heard about your new experiments with teleportation.
Ryouko blinked in surprise, and before she could ask why Asami was asking, she received a packet of information from Asami, direct relay, that explained what she was thinking.
It was… audacious, to put it minimally. Audacious and clever.
Yes, I could do that, Ryouko said. I've never done it before, but here, with our wormhole to leverage, and with Simona…
It was difficult to explain, but they both knew what she meant. When you unlocked a new kind of magic, sometimes you knew, instinctively, how it worked.
Do you think you could run some experiments? Just in case?
Yeah, I suppose I could, Ryouko thought, as her mind boggled with the implications of what Asami was proposing. Let me process this a bit.
It couldn't really work, could it?
All the pieces fit, though.
Asami's black holes were temporary constructs: physical, but with unphysical properties maintained by Asami's magic. Among other things, they had an event horizon substantially larger than made sense for their actual mass—it was the only way she could summon palm‐sized black holes without conjuring ten Earth masses.
When she dismissed her magic, they reverted back to being subatomic in size before the underlying singularities vanished from existence entirely. Thus, they weren't any kind of persistent threat; even a permanent black hole of that size, dropped into any kind of ordinary matter, would evaporate to Hawking radiation long before it ran into another particle.
That was for ordinary matter, though. The story was entirely different for neutronium.
In a material like that, even the shortest‐lived of black holes might never stop growing, even if the original mass immediately evaporated or, in the case of a magical construct, vanished entirely.
All of which suggested that if there were just some way to bring one of Asami's black holes into contact with the neutron star, the reaction would be cataclysmic—a total collapse, with all the attendant radiation effects.
Hence, Asami and the gestalt's question about whether Ryouko could teleport such a thing. It didn't even have to land inside the pulsar; near the star, the milieu of charged particles in its intense magnetic field—and emanating from the polar jets—would sustain it just long enough for entry.
All of that, she grasped almost immediately, faster than she would have expected even with direct cortical injection, a lifetime of schooling, and her new support implants. The finer technical details, the numerical simulations—she didn't need to grasp those right away.
Asami waited the few seconds patiently.
This is crazy, Ryouko thought. Ingenious, but crazy.
I know, Asami thought. But it might work. We have preliminary approval to try it, if there's a safe window to do it just before we leave. That's why you're staying here.
Ryouko felt her head spin for a moment. All the latent frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction she had been feeling spiraled out of her. She had a chance to do something.
Then she managed to reel herself back in.
I knew you'd like the idea, Asami thought. Just remember we're still in danger out here. I want us both to make it home in one piece.
This time Asami was looking straight at her, and Ryouko nodded once, making sure to show that she meant it.
Then she turned and looked at the others, who by now would be receiving fully updated orders.
It was difficult at first to tell that anything had changed, except that the gesturing around Simona had stopped, as something new took priority.
That's incredible, someone thought.
I knew she wouldn't let us down, Mina thought. I knew there was a plan for us here.
As an excited wave bubbled through the telepathic network, Ryouko remembered, too late, that Mina and Patricia weren't the only Cult members present. She was getting looks from some of the other girls, ones who knew her by her personal legend.
That was a silly thing to worry about now, she decided. What was important was getting things done, and that meant testing—
I can't believe it!
Simona's message, angry and loud, was so out of tone that it cut straight through the chatter, especially when she rocketed over straight at Ryouko.
This is crazy, she said. You're crazy.
It was unclear who she was speaking to until she raised her finger and pointed at Asami.
Ryouko's clearly being targeted here! You know she only escaped earlier assassinations by a nanothread, and now you go and force her to be the last one out?
Ryouko could only stare back in astonishment.
I wouldn't be here at all if I only cared about my personal survival, Ryouko thought back. And Asami's plan isn't even that dangerous.
Can't you please just let me protect you?
Azrael and one of the other girls appeared at Simona's side, grabbing her by the arms.
That's more than enough, Azrael thought. Back off and calm down.
You're being selfish, the other girl thought. Think about the long‐term projections they showed us. We're saving maybe millions of lives here.
Damn it, think about this! Simona thought. Your life, my life, it all fits a pattern. We've been pushed into giving everything we have for the greater good, with no guarantee that we'll be able to hold on to anything. We've done everything they asked of us! Why do you need to come up with something more?
Ryouko, who had been trying to turn away, felt an anger plume within her.
Is that all you care about? she asked. Holding on to me? I didn't wish to be out here so that I could hold still for you. I'm doing exactly what I always wanted right now.
Ryouko, does Simona need to be here? Asami thought. Can you do the teleport without her?
Maybe not, she thought. Can you control the wormhole without her?
Asami returned a mental grimace.
Ryouko turned, grabbing Simona's shoulder.
Look, I don't know how to say this, but we need you here. You're not going to talk me into leaving, even if I could.
Simona didn't meet her eyes, instead looking down and away.
You don't get it. I thought you would, by now. But I guess that's my fault. The thing is, that life you threw away, the one that's just 'holding still'… that's all I ever wanted.
She shook her head, clenching her teeth.
Fine. There's not much I can do about it anyway. But if there's any sign of real danger, we're heading back.
That's what the plan says anyway, Ryouko thought, trying to be soothing. Look, you should focus on helping Asami maintain the wormhole. I'll be alright.
It was an unpleasant experience, mouthing words that she could tell weren't having their intended effect. If anything, it just seemed to make Simona more sullen. She couldn't bridge that gap.
The girl seemed to calm down a bit, though, and after the others let her go—albeit with some reluctance—she even moved back to be near Asami, though Ryouko could tell Simona was still watching her with one eye.
She could focus now on preparing for their gambit.
There's not much you can do about Simona, Clarisse thought. It's not your problem to solve. As long as she helps us finish up here, that's what matters.
Ryouko nodded along, gathering her magic to begin trying a few teleports, just short‐range for now.
But while she did, her thoughts lingered behind her, within Simona's words. The blink interdiction, her brain's connection to alien tech in the mines, Simona, Valentin, Homura—it was like she was obediently eating up a trail of breadcrumbs, getting tidbits from everywhere, yet never reaching the full truth.
She had been delaying thinking about all that, but it had only gotten her blindsided, repeatedly. The way Patricia and Azrael had acted—someone obviously knew something, and had decided she didn't deserve to know.
Chitose Yuma, Clarisse thought. At least, in part. Patricia told me, back in the mines, I was going to—nevermind. If you want to just ask her, I can send her a message, but I can't promise a response. The implant in your head may seem benign, but she might still have concerns.
Ryouko had almost forgotten about Yuma—they had barely met twice. Then again, the Goddess had given Ryouko that long vision about her…
Yes, Ryouko thought. Please. Ask her.
Yuma watched the shields of the alien vessel near her shiver under the impact of another salvo of kinetic impacters, the faint image of the frigate rippling as its shields absorbed the stress. The ship had proven remarkably robust, but even it was starting to show considerable strain under constant pressure, despite having magical girls to defend it.
And there goes the last of my ships, Kyouko thought.
Yuma didn't know which of Kyouko's clones had sent the message, weaving its way through the frenetic, spiraling melee. She only knew that it seemed she could hardly blink without seeing another one die, blown apart, bisected, or simply vaporized. Kyouko was throwing herself into the grinder at a suicidal rate, buying the rest of them time.
Kyouko said nothing further. There was no point, with the command gestalt gone, replaced by a telepathic network so knottedly nested that they were practically thinking on top of each other.
