End of Days

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					End of Days
Part One - Homecoming

Chapter One - May 22, 2002
       Tsunami

           Have you ever had one of those dreams that you were absolutely convinced was real? The kind
that stay with you when you wake up, so they affect your mood for hours. The kind so real that when
something strange happens afterwards, you're half-convinced you're still dreaming.
           Yeah, me neither. Until last night.
           I was in a room of some kind -- settings never seem to be very detailed in dreams, you just accept
them -- watching. There was a table in the middle, kind of a hospital-style thing, all plastic and brushed
metal, and on the table was a woman.
           She was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen, which is odd because if pressed I couldn't
describe her features in any more detail. Long hair, I guess, that hung off one end of the table. She was
naked, but mostly obscured by the other figures crowding around her, ringing the table or kneeling on one
end of it.
           Vultures, I thought, and wasn't quite sure why.
           The figures were all dressed in black. Not the black of the Legions -- a Legionnaire's armor is all
shiny black and chrome and mirrored glass, very 80s. This was dull black, raw iron black, rough and
lusterless. All-enclosing, like a suit of armor. They all had their hands inward, like they were feeling the
woman or something, very strange.
           Now the hell of it was, I knew it was a dream. I know what I said before, but it was sort of both at
the same time -- absolutely real, and a dream. That makes no sense, does it? Think of it like this: it was
real somehow, but I knew it wasn't part of the usual world.
           But I wasn't scared or horrified, not really. I remember thinking it was pretty strange, as sex
fantasy dreams went, but nothing more than that. So I walked around the bed to get a better view, and
realized I'd been wrong.
           The black figures were taking the woman apart.
           They were doing it very methodically, with surprisingly little blood. Bit by bit, they were ripping
out her entrails with their bare hands. I didn't see what they did with the pieces, because at that point I
couldn't bear to look any longer.
           Then there was a…a sort of presence next to me. I have no idea what it looked like, because I
didn't look, but I could feel it there, watching me. I had to ask.
           "Is this real?"
           The presence shrugged.
           "Not as such. It is, however, a reasonably accurate allegorical representation of as much of the
situation as your mind is able to grasp."
           And then I woke up.
           Look, I told you it was weird.

          I lay in bed for a moment, silent.
          It was morning. I had awoken, as I almost always did, a few minutes before the alarm clock went
off. I treasured those few minutes, lying warm and secure underneath the covers, with no responsibilities
or worries until the bell went off. I was free to think about whatever I wanted.
          Except this time the pillow was drenched in cold sweat, and the sheets, thin as they were, felt like
clammy tentacles on my skin. I kicked them off in a sudden fit of revulsion and rolled out of bed with a
groan.
          Ugh. Monday morning.
          A quick shower cleansed some of that feeling, and by the time I headed downstairs, nice and clean,
I was actually in pretty good spirits. That changed quickly enough. Ryu was home -- a rarity -- and
actually awake -- a miracle -- and that sent things downhill pretty fast.
          To be more specific, he was at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of instant ramen and washing it
down with beer. I rolled my eyes and did my best to ignore him, heading past towards the fridge for my
own breakfast. I hoped he'd return the courtesy.
          "Morning, Tsunami!"
          No such luck, apparently. It's never good when he's cheerful. I kept walking and opened the
fridge, searching for the cold milk and granola bars I subsisted on before school. I heard Ryu's chair scrape
back from the table, and tensed just before he put his hands on my shoulders.
          "What's the matter? Haven't got a greeting for your big brother?"
          "Please get your hands off me, Ryu." He'd been out all night -- I could smell the alcohol on his
breath, so strong it almost made me gag. His clothes were never clean at the best of times, but now they
were spotted with something that look suspiciously like blood, and he reeked of the various vile substances
he and his Null Zone friends were always smoking.
          Found it. I reached into the fridge and grabbed the milk just as Ryu slid his hands down from my
shoulders and around to the front, squeezing gently.
          "You seem tense, little sister. You should relax before school. I know just the thing…"
          "I might take you up on it if I thought you could perform. I think my weird dreams are
symptomatic of my poor social life. And now if you don't let go of me, I swear to God…"
          He leered as he stepped backwards. "What are you going to do, call the cops?"
          I shrugged. "I'll take my chances. They're better than yours."
          That got him -- Ryu paled, his hands clenching into fists. Being taken is probably the only thing
Ryu's scared of. "If I ever get so much as a hint you're doing that, Tsunami, we'll see what happens to your
'chances' before they get here."
          "Big talk from someone who can't even walk straight." I opened a cupboard and grabbed my
morning power-up, then headed for the door.
          "Fuck you, Tsunami."
          "Not likely."
          Letting the door slam in his face felt good, I have to admit. I stepped out into the bright sunlight
of late May, blinking while my eyes adjusted -- Ryu had pulled all the shades inside to spare his head.
Once I could see well enough to avoid traffic, I settled my backpack across my shoulders and headed for
the train station.
          Before you get too curious: no, I've never actually had sex with my brother. Not for lack of effort
on his part, obviously, but I don't think he really means it. Ryu lost most of his friends within weeks of the
Arrival, so he's naturally kind of bitter, and it comes out in strange ways. If push came to shove, I don't
think he'd actually hurt me.
          Probably. Unless he was really drunk, or hallucinating on some of the good stuff the Empire puts
out. So I'm careful, and I have self-defense training I don't think he knows about.
          Every once in a while, when I'm feeling really lonely, I consider stripping down to my underwear,
knocking on his door, and seeing what happens. I haven't done it yet for a couple of reasons: first, it would
set a bad precedent for our relationship. And second, I haven't really slept with anyone yet, and I'm not
sure I want my first time to be with Ryu. It would be kind of weird.
          Ahem. Moving on.

         "TSU-NA-MI!"
         I braced instinctively for a collision as I saw Kyoko barreling down the nearly empty subway car
towards me, but she stopped just short with consummate skill, holding up a hand in greeting.
         "Yo!"
         "Yo."
         She put her head to one side. "You don't seem very energetic this morning."
         "Bad dreams. And Ryu was home and making an ass of himself, as usual."
         "Tsunami…" Her voice turned serious. "You can always come and stay with me. I've got tons of
extra room."
         "Thanks. I'll keep it in mind."
         There was a moment of silence, but Kyoko kept staring at be worriedly. She takes better care of
me then I probably deserve, for reasons which have always escaped me. Kyoko is shorter than me despite
being a year older, with straight green hair that was usually kept in a pony-tail that reached past her
shoulders. She's effortlessly, relentlessly cheerful in a way that should probably annoy me but somehow
never does.
          "How about you, Kyoko? How was your weekend?"
          "Great! I got to visit my grandfather out in the country. You know he'd never seen a Sa'an? They
don't have a television or anything, and he says nobody ever bothered him."
          "Lucky guy."
          "Yup. He kept trying to get me to stay out there with him. He doesn't want me to get taken."
          "Girls hardly ever are."
          "That's what I told him, but you know grandparents. Worry, worry."
          "Don't you ever worry about it?"
          She shrugged. "There's not much I can do. If they come for me, then I guess I get to find out what
comes next."
          "What a fatalist."
          "You've never been even a little curious? Maybe they take especially good people to some
paradise beyond the stars."
          I snorted. Everyone had their own theories about what happened to the people the Empire claimed
as its own. They were certainly never seen on Earth again, and ideas ranged from food for some kind of
monster to forced colonization to out-and-out slavery. There were even a few cults who worshipped the
Sa'an as gods, hoping to appease them into not taking their children or -- for the really weird ones --
volunteering themselves to the black-armored Legionnaires. Neither made any difference. The great black
troop-ships swooped out of the sky when and where they chose.
          "You never know, Tsunami."
          "If they ever grab me, I'll be sure to think about that."
          "If they ever grab you, I'll be right there with you."
          That was pretty common, among people our age. Friends or lovers pledging to spend as little time
as possible apart, so that if the Imperials came they could grab their partner and refuse to let go. I'd always
treated it as kind of a joke, but I had a sneaking suspicion that Kyoko was serious.
          Oh well. If it came to that, it'd be nice to have a companion on the road to hell.
          "Here it comes!"
          I turned around automatically and craned my head to see. This was the best part of the train ride --
it almost made the thirty-minute commute worthwhile by itself. After a brief section of underground, the
car plunged back into sunlight, this time elevated enough that it gave us a view across the city. The skyline
looked much as it always had, minus a few skyscrapers, and the Null Zone dominated the foreground with
its ruined buildings and constant fires. But Tokyo Tower stabbed up against the sun like some giant dagger,
and hovering just above its tip was the bulk the Sa'an cruiser. The ship looked like nothing more than a big
black bowling ball, a sphere covered with randomly scattered pockets, ringed at its equator by a glowing
purple band. You couldn't see them now, but the ring of purple energy was held on by four massive stalks
that protruded from the hull.
          Impressive as it was, that wasn't the best part. Light passing near the cruiser did strange things.
The Sa'an ships had shields, both material and radiation, as the Americans found out to their sorrow. They
had antigravity, so that huge ship could hang in the sky in defiance of every natural law. And whatever
strange interaction of those fields took place near the ship splayed the light across the entire sky, lighting up
the sparse clouds with a thousand twisted rainbows.
          I stared, entranced as always. Kyoko liked to look at the ship for pure aesthetic effect, but for me
there were other reasons. That was where I wanted to go. Not to some school, to learn things that were
pointless and probably wrong. Not loaded like cargo into some troopship. I wanted to go up there for real
and find out what was inside all that black armor.
          There had to be a way, and I was determined to find it.

          It feels like this has always been my dream. I know that can't be true, though, because I can
vaguely remember a time before the Arrival, when there were no Sa'an. A time when the Tokyo skyline
didn't include the mammoth shape of a starship, and students worried about college entrance exams and
homework instead of being whisked off to who-knows-where.
          It seems so distant now, though. I think of the Arrival as my first clear memory -- I was all of
thirteen at the time. I remember the flash of light as the great ships appeared over the Tower. The
government was overjoyed -- real aliens, here in Japan! -- and they didn't realize what was happening until
it was too late. The Imperial Legions were on the ground. After an hour, the Prime Minister announced
martial law.
          After four hours, the Sa'an commander came on to announce our surrender.
          It was her I looked up to, after the Legionnaires fanned out into the neighborhoods to establish
their control. Her name was Kaia, and she was the only Imperial who's face we had ever seen. Everyone
was astounded at first to find out that the Sa'an looked just like us. It was her face, her calm voice that
explained the new world order over and over. And after a few months of violent resistance, when things
settled down, she became the face of the Empire.
          I can remember the moment I made my decision. It was the first night Ryu brought some of his
friends home from what was fast becoming the Null Zone. I was fourteen by then, and I watched them
drink, and fight, and drink, with a growing determination.
          After all, what's left for us on Earth? They don't care about us. But the Sa'an commanders have to
come from somewhere.

          The train ride was almost over. The chaos the Arrival had caused forced the consolidation of what
was left of Tokyo's school systems, so the place where Kyoko and I were bound, once the home of the best
and brightest, had been reduced to one of the last havens of those who still bothered. That meant it was a
bit of a commute.
          "So…"
          I glanced over at my companion for the first time in a while -- I'd been drifting in my own
thoughts. Kyoko looked worried, which was uncharacteristic for her.
          "What's wrong?"
          "Have you thought any more about…you know."
          I groaned inwardly. "Kyoko…"
          "I know you don't like it, but I think you were right!"
          "I never should have mentioned it."
          "But it could be important!"
          "Important to what?" I shook my head. "Even if it was real, what am I supposed to do?"
          She look down. "I don't know. Something."
          If Kyoko had a flaw, it was in being overly romantic. I talk to her about my dreams -- she's my
best friend, sometimes I think my only friend. And last month I advanced a theory to her, a sort of
whacked-out idea that had come when I was half-asleep, and she'd latched on to it.
          To be blunt, she'd become convinced that I was a Sailor Senshi.
          "Look, even if the Senshi are real…"
          "They are. A hundred people saw them fighting when the first ships landed." Not me, I thought,
or anyone I'd ever met.
          "How could I possibly be one? They have funny suits and special powers. I can't throw fire or
shoot lightning bolts or whatever."
          "Have you ever tried?"
          I mimed tossing a ball of flame, and Kyoko waved it away with a half-hearted chuckle. "Pretty
weak!"
          "Oh no!" I let my face take on an anime character's frozen grimace. "She defeated my secret
technique! However will I win?"
          "I guess it is pretty stupid. I don't know. It just seemed so right, somehow."
          "My dreams are just dreams. You can probably deduce my psychological problems from them --
slightly morbid, crazy family, can't find a boyfriend -- stop laughing!"
Chapter Two
       Hotaru

          I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, wincing as the sweat made them itch even worse. I
felt dead: fire running along my limbs every time I moved, lances of silver pain in my chest with every
breath and heartbeat. My hands felt numb.
          I'm going to die, I thought.
          "Again." His voice was flat, emotionless as ever. "Pick it up."
          Wearily, so wearily I reached out for the Silence Glaive, hand closing around its hilt in a familiar
gesture. I could feel the grain of the wood through the holes in my gloves, and I wondered briefly where it
had come from. Did some tree, in the far-off prehistory of the Silver Millennium, get chopped down to
make Sailor Saturn a perfect weapon? Or is it simply called up out of nothing, like my uniform? For that
matter, is it even the same Glaive every time?
          "Stance."
          My feet protested, but I slowly clambered back up, using the Glaive more as a walking stick then a
weapon. Something in my back went 'crunch', but I ignored it. It seemed an eternity before I was standing,
and then it took a further effort of will to the spread my legs out, put both hands on the haft of the Glaive,
and open my eyes.
          "Good." Jahara turned to face me, the movement reflected in the mirrored walls of the training
room. An infinity of nested images stared back at me, a little girl in a black and white suit facing off
against a green-haired giant. "This will be the last."
          The last. Thank all the gods. I tightened my grip, and Jahara hefted his shortsword. Though he
treated weapons with contempt, his swordsmanship was more than a match for mine.
          "One more try. Are you ready?"
          I nodded, wearily. Jahara smiled.
          "Good. I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
          The Glaive whirled almost of its own accord, evaluating his stance and choosing an attack
accordingly. Motions I'd done so often they were automatic flicked the head around, testing his guard. He
stopped it, of course, but we were long past the point of simple parry-riposte now. When fighting an
opponent who moves like a cat on a sugar high, you need to think instead of just striking. And that was the
point of this training. Being Saturn gave me the reflexes to use the Glaive, the strength. But what
happened when you meet an opponent you can't beat with just speed and strength?
          Steel met steel as we danced across the training room floor, Jahara giving ground before the
polearm's greater reach, turning every stroke with almost effortless parries. Sweat poured off my face, and
I shifted my grip on the Glaive. He wasn't even breathing hard. Or at all.
          So what can you do when you're faced with someone who can stop everything you throw at them?
You do this: manipulate their blocks. Every strike had a purpose, forcing the Unforgiven to assume a
particular position, making him use a style that has a weakness. And then once you've exposed it, you
strike.
          His last parry left him wide open. Instead of pulling back for another shot, I bulled forward
closing the range and spinning the Glaive until the blade whirred forward again.
          Correction -- Jahara moved like a cat that had been deboned. He twisted under the strike,
impossibly fast, and brought his leg around in a sweep kick that sent both me and my weapon clattering to
the floor. The impact knocked what was left of the breath from my lungs, so I lay there a moment staring
at the mirror on the ceiling and feeling my blood pound in my ears.
          Jahara's face, upside down, appeared in my vision.
          "Are you hurt?"
          "I'm dead."
          His mouth quirked in an almost-smile. "That is unfortunate." Jahara doesn't quite have no sense
of humor. He understands jokes -- I think he just doesn't see the point of them. "Do you need to be helped
up?"
          "I'm dead, remember? You have to carry me."
          I didn't expect him to take me literally, though I probably should have. Next thing I knew I was
being lifted into the air. He could lift me with a finger, probably, but he was always very careful.
          "Jahara! Put me down!" He complied, and I tried to stop my heart from racing. "Just give me a
hand. I'll make it."
          With one of his hands on my shoulder, I managed to make it out into the corridor and all the way
to my quarters. Once there, I sank into the plush covers of the bed with a sigh of relief. There's something
about flopping into bed. Even though you hurt just as much as the moment before, suddenly its all good
aches -- not having to move is wonderfully relieving.
          Jahara remained standing. Some things never change. When he was still, he was absolutely still;
when he moved, it was either in careful, too-slow sweeps -- when he was paying attention -- or sudden
jerks, going from one position to another without occupying any of the space in between.
          I sighed. Sometimes I forgot that I was effectively living with a god.
          "Jahara?" My voice was muffled by being face-down on the pillow.
          "Yes?"
          "You're just standing there. It's kind of creepy."
          "I am sorry." He didn't move, and I sighed again and rolled over to face him.
          "Look. You're trying to figure out how to say something, aren't you? Just go ahead and say it."
          "Hotaru…" He stopped.
          Now I was really getting scared. Hesitation is not characteristic of Jahara at all. "Come on. Do
you want me to guess? It has something to do with my visit home, and why you've been trying to kill me in
the practice room these last couple of weeks."
          "I…will not be accompanying you to Earth."
          I sat up.
          "What?"
          "I cannot. I am sorry."
          "But…but you said…"
          "I know what I said."
          "Why?"
          He shook his head. "I cannot."
          "Is there something dangerous? Has something happened? Jahara!"
          But he was already leaving, spinning on his heel and stalking out of my rooms so fast he left
glittering green trails in the air behind him. The door slid closed after his departure.
          "…what's going on?"

          I didn't get much sleep that night. I wanted to, desperately, since a full day of sparring had left me
bruised and shaky. But I couldn't turn off my mind, couldn't stop thinking about what the Unforgiven had
said, so I lay in an odd state somewhere between waking and sleeping, spinning paranoid fantasies.
          What if something really had happened? I only have memories of the Galaxia business, but I
know the others have saved the world from interdimensional marauders a number of times. If something
else had come, something bigger and nastier then they were prepared to deal with…
          But according to Jahara himself, that was impossible! The properties of any given world -- he
called them "lines of fate" -- take a toll on anything that enters that is too different from the destination.
And the Guardians of the world exist to repel threats like that.
          But you were gone, said a traitorous little voice. You're the Guardian of Power Incarnate, and you
left to go gallivanting around the universe. Maybe what's left wasn't enough?
          That can't be right, though. Even without me, Setsuna and Usagi and the others should be more
than strong enough to handle things.
          Ami left too, I told myself. How many of them are really still there?
          I shook my head. No sense in worrying myself to death. Time to sleep.
          Yeah, right.

          The next morning I wandered up to the control room, full of questions. The Aegis is more than
four kilometers long, but fortunately for me it's lousy with magic. Getting from one point to another is as
easy as finding a door, punching in the correct code for the room you want to get to, and stepping through.
A very convenient trick.
          Jahara was there, as he almost always was. One of his traits, as he told me what seems like a
lifetime ago, is that he's free from boredom -- with nothing to do, he sits in the command chair, staring out
at the screens, and just does nothing. It's an ability I've occasionally wished to share, though on the whole
traveling with the Unforgiven had been far more interesting then one might have hoped for.
          "Hotaru." He dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment. By his side, the Harbinger he called
Third -- the only other intelligent creature on the ship, as far as I could tell -- bowed deeply.
          "Mistress Hotaru. Do you require anything this morning?"
          Third was almost human in appearance, a craggy-faced old man who wouldn't have seemed out of
place back home. He dressed almost exclusively in long gray robes, and seemed to exist only to serve the
Unforgiven. Under his skin, when the light was right, you could see a network of sparkling silver lines.
Jahara had told me once that the Harbingers were artificial life-forms, and that Third was the last of their
kind. I left it at that.
          "Breakfast would be nice, Third. And something to drink. Thank you."
          "As you wish, Mistress." He glided away, noiselessly.
          Jahara was still facing away from me, stubbornly, so I had to circle the command chair. He didn't
seem pleased at my arrival, although frankly he rarely seemed pleased at anything. I took a deep breath and
started right in.
          "When do we arrive?"
          "Today. In approximately two hours."
          "And what you said last night…"
          "Yes. If you go, you will be going alone."
          "What do you mean, if I go?"
          "I would advise you not to."
          "What?"
          "I would advise you not to."
          "I heard you the first time. But…I mean…why?"
          "You might not like what you find."
          "What do you mean? Has something happened?" He remained silent, and I started to fume.
"Jahara!"
          "I am not required to tell you anything. I have nevertheless chosen to deliver this warning: do not
return home."
          "Jahara…" Despite being angry, I decided to change tacks. "How long have I been on the
Aegis?"
          "Three years, two months, and six days."
          "In all that time, haven't you gotten to know me at all?"
          He inclined his head, slightly.
          "So don't you realize that if you just deliver some cryptic warning, I have to go? I'm worried
about my friends!"
          "Yes."
          "But you…"
          He shrugged. "I am placed in a no-win situation. If I tell you nothing, you return to Earth. If I
warn you, you wish to return even more strongly."
          "You could just tell me what's going on!"
          "I cannot."
          "Just like you can't come with me."
          "Yes."
          I let my hands curl into fists, for all the good it would do me. "You…"
          "I am sorry. I am bound by rules that do not affect your kind."
          "I know." Gods, did I know. "But…but this…"
          "Remain on the Aegis, and we can find somewhere else to go."
          "No."
          There was the slightest pause. "As you wish, of course. We will be within teleportation range of
Earth in ninety minutes. I suggest you prepare."
          And that was it. That was all I was going to get from him. Still fuming, I headed for the door;
when he spoke again, it brought me up short.
          "Hotaru…" Hesitation again. This was really not like him.
          "What?"
          "Having you on board has been…good. I would be pleased were you to return safely."
          Tears welled suddenly. Three years of living with the Unforgiven had taught me a little bit about
him, too. That was the closest thing to a declaration of love I was going to get.
"Thanks. I'll do my best."
Chapter Three
       Ami

          I ducked through the hatchway just ahead of the storm of laser fire. The low rumble of the rifles
matched the appearance of points of white-hot metal on the far door of the lock.
          "Kyn, come on!"
          She bolted down the corridor on all fours, but when she reached the airlock she stood up in plain
view as though having one's head reduced to superheated goo was something that only happened to other
people. I grabbed her by the back of the collar and yanked her out of the line of fire before smashing the
emergency lock release with my other hand. The outer door shot closed on its track, and for a moment the
thunder of lasers stabbed at it uselessly. Once the inner door opened, I ran inside, tossing the catgirl
sideways onto the couch.
          "Wheeee!" Kyn landed on her head -- of course -- and bounced upward. "That was fun!"
          "From that comment and the weapons currently impacting on my outer hull, I assume we're
leaving?" Zel's voice came from nowhere.
          I slid into the control seat. "Right. Don't bother talking to dock control."
          "Do we ever?"
          Letting the computer's sarcastic comments slide off my back had become second nature. A
moment later, I heard the pops of the airlock disengaging, and we were away.
          "Cylinders at thirty percent and climbing. We'll reach null in two minutes, and cruising speeds
five minutes after that."
          "Thanks." I leaned back in the chair, letting leather and wood take up my weight. "So much for
that experiment."
          Kyn popped her head up next to me. "Good! That station was boring anyway until they started
shooting at us. Why do we always leave just when things are getting fun?"
          I put my head to one side to look at her. Kyn was shorter than me by a good six inches, with a
mop of blue hair, huge green eyes, and expressive feline ears that twitched whenever she was excited. The
same went for her tail, which was currently lashing back and forth.
          "Why'd they get so mad at us, anyway?" Kyn put on her 'puzzled' expression, and I had to force
my voice to be calm.
          "You ate the ambassador!"
          Her tail stood up straight. "I did not eat him!"
          Zel cut in. "Only because he was too fast for you."
          "He was not too fast for me! I was just playing with him."
          "Apparently they didn't appreciate it." I shook my head. "Oh well. Another two weeks of
negotiation down the tubes. It was a pretty good deal we were working on, too…"
          There was a sniff from beside me; Kyn seemed to be on the verge of tears.
          "A…Are you mad at me, Oneesama?"
          I sighed and ruffled her hair. "No, not really. You were right. That place was kind of boring
anyway."
          "Hai!" Kyn jumped up onto the chair and wrapped her hands around my neck, and I could feel the
rasp of her tongue on my cheek. This didn't bother me, where it once might have. You can get used to
some pretty strange things.
          "I hate to interrupt, Oh Mistress of the Infinite, but your humble navigation computer has a
question."
          I pried the catgirl off of me and set her back on the floor. "Go ahead, Zel."
          "Where would you like me to navigate?"
          "I've been thinking about that." I smiled, half in anticipation of the trip and half because I knew
Zel wouldn't like my decision.
          "Oh dear. And?"
          "Batten down the hatches. We're out of here."
          "Not--" One of his sensors must have caught my expression. "Not again. The last time you took
it into your head to go dimension-hopping, we crashed into Yggdrasil, and those giant squirrels tried to eat
me."
          "That was a simple mistake."
         "That was fun!" The catgirl bounced around the deck. "I got to fly in space without a spacesuit!
And there were butterflies."
         I raised an eyebrow.
         "You almost got eaten."
         "But the guy with the big hammer saved us! Remember, Oneesama? He came down and smashed
up the squirrels and said 'Hey, ladies, checking out my weapon?' and I said it was really big and he said it
grows when you hold it and would I like to come back to his fortress and I did but you and Zel said I
didn't!" She stopped, mostly due to lung capacity, and I managed to get a word in edgewise.
         "Nothing like that will happen this time. I know exactly where I'm going."
         "I've heard that before." If he'd had eyes, Zel would have rolled them.
         "Give me some credit, Zel."
         "I'd give you more credit if you hadn't chosen to travel with someone who once decided a forty-
foot dragon would make a nice pet."
         "Wai! Oneesama, can we go visit Scorchy-chan! Please? I'm sure he won't eat anyone this time!"
         "No."
         "Then can we got back and play with the squirrels? They were really cute until we landed and
they turned out to be bigger then Zel. And I wanted to see if the butterflies could carry me!"
         "Kyn?"
         "Hai, Oneesama?"
         "Shut up."
         "Hai!"
         "Zel, are we ready to go?"
         "Everything's locked down. Cylinders are at fifty percent." His voice trailed off into a mutter.
"Weapons systems at maximum. Oh wait -- somebody won't let us have any weapon systems."
         "Wai! Weapons would be neat! Oneesama, I want to blow something up! Can we blow
something up? Please -- nyaaaaa…"
         The catgirl cut off because I put one hand under her chin and started to scratch, always an
excellent distraction. With the narrow window that this allowed, I closed my eyes and directed my
thoughts outward, feeling the complicated arrangement of threads that composed the ship. Simple coils for
steel and silicon, a more complicated weave for Zel and his near-human intelligence. Kyn, a fantastic
bundle of energy pressed into a tiny space. And lastly myself. A Guardian, and a long way from home.
         But not, I thought, for long. My smile of anticipation grew wider.
         Rei is going to be so surprised when I park this baby on her lawn.

          Shifting between dimensions is harder than it looks. I've never been able to pinpoint exactly how
long it takes -- there's some interval of time, clearly, because I can look back and remember ideas or
thoughts I've had in transit. But everything is shifting and dreamlike. No matter how stable it seems, once
you finally get there it all burns away like summer mist.
          This time, I couldn't help thinking of home. It had been, by the clock on my ship, more than three
years since I'd left. I kept meaning to go back, but…well, one thing after another kept coming up. It was
almost conspiratorial. Every time I'd think of returning, somehow I'd get distracted.
          Even so, I wondered what everyone was doing. My friends would be in college now, presumably.
Assuming Usagi passed her entrance exams. And last time I checked, Rei was going out with a bounty
hunter.
          I wondered…

        I dropped the ship neatly into Earth orbit, right where I remembered. Self-congratulation lasted
for a moment -- crossing dimensions accurately was hard! -- and then all hell broke loose.
        "Multiple incoming sensor sweeps, Ami." Zel sounded as surprised as I was. "I've got eight --
make that twelve sources, lighting up across the board."
        "I see it." I started slapping switches on the main board and the displays lit up. "They get us yet?"
        "Most likely."
        "Define 'most likely.'"
        "Ninety-eight percent chance they acquired us on that first ping. We're too close, and they've got
too much power behind them. Stealth can't handle it."
           "Great." Hazy circles were coalescing on the display as Zel interpolated the position of the other
ships, but not fast enough. "Time to throw stealth out the window, then. Go active and find out what's out
there."
           "On it."
           A half-second later, the faint bubbles had solidified, lit up by active sensors. This had the
normally unpleasant side effect of broadcasting our position, but under the circumstances that was
irrelevant.
           "Twelve ships on this side of the planet. They're close, probably in orbit as well, but at least three
are coming our way."
           "Any idea who they are?"
           "No clue. I thought your planet didn't have much space industry?"
           "It doesn't." A nasty feeling crept along the back of my neck. "Unless they've made a lot of
progress in three years…"
           "Unlikely. Take a look at this."
           One of the tactical displays became a close-up of one of the approaching vessels. It didn't look
particularly impressive -- a black sphere surrounded at the equator by a glowing purple ring -- until I
noticed the scale markers in the bottom right corner. My breath escaped in a hiss.
           "That's a battlecruiser!"
           "It's certainly big enough. They must have been spun all the way up, too, because they're really
moving. Intercept in six minutes."
           "Zel, we're going to assume those are not friendlies. How fast can you put us on the ground?"
           "Eight minutes, and that'll be bumpy."
           "Not fast enough. Try and stay away from those things and start losing altitude. Head for Japan --
the maps should be in the navigation--"
           "Got it. I am the navigation computer, remember?"
           "Right. Tell me when they get within weapons range."
           "Done. Though I warn you, assuming things about the weapons of unknown races is not advised."
           I ignored him -- a conditioned reflex by now -- and turned around to find Kyn waiting patiently by
my chair with her arms crossed behind her back. I've trained her enough to not interrupt in tense situations.
Kyn had absolutely no sense of self-preservation, but she knew I didn't like to be disturbed.
           "Nya? Oneesama, what's going on?"
           "Bad guys, I think." I was unshipping the manual controls. "This may get rough."
           Kyn paused, then broke into a wide grin. "Wai! Bad guys! Do I get to play with them?"
           "Absolutely. I wouldn't think of depriving you."
           "Three minutes to weapons range, Ami."
           "Wai! I'll get my helmet!"
           The catgirl dashed into her own little room and returned with her battered virtual reality helmet,
whose trailing leads she connected to the side of the computer. I could hear the resignation in Zel's voice
when he spoke again.
           "Two minutes. Are you honestly going to let her..."
           "I don't have much of a choice. I need to fly this thing. Besides, she's got the reflexes for it."
           "Hai!" Kyn gave one last grin before disappearing into the depths of the helmet, which was made
for someone several sizes larger and covered nearly her whole head. She plopped down on the couch,
hands waving in front of her, and I could hear the hum as the defense fields shifted in response. "Ready,
Oneesama!"
           "Give me manual control on my mark, Zel."
           "As you wish. The cruiser is launching something, missiles or fighters. One minute."
           "Great. Just great." I scanned the displays. Defense systems at full power, engines at full, losing
altitude rapidly. "Looking good. Give me something light."
           "One moment."
           I tapped one of the screens. The objects the cruiser had launched looked like smaller versions of
itself, tiny black spheres with purple rings. These, however, sported long-nosed cannons of some sort.
Any doubts about the unfriendliness of whoever-they-were evaporated. "Come on, Zel."
           A rapid, pulsing beat filled the cabin. I shook my head. "Too happy."
           "You said light. Thirty seconds."
           "Well, light for this kind of work. Something else. Get set, Kyn."
        "Hai!"
        The music changed to a heavy techno bass line. I smiled.
        "Spybreak. Good choice, Zel." The display lit up with sparkles as I started jinking, and I heard
the thump-thump-thump of the impacts at the same time as Kyn's howl of glee. "Here we go."
Chapter Four
       Tsunami

          "Did you see it on TV?"
          I smiled and pulled Kyoko into a conspiratorial huddle. "I saw it in person!"
          "But…" She stared. "You snuck out? What if the troopers had caught you?"
          "Not very far. You can see the cruiser from my roof, so I climbed up to have a look just before
they started firing."
          It had been loud. That was what I remembered, mainly. The Sa'an hadn't fired their big guns once
during the Arrival -- they hadn't needed to, since there was nothing in space worth shooting at. When the
beams had stabbed upwards from the cruiser, a delicate tracery in the distance, the hollow boom had rattled
the windows of my house, miles away.
          "What do you think they were shooting at?"
          I shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe the Americans tried to pull something. They've still got a lot
of nukes."
          "The first time they tried to nuke the cruisers they didn't even bother to fire."
          "Maybe they've come up with something better." I glanced at the clock and jerked Kyoko's arm.
"Come on! We'll miss the train!"
          We didn't, by about half an inch; the two of us slumped together once again in the nearly-empty
car, breathing hard.
          "I…am…so out of shape. What ever happened to our exercise program?"
          Kyoko blew out a long breath. "You gave it up when it got cold."
          "Why didn't I start again?"
          "Too lazy."
          "And why didn't you make me?"
          "Too nice."
          I pulled myself to a seat. "Thank you for that concise summary of things, Kyoko."
          "No problem." She sat next to me. "So how are things? How's Ryu?" The unspoken question
was obvious.
          "Fine. He's barely been home the past week. Some new girl sank her claws into him."
          "Good. You ready for the math test?" She shuffled in her backpack, looking for a notebook.
          "Of course."
          We lapsed into silence as Kyoko started reading, and I rested my head against the metal guardrail,
feeling every bounce and twist of the track. It wasn't a circumstance I could normally fall asleep in, but
somehow I managed it.

         "Tsunami."
         I opened my eyes. This didn't help much -- it changed the world from a black blur to a white blur.
The voice had come from behind me, but I found myself unable to turn, or in fact to move in any way.
         "Tsunami, listen to me."
         "I'm here." Somehow, I wasn't afraid. I knew it was a dream, another one of the weird ones that I
could feel and smell and touch. I was getting curious, and also kind of annoyed. "Where are you?"
         "You are in danger, Tsunami."
         "What? What do you mean? Who are you?"
         "I am you."
         "Really?" I couldn't help grinning. "Then who am I?"
         "Nothing. You're a cipher, a chrysalis."
         "Great. That makes me feel special."
         "You are in danger."
         "From what?"
         "They're coming for me. We must not be taken."
         I rolled my eyes. "Well, gee, thanks for the mysterious warnings and vague threats. Think you
could provide anything a bit more specific?"
         "Let Kyoko die."
         "What? Look, mysterious voice, this isn't funny anymore. Who are you?"
         "I am Power Incarnate."
         "Tsunami! Wake up!"
         My eyes shot open with an odd sense of urgency. "Kyoko!"
         She started. "What?"
         The train was just as I'd left it, and I looked around slowly feeling more and more foolish. Kyoko
leaned forward.
         "What is it? You sounded…kind of scared."
         "Nothing. Weird dream."
         "Again?"
         I nodded.
         "Do you think it means anything?"
         "Do you plan on dying anytime soon?"
         "No." She looked sort of shocked. "Why, do you?"
         "I'll have to check my Dayrunner." I caught her glance and shook my head. "No, no. Just a
dream."
         "If you say so." She leaned back in her seat. "One more stop."
         I looked at her, and couldn't help considering. Let Kyoko die. To accomplish what? Saving my
own life, maybe? I wondered if, should it come down to it, I could make that choice. Give up my own life
for my best friend.
         "Yikes."
         "Hmm?" Kyoko didn't look up from her notes.
         "Nothing. I'm just feeling morbid this morning."
         "I noticed."
         I could, I decided. If I really had to. It would be a worthwhile way to die.
         Another voice seemed to come from somewhere far away.
         There are worse fates than death…

           Biology, for one.
           We made it to school, as usual, roughly thirty seconds after the final bell rang. And, as usual, Dr.
Mercek fixed us with his patented killer glare, which normally pins students to the chalkboard in roughly
the same way a collector pins a butterfly in his book. It didn't work on me. I was in the habit of hanging
around the school after hours, and had once chanced to see the good doctor wandering through the bio lab,
scotch bottle in hand, talking to the preserved specimens. I'd never told him, and he always seemed
puzzled at his inability to intimidate me.
           "Please take your seats, ladies." He smiled thinly. "With your permission, I'd like to begin today's
lesson."
           "By all means, doctor." I picked my way to my familiar desk, flopped into the chair, and waved a
hand imperiously. "Do continue."
           You could almost hear the old man's teeth grinding as he turned back to the chalkboard.
           Kyoko leaned over from her desk next to mine, her voice low. "You really shouldn't tease him."
           "Aww. It's so easy. And if I didn't I'd have to tease you."
           "Shh!"
           This last was from Rebecca, an American girl who'd been stranded here when the Sa'an grounded
all air traffic after the Arrival. She sat in front of us and wasn't particularly happy with the position; she
kept going to school out of some twisted sense of loyalty and wasn't happy with people disrupting it.
           I kept going because there was nothing else to do, and because it gave me time to think about my
plans.
           "So we come," said old Mercek, "to the quite interesting example of the cockroach. Now,
cockroaches do not have a 'brain' as we understand it; instead, their central nervous system is distributed
throughout the body in a loose network of ganglia. An individual cockroach is capable of surviving the
loss of its head quite handily, and only eventually dies because it can no longer eat. Roaches have been
shown to display problem solving ability after decapitation, proving that…"
           I let him fade to a distant background buzz. Whatever the Sa'an wanted, whatever the magic key
that would get me onto the cruiser was, I was pretty sure it wasn't biology. So Mercek and his roaches just
washed over my head as I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes to slits, constructing elaborate
fantasies. Suppose the Sa'an surrounded the building and told us we'd all be atomized within the hour.
Who would I want to screw before I went? I looked thoughtfully at the blond guy in the front row, Ryan or
Ray or something like that.
         The clock ticked onward. Dr. Mercek continued to drone. I decided I'd give Kyoko a shot, just to
see what that was like.
         Then the Imperial Legion busted down the door.

          There were six of them, just like on TV. The Legions operate in multiples of six, for some reason.
They wore the black armor Legionnaires were never seen without, fanning out across the front of the room
without a second glance at the befuddled doctor and leveling their rifles at the class as though we were a
pack of dangerous animals.
          Once the six of them had established that none of the high-schoolers were likely to pull out
weapons and open fire, she walked into the room. Tall, long brown hair, and a school uniform of the type
that went out of style years ago. Plus high heels and make-up.
          My first thought was, I don't believe it. An actual Sailor Senshi.
          I didn't have time for a second thought, because someone inside me was screaming her head off.
          The Senshi, if that's what she was, was not one to beat around the bush. She strode up to Dr.
Mercek, who backed away until he was almost up against the chalkboard, and stared him down.
          "We're looking for a girl named Tsunami. She's in this class. Don't make this difficult."
          The old man stared back at her for a moment, and I could almost see the dilemma in his eyes; on
the one hand, he didn't like me very much. On the other hand -- well, it was the Imperials asking. A lot of
the adults never really accepted the new world order. I could tell he was about to do something stupid, like
deny it, and probably get himself vaporized.
          "I'm Tsunami." I stood up, chair scraping back. "How can I help you?"
          Surprised murmurs ran around the class. I was trying to avoid looking at Kyoko, who was staring
at me with unabashed horror. I was also trying to keep my heart from beating so fast it leapt out of my
chest, and suppressing an inner tide of horror and rage.
          The Senshi turned around, unsmiling. "You're going to have to come with us."
          "I…" I stopped. What could one say, under the circumstances?
          "No!"
          Kyoko stood up, right in front of me. She was almost shivering with anger, or maybe fear, but her
voice was steady.
          "What?" The Senshi looked suddenly uncertain, for some reason -- I'm not sure why someone
backed up by Imperial Legionnaires was afraid of Kyoko.
          "You're not going to take her! I won't let you!"
          "Kyoko." I kept my voice low. "Don't be an idiot."
          "I promised you!"
          "I know. But this is not going to help. You'll get killed, and they'll take me anyway. Be logical."
Somehow I knew this approach was doomed to failure. I could feel something creeping up the back of my
neck -- a cold sensation, metallic. Somehow, I couldn't quite remember…
          Let Kyoko die.
          She didn't move, and neither did I, but the Imperial had apparently had enough. Her voice was a
flat monotone.
          "Jupiter Oak Evolution."
          I've seen the Senshi on TV. Not that I watch that show, you understand, but I've happened across
it occasionally. Their 'attacks' always looked sort of…cute. Twinkly. No-one ever gets really hurt, except
for the monsters, and I guess they don't count.
          This wasn't cute. A crackling ball of power caught Kyoko in the chest and tossed her against the
wall with casual force, hard enough to crack the plaster. The rest of the students cleared away from her in a
widening circle, and the troopers kept their guns trained on me.
          Me. My thoughts circled, cold and slow. And Kyoko. She never hurt anyone. She never did
anything. I was kneeling at her side before I realized it, holding her head up in one hand to check her
breathing and using the other to check her pulse. Her leg jerked, slightly, as electricity squirreled around
inside her, but after a moment her eyes shot open. Her breathing was ragged.
          "Tsunami…"
          Let Kyoko die. I felt whatever-it-was welling up inside me, seething just below the surface. A
stream of raw power I could tap, if I chose.
          Run. Leave her and run for the window. It's only three stories down, we can make that easily.
Then we'll be away from them, and now that I'm awake…
          The thought came so strongly it was almost like someone else's. My head throbbed.
          "Don't…worry about me…" Kyoko's hand clutched at my shirt, as though she were drowning.
"Tsunami…"
          I looked up, then back at Kyoko. Her eyes were tear-filled, forgiving. The Senshi had stepped
forward, watching me like a cat.
          "ENOUGH!"
          The sailor-uniformed girl seemed taken aback. The soldiers didn't even flinch. I took a deep
breath after shouting and rounded on her.
          "Everyone just stop. I feel like you're all trying to execute some dramatic scene without
consulting me. You"--I pointed a finger at Kyoko--"are not going to die, so stop talking like that. I am not
going insane. And you"--my shaking finger made it around to the Senshi--"you have to do something for
me."
          "Really?" She looked amused.
          I was really, really hoping Kyoko wouldn't hate me forever for this. "She comes with me. No
matter what happens." I hesitated. "Okay?"
          Finally, she smiled. It wasn't comforting. "Okay."
          And that was it. Two of the Legionnaires moved, without apparent instructions, to collect the
now-unconscious Kyoko. Four more kept their guns trained on me as I threaded my way to the head of the
class. Dr. Mercek wouldn't meet my eyes, which was just as well.
          "Come on." The Senshi led the way out the door, and I followed with a shrug. I didn't think it
likely I'd be back here again.
Chapter Five
       Hotaru

         My first thought was that it was a mistake. A horrible, impossible mistake. But of course it wasn't,
since someone like Jahara didn't make mistakes. And that meant this really was Earth, and I was really
standing in Tokyo, and…what?
          In my time on the Aegis, I had seen some pretty strange things, and visited some pretty run-down
worlds. This wasn't the worst scene of devastation I'd seen -- the planet Inferno is destroyed every three
years by a periodic rain of fire, forcing the inhabitants to rebuild their city from the wreckage. I watched
Jahara fight a god of metal and glass in the ruined world-city of Cairn. The great pyramids of Tsara have
fallen to pieces, and that world is ruled by the walking dead.
          But this…
          One thing, of course, was that Jahara was not at my side. I missed him more than I could possibly
let on. Not just his physical presence, though there was certainly that -- with him around, I knew that
nothing bad could possibly happen to me. But more than that, I missed his unconcern. No matter how
horrible the setting, no matter what the atrocity, nothing could ever crack the Unforgiven's calm demeanor.
It rubbed off on me. While we were together, I found myself assuming his aspect more often than not,
looking down on the local worlds we visited. I started to acquire some of his perspective. Jahara had seen
the worst that humans could do to one another, seen it over and over and over. The apocalypse of a world
was a terrible thing, but terrible things happen constantly without a hope of stopping them. To the
Unforgiven, even a world-crushing catastrophe is nothing. People rebuild, or if not there are always other
worlds. In the long run, such things are inevitable. Take the really long view, and even the lifespan of
worlds drops to zero.
          But now that was all gone, as though it had never been. Because somehow that only worked out
there, with him -- it didn't seem real. Now…now I was just teenaged Hotaru Tomoe, not the adjunct to the
ultimate guardian of Power Incarnate. And this wasn't some world I'd never heard of with people I didn't
know, it was Tokyo, the city where I grew up -- twice -- where all my friends lived. Home. And it was in
flames.
          Not the ungovernable fires of a city determined to burn to the ground before morning. This was
more of a sultry, smoldering blaze, the kind of fire that intends to keep on going until everything flammable
has been reduced to char. I was back on the hilltop overlooking the district around my house, a place I'd
been so many times before -- it had seemed as good a place as any to land. Staring dully at the view, the
wreckage of what had been a residential sprawl dotted with crawling blazes, I had to blink away tears. I sat
down involuntarily, legs just folding underneath me as they refused to support my weight.
          "You might not like what you find," he'd said. He'd known. Of course he'd known, somehow.
And he hadn't told me, because of his gods-damned rules. As though anyone could impose rules on him.
          I pulled myself backwards with my hands, until my back came up against a tree trunk. Then I
leaned forward, my hands on my knees, and watched my city burn. When you watch them closely, the fires
didn't look uncontrolled. Like bonfires, but huge, the size of houses. And it was hard to tell what had
caused the catastrophe. Most of the buildings looked pretty intact, except where people had gotten to them
-- broken windows, smashed doors, cars overturned in the street. Here and there a house had fallen down,
or had been taken to bits.
          I'm uncertain how long I sat there, staring out in a daze. The shock, I suppose. Ever since I'd
talked to Jahara I'd expected the worst, prepared for the worst, all the while trying to figure out what the
worst really was. I'd never expected this. Nothing like this…
          The tiny demon of guilt opened one eye and scampered up onto my shoulder, the better to whisper
in my ear. They had the final showdown, it said. Something showed up, and it was more than they could
handle. And you weren't there.
          My reverie was interrupted by voices, approaching from behind my little tree. Two male, one
female, weaving their way across the grass.
          "Man, that was a bust."
          "No kidding." The girl sounded bored. "Fuckin' Imps. I think they do it just to fuck us around."
          "If they don't deliver more One soon, they're gonna have a fuckin' riot on their hands."
          "S'right. Basic economic policy. The rest of this shit, Two and Three and whatever, that’s all
gravy. But you don't fuckin' interrupt your main product."
          "What're you going to do?" The girl giggled. "Fuckin' complain?"
           "Sure. Walk right up to the cruiser, knock on the doors, and be like, 'Yo! What the fuck?'"
           There was general laughter. I remained curled up, hugging my knees.
           "Yeah, right."
           "Try it. I'd like to see that."
           "Go for it, man."
           "I'm gonna sit down for a bit." They wandered into my field of view, visible through slitted eyes.
She was in a short skirt and a tight top, and both of the guys wore ripped jeans and frayed t-shirts. They
looked like high school students, or maybe college, and their eyes seemed glazed, unseeing.
           The girl flopped down on the grass, and one of the guys sat next to her. They were looking the
same direction I was, out over the city; for a while, anyway. Then the guy put a hand on her cheek, turned
her head, and started a kiss that lasted longer than I was willing to watch. I averted my eyes quickly.
           The other guy had noticed me and wandered over, crouching to get a better look. I didn't feel like
uncurling just yet, so I let him stare. He put his head on one side, then called out to his friend.
           "What's with her?"
           The other looked up briefly from his other activity. "Probably deuced to the gills."
           "Fuckin' right."
           I'm not sure why I didn't move. Maybe I was still in shock, maybe I wanted to see what would
happen next. Either way, I was too surprised to react at first when he reached out, pulled my head back by
the hair, and leaned in to a kiss. I could taste his breath, alcohol and something acidic. His other hand
rested briefly on my shoulder, then started to slip downward.
           Catatonia is one thing. Getting molested is something else. I wasn't exactly in a great position,
but I pushed off the tree with my back and brought my knee up into his chin, hard. The guy folded up with
a little sigh and collapsed next to the tree as I completed the motion and regained my feet.
           His friend heard him fall and looked up again. He raised an eyebrow, impressed. The girl, now
lying on the ground with her top pushed up far enough to expose black lace, didn't seem to care.
           "Nice body for a little girl." He smiled. "Shame about the tits, though. Still." He gestured at his
half-naked partner. "You want to be next?"
           That she seemed to take offense at. "Ryu!"
           "Kidding." He winked at me.
           I didn't feel anything more than a vague disgust. I certainly wasn't frightened of their petty
posturing. Transformed, I could have cut them all to bits in the space of one breath. But something about
their manner felt off, forced somehow. I shook my head.
           "You're disgusting." I directed this at the guy on the ground, who was still rolling back and forth
in pain. His friend -- Ryu? -- chuckled.
           "Give him a break. He thought you were high on Two."
           "So?"
           "When you're deuced, it doesn't matter what anyone does to you. It's all"--he closed his eyes,
probably reminiscing--"it's all good."
           This conversation was getting creepier and creepier, and I decided it was time to go. I took a last
look around to get my bearings. It was hard to figure with most of the familiar buildings in tatters, but the
lay of the land underneath was the same, and I started to pick out the shattered forms of my old landmarks.
I'd come down exactly where I wanted, not far from Setsuna's house.
           Or where Setsuna's house had been. I stomped hard on that importunate thought. Guilt threatened
to roll back in a wave.
           "Ryu." The girl wove her hands behind Ryu's head and dragged him down into her embrace.
"Leave her alone." He resisted for a moment, staring after me, then with a last shrug returned to other
business.

         I wasn't accosted again as I walked home, except by the visions of what had happened to the city.
The looters had stolen everything that wasn't nailed down, and then bored thrill-seekers had smashed
whatever was left. I saw the latter walking in gangs around the shattered streets, groups of young people in
black and gray, carrying makeshift weapons -- hammers, crowbars, whatever they'd picked up. At one
point I passed a miniature gang war, two groups formed into a circle around a pair of struggling bodies.
One of their own lay against the wall, already forgotten, as the ground underneath him stained red.
          The pleasure seekers were also out in force. I passed one of the big bonfires, not the clean flames
of wood but a guttering, smoky plastic-fed blaze surrounded by writhing forms, half-glimpsed. I kept my
steps resolutely forward and tried not to look, feeling the blush spread to my cheeks.
          That, I thought, was the most ridiculous part. In the destroyed city, with squads of killers walking
the streets, I blushed at that.
          To take my mind off my surroundings, and more importantly what I'd find at my destination, I
tried to keep my thoughts on speculation. That was no good, though -- I kept returning to the central
question. What happened here? It was worse than a physical disaster, worse than anything I could think of.
What could cause this kind of breakdown?
          If some kind of youma had won, I decided. That could do it. We'd found on a few occasions that
a youma's dark energy could affect people's behavior, so a nasty enough monster could have created the
broken-down city I found myself in.
          If a youma had won, though, that meant that all the Senshi were probably dead. That made my
breath catch, but it was true. I couldn't imagine them giving up, letting the monsters win, surrendering.
They would have fought to the death to prevent this from happening. So if it had happened…
          I climbed the well-remembered steps without thinking, auto-piloted through the gate, past the
fence and around the corner. The house -- it was still there, sort of. All the windows had been smashed,
and at some point the door had been ripped from its hinges. Just inside, someone had apparently been
camping, leaving a bunch of empty beer cans and cigarette butts behind. A smear of something that looked
suspiciously like blood covered one wall.
          More than all that, though, it was cold, dark, and silent. No-one had lived there for a long time.
          I sat down, heavily, on the dying grass. And wondered what the hell I was supposed to do now.
Chapter Six
       Ami

           Blink.
           It didn't seem to help. I wiped away the trickle of blood from my eye with one sleeve, and my
vision started to clear. Recent memory seemed to be jumbled, but I could remember a screaming descent
into the atmosphere at an angle far steeper than the one strictly advised. The force of the power dive, even
inside the ship, had been incredible. I remember Kyn snarling with rage and punching the air, and the
lights flickering as the shields responded and power dropped. And then…
           Pushing myself to a sitting position was no mean feat, but I managed it somehow. I was still in
the main cabin, such as it was. Something had ripped a huge rent in the ship lengthwise, big enough to
walk through. What was left of my control equipment was dark and silent; Kyn's VR helmet lay discarded
and broken in one corner.
          I guessed that we'd hit the ground at around five hundred kilometers per hour. The ship was tough,
especially with the contragravity field up, but at that speed in an atmosphere I probably should have been
goo on the walls. Which meant that once again I owed my life to my powers kicking in at the last possible
second. It always sort of felt like cheating.
           After giving myself a quick once-over and finding no injuries aside from an assortment of bruises
and scratches, I got up and stumbled towards my quarters. This was complicated by the fact that the ship
was now lying on its back, so I was effectively walking along the ceiling. Most of my stuff had been
trashed by the landing, of course, but I prized my emergency supplies out from under the wreckage of my
bed. These were conveniently gathered into a large black backpack. After a brief rummage, I pulled out
the silver-gray headband I'd been looking for.
           I couldn't help feeling a little tension as I slipped it on and waited for it to go through its start-up
routine. Finally the thing beeped, and the familiar voice sounding in my ear took the edge off my
nervousness.
           "My ship! What did you do to my beautiful ship?!?"
           "Not exactly a perfect landing, I'll admit." I zipped up the backpack and shrugged it on.
           "Not perfect. Not perfect, she says. You ripped up half a city block!"
           "No I didn't. I was aiming for a park."
           "Hmph." Zel somehow gave the impression of sulking without a visible body. "You would have
ripped up a block. If you'd landed on one."
           "Right." I finished checking my equipment and started clambering out the door. The main airlock
was upside-down and wouldn't work without power anyway, so I just headed for the giant hole in the hull.
"Are you okay?"
           "Lost some data, nothing major."
           "Make sure you're snug in the portable."
           "Already done. I had to leave some stuff behind, though."
           "Not much to do about that. What about the ship? Anything we can salvage?"
           "Well, the contragravity core folded. So that means we've got a bunch of broken tubes and some
scrap -- no power."
           I grimaced, though that was only to be expected. With nothing to control its spin, the ultra-
massive cylinder that generated the starship's power had collapsed into a tiny black hole, fast enough to rip
itself out of this universe entirely. That accounted for the loud thumping and loss of power halfway
through our descent.
           Climbing out was also kind of tricky, since the edges of the hole and the whole exterior of the ship
were cooling from a white-heat. I took a moment to pull on a pair of black gloves, to save my skin, and
gingerly stepped through.
           "Where's our feline friend?"
           I waved, vaguely. "Around, I assume."
           "She wasn't hurt in the crash?"
           "She's indestructible."
           "Ah well. Hope springs eternal."
           "Oneesama!"
           I blinked in the sunlight and waved. Kyn was shouting from some distance off off. As I'd
intended, or more accurately blindly hoped, we'd come down in a little park. The park had gotten the worst
of it and was looking rather badly mauled; the ship's descent had torn a furrow along half its length,
smashed the ornamental bridge to splinters, and dredged a new channel for the stream. Broken trees lined
its path, some of them still on fire.
           Kyn waved from atop one of the piles of dirt the crash had pushed up. "Oneesama!"
           "I see you, Kyn." I waited for my eyes to adjust, suddenly feeling a bit weary. Nearly being killed
-- you'd think I would have gotten used to it by now -- takes a lot out of you. "Are you alright?"
           "Hai! I fell out of the ship, and then I had a nap, and then I woke up and everything was on fire!"
Her tail twitched excitedly. "Fires are cute! I chased them around for a while, and then they went out, so I
sat here and waited for you."
           "Good work." I paused. The cat-girl was still standing on top of the new embankment, across the
furrow ripped into the ground during my landing. "Any reason you're not coming over here to join me?"
           "Hai! There's some guys here who want to talk to you. They said they'd shoot me if I moved!"
           "Some people," said Zel, "would have the decency to leave off the cheerful squeak at the end of
that."