Yuma bit her lip, awash with a sense of powerlessness as the seconds ticked by, even as she kept herself active, swinging behind a wall of Kyoukos to regenerate the arm and suit of an injured magical girl. There was nothing left to plan now, just an intolerable cauldron of combat while they waited for their paradox drives to charge, as their remaining ships—two alien frigates and one alien fighter—twirled and weaved heroically.
They were lucky they were even able to use their stolen paradox drives. Such a feat was notoriously difficult, and they might never have managed it had they not received a sudden trove of data about blink technology from, of all places, Project Armstrong, where it had been retrieved on‐mission.
Of course, the aliens needed no such aid to detect the humans trying to use a blink jump to escape.
The question would be: where? Blink trajectories were not easily traceable a priori, but they could be easily pursued after the fact. That meant there was only one destination that would seem to matter: the human reinforcements. Anywhere else, and the aliens would simply follow immediately afterward.
Jumping to the reinforcements would be an act of desperation, though; the time it would take to charge a jump was completely unsurvivable, not even taking into account the power drain on ship systems.
The Cephalopods, hopefully, perceived a desperate final gambit, a prayer for a miracle—and were responding accordingly, focusing most of their ships on driving home the attack, making attack run after attack run, while about a third charged their own paradox drives, just in case they were needed for pursuit.
Humans had proved very adept at miracles, after all.
Yuma ended her arm repair, leaving sections of ruptured skin and muscle to fend for themselves as she defended herself, enlarging her hammer to five times her size as she thrust it forward, an impromptu, almost comical shield to absorb the impact of a fusillade of missiles.
She wasn't even able to turn her head to look when their alien fighter fell away, vectoring out of control as its thrusters took a critical hit. Without control, it was helpless.
The impact on Yuma's hammer sent her backward, her magic straining against the exertion of keeping the magical construct intact and canceling the new momentum—her hammer needed to cover the arrival of another patient, blinded by radiation damage.
Nadya slingshotted past Yuma a second afterward, readying a telekinetic burst to thin out a second wave of missiles, far more efficient than Yuma's hammer‐shield. Yuma murmured a telepathic thanks.
Their alien fighter took a pair of missile impacts a moment later, transforming in an instant from friendly combatant to cloud of navigational hazards—Rin barely managed to get Jeannette's soul gem out in time.
Someone in their telepathic network gave thanks to the Goddess, a sentiment Yuma could not share. Not when they had lost the ship.
Yuma's plan didn't actually rely on any miracles, magical girl or divine.
The aliens were intended to think they were trying to reach the human reinforcements, but they were aiming only for the hidden alien supply cruiser. That made a huge difference in charging time.
This was a bit of deception that had to work, though. If the aliens realized what they were up to, they would realize it wasn't safe to have only a third of their flotilla charge blink drives—the whole flotilla needed to follow immediately, to prevent a gambit involving the cruiser.
It was already nearly too late for them to realize—now, several minutes in, the humans were almost done charging. Jeannette's ship had missed making it by only thirty seconds.
The girl Yuma whose eyesight Yuma had just restored released a bolt of sapphire magic that impacted something in front of them, spiraling forward almost too fast for her to see. Yuma caught a glimpse of a kinetic shell suspended there for a moment, before it spun in place and flew back towards its source.
Then the aliens changed their tactics. Perhaps they had attempted to contact their cruiser, or perhaps they had simply wisened up. Either way, half of the still‐attacking alien ships began charging their own paradox drives, while the other half burned all their energy stores trying to finish the humans off.
They would be late to the party. Every magical girl there knew how long was left, knew it was only seconds, and now they spun into new trajectories, abandoning the remaining inbound targets for a new defensive formation, right next to the ships—
Yuma found herself next to one of Kyouko's clones, who smiled at her. She reached up to grab her hand, a gesture so familiar, so old, that it brought back memories.
Executing tactical jump, Rose‐Merline and Charlotte thought.
The bulk of the alien supply cruiser appeared before them in an instant, close enough for it to dominate their field of vision.
To the assembled magical girls, though, it wasn't the disparity in tonnage discomfiting them. They were all immediately on edge—even more on edge, if that were possible—the moment they arrived. It was an instinctual reaction to the unnerving sense of demons, the oozing malaise of the miasma.
It felt almost paradoxical for that evil to be so welcome, but it was. Their gambit had worked, and the demons had spawned aboard the cruiser. The ship was still here, was barely taking any defensive measures, and its stealth had evidently failed. Several alien bombers had been disabled alongside it, mid‐refueling, and both cruiser and bombers shimmered with the ghostly sheen of miasma, caught between two realities.
But there was no time to extol their good fortune. Even as those thoughts started to work their way through her mind, Kana was already pulling them towards her telekinetically, drawing inward a sphere of magical girls who would soon be aboard the alien craft.
As they reorganized themselves, the first group of alien frigates and fighters appeared, those that had been charging their paradox drives the longest. Two Kyouko squadrons rushed out, hoping to distract them from less replaceable targets. Both sides opened fire despite being immobilized, and a few of the alien bombers flew in, despite their lack of armament, seeking to at least disrupt the human firing solutions.
Everything quickly descended into a chaotic morass, and stray impacts landing where there was miasma led to double vision, the damage in the exterior world leading to roiling instability within the miasma.
The world around Yuma shifted again, and this time she was inside the engine room of an alien vessel, its cavernous, rounded architecture palpably larger than any of the frigates she had been on.
Yuma was already moving, instincts kicking in to propel her aggressively towards a group of enemies before her, while a magic shell projected by one of the other girls took the hits. Not aliens, but demons, starved for prey.
It had been so long since she had done more than cursory, obligation demon fighting, but it came to her again like second nature. Kyouko's clones were already weaving a storm of chains, pulling a dozen of them together as she jumped up into the air.
With a crunch that rattled even her bones, she brought her hammer down on the floor of the engine room. A pulse of green energy snapped outward, disintegrating the group of demons on contact.
A jolt of telekinesis put her in flight again, this time high into the air, with a slight horizontal twist.
Now she scanned the room's floating antigrav platforms, the access points to the engine room's systems and engine core. Within the miasma, they faded in and out of sight, dream‐like and serene.
She finally found a cluster of demons grouped on one of the floating platforms, along with some of the aliens, standing silently in a circle. Diving, she swept them all aside with one broad, mass‐enhanced stroke, taking a few minor hits to her leg, easily healed.
Bracing, she thought, landing adroitly in a pile of grief cubes, green magic fizzling off her calves, ichor vanishing from her hammer. She'd forgotten what it was like to fight in her teenage form, the intoxicating, irrational sense of power that came from… being slightly taller, and knowing, or at least thinking, you looked good doing it.
We're clear, one of the Kyoukos thought, echoing the telepathic network.
Already? Yuma thought. Demons were one thing, but they had expected to have to fight a wave of alien defenders as well. That was one of the reasons why teams had landed in the engine room and bridge, as well as the exotic matter stores—they needed to control the heart of the ship.
We've had a bit of a surprise, Kyouko thought.
Yuma absorbed the details she was sent as she jumped down from the platform, accelerating her fall with an additional jolt of magic.
She needed to take a look for herself.
She landed next to a group of a dozen Cephalopods whose nearby demons had just been cleared away. They were unarmored, draped in robes patterned by colorful stripes. Layered on top of that were a few narrow cords, wound around their arms and chests.
They were also motionless, listless, eyes empty. Like human demon victims, not the emotionless aliens they were supposed to be. Alien technology was affected by demons, but not the aliens themselves. That was how it had always been.
Yuma shook her head at it all, then raised one hand.
Waves of faint green light rippled out across the room, pulsing outward from Yuma's skin. Life, even augmented life, was a fragile thing. One broken valve, one clogged tube —that was all it took. Minute decay, wrought by the gentle touch of green magic, brought them all down, down, until the aliens lay crumpled against walls and under workstations, deceased.
Yuma couldn't help but feel a frisson of unease, though, both at the necessity of what she had done —an irrational reaction, given the situation and her own history —and at the idea of Cephalopod demon victims. It didn't add up.
But, demon victims or not, anomalies or not, they would have become hostile given a few minutes to wake up, and she simply had to move on. Every millisecond Yuma lingered to study the situation was damage to the ships and to the magical girls who were her responsibility.
Without comment, then, and even as she felt Kyoukos' gazes on her, she dashed towards the alien FTL core. They needed access to the ship's primary exotic matter supply, which would be tied to the engine—and for that, they needed the engine's cooperation, willing or not. It would have been easier with Jeannette, but…
She landed on a floating platform near the core, hovering directly in front of the primary field inducer. Here, half a dozen of the metallic‐silver rings that circled the core met at an enigmatic, blue‐glowing orb, the field inducer itself, about twice the size of Yuma's head.
Kana was waiting for her there, standing next to the bodies of three alien technicians. Yuma swept them aside with distaste, a brush of telekinetic magic that sent the bodies flying to the ground below.
Then she channeled her magic into the orb. It shuddered, then dimmed, as the two of them seized the engine's exotic matter containment and routing mechanisms. With it, they could divert, contain, or, if necessary, detonate the ship's exotic matter stores, a linchpin to what they needed to achieve.
A sudden emptiness tore at the back of Yuma's mind, and it took her a moment to register that the gap was one of their two remaining ships, and with it most hands, including the Ancient controlling it, Charlotte Meitner.
Yuma pushed those emotions somewhere far away, and stepped back from the orb, leaving it in Kana's care as she made contact with her for a teleport.
She needed to get back to Rose's ship—their last ship—to help power the shields while it recovered from its recent blink. That would be her role now.
The rest would have to be left to the others.
Manipulating raw exotic matter fuel was a messy, hands‐on affair, particularly as exotic matter was not exactly stable under standard conditions. Among other things, it needed to stay highly pressurized just to avoid explosive disintegration.
Fortunately for them, Nadya Antipova was on the case.
She prided herself on being Humanity's strongest telekinetic, not just in raw force output, but also in finesse and distance of projection. Even so, this task was a substantial exertion.
At a signal from Kana, they had cut their way straight into one of the cruiser's auxiliary containment tanks, full of reserve exotic matter intended for refueling bombers. That was the kind of thing that would have ordinarily triggered a catastrophic, radioactive conflagration, except for Kana's careful titration of the fuel they were receiving, allowing Nadya to contain and direct their supply with telekinesis alone.
On the engine room floor, around her and her two assistants, lay an assemblage of tubing, wiring, and metallic‐composite parts, much of it twitching and writhing in the manner of displeased smart materials. That represented all the relevant spare parts and equipment they could salvage, both from their own ships and from the cruiser's repair depots and missile bays. Next to this, up against the wall of the tank, Rin sat feverishly assembling it all into misshapen exotic matter charges, hands dancing back and forth at inhuman speed, parts snapping in from the pile in staccato bursts of telekinesis.
Of course, it wasn't really possible to take a bunch of spare parts and mash them together into a set of effective exotic matter charges, capable of furrowing space‐time and grounding ships, but Rin's magic could will it.
Rin signaled that the next device was ready, and Nadya began the transfer process, straining her magic to direct the stream of burning‐white exotic matter into the air and over into the waiting entry port of a misshapen patchwork‐rabbit of a bomb, nearly a meter in diameter and both cubic and spherical, depending on how you looked at it.
It only took about three seconds, but the exertion made it feel like much longer.
Done, Rin thought, sliding the device aside with one hand. One more.
Nadya waited, concentrating on her work, considering what was to come. Right now she had help, but when the time came to fire the charges, she would probably be handling most of the delivery herself—they were missing both Arisu and Charlotte, their next‐best telekinetics.
It was lonely, but she was used to it.
Last one, Rin thought.
Nadya gritted her teeth, both from the strain of her work and the reports from outside. The fight was much fairer than before, especially now that they had managed to take out one of the alien frigates, but with most of their magical girls busy aboard the cruiser, the difference in offensive capability was still daunting.
Done, Rin thought.
Finally, Nadya thought.
A girl sealed the puncture with a blast of magic crystal, while Nadya and one of the others levitated the bulky devices, nearly two dozen in all, a wall of floating metal that dwarfed the much smaller humans. Even one would be hard to fit through a standard alien doorway.
There was so much bulk, in fact, that they would have needed a strong teleporter to move it off the ship directly. Unfortunately, there were none left available, except for Kana, who was controlling the ship's engine, keeping residual exotic matter from breaking their weak seal while there were still too many aboard.
But they could always improvise, of course.
Two magical girls moved in front of them, brandishing a combination of oversized shield and magical laser cannon. They needed to get out of the ship, and the shortest path was a straight line, after all.
Nadya rather enjoyed bulldozing through reinforced walls, but this time it was best she let the others handle it, simply racing forward with her line of interdiction charges as a path vaporized itself through the ship. The cannoneer couldn't help but yell as they ran.
Then they broke out into the void, white hull fragments careening outward, and Nadya, Rin, and the others vaulted outward, propelled by the rush of air behind them.
They emerged into a panorama of chaos, with ships, magical girls, and their constructs and ruins littered at the side of the cruiser, mixing strangely with the demon miasmas still active in parts of the ship.
Here, where the contested area was narrow, fighting was dense. They immediately started tracking stray projectiles slinging by them, and one of Kyouko's clones rocketed by only a few dozen meters away.
But, for a few precious seconds, they weren't anyone's target.
They split up immediately, Rin and two Cult girls taking some of the contraptions one way, Nadya taking the rest in another, with the remaining girls returning to battle. Maki joined with Nadya shortly after, cloaking the two of them and their payload in a veil of star‐sequined black that would, hopefully, keep their activity hidden just a bit longer.
The exotic matter charges would have to be carefully targeted, engulfing the malaised alien ships in another layer of FTL inhibition, while still conforming to the overall geometry precalculated by the gestalt, so that the effect was mutually reinforcing.
There were three groups of alien ships to consider. First were the six ships already here, the originally designated pursuit ships. These they would need to hit right away, before the second wave of ships arrived—those that had started charging their paradox drives late. They would then have to take care of those too, to ensure they weren't followed in their escape.
Finally, there were the alien ships that had focused on trying to finish them off, who would arrive very late, having spent most of their energy earlier on attack. Hopefully they would arrive late enough that Rose's frigate would already be escaping, and so not be a concern.
She let the landscape of the battle around her unfold in her mind, augmenting her already formidable sense of space. An optimal route was already plotted out, and she and Maki were already on their way.
She kept her eyes fixed on the first drop‐off point, letting the battlefield flow past her. A stream of drones and other magical girls zoomed past in her mind's eye, entering and exiting her awareness with the smoothness of a ripple through water.