           I climbed to the top of the other embankment as the 'guys' came into view.
           There were four of them, dressed in full black armor. Hardsuits, from the look of it, pieces of
mirrored black metal with fabric at the joints. The helmets were one-way dark mirrors. Each had a stubby
but dangerous-looking rifle, which they carried in a competent manner that suggested some kind of military
affiliation.
           One of them said something, quiet enough that I couldn't make it out.
           "They want you to come over here, Oneesama!" Kyn shouted across the gap. "Slowly. Or they'll
shoot me."
           "Can you ask them why they can't talk to me from there? Politely."
           "It's okay, Oneesama. I always wondered what it would be like to get shot!" Kyn turned and
talked to the trooper standing immediately behind her. I used the opportunity to whisper to Zel.
           "Ideas?"
           "Well, at a guess, these are probably the same people who tried to blast us out of space."
           "I figured that."
           "So I think an aggressive response is justified."
           I was running out of patience. "And…"
           "I'm thinking. This portable doesn't have the processing power I'm used to."
           "Carrying your main processor around would be a bit inconvenient. Come up with something."
           "I assume you want the fuzzball to get out in one piece?"
           I sighed. "That would be nice, yes."
           "Then give me a second."
           "We probably don't have a second. I'm going over there."
           "Ami!"
           "Carefully." I raised my voice. "Tell them I'm coming over!"
           "Hai!"
           I started picking my way down the slope, discreetly checking that my pistol was still in its
accustomed place at my side. I don't particularly like carrying a gun, but I've made it a habit after some bad
experiences. Some people can be difficult to reason with, and often the threat of force is more effective
then its actual execution.
           When I was almost at the still-steaming bottom of the furrow, I flipped my vision to the magical
plane, on the off-chance that there was something there. I blinked in surprise -- the trooper was lit up like a
Christmas tree, absolutely lousy with magic. It was woven into all his equipment, suffusing the heavy dark
armor and a bright line down the center of his rifle. But drowning all that out was a heavy mesh of black
threads, wrapped tightly around the core of his being, woven so deeply that they were practically part of
him.
           I wanted to study it a bit more, but the soldiers chose that inopportune moment to open fire.
           My defenses snapped up almost of their own accord, by long-ingrained reflex. I sensed the build-
up of power long before the weapon actually fired, and so when the laser beams burned their super-heated
trails through the air they struck the invisible sphere around me and slid off it, strobing against the magical
forces. I felt the kick even through the shield -- those rifles had a lot of power behind them -- and boiling
air washed over me. I ignored both, pulling my own weapon out and returning fire as I started to run up the
furrow, away from the ship and towards some trees I could use for cover.
          My first shot went wild, kicking up a spray of dirt by their feet, but the second caught the lead
trooper in the chest. It bowled him over, but he got up almost immediately, a circular patch of dark armor
cooling from cherry-red. I realized, a bit late, that a weapon intended for knocking normal humans down
was somewhat inadequate against fully armored soldiers.
          "Kyn! Get to the trees!"
          Luckily for me, the trio was ignoring their erstwhile hostage as she dropped on to all fours and
sprinted across the grass. The lasers slashed out again, blowing chips out of the wood and again bending
away from me. I ducked behind a tree and tried to stay low -- at this rate, a tree wouldn't last very long.
          Kyn finished her run with a roll and ended up upside down against a tree behind me, smiling
hugely.
          "Whee!"
          "Stay down, would you?" I snapped off another couple of shots, more from reflex than anything
else, and tried to think. The soldiers weren't firing much, content to keep us pinned down.
          "Zel. They must have seen that they probably can't touch me with lasers. So…"
          "Probably calling for backup." The computer's voice was grim. "My tactical recommendation is
to run the hell away."
          "Good idea. Let me get us a little distraction. Kyn, when I say, run that way and don't stop till I
tell you."
          "Hai hai!"
          I dipped briefly into magical vision again, this time reaching out across the park. Despite
everything I've learned, old tricks remain the easiest -- this took practically no effort at all. Water was
everywhere, of course, and just the right little nudge and it practically leapt into the air, shreds of mist
rapidly forming into a heavy fogbank.
          There were some advantages to being a wizard, too. Another nudge, and the fog extracted heat
from the ground until it was practically blood-hot, good enough to foil the modern optics that black armor
surely included. Then I pulled back, surprised to find myself sweating in the sudden bloom of warmth, and
pushed off from the tree.
          "Now, Kyn!"
          The cat-girl kept pace with me easily, chattering all the while. "You know what'd be funny,
Oneesama? If you never told me to stop at all and I kept running all the way to the ocean and then I'd have
to swim, I guess, and maybe the fishes would help me and I could ride on a shark and eat up all the
swimmers and then I'd land somewhere else and I'd have to keep running because that's what you told me
to do!" She sucked in a deep breath. "Wouldn't that be funny? Oneesama?"
          "Right turn, Kyn."
          "Hai!"
          With a few blocks between us and the crash site, I slowed down a bit. The cat-girl didn't, jogging
in circles around me until I caught my breath.
          "You can stop now, Kyn."
          "Hai!" She skidded to a halt, putting on what was, for her, a reflective expression. "Who were
those guys? Were they bad guys?"
          I was staring down a familiar street. Down what was left of a familiar street.
          "I'm starting to think so…"
         Interlude One

          The black metal door hissed up into the ceiling, faster than the eye could follow. Kaia, her two
personal guards following her like black-armored shadows, took a deep breath and stepped into the
Commander's office.
          "Reporting, as you requested, Commander."
          The place wasn't furnished as richly as she'd expected. Kaia had served under three different
Commanders in her career thus far, enough to know that how the supreme leader of a fleet managed was
almost completely up to his personal taste. Some ran their fleets like a private fiefdom, soldiers bowing
and scraping and piling on the honorifics with every acknowledgement. Kaia didn't approve of that - what
was the point? Getting adulation from a Legionnaire was like being called 'My Lord' by a teapot. She
much preferred those officers who carried out their orders with absolute precision.
          When I become a Commander, she thought, there'll be no waste. The academies brought young
officers up to prize efficiency, reliability, and stability. The lesson had sunk home deeper with some than
with others.
          She hadn't decided what category Commander Ashghar fell into yet. He was an interesting case,
no doubt about that, and she'd been privately pleased to be assigned to his fleet. Within the infinite reach of
the Sa'an Empire's ever-expanding borders, it was hard for an individual officer to make a mark. So many
young Commanders, granted a fleet of their own and determined to be noticed, ended up simply subduing
world after quiet world. No wonder so many of them turned to other sources for their amusement - a
generation of easy victories was enough to drive any real military man half-mad. High Command tried to
rotate Commanders through difficult tasks, and recalled the worst offenders.
          But this one was different. Ashghar the Invincible. He'd made a mark.
          And now he's out here, crushing resistance on some nameless planet fifty universes away from
where the action is. All the best Sa'an line commanders were still fighting a race of self-replicating killer-
machines they'd accidentally awoken almost fifty years ago. They were winning, of course, but it was slow
work, forcing the self-assembling robots back step by bloody step before they could do any more damage.
A Commander with Ashghar's brilliance should be there. So what's wrong with this picture?
          Kaia waited, still at attention, for her Commander to turn around and acknowledge her presence.
She tried her best to suppress her slightly mutinous thoughts. That's what makes this job so interesting.
Ashghar turned, with an enigmatic half-smile. And so dangerous.
          "Vice-Commander. I'm sorry if I kept you waiting."
          "I'm at your disposal, Commander."
          He nodded, and motioned to one of the chairs facing his desk. "Sit down, please."
          She complied, and the Commander took up his own chair and turned to face her, staying silent for
the moment. She looked him over, carefully. Ashghar was older than she was, probably considerably older
unless he was letting his hair go grey on purpose. His face had a wooden look to it, like something carved
out of a tree, but there was a dark and dangerous intelligence under his eyes. He dressed in an officer's
casual uniform, as was his right, but the unrelieved black was broken by the tiniest bit of decoration around
the shoulders, a little silver swirl.
          He broke the silence first.
          "You're wondering why I called you here, of course."
          "The Commander wanted to speak to me." She inclined her head, just slightly, and wondered why
he was beating around the bush.
          "Familiarize yourself with operation four-seven-nine-fifteen and tell me what you think."
          Kaia nodded and sent the request for information winging into the Grid. Details trickled into her
mind an instant later. Her expression did not change, but only because of her careful vigilance.
          "Done, sir."
          Ashghar leaned forward. "Tell me what you think."
          Kaia had been an officer long enough to know that Commanders meant two different things when
they said that. Ashghar, though, did not seem the type that needed yes-men. She hesitated.
          "Permission to speak freely, Commander."
          "Of course. I expect you to speak freely whenever I ask your opinion."
          She nodded, filing that away for further reference. "This is a bad idea."
          "Taking the girl prisoner?"
          "The whole project. They should all be liquidated, Commander."
          He put his head on one side. "Our first subject has met with nothing but success. And we've made
progress in our experiments on the others--"
          "We're dealing with forces we don't fully understand."
          "The Adepts do."
          "The Adepts can counteract those forces. Understanding them is something else entirely." Kaia
leaned forward, trying to press home her point. "Commander, no one has ever done anything like this
before. This occupation is still at a critical stage. If these experiments must go on, ship the subjects back
to High Command and let them handle it. They're better equipped to handle things if--"
          "If what, Vice-Commander?"
          "If something goes wrong."
          "What could go wrong? If the subjects get out of control, they'll be terminated."
          "You know it isn't that simple. They are sentient minds connected to the Grid."
          "So are you."
          "I am a loyal officer of the Empire. These…people are not."
          Ashghar sat back, thinking, then finally shook his head.
          "All right. Your opinion has been noted, Vice-Commander."
          Kaia couldn't quite just let it drop. "Commander--"
          "Enough." He cut her off. "I listen to my subordinates, and I want them to offer their opinions
freely. However, I am the Commander of this fleet, and the decisions are ultimately mine."
          Enough is enough. No sense risking my neck. She brought her hand around in a salute. "Of
course, Commander. Forgive me if I have offended."
          "Not at all." He waved a hand. "Now, since we have acquired a new subject, I've found a use for
her. You'll be doing the briefings until she gets accustomed to the Grid."
          "Of course."
          "I'll send you the details for the missions in question. Please try to make use of the subject's
abilities. I'd hate to waste them."
          "Absolutely, Commander." I will, too. These experiments are dangerous, but he's right about
how useful they can be… "Will that be all?"
          "Yes. You may go, Vice-Commander."
          Kaia saluted again and left the office, already reaching out through the Grid and reading her new
assignment. She smiled to herself when she saw the details.
          Whatever else he may be, Ashghar is a tactical genius. This mission had his fingerprints all over
the planning, and she could already see how the latest subject was perfect for it. This one is going to be
fun…
Part Two: God of Blood, God of Darkness
Chapter Seven
       Tsunami

          "Kyoko? Can you hear me?"
          My friend's eyes shot open, and she sat up as though propelled by a spring, looking around wildly.
I put a hand on her shoulder in what I hoped was a comforting manner.
          She had to blink a few times before she focused on me, her expression incredulous.
          "Tsu…Tsunami?"
          I sighed with relief. "Yup. Glad you're feeling better."
          Kyoko glanced around the tiny cabin -- actually more like a jail cell, I figured -- apparently still
not believing her own eyes. "We're not dead, are we?"
          "If we are, Heaven has really let its standards slip. I mean, look at this place." There wasn't much
to see, just a double bunk bed, the bare metal floor, and the sliding door that led to the toilet. The much
heavier metal blast door that was the exit looked like a part of the wall, its joins difficult to make out.
          "We might have gone to Hell."
          "I doubt it. I don't know about you, but I was practically a saint."
          She chuckled, and I felt the ghost of my old smile return, just a bit. Having a familiar face to talk
to helps more than you can imagine when you're alone and terrified. I let out a long breath I didn't realize
I'd been holding.
          "No, I'm in one piece." My hand darted to the back of my neck, reflexively, and for what seemed
like the thousandth time I brushed the black metal embedded there. My skin was still numb from the local
anesthetic. "Pretty much."
          "What happened? Where are we?"
          "How much do you remember?"
          "We were in Bio, and then the Legionnaires busted in. And then…" Her face slowly dropped.
"There was a Senshi! A real Sailor Senshi. But she wanted to take you away, so I…"
          "So you did something incredibly stupid," I finished. "And she blasted you into next week."
          "Something like that." Kyoko looked down. "I guess it didn't help much, did it. I'm sorry."
          "Hey, it's your life. Just try not to get killed defending me, okay? I'd feel awful."
          You were supposed to let her die. Now our situation has become much more complicated.
          The voice was stronger now, and I heard it more clearly than ever. I gritted my teeth. Get out of
my mind!
          "Tsunami? Are you sure you're okay?"
          I had half-turned, listening to my private demon, and as my hair fell to the side she must have
caught a glimpse of my latest fashion accessory, courtesy of the Sa'an. She covered her mouth in horror.
          "Tsunami!"
          My hand slapped onto the back of my neck to cover the thing, automatically. It fit in the palm of
my hand, a black metal knob about the size of a walnut and slightly warm to the touch.
          "It's nothing."
          "Nothing? You've got a weird metal thing sticking out of the back of your head!"
          "I mean…it's just…" I sighed. "I don't really know, actually. They put it in right after we got
here, before you woke up."
          "And you just let them?"
          "Jupiter kind of insisted. I try not to talk back to people with that many armed guards."
          "I…" She looked nervous. "I don't have one, do I?"
          "Nope." Kyoko's hands rubbed the back of her neck, just to make sure.
          "Still! You don't know what kind of strange things that thing could be doing to you."
          "It can't be that bad."
          "Why not?"
          "Well, first of all -- if they wanted to kill me, they could just shoot me. No need for complex
subterfuge. Hell, you're only here because for some reason they seem to respect what I want. I'm not sure
why, but I'm using it for all it's worth."
          "You made them take me?"
          I blushed, for some reason. "Well. I couldn't just leave you there."
           Her smile returned, and my blush deepened. It was a moment before she spoke again.
           "So where are we?"
           "I'm not sure exactly, but I'd guess we're onboard the cruiser. They picked us up in one of those
transports, but there wasn't a window or anything."
           "Your lifelong dream has come true."
           I grimaced. "I liked to imagine rather different circumstances."
           "You should take what you can get." She looked around again, observing our environment in a
new light. "So this is the inside of a spaceship? Seems pretty dull to me."
           "Pretty much. The part of it I saw when they hustled me in here was all black corridors and lots of
guards."
           She nodded, taking it all in. One of the traits I've always envied in Kyoko is her ability to adapt to
new surroundings. She made it seems so effortless -- 'Oh, we're on a spaceship, captives destined for who-
knows-what, with not even an inkling of our future? Okay, I can handle that.' I was having to work pretty
hard to achieve a carefree attitude. Having the back of my head cut open had sort of thrown me off stride.
           "So what happens now?"
           I shrugged. "We wait, I guess." We formulate a plan to escape this room, overpower the corridor
guards, and attempt to hijack a shuttlecraft. The voice again. I mentally pictured sticking my tongue out
at it, the best I could do. "I assume we'll be fed at some point. Doesn't make much sense to bring us all the
way up here and let us starve. And there's water in the bathroom."
           "You seem relaxed."
           I wasn't, really, but I'm good at faking that sort of thing. "I did all my worrying before you woke
up. Now it's your turn."
           As though my words had been an invocation, there was a knock at the door. A moment later, it
shot up into the ceiling along its track, revealing the black-armored form of a Legionnaire with two covered
trays. The trooper set them on the floor without a word and turned around, door hissing to the floor behind
him.
           "See?" I waved a hand. "They're taking care of us. Nothing to worry about."
           "I wonder what kind of food we get?"
           I made a careful move towards one of the trays. "Probably army food. Bread and gruel, and so
forth." I yanked off the top in one quick movement, in case something leapt out at me.
           "Or…that."
           Kyoko was staring, and I was inclined to agree. The place setting underneath the cover wouldn't
have looked too bad at the average five-star French restaurant, except that none of the food was even
vaguely familiar. There was a big chunk of meat in some kind of heavy sauce, artfully arranged on the
plate with mushroom and potato analogs. There was a salad, or at least a bowl filled with a green leafy
substance which I couldn't identify, and a variety of other dishes whose provenance I couldn't even guess.
Kyoko revealed her own tray, which was set in much the same fashion. I could feel my mouth watering --
it had been at least twelve hours since I'd had any food.
           "Well," I said slowly, "Going on the 'They can just kill us at any time, no need for tricks' theory,
I'll assume this stuff is good to eat. So let's dig in." I looked over to find Kyoko already wolfing down her
meal without bothering with self-justification. I followed suit, fumbling a bit with the vaguely fork-like
pieces of metal that had been provided. Eating a fancy meal was not what I had envisioned after being
captured by the Empire, but since it was apparently what happened, I was determined to make the best of it.
Before long the plates were empty and I was licking the last bit of juice from my fingers.
           Kyoko leaned back against the bed in satisfaction. "So far, so good."
           I was inclined to agree. I leaned against the wall myself, reveling in the pleasant full sensation.
Unfortunately, the pause gave my invisible friend an opening.
           Tsunami, will you listen to me for a second?
           I glanced over at Kyoko, but she'd closed her eyes and seemed too relaxed to bother. I resigned
myself.
           Okay. I'm listening, mysterious voice. You've got about sixty seconds to start explaining things.
           Why don't you trust me? I'm trying to keep us alive.
           I don't trust you because you told me to kill my best friend.
           You could have escaped from the classroom while she was distracting them.
           I rolled my eyes. Look. You say you're out to help me. So what the hell is going on?
           You've been taken captive by the Sa'an.
          I figured that out, Captain Obvious. What are they going to do with me?
          The voice seemed to hesitate. I don't know.
          How about this: why me? That Senshi came to school looking for me, specifically. I've never
heard of the Sa'an doing anything like that before.
          I don't think they have. Another pause. Tsunami, this may be a little hard for you to accept. But
you are--
          He -- I'd gotten to thinking of the voice as 'he' -- was cut off as the door hissed open again. I sat
up and Kyoko opened her eyes. Two Legionnaires entered first, rifles at the ready, followed by the girl
who'd led them back at the school.
          She stood a moment, waiting for the two of us to get settled. Her outfit was the same as it had
been, an old school uniform fringed in green. She was tall, good-looking, athletic, her face expressionless.
A moment before I finally broke the silence, she spoke.
          "Welcome to the fleet. You're Tsunami"--she inclined her head--"but I didn't catch your friend's
name."
          I didn't see much of a point in hiding it, and neither did she. "I'm Kyoko."
          "Kyoko." The Senshi -- that was what she had to be, of course -- nodded. "My name is Sailor
Jupiter. I'm here to explain things a little bit."
          "Oh, good." I forced a smile. "Maybe now everything will make sense."
          Jupiter ignored me. "The first thing you need to realize is how lucky you are to be here at all.
This is a very abnormal procedure. You should have either been killed or processed, which means ending
up like them." She hooked a finger at the silent black figure on her right. The Legionnaires might as well
have been a couple of statues -- they showed no reaction whatsoever.
          "Is that what happens to everyone else who gets picked up?"
          Jupiter nodded. I looked for a moment into the trooper's mirrored visor and shivered.
          "Okay. So I'm a lucky girl. What happens now?"
          "You get to work for us. Perform satisfactorily, and you'll be well treated."
          "And otherwise?"
          "That's up to the Commander's discretion."
          "Great." Something occurred to me. "What about Kyoko? Why is she here?"
          "Your actions in the classroom showed that you have a bond with her. The Commander decided
that bringing her aboard would be useful if you proved recalcitrant."
          There was a pause while my mind deciphered that. The threat was twisted up in there subtly, but
it was there. I glanced at Kyoko; she'd caught it too. I considered my next words carefully.
          "If I…work for you, will you let her go?"
          "Tsunami--" I cut Kyoko off with a raised hand.
          "Well?"
          "Of course not." Jupiter smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "You're both here for the duration. You
might as well make the most of it. As long as you're obedient, practically anything you want can be yours."
          The question the voice had failed to answer was now at the forefront of my mind.
          "So why me?" I was starting to have my suspicions.
          Jupiter waved the door open. "Come with me."

         One area of the cruiser looked pretty much like another. Whoever had designed it hadn't been
feeling very creative -- he'd picked out a black-on-black motif and stuck with it. Kyoko and I marched
behind Jupiter and her guards until we came to another unmarked door that looked no different from the
one we'd just left. I tried to keep track of our route, but the twists and turns soon confused me. The Senshi
seemed to have no trouble, though.
         She opened the door with a wave and indicated that I should go through. I did, with Kyoko
following, and we found ourselves in a large room with a padded floor and not much else in the way of
features. Another breed of soldier stood against one wall -- fully enclosed black armor, just like the
Legionnaire's, but of a different cut and color. It was dull, glossless black that drunk in light like a sponge.
The figure and its pose stuck in my memory -- it was one of the things from my dream, the ones I'd called
vultures. It was armed with a weapon that looked more like a shotgun than the stubby rifles the troopers
carried.
         Jupiter followed me in to the room, along with her pair of guards. I'd noticed on the way that the
back of her neck bore the same device as mine, the little black knob, but my attempt to ask her about it had
been met with stony silence. Now she waited for the door to close behind her and then turned, stretching
her arms behind her head.
          I looked around. "So now what? What kind of a room is this?" I prodded the spongy material on
the floor with my foot. "Some sort of a bedroom? I mean, I can imagine a situation where you'd need a
bedroom thirty feet square, but I didn't think the Sa'an would be into that sort of thing." I saw Kyoko blush,
and I turned back to face Jupiter. "Is that--"
          That was as much as I got out before her toe slammed into my chin at the end of a perfect arc. The
force of the kick picked me up and tossed me a few feet backwards, landing on the padding hard enough to
drive the breath from my lungs. Or so I surmised, anyway, since in the moments after it landed my brain
ceased to function. I slowly became aware that I was still breathing, and that there was blood trickling
from the corner of my mouth. It didn't even hurt yet. I felt numb.
          Kyoko screamed, somewhere off to my left, and strong armored hands lifted me back to a standing
position. My legs wobbled, but when the trooper let go I managed to stagger backwards and not fall. I still
couldn't find my voice.
          "It's a training room, Tsunami. Sa'an officers are required to train their bodies as well as their
tactical skills. It's in the regulations." Jupiter walked forward, and I backed away as fast as my shaky legs
would allow. "And now it's time for you to fight me."
          I opened my mouth to speak, but didn't get anything except for a hollow croaking and a glob of
spit shot through with blood. Kyoko screamed again.
          "She doesn't know how to fight! Stop!"
          "Then her employment with us is going to be very short. And if she dies here, you get processed.
So you'd better hope you're wrong."
          I managed to gasp out a few words. "She…she's right…I…can't…"
          It was true, more or less. I'd taken a few self-defense lessons when I was younger, at my parents'
insistence. They thought a girl should know these things. But after the Arrival there didn't seem to be
much point to continuing.
          Jupiter just shrugged. "Like I said, if you can't fight you're not much use. Now come on."
          She moved forward, faster than I could even hope to react, and one of her hands landed in my gut.
I doubled over with a wheeze and got the elbow in the back, driving me to my knees. A numb moment
passed before a roundhouse kick slammed into the side of my head with an unpleasant crunch and tossed
me full-length on the floor.
          I blacked out again, but not for long enough. I was still lying flat when my eyes opened, face-
down, the mat under me sticky with blood. I couldn't feel my left arm, and my right seemed to be on fire.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and realized that I was probably going to die. I'd never pictured myself
as being beaten to death. It hurt less than I might have expected.
          Jupiter was behind me, now, and I was being held up more than I was standing. She locked one of
her forearms across my throat and started to squeeze, and the thin stream of air I'd been able to pull in died
off into a trickle, then nothing.
          "Stop!" There were tears in Kyoko's voice. "You're killing her! STOP! Let go of me!"
          Spots bloomed before my eyes, and I started to feel the pain from Jupiter's blows thudding heavily
into my mind. Her arm pressed more firmly, and my vision started to fade to a tunnel.
          Damnation.
          Him again. At this of all times.
          They're forcing our hand. He sounded more annoyed than afraid.
          I'm dying, you idiot! Help me!
          I was trying to avoid giving them what they want.
          Jupiter's forearm shifted, bone grating against bone. I could feel her pressed against my back,
leaning close as though to whisper in my ear.
          "TSUNAMI!"
          Do something!
          "I'm sorry." Jupiter's voice was a whisper I was sure no-one else could hear.. "I'm…sorry..."
          I could feel him, the voice, stepping forward into my forebrain, before consciousness fled. I let
him take over, and my lips moved silently.
          "Saturn…Crystal…Power…"
          I felt Jupiter tense.
          "Make…up!"
          The Senshi leapt backward as light bloomed from nowhere. I feel to my knees as my clothes
dissolved, gasping huge breaths and wondering incongruously how many Imperial soldiers were admiring
me. My vision slammed back into place, and so did the pain. It was duller, though, more bearable, and
after a moment I struggled to my feet. Jupiter was watching with an expression of quiet satisfaction.
          The world felt different. Clearer, somehow. I could move freely - it felt like I'd been trapped in
molasses all my life and never realized it. I was wearing a school uniform, much like Jupiter's but fringed
in black, and the heavy weight I felt around my hips was a sword-belt, a thin blade on each side. The really
odd part was that none of this felt the least bit strange. Everything was completely natural, even obvious.
          The die is cast now.
          This? I questioned him, incredulously. Is this what you were trying to tell me?
          Of course. Now we have to get out of here.
          But…
          I looked around for Kyoko and spotted her against the opposite wall. One of the Legionnaires had
her arms behind her back, pinning her helplessly; her eyes were wide with surprise. Two more guards
flanked Jupiter, who pointed to me with a smile.
          "Take her."
          The Imperial troopers moved instantly and with coordination. My body reacted without
consulting me, and there was an instant of confusion and flashing steel. Then two black-armored forms slid
to the ground, and I realized the paired swords were in my hands, dripping blood. Jupiter was still smiling.
          What are you doing to me? I…I just…
          You'll get used to it. The voice was grim. Finish this Senshi and let's get the hell out of here.
          "No!" I was so agitated I spoke aloud. The figure in the corner, dull-armored and menacing, had
stepped up to Sailor Jupiter's side. The Senshi held up a hand to check his advance and spoke to someone I
couldn't see.
          "Cut her."
          There was a long pause before I realized that nothing was happening.
          They think they can cut me off from your body. He sounded smug. I saw that coming. They don't
realize that I'm not just providing the power, I've taken up residence. Now! Before they realize what's
wrong. Kill them all!
          What about Kyoko? And… Jupiter's voice came back to me, apologizing with her arm on my
throat. Something's wrong.
          Just do it!
          The whole conversation took place in the space of a single breath. Jupiter blinked in surprise, but
before she could move and gathered whatever strength I had left and pushed. I felt the voice shriek, and
light bloomed around me again for a moment. When I looked down, my bloodstained clothes had returned,
and the pain that had thus far somehow been kept at bay returned in full force. I collapsed almost instantly,
barely registering my head bouncing off the ground, Kyoko's shriek, or the Senshi's final words.
          "Experiment successful."
Chapter Eight
       Hotaru

            "She's cute. I say we keep her."
            I levered open eyes gummed shut by tears and sleep, and saw nothing but a brilliant blur.
Unclasping my hands from around my knees was an effort, and rubbing my eyes didn't accomplish much. I
blinked, and waited for things to clear.
            "Dee, we're late as it is."
            "Although…" The third voice sounded musing. "God might want to see her."
            "Or She might not. You want to end up as the next sacrifice?"
            "Yup!" The first voice again, feminine, high, and cheerful.
            "Speaking for those of us in the land of sanity, I say we leave her."
            "At least let me fuck her before we leave."
            "By Her fucking Knife, Tetsuya, is that all you think about?"
            "Can I watch?" The girl again. She sounded kind of disturbed.
            "Give me a break. It's been a long week."
            "And you can't wait another day?"
            "How about we keep her, and you can fuck me?"
            "Shut up, Dee."
            My vision had cleared enough by this point so I could see I was still where I'd been lying the night
before, on the floor of what had been my bedroom in Setsuna's house. I could hear the voices through the
doorway into the next room. I'd apparently spent the night curled up in the corner, and my legs popped
when I stretched them out. I sighed.
            "She did say she wanted us to be on the lookout for strangers."
            "Yeah! We can bring her along and let God decide what to do with her."
            "Look, how about this. I'll try and wake her up. If she can walk, we take her with us. If not, we
leave her. I'm sure as hell not carrying some girl all the way back to camp."
            I got to my feet, shakily and with some assistance from the wall. Last night was still crystallizing
in my memory, but it felt as though I cried so long and hard there was nothing left inside. I felt numb,
empty, and vaguely curious as to what the three strangers had planned. It wasn't, I thought, as though I had
anything else to do.
            The girl poked her head through the doorway and looked surprised that I was standing. She was
younger than me, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, with straight red hair cut above her shoulders and a T-shirt
that hung on her thin frame like a tent. Her face was grubby, but smiling.
            "Good morning!" She leaned back out the door for a moment. "Guys, she's awake!"
            I waited for her attention to return to me, then nodded. "Good morning."
            "I'm Darasora. Everyone calls me Dee. Who are you?"
            "Hotaru." My head had stopped spinning to the point where I could let go of the wall. "I'm
Hotaru Tomoe."
            "That's a nice name. You can come back to camp with us! I'll let you meet all my friends."
            "I…" I didn't quite know how to answer that one. I was curious about these people, but some
sense of caution had started to return. Dee looked friendly enough, but the other two... "We'll see."
            "I'm afraid you misunderstood." The third speaker, the one they'd called Tetsuya, stepped past the
little girl. He was tall and gaunt, with pale interested eyes that focused on me right away. It wasn't quite a
leer, but his gaze made me shiver. He was also, I noticed when he moved his hand, wearing an automatic
pistol at his side. "That wasn't a request."

          The second voice, I learned as we were walking, was named Korin. He was short, squat, and sour-
faced, dressed in several layers of tattered jeans and armed with a nasty-looking assault rifle that he kept
slung over his back. Korin hadn't said more than ten words since we'd left Setsuna's house, and Tetsuya,
who walked at the rear, seemed more interested in staring at me then engaging in conversation. Most of the
chatter, therefore, came from the girl who'd called herself Dee. I learned, in no particular order, that she
was thirteen, her parents were dead and her brother had been 'taken', whatever that meant, and that she
lived with Tetsuya, Korin, a few dozen others, and 'God.'
          I tried to question her on a couple of these points, but she essentially ignored my inquiries and
continued her non-stop stream of chatter. Korin led the way down the hill, picking his way carefully
through streets crowded by fallen masonry and destroyed vehicles. The city seemed almost deserted in the
light of day, and we met only a few others. A group of young men, staggering and stumbling and laughing
far too loud. An old man, sitting on top of a nearly-intact automobile with a shotgun, who watched us
carefully until we were out of sight. A gang of children gathered around something in the road -- they fled
at our approach, revealing the naked body of a woman lying face-down in the gravel.
          All of this barely registered with me. It didn't feel real; unable to accept the evidence, I'd reverted
to an Unforgiven-like detachment. This was just another little world, another place where we would
accomplish our task and move on. There was nothing familiar here. So I let my gaze pass lightly over the
bodies and the bands of scavengers, and tried to concentrate on my mission.
          That was the problem, though. What, exactly, was my mission? Why was I even here? My home
was -- I choked back a brief sob -- gone. The city had been reduced to barbarism. I could call Jahara, since
he'd attached one of his invisible markers to me, and just leave, write the world off and never come back. I
could even put up with his self-satisfied smirk, or at least the knowledge that while Jahara's face was as
expressionless as always, he ought to have a self-satisfied smirk.
          I gave the problem some thought while my companion/captors argued about the best route to take,
and Dee dashed off the path to retrieve a toy robot, half-melted to slag, from some forgotten store. By the
time we were moving again, I'd come to a decision.
          I wasn't going to swear my life to revenge, tempting though that seemed. And I wasn't going to
spend the rest of my days here in this slum. What I was going to do was find out what had happened to
everyone -- to Setsuna, to Haruka and Michiru, to Rei and Usagi and the rest -- and having either located
them or confirmed that they were dead, we would all leave Earth together. Jahara would probably object,
but I suspected not too strongly. After all, Aegis was large enough for tens of thousands of people. Why
should six or seven more matter?
          I felt pleased with myself, distantly, for coming up with a plan. My consciousness felt like a tight-
rope walker, balancing precarious rationality over a sea of black despair. Focusing on the logical
progression of things was the only way to survive. So the first step was to go back to this camp with these
three, who seemed reasonably civilized people, and find someone willing to talk about what had happened.
I wasn't afraid, particularly, since I was reasonably sure I could escape if I had to. And finding the Sailor
Senshi couldn't be that hard. I couldn't imagine Haruka or Makoto just lying low, escaping notice;
wherever they were, the Senshi would stir up trouble.
          "Hotaru!"
          Dee's excited voice brought me back to the present, and I found myself standing next to a six-story
apartment building, the scars of explosives marring its sides underneath crumbling window frames. It
stood alone in a block of destruction, the buildings on either side having succumbed to some unnamed
catastrophe. The apartment block looked to only have one entrance, and all the ground floor windows had
been boarded up. The main door was guarded by a pair of bored-looking women in their thirties sitting
next to a light machinegun. They looked up at our approach, and Dee ran over to them excitedly.
          "Emi! Mori! Look what we found!"
          Once we were closer, Tetsuya raised a hand in a more restrained greeting. "Hey. Brought back a
prisoner. She said She wanted to see any strangers."
          The taller of the two women looked me over with a critical eye. I suppressed an irrational urge to
pose.
          "Okay." She rapped a pattern on the door behind her, which swung open with a creak. "Go on
up."
          "Anything happen while we were away?" Korin asked as he nodded to the guards, in passing.
          "Not much. Snakes have been causing trouble again for some, but they ain't bothered us yet."
          "She'll give them a good kicking if they try." The other woman, silent until now, favored us with
a sudden grin, then spat on the ground. "Fuckin' snakes. The Imps should slaughter the lot of them."
          "Not bloody likely."
          The three of them laughed, and Tetsuya prodded me in the back.
          "Come on, girl. You've got an appointment to keep."

         These people -- I still didn't know what they called themselves, a clan or a tribe or whatever -- had
pretty much gutted the interior of the building. There was no power, of course, and most of the occupants
congregated in what had probably been the lobby, around a bonfire fed on the remains of furniture and
plastic sheeting. Tetsuya led me up the stairs, while Korin drifted off into the crowd. Dee stayed by my
side, for which I was grateful.
          The people were a pretty varied lot. Many dressed in the same kind of clothing as my three
captors, layer upon layer of ripped jeans and old jackets, but a few wore carefully patched traditional dress
or the remains of business suits. Weapons were much in evidence: almost everyone had a sidearm, or at
least a knife, and a bunch of rifles were stacked carelessly against one wall. There was food near the fire,
some sort of meat and stacks of leafy green vegetables I didn't recognize. The smell reminded me how
long it had been since I'd had a proper meal, and my stomach growled a little. Following my gaze, Tetsuya
chuckled.
          "After God's done with you, we'll see about getting you fed." His smile turned nastier.
"Assuming you still need it, that is."
          I was revising downward my estimate that escape from this place would be easy. Sailor Saturn's
power meant I could certainly take a few of them apart at close quarters -- not that I wanted to, I added
hastily -- but facing down masses of modern weapons was probably suicide even for a Senshi.
          I wondered at my detachment as we climbed the fourth flight of stairs. I still wasn't scared. In
tense situations, sometimes Saturn makes her way to the fore; this was probably one of those times. In the
three years since I'd left Earth I'd made a sort of peace with my alter-ego, but things still weren't perfect.
          Sixth floor. Tetsuya stopped before a heavy iron door.
          "You go in alone." He looked a little nervous. "I'll be waiting here. There's only one exit, so
don't think of trying to run."
          I nodded, and he gestured to the door. "Go on, then."
          Dee, who had been uncharacteristically quiet until now, piped up. "Good luck, Hotaru! She'll be
nice to you, you'll see!"

           Half the top floor was given over to a single room, the thin inter-apartment walls knocked out, the
floor covered in carpets. Such luxuries as the scavengers below had been able to scrounge lined the walls -
- mirrors, knick-knacks, furniture in no order whatsoever, cheap plastic alongside pricey leather. None of it
looked used. The back of the place was lined with windows, facing west, so they caught the light of the
now-setting sun. I hadn't realized we'd walked for so long.
           There was a chair at the far end of the room, facing the big picture windows. Someone was sitting
in it, but who or what I couldn't tell from where I was standing. I walked slowly down the length of the
room, getting more nervous by the second, until whatever-it-was spoke.
          "Stop." Her voice was a croak, but with strange resonance. It carried effortlessly around the room.
I obeyed without hesitating, and waited for her to continue.
           "They brought you to me, without knowledge of what they were doing. Truly My will works in
mysterious ways." She let a hand drop listlessly to the side of her chair, where it folded two fingers around
the stem of a wineglass and lifted it to the hidden face. "In the end, of course, it all proceeds according to
My design."
           I kept quiet. I didn't feel there was much to say, under the circumstances.
           "But now you're here. Finally. I knew this day would come, of course, when one of you would
come here to kneel." Her voice dropped to a near-whisper, and I edged closer to hear. "They all refused
Me. Such a generous offer I made them, and they turned Me down. Even she refused Me. She said I was
mad, that I was sick. Me. Sick."
           There was another longish pause.
           "I never thought it would be you, though. I thought I'd seen the last of you. We all did. I thought
it was for the best -- you would have fought like the others, died like the others. I hadn't come fully into my
power then, of course. But now that you've come, everything will begin."
           She set the glass down again, carefully, and there was a scrape of wood on wood as she stood up
and stepped around the chair. The woman I could now see was tall and thin, with hair short-cropped and
dressed in flowing robes studded with bare patches. There was a hint of grace in her movements, but a
much stronger feeling of strangeness; her limbs twitched, oddly, as though not fully under her control.
           Most important, though, was the face. I stared.
           "H…" I swallowed. "Haruka?"
           "Welcome home, Hotaru." Her eyes were a brilliant swirl of color, shifting from solid red to green
to patterns to the purest white. "I can forgive you this time, since you have not been instructed in the
methods of address. But you can refer to Me as My Lord, or Almighty. Taking My name in vain is not
looked upon lightly."
        Her smile was horrible.
Chapter Nine
       Ami

          "I take it," said Zel, "that this isn't what you were expecting." In deference to my feelings, there
was only the slightest hint of sarcasm.
          "No." The vista we looked out across was a nightmare vision of the city. By day it wasn't quite as
horrible, but the twisted, devastated buildings were still obvious, along with the deserted streets.
          And, of course, the starship hanging over Tokyo Tower like a second moon. The design was
familiar, and I shook my head, suspicions confirmed.
          "Sa'an."
          "Who?" Kyn looked up from her precarious position, balanced on the edge of the building we
were using as a lookout and staring down the three-story drop.
          "Yes, O Keeper of the hidden secrets. Enlighten us."
          I ignored Zel's voice in my ear and walked over to the edge myself. "I don't know very much
about them. Just what Eridu…left me, and some rumors since then. The Sa'an maintain a cross-
dimensional Empire that's constantly adding new worlds, and they're comfortable with magic, at least some
kinds, as well as technology. They use ships like that." I pointed. "It's an unconventional design. That
purple ring contains the CG core, which is in the shape of a rotating ring rather than a cylinder like
everyone else uses."
          "Why?" This was Zel; Kyn usually dozed off when I started talking tech.
          "Who knows? Other people have tried different arrangements for a core. Spheres work, but
they're unstable -- the slightest tap and the spin axis drifts. You can't use a non-smooth shape. In theory a
ring could produce a very large field, but the technical problems--"
          "Nya….aaaaaa!"
          This rather strange sound was produced by Kyn putting her head to one side in perplexity, leading
to a loss of balance, leading to her falling off the wall of the building. A second later I heard a 'crunch',
three stories down. I sighed.
          "We'd better follow. Now that the sun's up, hiding us with mist or darkness would be too obvious.
Best to travel under cover."
          "Travel where?"
          "Over there." I pointed, out beyond the tower. "The whole city hasn't been affected. Look
towards the water -- those buildings are still intact. If I had to guess, I'd say this is where the Sa'an landed
and had a battle, since that would explain the destruction. Whatever people are left are going to be over
that way."
          "That's a long way to walk."
          "Tell me about it." My legs were already protesting in anticipation. I had been trying to keep in
shape, but zipping around in a spaceship small enough to spit across doesn't lend itself to cross-country
training. I stepped off the wall and closed my eyes for a second, descending gently on a cushion of air.
Kyn lay spread-eagled on a slab on concrete; she'd hit hard enough to leave cracks. I grabbed her by the
scruff of her neck and peeled her off, gently.
          "Feet, Kyn. You're supposed to always land on your feet, not your face."
          "Nyaaaa…" She looked a bit dazed and wobbly, but managed to stagger after me as I started
down the street. "That was fun! Wheeeeeee-boom! Can I do it again, Oneesama?"
          "Later." I was distracted, trying to figure out the best route. Satisfied with my admitted
guesswork, I led the way, with the catgirl scampering around me.
          "Okay! We need to find something higher to jump off of, though. The higher it is, the more fun it
would be, right? Of course! Oneesama, can I jump off of that?"
          That was Tokyo Tower, poking up into the dawn like a black metal finger clawing at the sky.
          "If you jumped off that, even you might break your head open."
          "Oh." That quieted her for a moment. "Wouldn't be funny if I broke my head open, and all the
mice that I've eaten came out and ran around squeaking in circles, and I chased them and ate them but they
kept getting away because there was a big hole in my head?"
          "Every other sentient species is intelligent enough to exterminate catgirls on sight." Zel was
muttering to himself. "It's one of the basic traits of intelligence! So why did I have to be bought by you, of
all people, who wants to keep one as a pet. It's against all reason."
          "Because without her it would just be me and you, and I'd get all grim and angsty like Haruka."
         "Of course. I'd forgotten how the constant chatter helps you maintain your sunny disposition."
         "You're all heart, Zel."

           We'd traveled about half the day before we were attacked.
           The suddenness of it took me by surprise. One second we were alone on the street, picking our
way past a couple of derelict cars; the next, women with snake-heads were jumping from the second story
of the surrounding buildings.
           I shouted a warning as soon as I saw them and heard a 'Nya!' from across the road, but I was
quickly too busy to look after Kyn. I'd heard three of them land, one in front of me and two behind, so I
ducked to the side and scrambled to put my back against something. The first monster lunged far too
slowly, jaw full of needle teeth snapping past my shoulder, but the other two circled around more warily.
That gave me the second of observation time I needed.
           The women were a good seven feet tall, naked but covered in a thick layer of green-gray scales.
They had the heads of some kind of cobra, complete with hoods and teeth to match, and big glassy red eyes.
I backed away, slowly, and the three kept pace. Flipping my vision to the magical plane for a moment
revealed what I'd expected -- instead of the complex rhythms of a living creature, these things had the
simpler construction of monsters born of dark energy. Youma.
           And that meant I didn't have to hold back. Ridding the world of youma was the duty of a Senshi,
after all, and I still considered myself a Senshi despite my prolonged absence. Magic swirled out, gathering
the water I need from the air, and I permitted myself a smile.
           The monsters were not perceptive enough to see their doom or not smart enough to understand.
Almost as one, they leapt. I raised an eyebrow, and a thousand tiny shards of ice, built molecule-sharp and
constantly in motion, coalesced in their path. I stepped back to avoid the splatter.
           "Impressive."
           "Do you like it? I learned that trick from the Ice Priestesses of Skoria. Of course, they just used it
on any males that came into their temple."
           "You frighten me, sometimes."
           "Anyo…" Kyn's voice came from down the street, behind me. I didn't turn, and kept my voice
low.
           "Zel, is that last one still there?"
           "Yes." The AI's little carrier had limited sensors, but enough for something like this.
           "Is it holding Kyn?"
           "Yes."
           "Okay." I edged my hand down towards the pistol at my belt.
           "Anyo…Oneesama…she's going to eat me…" The catgirl sounded more annoyed than frightened.
I was busy, tracing threads through the world of magic and waiting for my cue. When it flashed, I was
ready.
           The creature roared as I spun around, pulling the weapon out and firing in the same movement.
No time to aim, but I didn't need to -- the thread I'd attached to the thing before turning drew the barrel of
my gun like a magnet, and the laser pulse drilled it right through the forehead. Since my earlier encounter
with the Sa'an's armored soldiers, I'd turned the power up; the youma's head came apart like wet sand.
After a moment, the tall body toppled to the ground, dropping Kyn neatly on her head.
           "Ow!" The catgirl scrambled to her feet and looked at me, all smiles. "Oneesama, sugoi!"
           "Thanks." I looked down at the remains. Like all youma, the snake-women lacked internal
structure -- the ones I'd cut to bits were just unidentifiable brown mush, slowly turning into smoke. Kyn
wandered over at poked at them while I checked the energy in my pistol and returned it to its hidden holster.
           "They got all squishy and icky."
           Zel cut in. "Ami?"
           "Hmm?"
           "Are things like that native to your planet?"
           "Sort of. I think these are youma, creatures of dark energy."
           "You know them?"
           "We used to fight these things all the time. But I thought we had them pretty well mopped up
before I left."
           "It's been a long time."
          "Apparently." The youma had finished their decomposition, and I shook my head. "This just gets
worse and worse. We've got to find the others. Zel, I want you to monitor everything that goes over the
radio, coded or not. See if you can find the Sa'an channels."
          "Already done, but there's been barely a peep since we got here. A couple of commercial stations,
by the sound of it, but nothing military."
          "That's odd." Another mystery to add to the stack. I wasn't getting any happier. When I'd left the
Earth, I'd worried for a while about the friends I'd left behind. I didn't intend to leave for so long, though,
but even still I'd always assumed they'd be all right. I'd wondered how they'd fared, but something like this
had never even crossed my mind. Now certainty was draining away, and I felt the first sick rumblings of
fear.
          I blew out a deep breath. Now, I thought, was not the time to start worrying needlessly.
          "Are we still headed for the intact section of the city?"
          I shook my head. "Change of plans. We need to find the other Senshi first."
          "You mean other guardians?"
          "Yeah."
          "Assuming there still are any left."
          I ignored the sudden chill that brought on. "There will be."
          "How do we find them?"
          "Find somewhere safe to sit, and then I'll have a look around."

           I opened my eyes. They felt like they should have creaked.
           "That," I said, half to myself, "was interesting."
           Kyn came bounding over. Four hours cooped up in a windowless basement had been hard on her,
I suspected, and she was starved for something to do. I'd taken off the circlet in which Zel was residing to
aid my concentration, so she didn't even have that distraction.
           "What, Oneesama? What did you see?"
           Kyn had always been fascinated by magic. I forced a cheerful smile and rubbed her hair; the
catgirl's tail whipped back and forth in pleasure.
           "I saw..." I hesitated. "Some strange things."
           "Like what? Did you find your friends?"
           I shifted my scratching to behind her ears, which twitched violently. Kyn writhed until her head
was in my lap, and after a moment I heard her purr.
           "I did. Or one of them, at least." That, in itself, was an accomplishment. The metaphysical
landscape of the city was like nothing I'd ever seen -- it was in chaos. Something had been severed, some
deeply woven thread, and the backlash had disturbed everything around it. And to make matters worse, the
cruiser sat like a great black blob, surrounded by a shield so tight I couldn't even see how it was constructed.
Finding another Senshi in the midst of this madness had been something less than a cakewalk. I'd latched
onto the nearest familiar aura long enough to get a general location, then fled back to my body.
           "So are we going to meet them soon?"
           "I hope so." I scratched Kyn under her chin, and she wriggled. "Assuming nothing else goes
wrong."
           "Do you think they'll like me?"
           I thought of my friends, for a moment. Usagi and Minako would be entranced, Makoto would be
amused. I wasn't sure about Rei -- she could be so serious sometimes. Rei and Zel would get along just
fine. Neither appreciated the need for comic relief from time to time.
           "Of course they will."
           "Wai!" The catgirl rolled over and sat up. "I like them too!"
           "You haven't even met them yet."
           "But I will like them, won't I?"
           "Probably. You like everyone."
           "I didn't like the snake woman! I was happy when you made her all gooey."
           I shook my head and tried to get up; I made it on the second try. My legs, crossed for far too long,
were an agony of pins and needles, and they cracked disturbingly as I stretched. Kyn scampered around me
in circles to pass the time.
           I clicked Zel's circlet back into place to find him waiting for me.
           "That took long enough."
         "Lay off, Zel. I'm not having a good day."
         "Sorry." He paused. "Did you find anything?"
         "Yup. Close, too. We're headed out."
         "Great. I finally get to meet these friends of yours you tell so many stories about."
         "Indeed." I reached out a hand to stop the whirling Kyn, who'd added spinning like a top to
running around me. She wobbled for a bit before steadying, and I pointed her at the doorway. "Come on,
chibi. We're out of here."
Chapter Ten
       Tsunami

          I dreamed of a Senshi without a face.
          Without any features at all, in fact. The uniform hung like a tent on a figure that was more
mannequin than human. I watched her fighting, chopping and kicking at a numberless horde of shadows.
Every one she touched was struck down, and every time two more sprang up to take their place, pressing
around the silent figure like moths circling a flame.
          "Allegory again, right?"
          "Of course." In my dreams, the voice sounded as though he were standing right behind me. I
desperately wanted to turn and see his face, but of course I couldn't really move at all. Dreams are like that.
          "So this represents what?"
          "The ultimate fate that awaits you. Us. A war that we cannot win and don't dare to lose."
          "Gods. You're cheery."
          "Happiness is not in my nature. Nor, I think, in yours."
          I paused. "Look, mysterious voice…"
          He didn't bother to reply.
          "I don't like this. I haven't liked this from the beginning. But obviously not liking it isn't going to
change anything. So we're going to have to get along."
          Still no response.
          "So the first thing you need is a name."
          Despite not having a physical form, the voice managed to indicate its indifference.
          "Fine. I'm going to call you Mr. Hyde, then, since you're my alter ego."
          "I am not your alter ego. I am a force far too powerful for you to understand, embodied in the
personality construct in order to communicate."
          "Mr. Hyde."
          "It is of no relevance."
          Did I detect a hint of irritation? Probably not. "Next. We should exchange goals. I want Kyoko
and I to remain alive and reasonably intact. There's more, but that'll do for now. What about you?"
          "The liberation of the Earth from the Sa'an."
          "You're kidding."
          "No."
          "And who's going to accomplish this? Just me?"
          "You will have allies."
          "Oh, good. Do they include another alien race with bigger guns?"
          "No."
          "I didn't think so."
          "They are people like yourself. Senshi."
          "So. A little gang of high school girls versus the intergalactic armies of doom, huh? Don't you
think that's a bit unfair? Maybe we should give them some warning, or only one of us should fight at a time,
or something. Wouldn't want anyone to accuse us of being unsporting."
          "You are being sarcastic."
          "Of course I'm being sarcastic!" I tried to calm down. "Look, I don't care what twinkly powers
you give me. We're outnumbered a million to one!"
          "Incorrect. If you can assemble them all, four Senshi remain. The Sa'an have slightly fewer than
three million Legionnaires on this world. Thus, you are outnumbered roughly seven hundred and fifty
thousand to one."
          "Oh, good. When do I start?"
          "Now."
          "Listen up, Hyde. We are the prisoners of the Sa'an. They can do whatever they want to me, or to
Kyoko. So in keeping with my goal of us staying alive as long as possible, we're going to do whatever they
want us to. Okay?"
          "That is not acceptable. We must escape--"
          "We're not going to escape! At least not yet. Not until we have a much clearer idea of what's
going on. And until then, I don't want any problems from you, and I want answers when I ask for them."
          "You will have a difficult time threatening me."
         "I don't think I will. Because if you screw up, I'll end up getting killed. And you can't have that,
since you're apparently along for the ride."
         "You won't. It is not in the nature of humans to seek self-destruction."
         "You don't know humans very well, do you?"
         The world started to fade. If Hyde replied, I didn't hear it.

          My awakening was remarkably free of pain. I reveled in the blessed few seconds before
remembering the circumstances under which I'd lost consciousness. I was pleased, too, with the direction
that my dreams had taken. I was taking charge. Admittedly, what I was taking charge of was a strange
inner voice that was probably a hallucination, but it represented progress of a kind. I opened my eyes.
          "Tsunami?"
          Kyoko's expression slowly swam into focus. She'd looked better -- her face was pale, eyes red
from crying. Somehow it seemed unreal. Kyoko never broke down, and I can't count the times I'd cried
myself to sleep in her arms, after some of Ryu's worse escapades. I tried to speak, and found my lips barely
mobile.
          "G…good morning…"
          She smiled, weakly, and shook her head.
          "Water, p…please…"
          I drained the glass that was pushed into my shaking hand and felt much better, good enough to sit
up in what turned out to be a hospital bed of some design. I assumed from the black-on-black décor that
we were still onboard the Sa'an ship, in whatever passed for a sickbay in the Empire. Kyoko was sitting on
a stool by the bedside, and a pair of the omnipresent black-armored guards stood by the door. Other than
them -- and as I was quickly coming to learn, on Sa'an ships they counted as 'furniture' rather than
'company' -- we were alone in a room big enough to sleep maybe twelve. More of the big beds were spaced
out in a regular patterns, and sets of drawers built into the walls presumably held necessary medical
equipment.
          "This," I said eventually, "is getting to be a bad habit."
          "What?"
          "One of us watching over the other while she wakes up from being nearly dead. Let's not do this
again, okay?"
          Kyoko nodded. "Good plan."
          "So." I paused. "Fill me in."
          "What do you remember?"
          "I remember Sailor Jupiter using me as a punching bag. And then…" I paused. I did remember
something after that, but it was blurry -- the feeling of comforting weight dropping into my hands, and
really moving for the first time. By contrast, raising my arm now felt like I had lead weights tied to every
joint. "Not much."
          "Jupiter was trying to get you to use your powers for the first time." Kyoko sounded excited,
which I thought was a little unfair given the circumstances. "I tried to stop her, but they held on to me.
And then just when it looked like they were going to kill you…you just…changed."
          "Changed?"
          "Into one of them. Into a Sailor Senshi."
          I groaned. "I was afraid of that."
          "There was a big flash of sparkling lights, and then you were wearing that strange uniform." Here
she had the decency to blush, and I shook my head. Obviously modesty was not intended to be a Senshi's
long suit.
          "Then what?"
          "Then Jupiter ordered some of the guards to grab you. It was a test, I think, she was testing you.
And…"
          "And?"
          Kyoko took a deep breath. "You cut them to ribbons, with your swords. As though the armor
wasn't even there."
          "I…" I looked down at my hands. They looked relatively normal. "I did that?"
          "It wasn't your fault, though!" Kyoko grabbed one of my hands in hers. "Believe me, I was
watching. It was like you were someone else."
          Someone else. I thought about Mr. Hyde. But I could remember fighting the guards, remember
the slight resistance as razor-sharp blades carved flesh and bone.
          "Please, Tsunami." To my astonishment, there were tears in her eyes again.
          "It's okay." I took a deep breath. "Then what?"
          "Jupiter told them to cut you off, or something, and the transformation just faded away. It
probably has something to do with…you know. That thing." She gestured to the back of her neck, and I
brought up a hand to feel the back of mine. The black knob was there, hard and smooth. But I knew
somehow that Kyoko was wrong.
          She is wrong. Mr. Hyde again.
          So they can't 'cut me off'?
          No. I exist entirely inside you. The device they put in to sever your connection to the guardian
power will not be effective.
          So what happened back there?
          You ended the transformation yourself.
          I nodded. It was, on the whole, a good thing. If the Sa'an decided that I couldn't be controlled,
things would probably go worse for me.
          "And then I passed out?"
          "Presumably from the beating Jupiter gave you." She paused. "Are you okay? For a second there
I thought she was going to kill you."
          I touched my stomach and my side with a wince, but the pain was much less than I feared.
Raising my shirt a bit revealed bruises already faded to a faint yellow.
          "It looks like I'm fine. Not sure how, though."
          Being a Senshi has its advantages. One of them is accelerated healing.
          Thanks for tipping me off.
          "So now what, Tsunami?" Kyoko crossed her arms on the edge of the bed and laid her head on
them. She looked tired. It was an exhaustion I didn't share -- lying in bed for who-knew-how-long had
done wonders for my stamina.
          "We wait, I think." I waved a hand vaguely. "I can only assume someone's listening to us, so I'll
be honest. I don't think we have much of a choice but to do what they want us to do."
          The door hissed open, and Kyoko jumped involuntarily. I turned to face the small group that had
appeared.
          "We never have to wait very long, do we?"
          Kyoko shook her head mutely. Sailor Jupiter was there, her expression carefully blank. I
suddenly remembered her whispered apology and wondered if it had been a figment of my half-dead
imagination. She was accompanied by three guards, as well as a figure in dull black armor -- the same one,
or another, I couldn't tell. But in front of all of those--
          "Kaia?"
          She nodded briskly. "Vice-Commander Kaia, actually. You're Tsunami, right?"
          I nodded numbly. This was the woman I'd seen so many times in the television broadcasts, the
woman I'd looked up to. The woman I'd wanted to be. To have her here, by my bedside, seemed almost
ludicrous. We were just a couple of captives, right? Why should the Vice-Commander come to see us
herself?
          You are not just ordinary captives, and they know it.
          The voice, as ever, provided a nasty explanation. I don't know if I like the sound of that.
          The Vice-Commander, in the flesh, looked almost exactly as she had in the broadcasts. She was a
trim, attractive woman, maybe five years older than me, with an honest-looking face and silvery hair down
to her shoulders. Her clothes were black, of course, tight-fitting and designed for convenience rather than
appearance.
          Kaia must have noticed my stare; she looked down at herself for a second. "Is something wrong?"
          That snapped me back into reality. "N…no. I've just seen you so often on television, you know,
and now…"
          "I see." She looked a bit surprised, as though this had genuinely not occurred to her. "I suppose
I'm sort of famous down there, aren't I."
          "You're the only Imperial whose face we've ever seen. It's bound to leave an impression."
          She nodded, and almost smiled. Her expression hardened suddenly, though, as if she'd just
remembered something important. I kept quiet.
          "So, Tsunami." She hesitated, and I wondered what was going on. This was hardly the perfect
Sa'an military machine I'd grown used to. "Has Jupiter…explained things to you?"
          "A little bit. Before beating the crap out of me." I kept my eye on the Senshi, but she didn't even
flinch. Kaia nodded.
          "That was unfortunate, but necessary. Our research shows that trauma is often required to activate
a guardian's power for the first time."
          "You managed it."
          If she heard the hint of sarcasm, she didn't let on. "Yes. Everything has gone smoothly up until
this point."
          "So now what?"
          I sat forward in the bed, eager to hear the answer. Kyoko was attentive, too. Kaia looked a little
overwhelmed by all the attention. She shook her head.
          "Let me make something clear. I am opposed to this project."
          "Project?"
          "You, and her." She gestured at Jupiter. "At first I thought it was one of the Commander's mad
fancies. Now he's made it work, but we've barely tested the possibilities. So from the outset, let's be clear
that I don't trust you."
          I blinked. "Okay. Given that you kidnapped us and nearly killed me, I don't trust you either."
          The ghost of a chuckle passed her lips before she clamped down. "Good. Mutual mistrust is the
foundation of a healthy relationship. As you may have deduced, since Ashghar is the Commander and I am
merely Vice-Commander, my doubts about the project have been overruled. You have been assigned to me
in order to complete a number of tasks, and I intend to use you. Understood?"
          "I think so. You've got a mission, and I do what you say, right?"
          "More or less."
          Kyoko held up a hand. "Question?"
          "Go ahead." Kaia looked amused.
          "Since you've got a million of those guys"--she gestured at the Legionnaires standing silent guard
behind the Vice-Commander--"what do you need us for?"
          "Tsunami is considerably more capable then a typical soldier. We sometimes have tasks that
require…subtlety."
          I had my doubts about how capable I was, and all these vague references to 'missions' and 'tasks'
were making me nervous. "What kinds of things do you want me to do?"
          "Killing stuff, mostly." Kaia grinned. "If you're a typical manifestation of the guardian force you
represent, you should be highly adapted for close-quarters combat. We intend to make use of that."
          "Oh." I suddenly felt very small. Kaia misinterpreted my expression.
          "Don't worry. I know this is a bit new for you, but rest assured you're quite capable of what we'll
ask. Our research is precise."
          "Okay." I blew out a long breath. "So when do I start?"
          "Now." At some unseen command, one of the troopers tossed a plastic-wrapped bundle onto the
bed. "Clothes. You'll find cleaning facilities through there." A door hissed open in one wall of its own
accord. "I'll have some food sent down before we begin. Briefing is in one hour."
          "An hour?"
          Kaia nodded. "One last thing. I'm going to turn on your Grid access now. It may take some
getting used to, but make an effort. The Legionnaires will respond to voice commands, but Grid control is
more efficient by far. You'll have limited command authority when the mission begins. If you need
anything further, contact me."
          "What about me?" Kyoko piped up.
          "What about you?"
          "What do I do?"
          Kaia shrugged. "You're here because Tsunami wanted you along, and as a hostage. You'll be
treated well, don't worry. Tell one of the soldiers if you need food or anything. If this task goes well, we'll
get you two moved into more permanent quarters."
          "Oh."
          "See you in an hour."
          The Vice-Commander left the room, guards following her like a shadow. Jupiter was the last to
leave, and I caught her eye before she turned. Her gaze was diamond-sharp. Once the door had hissed shut
behind them, I fell back onto the bed in mock-exhaustion.
          "That was entertaining."
          "So this is how it works, huh?" Kyoko shook her head. "Welcome to the Empire, here's your
uniform, now kill those people over there?"
          "I don't think this is exactly a typical case." I pointed at one of the two guards still in the room. "I
think that's a typical case, and frankly I'm glad it isn't us."
          "Those things still give me the creeps. Do you think they're even people under there?"
          "I can't imagine what else they'd be."
          "I know, but still…"
          There was a hint of nervousness in both our voices, despite the banter. The pause brought it to the
fore, stretching longer and longer until Kyoko shifted, uncomfortably.
          "Do you think you'll be okay, on this…mission, or whatever?"
          "I should be. Kaia seems to know what she's doing, right?"
          She nodded. "Just…don't get killed, okay?"
          "You're not getting all sentimental on me, are you?"
          "Just logical. If I'm a hostage to keep you under control, and you get killed, what do you think
happens to me?"
          "As long as you have a properly selfish motive."
          "Of course."
          I rolled out of the bed with a grunt, feeling stiff muscles and bruised flesh rage in protest. I was
still wearing my school uniform, now a day old -- or was it two? I'd forgotten -- and matted with sweat and
blood. My hair was a mess, a dirty tangle hanging like a lump past my shoulders. Stretching just brought
on new pains. Kyoko watched me, silently.
          "All right. Bath time." I snagged the wrapped bundle of clothing from the bed and headed
towards the bathroom.
          "Save me some hot water."

          I'd expected something utilitarian from the Sa'an. Maybe a massive public shower, where the
soldiers were sluiced down like animals, or some sort of ultra-tech hypersonic cleaning system. At that
moment I didn't really care; feeling clean again would be its own reward. But the Empire surprised me yet
again.
          The bathroom was an odd combination of opulence and efficiency. Everything was black and
without decoration -- I was beginning to gather that the Imperials apparently had a thing about colors -- but
the tub was big enough for four and was apparently made of smooth, black glass. After a few false starts
fiddling with unfamiliar equipment, I was able to start filling the bath and find something to wash myself
off with. It was with a feeling of great relief that I stripped and tossed the sodden school uniform in one
corner.
          One of the wall panels turned silvery at a touch, and I stared at the reflected face as if it was that of
a stranger. My eyes were sunken, and the side of my face was still a little puffy and swollen. The rest of
my body looked okay, spattered here and there with blood and patterns of bruises, but the black metal at the
back of my neck glinted dully. My fingers, almost of their own accord, brushed where my skin met the
implant. It was smooth, seamless. I shivered in the chill air and turned the hot water on with a wrench.
          A few glorious minutes later and I was soaking in water just below the pain threshold, hot enough
that steam rose into the cool air and drifted like twisting snakes out on the bathroom floor. I closed my
eyes and felt the muscles of my body relax, my shoulders popping as tendons went limp. The air was hot
and heavy with moisture, and for a moment I let my head sink under the water, staying down until my chest
started to throb.
          It was just as I surfaced that I felt it -- a little tickle from the back of my neck, the feeling of
motion. Something had turned itself on with the faintest of hums. An instant later, my awareness
expanded.
          It was as though I had been given a new sense, something beyond sight or sound or touch. I could
feel the Legionnaires spread throughout the ship like little points of light. More than feel them -- I knew
everything about them, their status, their current task. A moment of effort, and what for lack of a better
word I called my point of view zoomed in to show a blank section of corridor. There was a moment of
panic, and I opened my eyes to find my normal vision superimposed on this strange alternate view. When I
pulled back, it took only a moment to realize what was going on. I had been looking through the eyes of a
trooper outside the sickbay.
          I clamped down and tried to get my racing heart under control. Kaia had mentioned this, before
she'd left. The Grid, whatever that was. At least I now knew what the implant was for. I poked at my new
awareness further, and found that it was limited to a small section of the ship, just the forty or fifty guards
surrounding my current position. Beyond that was a blank, darkness -- but not quite. Not the sense that
there was nothing there, but the feeling that somehow there was a wall, blocking me off.
          And, I slowly came to realize, there was something else. A…a presence, something huge and
watchful. Attentive. I ran my tongue across my lips, nervously, and then spoke.
          "Okay. What's going on?"
          <Vocalization is not necessary.>
          The reply dropped straight into my mind, not so much a voice as a string of text appearing in my
consciousness. I closed my eyes again and tried to think the same way.
          <What's going on?>
          <Question too general. Note that natural language syntax is also unnecessary and inefficient.>
          <Who are you?>
          <Warning: Question answerable but ambiguous. We are the natural language parsing subsystem
of Grid segment six-four-seventeen-three.>
          I sank a little deeper into the water, unsure of what to ask next.
          <Why can't I see farther?>
          <Question ambiguous but answerable in context. Your Grid access is level B, which permits local
and mission-based asset management but disallows general and command access.>
          <What is the Grid?>
          <General information queries are not permitted by level B access. System help and local and
mission-based asset management only.>
          "Great." A sudden thought struck me. <Can anyone else see me the way I can see the soldiers?>
          <Visual access not installed in this subunit. Location and vital signs are available at access level
D or higher.>
          I hugged my knees to my chest. The bathroom suddenly felt full of eyes, and the pinpoint lights of
the soldiers on the Grid had turned oppressive.
          <Is there any way I can turn you off?>
          <Warning: Question ambiguous but answerable. No: deactivation of a Grid subsystem requires
access level D or higher.>
          <I mean, is there any way for me to stop seeing the Grid?>
          <Yes. Grid sensory input can be suppressed with the following command sequence.>
          And then it was just there, in my mind. It's hard to explain what, exactly. A series of thoughts? A
certain frame of mind? Just a little pressure, exerted in a new way. I pressed, and the field of lights died.
          <Sensory input shut down.>
          I sat alone in the bath, in silence. The thing at the back of my neck still hummed away to itself,
and the near-quiet didn't seem as welcoming as it had a minute ago.
          "Kyoko?" I called out, hesitantly, and her voice came muffled through the door.
          "What?"
          Modesty was not really an issue between us. Our families had used the same public baths for
years, back before the Arrival and before my father had made enough money to buy our current house.
Being in a Sa'an bath together would be weird, but being alone was worse.
          "This thing is huge! You want to come in too?"
Chapter Eleven
       Hotaru

          "How much do you remember?"
          "It is impolite, you know, to question your Lord." Haruka's smile had a bit of humor in it, so I
decided to press my luck.
          "I'm just trying to…understand. How much do you remember from before you came into your
power?"
          She shrugged. "Not very much, I admit. I put such childish years aside, to make room for more
important things."
          "But you remember me."
          "Oh yes." Her smile broadened. "Oh yes, I remember you. The four of us, caught up in a
celestial play. The Lord, the Consort, the Daughter, and the Traitor. I remember."
          "The…traitor?"
          "The Dark One. Who's name must not be spoken. She who cast me down from on high into a pit
of despair, she whose machinations I must thwart at every turn. My shadow, my nemesis. I remember."
          "Who is she?"
          "She is the worst of them, the worst of those who seek to deny my power. But I've laid my plans
for her. Her days are numbered, and the war between Heaven and Hell will be brought to a close." Haruka
sat back in her throne, chin in her hands, brooding. "Oh, yes. You'll see."
          I was hesitant to disturb her vengeful reverie. If not for the fact that it was her, in the flesh, I
would not have believed it. I still felt numb, trying to conceive what could have done this.
          Order, I felt, must be imposed on the mind. I started by listing the possibilities I could think of,
but the list was depressingly short: first, that Haruka's body was being used by something that really was a
god. Second, that her mind was somehow being controlled. Or third, that she'd for some reason gone stark
raving mad.
          There was always, I supposed, the outside chance that she actually had become a god, somehow,
and that everything she'd said was true. I deemed that unlikely, under the circumstances.
          "My…My Lord…" I stumbled over the title, and she focused on me again, eyes suddenly sharp.
          "You?" Her face creased in a surprised sneer, as though seeing me for the first time. "What are
you doing here?"
          I matched her gaze and felt the color drain from my expression. "I…you summoned me."
          "Did I?" The sneer remained. "Why would I do that?"
          "I wished to beg a boon of you, o Lord." The ridiculous language was coming easier, and it
seemed to please her.
          "A boon?" She put her head on one side. "Why not? What do you wish?"
          "I want to talk to…" Pause, and a deep breath. Haruka's expression earlier had implied that all
was not right between her and the other Senshi, wherever they were. But I needed to talk to someone, and
someone who thought she was a God was not proving very helpful. Somewhere deep inside me, rational
Hotaru gibbered -- I pushed her down mercilessly. It was something I'd learned from Jahara: when things
go strange, the person who freezes, staring and shouting "Impossible!", is often not the one left standing
afterwards. React first, think later when the situation demands it. Plus, traveling the worlds had exposed
me to the fact that the multiverse is a strange, strange place. Saying "That doesn't make sense!" rarely
accomplishes anything.
          "I want to talk to the Consort."
          Haruka crossed her hands in front of her face, her expression amused. "Do you, now."
          "Please. Let me see her." Assuming, of course, that she was still alive.
          She considered for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, a boon is a boon." Haruka clapped her hands
and a pair of young men, dressed in rags but armed with serviceable automatics, appeared from a side door.
          "Thank you, My Lord." I stood, not sure of what to do next. Haruka pointed at me and chuckled.
          "She wanted to see the Consort of the Lord." The young men bowed deeply. "So throw her in the
dungeon."
          I didn't bother to protest as the pair grabbed my arms. Haruka stood from the throne as they
dragged me from the room, eyes bright and insane.
          "And prepare the grounds! There will be a battle soon, I have foreseen it! Our warriors must be
sanctified. Have Kirin prepare an appropriate sacrifice."
           It seemed a little redundant at this point, but I once again noted to myself that this was not the
slickest plan I had ever executed.
           The 'dungeon' Haruka had referred to was a pit that had probably once been the basement of the
building. The wooden stairs leading down into it had long since fallen in or been destroyed, and the two
men simply heaved me over the edge and into the darkness. Reflex took over as I fell and I twisted to land
on my feet, absorbing the impact with a crouch. The words that would activate my transformation tingled
on the back of my tongue, but something told me it wouldn't help.
           The basement was completely dark, save for a faint reflected glow from the bonfire up above. I
stood still a moment, letting my eyes adjust and my hearing pick out new sounds. I heard a squeak and a
rattle from one corner, and from somewhere the faint splash of running water. And that was all.
           My legs folded under me with disturbing suddenness and I landed heavily on a floor of cold stone
and splintered wood. My body seemed to be acting of its own accord, and I felt myself curling up again.
The problem with operating on pure reaction, pure response, is that when you're given a spare moment the
impact of everything that's happened hits you in a wave.
           I cursed myself, cursed my body and my mind. The tiny core of my soul watched in disgust as my
eyes filled with tears and I rocked backed and forth, curled up into a ball, lost and terrified and alone.
           Any of the others would have done something. Ami would have thought of a plan. Rei would
have challenged her to a duel, provoking catharsis through combat in a dramatic confrontation. Even
Minako, even Usagi would have done something, talked to her, made her laugh. Something.
           Jahara would have waved his hand, and fixed everything.
           Except he wouldn't have, not really. I remembered a conversation we'd had on the world of
Genkaris, an advanced civilization in the process of tearing itself apart with a travesty of a world
government. We'd been tracking a fugitive there, and gotten stuck, and I remembered looking around at the
ultra-tech streets in amazement.
           Jahara had told me they were doomed, all of them, that the planet was months away from global
war. I asked him why he didn't do something about it.
           "What would you have me do?"
           We were standing in the middle of the Palace of Living Crystal, a spectacular construction that
was both park and fountain. Flowing water arched over our heads in streams to crash down on the other
side of the path. Other flows were shaped in mid-air by invisible fields of force, twisted in fantastic shapes
that glittered with broken light. It was a warm, pleasant night -- all nights were warm and pleasant, on
Genkaris -- and we were surrounded by young people in groups of two, or three, or four, walking through
the garden of water, talking and laughing. It certainly didn't look like the precursor to any kind of
apocalypse.
           "Anything!" I threw up my hands. "You have so much power, Jahara. Use it!"
           "How?"
           I stopped, and for a moment there was only the susurration of the water and the muted buzz of
distant conversations. "I don't know."
           "Listen to me, Hotaru. This is important." The green-haired giant knelt, to put himself more at
my height. "We are the same, you and I. Guardians of Power Incarnate. Of Death. Do you understand?
We are not given the power to create love, or inspire wisdom, or promote peace. We are the avatars of
destruction."
           It was one of the few times I'd ever screamed at him.
           "That's just…just an excuse. You say that because it means you don't have to try. Everything is
already foreordained, so why bother? And then when everything goes to hell you can just shake your head
and walk away. You say that because if you tried, sometimes you'd screw things up, make things worse,
and you're too scared. You've got more power than a whole pantheon of gods, and you won't do anything
with it! You're a coward!"
           I don't know what I expected, then. Maybe a slap, maybe a bolt of power that would have blown
me into flaming dust. Maybe for him to turn around and abandon me forever.
           Jahara straightened up, and shook his head.
           "You will learn."
           We left Genkaris the next day, and he never mentioned it again. A few weeks later one of the
corporate giants that ruled the place imposed trade sanctions on one of its rivals through military force.
One incident led to another. Within three days, a strategic exchange of anti-matter weapons killed ninety-
five percent of the population and left the remainder to starve in the radioactive wasteland.
          I realized, afterwards, that he was right. What could he have done? There was no-one on that
planet capable of defeating him in battle, but what did that matter? Short of slaughtering the military forces
of the entire civilization, no action he could have taken would have made a difference.
           We are the avatars of destruction. I raised my head, returning to the present, detachment gone. I
must have lain there for a long time; the tears had already dried in trail on my cheeks. I took a deep breath
and knew that I wasn't the avatar of anything, neither god nor guardian. Just Hotaru, alone in a universe
that I didn't understand and that didn't care about me, one way or the other.
          And I had to find my friends.

          "Is someone there?"
          I was back on my feet without realizing it, spinning to face the voice that echoed through the
darkness before I realized who it was, who it had to be.
          "H…hello?" I called out hesitantly, not sure who else might be listening.
          "Oh gods." I heard footsteps, from outside the little square of light that came down from above,
and a familiar figure stumbled up to me and wrapped her arms around me before I could even drop my
fighting stance. "Hotaru. I thought it was you."
          "Michiru…" I hugged her back, as hard as I could. Human contact felt so good it was an eternity
before I could even think of letting go. Finally she pulled back, taking as good a look at me as she could
get in the half-light.
          "You look different."
          I shrugged. "Taller, at least. It's been three years."
          "I know."
          Michiru looked much the same, surprisingly. I was relieved -- I'd expected much worse, given
what Haruka seemed to have become. But Michiru looked okay. The same blue-green hair, disheveled and
tied back out of the way with a scrap of string, the same kindly eyes. She had a long scar stretching from
her throat down to her collarbone, but it was faded and barely noticeable.
          "So she threw you down here?"
          I nodded. "I asked to see you, but I didn't know she had you in a dungeon. I think she thought it
was funny."
          Michiru closed her eyes. "You have no idea how much I've missed you."
          A lump was starting to form in my throat. "Me, too."
          "But for you to end up here, of all places…" She sighed. "What a joke."
          "Michiru, can I ask you a question?"
          She looked down at me and nodded. "Go ahead."
          "What the hell is going on?"

          This was a little while in telling. I sat on the basement floor, barely feeling it, as Neptune
sketched out the story of what happened since I'd left. The invasion, the occupation, and the creation of the
lawless Null Zone.
          "And these people, the Sa'an or whatever, they just don't care that people go around killing each
other?"
          "They don't seem to care about much of anything. They set up protected areas, outside the Null
Zone, so that people who cooperate with them would have a safe place to live. And their troopships come
down whenever they want and take whoever they feel like. But aside from that, all they bother to do is
distribute drugs and food."
          "Drugs? Like medicine?"
          "Sure. They've got a panacea drug -- one shot and you'll never get sick again. Can't do anything
about heart disease, of course, or cancer, but they've cured every infectious agent in the world."
          "That doesn't sound so bad."
          "That isn't the half of it. They distribute other drugs, too. The people in the zone call them One,
Two, and Three, since that's how the little pills are numbered."
          "These other drugs are…"
          "Narcotic, hallucinogenic, and fatal respectively. Although street lore says Three gives you the
greatest high in the world before you die."
         "Oh." I put one hand over my mouth, mechanically. "But you said they feed people? Why do all
this?"
          "Livestock."
          "What?"
          "That's what we are to them. Livestock. You keep your animals healthy, and you shoot them full
of happy juice so they don't cause trouble. They're doing it to us."
          "That's horrible."
          Michiru sat down beside me, heavily. "Yes."
          We sat in silence for a few moments, not even looking at one another but staring into the darkness.
          "So what happened to her?"
          Michiru closed her eyes, and for a moment I thought she wasn't going to say anything. "Makoto."
          "What about her?"
          "Makoto happened to her." Neptune kept her eyes closed. "Jupiter is working for them."
          The Traitor, Haruka had said. My voice was a whisper. "That's not possible."
          "I saw it myself."
          "She must be…" I shook my head. "Possessed, or dominated, or something. It can't be her fault."
          "Probably not. But that doesn't leave us any better off, does it?"
          Another pause. I leaned against Michiru's shoulder, wearily, and she slipped an arm across my
back and smiled faintly.
          "Hotaru. I didn't think we'd ever see you again."
          "I was going to come back sooner, but…I don't know. Stuff kept happening."
          "It frequently does."
          "Michiru?"
          "What?"
          "How long have you been down here?"
          "Since Haruka fought Makoto. A couple of months, I'd guess."
          "A couple of months?"
          "Sometimes she brings me up. She has strange moods."
          "I noticed. But months -- Michiru, we need to get out of here."
          "Why?"
          "To find everyone!"
          "Hotaru…" Her arm gripped me a little tighter. "There's nowhere else to go, believe me."
          "W…what?"
          "We're all that's left. Me and Haruka, and you."
          I felt winded, as though someone had punched me in the chest, and my voice was barely a gasp.
"T…th…"
          "It's been two years since they landed. Two years of fighting things we were never meant to fight
-- robots and lasers and starships. We just…" She stopped, leaving me in silence.
          I'd just always assumed they'd be there. My friends. My family, practically. While I'd been
fighting with them, I'd wondered at times what it would be like if we lost. But I'd always pictured a heroic
last stand of sorts. Someone bravely sacrifices their life for someone else. Saving the world. Not this.
Chapter Twelve
       Ami

           "This is really strange."
           "How so?"
           I gestured down the street to the burned-out shell of a shop. "I used to eat lunch there, every day.
And I used to get groceries over there. Now this place looks like a war zone."
           "Indeed."
           I should have been more upset, I kept thinking. But it all felt so unreal. Now that we were back
on familiar territory I felt like every turned corner would finally reveal to me the real city lurking under all
this mess -- I'd turn around and everything would be intact again and filled with happy people instead of
this deserted wasteland. It didn't happen, of course, and I chided myself for being unrealistic.
           Kyn was happy, at least, dashing from wreck to wreck ahead of us looking for something to eat or
play with. This state of boundless curiosity occupied most of her waking hours, but watching her amused
me enough to keep my mind off what had happened here as we closed in on the Hikawa shrine, where I'd
last felt the presence of another Senshi.
           Once we got there, things took a decided turn for the worse.
           "Laser fire."
           We surveyed the big red archways that guarded the entrance to the shrine. They were mostly
intact, but blackened and scored along their sides nearly the whole length of the walkway. Whatever
firefight had taken place here had been intense.
           "It looks that way." Zel's little circlet whirred as his sensors analyzed the scene. "A couple of
months old, from the look of it. Somebody fought a hell of a battle here."
          The sense of the spirit of the place -- a violated spirit, now -- was strong enough to quell even Kyn.
The catgirl stuck close to my side, uncharacteristically quiet, as we walked up the winding path to the
hilltop. I took her hand, gently, to quell at least a little of the bad feeling, but truthfully I was feeling it too.
A shrine was a magical place, obviously, but this was different.
           "Something bad happened here."
           "Judging from the burns, I'd say so."
           "Worse than that. I can feel--" I cut off, at loss for words. Something had happened, months ago,
that had left a hole in the fabric of the under-world like a gaping wound. What we were feeling now was
the scar, what was left over after the world re-knit itself. With every breath, it seemed to ooze.
           "What the hell could do something like this?" I whispered, under my breath. I dealt with enough
black magic in my time to know the feel of it, but this was worse then anything like that; a youma or an
undead creature is constructed of the same underlying threads as everything else, albeit in a twisted way.
This was something else.
           "Oneesama." Kyn squeezed my hand a bit tighter. "I don't think I like this place."
           "Me either."
           "Then let's go somewhere else!" She looked up at me, bright-eyed. "Let's go find the ocean and
see if we can swim to the bottom! Or we could go to the zoo, unless all the animals are dead, but even if
they are I could get in a cage and you could throw me peanuts. How about that, Oneesama? Can I have a
peanut?"
           "One of my friends is here, Kyn. We have to go in."
           She quieted down to a whisper. "Okay."
           We reached the hilltop. Most of the little out-buildings were intact, but where Rei's home had
been there was nothing but a pile of rubble. Blackened bits of wood and char suggested a fire had swept
through it after the battle, and it was in the center of this that the wounded feeling originated.
          Nothing stirred while we waited there -- no birds, not even insects chirping in the grass. I shivered,
and felt Kyn do the same.
           "So where's your friend, Ami?" The computer, of course, was oblivious to the tide of bad feeling.
I swallowed and looked around, then closed my eyes.
           "She's around here somewhere. Close by." Still, nothing moved. "She might be camped out, and
be asleep or something. Let's look around."
           "Oneesama…" Kyn's voice was plaintive, and I sighed.
           "Nothing's going to hurt you, Kyn. Don't worry."
           "I just don't like this place."
          The feeling only got worse as we explored the rubble. I kept expecting something horrible to
jump out at me from under every overturned brick and behind every bush; my head was starting to ache as I
instinctively pulled my personal defenses as tight as they would go. Kyn stuck to my side as if glued,
keeping her eyes downcast. As we made a slow circuit of the blasted shrine, she perked up a bit and started
to sniff the air.
          "Smell something?"
          She nodded, excitedly. Apparently even this place couldn't crush her optimism for long. "Cats.
Like me! But smaller." The catgirl looked up. "Want me to find them, Oneesama?"
          "Go ahead."
          "Hai!" She sprinted ahead, sniffing, and I followed her more warily.
          "Cats?" asked Zel, in my ear.
          "It could be nothing. But--"
          "Nyyya! Gotcha!" Kyn's head popped up from behind a fallen beam, holding a bedraggled
looking black bundle high. "Wai! I got one, Oneesama! I got one!"
          Even at a distance, I recognized the crescent moon on Luna's forehead with a sigh of relief.
"That's them, all right." I raised my voice. "Put her down, Kyn?"
          "Ami?" Luna's surprised shout carried all the way over to me; Kyn dropped her and jumped back
in shock.
          "It talks!" She bounced excitedly. "Did you hear that, Oneesama? A talking cat!"
          I hurried over, rolling my eyes and not deigning to comment.

           Some minutes later, we'd gotten everyone calmed down and sitting in a clear space next to one of
the surviving sacred trees. Luna was happy to see me -- she was rubbing against my knee as I sat cross-
legged, and I scratched her back absently as we talked. Kyn looked at this jealously for a moment, then
plopped down on the other side, laid her head in my lap, and mewed plaintively. Soon I found both my
hands occupied. Zel chuckled.
           "Mmm. We were all so worried about you, Ami." Luna's speech was mixed with purrs of
satisfaction.
           "Didn't you get my messages?" I'd worked out how to do that pretty quickly, a variant of the spell
that powered the Senshi's communicators.
           "Only the first one. After the Arrival everything got kind of confused."
           "That would be when the Sa'an showed up."
           The cat nodded wearily.
           I had in my memories, as clear as though it had happened to me personally, a record of the
invasion of the world of the Unforgiven by the Sa'an Empire. That world had had a unified government
and high technology, along with a set of guardians stronger than the Senshi of our universe. The Empire
had crushed them.
           "What happened?"
           Luna shrugged. "They came and announced they were taking over the planet. We tried to stop
them. You can see how well that went."
           I shook my head. "The whole planet? How is that even possible?"
           "Not all at once. They aren't finished yet, either -- last we heard the Americans were still fighting,
sort of."
           "Sort of?"
           "The Imperials tried to invade, and the Americans dropped a nuke on the beachhead. Now the
Sa'an seem to be trying to figure out how to take over without letting them destroy the whole continent."
           I nodded. It made sense -- those cruisers I'd seen could probably reduce a continent to glowing
slag, but if you were after resources, which in the case of the Sa'an meant people, that didn't make much
sense.
           "All the damage here in Tokyo looks old, though."
           "This is the first place they landed. Everything happens here first, remember?"
           The supernexus, of course. With the conventional military forces of the planet so inferior to the
Sa'an military machine, a supernexus would be the lynchpin of any credible defense and would naturally be
the first target.
           "So." I stopped, knowing I had to ask the question but dreading the possible answers. I tried to
steel myself, as best I could. "What happened to everyone?"
           Luna gave a feline sigh. Clearly she wasn't looking forward to this part, either, and I felt a shard
of ice enter my heart. My left hand, running slowly through Kyn's hair, suddenly gripped it tight enough to
make her shift uncomfortably.
           "The real answer, Ami, is that I don't know. The last time we fought them…" She nodded her
head at the destruction surrounding us. "This happened. They'd tracked us to the shrine, finally. We woke
up one morning surrounded by giant black suits of armor."
           A picture formed in my mind -- twelve feet of dark, gleaming steel, long legged and agile, four
beweaponed limbs sprouting from the shoulders of a headless body. "Imperial Assault Mecha."
           Luna blinked, then shook her head and continued. "Rei and I got split off from the others during
the fight. Since then, Uranus and Neptune have just vanished."
           "Rei is okay?"
           There was a slight hesitation. "Yes. She's fine."
           "What about the others?"
           "I…"
           I sighed. "Just tell me what you do know, Luna."
           "U…Usagi and Mamoru were captured." The expression on her face was agony for me, and I had
the sense I was opening wounds that she'd deliberately buried. "During the initial attack. We met one of
the first forces that landed, but we thought they were just some new set of aliens. We were wrong." She
shifted positions, uneasily, and I kept rubbing just behind her head. "Usagi was hurt while we were
running away. Tuxedo Kamen went back after her -- he told the rest of us to keep going. We haven't seen
either of them since."
           I closed my eyes, fighting the lump in my throat. "Keep going."
           Luna took a deep breath. "Minako left maybe three months ago, to see if she could get help.
Shard -- you remember Shard? -- he went with her. They going to try to get to the US, or to England,
where Minako's old contacts are. Rei wanted to go instead, but they wouldn't let her. Since the Sa'an
disabled our communicators, we haven't heard from them. They took Artemis with them, too."
           That was slightly better news, I supposed. I still felt almost disoriented, dizzied by the litany of
despair. "Mako?"
           "M…Mako was captured too, in a raid that went bad just after Mina left. We saw her again,
but…" The cat stopped for a moment. "She's working for them now, somehow."
           "In one of those black suits?" I hissed the question. My memory had only a little bit about how
the Sa'an made their Legionnaires, but one thing was clear -- whatever person inhabited a body before they
put black armor on it was gone, wiped away, impossible to retrieve. I held my breath until Luna shook her
head.
           "No. No, she looked normal, until she started shooting at us." She winced in memory. "Those
pretty electrical attacks are not much fun when you're on the other end."
           I let my breath go in a long whistle. "There's still a chance for her, then. It could be ordinary
mind-control, or something magical."
           "That's what we figured. Rei and I have been trying to come up with a way to capture her and see
if we could undo it, but we haven't found one yet."
           There was another pause as I sat, digesting this. Kyn turned over and looked up at me, big eyes
questioning, and I shook my head as I scratched under her chin.
           "What went wrong, Luna? How could this happen?"
           The cat started to answer, but the sound of approaching footsteps cut her off. I looked around as
Luna closed her eyes.
           "They're too good. That's what went wrong." The voice was familiar. "They're fast, and they're
smart. They don't fall for the same trick twice, they communicate constantly, and they don't give up. You
hit some little patrol and wipe them out in half a second, and somehow they know where you are, and then
you're trying to find your way out of a dragnet. And every time you kill one of them the rest get that much
closer to finding you."
           Rei walked into my field of view. My senses told me she was transformed, but you wouldn't
know it from looking at her. She wore a tight-fitting combat outfit in mottled gray and black, both hips
adorned with pistols and a rifle slung over her shoulder. All three weapons looked like lasers with black
Sa'an styling. Her hair was still short, like I remembered from the last time I'd seen her, but her face had
changed -- it looked as though twenty years had passed instead of three. Her cheeks were thin and hollow,
and dark circles under her eyes suggested too many sleepless nights. For all that, though, she looked alert
and dangerous.
         She noticed my stare and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, and they outnumber us roughly a million to one.
That helps too."
          "Rei…" I swallowed. Something in her manner didn't seem right. Kyn saw it too; she sat up
quickly and I felt her tense. Luna lay where she was, eyes still closed. "You--"
          "Don't." She cut me off with an upraised hand. "I'd melt you where you sit, Ami, but I'm pretty
sure it wouldn't work. So I suppose you'd better come with me. We're not safe here."
          "Rei?"
          "No." She spun on one heel. "If you're coming, come. Otherwise you can stay here and die.
Come on, Luna, this search is a bust. Back to base before the goon squad shows up."
          Rubble crunched underfoot as she started to walk away, leaving me stunned in her wake. Luna
spoke quietly.
          "I'm sorry, Ami. I was going to try to warn you. You will come with us, won't you? I'm sure if
you just talk to her…"
          I blinked and wiped away tears with the back of my hand, nodding.
         Interlude Two

          Kaia searched her Commander's face for the self-satisfied smirk that she knew had to be there.
There was no way he could avoid being smug, just a little. But Ashghar's expression and voice were both
perfectly businesslike.
          "Tsunami performed acceptably, then?"
          There was a time for a argument, and a time for facts. This was one of the latter, the Vice-
Commander decided. "Absolutely, sir. Much better than our tests anticipated. I've ordered a series of
post-mission analyses--"
          "Why? Vice-Commander, if I didn't know any better I'd think you didn't trust my judgment."
          "Her performance in combat worries me, Commander."
          "I thought you said it was flawless."
          "That's the problem. She's too good. We measured her observation-reaction times from the
combat data, and the results are highly worrying."
          "Too good, Vice-Commander?"
          "Far too good. We're looking at close-combat skill far beyond the level of a well-trained human.
Tsunami's reaction times are simply supernatural."
          "That's only to be expected--"
          "With respect, Commander, no it isn't. In the guardians we have previously encountered, the
supernatural force grants them some resistance to supernatural weaponry, perhaps some greater combat
skill, and associated energy attacks. What we're seeing here represents a whole new level of enhancement.
This girl reacts faster than her nervous system should be able to carry impulses, and her strength is also
greatly improved. It does not fit the usual pattern."
          Ashghar steepled his hands. "Your point, Vice-Commander?"
          "First of all, our back-up systems are inadequate. Since we dare not do a live test of the fly-by-
wire system, the results if we are forced to use it will be unpredictable."
          "Acceptable risk. Go on."
          "I'm simply forced to remind you that if we get performance beyond what our models predict, we
may be tampering with a force we don't yet understand. I recommend delaying the experiments until
pacification of this world is complete and they can be continued under controlled lab conditions. Put the
girls on ice, if necessary."
          "No. We don't know what stasis would do to them. I won't risk my experiments because of your
vague hunches, Vice-Commander."
          Kaia's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Yes, Commander."
          "You are dismissed."
          Once again, he has chosen to ignore me. It was a Commander's prerogative, of course, but Kaia
was getting a distinct feeling of unease. This world is far from pacified. The latest word from the
American continent was that all remained unchanged, but something in her gut told Kaia that things were
about to go sour. We should blast them to atoms and be done with it. Nothing on that continent justifies
the absurd risk the Commander takes by leaving a nuclear power intact. The cruisers were safe inside their
near-invincible shields, of course, but grounded shuttles and troop concentrations were at constant risk.
          At least this latest battery of tests should tell us something. Kaia smiled sourly as she stalked the
black corridor, troopers following her in an unshakeable tail. And I think Ashghar is getting ready to tell
me about his big secret project. Then maybe I'll finally know what's going on around here.

          The submarine broke the surface of the water in Tokyo Bay with barely a ripple. It was sleek and
silent, a masterpiece of nautical design. Perhaps because they neither had nor needed naval installations,
undersea warfare was one thing that had escaped the notice of the Sa'an. Threading through the Bay, now
crowded and dangerous with the ruins of sunken ships after the JSDFs single, disastrous sortie, was a feat
in and of itself. The sub stayed up long enough for a dozen wet-suited figures to pile out; then closed up
hatches and vanished.
          The figures treaded water for a few moments while their raft self-inflated. It was a far cry from
the bright orange of a life-raft, designed to be noticed from the air. This was black, designed for stealth,
and once they'd all managed to board it they started for shore accompanied by the faint hum of an electric
motor. The men were alert under their night-vision goggles, watching the sky for the telltale signature of a
Sa'an assault drone whose appearance would mean sudden death for all of them.
         The gods were smiling, however, and the boat reached the shore unnoticed. After the men had left
it behind, stored chemicals sprayed over the plastic and melted paths of catalytic destruction across its
surface. By dawn, all that was left was a sticky black puddle, unremarkable except, perhaps, to chemists.
Part Three: Convergence
Chapter Thirteen
       Tsunami

         Even in my sleep, I writhed in remembered pain. I could feel the cool, thin sheets above me
twisted and sweat-stained. Kyoko lay a few feet away, her eyes open, staring at me in the darkness. I
could feel the heat from her body like a furnace on my skin, feel the faint currents of the air like rasps over
an open wound. Even my own breath was agony, the slow creak of my ribcage amplified until I nearly
snapped. My heart thumped dull fire in my chest.
         "Tsunami…"
         Kyoko reached out to touch my shoulder. I would have shouted at her, told her to stay away from
me, but the act of speaking would have seared my throat to a cinder. Her fingertips brushed my skin,
warmth burning like a hot coal and every whorl and tiny hair slicing my tattered nerves like knives. I felt
unconsciousness returning, a comforting black wave, and nearly cried out in relief.
         Even then, I was dreaming.

          The old man's face was a mask of sweat, pouring all his effort into fighting something invisible
and unstoppable. His family was gathered around him -- I assumed they were his family, anyway --
looking worried. Six, all told -- the grandfather, father, mother, a young man a few years older than me and
a girl perhaps a year younger, one arm thrown around her little sister, who must have been all of eight.
          I wondered what they'd been doing here, for two years. The house was huge, almost a mansion,
and mercifully untouched by the ever-growing Null Zone. Makoto had said the place was layered with
protective charms and wards, strong enough to turn away the merely curious and destroy anyone who pried
further.
          I'd seen good evidence of this as we entered. One of the strange troopers, armored in dull black --
Jupiter called him an 'Adept' -- led the way for our little group as though breaking trail. His pace was slow,
measured, and at each step curtains of light flashed into being, energy contorted in agony and earthing itself
on his black armor in strobing bolts of power. I whispered to Makoto as the onslaught continued.
          "Doesn't it hurt him?"
          Sailor Jupiter smiled tightly and said nothing.
          She'd explained the battle plan before we'd left the dropship, parked only a few blocks away. The
Adept, whoever or whatever he was under that armor, would provide the distraction and get us past the
wards. Under cover of whatever magical firepower the defenses would unleash at him, she and I would
find and destroy the targets. The four Legionnaires who followed us were to act as rearguard, in case
something went wrong -- I had the distinct impression that if that were to happen, they wouldn't be coming
back with us. Not that they seemed to care, or even acknowledge that it had been said. I felt Makoto's
commands ripple out through the Grid, and the soldiers responded like machines, following the pair of us in
textbook formation.
          That impressed me, even though I knew how it was done. The Legionnaires' clockwork precision
was accomplished without communication, none of the muttered commands and hand signals you see
special forces types using in action movies. Though I couldn't feel it, I knew they had to be talking to each
other through the Grid, the strange communication net they'd grafted to the base of my skull. I still
hesitated before touching it. Looking through someone else's eyes felt odd, no matter how many times I
practiced it.
          Now we were crouched at a rear doorway, looking into the main room downstairs. The old man
was, presumably, trying to hold back the implacable advance of the Adept. From the look of things, it
wasn't going very well.
          He broke his determined stare with a gasp and fell to his knees. The mother knelt by him quickly,
one arm around his shoulders.
          "It's…it's no good…" He was panting. "I can't get through. Can't even feel him."
          The father shook his head and whispered. "Ebon God preserve us."
          "We…have to…escape. Leave this place."
          "But…"
           I stopped listening to them. I didn't want to listen to them. The young man was staring at the
doorway with a fierce expression, ready to take on the Adept by himself. After a moment, his sister joined
him.
           Hyde? Are you there, Hyde?
           I'm always here, Tsunami.
           What am I going to do?
           Kill Makoto first. Those four guards shouldn't be much trouble. Flee on foot into the Null Zone --
they'll find us, but it will take time. I can show you--
           No! Don't you get it? They'll kill Kyoko.
           Better her than us.
           I won't let that happen.
           I gave you my advice.
           But they want me to kill these people! I don't even know who they are…
           He sounded smug, sneering. I warned you. If you don't break free of them now, this is where
you'll end up. Just like those clockwork soldiers.
           Hyde was right. I knew he was right. Afterwards, that was what bothered me -- it wasn't a
frenzied, last-minute panic but a conscious choice. Cold blood, as they say. I closed my eyes.
           If I fight, you…you'll give me power?
           I can hardly let us get killed, whatever you choose to do. But again, we can get out of here…
           [It's time, Tsunami. He's exhausted his powers for the moment.] Makoto kept silent, but her voice
echoed through the Grid. I opened my eyes, and let Mr. Hyde into my mind with an effort of will. Power
crackled around me, my black Sa'an uniform erupting in a puff of dark smoke to be replaced by the stylized
school outfit, black-on-white, complete with a short sword on either hip. Jupiter was already transformed;
she nodded at me, approvingly.
           [Go.]
           She was moving even as her message arrived, kicking the door open and coming through shooting.
I followed, feeling once again the sheer joy of movement my new form carried with it. No more aches and
protests from tired muscles -- I merely had to think and my body responded perfectly. The two swords
flashed from their sheathes so fast the steel was a blur.
           "Jupiter Oak Evolution!"
           The crackling web of electricity was centered on the old man. One of the balls caught the father
full in the chest, flinging him against the paper-and-wood wall hard enough to crack it, and the old guy
dropped like a stone, wreathed in sparking power. The mother ducked and rolled out of the way. The pair
at the doorway whirled and stared at us, gaping.
           I closed the gap with them, fast but not fast enough. The boy had already drawn back into a
combat stance, twin blades of sputtering yellow force filling his hands as fast as thought. I felt myself
laugh -- laugh -- as I closed with him, my swords slashing of their own accord. He blocked, easily at first
and then desperately, eyes losing their overconfident stare as he backpedaled furiously. To my eyes, he
moved as though he'd been coated in tar, and it was the easiest thing in the world to feint him out of
position, then line up a killing thrust.
           I saw the flicker of movement in the corner of my eye just in time and twisted, taking the girl's
kick on the shoulder instead of the side of the head. Even that hurt -- I turned around in time to cross my
arms in front of my face and block a furious series of punches. I could see the boy catch his breath and
circle around his sister. If they got on opposite sides of me, I would probably be in trouble, and my newly
granted reflexes reacted.
           The girl came at me again in a series of spinning kicks, which I ducked and stepped to the side.
When her brother sliced at my head, I was ready -- I dropped to a crouch and took his legs out from under
him with a sweep. I turned again as he crashed to the ground to find the girl charging me, not a wise move,
and my sword reversed itself in my grip as I surged to my feet.
           There was a moment's pause, the brief interlude at equilibrium before the fall. The girl was
supported on my blade. I could feel blood seeping over my hand at the hilt, pressed against her stomach,
and see the very tip of the blade sticking up between her shoulder blades. As the speed of battle faded, I
noticed details. She had black hair, running down her back in a complicated braid, and brown eyes that
were filling with tears. Her clothes were non-descript -- battered sneakers, jeans, a thin jacket and a T-shirt
underneath. Her mouth worked like a landed fish, dripping blood from one corner.
          I stepped back, smoothly removing my sword, and she toppled forward onto her face with a
boneless thump. My body was moving of its own accord -- I couldn't have stopped it if I'd tried, some tiny
inner me stunned into immobility. The same reflex let me hear her brother get up behind me, wild with
rage. He charged with energy blades wide, and I ducked, spun, and brought both arms cutting across and
waist-height. Blood sprayed my face as he fell, neatly halved by swords that cut flesh and bone like it was
air.
          I straightened up. Makoto was just finishing -- the mother's body jerked as electricity coursed
through it, then flopped lifeless to the floor. The two men lay in the center of wide, charred circles of wood.
And that left--
          I turned around, suddenly sick with horror. The little girl was still standing where we'd left her,
eyes wide in disbelief. Jupiter pulled a pistol from her belt, but I noticed her hands were shaking; before
she was halfway to firing position she lowered her head.
          "No." Her voice was a whisper. "Gods. No--"
          [Fly-by-wire engaged.] New commands rippled through the grid, and Makoto was suddenly
smiling again. She brought the gun up, and this time her aim was certain. The little girl turned to run, too
late, and then the laser pulse caught her in the back of the head and flung her forward like a rag doll,
spraying bits of bone and blood.
          [Mission accomplished.]

         My eyes shot open as soon as consciousness returned, but there was nothing to see but the
darkness of my new quarters. The dream-memory still clung to me -- I could feel the shock in my hand as
the swords met flesh. When I moved my head, I felt embedded in soft rubber. Compared to being
transformed, everything else was like a slow-motion pantomime.
         Gradually I became aware of my surroundings again, and the dream started to fade away. I felt,
somewhat to my surprise, the weight of a warm body on my left. Kyoko had apparently climbed under my
sheets, and her skin was soft against mine. I shifted a bit in surprise, and she blinked and opened her eyes,
which went wide as she realized how we were entangled.
         "Ts..Ts…Tsunami! You're awake! This is…I mean…" She stopped, and took a deep breath.
"You were shivering. In your sleep. I covered you with both our blankets, and you wouldn't stop, so I
thought…"
         I smiled. "Okay."
         "I don't…I mean, not that I would…but…"
         "Stop." I held up a hand. "It's okay."
         "D…do you want me to move?"
         "No." The girl's expression flickered again in my memory. Something passed through her eyes as
she died. I wondered what that was like, and shivered again. "I'm cold."

            I've had morbid thoughts before. Believe it or not, I wasn't always a wonderful, cheerful person.
Like so many others, I've been orphaned; but unlike them, I can't lay the blame at the feet of the Sa'an. My
parents died in a plane crash two years before the Arrival, when I was thirteen. It was six months
afterwards before I would speak to anyone, even Ryu.
          At the time, Ryu was my idol. He was perfect: a wonderful student, captain of the soccer team
and skilled at any sport you named, popular with the girls but loyal to his girlfriend, Tami, who'd been our
neighbor for as long as I could remember. She and my brother grew up together, and everyone knew they'd
end up with each other. It was fate.
          Even my parents' death didn't shake him. He grieved, of course, and bore up under the sadness
like a proper young man should. The rest of my family, my aunts and uncles and cousins, all took comfort
from his strength. He would get into the best college, assume my father's position at the company after
graduation.
          I resented it, a bit; I think it was inevitable. After all, especially after the crash, I felt like an
afterthought. No place was being prepared for me at some great company. I was smarter than him, but
nobody was in awe of my achievements. But for all that I worshipped him as well, in the usual love/hate
way of siblings. I wanted to be him. Tami and Ryu were engaged in February of the year two thousand, to
be married in the spring, right after graduation.
          You can imagine how well that worked out. The JSDF's belated, doomed effort to repel the Sa'an
in their black-armored thousands led to the destruction of most of the city, the one and only time the power
of the Imperial Legions was truly unleashed on civilians. Tami died trying to save her family, their whole
block blown away in a wash of plasma fire. Ryu and I were at home, and we were lucky: our house was
outside the blasted land that would eventually become the lawless Null Zone. The next day, after what was
left of the government announced our surrender, Imperial troopships descended on the city, rounding up
people by the score in accordance with some arcane selection policy. Ryu wasn't taken, and neither was I,
but most of his friends marched into the dropships and were never seen again.
          That, I think, set us on our paths. For him it was the end of the world. He wandered the quickly
forming Null Zone, at first looking for his lost fiancée but ultimately searching for any companionship.
Once the Sa'an truly set up shop and began distributing drugs free of charge, his downward spiral solidified.
I watched him descend with a kind of detached horror, mixed with a vast amusement. So much for fate.
          For me, the Arrival was kind of freeing. I was terrified for a few days, sure, but when the smoke
cleared I realized that I was still alive, my best friend was still alive, and that everything, the whole social
order I'd hated and adored, had been smashed to pieces. What was left of the city maintained some
cohesion. I went to school, had a part time job, gossiped with Kyoko about boys. But the cruiser hanging
over the city like the fist of God reminded me daily of the real order of things, who was really in charge of
the universe. Whenever the troopers rounded up their latest acquisitions, I couldn't help but wonder -- were
they going to be killed? Brainwashed? Sacrificed to some dark god? Or, whispered a voice I couldn't
quite suppress, were they going to be part of something wonderful, to see things I couldn't even imagine?
          It plagued my sleep at night.

          I woke up again, much later in the day. No more dreams. Kyoko was still next to me, still asleep,
her long green hair released from the prison of a braid and spread in disarrayed freedom all over the pillow.
I lifted her hand from my shoulder gently, so as not to wake her, and slipped from under the sheets. My
clothes -- a kind of black robe I'd found in the room -- were stained with sweat, but I felt surprisingly good.
          I tried not to think about the tests they'd run last night, and the few hours in agony before their
nerve-enhancing drug had finally worn off. Denial is easy if you're practiced enough. In any case Kaia had
promised the medical exam would be a one time deal. Now my muscles were stiff and sore from exertion,
and I felt the need to move, to work the kinks out of them. I wondered briefly if I'd be allowed to use a
training room, or something similar. The new quarters they'd put us in, while comfortable, were not really
spacious enough for me to move around in, and in any case I'd wake Kyoko.
          It took me a moment to realize I didn't have to wonder. I closed my eyes and let my consciousness
expand.
          <Query?>
          <Is there a training room nearby I could use?>
          <Affirmative. Training room 11-3 is unoccupied.>
          <Can you show me how to get there?>
          <Warning: Question precise but not useful. Directions follow.>
          I winced. The Grid, or as it insisted on being precise the natural language processing sub-section
of the Grid, was sometimes difficult to deal with. It tended to take questions literally -- luckily, it was
smart enough to often realize what you meant to ask, so that 'Can you show me how to get there?' was not
answered with a simple, 'Yes, I can.' It did, however, insist on reminding you whenever this kind of
interpolation took place, and one could not help but attach a gentle chiding to these reminders.
          In any case, the path to the training room through the winding corridors of the cruiser dropped into
my mind in a way I was slowly getting used to. I checked to make sure Kyoko was still asleep, stripped off
the robe and changed into a uniform, and headed out the door. The way was relatively easy, and I nodded
to the guards as had become my habit, even though they never gave the least acknowledgement of my
presence. The door hissed open in front of me and I stepped into a large, empty space.
          I went through a few stretches, for the look of thing, before thinking out loud in a familiar way.
          Hyde?
          Hello, Tsunami. I note with some dismay that you haven't made any effort at escaping the Sa'an
hold on you.
          Would you give that a rest? It's impossible! The thing in the back of my head tracks me the same
way they track their troopers -- how could I possibly escape?
          You'd figure out a way, if you really wanted to.
          That made me catch my breath. Hyde…
          You have no idea of the irony involved, Tsunami. For years -- years -- I struggled through an
instrument that was…inadequate. And now you've dropped into my hands, the perfect tool, and you're
working for the wrong side.
          How am I the perfect tool?
          You killed that girl.
          I had to do it.
          She was nobody important. Just a warlock, born into a magic-wielding family. The kind of people
the Sa'an need to destroy. But that's irrelevant -- the point is that you did it. How did it feel?
          I closed my eyes, trying to calm my thoughts. Horrible. I felt--
          You're lying. You felt nothing -- an idle curiosity, no more.
          No.
          I'm in your head with you, Tsunami. I know you. You can't lie to me.
          I'm not some cold-blooded murderer!
          Not yet. But you will be. That's why I chose you, when the other abandoned her post.
          "Shut up." A trickle of cold sweat ran down the back of my neck, and my limbs ached with the
need to move, to exorcise whatever-it-was that sat in my skull like a rock in the murk. I pushed, and the
white light of the transformation flared, uniform wrapping around me like a comfortable second skin and
the weight of the swords on my hips as familiar as my limbs.
          It feels good, doesn't it. Without the power, you feel like you're crippled, like your arms and legs
have been broken. Can't move, can't really feel. But like this--
          The sword leapt into my hand of its own accord and I gestured, slashing the air with a shivering
hum.
          Enough. I'm different when I'm like this, I can feel it. When I killed those people, it was your fault
-- the transformation changes me.
          Only for the better. It's not a change of substance. More like a refinement. It reveals your true
self, you might say--
          I started to move, to drown him out. Steel whirled in a complex dance that came from nowhere,
the shivering hum of the blades and my own soft footfalls on the ground the only sounds. I pushed it, faster
and faster, the hum rising in pitch until its harmonics only whispered on the edge of hearing. The motion
of the swords slashed the pale light in the room into strange patterns of shadow, writhing in agony on the
smooth floor. Faster still, despite the warning creaks from my muscles and the sweat that sheathed my skin.
          The hiss of the door signaled the end. I finished in a crouch, driving the twin points of the swords
into the floor where they stuck, quivering. A moment later I sagged onto them, propping myself up on the
hilts, eyes closed, facing the floor. A river of sweat ran down from my forehead and dripped off the end of
my nose to puddle on the floor.
          Tsunami. There was something in Hyde's voice that I hadn't heard before. Not cynicism or
derision, but awe. Once you accept the truth, you will be unstoppable. I wanted to scream.
          "Tsunami?"
          It took a moment for me to adjust to a human voice, rather than an internal one. I recognized
Makoto, Sailor Jupiter, before I turned my head.
          "What?"
          She walked forward, letting the door close behind her. "I saw you were in here. Wanted to see
what you were doing. I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
          "I was just finishing."
          I stood up, taking the swords with me and returning them to their sheathes. Makoto stood near the
entrance, in a tight halter top and shorts -- both black, of course, and more appropriate for exercise than the
fancy uniform, now damp and heavy with sweat. She noticed my look and smiled.
          "You can take the uniform off after you transform, you know."
          I let the heightened state fade and found myself back in the Sa'an outfit, weapons gone. "I prefer
not to."
          "Tsunami…" She stepped to the side as I stalked to the door. "You're not still mad about me
fighting you the other day, are you?" Her tone was mocking.
          I was, of course, but I barely slowed. "Of course not."
          She put an arm in front of the door, blocking my path. "I was under orders, you know that. We
had to get you to reveal your powers."
          "I know. Get out of the way."
          "Anxious for a rematch?"
          I half-turned and watched her eyes. The mocking was still there, but there was something--
          "Another time."
          She still didn't move. "Maybe I shouldn't be so eager. Judging from what I just saw, it might go a
bit differently this time." Jupiter held my gaze. "Do you think you could kill me, Tsunami?"
          I blinked. "I'm not in the mood." I pushed past her arm and stepped through the door as it hissed
open, leaving Makoto behind me. My breath came hard, and not simply because of the exercise.
          Pleading. That's what I'd seen in her eyes. 'Do you think you could kill me, Tsunami?' Not a
boast, but a request.
          As I made my way back to my quarters, I wondered why Sailor Jupiter wanted to die so badly.
Chapter Fourteen
       Hotaru

          Dawn had apparently broken, though in the dungeon we had no way of knowing save the increase
in noises from upstairs. I'd slept fitfully, dreams alternating from bad to worse. In the first set, I'd been
buried alive -- an understandable fantasy, under the circumstances -- with the bodies of the rest of the
Senshi. Cold flesh pressed around me on all sides, and as I turned I could see their faces, twisted into
grimaces of unimaginable pain.
          That wasn't so bad, actually. I knew it for what it was -- a mind's way of coping with something
too horrible to confront while awake. It wasn't real, it didn't even feel real, and while horrifying at the time
it ended with a sense of relief.
          The second dream was worse. I was watching up the hole, the entrance to the dungeon, and I saw
the building above us blown away in a tide of green fire. A figure jumped down, splashing in the muck,
and the sight of the seven-foot giant pulsing with destructive power was the most welcome thing I'd ever
seen. He smiled.
          "I'm sorry, Hotaru. I should never have let you go alone."
          Waking from that was agony.
          A weak light flickered down the shaft from the floor above. Someone must have relit the bonfire,
which had mostly burned itself out in the small hours of last night. By its radiance I could vaguely see
Michiru, asleep on a pile of old rags, and I thought about dedication. The dungeon was not really the
problem -- I had already thought of a half-dozen ways to escape, depending on the exact circumstances.
More than raw stone trapped her here. Michiru could not leave Haruka, no matter what. That meant I'd
either have to take both of them with me, or leave them both behind. Either way, I knew I wasn't spending
another night in the pit.
          Breakfast was timely, if not very sustaining. A bit of unidentifiable meat and some loaves of hard,
flat bread that I tentatively guessed were Sa'an rations. Dee accompanied them down, climbing a rope
ladder thrown over the side of the pit for that purpose and guarded above by a bored but watchful, and
presumably heavily armed, young man.
          After setting the food down, the girl wrapped her arms around me. This took me a bit by surprise.
          "Hotaruuu!"
          "H…Hello, Dee."
          "I missed you! Where were you last night?"
          "Um…" I wasn't quite sure how to answer that. "Here?"
          "You should come visit me! I'll show you my room."
          "I was under the impression that I was a prisoner here."
          "Oh yeah." She put her head on one side and giggled. "I forgot."
          We sat in companionable silence for a while, and I managed to get myself to stomach the meat.
At least it was cooked through. Dee produced a canteen of water, from which I drank gratefully. I glanced
at Michiru, but she was still sleeping, so Dee left her share of the rations next to her and tiptoed with
exaggerated caution back to me.
          "She sleeps a lot."
          I shrugged. "I don't imagine there's much else to do down here."
          "Yeah." She looked around. "Boooring."
          I tried to keep my voice level. "Any idea when they might let me out?"
          "God said you two get to see the big ritual today! We're going to fight the snake people tonight,
and She said She need to get Her powers all built up. Have you ever seen the snake people, Hotaru?"
          "No--"
          "They look just like regular people, except they have the heads of snakes! Isn't that weird? And
my big brother said they catch little girls like me and do horrible things to them and then eat them all up!"
She sighed. "That would be neat."
          I shook my head. "Your big brother?"
          "He's not really my big brother. I just call him that because God says all us normal humans are
brothers and sisters. Also he likes to fuck me sometimes, when he's bored. Have you ever done that,
Hotaru? It's kind of different when you're both girls. But you start the same, like this--"
          She leaned forward to kiss me, and I barely managed to put my hands on her shoulders and deflect
her. It was surprisingly easy; Dee felt like she weighed practically nothing. She put her head on one side
again and looked at me oddly.
          "You don't want to? It's not hard, I can show you if you don't know how--"
          "Not…right now."
          "Okay!"
          She sat there a while longer, staring at me until I started to feel a little uncomfortable. I spoke, just
to end the silence.
          "What are you doing down here, Dee?"
          "Whatever you want, Hotaru! I came down to play with you."
          "Why?"
          "Because you're my friend! Also 'cause I probably won't get a chance after today, since God said
I'm finally old enough to be the next sacrifice."
          My skin went cold. "You're…what?"
          "Isn't it great?" She went on smiling, oblivious. "God'll stick her knife in here"--she poked her
belly button--"and I'll scream and shake and stuff. Promise you'll watch, Hotaru?"
          "I…" I looked at her eyes, big and happy. "Sure."
          "All right! I'll try to stay alive as long as I can. Everyone says it's better if the sacrifice lives
longer."
          "Dee…"
          "What?"
          "Doesn't it bother you at all?"
          "What should bother me?" She looked confused.
          "Aren't you going to die in a few hours?"
          She nodded happily. "Yup!"
          "And…"
          "I tried to sacrifice myself one time, but I kind of screwed it up. See?" She lifted the front of her
rag-thin shirt over her head -- I noted absently she wore nothing underneath it -- and revealed a thick white
scar running across her stomach. "Then God said that I was a bad girl, and that only she got to sacrifice
people. I said I was sorry that I sacrificed my friend Julie and tried to sacrifice myself." Her expression
became wistful. "Julie looked so funny after she died. Every time I looked at her I started laughing. Do
you think I'll look funny afterwards, Hotaru? I think I'll look like this!" Dee dropped to the ground with an
elaborate grimace, trying to speak without moving her lips. "Doth thith look thilly?"
          I smiled, slightly, but said nothing. I wondered in passing what had been done to this girl to screw
her up so badly, and whether it was related to whatever afflicted Haruka. Mostly, though, I was rethinking
my plans. I had to take her with me, away from this place, these people, and their mad god. The fact that
their mad god was a friend of mine didn't help.
          "Dee, how well do you know your way around the city?"
          "Very well!" She jumped up from her 'dead' position. "Why, do you want to go somewhere?"
          "I think so."
          "Then I'll take you!" She stopped to think. "But--you're not allowed out of the pit before noon,
and after noon I'll be dead. So I guess I can't."
          "If I were going…somewhere, would you want to come with me?"
          "Sure, if I'm not dead at the time."
          She's obsessed, I thought, and shook my head. "Dee, I think I'm going to try and get some more
sleep before the ritual. I'll see you beforehand, okay? Come and see me when they take me out of the pit."
          "Okay! Then you promise to watch the sacrifice?"
          "Absolutely."
          "Great!" She ran over to the rope ladder and waved. "See you later, Hotaru!"
          "Later…"
          Once she was gone, I sat and thought for a while. Michiru finally stirred, and I opened my eyes to
find her sitting next to me, chewing on the heavy bread.
          "Was that Dee I heard?"
          I nodded and offered her the canteen. She drained the rest of it in one gulp.
          "She's kind of strange."
          I raised one eyebrow. "'Kind of' is a bit of an understatement, I think. What happened to her?"
          "We found her a couple of months ago. I think it was drugs, probably an overdose of Two -- she's
been that way ever since I've known her. She kind of latched on to Haruka."
          "I noticed."
          "They're nice enough to her--"
          I felt anger boil up. I knew it wasn't all about the little girl who'd just left, and I knew I certainly
shouldn't direct it at Michiru. Even so, I couldn't help myself. "How old is she? Thirteen? You know
what they're doing with her?" Her eyes said she did. "That's not nice, it's sick."
          "She doesn't seem to mind."
          "I don't think she'd mind if you carved her heart out with a dull knife. That doesn't make it right."
          "Look." Her eyes were wet, all of a sudden, and I realized how much this was affecting her. "It's
horrible, all right? Fine. There's nothing I can do. Do you know how many horrible things happen in the
Null Zone, all the time? Dee's better off than she would be wandering the streets…you don't know the kind
of creatures that are out there now…"
          "Michiru…"
         "I'm sorry." She wiped her eyes. "I shouldn't have said that. I know you only want to help people,
Hotaru, but it's just so hard--"
          "Michiru, they're going to sacrifice her."
          Her eyes went wide. "What?"
          "Haruka's going to sacrifice her. At some ritual today."
          "She…I mean, she wouldn't really…"
          "I think she will."
          Michiru shook her head, stunned. I continued hastily.
          "I'm getting out of here. Today. And I'm taking Dee with me."
          "You--"
          "Do you want to come, Michiru? We really need you."
          She rocked back and forth, not meeting my eyes.
          "Neptune? Do you want to come with us?"
          That got her. Michiru took a deep breath, and shook her head. "I can't."
          "Haruka might get angry when I steal Dee from under her nose. She might hurt you."
          "She won't." I wasn't so sure of that, but didn't comment. "I can't leave her."
          "Even though she threw you in a dungeon?"
          Michiru nodded. I sighed, and wondered if I'd ever fall in love with someone so thoroughly I'd
live out my life in a dungeon cell just to be near them. It didn't seem possible.
          After all, thought my traitorous inner self, no dungeon built could hold him.
          "I won't ask you to help me, because you'd be endangering yourself. So just keep your head
down."
          She nodded again, miserably. I settled down to wait.