As they reached their target, she lashed out with a tendril of her telekinesis, launching one of the charges on an approach trajectory towards one of the alien ships. The onboard wiring would take care of the rest, detonating as it reached its destination.
But even as she spun away to the next drop‐off point, the lurching acceleration straining her inhuman flesh, her communications implants forced part of her attention to a new alert. The aliens were starting to target the drop teams.
Nadya gritted her teeth. That was unpleasant, but expected.
It was even factored into the route. She would drop her next charges much farther from their destinations. They would spend longer in flight, making them more vulnerable, but this let her cut corners on her route.
Her suit started relaying warnings that enemy drones had her in sensor lock, and she accelerated sharply, ignoring her internal damage indicators, pulling Maki along with her. Maki was doing her part with a pair of paint boosters on her back, but did not have Nadya's raw speed.
The sensor lock faded, and Nadya settled back in, letting the rest of the battle drop from her active mind, trusting her TacComp to alert her to anything truly critical. For now, focus and speed.
That had kept her alive for a good many years.
A few seconds later, her TacComp informed her that Rin's team had successfully hit a fighter, but had taken heavy radiation bombing in the process. They likely weren't going to finish their half of the first wave in time—Nadya would need to try to make up for it.
Nadya muted her frustration, focusing on her next target. She mapped out a less obvious trajectory, accepting suboptimal routing to make it harder for the aliens to predict where she was going—indeed, the optimal trajectory was already being combed with drones and sensor scans.
It would be a challenge. The frigates might be stationary, mired in blink malaise, but they were hardly harmless. Without the benefit of surprise, if Maki's camouflage failed they would be the recipient of a killing amount of firepower.
Thoughts raced across the human network, and in a few moments, they had an idea. Somewhere from their repository of tricks, they would marshal a classic gambit: a distraction.
That distraction came in the form of Kyouko, a giant Kyouko, larger than an alien frigate, wielding in two hands a massive spear and a hammer, courtesy of Yuma. It materialized near a group of Kyoukos, rocketing forward to give the next alien ship a big slam.
It was one of Kyouko's projections, of course, an apparition rather than a full clone, but the aliens had to take it seriously—it looked real on their sensors, after all, and some kind of giant magical girl was perfectly plausible, given all else they had seen.
Indeed, the hammer slammed into the ship's shields with a good deal of real force, sending a shimmering shockwave around it, even as the ship focused all its close‐in lasers and kinetic batteries at the apparition, which dissolved quickly.
This was Nadya's window, and she had already released her exotic matter charge, sending it with a telekinetic shove in the direction of the ship, right before impact.
Gravitational fireworks splashed across the human sensor relays, showing successful deployment, and Nadya raced away from the scene before the frigate could target her.
Nadya still needed to handle two more ships, including one of Rin's, and that was just from the first group of arrivals—the second group, five in all, was due to arrive in seconds.
It was fifty‐fifty which ship she would go for next, and the aliens would be on guard around both.
After that last stunt, Maki thought, they might assume anything crazy‐looking we throw at them is fake. But if I generate something completely normal, like a brace of missiles, they'll have to respond, no matter what they think.
It wouldn't be as effective, since the aliens would avoid overreacting and might smell a rat, but it was worth at least trying.
This time, as they approached their drop point, Nadya's implants began alarming again—something had gotten another sensor lock on them.
They veered away hard, Nadya hastily calculating a new drop trajectory, and she launched the exotic matter charge a bit early, using both her own momentum and telekinesis to jolt it onto the right trajectory.
Then she spun around, concentrating on deflecting the missile—
The missile veered away, seeking an imitation Nadya and Maki flying off in another direction. Nadya learned their charge had been intercepted by a bomber right afterward.
She didn't have time to dwell on either result, instantly turning to freeze and crush a trio of alien drones and blast them away.
We need some cover! she thought.
She got her wish, in the form of a splash of rainbow‐colored smoke, materializing around her faster than any conventional response could have possibly arrived. It blotted out the darkness of space almost comically.
A tight set of command codes bounced into her head, as brief as possible: authentication, phenomenon is friendly, navigate away along this course.
The context filled in as she followed the instructions, but her implants filed it away from her primary consciousness. Not useful at the moment.
The lack of gestalt, and its attendant battlefield awareness, felt almost like a blindness, and it took far too long for the telepathic network to give her an important update: five angry sensor blips that represented the second group of alien ships making their appearance, neatly cutting her off from the two uninterdicted ships of the first wave.
Another warning echoed through her mind, and she raised a telekinetic bubble, bracing for impact—Kana was breaching the cruiser's remaining exotic matter, which would trigger a radioactive detonation.
The radiation front reached them about ten seconds later, glimmering off her barrier. She couldn't help but glance at the spectacle, a full spectrum of radiation gouging itself out of the side of alien shields, muted in the dangerous wavelengths she had tuned her barrier to block. As the cruiser spun apart, the miasma followed, and her eyes insisted on seeing both versions of events—both the ship fracturing, and the world within the miasma jerking chaotically, adapting to the new environment.
As the display continued to flare outward, the value of Kana's holdout was clear. By timing the release when she had, she was flooding local sensor nets with noise, creating pockets where it would be easier to hide, right when they would need it the most. The detonation killing most of the cruiser's remaining crew was an added bonus.
They were, all of them, pulling out every trick they could think of. It had to be enough.
New estimates entered her awareness, telling her that at the current rate, Rose's ship would exit malaise with two alien ships from each of the first two waves still uninterdicted. That was too many to feel safe, but it would risk everything to force the others to wait for her to hit a few more ships. Did they have any other choice, though?
Rather than put too much thought into that now, she focused on getting her work done faster, pushing the question to Yuma and some of the other, more stationary magical girls. With little left in the way of standard defenses, the humans had to use their magical girls to weather the torrent of new firepower, forcing almost everyone back to Rose's ship, spotting and deflecting incoming attacks.
She thus dropped her next charges without substantial support or distraction, launching them outward with as much speed as she could manage. One of the two was intercepted before it arrived, snapped out of the void by screening drones, but the second managed to find its mark.
That was too close, though, Maki thought.
Nadya gave her the merest blip of acknowledgment, splitting a bit of her attention to consider new route options.
She and Maki were splitting up, Maki and her stealth joining Rin and one of the junior magical girls—the other that had been with Rin was now dead—while Nadya would go it alone. She could fly faster that way, no longer having to drag Maki along with her.
That came at the cost of losing her own stealth cover, of course.
Good luck, Nadya thought, as Maki veered away, dragging a charge along with her using a loop of hardened paint.
May the Goddess watch over you, Maki thought.
And then Nadya accelerated.
The pressure came at her hard and fast, fusillades of kinetic fire and drone attack formations swarming towards her. She evaded frantically, using her incredible maneuverability to dance around the relatively slow kinetic fire. Lashes of telekinesis snapped at and smashed drones, and a personal force wall protected her from anything that got through, turning the world into a chaotic mess of swirling magic, incoming attack indicators, and close‐by drones, straining at the edge of her ability to track.
She flew in as close as she dared, scanning constantly for close‐in laser shots, and dropped her charges, this time with her personal telekinetic attention. The moment the first charge dropped, a wave of fire came inbound, filling her awareness with warnings. She stood her ground for a long few seconds, freezing what she could in place, barely catching a laser from behind that scorched her leg.
Then the charges detonated, a wave of gravitational distortion flooding her sensors, and she sped away.