          Another memory of being encased in darkness.
          The intelligent inhabitants of the unnamed world we'd dropped in on had the appearance of
Labrador retrievers with gauzy insect wings and the general disposition of killer bees. They were a hive
mind, viciously protective and highly paranoid, and they took poorly to the arrival of wandering emissaries.
I'd been separated from Jahara in the initial attack, carried off by a swarm of the things, and they'd sealed
me inside one of their catacombs. For later study, I assumed, or possibly for food.
          It was only a few hours before I heard the sounds of furious battle outside, and shortly thereafter
felt my coffin of spun wood and hardened resin shake and disintegrate around me. I blinked in the sudden
light of the sun at the entrance, framed by green fire.
          "I figured you'd come for me."
          He reached a hand through the opening he'd made, gravely, and took one of mine in his grip. "Of
course."
          And then I almost said it. Almost.
          But not quite.
          "Hotaru!"
          I opened my eyes, and blinked in the sudden light of the raging bonfire up above. The rope ladder
had been lowered again, and I could see Dee's head poking over the side, flanked by the two stern-looking
women I'd seen at the entrance the day before.
          "Hotaru, wake up! The ritual's starting! It's almost time!" She drew a finger across her throat
with a big smile. One of the women chuckled, but the other looked at her and almost looked regretful. I
filed that away for future reference. "God says you've got to come too, Michiru!"
          Neptune groaned and sat up. I shot her a look and started for the rope ladder. After spending the
night in a pit, muscles tired from the walk of the day before had rested and I felt anxious to move, to run.
The three at the top watched as I climbed, and stepped back from the edge just in time for me to swing
myself over. The two women had pistols in their belts, not drawn but within easy reach, and they looked at
me with hard eyes.
          "Come on, Hotaru!" Dee tugged at my sleeve. "I've got to go get changed. Come on!"
          The two guards glanced at each other but said nothing, and I let Dee drag me to one of the small
rooms that had survived on the edges of the main enclosure. It was basically a broom closet, but the tribe
had converted it into a kind of ceremonial changing room. In one corner were a stack of white robes, long,
flowing, and shapeless. I couldn't help noticing that many of them had been cut and re-stitched many times.
Before Dee shut the door, I had a glimpse of our two guards taking up positions outside.
          Dee pulled her shirt over her head and tossed it in one corner as though glad to be rid of it, and
started removing the tattered remnants of her jeans. I felt myself blush, incongruously. Our programmed
responses are so strange -- this girl was going to be killed in a few minutes, and I was blushing because she
was taking off her clothes. I turned to face the door.
          "What's the matter, Hotaru?" Dee looked down at her body, now clad only in a pair of grubby
under-shorts. "Am I ugly or something?"
          I forced myself to turn around, and to concentrate. "Listen to me, Dee."
          "Okay!" She did her best to look attentive.
          "Some bad things are going to happen in a minute. I want you to do exactly what I say, okay?"
          "Bad things?" She looked at me curiously. "What about the sacrifice?"
          "Dee…" How could I explain it? Tell her that wanting to die was insanity, that she'd been
damaged somehow, and that I was saving her? "Just do what I say, all right? No matter what else
happens."
          She thought about that for a minute, then smiled brightly. "Okay! You're my friend."
          "Good. Now put some clothes on."
          She shrugged one of the ceremonial robes over her shoulders, and I looked at it critically. It was
too long to run in, so she'd probably have ditch it if it came to that. That would leave her slightly
underdressed, but there was no helping it.
          "How do I look?" She twirled, as though at a fashion show.
          "Great." My grin was sickly. I was not relishing what I would have to do. "Now go into the
corner and be quiet for a second."
          "Okay."
          I opened the door a crack and caught the eye of the guard on the left, the woman with a long rat-
tail of hair who'd seemed a little sympathetic. My voice was low.
          "She's having problems. Crying a lot. Think you could come in here and talk to her?"
          The woman glanced at the other guard, who nodded suspiciously. "Go ahead in, but leave the
door open."
          That was not unexpected; I stood aside to let the guard into the room and then stepped up behind
her. Dee looked at her with wide, bright eyes.
          "What's the matter, Dee? Something wrong?"
          "Nope! Hotaru told me to stand in the corner--"
          In one motion I kicked the door closed behind me and slipped the pistol from the woman's belt,
clicking the safety off as she whirled with an abortive shriek of rage. The tiny room was crowded with the
three of us in it -- Dee looked shocked, the woman frozen, and I was trying to remain calm. I whispered
instructions to her.
          "All right. We're leaving. I want you to stay quiet and not move. Dee, get me a couple of those
robes--"
          The woman sneered. "God will punish you."
          "I don't have much respect for a God who sticks Her knife in little girls." My voice was a hiss.
"Now move."
          The woman stood stock still for a moment, as though considering. Then she leapt forward and
reached for the gun.
          There's always a moment of time that seems to telescope. I could see Dee's mouth open, whether
to shout a warning or scream I didn't know. The woman lunged, her eyes almost peaceful. One, strained
second. No more choices.
          The report of the semi-automatic was startlingly loud in the tiny space. I was so close to the guard
that the fine mist of her blood sprayed across my skin. Her eyes went wide, just for a moment, and she
dropped to the floor with a double thump.
          I thumbed the safety back on when I realized my hands were shaking, ignoring the little girl for
the moment. There was an immediate pounding at the door, which was the first problem -- the people
outside could hardly have failed to hear that shot. Lacking anything better, I grabbed the body by the arms
and with a certain amount of effort wedged her into the doorway, blocking the entrance. A single, clean
trickle of blood leaked from the hole in her chest, and I managed to avoid getting any of it on me.
          She'd been dead before she'd hit the floor. My weapons training had been reluctant, but Jahara had
insisted, since so many cultures set such a store on guns or items of similar purpose. He himself didn't
bother with them, so we'd stopped off in some high-tech center for basic instruction and I was mildly
horrified to learn I was a particularly good shot. The Unforgiven had approved.
          "If you learn to use a weapon, any weapon, you must be skilled with it. Otherwise you acquire the
inclination to use it, but not the ability. In a crisis, you might reach for a gun, so you need to be able to use
one."
          The thread of memory distracted me from my slightly grisly work. With the woman in place as a
doorstop, I turned from the angry shouting outside to face Dee, for the first time. She still looked stunned,
glancing from the body to me and back again. I put my hands on her shoulders, to try and shake her out of
it.
          "Dee. We're getting out of here. I need you to do what I say for a while longer."
          She nodded dumbly, bending her knees enough to run two fingers along the cement floor and pick
up a coating of red. She rubbed them together, idly. The banging had gotten louder, but I figured we had a
few moments more before they started to shoot -- Dee and the guard could still be alive, for all they knew.
I took a moment to place the room on my mental map of the building and get my bearings. We weren't up
against the wall of the building, which was bad luck, but the closet did back onto one of the stairwells,
which was almost as good.
          "You killed my big sister." Dee spoke quietly, and I winced.
          "I'm sorry. I--"
          "She doesn't look happy." The girl twisted her head to look at the dead woman's face, right-side
up. "Sort of angry, and sad." She looked up. "Are you going to kill me, Hotaru?"
          I realized I was still holding the gun; I put it on the ground carefully and shook my head. "No."
          She took that in stride, and I turned away from her and closed my eyes, hissing the familiar words
under my breath.
          "Saturn Crystal Power, Make Up."
          The transformation passed in a timeless interval, as it always did, but I felt something strange
about it. Becoming Saturn has always been as easy as breathing, a simple, natural exercise. Now it felt
reluctant, as though every drop of power had to be forced from a creaky, rusting spigot. I was out of breath
when I dropped to the ground, clad in the somewhat-impractical sailor uniform with the long, heavy weight
of the Silence Glaive in one hand.
          Dee was impressed -- she clapped her hands with delight, dead body forgotten. "That was great!
Do it again!"
          "Not now." A hollow boom echoed my words as someone began a serious effort to break down
the door. "Dee, in a second I'm going to need you to run. Can you run?"
          "Not in this thing." She lifted a bit of the ceremonial robe between thumb and forefinger, and I
rolled my eyes.
          "Take it off, then, but don't lose it."
          Once Dee was again topless, I turned to the wall and fought the blush once again. I counted
breaths until I was calm, or at least in a place where I could pretend to be calm.
          "Dee."
          "I'm ready!"
          "If…something bad happens to me, just keep running."
          "Promise you won't die if I'm not there with you?"
          "Sure."
           "Good. I want to feel you shake when your heart stops -- that's the best part."
           I didn't turn around, but I could imagine her smile all too well. I wondered briefly if I really knew
what the hell I was doing. A bit late for that now, though.
           "Here we go--"
           The edge of the Silence Glaive cut through the thin interior wall like it wasn't even there, no
resistance at all. Four smooth cuts, and a rectangle big enough for us to step through fell outward and
clattered onto the stairs, a few feet below. I went first, hopping down and waiting for Dee to scramble after
me. The stairs that went down to the basement were blocked by rubble, separated from the central room by
a swinging pair of double doors. From here it was a straight run to the main entrance, across one corner of
a room populated by forty or fifty gun-toting lunatics, all waiting to see a human sacrifice.
           I swallowed. "Ready, Dee? Run for the doors and don't stop."
           "Ready!" She was clearly enjoying this game.
           "Stay behind me." I braced. "Now!"
           One good kick opened the doors, catching a surprised young man in the face and sending him
sprawling. I started to run before even getting a good look around, but the bonfire was clear, and the small
block of stone next to it had an obvious purpose. Luck was still with us -- I didn't see Haruka, who must
have still been upstairs. Dee's bare feet flapped on the stone behind me. Most of the armed tribes-people
were still struggling with the door to the closet, but there were still a couple watching the door and going
for weapons as soon as they saw us.
           I had the pistol ready, and my first shot caught the guard on the left, an older man with droopy
skin that gave him a sad expression. His head snapped back and he toppled without a sound. The other
guard was a boy not much older than me, and his bullet cracked against the wall behind us as he wrenched
himself out of the way. Two more of my shots hummed out into the night -- he ducked out the doors,
where he'd undoubtedly be waiting for us just around the corner.
           Dee was still with me. I tossed the gun aside and switched hands with the Glaive, ducking low
and slashing to the side of the doorway as we passed through. I heard a bullet slide over my head and felt
the little shock as blade met flesh. We didn't stop, didn't look as the youth gave an agonized cry and hit the
ground, wetly. I grabbed one of the girl's hands in mine as we pounded down the street, taking the first turn
at random as pursuit started to pour out the doorway. In my mind, I exulted -- they didn't have a prayer of
catching us, not as disorganized as they were, in this dilapidated city. We pounded around another corner
and ducked into the shadow of a dead van so I could catch my breath.
           Dee, I noticed, was in better shape than I was. She wasn't even winded. She was also still half-
naked, though not shaped much differently than a boy would be at that age. The stupid white robe was still
slung over one shoulder.
           "Give me that for a second."
           She handed it over without speaking, as though thinking about something. I used the ultra-fine
edge of the glaive to cut off a strip of fabric a couple of feet wide. Dee raised her arms without complaint,
and after tying it at the back I'd gotten a garment that would make me feel better, at the very least.
           "Hotaru?" she asked, finally.
           "Yeah?"
           "Why are you doing this?"
           "Because I don't want to die, and I didn't want to leave you to die either."
           "Why not?"
           I shrugged. "I don't like letting people die."
           "But you killed my big sister Mori and my uncle Tak and my little big brother Kyr. What's so
special about me?"
           I gritted my teeth. "I don't know."
           "Oh." She nodded a moment. "Okay. So where are we going?"
           I let out a long breath. "I don't really know that either."
Chapter Fifteen
       Ami

           They weren't really visible, but I could feel the eyes on my back, people watching us from behind
the tiny windows and barely-open doors we passed. They didn't feel so much unfriendly as uncertain,
perhaps terrified.
           We'd descended from street level into what had once been the basement of an office block, now
filled with rubble and divided into a thousand tiny apartments facing onto a few cleared spaces. There was
a feeling of closeness, of crowding, and I wondered briefly why all these people chose to live here, with the
whole destroyed city to choose from. I asked Luna as much.
           "They moved here because we live here." The cat crouched on my left shoulder, looking
uncomfortable. Kyn was on the other side, holding my hand and occasionally shooting Luna dirty looks.
Rei strode well ahead of us, not looking back. "Rei keeps the youma away, kills them if they get too close.
But"--she shook her head--"they don't realize the danger. If the Sa'an find us, this whole place will go up in
flames."
           "You think they'd burn a whole block of apartments just to get at you?"
           "Absolutely." This time she smiled. "We've caused a few problems for them."
           "Great."
          Rei reached a door, undistinguished from a thousand other improvised doors, and slammed it open.
Luna winced. I followed her, gingerly, and found myself in a barely lit room, blinking in the semi-darkness.
Kyn followed me and looked around happily -- her eyes adjusted to the dark near-instantly. Rei dropped
her gun belt in one corner with a clatter and flopped onto the dilapidated sofa in one corner of the room.
The rest of the place was miscellaneous clutter: food, in the form of plastic-wrapped loaves of bread, a few
large jugs of water, a rack holding a variety of weapons, and a set of shelves with a couple of dog-eared
books and a row of glossy black helmets, neatly arranged. Another corner was a trapdoor, half-covered by
a scrap of carpet.
           "Well?" Rei spread her arms. "What do you think?"
           "Better than anything else I've seen in the past couple of days."
           Rei snorted. "Yup. It's great, all right."
           I sighed. "Rei--"
           "What?" She bit the word off.
           "Just come out and say it."
           "Say what?"
           "Whatever you want to say to me." I had an inkling what it was, and I wasn't looking forward to
it; better, though, to get it out in the open. "I won't get angry."
           "Oh, really? Because I was worried about that." Heavy sarcasm.
           "Look, Rei--"
           "You want to hear it? Fine. I'm kind of pissed because I can't blow your head off."
           "Why?"
           "Why do you think?" She got up off the couch with renewed energy, her finger poking accusingly
between my eyes. "After what happened to you, you were the most powerful of us by far. And you just
fucking left. Fine. We could handle things without you, I thought. Except look what happened."
           And there it was. The dark thought that had been nagging me the past two days, dragged out into
the open for all to see.
           "I didn't know…" It sounded weak. Even to me, it sounded weak.
           "So? What good does that do anyone? Usagi's dead, Ami. Minako too, for all I know. And
Mamoru, and Shard..." Her voice cracked, and she shook her head. "And they've done god-knows-what to
Makoto. You should have seen when she was fighting Haruka -- apparently she found her ultimate attack.
'Shimmering Madness.' I never saw either of them again."
           "Rei." Luna jumped off my shoulder and walked over to her. "You can't blame Ami. She
couldn't have known, and even if she'd been here it might not have made a difference."
           "Probably not in the long run." Rei shrugged. "But if she'd been here, maybe we could have
saved Usagi on the first day. Maybe we would have been able to get Makoto back. Everyone else stayed,
and did their duty, and died. Even me."
           "You're not dead yet." I smiled weakly, but her return grin was a death's head.
          "My days are numbered. They don't give up, and they don't get tired. Sooner or later I'll run out
of luck, and that'll be the end of the Sailor Senshi."
          I started to speak, thought better of it, and stood in silence while Rei took a deep breath.
          "So go home, Ami. There's nothing left for you here. Take your weird little cat-thing and get out
of here."
          "Hey!" Kyn bristled. "I am not a weird little cat-thing!"
          I tried to comfort her, quickly, but she dashed out from behind me before I could grab her.
          "And another thing!" The catgirl was in full form, tail lashing from side to side, ears bristling.
"Don't shout at Oneesama. I don't know who you are, but she's the best person in the world. She's smart,
and powerful, and pretty, and she's saved my life"--Kyn started to count on her fingers, got to ten and got
confused--"a lot of times! And lots of other people, too! So I don't know who these other people are that
died but I know if Oneesama could have done anything about it, she would have, because she never lets
anyone die and never kills anyone, except if they deserve it. Like that guy with the horns. Remember him,
Oneesama? He said he was going to kill us slowly and I asked you if you thought dying slowly was worse
than dying quickly, and you said you didn't know, and then you made the big pipe fall on him and knock
him into the lava, remember?" She took a deep breath. "And that's what I think." Kyn turned back to me,
suddenly all contrition. "I'm sorry for shouting at your friend, Oneesama, but I don't like it when people are
mean to you--"
          "It's okay." I patted her gently on the head, and she meowed happily. Rei and Luna were goggle-
eyed, and I couldn't help smiling a little. "Rei, I'm not leaving. Not until"--not until what, I thought? Did I
really want to spend the rest of my life in this devastated place?--"at least not until we rescue everyone who
can be rescued."
          There was a moment, just a moment, when I saw the old Rei in her face, eyes sparkling. Then the
hard mask of anger returned, as though by conscious effort.
          "So it's we, now." She shook her head. "Fine. It pains me to say it, but I need you. I need your
power. But don't think for one minute that I like it." She stalked past me, pushing the flimsy door aside
and grabbing a nearly empty jug of water in one hand, muttering. "Going to go fill this. Back in an hour."
          "Rei--"
          The door slammed closed on the rest of that sentence. Kyn broke the growing silence.
          "I don't think she liked me after all…"

           I was left in that peculiar state you enter when you're alone in someone else's house -- you can't
really sit down and put your feet up, because you're a guest, so you wander around quietly admiring the
furnishings. Since the furnishings in this case were a rack of interesting edged weapons and a shelf of
black helmets, this got disturbing pretty quickly.
           Luna padded up behind and jumped up onto a couch as I stared at my reflection in the glossy black
visors. She shook her head.
           "Trophies. I tried to stop her, but…"
           I shrugged. "I can understand. You need to take your victories where you can."
           "Ami." The cat paused. "Please don't think Rei has really changed. She doesn't hate you."
           "She certainly seems to."
           "No! It's just--"
           "I know." Sometimes I get tired of being perceptive and forgiving. "I know. She's alone, she's
scared, and she's in pain. I can see it as well as you can."
           Luna sighed with relief. "I'm glad you get it."
           "I'm just not sure what I can do to help."
           "Just being here is good enough, for now. Just wait. Rei will come around."
           I nodded wearily and decided that sitting down would be helpful after all. Kyn gave a squeal of
protest as I evicted her from her whole-couch sprawl.
           "So what do you guys do? Find Sa'an patrols and pick them off?"
           "Not anymore. She's right about one thing, Ami -- their level of coordination is unreal. I thought
they were robots for a while, until Rei peeled the armor off of a few."
           "Might as well be machines. Sa'an troopers are just normal people with their minds wiped out."
           "I'm not sure. They're too smart for that. They don't seem to have commanders, or officers, unless
they stay safe up on the starships. But I've seen them pull tricks that had to have been invented on the spot.
Mindless drones couldn't do that."
         "Probably remote controlled."
         "I guess…" The cat sounded doubtful. I changed the subject.
         "So what happened? Why not anymore?"
         "We were working out of the shrine for a while. Rei, Minako, Shard, Haruka, and Michiru.
Enough to pick off the little patrols, if they were alone, but it was always hard getting out again. We
messed up, and they finally tracked us back to base. They sent in two squads of troopers to keep us busy,
then rushed the buildings with everything they had. Makoto was leading them -- that was scary. And there
were four of them in some kind of different armor, dead-black instead of glass."
         I listened attentively. Kyn had found some small object on the floor and was playing with it.
         "The new troopers were really what did it. Rei and Minako hit them with just about everything
they had, and it didn't even scratch them. Haruka got Makoto into some kind of a duel, and lost. She ran
off, Michiru followed her, and the four of us had to retreat. Afterwards, Minako and Shard went to go get
help, and Rei stayed here with me…"
         "That doesn't make any sense. Why didn't you two go with them? What's here that's worth
protecting?"
         Luna sighed again. "Get the trapdoor in the corner, and I'll show you."

          The basement was much better appointed then the upstairs. A real bed took up the majority of the
space, piled high with blankets that almost concealed the form lying in the center. Extra food, water, and
ammunition filled the rest of the room, so I had to pick my way past crates and boxes.
          Luna jumped from my shoulder onto the bed and padded over to the stack of pillows. Setsuna's
long black hair was tucked neatly to one side, and she was as motionless as a corpse. Her face still had
color, though, and her eyes blinked every so often, reflexively. She stared upwards, past the ceiling, into
some place I couldn't follow.
          Her lips were parted, just a little, and as I watched I could see that she was speaking very slowly.
Luna looked at me with a pained expression.
          "How long has she been like this?"
          "Ever since the first day they arrived. Haruka said she just screamed and hit the floor, and she
hasn't woken up since." She rubbed her head against Setsuna's chin, sadly. "If you can call this sleep."
          "What's she saying?"
          "We don't know. Either gibberish, or something too faint to make out."
          I sat down on the side of the bed and put my hand on her forehead. Pluto's skin was cold, and a bit
clammy.
          "I'm going to have a look at her."
          "Haven't you--"
          "A real look. Give me a second."
          I closed my eyes and dove into the tangled skeins of the world of magic. Looking into a human
being is one of the hardest things there is, since intelligent creatures are the most complex objects in the
magical plane. Looking at Setsuna was disturbingly easy. In the middle of her body, where she should
have been, there was a gap.
          No -- not quite a gap. Threads trailed from the edges, leading down into the underlayer of reality.
I followed them with a feeling of déjà vu, retracing the path Eridu had led me on what seemed like a
lifetime ago. This was harder than that had been, without the powerful, constant pulse of the guardian
stream. I managed it, though, and the threads went deeper than I could have imagined, deeper than I'd
thought anyone could go, down to the very bedrock of the universe.
          Universes, I've often thought, are like computers. The flesh-and-blood level on which we interact
with the world is the top of an extended pile of metaphors, each one using the last to forge something ever
more complex and interesting. I'd followed Setsuna's trail down to the bottom of the protocol stack, where
the basic rules that keep the world running are kept. The threads down there, to hold on to an admittedly
meaningless metaphor, were as thick around as a tree trunk, impossible for someone like me to even touch.
And a good thing, too, or else one misstep down at the bottom could have brought the whole world to a
crashing halt.
          I pulled up short when I realized that something was horribly, horribly wrong.
          There was a hole, a place that hurt my eyes to even look at. The big threads dove into the center
of it and just vanished, and the little piece of Pluto that I'd been following did likewise. Beyond it there
was nothing, not the complex mesh that underlies even empty space but nothing, a void so essential and
complete it made vacuum look crowded. I pulled up on the brink, memorizing the configuration of the
giant underlayer threads, and then fled as fast as I could. Even well back I could feel the pull of the vortex,
a gentle but awful suction.
         My eyes, back in real life, opened like a shot. I felt myself gasping for breath, as though I'd been
underwater.
         "Ami? What's wrong?"
         I searched my vocabulary for an obscenity vile enough to express myself and came up with a
blank.
         "Oh, fuck."

           "Ami? Are you okay?"
           I blinked and realized I'd dropped to my knees beside the bed. The cat was looking at me
worriedly. I waved my hand blindly.
           "I'm fine. Just a little…" The world swam, spun, and finally settled down. "Give me a second."
           "What'd you do?"
           "I found out what's wrong with Setsuna." There was no disguising the grim edge to my voice.
Luna's ears flattened.
           "What happened?"
           "I'm not sure exactly, but I can give you a guess."
           She nodded, and I took a deep breath and continued.
           "Pluto was the guardian of Time. I'm not sure if you know this, but time travel in general is so
dangerous that most people consider it downright impossible."
           "Setsuna seemed to manage pretty easily."
           "I think it's because she was a guardian, a Senshi. We're connected to the"--I searched for a word-
-"to the infrastructure of the universe in a way that no one else can match. So Pluto could travel back and
forth through time, and more importantly could obtain information from the future."
           "I think I follow you, so far."
           "Okay. Do you know anything about fate?"
           "Not really."
           "The lines of fate are another way reality protects itself. There's been a lot of theorizing on the
topic"--I saw Luna wince, in preparation for a long bout of theory, and hurriedly curtailed my lecture--"but
what it basically boils down to is that the world extracts a price from anything powerful enough to seriously
alter itself. There's always something, some ancient spell that stops the demons, some hidden weakness in
the battle fortress. The universe creates them as a countermeasure."
           "So if some ancient demon race invades the universe, a spell suddenly appears to stop them?"
           "Sort of. It has suddenly been there for thousands of years. Retroactive continuity."
           The cat sighed. "I hate time travel."
           "Just bear with me, we're almost there. The point is that this effect is what has stopped anyone
from setting up an interdimensional empire. It just can't be done. If you visit certain realities, there are
beings that we would consider gods, and within their own domains they're basically omnipotent. But they
can't get out and conquer the rest of the multiverse because of the lines of fate."
           "What does that have to do with Setsuna?"
           "I think her time travel works by following the lines of fate. Time travel is hard because the
universe resists -- it doesn't want to be changed. But if you're perfectly aligned with fate, like we are, it
becomes easier."
           "Okay, but--"
           "Here's the problem." I held up one finger. "Something has gone wrong."
           "Wrong? Where?"
           "With the lines of fate. Something's broken. That's how the Sa'an managed to come here. And
Pluto tried to follow the lines into the future, to find out what was going on, and she just kind of…"
           "Kind of what?"
           "Fell off, I guess. There's a hole, a vortex."
           "So what can we do about it?"
           I could hear the desperation in her voice, but I had to shake my head. "I don't think we can do
anything. The universe has gone wrong, somehow. How are we supposed to fix that?"
           "Could you pull her back?"
           Another shake. Luna slumped. "I'm sorry. If I even get close to that thing…" I shivered.
           We sat in silence for a moment, broken only by Setsuna's inaudible mutterings. When Zel finally
cut in, I nearly jumped.
           "Ami?" He sounded hesitant. I'd almost forgotten he was there -- Zel has none of the human need
to make conversation, so he simply listens when he isn't required. Luna started and looked around wildly.
           "Who was that?"
           I tapped the silver circlet. "My computer. His name is Zel. Zel, Luna."
           "Pleased to meet you, Luna, but I'm think pleasantries will have to wait. Ami, the sensors on this
thing are garbage, but I think we've got company coming."
           "What?"
           "CG, shuttle-sized. At least four of them, plus a bunch of little ones I can't resolve. ETA maybe
five minutes at this speed."
           "Sa'an!" Luna sprang to her feet and out the steps leading to the trapdoor. "I've got to go find Rei
-- we have to get out of here."
           "I'll stay here with Pluto until you guys get back."
           Luna looked agonized. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"
           "Absolutely." I hoped.
Chapter Sixteen
       Tsunami

          The second mission wasn't nearly as bad as the first. A gang of monsters -- honest to god
monsters, with claws and teeth and big buggy eyes -- was holed up in the ruins of a subway station.
Makoto and I took the charge-in-the-front door approach again, and much to my surprise we cut them to
ribbons. It was almost artistic. When I was transformed, they moved in slow motion, each swipe of a
massive claw taking a relative eternity to crawl through the air. Stepping past them was the easiest thing in
the world, and then it was just a matter of carving them up until they couldn't hurt anyone anymore. My
swords, as far as I could tell, could cut through anything and not even blink. I returned to the ship feeling
like I'd had a good workout, tired and achy but in a more pleasant way.
          Kyoko had disappeared, which worried me for a moment. I opened up to the Grid, with which I
was becoming more and more familiar.
          [Query?]
          [Where's Kyoko?]
          [Warning: Use of natural-language 'name' qualifiers is not recommended. Question potentially
ambiguous but answerable in context. Kyoko is in the library.]
          A map popped into my head with that last statement, a path that wound its way through the lower
levels of the huge starship. I shrugged and set out -- it wasn't like I had anything else to do.
          The library was what I had been sort of expecting. There were no actual books, just a series of
huge black cubes sticking out from the walls, cold enough that their sides were rimed with frost. Every few
feet there was a chair, and a section of the wall made in glass instead of metal. I shivered in the chill from
the big storage units, or whatever they were, and my footsteps echoed loud on the metal floor.
          "Hello?" Kyoko's head poked out from behind on of the machines, her breath instantly misting.
"Is someone there?"
          "It's me!" I moved quickly to join her. Kyoko had pulled up one of the chairs and was watching a
video on the big screen. I was instantly entranced -- two starships were fighting, a big black Sa'an cruiser
like the one we were on and a smaller, sleeker ship in the shape of a cylinder. Massive beams flickered
back and forth between the two, splashing off the invisible shields at their sides, and the space between was
lit up with smaller blasts and explosions.
          The battle ended without much warning. A pair of explosions went off on the skin of the smaller
ship, and even as their weapons stabbed out at the cruiser the Sa'an beams fired. This time shields were not
enough, and the long lances of energy carved the smaller ship apart. A moment later, the space around it
rippled weirdly, shifted, and then it just came apart in three misshapen chunks. The video halted on the last
frame.
          "What just happened?" Kyoko seemed to be caught up in the video, so I figured she might know.
          "Contragravity core folded." I raised an eyebrow, and she shrugged. "It happens at the end of all
these battles, so I asked for an explanation. The contragravity core that powers a starship is so heavy it
can't exist in our universe normally. So if the containment fails"--she closed one hand into a fist--"it just
goes. Zapped out of existence."
          "I'm glad to see you've been using your time constructively."
          She smiled. Something about her insufferably cheerful expression made me feel better. She was
also, I noticed, dressed for the occasion: a coat of heavy black fabric covered the thin Sa'an uniform. I was
starting to feel the cold myself.
          "I'm just…bored, I guess. I try to take the stuff in these libraries with a grain of salt, but the Sa'an
seem remarkably honest about what they do. There's so much stuff out there, Tsunami. You wouldn't
believe half of it unless I showed you! Starships and aliens and wizards and gods..."
          I shook my head. "We'll make a space traveler of you yet."
          "I would have gone before if I'd realized all that smoke and shaking weren't necessary.
Contragravity is much more civilized." She was joking; as I laughed I found my teeth were chattering.
Kyoko noticed too, and jumped up from her chair.
          "Tsunami! You must be freezing!"
          I shrugged, still chattering. "J…just a bit. I guess."
          She shrugged off the long coat -- it was cut like a trench-coat, I saw as she stood -- and offered it
to me. I was too cold to be polite, so I pulled it on and we headed for the door.
          "So I assume your mission went well?"
          I rolled my eyes. "Glad to see you're worried about me."
          "You're alive, aren't you?"
          I held my finger to my neck, and she chuckled.
          "Fine, fine. I was worried about you. Are you okay?"
          "Yeah."
          She peered at me closer. "Tsunami? Are you really okay?"
          "Really!" She kept peering closer and I pushed her away with one hand, laughing. "Kyoko!"
          "Sorry."
          We'd made our way back to our chambers, where the door opened as we approached. I worked
first one shoulder, then the other, trying to get the kinks out.
          "Now what are you going to do?"
          I shrugged. "Sleep, I think. And then…" I thought back. What had I been doing for the past
couple of days: sleeping, fighting, with the occasional shower or meal shoved in between. "Dunno. I'll
find something."
          "Okay."
          I flopped down on the bed, and she sat down next to me. I was still thinking -- what did I really
want to do? The Sa'an cruiser wasn't particularly long on casual amusements. And frankly, reading or
watching videos didn't seem particularly appealing. I closed my eyes for a long second.
          What I really wanted to do was be alone on a desert island, maybe with Kyoko, where I could
swim and lie in the sun and eat expensive foods and relax for days. But even that attractive vision paled. I
tried adding a couple of well-muscled young men who walked around the island wearing not very much
and offered massages on command, but that didn't really help either.
          The real answer was there, of course. I just didn't want to say it.
          I wanted to transform again. I wasn't really alive unless I was suffused with power, moving like a
panther, quick and silent and deadly. I felt crippled, weak, stupid without it. Better than any drug, because
what it lent you was real.
          It took an effort to push that thought away. If I started thinking that way, I knew, I'd end up as Mr.
Hyde's killing machine. I wasn't in this for the long term, and I didn't want this power.
          How long, then? I wasn't sure if it was actually him, or just mocking echoes in my own head.
How long are you going to do it?
          As long as it takes.
          I opened my eyes to find myself looking up at Kyoko, her gentle face framed by the green hair
hanging down around it like curtains.
          I smiled. "What're you doing?"
          "Nothing really. Just thinking, and wondering if you were going to pass out fully clothed in the
middle of the bed."
          "Point." I thought about getting up but decided against it. Lying there was just so much more
comfortable. Kyoko's eyes flickered for a second, and she looked almost…what? Sad, maybe, or hesitant.
Her stare bored into me.
          "Is something wrong, Kyoko?"
          She shook her head. "No…not really."
          "So why are you staring at me? Admiring my lithe, sexy body?"
          Kyoko turned a furious red and whapped me in the face with a pillow when I couldn't stop
laughing. I fended her off and ended up rolling onto the floor with a thump that coincided with the opening
of the door.
          "Having fun, I see?" Kaia swept into the room with only the ghost of a smile. "You'd better get
up, Tsunami."
          I clambered to my feet, a bit wearily. Kyoko had subsided into wary silence, the edges of her
blush still visible. That made me grin a little.
          "What's up, Kaia?"
          "I'm here to introduce you." She gestured at the doorway, and a man entered, trailed by a pair of
Legionnaires. He wore the same unrelieved black uniform as Kaia, but with a strange swirl of silver at the
shoulders. Discounting the guards, he was taller than anyone else in the room and had the bearing to
match; his expressionless face gave the distinct impression that he was unsatisfied with what he was seeing.
Wings of grey in his hair completed the august demeanor. I shot a glance at Kyoko, who looked tight-
lipped and a little scared. Kaia continued.
         "Tsunami, this is Ashghar. Captain of the Deathgrip and Commander of the Sixth Fleet.
Commander, this is Tsunami."
         "We finally meet in person." Ashghar fixed his penetrating stare on me and walked forward,
slowly. "I'm sorry I haven't come down here before, but my position is a busy one."
         I wasn't sure what attitude to take with this man. From Kaia's attitude, I gathered that he was the
boss, the head honcho of the entire fleet. Kaia was Vice-Commander -- I wondered briefly why the
second-in-command of the fleet was always coming in person to talk to me -- and she never seemed to
mind a slightly irreverent attitude, but I didn't think I wanted to risk it with Ashghar. He didn't look like he
had a sense of humor.
         In the end, I figured there was nothing to be lost by being deferent. "It's an honor, Commander."
         That seemed to please him, though the smile that flickered across his face had very little to do with
humor. He waited in silence a moment longer, then waved a hand at the room around us.
         "You're comfortable here? You have everything you need?"
         I nodded. "You've treated us much better than I expected."
         "I'm sorry about the unpleasant beginning of things." He shrugged. "Sometimes unpleasantness is
necessary. From now on, I promise you -- nothing of that sort."
         His eyes said something different. That was a threat -- remember what we can do to you if you
misbehave. Or maybe I was reading too much into it, nervous as I was.
         "Thank you, sir."
         "And the missions themselves? How do you find them?"
         I paused a moment. Kyoko had never asked what actually happened on my missions, and I didn't
volunteer the information. I think we both understood she'd rather remain in ignorance.
         "No problems, Commander. Everything has gone smoothly."
         There was a trace of surprise in his expression -- had he been expecting something different? If so,
he recovered near-instantly.
         "Good, good. I am sorry to do this to you, but we need you to go out again."
         I forgot my manners for a second. "What, now?"
         "Yes. It is a bit of an emergency, or more accurately an opportunity to catch our troubles all in the
same place."
         "I--"
         Ashghar stepped closer. "This is important, you understand? Complete this mission successfully,
and you can rest as long as you like."
         Kill him! Hyde's scream echoed suddenly in my mind. He's one step away -- just transform and
kill him! You can take out two guards, so you'll cut Kaia down too. With their command structure gone the
Sa'an will be in chaos. This is our best chance!
         I blinked, trying not to show the inner struggle in my face. Hyde was trying to force his way into
my mind, cause the transformation himself.
         It can't work! He wouldn't be stupid enough to come here if I could--
         They think they have control, remember? They think they can cut off your power with a touch.
There's no way they'll be able to respond in time once they figure out it doesn't work!
         He was right. I hesitated.
         I'll die. And Kyoko--
         You'll save the world. Isn't it worth sacrificing yourself for that? To go down fighting, and know
that you've helped countless others?
         He was wheedling, pleading -- I knew he didn't believe a word of it. Hyde didn't want to save the
world, but he thought it might affect me. He just wanted a pawn he could expend in his vendetta against
the Sa'an.
         What if he was right, though? The top two officers of the fleet, within my grasp. Could I let this
slip by?
         Do it, Tsunami!
         No.
         I knew, then, that his choosing me had been a mistake. I was selfish -- it felt good to admit it,
curiously freeing. All my decisions became simple with that single statement. I just had to do whatever I
needed to do to keep us alive.
         'Us'? How selfish is that?
          I pushed him aside, ruthlessly. Ashghar was staring at me curiously, though the mental battle
hadn't lasted more than a few seconds. I shook my head.
          "Sorry. I'm still a bit worn out. But if it's an emergency, then I don't have much choice, do I?" I
gave a brave smile, for his benefit. "When do we leave?"
          "Immediately. You can rest a bit on the shuttle." He stepped aside. "Vice-Commander, escort
Tsunami to the docking bay."

          I started getting nervous as soon as we left the ship, when I saw what company I was in.
          Makoto was there, of course, studiously ignoring me this time for some reason. But the dropship
was crowded with soldiers. The Legions operated in squads of six, and then in platoons of six squads -- I
did a quick head count and guessed there were two platoons here, seventy-two soldiers. Most tellingly, six
Adepts in their dull black armor sat against one wall, shotgun-like weapons slung over their shoulders.
          When we'd gone up against the warlocks, they'd sent one Adept. The big monsters hadn't even
required one. What was left on the Earth that would require six of them?
          It was almost a relief when the Grid dropped the briefing for the mission into my mind. I
extracted it as a stream of words, which I was more comfortable with then the raw data.
          [Note the target locations marked on the map. These targets were discovered ten minutes ago by
thaumic sensors onboard the Deathgrip. Expect resistance, both normal and paranormal. Objective of the
first priority is the elimination of all paranormal targets. Objective of the second priority is capture of
paranormal targets. Objective of the third priority is elimination of all other resistance.]
          Makoto smiled at me. "Search and destroy, it looks like. Are you ready, Tsunami?"
          I shrugged. "A bit tired, but what can you do?"
          Jupiter snorted. I watched her for a moment longer, and noticed her hands were shaking as we
began our descent. Her breathing was erratic, too. I wondered what was going wrong with her.
          [Landing in fifteen seconds.]
          I took a deep breath and started my transformation.
Chapter Seventeen
       Hotaru

           I awoke from a vaguely pleasant dream about a kitten, playing in a field of emerald green, to find
Dee practically lying on top of me. She was snoring, long and loud, and smelled none too good, but I
couldn't help smiling at her innocent expression. I tried to roll out from under her gently, but her eyes
opened as soon as I moved, ever-present smile at the ready.
           "Morning, Hotaru!"
           I yawned. "G'morning, Dee."
           "What are we going to do today?"
           I shrugged. Frankly, I'd been wondering that myself. "Any suggestions?"
           Dee tried to shrug, which wasn't easy because I'd tied her arms behind her back. "You could fuck
me if you want. Or if you give me a knife, I could--"
           I held up one hand, reminded of why I'd decided not to go to take my nap without making sure my
companion didn't decide I would make a good sacrifice.
           "Let's skip that, shall we? Now hold still." I cut her bonds, which consisted of some old wire I'd
found, with the edge of the Silence Glaive. I hadn't dared to let the transformation lapse since we'd fled
from Haruka's band of religious fanatics -- I wasn't sure how persistent their pursuit would be. When I
simply couldn't walk anymore, I'd tied Dee in the corner and curled up in the hollow left by a fallen beam.
Now the sun was much lower in the sky, casting long shadows through the devastated city.
           Dee popped up like a jack-in-the-box, stretching her arms twisting from side to side. I could see
bits of red where the wires had rubbed her flesh raw, and felt a sudden bout of contrition.
           "Are you okay? I'm sorry if I hurt you."
           She shook her head. "I'm fine, don't worry. Did you decide where we're going?"
           The girl seemed to take her change of circumstances in stride, poking around our makeshift
campsite and sorting through the bits of broken junk and smashed concrete. I used the time to climb on top
of the beam to see what could be seen. On the ground there wasn't much -- we were on a destroyed side
street in a maze of destroyed side streets, a few blocks away from the remains of a giant apartment complex
that I guessed was still inhabited, judging from the trails of smoke I took to be campfires. Back the way we
came, I could see the mostly-intact building that Haruka had holed up in and not much else. Night was
falling quickly -- the sky was already fading to black, and the lights on Tokyo Tower had flickered on.
Above the tower, visible only as an inkblot on the night sky and by the faint purple glow from the ring that
supported it, was the Sa'an cruiser. And in front of the cruiser--
           A flash of light from below, like a tiny mirror catching the dying sun, caught my eye. I bent over
a little bit, leaning closer, and that probably saved my life. By the time I saw the flash and heard the rifle's
crack, the bullet had already zipped a few inches over my head. I reacted by throwing myself flat, not a
tremendously good idea while precariously balanced on a steel beam, but my out thrown arm grabbed the
side and I twisted in mid-air to land on my feet. Dee looked up in surprise.
           "Did you jump off? That looks fun!"
           "Not exactly." I rubbed the side of my hand where I'd caught the beam, which ached abominably
but didn't feel broken. "Time to go, Dee."
           "Go? Where are we--"
           "Away. The key word is away. Someone's shooting at us. Long range, but--"
           I was cut off by a tremendous roar, the deep-throated growl of some kind of machine gun. They
were too far away and we had too much cover, but they could always get lucky -- bullets pinged and
clanged off the beam and raised pocks on the ground a few feet away. I gathered Dee in one arm and
started to run, heading generally in the direction of the encampment I'd seen earlier.
           Bullets or no bullets, I was finally feeling good. Odd that I react that way to someone trying to
kill me, but it does keep the mind from distractions. It wasn't strictly a desire for battle, or at least I told
myself it wasn't and tried to believe it, but a need for action after its enforced absence. No more sitting
around in a dungeon feeling sorry for myself, no more moral dilemmas. Just the chase.
           That brief, panic-induced euphoria lasted approximately two seconds, until I heard the echoing
shout from behind us.
           "World…Shaking!"
           "It's Her!" Dee turned around, delighted, and I hit her at chest height and bore both of us to the
ground. The energy ball hit the beam where we'd been sleeping and blasted it into flying bits of molten
metal, spraying up the walls and blowing a wall of smoke past us. We hit the ground and rolled together,
finally coming up against a wall of one of the adjacent buildings. I opened my eyes and winced, coughing
through all the crap in the air.
          "You okay, Dee?"
          Lying underneath, she smiled. "You do like me after all, Hotaru!"
          I gritted my teeth with a shudder. "Please stop doing that."
          "Aww…"
          "Come on."
          We scrambled to out feet and kept running until the alley joined up with another main road. We
found ourselves on a pretty open street, dotted here and there with the burned out hulks of cars, leading to
the ruined apartment block. I headed for the nearest broken vehicle and pulled Dee behind it just in time,
feeling it jolt as the bullets impacted on its framework.
          "Dee!" I hissed at her, urgently -- it was faintly annoying that she was still smiling. It sort of
made a mockery of the whole affair. "Dee, your crazy God and her people are trying to kill us!"
          "Isn't it great?" She glommed on to my shoulder. "Getting shot would be fun. Would your rather
be shot in the head or the stomach? I think I'd rather--"
          "Dee, please pay attention."
          "Okay!"
          "Can you use any kind of a weapon?"
          "Nope!" She smiled cheerfully. "My big brothers always said I'd never need one."
          I rolled my eyes. "On the count of three, break for that car over there." I pointed to a once-green
hulk a bit further down the road. "Got it?"
          "What about you?"
          "I'm going the other way. It should distract them."
          "Okay." She thought about it for a moment. "Don't get killed without me, though!"
          "I'll do my best. Three, Two--"
          "World SHAKING!"
          "One!"
          We broke from opposite sides of the car. I stayed low to the ground and tried not to contemplate
the insanity of what I was about to do. I felt more than heard Uranus' energy blast hit the car and blast it to
bits, one of the red-hot fragments glancing painfully off my shoulder. The bullets slackened as the dust-
cloud spread out a little bit, and I covered half the distance back to the alley we'd come from before it
cleared. Once I broke out of the cloud I dove into a roll, and only a couple of them got shots off over my
head. Then I was in among the small crowd of tribespeople who'd clustered in what cover they could find,
a motley assortment of fifteen to twenty men and women, dressed mostly in rags and carrying a wide
variety of firearms. I didn't see Haruka, which was all to the good.
          "It's her!" Someone screamed, but in one confused moment no one dared to fire for fear of hitting
their comrades. I came out of the roll in a crouch, hand held high, and the Silence Glaive dropped into it
out of nothingness. I whipped it around, grabbed the other end, and got to my feet.
          There was a faint moment of stretched time. Dimly, I saw Jahara after a fight with a gang of
bandits on some nameless asteroid. What was left of the men was smeared across the walls, and his hands
dripped red. He looked at me, and he smiled.
          I realized he'd been right. He was always right, about everything.
          Avatars of destruction.
          I whipped the Glaive around in a tight circle, the blade cutting through the two closest men
effortlessly. Another reeled backwards, and I pulled the circle up to chop his weapon in half along with his
arm. Then I had to fade to the side as a woman across the way managed to draw a bead on me, her shot
echoing past my head as I thrust the Glaive through her chest so hard it lifted her off the ground. When I
pulled the thrust up short, she flew off the end and crashed into the opposite wall with a sick crunch and a
spray of blood.
          Then it was time to get out of the way. I headed for the inside of a chunk of uprooted concrete,
heard a few bullets whine past, and made it. Whatever other shots were fired I lost in the sudden bass hum
that blanketed the whole scene. Confused voices filtered in from outside my makeshift barricade.
          "What the hell--"
          "Where are they going?"
          "Jen's dead, man, she chopped her in half!"
           "Almighty one, what now? We have her cornered, but the ships--"
           Then Haruka's voice, deadly quiet. "The ships aren't here for us. You four go find Dee, and I'll
get the little one out of there."
           The hollow I was hiding in was only a couple of feet deep, not long enough to swing the blade. I
started to line it up for a thrust before I realized what I was doing.
           Saturn's influence is subtle but inexorable. It's not a like a switch anymore, where she takes over
my mind. But when I fight, it creeps back in -- a certain attitude, a certain way of thinking. It comes with
the speed, and the strength. If I give in to it long enough, everyone else in a fight ends up dead.
           I couldn't kill Haruka. Crazy or not. No matter what she'd done to Dee, or to Michiru.
           "Hotaru?" Her voice was calmer now, but I was sure it was an act. Her footsteps approached,
softly. "We're not going to hurt you."
           "What about Dee?" I was stuck -- I couldn't leave, or she'd probably kill me, but staying put was
just as bad. World Shaking would melt concrete like ice. "You and your friends hurt her pretty badly."
           "She seems to enjoy it."
           "She's nuts." I turned around, not easy wedged in with the Glaive, so that I could jump out if I
needed to. Since Haruka's men were almost certainly covering the exit, that would mean not-so-certain
death. "Just because she doesn't know any better doesn't mean you get to kill her."
           "And who set you up as the judge of sanity?" Uranus laughed. "Dee understands more than you.
It's all for the greater glory."
           "Are you going to come over here and get me, Haruka? Or just stand there chuckling?"
           I heard an intake of breath -- using Haruka's name was a bad thing to these people, I remembered.
I wondered if she'd flip out.
           "I'll come." Her footsteps approached. "You're welcome to kill me, if you think you can."
           Shit. And that did it. I couldn't just cut her down.
           Haruka's face appeared in the gap between the concrete and the wall. She looked at me as one
might regard a disobedient puppy. "Hotaru?"
           I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came for a moment. And then--
           Haruka jerked sideways as though she'd been slapped, and from outside I heard screams and a few
gunshots. Over all of that, though, came the muffled, rumbling cough of laser rifles.

          "Haruka!"
          I popped out of my little hiding place to find Uranus already on her feet, clutching what looked
like a long, bleeding slice on her side. She was still in uniform, the same uniform I remembered her in
what now seemed like another lifetime, and her attention was not directed at me.
          The Sa'an shuttle we'd heard going overhead had stopped a few feet over the pavement, out in the
middle of the road. Legionnaires were dropping before it had even stopped moving, spreading out in
groups of three to each wrecked vehicle, checking it, and taking up positions in cover. One squad had
immediately dropped flat to the pavement and started shooting, their lasers blowing away the group that
Haruka had sent to find Dee in a spray of superheated blood. As the rest of them opened fire, what was left
of Uranus' little group was either cut down or pinned behind cover, and the Imperials seemed content to
leave them there. More troops were still pouring out of the dropship.
          "Haruka, we have to get out of here!" My mind whirled -- I had to find Dee, but there was
suddenly a wreck-studded street and a dozen squads of Imperial troopers between us. I couldn't see where
the girl had gone, but she'd had time to get quite a ways. She could be hiding behind some pile of junk, or
still running beyond where I could see.
          "They'll pay for this." Uranus' face twisted in rage, and I could feel the heat as she gathered her
power. "World SHAKING!"
          The ball of energy struck the nearest wreck, incinerating the car and the soldiers behind it in a
cloud of billowing dust. Laser fire splashed around us, blasting rock and metal apart in tiny explosions. I
started sprinting forward -- Haruka could take care of herself in fight, Dee couldn't, so I knew where my
priorities had to be. The dust gave me cover back out onto the street until I ran right into a trio of black-
armored Sa'an. I barely hesitated, and the Glaive carved them apart. Even as they fell, though, their
comrades back in the dust cloud were shooting, close enough to force me duck and roll.
          My estimation of the Sa'an Legionnaires had gone a notch. However they were coordinating, their
speed was unearthly. Still, they were handicapped by bad terrain and distractions -- I heard another
billowing roar behind me, evidence that Haruka was still fighting. I made it to the cover of another car and
looked around. It was hard to see through all the smoke, but further on, in the general direction I'd been
running, I caught a glimpse of two huddled figures. I counted to five under my breath, then sprinted out
from behind the car towards them, a trail of flickering laser-light in my wake.
          By the time I made it there, they'd also put their backs against a car. The light was going, but I
recognized one soot-covered little girl as Dee, who looked a little stunned. It was the other one who
noticed me -- she was busy muttering to herself.
          "God. Go out for water and it turns into a damn warzone…can you two walk?"
          The voice I recognized. I was unable to speak for a moment, so I nodded dumbly.
          "Okay. Get off the road and into one of those buildings. Climb through a window if you have to.
You"--she pointed at me--"make sure she gets out okay. There was a second drop back at the building, so
don't head that way -- get into an alley and get out of here. Got it?"
          Finally I found my tongue. "Rei?"
          "What?" She turned from peeking out from behind the car and took a long look at me. "How do
you know…" Rei trailed off, jaw dropping. "H…Hotaru?"
          I nodded, and to my surprise she leaned back against the car, laughing.
          "That's really over the top, you know. Too much. I…" She put her hand over her eyes and shook
her head. "Nice to see you again. Like my welcome-home party?"
          I couldn't help smiling. "I thought you were dead."
          "So did a lot of other people. Except, apparently, them." She hooked a thumb at the hovering
dropship.
          "They came here to get you?"
          "That seems to be the general idea. They've been after me for a while."
          Dee seemed to shake herself out of immobility. "Hotaru, do you know this person?"
          Rei looked at me curiously. "The little one belongs to you, then?"
          "Yup!" I tried to answer, but Dee cut me off. "I'm her sex toy!"
          I rolled my eyes at Rei's glare. "Don't ask."
          It felt so good to see her again. I could feel myself falling back into the old patterns almost
immediately. Rei looked a little odd, certainly a bit worse for wear, but that was to be expected. After
what Michiru had told me--
          I decided I should mention that. "I heard you were dead."
          "Not yet." Rei risked another look around the side, soliciting yet another volley of rumbling laser
fire. Superheated air from the blasts was washing over us, making my hair frizzle. "We've got three of
those weird-looking guys coming at us. Any ideas?"
          "I've only been back a few days." I glanced off to the sides -- there were enough wrecks that our
field of view was considerably obstructed. "I bet they're trying to get around behind us, too."
          She nodded grimly. "Someone else is fighting them, though damned if I know who."
          "It's Haruka."
          "Haruka is here?"
          I nodded, and she shook her head in amazement. "She's going to have to take care of herself. No
way we can get to her."
          "She seems to be doing okay so far."
          "Right." She stopped a moment, regaining halted trains of thought. "We need to punch out the
back of this pincer, get back to the apartments, and pick up the others."
          "Others?"
          "Luna, Pluto, and Ami." She spat the last name.
          "Ami's back? Since when?"
          "No idea. She turned up yesterday." Rei considered a moment, and then sighed. "We can't just
leave her. You ready?"
          "Yup." I hadn't felt this ready in days. Having company really did wonders in the middle of a
battle, even if Rei did tend to treat me as a junior partner.
          "Will the kid do what she's told?"
          I caught Dee's eye and nodded, slowly. "Ye--Yes. Most of the time, anyway."
          "Okay. I'll draw some fire, you run."
          "Rei--"
          "Don't worry, I'll be right behind you. Take out any of them that are blocking the way, and take
the kid with you."
          "Got it." I smiled. "It's good to see you again."
          That gave her pause, for some reason. There was only a hint of warmth in her grin. "You, too.
Now go!"
          I grabbed Dee by one hand and ran straight back from the car. Rei grabbed the doorframe by one
hand and vaulted onto the top, already sighting down her arm.
          "Mars Plasma LANCE!"
          I heard the sizzling roar as pavement exploded, but didn't get to see the result. As I'd predicted,
some of the Legionnaires had been leap-frogging their way from wreck to wreck to try and get behind us.
They weren't expecting us to come running their way so quickly, though, so their perimeter wasn't quite set
up. I jerked Dee to the side roughly enough to hear her yelp as laser beams coughed and scored the
pavement into molten mush. Then I had to let go of her to hold the Glaive in both hands while I charged.
The first trooper was standing on top of the car they were using as cover, so I slashed the supports from the
roof and caught him on the back-swing as he tumbled forward, black armor no match for ultra-sharp steel.
          The two behind the car reacted instantly, one taking a long step back and leveling his rifle while
the other -- a woman, I guess, from her size and the cut of the armor -- rushed me. I was still out of
position from the first strike, so all I could do was hit her in the stomach with the butt. This did not have
much effect, and she slipped past me to grab my arms from behind. I wondered briefly what the point was
-- I could wriggle free in a second, and cut her down, when--
          I ducked just in time, felt the hot wash of air on my back. They were working together, the
woman holding me still so her partner could actually hit me, apparently without considering the fact that if
he managed my body would hardly slow the laser down. He shifted aim, and she pulled in response with
perfect coordination. I let my body sag, becoming a dead weight and forcing her to pull harder, and tried to
judge the right moment.
         "Hotaru!" Dee's shout covered the coughing growl of the laser; I'd started moving a second earlier,
pushing my feet off the car to swing me around just as he fired. The beam caught the woman in the small
of her back and sent us both sprawling, but she'd gotten most of the kick from it and I managed to push her
off and reclaim my weapon before the other lined up a shot. Pavement exploded where I'd been lying, but
far too late. I charged across the gap and took him down.
          The woman was still trying to rise, even though she'd taken a laser blast at point-blank range; the
back of her armor was glowing cherry red. I watched her a moment, without moving, as one hand crawled
towards her rifle and tried to lift it towards me. Finally I sighed, rolled her onto her back with my foot, and
punched through her chest-plate with a two-handed thrust that drove the Glaive into the asphalt below. The
Legionnaire jerked once, then lay still.
          I didn't hear Dee approach, didn't notice her until she slipped her hand into mine. The battle
continued behind us; I looked down to meet her gaze.
          "Are you okay, Hotaru?"
          "Fine." I glanced at the dead troopers and wondered if I'd ever get used to doing this. "Let's go."
          I rose to leave, shouldering the Glaive, and had barely taken a step before being driven to my
knees by a resonant voice in my head.
          There she is. Kill the traitor.