Rin and Maki had been able to hit a fighter and a frigate as well, taking advantage of the attention Nadya had drawn, using up the last of their half of the charges.
Now Nadya's job got more difficult, as the aliens focused their attention on stopping her. There was no point in taking a circuitous route this time, and the incoming fire grew progressively more intense as she flew directly to the next ship.
We can move again! Yuma thought. Get one more ship and get out!
They had gotten the second wave of ships, but there were still two ships left from the first, with a very brief window before they became unstuck. Nadya couldn't disagree with the logic—the human defenses, their magical girls, were all but spent. Even one alien frigate in extended pursuit might be too much.
She dove into what was now a sea of fire, a maze of kinetic impacters weaving past her, with some of the last surviving human drones trying to shield her route. Even as she wove this way and that, she took hits to her telekinetic bubble, explosions of light that she mostly felt rather than saw.
Still, a crooked smile came to her lips. This had always been the alien problem in space combat—ships were faster and stronger, and missiles were extremely deadly, but nothing had the maneuverability and flexibility of a magical girl.
Despite that confidence, she pushed herself more desperately. Her window was closing; she would be the last magical girl still outside Rose's frigate, with Kana making a special jump just to bring her in as they flew away. Every moment she spent out here put everyone at risk.
So she flew less evasively, letting a few shells and drones slam into her, metal parts shattering in explosions of light as they hit and skidded across her barrier.
And this time, when she deployed her charges, she sent everything she had left, several charges blasting away from her like so many rockets. She dove away immediately, leaving them to their fates—if they failed, they failed.
She had hoped that the incoming fire would abate when she embarked on an obvious escape trajectory but it became, if anything, more intense. She found herself losing more and more time trying to evade, and still absorbing heavy blows to her shell, explosions of energy blotting out parts of her sky.
Why the hell are they targeting me? Nadya thought, in angry despair. They should be focusing on the ship!
She was also losing sensor coverage now, and was forced to rely on her own techniques, sending out pulses of telekinesis as a kind of radar. It worked, but it ate into her limited focus.
Her progress was slowing to a crawl, but she was still moving forward. That was enough. They would wait for her.
Then the sky opened up next to her.
She snapped herself into a skull‐wrenching turn, damage pulsing across her body, as she barely avoided slamming into the newly arrived alien vessel, black and menacing against the stars.
The third group of alien vessels was here, just a bit ahead of schedule, appearing around the single human vessel. They were too early, and Nadya was still too far to be recovered.
Nadya knew then that a decision had been made for her.
Leave me, she thought, and she wasn't offended that the others were already heading away.
Kyouko sent something back, but she didn't care to read it. She knew what it would say.
Like most who had gone so old to the front lines, she had rehearsed this moment in her mind, made her peace with it. Her children were grown, she had lived long, no one could fight forever.
But that didn't mean she had no regrets. She hadn't found Misa or finished the job with Kyouko. She wouldn't live to see some of her grandkids grow. She wasn't done.
But could one ever be done?
She turned towards the ship next to her, maintaining her shields as fierce as ever, and snapped her necklace off its chain.
Soul Guard legend said the technique had first been formally taught at the beginning of the Unification Wars, and that it had been perfected by tireless research by one of the Mitakihara Four. Perhaps Mami, perhaps Kyouko.
It didn't matter.
She tossed her soul gem in front of her, as it seemed to grow to encompass her world, and she saw herself reflected in it, saw the cracks forming as her soul strove to escape.
In it, she saw her memories. Her children, her husbands, Clarisse, Misa. Walking outside under the summer sky to show her daughter the aurora.
Where would it go?
She didn't see the ships around her disintegrating in the light.
Kyouko couldn't say she disagreed with the sentiment, even if it came from Maki rather than her.
A few sobs escaped from Armelle, the girl Kyouko was comforting.
Kyouko had kept herself composed, restraining herself to only slamming her spear into the wall once. Right now, that was her duty as a leader. She would let out a little emotion later, smash something on this damnable vessel, feel some pain.
No matter how bad they felt, their position was still better than most of the girls she had brought with her.
Kyouko looked over at Yuma.
They hadn't thought it would be over, not when there was still an alien frigate that could have given close chase. But it had turned back, abruptly, after only a brief pursuit.
It was uncharacteristic for the aliens. Kyouko couldn't help but wonder if a single extra ship—like the one Nadya had given her life to stop—would have changed that decision.
Maybe. She wanted to—had to—believe in that.
Yuma was healing one of the human commandos she had brought along, staring out an alien viewscreen with a look like someone had put bittermelon in her food.
Kyouko hugged Armelle a final time, then walked up next to Yuma. She didn't have anything to say. They had botched this, plain and simple, and they weren't near done paying for it.
Look at this, Yuma thought, jolting Kyouko out of her mood.
Kyouko read Ryouko's relayed message with increasing surprise. She'd been ignoring the press of urgent calls and major news at the back of her mind, but of course Yuma hadn't been.
We need to talk to her anyway, but do you think I should answer her questions? Yuma asked, still looking out the viewscreen.
Kyouko thought about it.
I think so. But you'd hate the reasoning.
Yuma finally turned toward Kyouko, and the pair locked eyes briefly.
I thought you'd say yes, Yuma thought, fatalistic. Well, it probably couldn't be avoided. Everyone's going to be all over our business soon enough anyway.
Can't say I even blame them, Kyouko thought.
"We have a lot of work to do," she said.
To Ryouko's surprise, Yuma sent her a response within minutes. She had expected she might be waiting weeks. She certainly hadn't expected anything while she was still on‐mission—though, now that she had successfully tested her new teleport with Asami's black holes, she supposed she had the spare attention. Had Yuma been watching her that closely?
It's marked time‐sensitive, or at least some of it is, Clarisse commented. I think we should hold the rest for later though, if that's alright.
Ryouko hesitated; she had wanted answers, yes, but Azrael had a telepathic eye on her. Was it really wise?
While she thought about it, another fast‐moving cruiser flew past her, its profile occluding most of the sky as it went. Streaks of radiation framed it against the background, illuminating the debris of battle.
She decided then she didn't care too much—it was Azrael, after all. Keeping a wary eye on Asami and Simona, she began to digest Yuma's message.
The enemy organization we believe tried to kill you has been exposed, and is retaliating in part by leaking lurid reports about you. They center on the genetic engineering done to you, but also include your Cult connections, Simona del Mago, and your revival in a cloned body after X‐25. Character assassination, in short. There is a brief window of time for me to get ahead of the story, start a media campaign, but I need to know that you're willing to have all of that exposed across official channels. I need to know now, if possible.
What the hell? Ryouko thought. It wasn't even an answer to her questions, and her reputation was probably the furthest thing from her mind at the moment. But what…
It took a bit for the other attached information to sink in, even if it was all tailored for rapid cortical download. She wasn't the only target—they were going after everybody, leaking inflammatory information about Yuma, Kyouko, the Cult, pretty much everyone working against them.
There was even more to read, even if Clarisse was frantically signaling that she should stop.
Yuma had answered her questions. Yuma not only believed that Valentin must be Homura, she had uncovered that Valentin—that Homura—was personally responsible for Ryouko's genetic engineering. Moreover, Ryouko's parents were partly culpable. Valentin had promised to genetically engineer low contract potential in their daughter, under the guise of an implant study.
When her parents realized they'd been tricked, Homura had erased their memories.