          It was a well-remembered voice. A little different, maybe, than the inner demon I'd battled for so
long, the thing I'd named Saturn. I thought I'd finally beaten it.
          Apparently I'd been wrong. I could feel him in my head, as strong as ever, though for some reason
distant, as though he were talking to someone else. I could hear the answers, but only as a nearly inaudible
buzz.
          It's her! Kill her!
          Me? I tried my best to think out loud. Who are you talking to?
          Hotaru. The voice turned its attention towards me. So you've come back, have you? What did
you expect?
          Expect from what? I thought you were me -- who are you?
          I am you, in a way. I am a personality construct built from you. Before you were…corrupted.
          Corrupted?
          You abandoned your post. You shirked your duty as a guardian.
          I didn't--
          You can't lie to me, Hotaru. And the penalty is death.
          A slim figure, about my height, stepped out from behind a pile of scrap metal. She wore a sailor
uniform, the same white with black trim I'd always considered my own, and had a pair of short swords on
her hips. Without the uniform, the girl looked ordinary enough -- a year or two older than me, maybe, with
dark hair shorter than mine and pretty, intelligent eyes. Someone I could have met at school, or on the
street.
          We stared at each other for a few seconds. When she spoke, she almost had to shout above the
noise.
          "So." She dropped her hands to her sword belt. "He says I have to kill you."
          "You don't have to listen to him!" I felt my chest constrict as I started to realize what was going
on. I'd failed -- skipped out on my duty, made peace with my dark side. So they'd found--
          "Your replacement. That's what I'm supposed to be, right?" She smiled dangerously.
          "Listen to me…" I trailed off, not knowing her name, but she supplied it.
          "Tsunami."
          "Tsunami! I know what it's like. But it's just a voice -- you don't have to do what he says. You
don't have to!"
          "I know." She shrugged. "But that's the least of my problems at the moment. You're going to
have to come with me. Sailor…" She stopped, cocked her head. "Which one are we, anyway?"
          "Saturn." I fought down a rising tide of panic. "What did they do to you?"
          "Not very much." She looked at me intently. "You're not going to come quietly, are you?"
          I shook my head. "I can't."
          "I know." I almost missed what she said next in the blasts from behind us. "Neither would I."
          There was a moment's pause. I hefted the Glaive, nervously. "So now what?"
          "I guess I have to force you to come." She drew her swords with a flourish that seemed almost
unconscious. "I don't want to hurt you."
          "So don't." She closed a little bit and we started to circle, cautiously. "Come with me. Whatever
they did to you--"
          "They didn't do anything to me."
          "So why help them! You're not supposed to be doing this -- can't you feel it?"
          I could. Whatever Tsunami was, she was a Sailor Senshi, and thought of hurting her made me feel
uncomfortable in odd ways. A defense, I supposed. Guardians of the same world were intended to work
together, not to fight one another.
          She shook her head. "I can't. You know I would if I could…"
          "Well then." I tightened my grip on the smooth wood. "Come on."
          Tsunami closed to just outside my range in slow, easy steps, and I tried to gauge her stance. She
held the swords lightly, and at this distance I could feel the power that ran through her, into them. I had no
doubt they were as sharp as the edge on the Silence Glaive. So I stood very still, and waited.
          We stared. Time blurred, and Tsunami moved.
          She was faster than I could have believed. Almost as fast as Jahara, when he sparred with me --
without those sessions, her first strike would have cut me in half. I spun the Glaive in a tight arc, catching
her swords on the haft and spinning them clear, then reversing into a cross slash which she easily avoided.
Tsunami danced backward, regaining her footing and looking at me with a new appreciation of what she
was dealing with.
          Before she could strike again, I went on the offensive, a simple thrust that the other girl easily
parried. It was something of a feint, however, and I twisted the haft along her parry and slipped past her,
smashing the butt end into her side in the process. Tsunami grunted and aimed a cut at my head that I had
to duck to avoid, and we both stepped back once again.
          She nodded, respectfully. "I'm impressed."
          I raised one eyebrow. "I'm impressed you can retain such a cool demeanor. I'm usually too
terrified."
          Tsunami smiled. "Oh, I'm scared shitless. I'm just a good actor." Then she lunged forward again,
blades flashing, and the voice echoed loud in my head.
          Now it ends, Hotaru. You're finished.
          What we'd been doing was nothing, play fighting, pretend. Her swords flashed so quickly they left
patterns of light behind in the air, and it was all I could do to parry and back away. There was the smell of
scorched metal, and the ever-present hum of tortured steel. I realized that she was faster than me, probably
stronger than me. Whatever power Saturn had lent me, his gift to her had been greater.
          But I was used to that. I'd trained against Jahara, who was so much stronger than me he made the
comparison ludicrous. And there were things you could do, techniques…
          I launched a sequence of attacks, quick jabs fading from one to the next as smoothly as I could
manage, using the greater reach of my weapon to keep her at bay. Tsunami backed up a little, content to
parry easily and wait for an opening, and I wove her blocks into a pattern, felt her fall into it.
          One opening, that was all it was going to buy me. I reversed the pattern, one more strike at the
head and then a sweep across the legs with the back end of the Glaive. The thick wood swept her ankles
out from underneath her and left her sprawling on the street, one sword clattering to the side, and I finished
the spin with the razor-point of the Glaive shining an inch from the soft skin of her throat.
          Tsunami closed her eyes. The voice was silent.
          I shook my head in disbelief. "You're ready to die?"
          For a moment she didn't answer; when she finally did, her voice was small. "No. I'm trying not to
think about it."
          "So what are you thinking about?"
          "Fluffy bunnies. Green fields." Her expression seemed sad. "Something my best friend said,
before I left."
          "Gods." The tip of the Glaive trembled. I tried to picture doing it, pushing the Glaive forward
another six inches and watching the thick red blood bloom around the edges. I thought about what I'd see
in her eyes. A whole complex life, wiped out by a twitch of my fingers. "Tsunami…"
          She swallowed hard. "Please. Just…"
          I shook my head and twitched the point of the Glaive away, resting it on the ground.
Chapter Eighteen
       Ami

           The Sa'an knew exactly where they were going, dropping in a dispersed pattern around Rei's house
from their shuttle and then slowly closing the net. I had about two minutes alone in the place, hoping that
they didn't think to look for cats sneaking away and searching through Rei's weapons collection for
something I could use.
           I'd had a brief inner struggle with myself, about whether or not I was allowed to slaughter the
Sa'an. A long time ago, just after I'd left Earth, I'd made it a rule never to kill another living, intelligent
creature unless it was absolutely my life or theirs. It was the way I'd always lived my life, of course, but
with the kind of power I found myself in possession of I thought it was important to make it explicit. And
over the years it had worked pretty well -- not perfectly, but you could count the exceptions on one hand.
           The Legionnaires, I decided, lost it on 'intelligent.' If what I'd heard about them could be believed,
they were essentially robots made of flesh -- killing them would be unpleasant, but whatever was human
about them had died when they were forced into the black armor. Thus reassured, I stacked Rei's small bag
of grenades on the table and started going through them. Kyn watched from one corner, and I could feel
her mounting desire.
           "Nya…" She rubbed her mouth with the back of one hand, which was a sign that she thought she
was being subtle. "Do you need all those grenades, Oneesama?"
           "Actually, Kyn, these are for you." I tossed her the bag, and she caught it excitedly. "Just be
careful what you blow up. You know how to use them?"
           "Hai!" She was practically bouncing up and down. I rolled my eyes -- giving a catgirl a bag of
high explosives probably wasn't the greatest idea in the world, but I needed a distraction. Kyn would be
okay -- somehow, she always was, and I'd stopped worrying about her.
           One minute left. I had a distraction, I could provide cover with fog, but I still needed a good way
to get Pluto out of the building. I thought through my options and decided on one with a grimace. It
wouldn't be fun, but…
           Thirty seconds. I muttered a few mystic words under my breath, ones that would supposedly
provide protection. It probably didn't work, but it made me feel a little bit better as I wove the fabric of
reality, thinning it at one particular point until I could see into the world I wanted. A familiar aura flashed,
and I reached through and yanked.
           The creature that popped through was a horror -- I had a moment to look at it while I hurriedly
rewove the fabric and closed the gateway. It was half again as tall as me, practically scraping the ceiling
even hunched over, and its red-gold body was almost entirely covered with armor plating. Two sets of
joined legs and three sets of clawed arms flanked a face from a nightmare, all protruding jaw and deep set,
glittering eyes. It swung its head around clumsily until it noticed me, and emitted a clicking buzz I could
just barely translate.
           "…Why am I here?"
           I took a deep breath and spoke in Japanese -- the demon could understand anything, but was
generally too lazy to speak a mortal tongue. "I bind you. I have called, and you have come. I have an
agreement with your lord."
           It clicked in surprise. "You are -- " This was followed by the name these demon's had dubbed me
with after my last confrontation with them, which roughly translated meant "prey-female whose flesh might
stick in my teeth." Not the most comforting of monikers, but for a demon it denoted someone whose
energy they would rather not eat, which they considered a rare find. "I have heard of you."
           "You know the agreement?"
           It nodded dumbly. "I will do as you ask."
           I swallowed. Carshkatarion, the demon lord, would extract his price later, but for now the creature
was mine to command. "There is a woman downstairs. Fetch her, carry her, protect her from all harm,
follow me until I say otherwise."
           "As you command." It lumbered over to the trapdoor and somehow managed to squeeze through.
For all the armor plating, it was surprisingly flexible. The demon was just starting to climb out when Zel
whispered in my ear.
           "Here they come."
           "Kyn, down!" I hit the floor just beside the catgirl as the Legionnaires opened fire from outside.
The first volley of laser fire blew the walls apart, spraying burning wood everywhere. Shelves and
mementoes toppled, and I threw up a quick bubble of force to protect me from the worst of it. As soon as
the first volley had passed I stood up, the bubble pressing aside pieces of building, and went to work.
           First order of business was cover -- I pulled the mist up from the ground with unseemly haste
without bothering to work the heating trick, since the night was alive with fire and explosions as it was.
More lasers slid off my shield before I was finished, but they barely staggered me, and I sighted along the
trails they left in the fog and sent blue-white bolts of power flashing towards them. Not worth much at this
range, assuming the armor they wore was worth a damn, but it would distract them. Before the rest could
retarget I was moving, clambering across the wreckage and calling to the others.
           "Kyn! Get out here! Demon, we're leaving!"
           "Nya!" Kyn's head popped up from underneath a pile of boards. "Whew. Couldn't breathe,
Oneesama!" I gestured for her to run, which she totally ignored; I sighed and kept moving. More lasers
slashed through, not aimed as well as the first batch and slicing over the catgirl's head. They seemed to
irritate her. "Oneesama, they're shooting at us! Can I blow them up? Can I?"
           "Go ahead." I was more worried about the demon -- it had popped up ahead of me, and its
massive bulk was drawing a lot of fire. I caught up to it with some difficulty, since four legs were better
than two for moving over the broken ground, and extended my shield around the limp Pluto. From behind
us, in the fog, I heard a feline shout and the roar of fragmentation grenades.
           So far, so good. Kyn was distracting them nicely, and with the demon carrying Pluto I was free to
concentrate on protecting us from random laser fire. I wondered briefly what had Luna and the rest so
frightened -- there were a lot of Sa'an, I supposed, and they were well coordinated, but they didn't seem so
bad. If my arsenal had included more fancy blast-'em-to-dust magic, I might have been tempted to make a
fight of it. As it was--
           I lost my train of thought as we stepped into a clear patch in the fog. Too soon -- I'd called it up
for a good hundred feet beyond this point. We'd gotten away from the housing and out into the street,
pretty much in the clear, but three dark silhouettes against the mist blocked our path.
           Two of them looked pretty much like all the other Sa'an, tall and armored in black, though of a
slightly different design. They carried guns with a single, wide barrel, and a bandolier of shells like an old-
time shotgunner. A sword at their side completed the picture. But it was the third who caught my attention.
           "Remain in the fog." I hissed to the demon. "Go around the clear space. Find somewhere to hide,
out on the street, and wait for instructions."
           "Understood." The demon faded back into the mist, and I turned to face Makoto.

          While Rei had changed her costume a bit to move with the times, Makoto looked exactly as she
had when I'd left, down to the cut of her hair. A little bit older, of course, and the expression on her face
was hardly familiar. But it was the old Mako.
          "Makoto." I took a step closer, wary of the two guards that flanked her. I could probably handle
whatever they could throw at me, but no sense being incautious. "Um. Hi."
          "Hi."
          I was sort of at a loss for how to follow that up. "I've heard you're working for the bad guys
now?" lacked a certain something. She saved me from having to figure something out by continuing.
          "Ami, huh? Certainly didn't expect to find you here."
          "Likewise."
          "How long have you been back on Earth?"
          "A few days." I started to narrow down the list of possibilities. She knew who I was and that I'd
left Earth, so it was definitely Mako and not someone else using her body. She didn't seem like a mind-
controlled robot, but this confident, nasty persona was nothing like the girl I remembered. "I see things
haven't been going particularly well here."
          She shrugged. "Going fine for me. I've got everything I want." She looked at me speculatively.
"I don't suppose there's any chance of you coming over to the winning side?"
          "Please." I held up a hand to forestall further comment. "Whatever you are in there, don't even
pretend that Makoto wasn't forced to fight for the Sa'an. I think I know my friends better than that."
          "Ah." Her expression flickered, just for a second.
          "So who am I talking to, then?"
          "Makoto." She smiled. "Sort of."
          I waited in silence until it was clear that she didn't feel like elaborating, then shrugged. "Fair
enough. I'll figure out what I want to know when I can dissect whatever spells they've trapped you with."
          "I think that's unlikely." She eased backward into a fighting stance. "But please yourself."
          I smiled thinly. Makoto obviously didn't take me seriously -- probably didn't realize the extent my
power had grown since I'd left. Whatever new tricks the Sa'an had taught her, I doubted they'd stand up.
But something about the two armored forms still bothered me. I decided to take them out first, after
blocking whatever Makoto used as her first move.
          "Jupiter Oak Evolution!"
          The two armored forms moved with her -- Sailor Jupiter charged in right behind her spell, but not
fast enough to fool me. The globes of electricity impacted on my shield, slid over it, and earthed
themselves harmlessly. I raised one hand and created a wall of pure wind, strong enough over a small area
to knock the charging Jupiter onto her back. The troopers, however, stepped through the spell as though it
wasn't even there, calmly pulling a shell from their bandoliers and slapping it into the breach of their
shotguns.
          I backed away hurriedly, noting in passing that the cleared area in the mist moved with them, and
lashed out again, calling the water vapor from the air to freeze around the joints of their armor. This had
about as much effect as the last spell, and as the pair slammed the breaches closed and took aim I realized I
was in trouble. Dodging at this range would be a bit difficult, and if whatever weapons they used ignored
my shields the same way they laughed at the rest of my powers…
          "Ami, get down!"
          The familiar voice from behind me carried the air of command, and I was headed that way in any
case. I heard a crackle as something scorchingly hot passed through the place where I'd been, followed by
the roar of automatic weapons.
          At this point all hell broke loose. I heard Makoto shout another attack, and reached out blindly to
push the ball of lightning into some wreckage before it did any damage. Imperial Legionnaires opened fire,
somehow targeting despite the fog, and the rapid-fire thuds and explosions continued unabated. I heard
running footsteps, the heavy clomps of soldiers in real combat boots, but I kept my head down until gloved
hands touched my arm.
          "Ami? Are you okay?"
          That made me raise my head. The expression of good-natured concern was recognizable despite
the tight black-on-green camouflage uniform and the fact that her hair was tied back in a single ponytail,
out of the way. I could feel my eyes widen incredulously.
          "M…Mina? What the hell are you doing here?"
          She blinked. "That's a nice way to greet someone after three years!"
         "Sorry." She was kneeling, so I assumed it was reasonably safe and pushed myself up to my knees.
"I just wasn't expecting to see you…"
          "You weren't expecting to see me? How do you think I feel?"
          For a horrible moment, I thought of the justifiable rage I'd seen in Rei and wondered if Minako
harbored the same feeling. I wasn't sure if I could take that -- I could count the number of times Mina had
gotten really angry on my fingers. But finally, wonderfully, her face dissolved into a broad smile and she
wrapped her arms around me. I returned the hug, gratefully.
          "Uh, ladies?" The other voice, the first one I'd heard, interrupted us. Under the circumstances I
wasn't particularly surprised to see the bulky, wide-shouldered form of the bounty hunter, green sunglasses
in place and a pistol in each hand. Shard was grinning, too, but then he usually was, even when people
were shooting at him. "We should stay on the move. The Lieutenant says we've got Sa'an all around us."
          I looked around, but the clear spot those strange dark troopers had created in the fog was gone.
"What happened to Jupiter?"
          "She and that other black thing cut out after we dropped the first one. We need to find cover
before this fog clears."
          "That way." I pointed. "We'll meet up with the others."
          "How many others are out here?" Shard shook his head. "Alright, let's move."
          "Nice to see you, too." I muttered it under my breath, but I saw the bounty hunter's smile widen.
          Minako helped me to my feet, which was appreciated if not really necessary. Around us, the
shapes of soldiers reduced to mere movement in the fog spread out in a broad circle. Shard stuck close to
us.
          "So who's the Lieutenant, and the rest of these guys?"
          For some reason Minako blushed crimson, and Shard leered a little.
          "J…just some friends we picked up along the way."
         "It must have been a pretty strange trip."
         Mina rolled her eyes. "You have no idea."

          With our silent escort, we made it to the edge of my fog cloud without too much difficulty. Once
or twice we heard the roar of automatic weapons, and Shard tensed, but we saw no sign of Imperial troops
or the strange soldiers that had accompanied Makoto. Once we'd made it out, I blinked in the half-light of
evening and looked out over the destruction.
          Before we'd started, the highway had been reasonably intact, just covered with defunct
automobiles. Now it was a mess, scored by laser beams and cratered by energy blasts. Some of the cars
were still burning, while others merely smoked. Dead Imperial troops were scattered around what I
assumed was their drop zone, but there was no immediate sign of any live ones, or any remaining Sailor
Senshi.
          The demon lumbered out of the fog, carrying the limp body of Pluto. Minako caught sight of it
and practically jumped. Shard just raised his guns -- luckily, he glanced at me before opening fire.
          "Wait!" I stepped in front of the thing. "It's friendly."
          "Not friendly." The thing growled and clicked a response that, luckily, no one but me could
understand. "Bound. And hungry."
          "So where is everybody?" The bounty hunter put his guns away with a last searching glance at the
demon. "Hiding, you think?"
          "Probably. If you give me a moment I can find them." I closed my eyes and cast my mind out,
seeking. At short range, locating another Senshi was a trivial task, and I pointed to a pair of cars at right
angles a few hundred feet away. "Over there."
          Shard nodded and muttered something; I noticed for the first time he was wearing a tiny headset
radio. Before I could ask who he was talking to, he headed in the direction I'd indicated, and Minako and I
followed. The demon remained behind, passively waiting for more instructions.
          The Senshi I'd detected turned out to be two: Rei, looking a little dustier but otherwise none the
worse for wear, and Haruka of all people, slumped against one of the cars and breathing harshly. It would
have surprised me, but my capacity for surprise had been pretty much exhausted.
          Rei looked up as we approached, relaxed only slightly when she saw me, and then jumped to her
feet at the sight of Shard and Minako. I smiled impishly.
          "Look who I found, Rei!"
          She shot me a killer glance before rushing over to the heavy-set bounty hunter and wrapping her
arms around him. I felt a ridiculous need to avert my eyes as she alternately kissed and berated him.
          "You -- -- are a complete and total -- -- moron!" Shard caught my eye, over her head, and raised
one eyebrow. "Do you have any idea -- -- how long it's been?"
          "Uh…" Shard looked at his watch, which Rei interrupted by kissing him again.
          "I thought you were dead! You were supposed to send messages! How dumb can you--"
          Shard finally leaned back into a kiss that cut her off, allowing the rest of us to get a word in
edgewise. I knelt by Haruka's side as soon as I realized she was bleeding pretty badly. Her arms and torso
were scored by long, thin lines of blood, the skin bubbling around them like a burn -- luckily none of them
looked particularly deep. Painful, I judged, but not really dangerous. I couldn't help voicing my other
thought aloud.
          "What did this to her?"
          Rei broke away from Shard long enough to answer. "Laser fire."
          The bounty hunter snorted. "That's ridiculous. I've seen those lasers blow through concrete at a
thousand feet. No way a human could survive getting hit."
          "I have." Rei shrugged. "They don't damage Senshi that much, don't ask me why. I think Haruka
will be okay -- she took a lot of hits when she charged their line, but they didn't manage to get her in the
head or anything."
          "Ahem." Minako cleared her throat, reminding Rei that she'd been neglected. The dark-haired
girl turned and wrapped her other friend in a hug.
          "You too, of course. I've been worried about both of you. Why did you take so long?"
          "Long story." Minako looked around the charred and smoking battlefield. "And one that I think
will have to wait. This place doesn't exactly look safe."
          "Agreed." Rei turned to me. I tried to gauge her expression, but her eyes were unreadable. "Did
you get Setsuna out?"
          I nodded. "I sent Luna on ahead, too. Have you seen her?"
          "Nope." She looked around, as though just remembering something. "Wait a minute. Where's
Hotaru?"
          "Hotaru's here too?"
          "Don't ask me why. She had this other little girl with her, and they were running away from the
Imperials."
          "Where'd she go?"
          "Off that way, I think." Her face hardened. "We'd better find her."
          "I can find her fast. You and Shard get everyone else rounded up, find Luna, we'll grab her and
meet you back here."
          "Got it." The big bounty hunter slapped a portable radio into my hand. "Use this if you need
backup."
          I didn't need it, actually, since Zel's circlet could duplicate that function if it needed to. But the
thought was nice. "Come on, Mina."
          Eyes closed again, relying on Minako's touch on my arm to navigate, I cast my net and homed in
on the aura of another Sailor Senshi. Two more, actually -- I wondered who the other was? Michiru,
maybe? We followed a twisted path past a couple of other cars and into a wide flat area, and stopped dead.
          There were two Sailor Saturns. One I recognized as Hotaru, though she'd changed a lot in three
years, but the other girl was unfamiliar -- she wore the same black-on-white uniform, but fought with pair
shortswords and a skill that belied her age. Hotaru had gotten better as well, though, and the pair of them
were a blur, steel ringing and flashing as they danced back and forth. I stared in awe.
          When the bout ended, it was almost too fast to see. Hotaru swept the other girl's legs out from
under her and knocked one of her swords away, leaving her sprawling on the ground with the Glaive's point
at her throat. I heard Minako cry out in triumph.
          The tableau held for a long moment; Hotaru said something, but we were too far away to hear. I
started to jog towards her, with Mina trailing behind me. Hotaru was deep in thought -- finally, she
grounded the Glaive, letting the other girl go. I smiled; apparently, she hadn't changed that much. Minako
start to shout to her, and then--
          "Look out!" I screamed, too late.
          Two of the strange, dark troopers had come around the corner of a car, shotguns raised and ready
to fire. Hotaru didn't see them coming for a moment, instead looking in our direction before she caught my
outstretched finger. She turned with desperate speed, snapping the Glaive up to try and parry the blasts.
          Then she stopped. I took another halting step forward. The last of the evening light glinted on the
other girl's sword, the end of the blade protruding two feet from Hotaru's back, sunk to the hilt in her
stomach. The suddenness of it seemed to stun even the troopers, who simply watched as Hotaru let the
Glaive fall from nerveless fingers and folded up, quietly, onto the ground. The other Saturn stepped back,
withdrawing her sword as her opponent fell, apparently unable to take her eyes from the rapidly-spreading
pool of blood.
          At that point I lost control. It's happened to me before, but only once; what was left over was not
pretty. I raised one hand without conscious thought and sent a beam of searing white at the other girl,
aimed right between the eyes.
          She moved faster than I would have thought possible, twitching her head to the side as the beam
burned past and sprinting towards the dark figures. I shifted my aim in rage, punching past her twice more
before one of the black-armored soldiers got in the way. The beam hit him all right, but instead of burning
a neat hole it impacted, sparked, and vanished in a spray of light. Another attack was similarly deflected,
and the two troopers raised their shotguns again.
          I could hear Minako screaming, and more footsteps behind us. None of it seemed to matter. I
could only watch in slow motion as they pulled the trigger. For a bare instant, a complex rune glowed in
the space just in front of the barrel. Then dark energy burst forth, like before, spearing across the
battlefield. It went through my shields like they were tissue paper, like they weren't even there, and it was
all I could do to close my eyes before black power blasted me into oblivion.
Interlude Three

            Kaia stopped outside the door to Ashghar's office and swallowed hard.
            It's all right. He can't just have me summarily executed for bringing him bad news -- it's against
regulations.
            The trouble with that was, regulations were enforced by High Command back on Sa'an Prime,
which was a long way from here. If Ashghar successfully completed his mission and returned home minus
his subordinate, no questions would probably be asked.
            She felt her heart beating just a tad faster, and calmed her breathing by force of will before
opening the door.
            "Ah, Vice-Commander." Ashghar looked up from his desk with a smile. "I've been expecting
you."
            "I take it you've heard, then."
            "Basic information only. I've been waiting for your report." There was something unsettling
about his smile as he leaned forward and steepled his hands. Kaia steeled herself and recited the news.
            "The attack was a disaster, Commander."
            "Go on."
            "We encountered far more resistance then anticipated. Considerable conventional activity, with
weapons and tactics indicative of several groups. At least one of these was exceedingly well-armed and
organized. In addition, we met supernatural resistance not merely from the three primary targets, but an
unidentified number of other guardians, possibly aided by a mage of some power."
            "And?"
            "We were forced to retreat after approximately ten minutes of fighting. The shuttle made a second
pass after calling for reinforcements, but the targets had apparently fled, so no follow-up strike was made."
            "I see." He laid his hands flat on the table. "What were our losses?"
            "Two adepts, forty-eight Legion troops. Makoto and Tsunami both escaped with only minor
injuries. However…" Kaia hesitated for a moment before continuing under the Commander's glare.
"Tsunami escaped physical harm, but she may have suffered psychological damage from being forced to
battle her fellow guardians. Her behavior has become somewhat erratic."
            "Have you been forced to use the fly-by-wire system?"
            "No, Commander. I have Adepts on duty outside her quarters, however."
            "Mmm." His eyes were lost in thought. "Tell me, Vice-Commander…"
            "Yes?"
            "In your opinion, what went wrong with this mission?"
            She'd been thinking about that, and could at least answer quickly. "Not enough Adept support.
We expected three guardians and got at least five, plus a true mage. Without enough Adepts our
Legionnaires are outclassed."
            "You had six of them."
            "We'd need more to defend a force that size. Remember that the Adepts are not Grid-connected."
            "How could I forget?" She could feel his irritation, and shared it. The Adepts were unbelievably
useful as tools for defeating magic, and they were an indispensable part of the Sa'an military machine. But
having them outside the Grid that powered the rest of the Imperial forces was inconvenient, and sometimes
a little frightening.
            "Commander, I recommend waiting until the targets resurface, then initiating a second strike with
Adepts, Drones, and Assault Mecha. My simulations show that if we take Makoto as a typical guardian,
battling a single Assault Mech would be a risky proposition. Two squads of Mecha with air support should
be more than sufficient."
            "Mecha and Drones are in short supply, Vice-Commander. Can you justify using them?" He was
smiling again -- Kaia decided this was a test. She nodded.
            "Yes. Now that they have apparently joined together and gathered conventional allies, this group
of guardians could easily be the most dangerous force on this side of the planet. I recommend a quick
extermination using as efficient means as possible."
            Ashghar nodded slowly. "And what about capturing them?"
            "We should attempt that if possible, Commander."
            This time his smile had an element of lizard in it. "Good. Speaking of which, do we have any
estimates on casualties inflicted?"
          "Not hard ones, Commander."
          "Give me your best guesses."
          "As you wish. Our troops inflicted heavy losses on one of the less-sophisticated groups in the
conflict, probably a street gang from the Null Zone. Grid estimates are thirty to forty men killed, roughly
eighty percent of their strength. Those are the only confirmed casualties, but…"
          "Go on."
          "From what I've gotten out of Tsunami, she seems to have killed one of the guardians. Grid data
supports this -- we have no visual records from her, however. In addition, the Adepts reported a positive
hit on one of the guardians."
          "Would a guardian survive that?"
          "Possibly. It would be extremely debilitating, however."
          Ashghar nodded. "Good." He appeared to notice Kaia's nervousness for the first time. "Good
work, Vice-Commander. We've made the best of difficult circumstances. I have the thaumic sensors
hunting for our targets, and when they pop up again…"
          Kaia let out a long breath. "What about Tsunami?"
          "See if you can talk to her. I'd hate to have to expand our Grid control over her -- if the power
difference between her and Makoto is any indication, doing so might cripple her."
          So what am I supposed to say to console a teenaged girl who's became a heartless killer? She
didn't say it. "As you wish, Commander."
Part Four: Dreams and Madness

Chapter Nineteen
       Tsunami

           I was alone, utterly and totally alone, cast adrift in the blackness of the Seventh Pit of the Nether
Hells. Solitude, darkness, and silence were total and complete, and I lay curled into the fetal position,
barely breathing, waiting for the bitter cold that surrounded me to crystallize my soul. I wondered when I'd
stop remembering.
           "Tsunami…"
           I didn't want to die. That was all. "Please, just…"
           I've read a lot of adventure manga, and watched a lot of TV shows. One thing that puzzled me,
though I'd never really thought about it until now, was when our broad-shouldered stiff-upper-lipped hero
was cornered in some impossible situation, sometimes he 'calmly prepared himself for death.' I wondered
what they actually did -- idle curiosity, at the time, because I'd never even conceived the idea it could
happen to me. Sometimes it seemed almost romantic, the brave soldier dying with his beloved's name on
his lips.
           Now I knew what it was like, and all that was bullshit.
           I remembered everything perfectly, enhanced somehow through the hyper-senses of the
transformation. I could feel the grit of the asphalt digging into my back, the flashes of pain from my
shoulders and the back of my head where I'd landed, hard enough to raise bruises. The sweat, running
down my face and dripping to the ground, pooling at the small of my back. Trying to focus my eyes on the
tip of the blade at my throat, wondering if it would even hurt with such a sharp edge.
           The idea of preparing for death at a time like that seemed so ridiculous. I could have lain there a
year and not been prepared. No matter what else happens, there's an atavistic, animal fear of the end. A
perfectly rational fear, too. I felt my breathing stop, just a silent hush, until by some miracle the little girl
with the purple eyes let the blade drop to the ground. Taking that next breath felt better than anything else
I've ever done.
           And then…
           I curled up tighter, unable to stop the instant replay. The Adepts arriving, her brief, awful moment
of distraction, and then--
           FUCK you, Hyde! What have you done to me?
           I've done nothing to you. I wished the smug bastard had a throat, so I could wrap my hands
around it. I do nothing but provide the power, Tsunami -- your decisions are your own.
           You're lying! I could never…I mean…
           You could. You did. Admit it.
           "Damn it." I could feel tears leaking past my closed eyelids, and hear Hyde's mocking laughter.
           She let me go, and you…and I…
           "Tsunami?" The voice came from outside the door. I'd locked it up tight without thinking about it
-- a simple command through the Grid. Kyoko rapped again, and I hugged myself a little tighter and
shivered. "Tsunami, are you in there? The door won't open--"
           I couldn't just leave her locked out of our room.
           <Query?>
           <Open the door.>
           <Quantifier 'door' not specific. Context suggests door number 5145934. Proceed?>
           <Yes.>
           The door hissed open as the Grid processor left me with a last warning. <Natural language
processing of simple requests is inefficient. Recommend using direct data control.>
           "Tsu--oh." The door hissed open, letting a trickle of corridor light into the pitch-black room.
Kyoko was framed in the doorway, swathed in her heavy coat, breathing hard, as though she'd been running.
She couldn't see me, at first -- I burrowed under the thin sheets of the bed.
           "Tsunami?" Kyoko took a hesitant step into the room. "Are you in here?"
           I formatted a direct data command in my head. It was something I'd been practicing, and I was
still pretty clumsy at it. I managed to hit the door control on the second or third try, and it slammed behind
Kyoko, leaving the room once again in total darkness.
          "Okay." Kyoko took a deep breath. "I'm getting a little bit scared now. Tsunami, if you are here,
please say something."
          "Mph." I muttered something into the pillow. Kyoko seemed to relax.
          "God. You scared me. Where are you, Tsunami? I can't see a thing in here…"
          Inside the starship, with solid metal walls and hermetically sealed doors, dark was really dark, not
the half-black twilight I was used to. There was no sense in waiting for your eyes to adjust, since there
simply was no light to see by. Luckily for Kyoko, our room wasn't very cluttered. I made another sound,
halfway between and mutter and a groan, and she found her way to the bed and sat down on the side.
          She didn't speak for a moment, and I found myself listening to the little creaks of the mattress as
she shifted slightly, and the soft sound of her breath.
          "Tsunami…" She kept her voice soft -- somehow, she knew at least vaguely what was going on.
Kyoko's ability to practically read my mind is sometimes pretty scary. "Look. If we were at home, I think
I'd leave you alone right now. You don't seem to want to talk to anyone, and I know eventually you'd tell
me what's going on."
          Kyoko shifted a little closer. "Things are kind of different now, though. It's just you and me up
here, plus a million black helmets who aren't great confidants. I need you, Tsunami. I'll admit it -- I'm
selfish, and I'm scared. So now you get to tell me whether you like it or not."
          I pulled the pillow a little tighter over my head. "Go away."
          "That's a start. First things first. Did you get hurt on the mission? Are you okay?"
          I closed my eyes, not that that made much of a difference. "A little. Bruises. I'm fine."
          "That's something." She quieted a moment, thinking. "I really can't think of any subtle way of
working up to it. What's going on, Tsunami? Why are you lying in the dark by yourself?"
          The odd thing was, I wanted to tell her. Wanted to tell someone, besides the strange mocking
voice in my head. But…
          "I can't tell you."
          Another pause. "You've told me everything you've ever done. I don't think you should stop now."
          I said nothing.
          "You told me when you cheated on that math test last year."
          "Kyoko…" My voice was still muffled. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
          "I was the first person you called when you found out your parents died. Remember? I rode my
bike to your house at four in the morning, nearly broke my neck. And when the Sa'an came, you were the
first person I called. When I found out they'd taken my father…do you remember? It was three days
before I even left your room. Come on, Tsunami."
          I shifted my head, feeling the pillow wet with tears. Self-analysis, maybe -- why couldn't I talk to
Kyoko? Because--
          The answer was suddenly obvious. If I told her what I'd done, what I'd become, she'd despise me.
I was fighting for the wrong side. I'd killed, in cold blood, for the wrong side. I couldn't face that.
          Kyoko's voice was very quiet, now.
          "Tsunami. Can I tell you a secret?"
          I didn't respond, and she pressed onward.
          "I remember sleeping over at your house, last summer."
          I remembered it too. We'd been together near-constantly.
          "While we were getting ready for bed, I noticed you'd hurt yourself somehow. Bruises, all down
your arms. You said it was nothing."
          That night. I never should have told her. Kyoko worries too much.
          "It was a hot night, and we couldn't sleep. As it got later and later, we just kind of got to talking,
and I asked you again. You told me it was Ryu; that he'd gotten home the previous day high on some Sa'an
drug, and he'd made you kiss him."
          I was still silent. It was one of the worst memories of my life. Not being abused by my brother --
I'd gotten used to that, and I doubted he'd really hurt me. But it had been late, and I'd been feeling sorry for
myself, and I'd told Kyoko. I caught the look in her eyes the next morning, and tried to ignore it. Pain, for
me. Guilt, somehow. God.
          "I waited until you fell asleep, and I went downstairs. Ryu was alone, sleeping on the couch -- I
guess he hadn't managed to make it to the bedroom. I picked up one of the big knives from the kitchen…"
          She trailed off, leaving me with wide-open eyes.
          "I wimped out, I guess. I never told you about it, because I thought…" She took a deep breath. "I
thought you might not want to be around me anymore."
          "Kyoko?"
          She started as I spoke, finally. "So you are awake? I'd hate to find out I was telling you my deep,
dark secret and you weren't even listening."
          "Why didn't you kill him?"
          "Selfish, I guess. I wanted to stay friends with you -- if I killed your brother, I don't think it would
have worked out, though you'd have been better off." She let out a deep breath. "It does feel good to
finally tell someone about that. Sometimes I half-wonder if it was a dream."
          "Why'd you tell me now?"
          "Not sure. It seemed like the right thing to do. Now, are you going to tell me what happened, or
do I have to beat myself to death with a pillow?"

          I spun a short but accurate narrative. Kyoko was a good listener, sitting silently while I went
through the dropship ride and the battle. She gave a little intake of breath when I got to the part where I
was flat on my back, waiting for the axe to fall. I stopped.
          "Well? What happened?"
          "I'm still alive, aren't I?"
          "Not sure. Shake your head and see if it falls off." She paused. "Sorry. Not a good joking time."
          "It's okay." I took a deep breath. "She had me at her mercy, and asked me if I wanted to die. I
said no."
          "Good choice."
          "And then she let me go."
          "Okay--"
          "The adepts showed up a couple of seconds later and started shooting. And it was like--"
          I wanted to say: 'it was like someone else was controlling me' or 'before I could think, it was over'
but I couldn't lie, not here, not to her. I knew what I was doing, what the consequences were. It was only
afterward that things had broken down.
          Kyoko knew when to talk, and when to sit in silence.
          "It was so easy." That was the first thing that came to mind. "No effort at all. Just lean forward,
and move your arm a little bit, and it's over." I was glad the lights were out, so I couldn't see the revulsion,
so carefully covered up, in her eyes. "We were face to face, and I watched her. It…It's horrible, seeing the
realization in the other person's face. But the worst part--"
          I stopped, unsure if I wanted or indeed was able to continue, until Kyoko's hand found mine and
pressed down.
          "The worst part was her, it was what she felt for me. Not anger, or hatred. Something like…I
don't know…" I sighed. "Disappointment, almost." That was a good description, now that I'd thought of it.
"She let me go, and I killed her. And she was disappointed. In me, in herself, in the universe. I don't know.
That was the worst part."
          The next pause stretched on, longer than I would have liked. I could hear Kyoko thinking to
herself, trying to arrange her features and her voice so I wouldn't catch on, but secretly hating me…
          "Tsu--"
          "I know, Kyoko. I know. I'll leave." I pulled the sheet a little tighter around me and sat up.
"They can find me another cabin, or something."
          "Tsunami--"
          "No! I know what you're going to say, that it's all okay. It's not. I did it, and I am what they
wanted me to be. A fucking killing machine."
          "Tsunami!" She barked it, like a command, and I pulled up short in surprise.
          "What?"
          "Shut up."
          I felt her breath, warm on my face, an instant before her lips met mine. All I could think,
incongruously, was that Kyoko had remarkably good aim in the dark. I'd never kissed a guy -- scratch that,
never kissed a person -- except Ryu, that one time. This was not much like it.
          Kyoko leaned back, finally, leaving me kind of stunned.
          "Um."
          She let out a heavy breath. "I'm sorry."
          "No! I mean…it's okay…"
          "I just want you to pay attention for a second. I am never going to hate you, Tsunami. No matter
what you do. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I couldn't hate you if you were carving my heart out
with a spork. Okay? So even if you turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Fuku, I will always"--she
hesitated, just for a second--"always be your best friend. Understand?"
          I nodded, mutely, then remembered she couldn't see me and managed a scratchy "Okay."
          I heard her flop down on the bed next to me and stretch out. I moved sideways, to make room.
          "For some reason, I'm suddenly exhausted." Kyoko sighed. "And you sound like you could use
some sleep."
          "Yeah." I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling through the utter darkness, still half in a state of
shock. The only sound in the room was my breathing and hers -- the starship itself was totally silent, with
none of the little humms and whirrs you always hear in the movies. Just us.
          My thoughts flew in a thousand different directions. I saw the little black-haired girl, sad and
somehow dignified even in death, lying in a spreading pool of her own blood. I saw Kyoko, my best friend
practically since birth.
          It felt like hours later, but it could have been minutes. I had no way of knowing. I cleared my
throat and spoke in a whisper.
          "Kyoko?"
          "Mmm?"
          "You asleep?"
          "No."
          "Can I ask…"
          "Go ahead." The sound of her voice made me think there were some questions that she was
dreading.
          "So, are you…" I trailed off. I got the sense this was going to be a conversation with a lot of
trailing off.
          "Um. I don't know. I guess."
          "Have you ever…"
          "No."
          "Oh." I fell silent for a moment, which stretched into an eternity. Now what, I thought.
          Actually, 'now what' was pretty obvious, when you thought about it.
          "So…"
          "I'm sorry." She was whispering, so quiet I could barely hear. "I shouldn't have done that."
          I pushed my head closer to her, until I could feel her breath on my face, and she flinched away. I
put one hand behind her head to pull her closer.
          "Tsuna--"
          That was all she got out before our lips met again, and I felt the hot rush of her breath down my
throat. She tried to pull away, and I didn't let her. My other hand sought hers and squeezed it a moment.
Kyoko squirmed. I took her fingers and slid them over my stomach, then down. They were chilly from the
air of the starship, and felt like ice against my skin. A little further down -- I pulled her closer, pressing her
soft against my side --
          "Oh." Kyoko's voice was very small. "I…"
          "Hmm?"
          "I don't really know what I'm doing."
          I smiled in the darkness. "I imagine we'll manage."
          We managed.

          Waking up the next morning was highly weird, of course.
          I'd slept next to Kyoko many times and thought nothing of it, but the circumstances were a little
different now. For one thing, back then we'd been wearing something.
          I slipped out from under the sheets, shivering a little at the feel of bare skin against my own, and
managed to find my way to the bathroom without tripping over anything. Once the door was closed, I
flipped the lights on with a mental command to the Grid, blinking the sudden brilliance. It crossed my
mind that I had no idea what time it was outside -- my schedule now seemed to consist of grabbing sleep
where I could and fighting the rest of the time. I wondered how many days it had been since Makoto and
the Legions had grabbed me from my classroom -- Three? Four? Ten? I had no idea.
          I could ask the Grid, I supposed. Frankly I didn't care. I started the bath and set to the pleasurable
task of sluicing off the dried sweat of a day's worth of combat and other activities. I carefully avoided
thinking about anything of importance -- Kyoko, the missions and Hyde, my generally dismal future
prospects.
          The bath was draining and I was toweling myself off before the door to the bathroom opened
again. I'd opened it with a Grid command and forgotten to lock it, so it would open for anyone standing in
the right place. Kyoko and I stared at each other through the lit doorway in a growing flush of mutual
embarrassment. She was wearing the sheet from the bed, draped over her shoulder like a cloak, which gave
her the advantage over me. I gave a little shriek, despite my best efforts not to, and wrapped myself as best
I could in the towel.
          I caught her stare as my blush widened and I shook my head. "I guess…I mean, that feels kind of
silly. Now, you know…"
          "I'm sorry! I didn't…I mean…"
          "Look." I sighed. "We're going to have to get over this."
          "Sorry." I shook my head, and she chuckled, a little. "It's just…a little…"
          "I know." I finished securing the towel. "So what's up?"
          "I found something. I wanted to tell you last night, but you seemed so upset--"
          "I was." I wasn't, anymore. Somehow. I'm not sure how -- I still got a major twinge picturing the
other Sailor Saturn, but it was somehow without the soul-crushing despair I'd been afflicted with before.
The mind works in mysterious ways, I guess.
          "Are you feeling any better?" She stopped, and colored again. I laughed.
          "Much. So what did you find?"
          "I think you have to see it for yourself. Whenever you're ready, I mean."
          "I'll go change." Before she could put on her shocked expression, I continued. "While you take a
shower."
          "Okay. Do I smell that bad?"
          I wrinkled my nose. "A little."
          A few minutes later the pair of intrepid young heroines, much less grungy than a few minutes ago,
were walking briskly down the black-on-black corridors of the Sa'an starship. I looked around with interest
-- I hadn't really had time to dedicate to exploration, but Kyoko obviously had, and she led the way
confidently. We passed guards every few dozen feet, but they were mostly standing in front of closed
doorways and didn't pay us any attention. The route itself was a complicated tangle of side corridors and
thin passageways and seemed unnecessarily complex. I mentioned this to Kyoko.
          "I know. You can't get there if you take the main passageways, there are security checkpoints. I
don't think you're even really supposed to be able to get through…someone forgot to close a door or
something…" We'd arrived at a T-junction, and she stopped short. "Want to see something cool?"
          "Sure."
          "Watch." Kyoko pulled a hairpin from her pocket and held it up to the wall on the flat side of the
T, almost touching the metal. When she let go, and odd thing happened -- instead of falling to the ground,
it hung suspended, drifting sideways until it touched the wall and bouncing away. Once it got more than an
inch into the corridor, it dropped suddenly to the floor.
          "O…kay." I shook my head as she bent to pick it up. "So what was that?"
          "Contra-gravity field." She tapped the wall. "We're right near the center of the ship. The
contragravity ring spins constantly, and it creates a ring-shaped field to maintain its weightlessness. But
apparently there's some residual effect at the very center, which is on the other side of this wall. I guess
there's some bleed-through."
          I let that pass over my head. "You're picking this stuff up pretty fast, Kyoko."
          She shrugged. "I have very little else to do. Come on -- we're headed this way."
          Another couple of twists and turns brought us to a large doorway, twice the size of the ones I'd
gotten used to. It was closed.
          "Looks like a dead end."
          "That's what I thought the first time." Kyoko stepped forward confidently. "Watch this."
          Sure enough, the forbidding portal hissed open politely as she stepped forward. I followed her
gingerly, half-expecting it to snap closed and maybe slice us in half, but it waited until we'd passed like all
the other doors on the ship.
          The room beyond was dark, so all I could make out at first was a soft cylinder of light in one
corner. Kyoko stood silently, and we waited until our eyes adjusted. It was a big room, and largely
unoccupied. Besides the lighted cylinder, which reminded me vaguely of the background to a lava lamp,
there was a set of metal bars fencing off a triangular space in the opposite corner. Once we could see well
enough to walk, Kyoko led the way over to the glowing thing. It was surrounded by what I assumed was
Sa'an equipment, in the form of large black cubes. Input and output would be via the Grid; I was beginning
to realize everything was.
          Closer up, patches of darkness inside the hanging cylinder coalesced into a human form, hanging a
few feet from the ground as though suspended in liquid and bobbing gently in unseen currents. It was
impossible to make out any detail, but from its general shape I guessed the figure was female.
          Kyoko stared as though entranced, the pillar of light reflected in her eyes. I could only make
myself look for a little while -- there was something vaguely obscene about the construction, and I couldn't
help but be reminded of something pickled and floating in a jar of preservatives.
          "What is it?"
          She shook her head slowly. "I have no idea. That's a person in there."
          "I know." A sudden feeling of unease swept through me. "Let's get out of here."
          Kyoko expression turned mischievous. "What's the matter? Afraid of some girl in a jar?"
          "Come on, Kyoko…" I was edging towards the exit when the lights in the room snapped on and
the accented voice struck up behind me.
          "Your friend is absolutely right, Tsunami. There's nothing to be afraid of."
          Kyoko went stiff; I cursed under my breath and turned around slowly. Commander Ashghar was
studying the thing too, hands clasped behind his back, paying us no outward attention. Four Legionnaires
followed him like heavily armed shadows.
          "Commander Ashghar!" To my credit, I kept the quiver in my voice down to a minimum. "I'm
sorry. We just kind of wandered in here…the door opened ahead of us, and--"
          He waved a hand. "Think nothing of it. A mistake in Grid programming, no damage done. I've
been wanting to talk to you anyway."
          The Commander didn't elaborate, so we left it at that. Kyoko broke in. "Commander…"
          He appeared to notice her for the first time. "Yes?"
          "Can I ask you a question?"
          "Certainly. I can't promise I'll answer." His smile was without humor, and Kyoko swallowed.
          "What…Who is that, in there?"
          "Is that all?" He looked disappointed. "Someone we captured. Her name is Usagi Tsukino."
          I asked the follow up. "Why?"
          He shrugged. "I think she's the key to an ultimate weapon. Something that will make all this"--he
waved a hand in a gesture that encompassed the starship, the tens of thousands of soldiers, and all of their
ultra-tech weapons--"a thing of the past, as obsolete as swords or transistors. It would be the end of war."
          "In the sense that the Sa'an would rule everything?" I tried to keep the emotion out of my voice,
but didn't quite make it.
          "You don't approve of our system?" He smiled benignly. "Don't be afraid -- I didn't imagine you
would. You need to be able to take the long view to see the beauty of it, the symmetry." Ashghar leaned
forward a little. "Tell me, Tsunami. Do you know who the oldest civilization in the multiverse is?"
          "No."
          "How far does the recorded history of your world go back?"
          I thought back to Social Studies. "Not really sure. Maybe ten thousand years."
          "Not bad. It takes most civilizations twice that long to get where you are. But progress gets
exponentially faster with the growth of technology. On one planet, we found records of an info-tech level
culture that lasted five thousand years. That's a long time -- I think the average is less than a thousand."
          He was enjoying this, I noticed. I imagined that the Commander of the fleet didn't often get a
chance to expound his personal ideology. I tried to maintain an interest.
          "So?"
          "So? Doesn't that seem terrible to you? These are whole worlds we're talking about, worlds at the
height of their social and physical development, and they only last a couple of thousand years. Even big
interstellar empires usually fall apart before the ten thousand year mark."
          "Ten thousand years is a long time."
         "Relative to eternity, all finite spans are zero." It sounded like a quote. "The Sa'an civilization is
the oldest single culture ever created. Our records are unbroken for the past two hundred thousand years."
         I heard Kyoko's little intake of breath, so I figured that was pretty good. I shook my head.
"Forgive me for being a bit confused, Commander, but why are you telling me this?"
         "Forgive an old man his need to ramble on from time to time." He chuckled dryly. "I suppose
teaching you our way of life is a lost cause. It usually takes a few generations for things to work out. And
none of this is what I really wanted to talk to you about."
         "Okay…"
         "You went on a mission for us yesterday, and it went very badly."
         My mouth went dry. "I don't know much about that. I just got back on the shuttle when they told
me to…"
         "I know. I was just wondering, in the…aftermath, if you were feeling all right."
         He knew. I looked at his eyes and shivered -- he knew everything, all my secret thoughts and
doubts. "I'm fine."
         Ashghar held my eyes a little longer before straightening up. "Good. There will be another
attempt on the same targets soon. This time, there will be no mistakes. Assuming you play your parts
correctly, I'll make sure you get that vacation we owe you."
         I nodded politely. "Of course, Commander."
         "You'll be alerted, when the time comes, and the Vice-Commander will brief you. Now you
should return to your quarters and rest." Was there a little smirk there? "There is work to be done here."
         "As you wish, Commander." I grabbed Kyoko's sleeve and pulled her back through the door
without a backward glance. She couldn't seem to take her eyes off the column of light -- once the door
hissed shut, she shook herself and came to her senses.
         "Did you hear what he said, Tsunami?" I couldn't tell if she was excited or terrified. "An ultimate
weapon. How can one girl be an ultimate weapon? Could they--"
         The thought of a weapon a Sa'an commander would consider "ultimate" was enough to give me
the shivers all over again, so I stayed off that topic. "Kyoko."
         "What?"
         I'd reached a decision. "We have to get out of here."
Chapter Twenty
       Hotaru

         I've been here before. This is the part where my life flashes before my eyes.

          "We're here."
          I could tell that already -- the bass hum of the CG drive gradually slowing Aegis down from its
cruising velocity of roughly three thousand times the speed of light had finally stopped, meaning we were
close to our destination. I peered interestedly at the display and was mildly surprised to find that we were
in the middle of nowhere, in a star system composed entirely of gas clouds and loose chunks of rock
surrounding a shattered dwarf of a star. I looked up at Jahara, puzzled.
          "So? Where is here?"
          "A completely worthless star system, so insignificant it appears on only a few maps. The sun is
faint enough that even the closest inhabited system can't see it without a powerful telescope."
          "And why are we here again?"
          "Visiting old friends."
          "Ah."
          I waited patiently as Aegis maneuvered itself into the rock belt, following the ping of a hidden
navigation beacon. It was only a few minutes before we were hanging alongside one tumbling asteroid, a
chunk of interplanetary stone and metal big enough to dwarf the four kilometer bulk of Jahara's starship. It
had a slight tumble relative to us, shadows changing and glinting in the weak starlight; that would have
presented a problem if we'd been actually trying to dock but was irrelevant for teleportation. I followed the
Unforgiven down to the portals, where his servant Third was waiting for us.
          "You found what I asked for?"
          The Harbinger bowed deeply and presented a thin, wrapped bundle, which Jahara tucked under his
arm. I was curious, but refrained from asking as we stepped up to the crackling green oval. Jahara waited
a moment for it to clear, then stepped through; I did the same.
          We found ourselves in a blank, square room carved out of native rock and featureless except for a
wooden door in the opposite wall. The door was circular, with four radially spaced handles; the reason for
this became obvious as I tried to take a step forward and hurtled gently into the air.
          Jahara pushed off towards the door with his usual effortless perfection, and there was something
almost amused in his expression as he watched me flail towards the ceiling.
          "I'm sorry. I should have warned you: Bael keeps his habitat in microgravity."
          "Thanks." I managed to make contact with the ceiling and push off towards the door, clumsily.
I'd experienced remarkably little freefall in the time I'd been with Jahara. For some reason this did not
surprise me -- it was the kind of basic problem people had already solved. Later I learned that the
contragravity core of a ship, a cylinder of spinning ultra-dense matter that weighed more than most stars,
was already doing most of its work negating its own mass and preventing itself from dropping out of the
universe. Making the rest of the ship massless was kind of a side effect, a rounding error; under those
circumstances, providing a comfortable internal pull was trivial. A habitat with a CG core, though, was
another matter.
          Jahara knocked at the door, which echoed appropriately in the empty room. He was answered by
a string of muttered but remarkably inventive curses, getting louder as the speaker approached the door and
getting nastier until my ears started to burn. When the door finally opened, I had a moment of swimming
disorientation. The woman who answered it looked to be about nineteen, although I'd learned firsthand that
such appearances could be deceiving. She was wearing black shorts, a loose blue t-shirt that floated and
rippled oddly in the low gravity, and a towel slung over her shoulders; her hair, which was either black
streaked with blue or blue streaked with black depending on how you looked at it, stuck up from her head
in all directions in a damp mess.
          She was also upside-down with respect to us, hence the disorientation. For a moment my
perspective flipped and I was standing on the ceiling, about to fall; I suppressed the surge of panic with a
swallow and tried not to think about it.
          The girl raised one hand distractedly, rubbing the towel across her scalp with the other and further
disheveling her hair. "Yo."
          Jahara nodded. "Hello, Arunai. It is good to see you."
           "Yeah. It's been a while." She let the towel drop back to her shoulder and kicked off from the
wall, coming to rest at a more normal orientation. Jahara seemed unaffected, but I was relieved. "What,
five years?"
           "More. You've grown."
           She shrugged self-consciously. "Maybe a little. I try to stay on top of it." Arunai noticed me for
the first time and raised her hand again in greeting. "Yo."
           "Hello." Frankly I felt a little embarrassed. Arunai was apparently satisfied with this level of
conversation; she turned back to Jahara.
           "Who's the little one?"
           "Her name is Hotaru, and she has been accompanying me."
           The girl nodded knowingly. "Right. So, I guess you're here to see Dad?"
           "That is my primary intention, although we will talk more later."
           "Right." She twisted around and shouted. "DAD! The big green dude is here!" There was no
response, and she sighed. "He's probably still asleep. Come in -- you can hang out on the observation deck
while I get him. You know the way?"
           "I do." He started forward without even a glance at me, which was another habit of his. Jahara
had a sometimes-irritating disdain for most common courtesy; it wouldn't have occurred to him to make
sure I was following okay. I managed easily enough, what little training I'd had in zero-G work came back
to me quickly, aided by the fact that the four-side, wood-paneled corridor we flew through had protruding
handles every dozen feet or so. We passed another couple of corridors and a pair of doors before arriving
in an open space.
           I caught my breath, impressed despite myself. The observation deck was just that, a patio-style
room with heavy wooden chairs and a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto the universe. The asteroid
was spinning, so the view rotated enough to notice but not enough to be disorienting. As I watched, the
little dwarf star, wreathed in the fantastic colors of its attendant gas clouds, climbed up over the edge of the
window and crawled across the field of view. Jahara nodded in satisfaction.
           "You like my back porch?" I turned to find a man I assumed was Bael catch himself on a
handhold and drop to the deck behind us; the girl Arunai followed shortly. "This damn thing was barely
moving when I got here, and I didn't want to look at the same boring view the whole time. I had to get out
and kick it."
           He laughed, though I wasn't not sure if it was a joke. Bael was tall for a human, though still a
head shorter than the giant Unforgiven, with blue hair cut short except for a ragged tail down the back of
his neck. He was thin and lanky, and his eyes were the same color as his hair, no white or pupils but blue
from edge to edge and glowing with an inner light.
           Jahara shook his hand gravely, which is a bit of a trick in micro-gravity, and held out the wrapped
bundle.
           "This is for you."
           "Gifts, Jahara?" Bael grinned. "You've changed."
           "That is not a gift. It is repayment on a debt between us."
           "I should have known." He accepted that package, shaking his head. "For a moment I thought
you were going all sentimental on me…"
           "You should know better than that." It was delivered deadpan, of course, but it was one of a few
times when I thought I detected the tiniest sense of humor in the Unforgiven warrior.
           "Though I can't imagine what it is." Bael unrolled the cloth, letting the object inside drift into his
hand with a satisfying click and tossing the wrapping over his shoulder, where it hung in the air. "I don't
recall owing you…anything…"
           He trailed off as he held the sword up to the light. It sparkled in a way that metal shouldn't, as
though there were tiny flecks all over the blade that changed as you moved your head, like mica mixed into
concrete. Four feet long and ever-so-slightly triple-curved, with a hilt carved from wood and polished
where it wasn't wrapped in cloth, it was possibly the most beautiful weapon I'd ever seen.
           Bael seemed entranced, and for a moment even Jahara was lost in the splendor of the blade. I
caught Arunai's eye, and she winked and smiled.
           "You…" Bael's lips were dry, and he seemed at a loss for words. "You fixed it."
           "Indeed. I believe you will find it as good as new."
           "How? It looks just like it did…"
          "I have been asked to keep the method a secret. The individual concerned worries about his
creations falling into the wrong hands and so generally sees no one, but in some circles my word carries
much weight. In any case, I was owed a favor."
          "You shouldn't have done this, Jahara. I've never done anything for you that's worth this." Bael
glared at him, semi-seriously. "Now I'm going to feel indebted to you."
          The Unforgiven shrugged. "You broke it fighting for my cause. It seemed only just that I have it
repaired. I am sorry it took so long."
          "Bah." Bael waved a hand, which happened to have the sword in it. The noise it made was less a
swish than the ringing tones of pure crystal. "What's fifty years?" He shook his head, which apparently
reminded him that two other people were standing around watching this conversation. Jahara noticed too,
and pushed me forward gently.
          "Bael, this is Hotaru Tomoe. She has been accompanying me of late. Hotaru, this is Bael."
          "Hello." I was starting to overcome my shyness at being introduced to Jahara's friends, of which
he had surprisingly many. The Unforgiven was not what one would call an outgoing person, but I
supposed living for thousands of years gave you the chance to get acquainted with others who did likewise.
When I'd first met these people, I'd expected to be treated like a child, probably even more so than I was on
Earth -- after all, given the amount of power they usually possessed, I was a relative infant. It didn't happen,
and it took me a while to figure out why: on Earth, if you see a little girl you can treat her like a little girl
and not be far wrong. Out here, if you see a little girl traveling with someone like Jahara, it pays not to
assume anything. I'd learned the backward lesson, too -- treat everyone with respect, because you rarely
have any idea who you're talking to.
          Not that I needed to remember that rule here. The outward similarities were enough -- Bael was
Unforgiven, too, one of the small group of immortals created by Eridu's destruction of their homeworld. I
didn't know how many there were, total -- Jahara preferred not to talk about it, and I'd never pressed him.
Obviously, they kept in touch.
          Bael grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously, a sometimes-common custom that still took me by
surprise. In this case that was particularly bad, since it meant that when I let go of his hand I got a chunk of
velocity and headed for the ceiling, while Bael bounced off the floor before grabbing a handhold. He
laughed uproariously as I flailed a little before giving up and waiting for momentum to carry me to
something I could push off of.
          "Sorry, sorry!" He was still chuckling. "I forget how it takes people sometimes. Like the big guy
said, I'm Bael. Welcome to my humble abode."
          "Thank you." I dipped my head politely, which set me spinning a bit and made him chuckle even
louder.
          "She's got manners! Good choice, Jahara." The green-haired Unforgiven remained impassive.
"We were about to eat -- just a snack, actually, but now that you've showed up we might as well make a
meal of it. You'll join us?"
          Jahara nodded gravely. "Of course."
          "Excellent!" Bael spread his arms in an emphatic gesture, and Jahara became a green blur for a
moment as the sword passed through where his head had been. Arunai, from somewhere near the floor,
spoke in what I thought was a remarkably calm tone.
          "Dad! Please put that thing down before you hurt somebody."
          "I am unhurt."
          "Before you hurt me, then."
          Bael laughed again. "Right. I'll go return this to its place -- Aru, tell the kitchen to start dinner?"
          "What do you want?" The girl picked herself up and snagged a convenient handhold; her father
was already bounding away down the corridor with Jahara in tow. He bellowed back at us.
          "Surprise me!"

          Though he was a little unpredictable for my tastes, it was hard not to like Bael. He had a pleasant,
hearty laugh and seemed not to think too hard about anything, which was a nice change after living with
Jahara for a year or so. His daughter seemed cut from a different cloth, though there were obvious
similarities, and I found myself enjoying her company as well.
          We were in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the food preparation. This did not involve much work,
since the actual cooking was done by a series of animated tools and gloves that swooped through the low
gravity with ease. I wondered if it was magic, or some kind of fancy anti-gravity robot; not that it really
mattered. I sat on a counter, swinging my legs over one side and holding onto the handhold provided for
that purpose from time to time while Arunai bounced gently from floor to ceiling and back again.
          Conversation had dried up, at first, but she seemed to want to be friendly.
          "So." I looked up at her as she approached the ceiling. "Is Bael really your father?"
          She nodded. "Yup."
          "Weird." I let that slip, and covered hastily. "I mean, it's just hard to imagine…people like him,
you know, falling in love."
          "You've been hanging around Jahara too much." She smiled. "Dad's a good guy. A little under
endowed in the head department, if you ask me, but a good guy nonetheless."
          "He seems nice. Isn't it a little weird, though? I mean, it makes you half…"
          "Half Unforgiven?" She nodded. "I guess it'd seem weird to someone like you. I grew up this
way, so I'm used to it."
          "Do you get all the powers?" I couldn't help asking, even though it probably wasn't polite.
          "Some of them, though I'm not sure how much comes from his side. Mom was a goddess." She
added this last at my puzzled expression. "Haven't seen her for a few years. She was never around much --
it was basically just me and him."
          "So you're half Unforgiven and half god?"
          "Yup."
          "Wow."
          We sat for a moment. At least, I sat -- she bounced off the floor and started heading back up.
          "So what's your story? You look human enough, not that that means anything."
          "I'm human. I think. I mean, I am, even though I've got some extra stuff."
          "How'd you hook up with Jahara? He's kind of a heavyweight."
          "I've noticed." That brought a chuckle. "I don't really know -- it seems kind of odd how it all
worked out. He came to my planet chasing a guy named Resh"--she made a face, and I broke off. "You've
heard of him?"
          "I met him. He slept with a friend of mine, then cut her up pretty badly and left her for dead.
Nasty piece of work. Did Jahara get him?"
          "Sort of. Some of my friends back home and I tried to stop him, and things got a little confused.
He got killed in the end, but I was unconscious for that part." I rubbed the spot on my chest where the
vampire had hit me, almost unconsciously. There was no scar, but sometimes I could still feel it. "Jahara
pretty much saved us, and when he left I went with him. I've been following him around ever since."
          "He must really like you."
          "I…" I trailed off. "I don't think so. Not like that, anyway."
          "You like him, though."
         "No!" I waved my hands frantically. "I mean, sort of. He's like my mentor. Or my father, I guess,
except my real father is back on Earth somewhere."
          "Ah." She gave me a knowing look, which made me blush. "Well, it's probably a good thing."
          I wanted to ask why, but couldn't, and she just sat there with a knowing, cryptic smile. It was at
this point that Bael burst into the room, with Jahara trailing behind him.
          "How are things going? You two getting along?"
          I nodded, and so did Arunai. Bael looked over the scene and his smile faded. "Arunai!"
          "What?"
          "How many times have I told you always to offer our guests a drink?"
          "Sorry, father."
          "Your punishment is to get a bottle from the cooler."
          "Which one?"
          "Some of the Kyrkatz '13. I think there's a couple of bottles left, so bring both of them and some
glasses." Arunai pushed off from the floor and headed to a hatchway, and he turned to the two of us. "'13
was a good year for Kyrkatz. The last year, actually."
          "What happened after that?" I was curious, but he just shrugged.
          "I don't know. Some war, probably. Civilizations. Pfeh. What can you do?"

         Returning to consciousness, even for a moment, was agony.
          A single wan bulb didn't so much cast light as outline the darkness, filling the room with shadows.
I felt numb in all the wrong places -- my arms and legs felt like they'd been amputated, but I could still feel
the rest of my body, which was suffused with unbearable cold.
          I tried to move, but all I managed to do was rasp my tongue across dry, cracked lips. Breathing
was horrible pain, and I could hear a harsh bubbling sound and smell the tang of blood.
          There was someone next to me, asleep -- I could tell by the regularity of their breath. I managed
to turn my head the tiniest bit and recognized Dee, even in the bad light, curled up on my arm. I smiled,
just slightly, then closed my eyes and let darkness take me in a wave.

          I watched with slightly blurred eyes as the golden liquid swirled in my cup, which was apparently
equipped with some kind of field to prevent its contents from escaping. Or something like that. I'd gotten
an explanation earlier in the evening, but I'd stopped caring maybe three cups ago.
          Bael had been right -- whatever the stuff they made on Kyrkatz in '13 was really, really good. The
taste was hard to describe, but for me it invoked memories of fresh bread and sugar cookies, fantastically
light on the tongue. Whatever was in it wasn't strictly alcohol, but it was having much the same effect.
Bael, who'd consumed as much as everyone else put together, was still speaking lucidly but sitting at ninety
degrees to the rest of us and slowly rotating in place, while Arunai just sunk lower and lower into one of
the webbing-chairs she'd provided for us. I'd been hesitant to touch the stuff at first, but Bael had insisted,
and it was nice having my worries dissolve into sugar-scented fizz.
          The blue-haired Unforgiven was in mid-lecture and almost upside down. "The thing about gods,
you see. The thing is." He lost track for a second, and Jahara prompted him.
          "The thing is?"
          "They're parasites. Just like all the rest of them. Nicer parasites, mostly, but still…"
          "What do…" I had to concentrate to avoid slurring. "What do you mean?"
          "Do you know how the multiverse works?"
          I shook my head.
          "Lemme tell you how the multiverse works. A universe, right, a universe is the basic unit of life."
          "Of life?"
          He took a sip from his cup and nodded. "Yup. Universes are alive."
          "But…" I tried, slightly shakily, to get my thoughts in order. "Universes are filled
with…with…you know. Stuff. People. Stars. Lots of space."
          "So? They live, they die, they reproduce. Universes."
          "Okay." At this point, I was prepared to accept it.
          "Right. And every time a living creature is born, it takes some energy away from the universe to
live with. As it lives, the energy gets bigger, and when it dies it returns to the under-layer. The fabric.
Whatever. You get my point, right?"
          "Sort of."
          "But that's like…" He searched for a word. "The point. Of living things, anyway. Intelligence is
just a side effect. Self-organizing systems and all that. But the point of a living thing is to build energy for
the universe."
          "Why?" I hiccupped. Luckily the field on the cup prevented me from spilling anything.
          "'Cause when there's enough energy, the universe splits in half and you get two universes."
          "Why?"
          "'Cause the multiverse is memetically self-organizing, okay? Let me finish. I'm trying…" He
paused to remember what he was trying to do.
          "Trying to make a point about gods, if I recall." Jahara, as ever, was calm and in control. Bael
nodded emphatically.
          "Right. So on the one side, you've got real living things, which exist to help the universe
reproduce. And then on the other side"--he held out a hand, as though presenting something--"the
parasites."
          "Parasites."
          "Right. Youma and gods and demons and so on. Creatures that pirate off the universes by
stealing energy from living creatures. Sometimes they do it like predators, just kill someone and suck out
his juice. But gods are subtle bastards. They move in a little at a time, take energy from a bunch of people
so nobody notices." He seemed genuinely upset. "I hate fucking gods."
          "Hey." Arunai spoke up. "Mom was a goddess."
         "S'right. Fine." Bael smiled mischievously. "I like fucking goddesses. But they've got all kinds
of power, and they're great in bed, but when push comes to shove they're not worth a puff of smoke because
they're not real. They have to adapt to their worshippers. So they don't even live as long as humans --
never really die, but they change into something else, and then again and again until who knows what they
are." He shook his head, sadly. "Still. Fucking great in bed."
         "Dad." Arunai looked appalled.
         "Oh, don't look so shocked. I heard you when what-his-name came over."
         Arunai's face suddenly burned crimson, and Bael looked satisfied. I glanced at Jahara, who shook
his head in a 'what-can-you-do' kind of way.
         "Bael, I believe it is time for us to be going."
         "I figured." He sobered, almost visibly -- I wondered how much of his intoxication was by choice,
given his Unforgiven physiology. Certainly Jahara didn't seem affected. "Thank you, Jahara."
         "For?"
         "You know what for."
         "No thanks are necessary."
         "Thank you anyway. And as for you"--he turned to me--"feel free to drop by anytime you feel like
hanging out with someone who smiles once in a while, okay?"
         I nodded woozily, which seemed to amuse him to no end. Jahara stood from his chair, moving in
low gravity with masterful skill, and headed for the door. Bael followed, and Arunai and I went after them
shakily. I caught her eye as we skimmed down the corridor.
         "Can I ask you a question?" It had been bothering me all night, and I'd finally worked up the
courage to be impolite.
         "Sure."
         "Why did you say, 'It's probably a good thing?'"
         She was silent a moment. "Hotaru…"
         "Go ahead and tell me." I sighed. "I probably won't remember in the morning."
         "Okay." She closed her eyes to steady herself. "Think about it from his point of view. How old
are you?"
         "Fifteen, but--"
         "How long do you expect to live?"
         "I…" I stopped. "I don't know. Normal humans on my world live to be maybe seventy."
         "Things are better with high-tech, but still." She shook her head. "If you were to like him--"
         I wagged a finger. "Speaking hypothetically."
         "Right. Even if he liked you, he has to think about what would happen. A hundred years from
now, you'll probably be dead. Now try and imagine how many times this has happened to him."
         I tried. The mind boggled -- I'd lost friends and family, and come close to losing more on many
occasions. I tried to imagine that happening inevitably, over and over, for five thousand years.
         "Gods."
         "Yeah." She looked at me, uncomfortable. "Can I ask you a question?"
         "Sure." I was still mulling over what she'd said.
         "What's it like knowing that you're going to die?"
         "What?"
         "Not now, I mean. But eventually." She caught my confused look. "I'm half Unforgiven, half
god. Barring accident, I'll live until I get tired of it. I've tried to imagine what it must be like, for someone
like you, but…" She sighed. "I just can't get there. I feel like I'd just kill myself right off the bat. What's
the point in living for a lousy hundred years?" She glanced at me again. "No offense."
         "None taken." I shook my head, musingly. "I don't know. I've never lived any other way."
         "But how can you deal with the fact that someday you just won't be there? I mean…"
         "Mostly I don't think about it." I laughed at her horror-struck expression. "I guess we get good at
not thinking about it."
         We'd arrived at the portal, and Arunai was looking embarrassed. "Sorry for asking stuff like that.
I mean…I'm just…dunno. A little drunk."
         "Me too." I giggled. "Don't worry about it."
         "Hotaru?" Jahara stood by the throbbing blue doorway. "We’re headed back."
         "G'bye, Aru. Bye, Bael." I slipped through the oval, still waving. "Bye…"
           Somehow, I knew I was still dreaming. My body felt whole, complete, and there was no pain. It
was a fantasy that I knew was a fantasy, which made it seem comfortable, somehow. Nothing really
mattered.
           Jahara was there, of course. Sitting with his legs crossed on some sort of cushion. I sat next to
him, and he nodded to me without speaking.
           Of course without speaking, I thought. This is a dream. Only I get to start conversations.
           "Hey." As first lines go, I've had better.
           "Hello." He was grave, as always.
           "Okay." I took a deep breath. "I've got some stuff I want to say."
           "You may, of course, say whatever you wish."
           "And this is a dream, so I'm just going to say it. Okay?"
           "Hotaru." A touch of concern crossed his face. "You seem upset. What is wrong?"
           I shrugged. "Somebody stuck a sword through me. I think I'm dying. That's what you generally
do after something like that."
           "Ah."
           I shook my head, having lost my train of thought. "Anyway. Something to tell you."
           "Yes."
           "Jahara…"
           "Yes?"
           "I love you." After I'd said it, I couldn't believe the words had just popped out like that. "I'd never
tell you in real life, but this is just a dream. I know its insane. I could never even say it, because no matter
what you felt you couldn't tell me, and even if you felt the same way it'd only hurt you. 'Cause someday I'll
be dead and you'll still be here." I sniffed. "Looks like that's a little sooner than expected, huh."
           I'd hoped he'd be taken aback, a little. The great Jahara, for once bereft of something to say. But
that was unrealistic -- this had probably happened to him a hundred times. "I think I have been dreading
this."
           "I know. I'd never do it to the real you."
           "So you said."
           I leaned up against him, and after a moment he put an arm on my shoulder. I could feel myself
starting to cry, which seemed so unfair -- I'd held off until now. My voice was a choked whisper.
           "I don't want to die. I don't."
           "Hotaru…"
           I wiped my eyes with one hand, angrily. "I did this, though. Even just here. I told you. That's
something, I guess." I rested my head against the bulk of his side. "I never had sex, or found a bathing suit
I really liked, or saw the latest Miyazaki movie, but at least I did this."
           "Hotaru." I looked up to find him staring down with tight lips and hard, pupil-less eyes. "You are
going to have to hold on. If you die…" He paused for a moment. "I will be very upset with you."
           I smiled weakly as he faded away.
Chapter Twenty-One
       Ami

         "Oneesama?"
         I blinked, swallowed, and almost gagged. Other then that, waking up was surprisingly painless.
For a moment the 'why' of it, the memory that would tell me why I expected to be in horrible pain on
waking, floated comfortably beyond my reach. I smiled at the faint touch of whiskers on my skin.
         "Oneesama, are you awake?"
         Time to wake up for real, reassure the frightened cat-girl, and…and…
         I sat bolt upright.
         "Oneesama!" Kyn wrapped her arms around me so fiercely it took me a while to pry her off.
"You're okay! They said you would be but you were asleep for a long time and I was worried about you,
and then the blond guy came and looked at you and said something I didn't understand, and then I found a
grasshopper, and then I came back in here and waited until you woke up!" Her tail twitched violently.
"Wai! Now that you're okay, we can have fun again?"
         "Kyn!" I shouted right in her face, something I do only when I'm really losing it; she looked so
chagrined that it ripped my heart out almost instantly. "Kyn, I know you're happy. Where's Hotaru?"
         "Hotaru?" She cocked her head and stared past me. "Hmmmm…hmmmmm…"
         "I'll find her." I moved the catgirl to one side and headed for the door to my little room. Even in a
distracted state, I noticed my surroundings -- a reasonably well-preserved apartment complex, probably,
honeycombed with tiny rooms. The corridor was long and looked disused, but was luckily occupied.
Minako sat on a bench next to two men I didn't recognize, both dressed in black-on-gray camouflage. They
looked up as I slammed the door open, and Minako's mouth opened in an 'O' of surprise.
         "Ami! You're awake?"
         I nodded quickly. "Where's Hotaru?"
         "She's…" Minako's face fell, and for a moment my heart stopped beating. "She's not doing well.
The Lieutenant and the Doc are with her now, but…"
         "Where?"
         "End of the hall, turn left, third door on the right." She blinked. "Ami, you shouldn't be walking
around. We don't know--"
         "Save it." She started to look hurt, too, and I sighed. "Sorry. Worry about me later. Where's my
bag?"
         "Here." She reached under the bench and pulled out my backpack, which I shrugged on. "I don't
know if you want to see her, Ami. She's not awake, and there's not much…"
         I was already disappearing down the hallway, trailing a catgirl who bounced delightedly from wall
to wall and came away scampering from impacts that would have stunned a charging horse.

         Another door, this one slightly ajar. I burst in to find two men clustered around a bed, one young
and blond with his hair in a military crewcut, the other more distinguished looking with wings of gray at his
temples. The older man looked up as I entered and shook his head sorrowfully.
         "She's going. There's nothing I can do; she lost a huge amount of blood before we got here, and
we don't have any supplies on hand. If we open her up to repair the damage, she'd probably die on the
spot." He looked down. "I doubt she'll regain consciousness. We need to--"
         "Get out." I didn't know who these men were, and I didn't care. Beyond them, I could see Hotaru
lying on a narrow futon, white cloth wrapped heavily around her midsection and stained a horribly deep
crimson. She was still wearing her uniform, although the doctor had slit the cloth up the middle to get at
the injury.
         "I know you're upset, but--"
         "Out."
         The blond nodded at his companion, and the pair quietly left and let the door swing closed with a
creak. I let out a deep breath and knelt next to the dying Senshi, shrugging my backpack onto the floor and
extending my senses.
         The doctor had been right -- Hotaru was on the verge of letting go of her body and slipping away.
I whispered a quick apology, thankful she was still asleep. This was probably going to hurt. Reaching out,
I grabbed her by the metaphorical scruff of her neck and slammed her back into her shredded form, holding
her there by sheer force of will while I rooted in my pack for my emergency supplies.
            Technological healing and magical healing are often orthogonal. Technological healing tends to
work by brute force, performing the tasks necessary to keep someone alive until their body caught up and
pulled itself together. Magical healing, on the other hand, is much more persuasion than anything else,
pushing someone to heal themselves and providing the energy they need to do it. Having them work
together is usually not a good idea. In an emergency, though, I worked with whatever I could.
            I pulled the thin vial from its hidden pocket and held it up to the light. It was tiny, maybe two or
three cubic centimeters, and half full of gray sludge. It was also worth far, far more than its weight in gold.
Nano-technology was by far the rarest stage of a technological civilization's evolution. Not because it was
terribly difficult to develop, though it was certainly beyond the abilities of all but the most advanced
cultures. But nano-tech products were rare for a different reason -- they were dangerous. Once the genie
was let out of the bottle, the clock started ticking; it was a rare world that went more than ten or twenty
years before a runaway replicant dissolved it into a vaguely planet-sized ball of goo. The products that
such worlds produced before their destruction, though, were marvels. This little vial had cost…
            "Who cares what it cost." I opened Hotaru's mouth with one hand and thumbed the top off the vial
with the other. Once I'd tipped it down her throat, I let my eyes close and got on with some more serious
healing.
            It was something of an uphill battle, but I was used to that. I could feel the presence of the
nanobots in her system, cool and emotionless, connected into a single distributed processor by focused
radio beams. Using scalpels and stichers smaller than individual cells, they started putting things back
together. Other, slightly larger robots hung out in the girl's bloodstream, sampling what they found and
duplicating it by assembling new blood cells from less vital components. The last set headed straight for
the brain, where they took over the job of keeping her from slipping into darkness -- the tiny bots used their
own internal energy to short-circuit the respiratory cycle and keep vital tissue alive without oxygen or
nutrients. It wouldn't last long, since the little things could only carry so much power, but it took a load off
of me.
            It was almost an hour before I leaned back from the futon, hands shaking in exhaustion, my vision
blurry from forgetting to blink. The little nano-assemblers were dying as their internal batteries ran down,
but they'd done their job. The girl's chest rose and fell with a comforting regularity, and I twitched a
discarded blanket from the foot of the bed till it covered her.
            "Hotaru's not dead."
            I practically jumped out of my skin. The voice was piping and high-pitched but somehow sad; I
turned to see a patch of darkness detach from the deeper shadows in one corner and resolve itself into a
little girl, younger than Hotaru, with limp red hair and a thoughtful expression. She made her way to the
side of the futon and sat down heavily.
            I blinked. "So who are you?"
            "My name's Dee." Her demeanor changed, suddenly, and she gave me a bright smile. "It's short
for Darasora, but everyone calls me Dee. Who're you?"
            "Ami Mizuno." I looked Dee over with a critical eye -- she was stick-thin, and apparently hadn't
had a bath in months. "What are you doing here?"
            "Sitting with Hotaru. I thought she was going to die."
            "She was. Going to die, I mean. But not anymore." My head felt a bit fuzzy -- that kind of
massive healing took its toll on the healer, and I was in pretty bad shape myself.
            "I wanted to watch her die." Dee looked at Hotaru almost sadly. "Poor Hotaru."
            "W…what?" Clearly something wasn't getting through correctly. Dee looked at me, a little
annoyed, and adopted a tone of voice usually reserved for speaking to five year olds.
            "Hotaru's my friend. My best friend in the world. So I was watching to see when she stopped
breathing."
            I gave up. "You're weird."
            Dee giggled. "Everyone says that."

         The nano-assemblers had dumped a good dose of sedative into Hotaru's bloodstream as they
completed their work, so it would be another six hours or so before she woke up. I left her in the company
of the odd little girl after extracting a promise to leave her alone, and made my way back to the room I'd
been in originally. Minako was just where I'd left her, practically vibrating with suppressed tension.
         "Ami, what's going on? The Doc said you went to see Hotaru--"
          "Yeah. She's"--I squeezed my eyes shut for a second, staving off an impending headache--"she's
going to be fine. Just tell him to leave her alone…give it another six hours…" I staggered towards the
door.
          "She's going to be fine? Ami, what did you do? Are you okay?"
          "'M fine. Jus'…" The bed looked horribly inviting, and I collapsed into it with a sigh. "Just need
to sleep. Wake me up in six hours, too. Okay?"
          I wasn't conscious to hear her answer.

          By the time I woke up again, it was almost noon, and light had infiltrated my bedroom despite the
heavy curtains on the windows. I managed to get up and make it to the door just a moment before Minako
knocked -- my internal timesense is pretty good for such things.
          "Good morning." Mina looked as though she'd gotten some sleep, and found time to brush her
hair and change clothes as well. I was suddenly aware of my own disheveled state, and gave silent thanks
I'd never grown my hair long as I'd sometimes contemplated.
          "Afternoon, by the look of it." I yawned.
          "Are you feeling any better? You looked pretty out of it last night."
          I nodded vigorously. "Much better. Doing stuff like that knocks me out pretty good, but it goes
away quickly."
          "The Doc looked at Hotaru after you went to sleep. He said he'd never seen anything like it."
          I allowed myself the beginnings of a smile. "I daresay he hasn't. And that reminds me: are you
planning to explain what all these strange people are doing here?"
          "Yeah." Minako blushed, just a tad, and my smile became knowing. "We're gathering everyone
together…"
          "Better meet in Hotaru's room. She'll be waking up soon, and it's good to have someone with you
after something like this."
          "That little girl has barely left her side."
          I briefly recalled my conversation with Dee. "Someone normal."
          "Right. I'll meet you there -- let me get everyone else and bring some food."
          "That sounds excellent." My stomach had been reminding me of its status for some time. I
quieted it down with soon-to-be-fulfilled promises and headed for Hotaru's room, only to be intercepted
halfway there.
          "Wheeeee!"
          The floorboards creaked under the weight of the demon, and Kyn hung by the back of her shirt
from one of his claws, swinging back and forth and squealing with delight. I rolled my eyes; the demon
click-buzzed an indignant comment.
          "Sorry to have kept you here this long. You're free to return home." You have to phrase things
carefully, with demons -- 'free to go' would have let it rampage around the countryside.
          "Good." Its burning red eyes flickered to Kyn. "For some reason I find myself unable to end this
odd lifeform. I would be grateful if you removed it."
          I grabbed Kyn by the legs on the next pass and pulled her down, tearing a big hole in the back of
her shirt in the process. The demon bowed respectfully.
          "Tell your master I owe him a favor."
          "Of course." The thing vanished with a faint pop, returning to its own plane of existence. Earth is
in a high-energy universe, so getting the thing here took me quite a bit of effort; it could return home,
however, and have energy to spare. This struck me as somehow unfair.
          "That was fun!" Kyn squirmed out of my grip and turned to look for the demon. She seemed
disappointed that it had gone. "What happened to Mr. Bitey? Did you blow him up?"
          "I sent him home." I started walking again, and she bounded along at my side.
          "Okay! Can we go visit him sometime?"
          "I doubt you'd enjoy that." I thought for a moment. "Actually, you probably would."
          "Wai! I bet Mr. Bitey has lots of friends I can play with!"
          "Quiet for a bit, Kyn."
          "Hai!"
          We stepped softly into Hotaru's room to find her just waking up, with Dee curled up and lying half
on top of her. Hotaru's purple eyes flickered open, and she took in the scene with remarkably equanimity.
          "Oh." She let out a long breath. "I guess I'm not dead after all."
         "Nope." I sat down at the edge of the futon and gently moved the sleeping Dee to one side. "How
are you feeling?"
         "Not bad, considering." Hotaru closed her eyes for a moment and tried to sit up. "Ow. Still
hurts."
         "Sorry. I did my best putting you back together."
         "I figured it was you. Somehow I'm not surprised."
         "I was. I didn't even know you were on Earth. I thought you headed out with Jahara."
         "I did." There was a trace of pain in her expression. "I came back just a few days ago."
         "Me too." I shook my head. "We leave for a couple of years and the whole planet goes to hell,
right?"
         Hotaru smiled weakly. "I always said they couldn't do anything without us."
         "Right."
         She sat up, successfully this time, leaning on one arm for support. "So. I assume we won, then?"
         "Sort of. They pulled out, or so I'm told -- I was unconscious, too."
         "What about Tsunami?"
         "Who?"
         "The girl I was fighting. The one who--"
         "I'm not sure. I assume they took her with them."
         "She was…" Hotaru broke off and shook her head. "I don't know."
         "Was she a Senshi?"
         The girl nodded wearily, and I sat back, musing to myself.
         "A new Senshi. I didn't even know that was possible."
         "She's--" Hotaru stopped in mid-sentence and grabbed her head; I hurriedly put a hand on her
shoulder.
         "Are you okay?"
         She nodded after gasping a bit. "Moved…a bit too fast."
         "You should lie down."
         "Not yet. Listen. Tsunami is Sailor Saturn."
         "You're Sailor Saturn."
         "So is she. The guardian stream thought I was…unsuitable, I guess. It picked someone else."
         I nodded slowly. "Have you lost your powers?"
         "No. Not yet, anyway. I'm not sure it can take those away."
         "Any idea why Tsunami is on the wrong side?"
         "I don't know. She didn't seem mind-controlled or anything, but…" Her stomach gave another
twinge of pain, easily visible in her face, and I pressed her gently to the mat.
         "At least lie down."
         "It's…okay. I'll be okay."
         "I know. Humor me."
         She nodded shortly. "What I don't understand is..."
         "What?"
         Hotaru paused for breath. "The Sailor Senshi are reincarnations of the originals from the Moon
Kingdom, right? So how did this new girl get to be one?"
         "That's actually the easy part. Forces that operate in the underlayer are not really subject to time,
so changes propagate backwards. It's counterintuitive but it seems to work."
         "Okay."
         Hotaru closed her eyes again, just in time for the door to open and the rest of the group to troop in.
There were a few moments of confusion before everyone was sitting in a rough semi-circle in front of the
futon. Even Dee woke up and watched the proceedings with interest.
         In addition to myself, the furball, Dee, and Hotaru, we were joined by Minako, Rei, Shard, Luna,
and the two gentlemen whom I'd seen earlier attending to Hotaru. Once we were settled, it fell to Minako
to make the introductions.
         "So let me…I mean…just for background…" She stopped, a bit nervous under all the attention,
and started over. "I'll cut a long story short. Shard, Artemis and I made it to the UK, only to find that it
was under heavy Sa'an occupation, centering around Stonehenge. My contacts there managed to pop us out
just ahead of the Dark Adepts and get us onto a submarine headed for the US. For whatever reason, the
Imperials haven't really caught on to the idea of submarines, so we made it okay and got in contact with
some people over there."
           "Having a talking cat helped." Shard smirked. "You'd be amazed how useful that is for
convincing people you're out of the ordinary."
           Minako nodded. "We got a lot of good information from the Americans -- they've been studying
the Sa'an, obviously, and they have more of an intact infrastructure than anybody else. After a while we
convinced them we'd be more useful here, particularly if I could round up the rest of you, so we came back
via LA and Hawaii. Artemis volunteered to stay behind, and see what else he could learn."
           "Makes sense." I nodded thoughtfully. "So we're all here. Now what?"
           "I…don't know." Mina looked a little taken aback, and I was reminded that she was slightly out of
her depth here. Shard intervened, clearing his throat and gesturing in the direction of the two newcomers,
and she seemed to remember them suddenly. "Right! Let me introduce you: this is Lieutenant John
Corvere and Doctor Richard Merson."
           The older man, whom Minako had referred to earlier as the Doc, dipped his head respectfully.
"We've heard a lot about you, Miss Mizuno." He had an American accent, of course, but not a terrible one.
           "Ami, please." I waved a hand and he smiled.
           "You can call me Doc. Everyone else does."
           Corvere, on the other hand, had twisted his face into an expression of intense concentration before
finally speaking. "I express the desire to…be indebted to you, landed-lord-equivalent Mizuno, for
partitioning me in relation to this tract of land, with great humility."
           I tried to keep a straight face, but I could hear Minako chuckle. The Lieutenant's expression
barely flickered as he tried to continue.
           "The group with me as their leader and I, the act of coming to this tract of land, exists for a long
time. The king of small lands which are together ordered me the act of coming to this place, the act of
helping you large amount (formally)."
           That was about all I could take without smiling; I switched to English, in which I was reasonably
fluent, if a bit rusty. "Lieutenant, this might be easier."
           He let out his breath in a gasp. "Thank God. I was worried I'd have Mina chuckling at me
through the whole meeting." At this she broke into out-and-out laughter, and he shot her a glare. "I didn't
think it was that bad for someone with maybe ten days of training." He looked back at me with a shrug.
"Oh well. Just trying to be polite."
           By this point Kyn, Dee, and Luna were giving us blank looks, so as we continued I provided a
running summary in Japanese for their benefit. Shard managed to speak English with a Texan drawl, for
some reason, and Minako was much more fluent than I remembered -- she'd obviously been practicing, and
she completed the introductions.
           "Lieutenant, you already know me and Shard. This is Rei Hino"--she nodded--"and Ami Mizuno.
The one sleeping over there is Hotaru Tomoe."
           "I'm not sleeping." Hotaru rolled onto her side to face the group. "Just in a lot of pain."
           The Doc, who'd treated Hotaru's injuries earlier, shot me a significant glance. I shrugged and
made my own introduction. "Hi. Like Mina said, I'm Ami, and this is Kyn." Kyn had been engaged in a
close study of her shoes, which was typical of her in social situations; I grabbed her by the ears and forced
her to face the audience. "Say hello, Kyn."
           "H…hello! I basically just help out Oneesama whenever she needs help, which is basically never
so I don't have much to do but that's okay because we always meet such fun people and sometimes they try
to kill us which Oneesama says is scary but I think is neat, and then we run back to the ship and it goes
'brrrrrrm' and we fly away and sometimes they come after us and I get to play with them. Only the ship is
broken now." She looked up at me. "Oneesama, when are you fixing the ship?"
           "Not for a while, probably."
           "Oh." She contemplated that for a moment and shrugged. "Okay!"
           Kyn put her head in my lap, curled up, and promptly went to sleep. I looked at the rest of the
group; they seemed mildly appalled. I spread my hands.
           "What can I say? Wandering around the universe is a bit lonely and boring by yourself."
           The Lieutenant had obviously picked up next-to-nothing from Kyn's breathless speech, but had
correctly concluded there was very little of importance. He seemed to be mostly business, but likeable for
all that; the looks Mina kept giving him made me wonder whether something was going on there. I
dismissed the thought as accurate but probably irrelevant.
          "So. In summary: we're all here. We had a battle with the Sa'an, kicked the tar out of them
militarily speaking, but we have to run and hide anyway."
          "That sounds about right." Shard yawned. "So the real question is, what next?"
          "They have to have some kind of weakness."
          It was idle musing on my part, but Rei responded vehemently. "There's nothing."
          "Nothing, Miss Hino?" The Lieutenant looked a little condescending, and for a moment I wanted
to smack him. "Maybe from your point of view. We've been studying them around the clock, however,
and the boys back home came up with a few ideas."
          "Such as?"
          Corvere launched into what was obviously a prepared speech. "From observational records of the
Sa'an in battle, we can draw a few conclusions. First, they appear to have no officers as such. Command
authority is apparently distributed, with each soldier responsible for his own actions. This has the
advantage of letting them react quite fluidly to changing threats, but in an uncontrolled situation might
work to our advantage. We predict that they would have great difficulty in mounting a coordinated defense.
Second--"
          Rei broke out laughing, and the Lieutenant glared at her.
          "Miss Hino?"
          "That's such crap." They exchanged stares until Rei shook her head. "Look -- I'm sure you've
studied tapes of them fighting, but you haven't actually been on the ground against them, have you?"
          "No…" He admitted it grudgingly. "Not aside from last night."
          "I have. And whatever conclusions your people came up with are bogus."
          "How so?"
          "The troopers talk to each other, somehow. I know it's not radio, but they communicate in real
time. They're not bad at fast coordination, they're spectacularly good at it. The soldiers are almost like
robots -- I've never seen one break under pressure or run away except as part of a coordinated retreat -- but
they can think, and plan, as fast as any human."
          Corvere nodded slowly. "So what do you suggest we do?"

          I used the time after the meeting broke up to find the water source the soldiers had been using, a
broken water pipe that dribbled cold, clear liquid in an continuous stream. My throat felt parched, as
though we'd been arguing for hours, and the fact that they were no closer to agreeing on a course of action
didn't help. I sat down heavily on the floor and leaned against a wall, staring into space.
          "That went well." Someone else sat down next to me; to my mild surprise it turned out to be Rei.
She caught my glance and sighed. "Corvere still thinks we should try and ambush some patrols, guerilla-
style."
          "You've told him that you tried that?"
          "Yup. I get the sense that he thinks we failed because we weren't 'professionals.'"
          "Great." I closed my eyes again. "That's just what we need around here."
          "You can't really blame them, Ami. They're frustrated -- it's hard to convince them that trying to
hit back would be suicide."
          "I know."
          There was a long pause. In the end, I had to ask.
          "So. Rei."
          "What?"
          "Any particular reason you're speaking to me again?"
          "Well…" She hesitated. "You saved Hotaru, and Setsuna."
          "I guess."
          "That's not really it, though. When Shard showed up again, I realized…" She sighed. "Look, let
me do this properly. I want to apologize."
          "For what?"
          "For how I treated you. It wasn't fair."
          "Ok. Apology accepted." I leaned back against the wall. "Just before you got here, I was
wondering if you were right."
          "Don't get all guilty on me. You said it yourself, there was no way to know--"
          I held up one hand. "Not about that. About the Sa'an."
          "What about them?"
          "That we can't stop them."
          Rei fell silent, and I continued.
          "I mean, we've saved the world before, right?"
          "Right."
          "There's always some way out. Some weak spot, some countermeasure. Right?"
          "Right."
          "But who says there always has to be?"
          "There has to be something. Or else--"
          "Or else what?" I turned towards her. "Listen. I've seen a lot of Empires. They crop up all the
time, and pretty much all of them fall apart eventually."
          "Empires are inherently unstable. Too much centralization of power."
          "Okay. But what if there was a way to set up one that lasted?"
          "You said yourself it doesn't happen."
          I held up a finger. "Not quite. I said it isn't likely. But in an infinite multiverse, it's bound to
happen eventually, and when it finally did it would spread outwards forever."
          "Is that what you think the Sa'an are?"
          I shrugged. "Maybe. I know they're older than most civilizations. They go back past the
beginning of the records, even in the big interdimensional centers."
          "So why don't they own the universe?"
          "It's a big universe. An infinite number of dimensions, most of which are infinite in size. It's hard
to own the whole thing."
          Rei shifted uneasily. "But what can we do? They're here. We have to deal with them."
          "We could leave."
          She looked at me sharply. "Leave?"
          "Leave Earth." I waved a hand in a circle, where it left a glittering blue trail in the air. "I can get
us away from here, all of us."
          "But…"
          "What's the alternative? Stay and die gloriously?"
          "It might be better."
          "Now that is crap." I leaned closer. "Look, I know how you feel. I'm a guardian, too -- this weird
desire for self-sacrifice is built into us. But try to forget that for a moment and think. If there's nothing we
can do, and the world is doomed anyway, isn't it better for the people we care about to survive? I know
what I'd choose."
          Rei nodded, slowly. "And everyone's here, now."
          "Right--"
          "Everyone but Usagi, and Makoto"
          I fell silent.
          "I know what you want to say, Ami. That Usagi's dead, and Makoto is one of them."
          I'd never say such a thing; I realized, as my optimistic hopes evaporated, that I'd merely been
guilty of wishful thinking. "We can't leave without them."
          "I don't know if I can leave at all." Rei sighed. "You were always the smart one. Maybe you can
get past your guardian programming -- I'm not sure if I can. I don't know if I could live with myself
afterwards."
          Silence, again. It stretched on and on. I felt good, somehow -- it felt good just to talk to Rei. I
hadn't really admitted to myself how much her anger had hurt me.
          The moment of reverie lasted until the building started to shake, a low rumbling vibration
punctuated by a series of crashing booms from downstairs. A second later, an unfamiliar face belonging to
one of the American soldiers popped around the corner of the doorframe, speaking simple but
understandable Japanese.
          "Uh…sorry to disturb you, ladies, but the LT says that we're under attack and would you please
get the hell up there. Politely."
          I glanced at Rei, who smiled grimly. "We're on our way."
Chapter Twenty-Two
       Tsunami

          By the time the order actually came down, the anxiety had practically cut me to ribbons.
          Kaia seemed cheerful enough, but the unsmiling presence of Commander Ashghar behind her lent
an air of severity. For the moment, despite his earlier speeches, the Commander seemed to be content to let
his subordinate do the talking. Kaia gave me an overview of the area and the target, which was apparently
some old apartment building.
          Then her expression went serious for a moment. "Tsunami?"
          I tried very hard to keep my eyes from flicking to Kyoko, across the room. "What?"
          "I know your last mission proceeded somewhat…sub-optimally. Be assured that this one will be
better."
          I gave a half-smile, mostly from relief; I didn't really think that the Vice-Commander had caught
on to ours plans, but it was nice to know that she was just trying to cheer me up, in a weirdly martial kind
of way.
          "Thank you, Vice-Commander. I have every confidence."
          "Good." I caught Ashghar's expression and wondered if that might have been a little too slick of
an answer. The last thing we needed was him getting suspicious -- any hint of concentrated attention from
the Sa'an officers could get us both into deep, deep trouble.
          "So what are we up against?"
          "Our intelligence indicates that this should be the same group we encountered last time, minus the
member that you dealt with but possibly with conventional reinforcements. They've shown themselves to
be dangerous, so this time we are taking precautions. The strike force will consist of yourself, Makoto, a
full squadron of drones, and two squads of Assault Mecha. In addition, we've attached twelve Adepts to
counter the enemies' supernatural abilities."
          "Let me make something clear at this point." The Commander cut in; Kaia looked slightly
annoyed. "Adepts are in very short supply on this planet, so we cannot afford a bloodbath. You and
Makoto will be in operational control, subject to Grid approval. The safety of the Adepts is paramount --
they should only be used to confront obviously supernatural forces. Let the drones and mecha handle any
conventional opposition; I think you'll find them more than capable."
          I nodded. "Understood, Commander. When do we attack?"
          It was Kaia who answered. "Tonight, just after full dark. We'll aim for maximum confusion
among the enemy forces."
          Confusion at night was not a problem the Sa'an Legions suffered, of course, with their omni-
present Grid doing communications duty. They were still experts, though, at taking advantage of such
problems in others.
          "Any further questions, Tsunami?"
          "Nope." I leaned back in the padded chair, trying to project just the right combination of
innocence and arrogance. "I think we can handle it."
          Ashghar smiled thinly. "So do we."
          Kyoko let out a long breath as soon as the two had gone. I let my head roll back in the chair,
staring at the ceiling and trying to relax.
          "You think they're on to us?"
          I ran a hasty Grid check, to see if there were any listening units close enough to hear -- none that I
could see. If they had bothered to plant listeners that could hide themselves from me, which I was certain
was within their capacities, we were sunk anyway.
          "No. If they were on to us they'd just shoot us or something. Ashghar is pretty direct."
          Kyoko walked across the room towards me, shaking her head. "I still don't like this."
          "You don't think you're going to be safe?"
          "You know what I mean. How do you know they won't just kill you when you get back?"
          "They won't." I wish I felt as confident as I sounded. "Ashghar will hesitate before giving up his
private killing machine."
          "What if he changes you?"
          That worried me, too. "I'll have to make sure he doesn't. I'm more worried about your side of
things. We'll be in the middle of a battle…who knows what could go wrong…"
         We stared at each other in an agony of mutual worry. I'm not sure which of us decided it was
funny first, but even the hint of a smile in a situation like that can be contagious. Before too much longer
we were both laughing.
         "Look." I shook my head, wiping my eyes. "It's probably not a great plan, but it's the best we
could come up with. We're just going to have to hope that it works."
         Kyoko nodded. "If not, you can take it out on me when we meet up in the afterlife."
         "I'll plan on it." This time the laughter was forced.

          There were a few hours to kill before the operation started. We hung around the room, not talking
much; I tried to eat, but found myself too nervous to really be hungry. Kyoko hadn't so much as touched
me since last night, which I found myself thinking at times was too bad. It would have relieved some stress,
anyway. As the time got closer, I decided she was more worried then I was. This too was logical -- she
didn't get to transform into some hyper-swordswoman. I realized Kyoko had probably never really been in
a fight -- something I could have claimed a couple of weeks ago -- and that got me worrying about whether
or not she'd make it.
          <Incoming message: strike team assemble at dock forty-one.> The Grid message was
accompanied by a mental map; Kyoko looked up as I stared into space.
          "It's time?"
          "Yup." Deep breath. "You ready?"
          "No. Not much choice, though."
          "We can still call this off."
          She smiled weakly. "Don't tempt me, Tsunami."
          We headed down to the dock together. The Assault Mecha were already boarding, and I stopped
for a moment to watch them. They were maybe nine feet tall and made entirely of sleek black metal,
everything swept backward as though the designer had been worried about wind resistance. Each shoulder
sported some kind of missile launcher, raised above the head, and each Mech had four arms complete with
weapons. They took no notice of me, of course, and I was relieved to note they didn't bother Kyoko, either.
          She looked at them with an expression that mixed interest and revulsion.
          "Haven't you seen them before, in the videos?"
          "A couple of stills." She shook her head. "It doesn't get everything across…they're so smooth."
          I nodded. The Mecha moved like living creatures, with the same quiet grace as a panther. For
some reason it was disturbing to watch -- I felt instinctively that anything made of metal should move
jerkily, in big segments, like some old hydraulic robot arm. When the Assault Mecha shifted position, you
could almost see whatever passed for muscles ripple under their diamond-hard black skin.
          The drones, by contrast, were reassuringly mechanical. They looked a lot like the big Sa'an
cruisers in general design, a black sphere ringed at the equator by a band of what looked like glass that
glowed bright purple when activated. They were stacked neatly for transport onto a kind of shelving unit
provided for that purpose, but when in action they hovered agilely above the ground, twisting and yawing
to aim their small, deadly snouts.
          Kyoko was appropriately overawed at this collection of ultra-tech military hardware. So far, so
good, plan-wise. The only place for a human to sit in the cavernous bulk of the transport was a set of
benches ringing the walls; we picked a spot behind the dressed ranks of mecha and tried to look
inconspicuous. I kept my voice low, more as a kind of prayer than through any real fear we'd be overheard.
Kyoko, of course, was not supposed to be on the transport at all. Our only salvation was the fact that she
was something of an anomaly, since the Sa'an system basically only accounted for officers, Legionnaires,
and prisoners.
          Or so I'd guessed, anyway. Our entire idea was based on my reading of the Grid, and the
hypothesis that lacking instructions to the contrary, it would let Kyoko go wherever she wanted to. It
appeared to be working.
          "That went pretty well."
          She shot me a furious glare that said 'I know that, so please shut up.' I settled for twining my
fingers around hers and letting her tighten her grip to circulation-cutting levels. The transport seemed to be
taking an inordinate amount of time to get ready, and with every heartbeat I was waiting for someone to
raise a hue-and-cry. Of course it wouldn't really happen that way -- we wouldn't be able to hear any alarms.
Most likely the giant mecha in front of us would simply turn around and open fire.
          I kept my eyes on the doorway and tried to distract myself from such cheery thoughts. The Adepts
trooped aboard, an even dozen of them in lockstep, identical in their coal-black armor with slung shotguns.
They paid us no attention whatsoever, for which I was grateful; somehow they gave me the creeps in a way
that the usual Legionnaires failed to match. Their arrival left one element missing from our strike team.
          I disentangled Kyoko's fingers from mine with an effort and got up off the bench. I'd warned her
about this, but she clearly didn't feel comfortable by herself; she wrapped her arms close and gripped her
shoulders. I had a sudden ache to sit back down and wrap myself around her. Instead, with a wrench, I
walked over towards the entry door and waited.
          Makoto arrived not long after, dressed in form-fitting Sa'an black. I nodded, politely, as the door
closed behind her and a faint 'ching' echoed through the vessel. We were detached from the dock and on
our way to the target, though there was no sense of motion.
          I thought Makoto was ignoring me again until she spoke without turning her head.
          "They've assembled a lot of firepower here."
          I nodded, not sure what to make of this small talk. She shifted uneasily and continued.
          "Are you sure you're okay with this mission? Nothing you want to mention before we arrive?"
          I was irrationally certain she knew about Kyoko, tucked away behind the rows of nine-foot
armored suits. But there was something in her tone, not accusing but…pleading, somehow. I caught her
eyes and she held my stare without blinking.
          "I'm fine." I was watching her carefully. "Are you?"
          "Of course. This is our most important deployment yet. Capturing these targets will greatly aid
our cause."
          There was a flicker behind her eyes. Just barely a flicker, but I was convinced it wasn't a
phantom; she didn't want to do it. I tried to work through the implications of this, but my mind was reeling.
I wondered what in the hells they had done to her. All of a sudden I was glad we'd gone with Kyoko's
version of the plan; mine had involved killing Makoto as soon as possible. It was the sort of thing Hyde
would have wanted me to do, and I noted absently that I hadn't heard from him in a while. I wondered if I'd
finally managed to tune him out, or -- and this was a scary thought -- he had shut up because I was finally
doing what he wanted, becoming what he wanted me to be.