The worst was this: contrary to Patricia's initial analysis and subsequent assurances, whatever Homura had put in Ryouko's head could have altered her personality, all the way down to her very core values. Though, they weren't sure if it had.
Yuma had, nevertheless, apparently just been convinced that Homura's actions were… if not good, then at least meant to protect humanity. Ryouko supposed it only made sense to finally extend some of that trust down to her, the girl who was evidently Homura's pet project.
Ryouko couldn't resist looking over at Azrael, who was maintaining a carefully closed expression. Azrael looked back when she did.
I'm not really sure what to say, Azrael thought. Only that I am here for you if you need it.
Ryouko put her hand on her helmet, closing her eyes. The whole world was going to learn this soon. Her life might be turned upside‐down.
Do it, she responded, to Yuma. And please let me know what the hell is going on when I get back.
Of course. The secrecy I have worked with has carried a great cost. I think I made a mistake keeping you penned up before. For that I am sorry. There's a lot I want to work through with you after this. It will be in your control.
Ryouko experienced a spike of emotion from Clarisse, its meaning clearer than could be directly said. She empathized with how ridiculous, how unmanageable the situation was, but right now, what was important was Asami, the wormhole, and the mission. Other things were for worrying about when they got back. Even about what was in her head.
Ryouko opened her eyes, looking at Simona, entertaining the brief fantasy of grabbing her by the neck and shaking her, as if she were to blame for everything.
Then she swallowed hard, tuning back in to the half of her mind that had never stopped watching her surroundings, letting her combat environment flood back to the forefront, full of contextual highlighting and instinctual processing.
The last third of their fleet was now evacuating, leaving behind as many drones, mines, and other expendable munitions as they could to provide a lingering presence. When the final cruiser made it through the wormhole, it would be time for her to enact Asami's gambit, and she needed to be ready.
She peered at the edges of the wormhole for a few seconds, losing herself in the way the spinning starlight swirled there. It reminded her of the space‐time aberrations at Orpheus, and in a different hour she might have found them beautiful.
The starlight jittered, and her suit rockets fired automatically to keep her in position, gravitational alarms toggling all over the landscape of her mind.
What was that? one of their escorts asked.
This rhetorical question was answered almost immediately by the fleet, which pointed out an alien cruiser‐based task force that had just arrived in orbit on the far side of the pulsar. Something there was emanating gravitational pulses, and coordinating with the remaining gravity modulators too—though not the mines, which had finally been incapacitated, at least.
Another pulse struck them then, intense enough to send her briefly backward.
This must be an attack on the wormhole, Simona thought. They've brought some kind of gravitational weapon with them!
The implications were obvious, but there was no way to rush the evacuation any further.
Battle simulations no longer converge, the gestalt informed them. Emergency abort authority has been granted to Captain Zheng Ying‐zhi and First Lieutenant Nakihara Asami.
The directive was familiar from simulation—it meant the decision rested almost entirely on magic now. Only Asami could know whether or not the wormhole was still stable, and whether they could still stay. Ying‐zhi would interface with her telepathically, via Azrael, and make the call if Asami froze, faster than the gestalt could.
You hear that? Simona thought, pained. We should get out of here right now! We have to protect Ryouko.
I've got the wormhole under control, Asami thought. This isn't some kind of new alien weapon, they're just abusing their paradox drives. I've got this. We'll be fine.
Simona made a gesture as if to swing her arm around, but seemed to think better of it. The way they were positioned—Asami near the wormhole, Simona nearby to provide magical support—she would have come close to hitting the other girl.
You don't know that, Simona thought. The alien attacks are going to intensify. If you lose control, we'll all be stuck here.
There will be plenty of warning, Asami thought. And if we leave now, not only will we be giving up on the mission, it will be much harder to control the wormhole from the other side. If it collapses, there will be thousands of people left stranded out here. Trust me. Right now, we're fine.
Where does that certainty come from? Simona snapped. This isn't a matter of your pride. You're putting us all at risk.
Ryouko felt her suit shudder, another alien pulse thrumming through the area.
Don't you dare talk to me about pride or who I'm putting at risk, Asami thought, hands visibly clenching. I know what I'm putting at risk and I've agonized over it. You're lucky I need you to keep this wormhole contained, or I'd throw you back in myself.
Keep your opinions to yourself, Del Mago, Ying‐zhi thought. She is under a lot of stress, and this is not the time to be making it worse.
You seriously can't all agree with her? Simona asked, incredulous.
You're the one being irrational right now, Ryouko thought. How have things gotten any worse than when we were in the pulsar mines? Why are you freaking out now?
Because now we have the option to escape. And right now―
Another pulse slammed into them, strong enough to trigger the barrier around them, which shimmered and rippled under the impact. Behind it, the wormhole rippled only slightly, the ring of light around the mouth shifting position briefly.
Simona radiated a wave of telepathic skepticism, drawing another rebuke from Ying‐zhi, but Ryouko found her attention pulled away by… a strange tap at the back of her mind, like someone attempting a telepathic connection from too far away.
That didn't make any sense, though. Their communications were up and running; there simply wasn't a reason to attempt something like that.
The tapping repeated, more strongly, and this time it came with a confusing carrier wave of sensations—nothing that made sense, signals that oscillated back and forth—as well as almost literal white noise.
Azrael picked up on it, of course, at the same time that Clarisse let her know that the feeling, whatever it was, was coming from her brain implant.
What were the aliens trying to do?
We can't stay here, Simona insisted, suddenly. Not if they're going to keep trying to do… things to Ryouko's head. We don't know what it's capable of! What if it's a threat?
Of everyone there, Ryouko had least expected Simona to raise that objection. Wasn't she tied in with Valentin? With Homura?
But Simona knew less than she did, she realized. Azrael's recent mind‐read proved as much, and Simona hadn't been told about Yuma's message.
Ryouko forwarded the information to Simona then, after passing it by Ying‐zhi for cursory approval. There wasn't much of a secret left to keep, after all, not now that an enemy organization had started leaking it.
She found herself loosening a bit as Simona took in the information, watching a stream of frigates pass by, camouflage coatings shimmering against the dark. She wouldn't have felt comfortable keeping this kind of secret, or trying to fabricate a lie. This was much simpler.
This isn't good enough, Simona thought.
Ryouko's attention snapped back to Simona.
This isn't good enough, Simona repeated. It just makes things worse. None of you has worked with Valentin like I have. We're all just pieces on a chessboard to her, and no one hesitates to sacrifice even a queen if it wins the game. Especially not Homura.
It seems, checking now, that Command did consider the possibility of a Homura plot during planning, Ying‐zhi thought, tone neutral. But it concluded, and continues to conclude, that the threat is very low. Right now, Ryouko is worth much more than the remnant of the pulsar mines. Who would have both the foresight to invest in something for fifteen years, and the myopia to just light it all on fire? I understand where you're coming from, but there are better strategic decisions.
You don't know the kind of insight she has, Simona thought, her shoulders tense with stress. I've seen what she can do, the inexplicable decisions that always turn out right. She designed this part of Ryouko! The part that's been acting strangely all mission, a mission where she sent me a message apologizing for everything. I don't think we're intended to survive this.
Anything Homura does is ordained by the Goddess, and I don't think the Goddess sanctioned killing us all, Mina snapped. I don't know what your problem is, but—
That's not helpful right now, Ying‐zhi interrupted, warningly. Regardless, Simona, we don't have time to belabor this. Command says you shared all of your memories of Valentin back when you first handed yourself over, and they've already taken them into account. I need you to give me another reason to believe what you're saying.