          We hit the ground well outside the actual building.
          They knew we were coming, obviously -- they'd have to be blind not to, since the shuttle was lit
up like a Christmas tree. We could have put the Mecha on the ground a distance away and walked, but that
was not how Ashghar and Kaia apparently wanted it done. A few seconds before landing, the side doors
had opened up to the night chill and let the drones stream out into the night, purple rings flickering on as
they fell, establishing a perimeter around the building and preparing to blast anything that tried to get out. I
could feel a little tickle at the back of my mind as they sent in their reports, Grid-streams of pure data I was
barely capable of interpreting. I didn't even try, as I had other business to attend to.
          Makoto was going around to the far side of the building, taking one squad of Mecha with her and
half of the Adepts. The rest of them stayed with me, and once Makoto was safely out of sight around the
corner of the building I beckoned to Kyoko. She hesitated a moment before stepping out into plain view of
the giant armored figures, but they remained unresponsive.
          "That was fun." She looked over at me, curiously, and I took a deep breath and invoked the
transformation. I realized absently that this was the first time she'd seen me do it on purpose. White light
rose and fell, leaving me once again wearing the black-on-white uniform.
          "Okay. Are you ready?"
          I felt like I'd asked her that question a dozen times, but Kyoko didn't mention it. "Yeah."
          "You have everything you need?"
          She patted her pockets. "I do. Let's move before someone notices us."
          I reached out through the Grid and pulled up the map of the building assembled by the hovering
drones. It wasn't complete, but I could tell in real time where the robots were exchanging fire with the
defenders. We had a squadron of the little black things -- that meant thirty-six, of course -- and so they'd
pretty well covered most of the windows and seemed to be keeping the people inside pinned down. I could
see the blinking marker for Makoto's position, in a hallway on the opposite side of the building.
          I started to jog forward; Kyoko kept up, but the Mecha and the Adepts stayed behind. They
wouldn't follow me without orders, and I was hoping that no one back on the cruiser was paying
sufficiently close attention. We found a service door on our side of the building -- it was locked, but a
quick swipe of my swords removed that as an obstacle. Beyond was what had once been a well-appointed
apartment building hallway, though now the wooden walls were scarred and torn and the carpet ripped and
dirty.
          "Where to now?"
          "Hang on." Back to the Grid, this time looking for the closest defenders. A pair of drones had
pinned down an unknown number of enemies at a blockade on the second floor; I cast about until I found a
staircase and headed in that direction. Once we reached the top, I motioned for Kyoko to stay back and
poked my head through the doorframe.
          A pair of the purple-and-black drones hung menacingly near the ceiling, raking a makeshift wall
consisting of a pair of dining room tables pushed back to back. The tiny weapons on the drones emitted
nothing but a faint, high whine, and I could see little pockmarks appear in the wood as splinters flew. A
gun barrel appeared over the top, followed by the head and shoulder of a man, but the drone zeroed in
before he could fire and he fell backwards with a grunt. The drones drifted a bit closer, just past me.
          I caught Kyoko's eye, and she nodded silently. The closest drone was almost within arm's reach --
it was the easiest thing in the world to draw my swords and bisect it neatly, chopping through the black
armor plates like water. There was a soundless 'whump' and a brief feeling of weight, and then the pieces
of the thing clattered to the floor. The second drone rotated, but before it could get me in view a bolt of fire
from behind the barricade caught it in the side and blasted it to bits. The strange almost-sound repeated,
and there were two dead drones of the floor, one of them burning merrily.
          I sheathed my swords as quickly as I could and put my hands over my head, looking around to see
if there were any other Sa'an forces in the area. Slowly, as though not quite believing what they were
seeing, a man and a young woman stood up from behind the barrier. The girl was dressed in a thin combat
outfit that had seen better days, with short black hair and a piercing gaze. Her companion was taller, blond
and blue-eyed, wearing black-on-gray camouflage and heavily laden. I could see at least two pistols, plus
the rifle he now slung over his shoulder and half-a-dozen grenades hanging from his belt.
          The woman spoke first. "Who are you?"
          So far, so good -- again. As long as they weren't shooting first and asking questions later, we had
a chance. "Tsunami. This is Kyoko."
          This brought on a whispered conversation between the two of them. "Tsunami?"
          "Yes." I was starting to get nervous -- all right, more nervous. It was only a matter of a few
minutes before more drones would be deployed to where these two had been lose.
          "You're the one who almost killed Hotaru."
          That broke my stride. "Almost?"
          They were silent, perhaps thinking they'd given away too much, and I decided I'd had enough. I
grabbed Kyoko by the arm and ran to the barricade. The big guy leveled his weapon but didn't fire -- it
would have been his funeral had I wanted to kill him. The girl, on the other hand, just crossed her arms and
stared at us.
          "What do you want?"
          I took a deep breath. "Look. You don't have to trust me, you don't have to believe me. Yes, I
work for the Sa'an. No, I don't want to. This is my friend Kyoko"--I dragged her to the fore with a little
yelp--"whom you have to take care of, okay? Now you all have to get out of here."
          The girl blinked. Kyoko raised a hand, hesitantly. "H…hi."
          "You don't…want to…" The soldier seemed to be working his way through the concept, but the
girl was a quicker thinker.
          "How do we know she's not a spy?"
          "You don't have to tell her anything. Just take her with you and keep her safe."
          "For how long?"
          "Until I come back." Actually, I hadn't quite worked out that part of the plan yet. I figured we
could cross that bridge when it arrived.
          "What about your people in the building?"
          "They're not my people. You have to get out of here, all of you -- Makoto has enough Adepts and
Mecha to stop an army."
          "Makoto!" She seized on the name. "What do you know about Makoto?"
          "There's no time -- Kyoko can tell you most of it. I have to get out of here, they can track me.
Are you going to take care of her or not?"
         "I'd like to point out that I don't really need much care, except when people are shooting at each
other." Kyoko gave a worried grin. "If that matters…"
         The woman considered for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Fine. We'll take her with us, at
least."
         "That's all I need." I turned, trying not to look at any of them, but Kyoko caught my shoulder
before I could get away and whispered in my ear.
         "Tsunami. Just don't die, okay?"
         I smiled with more bravado than I felt. "Don't worry about it."
         Then I thought, what the hell. I turned on one heel and kissed her for what seemed like hours.
When I'd finished, her whole face had turned tomato-red; I almost laughed.
         "If you let anything happen to you, I will personally hunt you down through the afterlife and make
you beg for mercy. Got it?"
         "Got it." She smiled, despite the blush. "Now run."
Chapter Twenty-Three
       Hotaru

          By nighttime, I was actually feeling a bit better. Recovered from half-dead to merely a quarter-
dead, maybe. I'd slept intermittently through most of the day, so by the time night actually fell I couldn't
stand to spend another minute lying down, nausea or no. Sitting up turned out to be much easier than I'd
expected, and before I knew it I'd actually managed to get to my feet, albeit by leaning heavily on one of
the walls.
          The sound of someone else standing up startled me so badly I almost ended up back on the floor --
since the room had been dark, I'd assumed I was alone. My breath caught until I recognized Dee's thin
silhouette in one corner, and I let out a sigh.
          "Dee, what are you doing here?"
          "Waiting for you to wake up."
          "That's nice of you." I tried walking -- a little wobbly at first, but I made it across the room
without falling. "Did you meet everybody?"
          "Yeah." Dee looked down at the floor. The change in her attitude was enough to register with me,
finally, and I sat down on the bedding with relief and beckoned her over to me.
          "What's wrong?"
          "I don't know." She sat down next to me, and I put my hand somewhat hesitantly around her
shoulders -- given her background, I didn't want her to interpret anything the wrong way. She seemed
comfortable with it, though, and leaned her head against my shoulder.
          "What have you been doing all day?"
          "Sleeping. I got some food from one of the soldiers and asked him where God was, but he said he
didn't know."
          "I think she's downstairs somewhere." Ami had mentioned that she and the others were taking
care of Haruka, who had been wounded semi-seriously trying to fight a squad of Sa'an legionnaires by
herself. "When she's feeling better, I'm sure she'll be happy to see you."
          "I was going to be a sacrifice." Dee's voice was small, somehow lost.
          "I know." I patted her vaguely on the arm -- this was somewhat new territory for me, so I wasn't
quite sure what to do. "You'll be okay now."
          "I wanted to. She said I was going to be the best sacrifice we'd ever had. Everyone said that."
          I was silent.
          "They all died, didn't they?"
          Not much point in trying to conceal it, given that she'd been there. "Yeah."
          Dee nodded, taking this in stride. "So now what?"
          "What do you mean?"
          "What do I do?"
          I stammered a vague response. "You can…I mean…" I took a deep breath. "We'll take care of
you." That was more a statement of faith than anything else, but I meant to try and stand by it.
          "She took care of me." Dee wrapped her arms around herself and hugged, tightly. "She gave me
food and protected me, and all I had to do was die." I was startled to see that see was crying.
          I didn't answer. What can you say to something like that? The awkward silence that followed was
mercifully ended by the crash of the door being flung to one side. I blinked in the sudden light from the
hallway -- two of the soldiers that had accompanied Minako were outlined against it. Dee barely moved.
          "You girls awake?"
          I nodded, and the pair backed into the room. They looked nervous and armed to the teeth, not a
particularly good combination, and were dressed in gray-and-black camouflage. The one who'd spoken
was the shorter one, while the other was taller and wore a pair of hexagonal glasses. They watched the
door as though they expected something to burst through at any moment.
          "Good." The soldier turned to his companion. "They're both here. Tell the Lieutenant."
          "Um. What's going on?"
          The taller soldier muttered into his radio before turning to me. "This position is currently being
contested by hostile forces. The Lieutenant, having observed the ratio of fire- and manpower between
these forces and our own assets, has ordered that we execute a retrograde maneuver."
          "The bad guys showed up and we're getting the hell out of here," translated the other. "Do you
have anything you need to take with you?"
           "N…no." I shook my head. "What about the others?"
           "As we were prepared for this eventuality, appropriate plans have been made to maximize their
safety."
           "Right. I'm Hill. This is Jeffries. You're Hotaru and Dee, right?"
           "Right." My brain felt like an old, creaky automobile kicked unexpectedly into high gear, rattling
and shedding parts at the edges. "I thought none of you spoke Japanese?"
           "Most of us do, which is why we were picked for this job. The LT has special talents, so they just
gave him a crash course." He glanced around the doorframe and was apparently satisfied. "You ready to
go?"
           "One second." I took a deep breath and concentrated. I wasn't happy about having to transform --
my thoughts shied away from the way it had felt last time. But there was no other choice. I needed the
speed and strength; we couldn't exactly run away if I could barely walk. "Saturn Crystal Power, Make
UP!"
           The usual array of swirling lights rose and fell. The Americans looked pretty much unfazed --
they'd seen it before, I guessed. Hill nodded.
           "Do you need a weapon?"
           I concentrated again, and the comforting weight of the Silence Glaive dropped into my palm out of
thin air. I gave him my best evil smile, which he seemed to appreciate. Dee looked on in awe -- she'd seen
me transform once or twice before, but apparently had never gotten enough of it.
           "What about her?"
           "Giving her a weapon is probably not a good idea. Just keep her behind us."
           "Got it." Hill gestured succinctly, and his companion moved out into the corridor. Both soldiers
were using some odd kind of rifle with a heavy, blocky shape at one end and a long barrel. Hill let me and
Dee move in the middle while he took up the rear, keeping an eye on the corridor behind us.
           "Where are we going?" I kept my voice to a whisper.
           "Stairs to the basement. There's a couple of entrances down there we hope they don't know about.
Right turn at the end of this hall, then the third door on the right."
           "Affirmative." Jeffries settled into a slow, smooth stalk to the end of the hall, peering left and
right before ducking back. "Two enemy mobile aerial units to the left."
           "Shit." Hill thought for a moment. "Hotaru, what exactly are you feeling up to doing?"
           I took stock of my physical condition -- pretty good except for leftover pain. "Whatever you
need."
           "We'll hit the drones. You open the stairway door and kill anything on the other side. Got it?"
           I nodded.
           "On my mark. Three…Two…go!"
           The two Americans spun out into the corridor, and I heard an angry whir. Before I'd taken a few
steps it was drowned out by a fantastically loud pair of cracks and a strange bass 'whump.' I didn't bother to
look back, just checked that Dee was behind me and kicked open the third door on the right.
           This turned out to lead to a little stairwell, wooden and dangerously rotten. From the look of it we
were on the third floor, and through the center of the spiral I could see all the way down to the basement.
In fact--
          I jerked backward, hard enough that I bumped into Dee and knocked her back out into the corridor.
Beams of angry red light erupted from the floor where I'd been standing -- the little bit of movement I'd
caught one turn below us on the staircase had been barely in time. I could hear the creaks and groans of the
wood as whatever-it-was climbed towards our landing.
           "Hotaru!" This was Hill, behind me. "Is that stairway clear?"
           "Not yet." I got back to my feet, gestured for Dee to stay where she was, and took a deep breath.
"Give me two seconds."
           "Shit." The soldier's voice was drowned out by a buzzing roar, punctuated by the loud cracks.
           The thing, which I assumed was some Sa'an weapon, was obviously waiting just around the corner
of the landing. It knew we would have to go this way, and it was waiting for me to poke my head around
the corner so it could vaporize it. It was a pretty good plan, even though I knew about it -- there wasn't
much of a way out, assuming we need this staircase, and I had little doubt any others would also be guarded.
           So what could one do? Well, assuming one was completely and totally insane and had no regard
at all for one's own well-being, one could proceed like this: Sprint from the cover of the doorway onto the
landing and take a left turn just before entering the enemy's field of view. Then jump over the flimsy
railing designed to keep children from falling into the pit and toppling down four stories. Reach for the
railing on the opposite side, one level down. Then pray.
           My hand barely wrapped itself around one of the bars in the railing, and I winced as splinters from
the wood dug into my palm. This brought my leap to a bone-jarring halt, and I turned the momentum into a
swing, pushing off the side of the stairs and flipping up over the rail onto the landing. That was the intent,
anyway -- the rail had an unpleasant amount of give to it, so I settled for simply grabbing the side of the
stairs and holding on for dear life. Another quick yank was enough to send a big section of it toppling into
oblivion, and I hauled myself up hand-over-hand.
           That got me onto the second-floor stairway. I hoped my as-yet unseen opponent hadn't caught on
-- a quick quarter-turn up put me directly underneath it. I could see the floorboards bulging under its
weight, and that gave me a good spot to aim at. For once, the six-foot length of the Glaive came in handy,
and I carved a big X into the third-floor stairway and let the thing crash down.
           It fired blindly as it fell, wood puffing outward into splinters where the red beams touched it, but it
couldn't really draw a bead on me. It was bigger than a Legionnaire, but along the same general lines --
shiny black armor, blank faceplate -- and that was about all I had time to see before I chopped it in half.
The body jerked and sparked as it died, and I was surprised to see spreading trails of blood.
           Weariness closed in around me like a shroud. I reflected, not for the first time, that since I'd just
been killed yesterday forcing me to do this sort of thing was really not very fair. Then autopilot kicked in
and I was shouting up to the Americans and Dee.
           "Clear! Come on, but watch for holes in the stairway."
           The little girl came stumbling down first, followed by the two soldiers. Hill ducked past me and
kept going, while Jeffries guarded the rear. A moment after they entered, a black sphere about the size of a
basketball hovered into the doorway, aiming a thin, deadly-looking protuberance at us. There was a
CRACK louder then a bolt of lightning, and the strange machine was suddenly reeling backwards from the
force of a projectile that had practically blown it in half.
           "The hostile forces appear to use these expendable mobile aerial units to keep tabs on our position.
Basic tactics would indicate a strong likelihood of another engagement once we reach the basement."
           "Shit." Hill stopped, about halfway down the staircase. "He's right -- if they know we're coming
this way, they'll be waiting for us down there."
           There was a moment of relative calm. I shrugged.
           "Don't look at me; it's your plan."
           He nodded. "I've got an idea anyway. Come on."
           The end of the stairway was a dirty little room in the basement, with a single closed door behind
which Sa'an troops were almost certainly waiting. Hill glanced at his companion.
           "How are you doing for ammo?"
           "Fifty-one rounds remaining. That is a reasonable stock in single-shot mode."
           "Here's the deal: I'll go full-auto and clear the room, then you guys pile through. Got it?"
           From the way he said it, I expected Jeffries to make some objection, but he merely nodded. I
found Dee looking up at me and gave her what I hoped was a reassuring grin. She looked scared. Actually,
she looked terrified.
           "You okay?" I kept it to a whisper as Hill fiddled with his weapon.
           She shook her head, shivering.
           "What's wrong?" I couldn't help being a little curious. "Come on. The worst that happens is we
all die, right?"
           "No." Dee's voice was precise. "The worst that happens is they catch us and make us into
those…things. The black helmets."
           So there was something Dee was afraid of. "Don't worry. If it looks like we're going to be
captured, I'll kill you myself."
          "Really?" She brightened. "Thank you!" Dee squeezed me in a hug. "You're my best friend ever,
Hotaru!"
           I rolled my eyes. Whatever worked…
           "Ready." Hill glanced back at us. "You might want to cover your ears."
           I pressed my hands to the side of my head as he braced the long gun against his hip, checked one
last setting, and--
           The sensation was probably indescribable. Having my hands on my ears mattered not at all -- the
sound came in through every pore and shook my body until it felt like by bones would crack. Dust fell
from the staircase above us, and I could see Dee's mouth open in a soundless scream. It was a moment
before I realized I was screaming, too, drowned completely under the noise of the soldier's weapon.
          I expected the door to explode into fragments, but it actually developed quite a neat collection of
sharp-edged holes. Hill played the weapon gently back and forth, and the top half of the door collapsed; it
couldn't have been more than a second before the gun clicked dry. I couldn't tell whether the sound had
stopped -- I couldn't hear anything, and Dee and the Americans were mouthing like landed fish. Hill was
gesturing us forward, and I stumbled through what was left of the doorway as the deafness subsided to the
ringing of a thousand cellular phones.
          The room beyond, which had been some kind of boiler room when the building was intact, had
been reduced to a shambles. The rusted hull of the boiler had been hit a half-dozen times, each neat little
hole surrounded by a few inches of shiny metal -- the force of the impacts had blown the rust and grit into
the air. The stone pillars that supported the ceiling were riddled with little tunnels, and the projectiles had
gone farther into the walls than I could see. Lying on the floor were three of the little flying drones, each
neatly perforated, and one of the larger-than-human black-armored things I'd seen before. I got a better
look this time: it shared the same basic form of a trooper but had four arms that terminated in wide-lensed
lasers. It had only been hit once, and was still trying to move -- before I could react Jeffries shot it twice in
the chest, and it collapsed.
          Dee followed me, clinging to my arm like a cat in a hurricane. Hill slung his gun over his
shoulder, nodded professionally, and took up point again.

          "Stop."
          The voice was familiar enough that I did, pausing in mid-stride. Jeffries snapped his long gun up,
and Hill stopped in the doorway, reaching for one of his pistols.
          I knew who it was, and I'd been filled in on some the story, hurriedly, by Rei and the others.
Makoto looked just as she always had, her hair maybe a tad longer and less well kept. There was only one
exception, and that was barely noticeable: the glint of black metal at the back of her neck, visible for a
moment under her ponytail.
          Somewhat surprisingly, she was alone. I'd half-expected to see her here, but only behind a wall of
black helmets.
          "Jesus. The traitor." Hill sighted right on her forehead. "Stay right there and put your hands up."
          "Don't shoot her!" I couldn't help it, and she was apparently counting on that. Hill glanced at me
for a tiny fraction of a second, but Jupiter moved at just the right time. She slipped sideways just ahead of
the blast from Hill's pistol and the much louder crack from Jeffries' gun; the bullet ricocheted and whined
away from the wall while the larger weapon drilled a hole in the stone.
          "Jupiter Oak Evolution!"
          The triple balls of crackling white zoomed in on Jeffries, who tried to dodge and almost made it --
the last one clipped his side and sent him to the floor. Hill cursed and shifted his aim, but Makoto was
already moving behind one of the pillars and his bullets raised sparks from the stone. I whirled, the Glaive
coming almost unconsciously to the ready position, and was therefore ready when she came barreling out
from behind the pillar. Good tactics on my part, but unfortunately there wasn't all that much I could do.
Since I wasn't prepared to cut my friend in half, I swung clumsily for her legs with the other end of the
Glaive. Mako jumped the swing, grabbed the haft, and twisted it unceremoniously out of my grip to land
on the floor with a clang. Before I could move she was on top of me, grabbing my left arm with a twist that
brought it behind my back just prior to the point of pain. Now we were facing Hill together -- the soldier
had recovered his aim but was apparently unwilling to take the shot.
          "Shit." He whispered into his radio and then returned his attention to Makoto. "If you hurt her, I'll
drill you."
          She didn't dignify that with a response. When Jupiter spoke, her voice was a whisper pitched for
my ears alone.
          "Hotaru, listen to me."
          "M…Mako?" Not the greatest response ever delivered. On the other hand, my arm was going
numb.
          "I've got about five seconds before they figure out I'm not just gloating and turn me off, so I'll be
quick. When I let go of your arm, I want your soldier friend there to shoot me. Okay?"
          "What?"
          "Look, I know what you're thinking. Just trust me when I say I've thought about it too. I'd do it
myself, but they wouldn't let me. So just trust me."
          "What did they do to you?" My lips were dry; I could almost hear Makoto gritting her teeth and
forcing the words out.
          "Fly. By. Wire."
          Then I felt the pressure slacken as she stumbled back. I spun around to face her, so I got to see the
look of panic in her eyes replaced by one of blank-eyed calculation. Hill took the opportunity to aim and
fire; unable to get completely out of the way, Makoto twisted in place and let the first round clip her
shoulder with a spray of blood. She hit the ground and stayed there, and something in her posture was
warning enough to the two of us. I was already diving for the floor when red beams punched through the
wall.
          They weren't slashing randomly, far from it -- the black mecha outside were somehow targeting
very accurately through the wall. I rolled just ahead of them, picking up the Glaive in one hand on the way,
and ducked behind a pillar. The stupidity of this hit me a moment before the lasers could, and I dived away
again as it exploded into a column of dust and molten stone.
          Hill was employing his time much more usefully. He'd rolled over to where Jeffries had fallen,
sparing a second or two to confirm that his companion was in one piece and then grabbing the big gun.
Before the armors outside could retarget he was firing, ear-shattering cracks coming one after another. The
beams fell silent, and I took the opportunity to scramble through the door to the next room on my hands and
knees. Two of the black armors were there, as predicted -- they were busy lining up new firing positions to
shoot back at Hill, and I took the nearer one by surprise. One swipe bisected it at the torso with a gush of
blood and a crackle of sparks, and I turned to face the other.
          Instead of the mecha, though, I was confronted with two of the strange troopers in dull black
armor. Each had a shotgun slung over its shoulder, but they didn't seem to be about to use them. They just
advanced on me, arms spread as though for a tackle, completely oblivious to the fact that I was holding a
weapon capable of dicing steel.
          Happy to oblige, I stepped forward and swung. I expected the Glaive to cleanly separate the first
trooper's head from his body, or maybe if he was really tough to cut partway through and require the force
of another swing. I certainly was not expecting it to evaporate en route, metal and wood blowing apart into
their component particles and shattering into a puff of dust when they touched the black armor. I stood
gaping for a moment longer than I probably should have, and the trooper reached me with one long stride,
grabbing my neck in one gauntleted hand and lifting me off my feet.
          I had the strangest sensation of falling, despite being held firmly in place. That, and the odd non-
sound of a buzz I'd gotten so used to I didn't notice it until it stopped. A sense of loneliness, of emptiness,
as though the entire world had dropped away and I was all that remained, solitary and unique in an endless
void. I could feel the hatred of the void, the cold, all of it coalesced and incarnated into this thing that held
me, a creature that resembled a person but was in fact no more human than a youma. Far less, in fact -- a
youma and a human shared a pretty similar mindset in many cases. As for this thing -- I became
irrationally convinced that if I'd managed to slice it open, there would be nothing inside the dark armor, just
a space as empty as a black hole.
          I became vaguely aware I was naked, my uniform having blown into dust in the same manner as
my weapon. It didn't seem to matter -- my whole body had gone numb, as though I'd been plunged into
ice-water. I could only stare straight ahead as the thing turned, still holding me, and--
          Let go. The crack of Hill's big rifle was loud enough to penetrate even my fogged ears; it was
followed by a sudden inrush of air. I bounced off the ground and coughed as my clothes -- not my uniform,
but the now-ragged things I'd been wearing in Haruka's dungeon -- flashed back into existence. I raised my
head slowly at the sound of another 'crack', and the second trooper was sheathed in black fire for a moment
before vanishing in a spray of ice-cold liquid metal.
          "Are you all right, Hotaru?" Hill entered the room, leading with the long gun; I nodded my head
since I wasn't up to talking. It took him a second too long to see the last of the black mecha standing in one
corner. I noticed his shouted warning a bit too late, turning to see the red glow already building at the tips
of its weapons -- nowhere to dodge, even if I'd been up to moving my legs. This barely had time to register
before my vision was interrupted by a green blur.
          Time speeded up again. The mech blew outward in a dozen pieces, Hill finished his shout, and
my jaw finished dropping. Jahara looked down, vaguely irritated, at the four neat circles burned into his
shirt.
         I blinked, and said the first thing that came to mind.
         "Do you time things that way on purpose?"
         He shrugged. "Occasionally. I find that matters often work themselves out in such a manner
naturally, however." He paused. "It is good to see that you are alive, Hotaru."
         I didn't know whether I wanted to hug him or punch him. It was a sensation with which I had
become somewhat familiar.
Interlude Four

           "The time has come," intoned Ashghar in the tones of someone who is making a portentous
statement and knows it, "to take advantage of this opportunity."
           Kaia seemed less sanguine. "Opportunity? This is a disaster! With all due respect, Commander,
I think it's time to stop treating this matter so lightly. Let me have three Legions, with cruiser support and
every Adept we can get our hands on, and we'll crush them once and for all."
           The Commander wore a tiny, self-satisfied smile. "Do they have you that frightened, Vice-
Commander?"
           "Frightened? No." Though they might if we weren't safely up here. "But any group capable of
inflicting the kind of damage we saw yesterday needs clearly poses a major threat, and should be treated
accordingly. I really don't think you're taking this seriously enough." She realized a moment too late that
this last was probably insubordination, but Ashghar seemed to let the statement pass.
           "Keep things in perspective. What damage can they really do to our operation?"
           "Depending on the exact circumstances, the damage could be considerable. We don't have any
evidence of how powerful they really are."
           "On the contrary." His smile widened. "I know exactly what we're up against."
           "You do?" This caught her off balance.
           "Of course. Did you think I was fighting blind?"
           "But…"
           "Access the data banks under the code 'Unforgiven.'"
           Kaia nodded, tried, and blinked as the return code came back. "Access denied? That doesn't make
any sense…I've never noticed anything like that showing in the indexes…" She trailed off as she reached
the obvious conclusion.
           "The indexes, Vice-Commander, do not show everything. There are of course certain sections of
the combined database that are open only to the most senior of officers." He raised an eyebrow in an
attempt at wry humor. "Such as myself. Wait a moment, and I'll authorize you."
           When he finally nodded, she tried again. This time it worked, and Kaia spent a few moments
digesting the information that flooded into her mind. Before she was done, her eyes widened.
           "This…this is…"
           "Our greatest failure. In fact the only general failure in the history of the Sa'an Empire. We have
never come across an enemy we could not subdue, or failing that destroy. But on that world, an entire fleet
was lost, along with half-a-dozen officers."
           "They wiped themselves out, too…but…" She processed a bit further. "Someone survived?"
           "It shouldn't have been possible, of course." Ashghar clasped his hands behind his back and shook
his head. "None of it should have been possible, according to the Adepts. But after several more
skirmishes, the High Command of the time reached a kind of a truce with these…creatures."
           "A truce?" That was beyond unheard of. The Empire never made peace.
           "They agreed not to interfere in our activities, and we agreed to let them go."
           "How could you get someone with so much power to agree to anything?"
           "They are not invincible, despite appearances. And their very nature makes them susceptible to
our Adepts. Bu t it was judged that hunting them down would prove too costly, and so they were allowed
to roam free."
           "It sounds as though you don't agree with the decision."
           "No. They should have been captured. Studied."
           "Why?"
           "Because what can happen once can happen again." His expression had become intense -- clearly
the subject was one to which he had devoted a great deal of thought. "No matter how rare they are, the
multiverse goes on without end. Eventually, the Empire will once again encounter creatures as powerful as
the Unforgiven, and the next time they may not be so few in number, nor so congenial. We must be ready
for them."
           Kaia nodded. That explains a lot. Ashghar's bizarre obsession with creating some kind of new
fighting force out of guardians, for example, and the experiments he'd been running on his captive subjects.
She was pretty sure she knew the answer to the next question, but it had to be asked.
           "What does this have to do with the group we're fighting?"
           "Two ways. First, I believe one of the Unforgiven may well be assisting them."
           "Really? It seems unlikely…"
           "Unlikely, yes. But it's as good an explanation as any for the ease with which they defeated our
conventional forces."
           "All right. What's the second way?"
           "This is my own, personal theory, based on the evidence gathered from the Unforgiven
homeworld and observations of them afterwards." He dropped his voice, as though afraid of hidden
listeners. "Only a few people know of it. Some of my friends, back at High Command. I've managed to
convince only a few, but they were kind enough to make sure I got this assignment. A lone world, far from
prying eyes."
           She felt bizarrely excited and being taken into his confidence. "Yes?"
           Ashghar straightened and lost his mysterious demeanor. "I believe the Unforgiven were created,
or somehow evolved, from the guardians of the lost world. Therefore, guardians hold the key to harnessing
that power."
           "So…" Another piece clicked into place. "Your experiments on the girl, with the Adepts. You're
trying to create--"
           "A guardian Adept. Yes."
           "And you think that might be the key to unlocking the power of the Unforgiven?"
           "Quite possibly. My task would be much simplified if I had a live subject to experiment on."
           "You want to capture one of them?"
           "It's possible, under certain circumstances."
           "How?"
           "The reason High Command did not want to fight the Unforgiven had a lot to do with their
spectacular mobility. They can walk through dimensions far more easily than we can follow, so catching
one is an extremely difficult task."
           "Okay."
           "In this case, however, the Unforgiven is apparently associated with the guardians of this planet.
And we know what the guardians want."
           "To rescue their companions."
           "Of course. Loyalty of that type is a key to the guardian psychology. Now that we've teased the
Unforgiven out of hiding, all we have to do is set the trap, and wait."
           "But…" She paused. "How do we trap them? Every force we've sent has failed. We've lost a
dozen Adepts, and one of your experiments." Makoto had vanished from the Grid shortly after the attack.
We've been working under the assumption that they were forced to kill her, but if they can move through
dimensions… That would make tracking her much more difficult -- cross-dimensional Grid traffic was
tricky.
           "All that is acceptable." Ashghar smiled again. There was a dry quality to it, like a lizard's grin.
"If it gains us the prize. Let me show you…"
Part V: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wand
Chapter Twenty-Four
       Ami

          I'd had a chance to get used to all kind of weird sleeping arrangements while I was traveling,
depending on the local gravity, physiology, and culture. Waking up in a plain if comfortable bed therefore
did not surprise me; I stared at the ceiling and tried to remember exactly where I was supposed to be.
There was one other person in the room, at least -- I could hear them breathing.
          "You know what I hate?"
          There was no response from the other, so I continued.
          "I hate it when you wake after you've been running away, or fighting. There's that little moment
before your brain has really turned itself on when you can remember that you should be afraid, but not why
-- I'm never sure if we've gotten away and taken a well-deserved rest, or whether they were just waiting for
me to wake up before starting on my knees again." I sighed. "Oh well."
          When I finally sat up, the visitor turned out to be no one more threatening than Hotaru, holding
her hand over her mouth and trying not to laugh. I shot her a glare that just made her laugh harder and
rolled out of bed, noting absently that I'd managed to change out of my clothes -- which I'd been wearing
for maybe a week straight now -- and into some kind of a nightshirt of unfamiliar design. Hotaru had
ditched the near-rags I'd last seen her in and was in a black T-shirt and shorts; she'd also gotten clean
somewhere, and in general looked far better than the last time I'd seen her.
          "I was going to ask how you were feeling, but since you're laughing at me I assume you're in good
shape."
          "All things considered. What about you? You collapsed pretty quickly after we got here, I heard."
          "I'm fine. Just burned too much power again -- healing you, then trying to escape." I looked
around. "We did escape, didn't we?"
          Hotaru nodded. "We're onboard the Aegis."
          "The Aegis…" The name sounded vaguely familiar -- all at once, blurred memories of the
previous night flooded back. "Oh. I'd…forgotten about that part. Your boyfriend showed up to save us,
then?"
          She blushed, just a little. "He's not my boyfriend. And he didn't save you guys, really. Just me."
          "Did everyone make it okay?"
          "Pretty much. A couple of the Americans were wounded, but between the Doc and what Jahara
has onboard we got that patched up pretty quickly."
          "How long has it been?"
          "Um…" From the look on her face I could tell I wasn't going to like the answer. "Thirty hours,
give or take."
          "Thirty hours? How could you let me sleep that long?" I tried to make mental space for this, and
failed. "More than a day…what's happened?"
          "Nothing." She snapped the word off.
          "Nothing? What about the Sa'an?"
          "They can hardly find us here, plus Jahara says they won't. Don't ask me why."
          "Still. We need to figure out what we're going to do next. Where is everybody?"
          Hotaru seemed to be wrestling with something; I could see indecision in her face. "Why don't you
get clean and dressed, and we'll go find them."

          A few minutes later, I was wearing much the same outfit that she was, and we were walking down
a gunmetal-gray corridor that extended forever into the distance. It was hard to believe we were inside a
starship, despite Hotaru's insistence -- it looked more like some underground military base. Doors were
regularly spaced along the passageway, and Hotaru led me to the first one of these that we saw.
          "Let's see. Last time I checked, Minako and Luna were in the greenhouse and Rei was in the
armory with Shard and a couple of the Americans. The Lieutenant and the Doc were with Jahara on the
bridge."
          "What about Haruka?"
          "We had to lock her in one of the jail cells -- she kept trying to blast her way out of her room. You
really need to have a look at her, Ami. She's…not well, and I'm pretty sure it's some sort of magic. Last I
checked Dee and your friend Kyn were keeping her company." Hotaru's expression said that this was the
understatement of the year.
         "First things first." We stopped in front of the door. "Where's Makoto?"
         "Jahara popped her into stasis until you woke up, just in case."
         "Just in case?"
         "She was trying to kill me. Sort of, anyway. And she has this little black thing in her neck that
looks very unpleasant." Hotaru took a deep breath, having finished the list. "So, where to?"
         "I…" I didn't really know where to begin, and she was looking at me as though it were my place
to decide something. "Where does this door go?"
         "Wherever you want." She smiled at my carefully blank expression. I noticed that Hotaru looked
happier then I'd seen her in a long time. "Let's go find Minako and see what's going on."
         I gestured to the door. "Lead on."

          There didn't seem to be much of a trick to the doors. Hotaru stared intently at it for a second, and I
could feel simple magic flare up and pluck the intended destination out of her mind. Then the gray metal
opened sideways and let us in to a garden.
          She'd said 'greenhouse', and for some reason I'd been expecting something small, a few racks of
plants growing in hydroponics bays. This place was of course built along the same gigantic lines as
everything aboard the Aegis. If more optical trickery wasn't afoot, it had to be at least half a kilometer long
and a few hundred meters wide, with four stories of walkways that converged every fifty meters into a
single spiral staircase. Each broad walkway was strewn with plants, and more crawled on the pillars that
held up the upper stories or climbed the rock-like substance that had been grafted on to the walls.
Overhead, I could see huge panels of what I sincerely hoped wasn't normal glass, letting in the always
spectacular view of the starfield from space.
          "…whoa."
          Hotaru was still smiling. I gathered she'd expected this reaction from me. "Impressive, isn't it?"
          "Yeah. Did Jahara build all this?"
          "Originally. He told me he went through a gardening period a few hundred years back. The ship
maintains it for him in case he ever needs it again." She stepped out onto the walkway -- the door opened
onto the top floor -- and took a deep breath, savoring the mixed aromas of ten thousand flowers. "Come on.
He's got some weird plants, but there's nothing dangerous."
          We found Minako and Luna on a little lawn surrounded by purple flowers whose petals spread
wider than my head. Luna was sprawled on her back in a very comfortable-looking position that reminded
me of Kyn, and Minako jumped up when she saw us coming.
          "Ami! You're finally up?"
          "None the worse for wear."
          "Great. Kyn said this was pretty normal, but I was a bit worried…"
          I waved a hand dismissively. "It happens all the time." That was not quite the truth -- I didn't
usually have to burn that much power. Little tricks like deflecting laser beams and blowing people to bits
paled in comparison to the energy demanded by really difficult healing.
          Minako turned to Hotaru. "What about you? Feeling okay?"
          "Much better."
          "So what are you guys up to?"
          "Hotaru was just showing me around the ship a little bit."
          "Isn't it great?" She spread her arms. "Look at this place! It's hard to believe we're on a
spaceship."
          I wasn't as instantly impressed -- Aegis was huge for a starship, but I'd been on space stations this
large many times. I had to keep reminding myself that all of this, giant greenhouse and all, could move.
That was impressive.
          Minako continued blithely. "And all these plants -- it's not the sort of thing you'd expect of Jahara.
I was picturing some dull hall full of trophies and rack upon rack of weapons."
          "He's got those, too." I stood aside and let Hotaru field this one. "There's an armory that just goes
on and on -- I think Rei's down there now."
          "She should be amused." I smiled. "I guess when you live as long as he has, you accumulate a lot
of toys."
          "Where is he, anyway?"
         Minako shrugged. "I haven't seen him since we got here."
         "Last I heard, he was going to check on Rei." Luna spoke without opening her eyes, wriggling
against the cool grass and emitting a feline yawn. "You could ask her."
         "Good idea. You coming, Hotaru?"
         The girl shrugged. "Why not?"

          Another door slid silently aside to reveal a power-gamer's wet dream. The shelves went nearly to
the ceiling, ten feet overhead; the place was clearly built for someone of the Unforgiven's height. They
appeared to be broken down by type or general nature, starting with simple edged weapons and working up
to the more complicated death-machines in the farther alleys. Row after towering row of glittering steel
and brushed metal gave the place an oddly churchy feel -- I felt as though I should keep my voice down and
walk quietly, an effect enhanced by the polished wooden floor. Our footsteps echoed as we entered.
          "Holy…" I kept it to a whisper.
          "I told you he had a lot." Hotaru apparently felt it too, and spoke in hushed tones.
          "I know. But still…" There were enough weapons here to outfit an army. Several armies, with a
choice of time periods. As we walked aimlessly, I noticed some differences on the shelves -- some of them
were enclosed behind glass, usually displays of swords or other simple weapons. I pointed them out to
Hotaru, who nodded.
          "Cursed weapons, or other stuff that might be dangerous to touch."
          "It's hard to imagine him designing this place for the safety of the casual visitor."
          "He didn't." She pulled her arms tightly around herself. "He put those here for me, when I first
came onboard."
          "Oh."
          We walked in silence for another few minutes before sighting Rei and two of the Americans down
an alley. One of the pair, a short but heavily muscled man with a tank-top and a blond crew-cut, had
removed a portable missile launcher from the racks and was trying to shoulder it, staggering a little under
the weight. The other two watched him, amused; I noticed, though, that the second American had a few
odd-looking rifles of his own picked out and the hilt of a double-handed greatsword protruded a foot over
Rei's shoulder.
          "Sheeeeit." The shorter soldier's voice was shockingly loud in the mausoleum stillness of the
armory. "Would you look at all this stuff?" He gestured to the high-tech cornucopia surrounding us. "We
got tactical smart missiles, phased-plasma pulse rifles, and RPGs. We got nukes, we got knives, sharp
sticks; sonic, electronic--"
          "Ami! Hotaru!" Rei looked up and trotted in our direction, leaving the two men behind. "Glad
you finally woke up."
          "So am I." I hugged her, which was difficult given the various pointy objects she'd slung over her
body. "You look like you're having fun."
          Rei rolled her eyes. "Aside from having to listen to those two for three hours. When we found the
railgun section I thought Hudson was going to explode on the spot."
          I chuckled as the soldier's raised voice filtered in again. "…and it's got independently targeted
micro-smart-bombs! Jesus…"
          "It's an impressive collection."
          "You don't know the half of it." Rei gestured away from the door. "Walk far enough that way and
there's maybe a hundred different suits of powered armor. After that come the tanks. Tanks!" Her eyes lit
up in a somewhat disturbing fashion. She reached up over her shoulder and drew the sword with a long
silken rasp of metal on metal. "Check this out."
          I blinked. The greatsword was fashioned in the shape of a three-headed demon, the blade
protruding from between the three heads that formed the hilt; the grip itself was the three spinal columns
twisted into one and wrapped in sharkskin. It was longer than I was tall, but from the way she held it it
looked as though it was made of aluminum foil. It was also absolutely crackling with magical power -- I
was surprised it didn't rend the air as it moved.
          "Uh…" Rei swung it back and forth, clearly entranced with her new acquisition. "Are you sure
that's safe, Rei?"
          "Jahara said anything not in a glass case is okay to use."
          "Use? He's letting you keep it?"
          "Borrow it!" I met her look with a raised eyebrow. "Until, you know, he needs it back."
          "I see." I started to voice another objection, but thought better of it -- as long as she wasn't going
to get herself killed, I figured she might as well mess with the Unforgiven's arsenal. Speaking of which--
          "Have you seen Jahara anywhere, Rei? I've been trying to find him."
          She considered a moment and shook her head. "Not really. He showed us around here for a bit,
but then he took off. Why?"
          "We've got some things to discuss." I looked over at Hotaru. "Looks like a dead end. Any idea
where to go next?"
          She sighed. "I think I know where he is."
          I nodded to Rei. "I'll catch up with you guys later."
          "What happened to Makoto?"
          "I haven't looked at her yet."
          A trace of her old anger reappeared. "Shouldn't that be your first priority? We don't know what's
happening to her--"
          "Relax. Jahara put her in stasis for the moment -- for her it's only been a few minutes since we got
on board." Rei's expression softened a little, and I continued. "I want to have everything I need ready
before we see what we're dealing with. It's better for her this way, believe me."
          "Okay." She stared at me a moment, then shook her head. "I'd better get back to those two before
Hudson pushes the wrong button. Say hi to Jahara for me."

           "So where are we going?"
           "It's like…" Hotaru looked distinctly nervous. "His private room. Um. I'm not sure if we should
bother him, if he's in there."
           "No?"
           "He might be mad. Not that he'd really get mad at us, but…I mean, I can tell…"
           I smiled -- since Hotaru was normally so serious, the little bit of discomfiture was charming. "We
won't intrude. If it's obvious he wants to be alone, we won't bother him. Okay?"
           "Okay." We stopped in front of another door, and she concentrated long enough to set the
destination. "Go ahead."
           The portal slid open, and we found ourselves in a short hallway of unrelieved gray metal. There
was another door at the other end, guarded -- for lack of a better term -- by an elderly man in loose-fitting
robes. Hotaru bowed as she approached, and I did likewise; the man responded politely.
           "Mistress Hotaru. So good to see you again."
           "You too, Third." She paused, feeling something more was called for, and gestured vaguely in my
direction. "This is Ami, one of my friends. Ami, this is Third."
           I wondered what had happened to the first two. Third bowed my way again. "Mistress Ami.
Welcome to the Aegis. Please inform me if I can make your stay more comfortable."
           "Thanks." I looked sideways at Hotaru, who nodded slightly. "Actually, we need to see Jahara.
Is he here?"
           "He is indeed inside. Regretfully, however, the master has instructed me that he is not to be
bothered. Once he emerges, I would be happy to convey your requests to him." He bowed again,
somehow managing to express his sincerest regrets in a simple gesture. Another sideways at my
companion told me not to bother pressing the issue.
           "Just tell him I would like to speak with him, when he gets the chance."
           "Of course, Mistress Ami." Third let us turn and get halfway to the door before he suddenly
beckoned a stop, putting one hand on his ear. "Wait a moment."
           We waited. Third kept nodding, as though acknowledging instructions, until he finally looked up.
           "The master instructs me to admit you." He tapped a command on a panel next to the door and it
opened, noiselessly, revealing only darkness beyond. "Proceed, Mistress Ami."
           I stepped up to the doorway, unable to help feeling a little bit nervous. Hotaru followed until the
old man put a hand on her shoulder.
           "The master wishes to speak to Mistress Ami alone for a time. He assures me, Mistress Hotaru,
that you and he will speak later at length, and he begs your indulgence."
           I suspected Jahara had used slightly blunter terms, but the meaning was clear. Hotaru looked a
little taken aback, but she took it well enough.
           "I'm going down to see Haruka and Dee, then. I'll see you later, Ami."
           "Later. Thanks for the tour."
          The girl's reply was inaudible as the closing of the door cut her off; I turned back, squared my
shoulders, and stepped into the darkness. Once the door closed behind me, the gloom was near-total. I
blinked rapidly, trying to clear the spots of phantom color that danced behind my eyes.
          Jahara turned to face me. I could tell because his eyes were the only thing visible in the room,
glowing from within with an eerie green light that cast a fitful illumination over the rest. I could barely see
the rest of his bulk, outlined by his own inner fire. Besides that, nothing.
          "Miss Mizuno." He inclined his head, slightly. I winced in memory, which he picked up on --
apparently the Unforgiven had very good night-vision. "Is something wrong?"
          "Not really." I tried a smile. "Whenever someone calls me 'Miss Mizuno,' I'm reminded of
Eridu."
          "That is certainly not my intention. How should I address you?"
          "Ami is fine."
          He nodded. "As for myself, if I possessed any other names I've long since forgotten them. Jahara
will do."
          I paused, not really sure of how to continue. "Jahara…"
          "About what did you wish to speak to me?"
          "I…" I looked around, reflexively -- I wasn't ready for any of the other Senshi to hear this. "I
wanted to thank you. For helping us, and letting us on your ship."
          "Is that all?" Something in his tone said that if it was, he was going to be disappointed.
          "No. I've been talking to some of the others, and I'm not…I'm not sure what we should do next."
          Jahara raised one barely visible eyebrow. Emboldened, I went on.
          "I mean, Rei and the others are busy picking out all the weapons they can carry, Minako seems to
be relaxing, and everyone expects me to fix up Haruka and Makoto with a wave of my hands. Even if I
could"--I was still highly doubtful of this--"then what? Go back and fight the Sa'an? Forever? Even Rei
knows better than that. So why are they all so happy?"
          What I could see of Jahara's expression looked pained. "They expect me to return, and help
them."
          "But you're not going to."
          "No."
          "Why?"
          "I cannot." He clasped his hands behind his back and turned with a sigh. "I should not even have
brought you here. It places me in considerable jeopardy."
          "In jeopardy?" That caught me off guard. "What could possibly put you in jeopardy?"
          He was silent for a long moment. "Let me ask you a question."
          "Go ahead."
          "You are well on your way to becoming a being of considerable power." I started to protest, and
he held up a hand. "Allow me to stipulate this for now, for the sake of argument. The question is: as your
powers have increased, has your life gotten substantially easier?"
          "My life?" I thought for a moment. There was obviously some kind of test here, some hidden
meaning, but I couldn't really find it. "I guess…a bit, maybe. I don't have to worry about little things
anymore. Getting food, shelter, that sort of thing."
          "But…" The Unforgiven prompted.
          I thought a little harder and nodded in agreement. "But people expect me to do things that I
couldn't before." Like healing my friends. "Things that I can't always do."
          He nodded, slowly. "This is how I have found it to be, also."
          "But what could possibly threaten you?"
          Jahara looked uncomfortable, which was a rarity. "The Adepts of the Dark."
          "The Adepts…"
          "They are servants of the Sa'an, or perhaps the other way around, and they are anathema to my
existence. To yours, too, I would imagine."
          An ugly picture was forming in my mind, revolving around armored suits that walked through my
best spells as though they weren't there. "They wear black armor, almost like the Legions but not quite?"
          "Armor?" His grin, barely visible, had little humor in it. "You might call it that. More like a
spacesuit, to allow the Adept to exist in an environment as poisonous to it as hard vacuum would be to you.
They cannot abide the touch of our world -- matter, energy."
          "But…"
           "Ask Hotaru. She has felt the Adept's touch."
           There was a long pause. "So. You won't help us against the Sa'an."
           "No. I am bound by the rules of the truce between us."
           "Truce?" I chuckled nastily. "You're just frightened of them."
           Jahara raised an eyebrow. "You seek to bait me, Ami Mizuno. Under other circumstances, it
might have succeeded. I am not one to back down from a challenge. But this…" He shook his head.
"No."
           "But what else can we do?"
           "Leave."
           "Just…run away?"
           "I have been running away from the Sa'an for five thousand years. You should learn to do the
same."
           "We can't just keep running forever. Sooner or later, someone has to take a stand."
           "You are wrong. There are an infinite number of worlds in the multiverse; no matter how many
they conquer, the size of the Sa'an Empire remains finite. There is always somewhere else to go."
           "But…" I could feel my arguments running out of steam under that dead green stare. "Earth is
my home. I can't…I mean…"
           "What, exactly, are you protecting?" He leaned closer. "A group of people you've never met? A
culture? A set of ideas? When you have lived as long as I have, you will realize that only individuals
matter."
           "I find it hard to believe you're willing to let an entire world be destroyed, just like that--"
           "You are laboring under a misapprehension." He drew back. "Your world is already destroyed.
Even if I were to aid you, we would fail. The Sa'an are invincible, Ami. Even if we were somehow, by
some fluke, to destroy the entire fleet surrounding the Earth, do you know what would happen? Sa'an High
Command operates on a simple principle -- if some amount of force fails, simply send twice as much. If
that fails, double it again, and again. Not that it would go that far -- the second fleet would simply reduce
your planet to slag without ever reaching the ground. No one is allowed to challenge the Empire and live."
           He turned away. "So the choice you face is not between saving your world or fleeing; it is
between surviving and dying pointlessly. I would not have reached this age if I took such choices lightly."
           I waited a moment longer, in case he had anything else to say. When it became obvious that he
did not, I turned and stalked to the door, vibrating with barely suppressed rage.

          Hotaru was waiting just outside, with the strange manservant named Third. She looked up
nervously as I approached, caught my expression, and went white as a sheet. Third bowed smoothly and
gestured towards the exit door.
          "Can I see him--"
          Third cut her off. "Not at the moment, Mistress Hotaru. The master wishes to be alone. Later
tonight, he promises you."
          "Okay." She looked around. "Hey, Ami, wait up!"
          I opened the door, fixing in my mind a picture of the ship's jail, and Hotaru just made it through
before it closed. I couldn't help muttering to myself as I strode down the hallway, identical to every other
hallway we'd seen, and looked into the cells. Each was cut off from the outside world by a sheet of clear,
hard material that I assumed was practically unbreakable.
          "What did you two talk about?"
          My lip twisted into a snarl. "He isn't going to help us."
          "I…I figured that much. But--"
          "Not just that. I had to sit there and listen to him justify it. Invincible my ass. There has to be a
way in. I'll find it…"
          "Oneesama!" Kyn waved from up ahead, and we hurried to one of the cells where someone had
set up a pair of chairs facing towards the glass. The catgirl was standing on one of them, jumping up and
down, while the odd little girl Dee sat slumped in the other, looking half-asleep.
          "Oneesama, I--oooph!" Kyn landed wrong, knocked the chair to one side, and landed spread-
eagled on the floor. She bounced back up instantly, though, and wrapped herself around my neck.
"Oneesama! We missed you! I asked the green guy if I could wake you up, and he said I couldn't, and I
said you always liked it when I woke you up and he said to hush and go keep Dee company. We've been
having fun!"
          I looked over at Dee, who gave Hotaru a half-hearted smile. Kyn continued, oblivious. "And then
the scary lady told me to shut up, but she can't get out of the glass cage, so I kept talking, and she said she
was God, and I said that I was and that we should have a party. Then she got all mad at me and went to sit
in the corner, and Dee got all mad at me too." Kyn looked over at Dee. "I'm sorry for whatever I did. I
don't really know, but I'm sure if I knew I'd be sorry. I can be sorry in general: I'm sorry for everything I've
ever done. Oneesama, does that mean--"
          "Kyn."
          "Hai?"
          "Please get off of me."
          Kyn looked at my eyes, froze, and jumped back down. I heard her whispering when I swept past
towards the cell.
          "Oneesama, kowaii…"
          Haruka was indeed crouched in a corner of the bare cell. She'd looked up at our approach, and
was alternating between shooting hate-filled glares at the cat-girl and curious ones at me. I stood in silence
long enough for her to get to her feet and gesture grandly.
          "Ami Mizuno. You've finally returned."
          "Yup." I was still white-hot angry, but it wouldn't do to show that here.
          "I assume you've come to take you rightful place in My celestial court? Release Me from this
fiendish imprisonment, and we can wreak our vengeance on this pathetic creature who insists on taunting
Me." She turned her ire on Kyn. "You are playing with forces you cannot comprehend, little thing." The
cat-girl stuck out her tongue.
          "Actually," I said brightly, "it's time to get rid of God once and for all."
          "Combat, eh?" Haruka looked barely taken aback. "You and me. I knew this day would come.
Ami, you--"
          I wasn't listening to her anymore, though -- I flipped my vision to the world of magic. From this
point of view the spell twisted around her mind was obvious. Its mesh bore the gray-brown central thread
that I recognized as Makoto's, and its form was surprisingly simple. Shimmering Madness apparently
didn't create a complex delusion -- it simply suspended rational thought and let the target create the
delusions on its own. That meant these odd fantasies about being an all-powerful deity had their origin
somewhere in Haruka's subconscious; that made me smile grimly for moment.
          Regardless, it was a relatively easy spell to unwind. I snapped my fingers, more for the benefit of
the bystanders than anything else, and ripped the threads out by the roots. Haruka stopped in mid-harangue,
looking slightly confused; after a moment, her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed slowly to the
floor. Dee jumped to her feet.
          "Don't worry." I shrugged to work a bit of stiffness out of my shoulders, extending a cursory bit
of my awareness to make sure Haruka was indeed all right. "I cut the spell off, and that's always a bit of a
shock. She'll be okay in a few hours."
          "Okay?" Dee looked at me curiously. "Was she hurt?"
          "She…" I trailed off, remembering that the girl had never seen what I thought of as the real
Haruka. "You'll see. Just don't worry about it."
          Dee nodded and sat back down. Now that I was done concentrating, and a little less visibly angry,
Kyn crept back to my side and rubbed gently against my shoulder to indicate that she was in need of
affection. I ruffled her hair absent-mindedly, and she purred happily and slashed her tail back and forth.
          "Ami…" Hotaru had been so quiet I'd almost forgotten she was there. "Are you okay?"
          "Fine." I snapped it out. "Where's Makoto?"
          "In the medical center. But--"
          "Lead the way."

          Aegis had a medical facility to match the scale of the rest of the ship. I wondered why -- I couldn't
imagine Jahara getting sick, or even hurt. Apparently he'd decided that a good sickbay was something
every mammoth starship should have, though, and he'd picked a high-tech, unmanned version and dropped
it in wholesale. There were a dozen beds, surrounded by sleek-looking white equipment and paper-thin
crystal screens. The stasis beds were at the back, a pair of massive steel-and-glass tanks that emitted a
palpable hum.
          Makoto's face stared out of one of them. It was a bit disturbing to look at -- she was perfectly
preserved, her expression peaceful, but absolutely still. No breathing, no little motions. It was sort of like
looking at a perfectly rendered statue.
          I sent a brief probe towards her and nodded when it got exactly nowhere. Time isn't really
stopped inside a stasis tank -- if it was, you couldn't see inside, or deactivate it for that matter -- but it's
slowed down enough that anything coming from the outside would take eons to move a fraction of an inch
into the interior.
          "Okay." I looked over at Hotaru, who was nervous -- also as usual. Kyn wandered through the
lab, playing with shiny and hopefully not very fragile equipment. I took a deep breath and tried to calm
down. Complicated magical analysis was not easy, and being annoyed wasn't going to help. So I waited
for a while, letting my mind wander.
          Could Jahara actually be right? It wasn't an attractive thought. But if what he said about the
Adepts was true -- if the power of the Unforgiven wasn't enough to beat the Sa'an -- what chance did the
rest of us have?
          I chided myself for negative thinking and turned my attention back to the task at hand. The stasis
tank was of a standard design with which I was at least vaguely familiar -- I tapped the controls to open it
up and stepped back as the lid slowly rose off in a puff of flash-vaporized water. Makoto flopped onto the
cushioned bottom of the tank, shivering, her breath coming in quick gasps. I closed my eyes, got my
bearings, and reached toward her.
Chapter Twenty-Five
       Tsunami

           I half-expected the guards to shoot me as soon as we got back to the cruiser. The hasty order to
retreat from the building had rippled through the Grid only moments after I'd left Kyoko with the Sailor
Senshi, and when I made it back to the shuttle it was obvious the assault had been an absolute disaster.
Only eight of the Adepts had returned, and less than half of the Mecha; more importantly, we didn't wait for
Makoto. I wondered briefly if the dropship would have waited for me, had I been any later.
           Despite all of this, once we returned things were disturbingly normal. How fast the mind adapts --
"normal" being that the guards ignored me, the doors opened at a mental command, and food was delivered
whenever I desired.
           And I was alone.
           I felt the loneliness worse than I ever had in my life. It was as though I'd had one of my limbs
removed -- every few minutes I'd turn to say something to her and be left facing a yawning void. Finally I
locked the door to the room securely, turned off all the lights, and buried myself under the covers on the
bed, trying not to think. Trying not to imagine the various horrible fates I might have left my best friend to;
trying not to wait for the thump of the jackboots outside my door.
           So you gave her up for the cause. How very noble.
           Shut up, Hyde.
           No?
           I'm not giving her up, I'm keeping her safe. Which, if you recall, has been my goal all along.
           Ah. So you plan to go and reclaim her?
           Of course.
           When, exactly? His voice had a nasty sarcastic turn.
           As soon as I get out of here.
           You could have left with her.
           The Sa'an can track me. We took a big risk as it was -- if I'd spent longer away they would have
found us both.
           And so. He always knew the right question to ask. What are you going to do now?
           I pulled the pillow a little tighter. I'll think of something!
           Something.
           I suppose you have an opinion?
           He gave a kind of mental shrug. You've made a lot of mistakes. Becoming emotionally involved
with that girl was the worst of them.
           I gritted my teeth. Though I knew it couldn't be accurate, the mental picture of this thing sitting in
the back of my mind and watching our fumbling in the dark was somehow infuriating. I think that mistake
is all that's kept me alive.
           It's also kept you from doing your job.
           I don't want my job! I never asked for it. You picked my name out of a hat and ruined my life!
           I did not pick you out of a hat. You're the reincarnation of a warrior from an earlier phase of the
existence of this universe.
           Since when?
           About a month ago.
           I took a deep breath. So I'm supposed to…what? March off to my death with a happy smile?
           Something like that. You should be able to construct a situation in which you can kill both the
Commander and the Vice-Commander -- that would seriously impact the ability of the Sa'an to operate, at
least until they could get reinforcements.
           Wouldn't one of the other officers just take over?
           There are no other officers, Tsunami. Those two are the only actual thinking human beings with
this fleet.
           I started to protest, then realized that this fit in with what I knew about the Empire. Why send
more people? Backed up by the apparently infinite extent of the Grid, two commanders and a legion of
drones was enough to take on just about anything. It explained why the Sa'an leaders had been paying us
such personal attention, anyway.
           And if it was true, then Hyde had a point. Without Kaia and Ashghar, there was nothing to the
Sa'an invasion. It was an extension of their will. If I managed to take them out of the picture…
          No! Damn it. I could feel him, trying to take over my mind, making me think like some mentally
deficient action hero. I'm not doing it.
          I'm waiting to hear your suggestion.
          There'll be something.
          The door hissed, startling me out of my half-sleep, and I poked my head out from under the covers
to find Kaia framed in the corridor light. The Vice-Commander blinked in the darkness, peering around
myopically. I waved a hand.
          "I'm here."
          "Good." She sounded brisk, not angry. I wasn't sure if this was a good thing, but it was certainly
a step up from blank-faced minions dragging me to some horrible fate. Kaia stepped across the threshold
and I sent a command to the lights, giving us some dim illumination.
          "Hello, Vice-Commander." I gave her my best smile.
          "Tsunami." She sat down on edge of one of the armchairs, shifting uneasily. "You should
know…I mean…"
          This wasn't right at all. The Vice-Commander of the entire fleet was not supposed to stumble
when chewing out some grunt. Though if Hyde was right and there were really only two thinking people in
the entire fleet, I wouldn't be surprised if their social skills had suffered somewhat.
          "Vice-Commander? Is something wrong?"
          She shook her head. "I have mentioned to you that I've been against this project from the
beginning."
          "Project?"
          "You, and the others like you. I've expressed this to Commander Ashghar many times, but he
refuses to listen to my warnings."
          "Oh." I swallowed. That put things in quite a different perspective. She was being rather blunt
about it, but again I imagine tact wasn't high on the list of skills of a Sa'an officer.
          She noticed my discomfiture and shrugged. "That is neither here nor there. I mention it only
because it makes our current situation a bit more explicable."
          I nodded uncertainly.
          "I'm sure you're aware the raid was something of a failure."
          "Pretty much."
          "The Commander believes this to be the responsibility of one of a group of creatures known as the
Unforgiven. He thinks one of them is on Earth, even as we speak, and he has devised a scheme to capture
it."
          I groaned soundlessly at the thought of participating in another of the Commander's schemes, but
kept my poker-face straight. "I assume I'll be playing some role in this?"
          "An integral role, actually. So the message I've come to deliver is: remain on the alert. We may
be called into action at any moment."
          "Understood."
          Kaia nodded and stood up, looking around the room with a vague curiosity. I wondered if was
looking for Kyoko, and decided to head that off before she thought too hard about it.
          "May I ask a question?"
          "Of course."
          "What happened to Makoto?"
          "Our information indicates that she was killed by the enemy."
          "I see." I tried to look downcast, in the hopes that this would make her uncomfortable enough to
leave. This worked beautifully; Kaia headed hurriedly for the exit without a backward glance, and I
watched the door close behind her with a sigh of relief.
          I wondered if Jupiter had gotten what she wanted. I found it hard to imagine it.
Chapter Twenty-Six
       Hotaru

          Ami, I thought, had seen better days. Her face was drawn and haggard, but behind the mask of
fatigue her eyes sparkled with excitement. This confirmed what I'd already been suspecting -- she'd found
something while working on Makoto, something interesting enough to keep her locked in the sickbay for
nearly a day. Knowing Ami, that meant it was either computers or magic or both.
          Everyone else filed into the conference room in ones and twos to join us. Ami was at the head of
the table, slumped deep in the folded leather of her chair, with Jahara at her right hand. I was one place
farther down, trying to get the Unforgiven to meet my eyes and failing. I got the distinct sense Jahara had
been avoiding me, which wasn't hard on a ship the size of the Aegis, and I'd resolved to corner him after the
meeting.
          The conference room itself was too large for just us -- it could have comfortably seated fifty. The
American soldiers, excepting the Lieutenant, filed in; they sat down at the opposite end of the table, which
was within small arms range but not quite conversational distance. I found myself wondering how many
rooms like this the ship had, giant conference rooms or ballrooms or kitchens or who-knows-what that
simply went unused until Jahara had some use for them.
          People started arranging themselves along the other side of the table, on Ami's right hand side.
Rei was still carrying a sword longer than she was tall, slung diagonally across her back; she had to take it
off and lean it against the chair in order to find a comfortable position. Minako and the Lieutenant, Corvere,
sat next to each other and immediately bent their heads in private conversation. Shard sat by Rei, leaning
way back in his seat and generally projecting an air of irreverence; Kyn, who'd arrived with Ami, had
discovered that the chairs could spin and was occupied in making herself thoroughly sick. Dee sat next to
her, looking on with interest, and before long the two were involved in some contest to see who could go
the longest without throwing up. I hoped they didn't manage to resolve it.
          The last two to arrive were Luna and Kyoko. The cat hopped deftly onto the table and made
herself comfortable in the center, while the latter was escorted by Jahara's servant Third and made her way
all the way around to take a seat next to me. I studied her, curious, while Ami waited for everyone to get
comfortable. Rei claimed that Tsunami had 'delivered' her in the middle of the battle, which made no sense
at all, and Kyoko had spent the time between now and then mostly sleeping off the stress of the combat.
She looked normal enough -- maybe eighteen, a couple of years older than me, with long green hair
currently tied into a simple ponytail that swung past her shoulders. Her expression was intelligent, but
nervous; frankly, I didn't blame her.
          Ami cleared her throat, and the side conversations died away into silence. She stared at us for a
moment, fighting off fatigue, and took a deep breath.
          "Okay. I seem to somehow have appointed myself moderator of this little show, but I expect
everyone to speak up if they have something to say. Got it?" There was a series of nods. "Good. So first
I'm going to tell you what I've found, and then we're going to decide what to do about it."
          Third bowed his way in to provide her with a glass of water, which she sipped from gratefully
before continuing. "Bad news first. I had a look at Makoto, and she's gone."
          Minako's eyes went wide. "Mako's dead?"
          "No." Ami shook her head. "Just…gone. Her body's there, but nobody's home."
          I cleared my throat. "I talked to Mako, during the fight. There was definitely somebody there --
I'm not sure it was her, but if not it was a good imitation."
          "I'd thought as much. So let me advance my first theory: they extracted Makoto's…well, let's call
it her spirit, for lack of a better term. They kept it somewhere else, linked to her body and running it by
remote-control. Since we're now in a different universe and Aegis' shields are up, that link has been cut.
The upshot is that they've still got Makoto, the real Makoto; all we've got is the shell."
          The Lieutenant raised a hand, and Ami nodded in his direction.
          "Do we know what kind of a link?"
          She smiled. "Well, that's the good news. Sort of. I've been studying Makoto's body, which as
you know had some weird black device implanted at the back of the neck." She turned to Third. "Can I get
those pictures up?"
          The lights dimmed as the Harbinger manipulated some unseen control, and behind Ami a screen
flickered to life, showing a cutaway view of a human skull. The little black thing squatted at the base of the
neck like some sort of alien parasite, highlighted in blue. A set of thin strings, also highlighted and
apparently part of the Sa'an device, sprouted from it, wrapped around the spinal cord, and entered the skull
before spreading out across the brain. Ami stood in front of the image with a metal pointer she'd acquired
from somewhere, looking pale and unreal in the glow from the screen.
          "As you can see, the device is bonded chemically to the skin -- essentially a very strong glue --
and hooked in to the underlying muscle tissue via this series of fibers." She tapped the screen, and I noted
with distant humor that Ami had lapsed unconsciously into college professor mode. "The actual area
penetrated is very small, and surrounded by a vacuum-tight seal. Working through this tiny hole, this set of
longer tendrils reaches up into the brain. Where it ends up is not random -- there are two distinct groups,
one wired into the higher brain centers, and one into more basic reflexes. The manner in which they
connect to the brain tissue"--she looked at her audience, caught a few horrified expressions, and continued
hurriedly--"is not something I need to go in to here. Suffice to say that it's very clever, and implies a
deeper understanding of human brain structure than is possessed by anyone on earth."
          This was met with dead silence as everyone waited for the punch-line. Ami took another sip from
her water glass and cleared her throat.
          "The actual structure of the device is what interests me the most; the problem is that it's
impossibly simple." The screen zoomed in on the little black thing, showing a cross-section. The little
tendrils all fed into a gray blob in the center, but it didn't show much interior structure apart from that. "I
originally thought it was some kind of override, forcing the host to listen to particular commands, but
there's not enough complexity for that. There's nothing in there -- no processor, no memory, nothing. Just
threads and a lump of tissue."
          "Tissue?" Corvere sounded curious. "As in biological tissue?"
          "Yes. I checked it out, using a variety of non-intrusive physical means. The tissue appears to be
laced with a number tiny vacuum-sealed pathways, each lined with material with a high refractive index
vaguely akin to diamond." She noticed that no one seemed to have understood that last statement. "Optical
channels. Natural ones, apparently. They link to the threads on a one-to-one basis."
          "So the threads lead to this little blob." Shard yawned. "It's controlling her somehow?"
          "No. It's not complicated enough. There appears to be nothing to the tissue except for optical
fibers and supporting cells. And they aren't connected to anything in the rest of the device."
          "So where do they go?" The Lieutenant sounded anxious. Presumably he was hoping that Ami
would get to the point -- I certainly was.
          She smiled thinly. "The answer to that is somewhat complicated, but I'll attempt to explain. On a
hunch, I decided to check out the tissue magically. While the device is not magical in and of itself, it does
possess some odd properties." She gestured, and the screen went blank. "In essence, the tissue is not a
complete object but the protrusion into our world of a much larger object that has been twisted through
higher dimensions. What we see as dead-end fiber-optic tunnels continue through higher-dimensional
space."
          Shard laughed. "So this is some sort of eighth-dimensional slug?"
          "Something like that, except that it has the property of growing natural optical channels. This is so
convenient it strains credulity to imagine that it could arise naturally -- I suspect the Sa'an created it
somehow. In addition, it shows no signs of possessing natural energy, which means it is a negative-energy
creature like a youma or a demon."
          "Miss Mizuno." Jahara's voice was the distant rumble of thunder. "While the specifics are
fascinating, could you please get to the point?"
          "Of course." Ami seemed a little hurt. "My hypothesis is that the Sa'an have used this creature to
fashion a hugely redundant faster-than-light-speed communications network, and that every Legionnaire is
independently connected to it."
          Corvere nodded in admiration. "So the troopers are running on remote control. There's some
master computer somewhere, and through these things it tells all its little fingers what to do--"
          "With respect, Lieutenant, I think that may be incorrect. I suspected from the beginning that they
were using some kind of distributed processing -- the architecture of this 'network' is perfectly suited to it.
So I tried to extrapolate, based on some readings of Makoto just before we put her into stasis, what was
going on in her higher brain centers. The results were decidedly odd, well outside any human norm, but
given the circumstances my best guess is that most of her brain had been co-opted for general purpose
computation, with both input and output coming via the Sa'an device. I'm not sure it's valid to draw a broad
conclusion from this, but…"
          I got it, and I saw Rei's face light up at pretty much the same moment. The others weren't far
behind, excepting of course those who hadn't been paying attention to the technical portion of the
discussion. I was the first one to put the thought into words.
          "So they used her brain as a computer."
          "Part of a computer." Ami looked smug. "Along with every other Legionnaire. While the
general-purpose computing power of the human brain is not great, multiply it by several million just here
on Earth, plus who-knows-how-many other worlds, and you begin to get some idea of the size of this
network. The amount of processing power available to deal with any particular problem is essentially
infinite, and network latency is non-existent."
          "So that's how they knew where we were." Rei, hands laced into fists, carefully unwound her
fingers and laid them gently on the table. "Every time we killed one of them, even if we wiped out a whole
squad by surprise, they found us."
          "Exactly. Under normal circumstances, using remote-controlled drones is a bad idea -- some
degree of autonomy is required in case the enemy can jam your control transmission. But this thing can't
be jammed, and it can't be interrupted."
          "Jesus." Corvere seemed a little stunned. "But why? With all their technology, shouldn't they be
able to just build supercomputers?"
          "Given what I've heard about the Sa'an, I imagine this is cheaper. Once they've automated the
process of turning humans into circuit elements, those little gizmos can't be hard to make. Plus a real
computer is vulnerable to a whole host of things this redundant distributed structure could shrug off."
          "Now that we know, it should be simple enough, right?" Shard was grinning. "Hack into their
network somehow, disable all the bad guys, then mop things up."
          The reaction that provoked from Ami was surprising; her face suddenly fell until she looked
almost heartbroken. "M…maybe. I've been trying, a little, since I can use Jahara's computer to stimulate
the inputs to Makoto's device when I open up the shields around it. But I haven't made much progress so
far…" Now she didn't look so much crestfallen as…nervous?
          "Ami." I kept my voice level. "What are you going to do?"
          She looked down at the table, caught herself, and with a long breath met my eyes and forced
herself to speak calmly. "I'm going to extract the device and implant it in myself."
          The table erupted in a furious clamor, with everyone shouting at once. It took Jahara to restore
order -- the Unforgiven's voice somehow cut through the storm of objections.
          "Quiet." Once the noise had subsided, he continued. "Ami. Why would you take such a risk?"
          "I…It's not that much of a risk. I've identified which of the leads control conscious input/output
and which are used to override the host's mind, so I just won't connect the bad parts. And I have to do it
because there's no other way." She looked around, catching some doubtful expressions. "Look, I've been
trying to break in all night. The defenses set up around this network are not like anything I've ever seen
before. It doesn't resist at all -- it just sort of folds up around your probe and then cuts off the nodes you've
managed to get in to. It's like punching fog. The only thing I can think of would be to introduce some sort
of hidden information at a lower level of the architecture, so the natural functions of the network would
replicate it automatically…"
          "And to do that you need to be connected to it?" Corvere was grimly determined.
          "Yes. I need to get a current sample of what the lowest-level packets look like."
          Luna spoke, for the first time. "You can't be serious, Ami. You're just going to plug yourself in to
that…machine, just like that?"
          She smiled wistfully. "Just like that. Look, you have to trust me. I really think this is safe, and
it's probably the only break we're going to get."
          "What about Makoto?"
          Everyone looked at me.
          "You said they were keeping her somewhere else. How is she going to get back, if we pull the
plug on that thing?"
          "I…" Ami hesitated. "I'm fairly sure I can reimplant it in her, afterwards. Or more likely we can
find another means of returning her to her body."
          "But you're not sure?"
          She let out her breath. "No."
          The table lapsed into silence for moment; it was Rei who finally broke it.
          "Ami."
          "Hmm?"
          "Do you really think this will work?"
          "Let me put it this way. I can't think of anything else that will. And the longer we spend here, the
more people get converted into Legionnaires. The longer we wait, the better the chance that they'll decide
Makoto's body is dead and do who-knows-what with her. So." She looked around the table. "I suggest we
get started."