The other magical girls began subtly drifting their positions, getting ready to secure Simona if necessary.
I just need you to believe me, Simona thought. I know it sounds unlikely, but I made my wish for Ryouko, and now my experiences and my instincts are both telling me that something is wrong, and it terrifies me. Ryouko cannot stay here.
Ying‐zhi paused. The silence was heavy.
I'm sorry, but that's not enough, Ying‐zhi thought, finally.
Simona's frustration was palpable telepathically, but it seemed for a moment that she would subside into emotional suppression, and Ryouko relaxed a bit.
Azrael nixed that idea: Simona was overriding emotional suppression, and slipping out of control, fast. Desperate plans were taking hold in her mind, schemes to withhold her magic and coerce Asami into an early abort, ways to take advantage of some alien attack and seize Ryouko, to save Ryouko, whether she wanted it or not.
Force her into emotional suppression, then! Ying‐zhi thought, clearly an order.
A terrible black ooze began enveloping Simona's head inside her helmet, and two melee girls sprang forward to secure her. Ryouko tensed herself.
Blinding orange light obscured the scene temporarily.
Then a gravitational shudder hit their barrier, from the wrong direction.
What the hell are you doing? Asami thought, as Simona rocketed away from her towards Ryouko. Asami snatched at Simona with purple magic that, for a second, seemed to slow the rogue magical girl. But the wormhole shuddered, and Asami was forced to whirl about to restabilize it.
Simona tore through several attempts to lasso her, evading or shoving aside magical constructs and thrown weapons with bursts of magic.
If you all insist on being fools, Simona cried, fury scorching Ryouko's mind, then I'll do this myself!
Contain her! Ying‐zhi thought, her barrier warping into place in front of Simona.
Simona stretched out her hand, projecting a cone of orange magic that covered the sky around Ryouko in shimmering color. Ying‐zhi recoiled, her barrier melting, and Ryouko realized too late the cone of magic was directed at her, inhibiting her teleportation. Where had Simona gotten a power like this?
Ryouko fired a bolt at Simona to force a dodge, buying just enough time to whirl and kick at the other girl. Ryouko's experience saved her—Simona was just a little bit slower, and that was enough for Ryouko to get away.
Simona's thrusters flared suddenly, pushing her away from Ryouko. She grabbed at her helmet as it was swallowed by a pool of black, Azrael's mind‐control tearing into her mental defenses.
Get out of my head!
Simona powered through Azrael's control with a blast of magic, sending Azrael reeling as she launched forward again, still heading towards Ryouko. Ryouko found herself still unable to teleport and, lifting her arbalest, now hardly able to summon a bolt.
She drew her SW‒155 pistol instead, aiming for Simona's head. Her training had prepared her a little, but she had still never fought another magical girl.
She fired a spread of shots before she could finish the thought, and Simona came to a crashing stop. Ryouko thought, for a fraction of a moment, that she had done that.
It turns out, Asami thought, one hand stretched out towards them, that I don't need you to keep the wormhole open. So I think you deserve a timeout.
Simona writhed fruitlessly against her gravitational prison, as a stream of drones latched onto her limbs and began scurrying over her body. An orange glow enveloped her soon after, but it came too late—by then, one of the drones had successfully pried off her soul gem core and rocketed away, quickly passing one hundred meters with the help of a gravity‐slingshot from Asami.
Ryouko watched Simona's limp body disappear into the wormhole, image twisted into a spiral by the edge, and a slight chill ran through her—she was missing the previous warmth of Simona's power enhancement, she realized.
She turned to Asami.
Are we okay? Ryouko thought.
We're okay, as long as it doesn't get much worse, Asami thought.
She grimaced, and the light from the wormhole seemed to shiver in sympathy.
The faster the better, though.
The stream of ships passing near and around them was accelerating, cascading into one final crescendo of cruisers that, when finished, would leave them nearly alone, with less than a minute, at best, to finish the job.
The aliens were taking advantage, with weapons fire and even ships approaching ever closer to the wormhole. In just the past couple minutes, dozens of frigates in the rearguard had shattered into pieces of debris.
Ryouko didn't need an explicit instruction to get ready, focusing her thoughts on what she now needed to do. With one figurative eye on the countdown timer, she focused inward, visualizing the task, imagining space stretching slowly.
Another wave of static hit the back of her mind, the aliens seemingly at it again. This time, it faded quickly. No matter; Azrael and Patricia and Clarisse were all watching her, just in case anything happened.
She looked up as the last cruiser, HSS Shelton Mason, flew past them into the wormhole. It was time.
Ryouko arrived next to Asami, who nodded her helmet, raising one hand to summon her signature black hole, which hovered in front of Ryouko. Ryouko placed her hands around it, careful not to get too close.
It was amazing how natural it all seemed now. Like Asami, she could almost visualize what was happening, almost see the black hole sinking inexorably into a fold in the fabric of space. It would be delicate, nesting an event horizon into a larger wormhole opening, but she could do it.
The cordon of magical girls contracted inwards towards her as she focused her magic, defense drones swarming around them to buy the precious seconds they needed, dying by the hundreds every second as alien attacks scorched through the area around them.
Ryouko sealed away the rest of her thoughts, pouring all she knew into her magic. The distance the black hole needed to travel was longer than her usual range, but the conditions were perfect. Space was already heavily warped by the pulsar, with the singularity itself a needle‐sharp puncture, and she again had their enormous wormhole to assist. Without Simona, it would be harder, but it was possible.
She imagined her magic pushing it inward, straining against a tremendous energy barrier, seeking a new equilibrium. She kept her eyes open, watching the magic that now enshrouded the black hole, a ghostly green glow starting to swirl inward, disappearing not into the black hole, but into something else.
Less mobile team members exited early, while Oda and a core team finished gathering together, ready for the escape teleport that would carry them the few remaining meters between them and the kilometers‐wide sphere of the wormhole's mouth—and then through it, to home. They would have only a moment before Asami's black hole reached the pulsar's crust, and then even less before the shockwave reached them.
The pressure in the back of her mind returned, same as ever, but there was no time to pay attention to it now.
The steps played out just as they had in her mind, just as they had in her test runs. A final burst of energy ruptured local space‐time. Her magic molded it, as it tried desperately to snap back to a low‐energy conformation. For a moment, it connected strangely, attaching itself to a distant location. In that instant, the small bit of quasi‐matter in Asami's singularity, matter granted only temporary existence by her magic, passed through.
Even the fastest of human clocks would have struggled to keep pace with these events, but it seemed to her that she could.
The next steps, though, she could not see, nor was it wise to try to see.
Asami's black hole, burgeoning with energy absorbed near the pulsar, was destined for the pulsar's crust, home to some of the universe's greatest stresses and densities, all precariously bound into a perfect rigid sphere.
The most energy any human has ever released, Ryouko thought. And I won't even be around to see any of it.
Oda's escape jump began even before Ryouko finished, converting the group of magical girls into enchanted lightning bolts with no time to spare. The world around them flashed by in glimpses, the telltale distortion at the mouth of the wormhole, the profound darkness of new space inside the wormhole, the opening to Adept Blue before them—
A sound interrupted the silent, ethereal experience.
A sound? That didn't make sense, but Ryouko found herself abruptly aware of everything around her, though her field of view was rigidly, painfully outside of her control.
Before her was the way out of the wormhole, a sharp circular window out onto the stars, geometrically perfect, with the silhouette of the Armstrong apparatus looming. Around that lay pitch‐black, dark enough to look like a glitch in space, but in that darkness, the bright yellow of her fellow magical girls traced a path forward as lightning.
Then, something broke.
The way out twisted, and what had been a clean window contorted, the boundary spiraling inward and shredding outward—outward, shards of light right at them.
Oda did what she could, steering them towards the suddenly unpredictable exit, but it approached so erratically that only some of them made it through: Asami, Ying‐zhi, Azrael, Mina, and several of the others. Ryouko, Oda, Amane, and Patricia did not—they were still trapped in the wormhole, the boundary now receding away from them.
In the following milliseconds they passed their original exit point—the new exit point had moved, somehow, far away.
In that moment of sudden terror, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong. The wormhole was misshapen, and with Oda's energy fading, they were going to be lost.
Ryouko dug deep, finding herself all too aware of her soul gem state. It was low; she had just exercised her teleportation to the extreme. But she had been careful to leave herself available for an emergency teleport, and she was still in range.
These were hardly ideal conditions for a teleport. Space‐time was distorted, yes, but she had difficulty conceptualizing how you could make a wormhole inside another wormhole.
But she had to try. It might be their only way back.
Ryouko tore away the space‐time surrounding the four of them, even as Oda carried them forward. She wove her magic, reached out for a fraying bit of space‐time the wormhole was expanding into, and something snapped—
When they emerged again, Oda's magic had dispelled, leaving them back as four magical girls in suits, floating in the depths of space.
No… not space. There were no stars. They were still in the larger wormhole.
She was confused at how that was possible, the uncertainty sending her thoughts racing.
The wormhole didn't look right. There seemed to be no exit in the darkness, only strange, misshapen patches of light, forming fractal patterns across the face of an implacable, eternal darkness.
I know about this, she realized, in a burst of intuition powered partially by Clarisse's aid.
There were alternate, low‐probability wormhole geometries that could form, if there was enough energy in the system. Even superpositions. That could easily look like a false opening. But that meant the wormhole wasn't stable.
The clarity gave her only temporary relief. The pulsar had surely detonated by now.
What does 'by now' even mean? Clarisse thought. What reference frame? Are we even still connected to the pulsar? We haven't died yet, so surely—
Ryouko spun in place, twirling in an instinctive burst of telekinesis and suit thrusters.
Impossibly, implausibly, Asami was nearby, behind one of the patches of light, each leading somewhere else in the wormhole. In one of them, a few hundred meters away, she felt a glimmer of Asami's magic.
All four of them moved for the opening then, Oda burning her magic in one last burst. In front of them, the opening seemed to spiral wide, piercing the darkness with a ray of hope. Ryouko could even see someone's hand reaching through.
Then something slammed into her with cataclysmic force, and all was black.
Clarisse's voice shocked her awake, and for a moment she was stunned, before starting to panic as her memories set back in. Why couldn't she see anything? Where was—
Oh thank the Goddess, if this isn't all her fault, Clarisse thought. I'm sorry for waking you out of fugue, but it took me a while to get key systems back online.
I, uh, I'm not sure I like the sound of that, Ryouko thought, feeling a wave of emotional suppression hit her. What does that mean?
Let me get your optics back on.
Ryouko was starting to notice something in Clarisse's affect she hadn't felt before—a layer of careful reserve, a kind of controlled formality.
As her eyes turned back on, she realized what it was—Clarisse was scared.
A powerful wave of emotional suppression then kept her own terror at bay, for the moment.
Her eyes were on, but there was nothing to see but the stars. There was no wormhole, no Adept Blue, nothing else at all.
Not quite, Clarisse thought. The stars are familiar. I ran some astrogation routines. We're about twenty‐four light‐minutes from the pulsar.
Her voice was unsteady for a moment, and Ryouko heard the rest of the story non‐vocally, a story Clarisse had painstakingly pieced back together after the fact.
Something—probably the radiation shockwave from the pulsar—had slammed into them inside the wormhole, in the process dealing the final blow to the wormhole itself. By all rights, that should have killed her, but the geometry of the wormhole had ensured they received only a faint aftershock, and Amane's barrier had been up.
Still, it had been enough to knock even a magical girl unconscious, and her body had suffered extensive damage, enough that it was unwise to move.
That wasn't even mentioning the fact that she was marooned, in hostile space, and the pulsar shockwave had yet to reach this location.
Oh, and as far as Clarisse could tell, there was no one else remotely near her.
Given all that, she felt content to lie still in a cloud of addled emotional suppression, rather than think about it too much. Except—
Why did you even wake me up for this? Ryouko thought, managing not to sound pained.
Because the Homura device in your head is going crazy, and I'd like to know what that's about, Clarisse thought. It seems very insistent, and clearer this time.
Ryouko realized then that the pounding in the back of her head wasn't just a distant headache, but rather the same scratching she had felt so many times before, except this time it was rather more like drilling.
Can't they just leave me alone? she despaired rhetorically.
She tried to grasp at it, obeying Clarisse's request, but it slipped out of her reach, filling her mind with noise.
What was the point? she thought, letting go, and letting her thoughts spin outward.
Simona had been right after all. They had ruined everything, trying this. They should have just gone back. Asami would be devastated.
It all felt stunted, buried beneath a blanket of emotional suppression she left in place. It was better, she decided, to avoid thinking about anything too painful. At least there was an afterlife. That she knew, and while she didn't exactly look forward to it… well, at least she would get a chance to ask the Goddess why the hell—
She felt what seemed rather like a zap to the back of her mind, and it took her a moment to realize it was Clarisse.
Please, Clarisse thought, insistently. I'm not going down like this.
Ryouko didn't know how to feel. Ashamed? Clarisse had always been the reasonable one.
She honored that, making another try at interpreting the insistent pounding.
The sensation was hard to grasp, a central impression that her mind refused to shape itself around. Clarisse had been right, though. Something about it was clearer. It didn't have the mechanical vibe of what she had felt in the mines' systems, but more of the natural feeling of the telepathic packet she had gotten from the dead Ceph. She could find scattered information, data that Clarisse was quickly able to parse as relative coordinates, pointing to a representation of a room.
But she still needed to understand the core, the glimpses of which seemed like… an expression of intent? Motive?
Then, with all the finesse of a square peg slotting into a round hole, she understood.
She tried desperately, painfully, to hold on to that understanding.
It's… like an artificial emotion of some kind, she thought. No, it's more like, an explanation of purpose. The impression is…
She began to look around her, searching for the coordinates she had been given, only a few dozen meters away. At first, she perceived nothing, but then she realized that her soul gem was reacting—had been reacting—to something from the start: a stealthed FTL engine, close nearby. Alien.
Did she have a choice?
It didn't really matter if she trusted the impression of nonviolence she had received, or if she preferred the fighting instinct to take one more enemy down with her. She had to try to live; it was what Asami, what everyone in her life, would want.
She felt something else from the alien ship too, something familiar, and the realization, when it came, was startling: the ship was about to blink. She recognized the technique as similar to her own.
Ryouko blinked aboard the alien ship, and the ship itself blinked away.
Behind her, twenty minutes later, an imploding star showered ruin on the now‐empty void, its beacon blackening forever.
End — Volume Ⅲ: Ontological Paradox