          "Jahara!"
          The Unforgiven pulled up just short of the door, somewhat to my surprise. I'd expected him to
duck through and thus dodge me again. Instead he turned and regarded me with unreadable green-on-green
eyes.
          "Wait up. I wanted to talk to you."
          Another perilous second before he nodded. "Walk with me, Hotaru."
          We stepped through the door into the gardens, another mild surprise. Jahara never seemed to
spend much time in here, at least not while I'd known him. He took the staircase down to the second level,
and I followed, shoes tapping on the thin metal walkways. All around us was a profusion of flowers, a few
nice big purple ones but mostly drab little white and green things. I padded along by his side, content for
the moment to bask in the feeling that I was once again where I belonged in the universe.
          "Your friend Ami is a genius."
          I nodded, accepting this as a statement of fact.
          "Among the people I know, the feat she has just accomplished is within the reach of but a handful.
And I know a great many highly competent people."
          I kept silent. I think he wanted it that way. Jahara sighed.
          "Intelligence, unfortunately, is not experience. I tried to warn her. What she is proposing is
suicide."
          "She can be stubborn."
          "So I've noticed."
          He stopped in front of a particular bed of flowers and took a deep breath. "And yet…"
          "What?"
          "If she continues on this course, you -- all of you -- will follow her. Based on her word alone."
          It was something I'd been thinking about. But once the question was finally made explicit, there
was only one possible answer.
          "Yes."
          "Why? It's built into your nature -- guardians, after all, are supposed to give their lives gladly, like
worker bees sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive. But..."
          "There's some of that, I guess. But it's more like…" I searched for words. "I trust Ami. If she
says we have a chance, I believe we have a chance. I owe her my life, probably more times than I can
count. And I know that even if I said no, even if we all said no, she'd go alone."
          "Alone."
          "Yes."
          "I see."
          We walked in silence for a few moments more.
          "The ship has been…quieter, without you."
          I thought about Jahara, sitting in his throne on the command deck, brooding as the universe slid
past with only Third to fetch and carry for him. It was such an awful picture I felt an irrational desire to
comfort him.
          "Did I ever tell you why I built this garden?"
          "No."
          "I wanted to keep a record of the places I'd been. Something tangible. I decided to take one type
of plant from each world and keep them here. After a few hundred years, I thought, I would stand at the
top and look out and even I would be impressed by the vastness of my collection."
          "Were you?"
          "No." He knelt in one of the beds. "Do you see this flower here?"
          "Yes." It was thin and red, petals tightly furled.
          "And this one?"
          "Okay." It looked like the same flower to me.
          "They are from two different worlds, in two different universes. They originated so far apart that
concepts like 'distance' have no meaning. And yet here they sit, next to each other, enjoying the same light
and eating the same food and totally oblivious all the while."
          I nodded. "Amazing."
          He straightened. "No. It happens over and over again. On ten thousand worlds, plants strive to
attract pollinators and arrive at the same solutions. The same colors, because any sun capable of supporting
life and any planet with an oxygen-type atmosphere allow the same set of visible wavelengths. The same
shapes, because pollinators tend to move in the same way. If I were to crush one of these, and you were to
be left with only the other, would that be a great tragedy?"
          Jahara spoke without malice, without emotion of any kind, but his words opened a yawning pit
under my soul. I could only voice a whisper.
          "You don't really believe that."
          "I do. One world is as good as any other." His expression softened. "But walk with me a little
farther."
          I did. My skin felt numb. The giant at my side was suddenly horribly alien -- an inhuman thing
wrapped in a barely humanoid package. It wasn't cruelty, not exactly. More like betrayal. In my darkest
moments, in the dungeon, I'd contemplated exactly what Jahara was now suggesting -- abandoning the
world and everyone in it to their fates. But the secret underlying that thought was: if he was here, I
wouldn't have to. Jahara's power could -- would! -- fix everything. But now…
          We stepped out into a broad intersection, lined with bank upon bank of tiny off-white flowers. I
found myself looking at them through Jahara's eyes -- just another self-reproducing bundle of chemicals,
engineered and programmed by the process of evolution that had created it to behave in a certain way. No
different from a million others just like it on one world alone, no different from ten thousand other worlds.
Nothing that mattered. Short-lived and immaterial, irrelevant.
          Like me. I blinked back tears.
          So much for my dreams.
          Jahara drew to a halt in the center of the intersection, and I stumbled to a stop next to him. He
gestured at the undifferentiated white and green surrounding us.
          "I gathered these from the cloud-mountains of Ymarl. They were rare, even there, and I suspect
they are now extinct. The civilization on that planet was undergoing a messy industrialization, and the
fallout wiped out a number of native species."
          "Great." And they were no different from any of the others -- trust Jahara to hammer his point
home.
          "The curious thing about Ymarl," he continued, "was that the density of clouds over the mountains
varied wildly. The mountains on that world were exceptionally tall, of course, and they affected cloud
formation in such a way that the process would occasionally produce high-altitude sheets of thin,
undifferentiated air. When the lower clouds cleared enough to show it, which was not common, the light
that came through was of a remarkably regular character, Ymarl having a well-behaved sun. These flowers
had quite a peculiar reaction to it."
          "So?"
          He smiled. "Computer, load light frequency seven-three-one."
          The light around us changed, subtly -- a bit darker, maybe. For a moment, nothing happened.
          Then the flowers burst into flame.
          I cried out involuntarily. Each tiny white flower was now the bottom of a long streamer of flame,
dancing ghostly green and blue, writhing like an imprisoned spirit trying to escape. It wasn't actually fire, I
realized -- the flower was not consumed. The patterns of just one were mesmerizing, and the effect of the
whole bank of them together was hauntingly, unutterably beautiful. Wisps of pattern seemed to dance
between them, from one flame to another, like ethereal creatures incarnated by these plants, just for a
moment. I turned slowly, outlined in the shifting light, and found Jahara staring at me with a steady gaze.
          "These plants are most likely extinct, and the atmospheric effect in question no longer occurs --
global warming has disrupted the conditions necessary for it to occur. You and I are the only people who
have seen this in the past thousand years."
          I was still teary and silent, but for different reasons. Jahara looked out at his flowers and shook his
head.
          "Ten thousand worlds, and I have never found anything like them."
          "Jahara." I blurted it out. "I have to say it. I...I mean…"
          "I know."
          "I--" I stopped. "What?"
          "I heard you the first time."
          "B…but…"
          "How do you think I arrived on Earth so promptly?"
          I felt myself blushing, furiously. "I thought…I mean…"
          He had to bend almost in half to bring his face to the level of mine. I closed my eyes just in time.
There was a crackle of sparks that I wasn't entirely sure was in my imagination -- it was like kissing a
power line.
          Around us the radiance of the Ymarl plants was dying, shimmering green and blue fading back
into undistinguished white.
          "They will require some days to recharge." He gestured the lights back to normal as I stood there,
stunned. All I could think about was my dreams. "But I thought you'd like them."
          "Do you remember when we visited Bael and Arunai?"
          He seemed a bit surprised by the question. "Of course."
          "I talked to Arunai for a bit, while you two were away. And she told me…I mean…about you,
and…things like this."
          "Ah." His smile widened.
          "And I thought you would never do something like this…"
          "Someday, there will be nothing left of this garden." Jahara shrugged. "Does that mean I should
have left these plants behind?"
          "No."
          "I have had time to reflect on things." He turned on his heel and started back for the door, fast
enough that I had to hurry to keep up. "Once you were gone, I considered myself well rid of you and the
complications you represent. Despite this, I did not feel better. And when I touched your mind, in dreams,
I found that the idea of your death affected me unacceptably. Thus: I will accompany you to Earth."
          "But…but you said…"
          "All worlds are alike, Hotaru. There is very little in the universe that is worth saving. But every
once in a while one comes across something unique."
          "My world?"
          He paused, just in front of the doorway. "You."

         A few minutes later, I was leaning against the wall of the corridor and trying not to feel giddy.
         It said something about Jahara that after dropping a bombshell of that nature, he could just walk
away and start attending to other tasks before my heart had started beating again. Chalk it up to experience,
I guess.
         "Hotaruuuu!"
         I blinked and looked up with just enough time to get a brief vision of impending doom bearing
down on me before impact. Dee started her jump from a dead run with the intention of wrapping her arms
around my neck in a long delayed hug. This might have worked under other circumstances, but while Dee
was perhaps a bit thinner than was healthy the difference in our weights was not enough to keep me upright.
Dee also did not have particularly good aim. The upshot of the maneuver was that she grabbed me around
the shoulders just prior to collision, and we both ended up on the floor in a tangle.
         Not that I minded. I wasn't really in a state to mind anything. She thrashed around for a moment
before ending up on top, smiling ludicrously.
         "Hotaru!"
         "Hiya."
         "I missed you!"
         "Sorry. I was talking to Jahara."
         "Is he the big scary guy?"
         I nodded as best I could in a horizontal position.
         "Have you--"
         "Nyyyyaaaaaaaaaaaa -- Dee, what are you -- Nyah!" This sound was produced by a barely sub-
sonic cat-girl sprinting down the corridor, noticing Dee and I on the floor and deciding to take a look, then
realizing that she was traveling too fast to stop. It was followed by an elaborate metallic 'clang' which I
could not see but assumed was the result of the impact of said catgirl with the wall at high speed. Dee
rolled off me and staggered to her feet, heading in that general direction. I followed more slowly.
          Kyn was upside down against the wall, limbs splayed comically. Dee tugged at her foot and she
toppled over into a furry heap. I raised an eyebrow.
          "Is she okay?"
          Dee smiled. "She's always okay. Kyn, you okay?"
          The catgirl sprang back to her feet, apparently without occupying any intervening positions.
"Haihai! I'm okay!" Her tail lashed back and forth.
          "What are you two up to?"
          "I was going to go and see how God was doing. Ami said she should be waking up around now."
          "And I was going along!" Kyn beamed wildly. "Oneesama and I went looking for God once, but
when she found him she got all mad because it was just William Shatner again. Then we went for ice
cream. Do you think there's any ice cream on this ship?"
          I tried to parse her rapid-fire delivery and failed. "I imagine so. The kitchen has just about
everything."
          "Wai! Dee-chan, let's go get some ice cream!"
          "We should go see how God is doing first."
          "Maybe She wants some ice cream! I'll race you!"
          And they were off again, sprinting down the corridor. Kyn dropped to all fours after the first
hundred feet, to a distant cry of, "Hey, no fair!"
          I stared after them and wondered if they knew that any of the doors would take you to any room
on the ship. Probably not.
          "You're…Hotaru, right?"
          I turned around to once again find someone standing behind me, this time thankfully not barreling
towards me at high speed. It was Kyoko, the story of whose arrival had been very briefly related to me by
Rei and Shard. Corvere and Ami had kept her after the meeting had broken up, presumably to extract
information about the Sa'an. She looked a little bit exhausted by the process but otherwise none the worse
for wear.
          "That's me. I know you're Kyoko, though I don't think we were ever really introduced…"
          She waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. In fact, don't let me bother you -- I was just following
those two to see what there is around here."
          "Are they still in there?"
          "Yes. When I left, Ami was trying to talk Shard and Corvere out of planning a frontal assault on
the cruisers."
          "Great." I yawned. "I was heading this way myself, to visit Haruka."
          "Haruka?" Kyoko fell into step alongside me gratefully. I got the feeling no one had been paying
much attention to her -- she looked lonely.
          "Sailor Uranus." How things change. I supposed we were a little beyond secret identities at this
point. "One of Jupiter's attacks hurt her pretty badly, and Ami just finished fixing her up."
          "Jupiter." Kyoko shivered.
          "You know her?" She nodded, and I realized that that should have been obvious.
          "She's kind of scary. The first time I met her, she nearly killed me with a lightning bolt, and the
second time she almost choked my best friend to death."
          I shook my head. "Poor Mako. I wonder what they did to her."
          "Yeah."
          There was a pause. Kyoko looked at me out of the corner of her eye, as though wondering
something but afraid to ask; she finally came out with it.
          "So which one are you? Which planet, I mean."
          "Saturn."
          "I thought so. Rei said you were still alive."
          That didn't make sense, again, until I remembered where she'd been. "Tsunami told you about
that?"
          "Yeah." She gave me another darting sideways glance, to gauge my expression. "If it helps, she
was really broken up about it afterwards."
          The silence after that seemed a bit awkward.
          "It doesn't help, does it."
          "Not really." I shook my head, trying to dismiss the remembered whisper of steel on flesh. "I
guess it's all right in the long run. I'm okay."
          "I just don't want you to think…" She trailed off. "I mean, none of you know her. It's not really
her fault…"
          "Relax." I put a hand on her shoulder, which was an odd gesture considering our relative heights
and ages but seemed appropriate under the circumstances. "I'm not going to hold a grudge."
          She let out her breath in a whistle. "Good. I thought you might…you know. Try to kill her."
          "I'll do my best not to."
          Kyoko nodded. There was another moment of silence, not quite as awkward as the last. We
reached another door.
          "So what's it like, when you die?"
          I gave her my best long-suffering smile. "It really hurts."

          The little medical room we'd reserved for Haruka was pitch-black when I opened the door, dark
enough that the light bleeding in from the corridor served only to outline a few things in a stretched
rectangle of gloom. The high-tech bed loomed, rumpled and slept in, and I got the distinct sensation of
being watched. Dee sidled a bit closer to my side and clutched at my arm, though in her case I suspected it
was merely in fun; after a moment of silence I wanted to sidle closer to Kyoko and clutch her arm, but
decided against it. Only Kyn seemed oblivious to the tide of darkness, still smiling toothily.
          We stood for a moment, until I realized that if I didn't make the first move we'd be stuck there
forever. I stepped through the doorway, into the lit rectangle, and called out softly.
          "Haruka? Are you in here?"
          There was no answer, not that I was really expecting one. I forced myself to take another step into
the room and looked around, placing collections of shadows as familiar objects -- the bed, the chairs, the
banks of machines--
          And the gleam of a pair of eyes in the darkness.
          Three years of dodging whatever the world had to throw at the avatar of Power Incarnate had
given me excellent reflexes, even without the power and speed of Sailor Saturn. I spent a precious quarter-
second on my companions as Haruka charged, pushing Dee back through the doorway into the corridor and
Kyoko to one side in the same spinning motion. This meant I couldn't get out of her way entirely, but I
managed to turn enough so the fist that was supposed to land in my stomach caught me on the hips, which
was painful but not so debilitating.
          Haruka bulled past me, pushing Kyn aside with a surprised yelp and barreling into the corridor. I
followed a moment later, in time to see her make a three point turn--
          "God!" shouted Dee.
          --lose her balance, and skid into the opposite wall with a thud. She was back up in a flash, as
though she'd simply bounced off the floor, but this time I had her cornered. She came at me again, a low
sweep to knock me off my feet, but complacency had apparently dulled her edge; I stepped behind the kick
and applied the palm of my hand gently to her back, a maneuver which ended in her sprawling face-down
on the floor.
          "Kyn!"
          The catgirl was at my side, and I pointed before the stunned Haruka had a chance to rise. "Nya?"
          "Sit on her for me, would you?"
          "Hai!"
           Kyn plopped down on Haruka's back and the breath went out of her with and 'oof.' I rubbed my
hip with the palm of my hand, trying to massage away the shooting pain from where the Outer Senshi's
knuckles had struck bone. Seeing as Haruka seemed disinclined to talk, possibly due to the catgirl sitting
on her, it was up to me to start the conversation; I knelt by her ear.
          "That really hurt. If you want me to get out of the way, you just have to say so."
          She mumbled something I couldn't hear.
          "What?"
          "I'm sorry." Haruka turned her head to me, and I could see her expression was pained.
"Hotaru…"
          "Wait. If I tell Kyn to get off of you, can we talk for a little bit alone without you trying to knock
me out again?"
           She considered that for a moment, then nodded shortly. I gestured the catgirl away, and she
jumped up with a painful-looking bounce. Haruka clambered wearily to her knees.
           "Kyoko--"
           "I know." The green-haired girl smiled, a bit sadly. "I'll see if I can keep these two busy for a
bit."
           "Thanks."
           "God--"
           I was paying close attention, and I barely saw Haruka's expression flicker when Dee spoke; that
flicker, though, was devastating. Her face dissolved into something that looked close to tears before she
slammed her mask back into place.
           "Dee, can you give Haruka and me a few moments alone?"
           "But--" She caught my eye and quieted. "Okay."
           "There's a zero-G room over there." I pointed to a door further down the sickbay. "You two
should go check it out."
           "Wai!" Kyn was already running. "I love zero-G!"
           I shut the door to Haruka's room behind us as Kyoko rolled her eyes, and spared a brief prayer that
they wouldn't break anything too important. Haruka stood uncertainly for a moment before sitting wearily
on the edge of the bed. I pulled a chair over and sat opposite her, putting her head a mere foot above mine.
For all that, I felt like it was my turn to deliver the lecture.
           "So." Not the best opening in the world.
           "Hotaru--"
           "Wait." I held up a hand. "Let me talk for a minute, because I want to explain something." I took
a deep breath. "I know what you want, because I understand exactly how you feel."
           "Then open the door and let me out of here." She spoke low and fast.
           "No."
           "You said--"
           "I know what I said. You want to leave the ship, and then -- what? Attack the Sa'an cruiser with
your bare hands?"
           She couldn't meet my eyes. "Not…exactly."
           "Haruka, listen to me. It's suicide."
           "I will make them pay for this."
           "But--" I caught her gaze for a moment, and came to a sudden realization. Haruka knew exactly
what she was doing. "Oh. So that's how it is."
           "You don't understand."
           "I think I do."
           She shook her head. "Think about that little girl out in the hallway. Do you know what they did
to her? What I did to her, gods…" She broke off, covering her eyes with one hand, and I felt a lump
forming in my throat.
           "It wasn't you."
          "Yes it was." She kept her eyes covered. "I remember it. Every last detail. It was me -- my mind,
my soul, just…simpler. More refined."
           "It's not the same, Haruka."
          "It isn't?" Now she looked at me, tears already streaking the corners of her eyes. "Tell that to Dee.
Tell that to the next tribe over -- after we slaughtered everyone who could fight, I tossed what was left to
my men like throwing a…a bone, to a dog. Tell that to…to…"
           She bowed her head, and after some hesitation I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. One
of her hands grabbed it and gripped like a drowning man holding a lifeline. Her voice was a whisper.
           "It's not just for me. It's revenge for all of them -- Dee, Michiru, everyone I hurt. I'll lay it all
down at their doorstep. Please, Hotaru. Please."
           I choked back a sob. Seeing her like this was awful. As long as I'd known her, Haruka had been
the calm one, ever in control. I'd seen her literally stay composed in the face of death, or worse; seen her
sacrifice everything for the sake of the mission. But this…
           And she was telling the truth, sort of. Whether or not she did any damage to the Sa'an, her death
at their hands would be the punishment she clearly thought she deserved. Revenge for Dee, and for
Michiru.
           "I know how you feel."
           "How could you…" She trailed off, as though suddenly remembering to whom she was speaking.
I had a flash of memory -- a cold, cold throne, surrounded by a court of stuffed toys. The gleam of a pair of
spectacles, and a mad grin. And the horrible feeling of something else living behind my eyes, something
that would take the world and twist and smash and hurt until there was nothing left but silence.
           "I know."
           Haruka looked at the floor. "It's different for you."
           "Maybe so." I shrugged. "Let me ask you something. If Michiru were here right now, what do
you think she'd say?"
           "She'd tell me to stop being an idiot." Haruka smiled faintly.
           "And Dee. If you asked her, do you think she'd want you to die?"
           "Maybe." I rolled my eyes, and Haruka nodded. "Fine. She probably wouldn't. But those aren't
good examples -- Dee's insane, and Michiru is…is…" She shook her head. "She's the greatest human
being I've ever met."
           "What about me?"
           Her gaze snapped back to my face, and she realized for the first time that I was practically in tears.
"Hotaru?"
           "W…what do you think I want? Hmm?" I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. "Come on.
You two and Setsuna are practically my family. You expect me to let you go running off on a suicide
mission?"
           She nodded, miserably.
           "What are you so afraid of?"
           For a long moment, she didn't answer -- even when she finally spoke, it was in a whisper, as
though she couldn't bear to think it aloud.
           "Michiru."
           "Haruka…" I shook my head.
           "You don't understand." She closed her eyes. "You don't know what I did to her. Horrible
things."
           "She'll forgive you."
           "I don't deserve it."
           And there, I thought, was the heart of the matter. I leaned forward. "Whether or not you deserve
it is up to her, not you."
           "W…what?"
           "Think of it this way. You hurt her, mistreated her, et cetera. That makes her the injured party,
and that means, to be fair, she should get to decide what happens. Now you want to add to whatever string
of miseries you've heaped on her by tacking your death onto the end?"
           "What if she doesn't…forgive me?"
           "Haruka." I sighed. "Listen to me. Michiru is a Sailor Senshi. She could have broken out of the
dungeon easily -- in fact, now that you're gone, she probably has. She stayed there, dark and cold and
hungry and accepting whatever happened to her, for you. She may be more than you deserve, but that
doesn't mean you get to dash off and die gloriously. It means you damn well stay here and do your best, for
her. Get it?"
           Haruka nodded, in a kind of awe. I suddenly remembered out respective positions and blushed
almost instantly.
           "But…"
           "But?"
           "What do I say to her?"
           I rolled my eyes. "That's the hard part. I told you -- dying gloriously is a cop-out. It's easy.
Anybody can die gloriously. Fixing things is hard."
           We sat for a moment longer, her hand still wrapped around mine; she dried her tears with her other
sleeve. She finally let go a few moments before the door slid noiselessly aside to reveal Kyoko and a
bleached-blonde American in combat fatigues, with a rifle in one hand and some sort of bazooka slung over
his back. He waved a hand in greeting.
           "Hey! Hope I'm not interrupting anything."
           "Not really." I got to my feet. "What's up?"
           "Just got the word from the L.T. and the rest of the head honchos. We're moving out, post-haste.
Gonna give those Imperials a kicking they won't soon forget."
         I looked at Haruka, unsure of how she'd take that news, but she merely nodded. The American
misinterpreted the gesture.
         "Don't worry, Hotaru. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you!"
Chapter Twenty-Seven
       Ami

          For what seemed like the ten-thousandth time in the past five minutes, I reached up to touch the
back of my neck, running my fingers along smooth black metal where there had once been unbroken skin.
As always, I jerked my hand away and tried to keep it at my side, or in my pocket, and as always after a
few seconds I found it wandering back, trying to confirm that the black thing was real, probing it like I
might probe a hole in my tooth. It felt cold and dead against my skin, which was still a bit numb from the
local anesthesia I'd sprayed on. The worst part had actually been after it punched in my neck -- the feeling
of those little tendrils winding their way into my brain was almost certainly psychosomatic, but that didn't
make it any less creepy.
          I blinked and tried to focus on the matter at hand.
          "This still seems kind of shoestring to me, Ami." Rei gestured across the hanger bay at the pair of
ships. They were sleek and speedy-looking, thin cigar-shapes that narrowed to a dull point at one end and
were painted with mirrored silver. One of them was already full, but the tail section of the other was split
in two so that the soldiers could load the last of the supplies.
          "Shoestring?" I chuckled. "It's not shoestring. It's a totally improvised, last-ditch effort probably
doomed to miserable failure, which will most likely consign all of us to slow, painful deaths. Shoestring is
too grand a term."
          "Ah." Rei cast about for some reason to object to this, and found none, so she turned to something
else. "In that case, is it really wise to split our strength?"
          "We need a distraction. One team goes in, makes a lot of noise, hopefully holds their attention.
The other team…"
          She raised an eyebrow. "The other team what?"
          "Does what they can to sabotage things, and protects me long enough to try and punch in through
this thing." I tapped the implant, which had the pleasant side effect of making Rei wince. "If I can knock
out their communications, even for a while, we should be able to do some serious damage."
          Rei nodded skeptically. "And you can't do that from here?"
          "Not easily. The whole point is that the distraction keeps them from reacting to me before it's too
late."
          "We've tried distracting the Sa'an before. They're good at reacting to multiple threats."
          "I can imagine. What we're hoping the Grid isn't good at, though, is reacting to novel inputs.
Hopefully Jahara and the others can do enough damage that human intervention will be required -- that
should get them off of my back."
          "And if it doesn't?"
          I smiled. "Then we all die horribly. What do you want, a written guarantee?"
          For a moment I thought I might have gone a bit too far, but finally Rei chuckled and shook her
head. "Ami, Ami. You're a bit different then I remember."
          I raised an eyebrow. "Likewise, I'm sure."
          "You think I've changed?"
          I gestured vaguely to take in the short ponytail, the combat fatigues, and the black rune-blade
crackling with magical power slung across her back. "A bit. Not to mention your massive lump of a
boyfriend."
          That got a full-on laugh. "What about you? Meet any nice guys while you were wandering the
universe?"
          I shrugged. "Not really."
          "Nothing like that? Never?"
          "Well, there was this one time the ship broke down, and I got really drunk and Kyn got really
bored, and we--"
          Rei's eyes were wide. "You're kidding."
          "I don't know. Am I?"
          There was another startled moment before she laughed again. "Gods. You had me going for a
second there." Rei shook her head. "I'd better go make sure Shard's ready. He's remarkably unpunctual for
a bounty-hunter. Be back in a few."
          I waited till she was out of earshot before whispering to the computer that waited patiently in my
headset.
         "Zel?"
         "Hmm?"
         "You still have a copy of our security tapes from that day?"
         "Absolutely, Ami." His voice went husky and dropped an octave. "Those are in my private
collection…"

          The loading was almost done before Haruka made her way over to me, looking
uncharacteristically less than furious. Kyoko had mentioned that Hotaru had had a little talk with her -- I
didn't know what she'd said, but it had certainly worked.
          "I still don't like this, Ami."
          I raised one hand. "I know, I know. But we need to spare someone to find Michiru, and under the
circumstances it should probably be you."
          "But…" She stopped, and for a moment I got a sense of the pain behind her eyes. Hotaru had
filled me in, briefly, on what Haruka had been up to when she was a 'god', but I obviously hadn't gotten the
full story. "Can't you wait to attack until we're finished?"
          "We've wasted enough time already." I sighed. "If we want to have any chance of getting Mako
back, we need to move now."
          She let out a heavy breath. "Okay."
          That was unexpected. I'd thought Haruka would put up more of a fight about being left out of the
battle. Glancing behind her, I saw the girl Dee mooching around with her back to a wall, and decided that
her presence had something to do with it.
          "Everything will be fine." I snapped back to paying attention. "You two will take the third shuttle
and pick up Michiru, and we'll meet up with you here once you're done."
          "What if something goes wrong?"
          "If something goes wrong, we'll run away." I tried to keep a reassuring smile. "Relax. I fully
intend to see you tomorrow morning."
          She looked over my face for a long time, as though trying to decide if I was lying, then nodded
shortly and turned to collect her charge. I turned around, looking for an excuse to sit down for a bit, but
just then I caught the signal from Corvere that everything was ready. With a sigh, I ambled over to join the
group assembling under the shuttles. I caught the Lieutenant's eye, and he nodded graciously, so I drew
myself and surveyed my troops.
          "All right. We went over this before, so it should be simple. Jahara will take the first ship, along
with Hotaru, Minako, Corvere, Hill, and Jeffries. I'll be in the second one with Rei, Shard, Hudson, and
Wyrsbowski."
          "And me!" Kyn jumped up next to me and put a possessive hand on my shoulder.
          "And Kyn. The first group's job will be to attract the attention of the Sa'an commanders and keep
it away from us. Be ready to pull out if things get too hot -- we just want you to give us as much time as
you can. We'll try to find something to sabotage on board the cruiser while I break into their network.
Everyone okay with that?"
          There was a chorus of assent. I moved up and down the line and suppressed an odd urge to have a
big fat cigar to chomp on and a tin helmet. I was frankly a bit surprised at the expressions on the faces of
my old friends: Hotaru, darkly serious but somehow determined. Rei filled with a kind of atavistic glee
that her lover seemed to have infected her with. And Minako, looking more serious than I'd seen her in a
long time, bearing upright and martial. There was something horrible about it, in a way. I'd always
wondered, through the long years of monsters and youma and what seemed like battle after battle for the
fate of the world, why afterwards everything seemed to slide off of us like water off a duck's back.
Normally we just dropped back into the grooves of our lives, each successive conflict quickly reduced to an
anecdote or a late-night scary story. But this…
          There was something important in that thought. I tried to focus on it, but it wouldn't come, so I
shook my head and turned to Jahara.
          "Your servant, Third, will take care of Pluto until Haruka and the others get back?"
          "Of course." The Unforgiven inclined his head. "Rest assured. Nothing will go wrong."
          I wished I had his confidence, but it was nice to have the unconscious Setsuna somewhere safe at
last. "Everyone ready to go?"
          There was no battle-cry, no macho shout or bravado. Just another round of nods, and everyone
filing quietly into the sleek silver ships. I wondered if, when we beat the Sa'an, things would go back to
normal again. Somehow, I suspected not.
          I made my way over to the quiet green-haired figure who had been hanging around the edge of the
proceedings.
          "Are you sure you want to do this?" Not that I was really trying to dissuade her. Frankly, we
needed her. But forcing someone who had just barely escaped from the clutches of the Sa'an to go along
with an armed invasion of their headquarters somehow did not sit well with me.
          "Come on. You need me. I told you, the interior of that ship is a maze -- I don't know the whole
thing, but it's better than nothing."
          She sounded terrified, and it took me a moment to figure out why -- Kyoko was scared that I
wouldn't let her come, that I'd force her to stay behind. The thought had never occurred to me, though I
suppose I could have done that.
          "Well, it's your choice." I almost said, 'It's your funeral', but at the last moment decided that
Kyoko was probably not quite as receptive to dry, morbid humor at the moment as Rei. She nodded tightly
and followed the others on to the ship. I boarded last, taking one final look around the docking bay to make
sure we hadn't left anything critical behind.
          Once onboard, I passed through the wide cabin area that led to the cockpit -- on such a small ship I
had to think of it as having a cockpit rather than a bridge. Shard and the Americans were going over the
gear they'd brought along, paying special attention to the weapons, and by all indications were convinced
they'd ascended to Heaven. Rei stood up and made her way to my side as Hudson shouldered a huge,
bazooka-like tube.
          "Any idea what that thing is?"
          I gave it a cursory glance. "Looks like a tachyon gun."
          "Does he know how to use it?"
          "I certainly hope so." I ducked through the doorway into the cockpit and sat, taking a moment to
familiarize myself with the controls. They were laid out pretty much like I'd expected -- given a vaguely
humanoid creature doing the piloting, there are only so many really efficient ways to lay out a cockpit. Rei
stayed in the doorway, bemused, as I started up the engines and read the status displays.
          "Do you really know how to fly this thing?"
          "Sure." I looked over at her. "Does that seem so odd?"
          "I just remembered meeting you at Usagi's school, when I could barely see your face because you
were too shy to peek around the stack of books in your arms. Trying to put that girl together with you is a
little tough."
          Kyoko stuck her head in the doorway. "Um…"
          "What?" I was a bit busy, setting the various controls necessary to let the ship take off smoothly.
This was more difficult then it looked -- if the contragravity field generated by the little gunship didn't
match perfectly the field generated by the Aegis, there was a better-than-even chance that we'd find
ourselves laminated all over the docking bay walls. Not that that was particularly likely, since I'd made a
lot of takeoffs and landings, but it pays to be careful.
          "Did you say you know someone named Usagi?"
          "Yeah."
          "Usagi Tsukino?"
          Because I was not exactly an amateur at this kind of thing, I didn't gasp, look over at Kyoko, lose
control of the gunship, and crash into the walls of the docking bay. Instead I waited a solid minute, guiding
the speedy little starship out through the cavernous mouth of Aegis' launch tube and into open space. Once
we were beyond the confining contragravity field generated by the massive ship, I locked the controls for a
moment and then turned to Kyoko, speaking a little more carefully.
          "What did you say?"
          "Usagi Tsukino. I only remembered the name cause I thought 'Moon Rabbit' sounded funny…"
She trailed off on seeing an incredulous expression form on my face, to match the one Rei already bore.
          "Where did you hear it?" There was something is Rei's voice, a kernel of hope that has to be
approached sideways lest it disappear like an errant spark.
          "Is she a friend of yours?"
          I nodded slowly. There was something in Kyoko's expression, too, that said I wasn't going to like
what I was going to hear. "Do you know where she is?"
          Kyoko took a deep breath. "Onboard the Sa'an cruiser. Tsunami and I saw her when we were
wandering around. They had her in one of those stasis tanks, I don't know why, and there were a bunch of
machines hooked up to it."
          This obviously did not produce the result she'd been expecting -- I caught Rei's eye and sighed
with relief. Kyoko looked back and forth, confused.
          "We've been assuming she was dead," I explained.
          "We got cut off from her on the first day, and we thought they'd killed her." Some hint of the pain
remained in Rei's eyes. "When Mako got captured, we saw her again pretty soon, albeit on the wrong side.
When Usagi didn't show up, we thought she…"
          "Oh."
          "Do you remember where they were keeping her?" I came across perhaps a bit too forcefully, and
Kyoko looked taken aback.
          "S…Sure. I can take you there, no problem."
          "Great." I clicked on the intercom between the two ships. "Hotaru?"
          "Yeah?" The girl's voice sounded tinny, distorted by the connection between two vessels traveling
faster than lightspeed.
          "Kyoko just told us that Usagi is being held captive onboard that ship."
          "What? That's great!"
          "So, slight change of plans. We'll go for getting her out first, along with infiltrating the Sa'an
network."
          "Got it. Good luck, Ami."
          Jahara's voice came over the intercom. "We're getting close to the atmosphere. Get ready to slow
to sublight speed."
          "Roger." I clicked the communicator off, waited for my controls to beep, and eased us back into
Einsteinian physics. Also into what Kyn would refer to as the 'fun' part of the trip -- the tactical display
came alight all at once, showing a mottled blue-green globe surrounded by red specks.
          Those specks were multiplying, drone fighters swarming from the Sa'an cruisers like angry
hornets. Given a few minutes, we'd be so outnumbered that even the best pilots would be shot to pieces.
Jahara, though, kept his ship in a flat dive, skimming into the atmosphere in a trajectory headed straight for
Tokyo. I followed closely. Given the speed of the gunships, only forces deployed from the cruiser over
Tokyo Tower, our target, had a chance of intercepting us.
          Another thirty seconds passed, and subsidiary panels began to warn of targeting locks. I resumed
manual control with the flick of a switch and watched the screens.
          "Zel? Something appropriate?"
          "Of course." The AI had always managed to keep a dry sense of humor about my taste in music.
Guitar beats filled the cabin.
          Rei looked at me quizzically. "Ami?"
          "What?"
          "Do you really think this is appropriate?"
          "It helps me fly."
          "But what about the guys back in the cabin--"
          She was cut short by a shout of approval -- one of the Americans, I assumed. Rei rolled her eyes
and gave up, settling back into her seat. Just in time, too -- I sent the ship into a roll to avoid the first long-
range volleys rising from the cruiser. Before I realized it, I was singing along, no doubt to Rei and Kyoko's
vast amusement.
          "…and I'm going down…all the way…"
          The gunship dropped toward the black sphere at six times the speed of sound.
Chapter Twenty-Eight
       Tsunami

          Without Kyoko around, I had nothing to do but wander the ship, exercise, eat, and argue with
Hyde. It took another day before I was convinced of how unutterably pointless this was, and by this point I
was bored out of my mind. I'd instituted our plan full of worries about what might happen to me afterwards
-- I hadn't considered that the answer might be 'nothing'.
          Ashghar was expecting something to happen, though, and soon. He was recalling troops from the
surface and stationing them around the cruiser, until the whole place looked like some fortified bunker.
Even creepier, he'd called in a whole bunch of Adepts and had them patrolling the corridors at all hours.
Something about the featureless dull-black armor had me half-terrified every time I saw one of them walk
by.
          Do you know what they are, Hyde? It was a sign of how bored/scared I was at this point that I was
turning to him for reassurance.
          Of course.
          I waited a moment. Well? What are they?
          It would be more precise to say 'what is it'? The Adepts are all aspects of the same entity.
          Entity?
          A creature built of purely negative energy, whose relationship to this universe is roughly
analogous to the relationship between a lion and a gazelle.
          That tells me a lot.
          It is difficult to express the truth in terms that your mind can understand. He sounded smug -- I
wished, I as often did, that Hyde had a face so I could punch it. They are built of negative energy. What
you think of as armor is also a kind of pressure suit, to prevent them from being instantly destroyed by the
accumulation of positive energy in our universe. They are anathema to all life, and ultimately all matter,
but particularly towards manifestations of positive energy such as magic.
          I think I actually understood that. You must be getting better.
          They are the key factor that has enabled the Sa'an to conquer thousands of worlds. It is their
intervention that breaks the lines of fate, and allows true cross-dimensional conquest.
          Nope, lost again. I stretched my arms and lay back on the bed. But forget that stuff. Why would
the Commander want them all here?
          The Adepts walk through magical effects as though they weren't there. I therefore conclude he
expects to be attacked by someone with considerable magical prowess.
          Who? The Sailor Senshi?
          If so, this is a lot of effort to go to. As far as I am aware, the Senshi don't have the resources to
launch an assault on this cruiser.
          So the Commander is expecting some kind of major assault on his position from some unknown
force. Great.
          It is better than you think. I infer that this assault is the reason you are still alive.
          My breath caught. What?
          The chances of the Sa'an not noticing your little stunt with Kyoko are not as high as you have
apparently assumed. I seriously doubt that the Commander is unaware of your actions. Normally, I
imagine he would terminate you for that kind of behavior. I therefore conclude that your survival is due to
whatever strange circumstances seem to be dominating here.
          I thought…
          My internal conversation was cut off by the hiss of the door, and I practically jumped out of my
skin before realizing that the pair of black-armored guards were merely bringing me dinner. They left the
tray on the table, as always, and I returned my attention to Hyde.
          If Ashghar and Kaia are on to me, why keep me around?
          They must be planning on using you in whatever battle is to come.
          How?
          I suspect they will rely on their cutoffs in order to control you, if necessary. Since they are not
aware that those cutoffs will not function, this could be an excellent time to make our escape.
          I gritted my teeth. I hated it when he came up with good suggestions, but one way or another
Hyde was right. If Ashghar really knew what I was planning, I would have to get away from the cruiser
sooner rather than later.
          "Ts…Tsunami?"
          The voice came from right behind me. This time I did jump, scrambling off the side of the bed
and onto to my feet in order to face--
          Another identical trooper, leaning towards me with two hands on the bed, rifle still slung across its
back. It hesitated, and so did I -- this behavior was so uncharacteristic of a Legionnaire, who I had come to
think of by now as animate extensions of the Grid, that I blinked and put one hand to my eye to make sure I
wasn't seeing things. The trooper looked around, if 'looked' is the proper word for someone wearing an
opaque face-plate, then sat down heavily on the bed. I heard the springs creak under the weight of the
armor.
          "Uh…hello?"
          It turned to face me again, speaking in the synthesized voice of the Legions, but the cadence was
all wrong. It sounded like there was a person under the metal, instead of some kind of faceless warrior.
          "Tsunami? Is that you?"
          I hesitated, wondering whether identifying myself to this strange thing was the best of plans.
"Y…yes."
          "Where am I? I can't really see…"
          "In my room." That didn't seem to be enough, so I added, "Onboard the cruiser. The
Commander's ship."
          "And you're really here?" The trooper shook its head. "I'm sorry, I know I must sound crazy.
Things are kind of confusing."
          "You're telling me." I walked slowly around the bed, getting closer to the thing. "Who are you?"
          "I…" It hesitated. "I'm Makoto. I think."
          "Makoto?" I raised an eyebrow. "As in Sailor Jupiter?" For a moment, I wondered if this could
actually be true, if the Sa'an had finally slapped one of their armored suits onto Jupiter. But the proportions
of the trooper were all wrong -- it was male, and six inches taller than I remembered Makoto as being. So
that left…what?
          "What happened to you?"
          "I don't really know, but…"
          "What?"
          "I think I'm dead."
          That threw the conversation into dead silence for a few moments, before I continued in my best
deadpan. "Okay…"
          "I mean…I can't feel my body anymore. It's gone. And it took me a few days to figure out how to
work one of these things, but…"
          The trooper looked up, as though in alarm. I tensed and glanced at the door. "What?"
          "More of those phage things. I've got to get out of here…Tsunami, I'll try to…"
          It stopped talking, and after a few moments stood and resumed the trooper's standard at-attention
position before marching out into the corridor. I waited for the door to hiss shut behind it before I shook
my head.

         I didn't hear from Makoto again before the shooting started.
         I'd always imagined that I'd be able to hear it, that the entire ship would shake and send people
sprawling they way it always did on Star Trek. This was ludicrous, of course. The cruiser was so large that
nothing short of actually ramming into the ground would produce any real shaking. But I could tell when
the assault began by the tone of the messages in the Grid; all of a sudden huge parts of my second
awareness began closing themselves off, locking into some kind of combat mode I didn't have access to.
Before long some messages directed themselves my way.
         <Tsunami, this is Kaia. The ship is under attack -- we need you to repel the intruders. An escort
of Legionnaires will arrive shortly, and you are to follow them and wait for further orders. Do you
understand?>
         <Yes.> I turned my attention to the Grid at large. <Can you tell me our status?>
         <Negative. Physical and network assault in progress. Please stand by.>
         The door opened, revealing twelve picture-perfect soldiers waiting for me. I figured there was
much point in breaking and running yet, so I let them escort me out into the maze of narrow corridors that
made up the interior of the Sa'an vessel. We were rapidly climbing, headed for the upper decks, when the
whole ship did shake, ringing like a bell. Even the Legionnaires were tossed to the side, and I ended up
sprawled against one of the walls. The soldiers started to get up almost instantly, of course, and I figured
this was as good a time as any.
         Here we go, Hyde.
         Try not to get yourself killed.
         The shimmering lights vanished before any of the dozen Legionnaires had gotten their bearings,
and my swords were in hand long before they could possibly react. Long, thin arcs of blood sprayed red-
on-black across the walls, and then I was running towards the sounds of battle.
Chapter Twenty-Nine
       Hotaru

          The ride down through the clouds, the breakneck descent right up to the edge of the cruiser, and
the stupendous explosion that made us an entrance were all kind of scary in a safe, roller-coaster kind of
way. Being with Jahara again in the cockpit had made me a little euphoric. Watching the Unforgiven
hunch his massive bulk over controls meant for a human always looked a little off, but he controlled the
little gunship with consummate skill. Not that I'd expected anything less.
          Once we got off the ship, though, things got a little more confused. We left through the shuttle's
belly-hatch, which was mated to the ragged hole we'd blown in the outer skin of the cruiser. From what
Ami had talked about back on the Aegis, the hard part had actually been slipping past the shields of the
giant Sa'an ship, but Jahara had given no evidence it even troubled him. Hill and Jeffries led the way,
dropping straight down into a narrow, black-walled corridor. The two Americans were still toting their
spindly, painfully-loud guns, along with a few others toys they'd picked up in Jahara's armory. Corvere and
Minako jumped down next, as soon as the soldiers had given the all-clear, and Jahara locked the controls
for the ship and headed for the hatch. I followed him, finally feeling the first stirrings of worry; the
Unforgiven stepped down easily and held up one hand to help me.
          Now that we were inside, the Sa'an cruiser was curiously anti-climactic. A black metal corridor,
lit from above and bitterly cold, that led only a few meters in either direction before turning or ending in a
door. No horrible creatures waiting to meet us at the breech, no armies of black-armored warriors. Not yet,
anyway.
          "All right." The Lieutenant surveyed the area quickly and nodded. "Looks good. Minako and I
will stay here and keep our exit secure. Hill, Jefffries, you have Kyoko's map to primary weapons
control?"
          The two Americans nodded and hefted their heavy weapons. "Got it."
          "Good. If you can knock that out, our escape will be a bit easier. If you run into heavy resistance,
though, fall back here. Understood?"
          "Yes, sir."
          "Good luck." Corvere turned to Jahara as the pair loped off, and there was a noticeable change in
his bearing -- he wasn't addressing subordinates anymore. "Do you know where you're going?"
          "I do."
          "Okay. Keep in touch."
          I tapped the little headset-radio we'd all been issued to make sure it was working, and Jahara did
the same. Corvere nodded, satisfied. "Remember, we're here to cause a distraction, not get ourselves
killed."
          "Of course." Jahara smiled thinly before turning to me. "You had best be ready."
          "Right." I took a deep breath. Last time I'd done this, I'd ended up with one of Tsunami's swords
sticking out of the small of my back. I sincerely hoped things would work out better this time. "Saturn
Crystal Power -- Make Up!"
          The power was even more reluctant then it had been before. As I spoke, I felt it recede for one
horrible moment, leaving me suspended on the cusp of the transformation. Then, hesitantly at first, it
crashed back down like a wave. The familiar sparkling lights rose and fell, and the Silence Glaive dropped
into my hand with a comforting thump. Jahara looked at me quizzically but said nothing; he headed for the
nearest door at an unconcerned walk, as though we were merely on an evening stroll.
          "May I share something with you, Hotaru?"
          "Sure." I padded along in his shadow. We reached the door, which remained obstinately shut.
The Unforgiven opened one hand and let the metal gently melt into slag. I stepped through gingerly,
feeling the crackle of the heat on my arms.
          "I have been who I am for a long time, now. And I have learned to deal with it, in little ways.
Things like…what I said to you, in the garden…they do not come easily to me."
          More black corridor. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything else to the cruiser, or if it
was just one giant maze of black on black. I glanced up at Jahara and slipped one hand briefly into his. He
smiled.
          "You shouldn't feel bad about it, of course. The aspects of life that are not included in my
function can be difficult, but on the whole I have found them most enjoyable."
          He took a left turn, and then a right, as though he knew where he was going -- I had to assume that
he did, that he'd been on board one of these ships at some point in the past. We walked for another four or
five minutes in silence. I began to wonder what had happened to all the clanging alarms and flashing red
lights my imagination had always peopled a starship with -- everything here was eerily calm.
          "I…I mean, I'm glad you find them…fun." I blushed, unaccountably, at this.
          "Indeed. But sometimes, I must admit, they become frustrating. I have to say this is one of the
minor reasons I have consented to come along on this expedition."
          "Frustrating?"
          We came to another door, this one large enough for a car to pass through. Jahara held up his hand
and it began to melt, slowly.
          "Yes. All of that…" He waved his other hand vaguely. "It is all well and good. But…"
          The door gave way with a groan, opening on to a wide chamber. I had the brief impression of
some kind of ready-room for Sa'an troops -- the place was packed to the gills with them, standing at
attention in big blocks of a hundred or more. I flinched instinctively as they moved, going for their rifles,
even though I knew it would be far too slow.
          Jahara smiled, a little nastily, and raised his hands.
          "But when all is said and done, this is what you might call my area of expertise."

          The world went white.
          Shutting my eyes didn't seem to make a difference -- the radiance had reached some level where it
was no longer perceived through the eyes but battered its way directly through the skull. It wasn't real light,
which was probably a good thing considering that otherwise I'd be writhing in pain.
          I realized I'd never really seen Jahara cut loose. His every move, every action had been restrained
for as long as I'd known him, sensitive to the fact that he could wipe out everything around him with the
slightest misstep. Now that he'd unleashed some fraction of his full power, it had gone beyond my ability
to experience it, hence the trip to this land of brilliant white.
          His voice, loud enough that I could feel the vibration in the pit of my stomach, boomed through
the endless glow.
          "I am the Guardian of Power Incarnate!" I fell to my knees, involuntarily clapping my hands
across my ears. "I am the avatar of Death and Destruction. And I am UNFORGIVEN!"
          There was a long, horrible moment before the light started to clear. I planted my hands unsteadily
on the deck, half-expecting to find myself high in the air amidst a spray of vaporized particles. The ship
appeared to still be there, though, and I felt Jahara's not-quite-human hand find mine and help me to my
feet. I blinked -- the purple dots were slowly fading.
          "Are you all right?" He was quiet, barely audible compared to the avalanche of sound from a
second before.
          "F…fine." I got to my feet, a little shakily. "At least, I think I'm fine."
          He waved a hand. "Do you think this counts as a distraction?"
          I followed his gesture. The ready-room or whatever it was had been scoured almost totally clean.
Everywhere except for a narrow circle around where we were standing, the walls had been burnt even
blacker and were now starting to bleed silver. I realized with a start we were looking at vaporized metal
precipitating out of the air. Even behind whatever shield Jahara held to keep us safe, I could feel the heat
blowing past with the heavy ozone tang of molten metal.
          "I think…so." Anyone in the vicinity would have to be deaf as well as blind to have missed that,
even discounting the super-network that Ami thought was running the whole show. There didn't seem to be
an immediate response, though. "So what do we do now?"
          "Try very hard to stay alive. I imagine the Adepts of the Dark are on their way here as we speak.
They will most likely try to restrict my powers and then attack us again, since the Adepts are vulnerable to
conventional weapons."
          I remembered the one I'd fought back in the apartment block, which had practically imploded
when shot, and nodded. "So where do we go?"
          "Away from here. They will try to surround us, so we must attempt to break out."
          "So should I just pick a door?"
          He nodded.
          We headed across the huge room, me at a jog, him matching it by lengthening his stride a bit. The
doors on the opposite side were charred shut, but as expected that did not pose much of a difficulty. Then
we were in another long, winding corridor, headed generally downward.
          "I'm taking us towards the CG control room," Jahara explained as we ducked through another
doorway. "If we can get there, we can perform several useful acts of sabotage."
          "Without making the ship drop out of the sky?"
          "Correct. I think we can--"
          I turned a corner, and he was cut off by a storm of laser fire. Saturn's super-human reactions saved
me yet again as I threw myself to the floor, letting most of it splash harmlessly over head. One beam raked
across my left shoulder, which was painful but not quite as bad as one would have expected from a weapon
that could melt metal.
          "Hotaru!" More weapons fire from behind us, and the ominous clicks of boots on metal. "The
Adepts are here somewhere. If you can take them out--" The rest was drowned in the noise of battle, but I
could figure it out. Before the soldiers in front of me could reset their aim I bounced to my feet and started
running down the corridor, arms crossed before my face in case someone got a lucky shot. I made it look
like a charge, and they reacted beautifully. The soldiers were arrayed across a door a few meters down the
corridor; the ones directly in my path faded back while the ones to either side opened fire. I was no longer
there, though, having ducked low and headed sideways, bouncing off one corridor wall as the lasers flashed
past me.
          That covered most of the distance to the end of the hall. I ducked and charged past the four
troopers who held the sides of the doorway, swinging the Glaive wildly to my left and feeling it score
against one of them. The two that had backed out of the doorway were not prepared for me suddenly
jumping into their midst, and a continuation of the same swing cut them down before the doorway guards,
now behind me, could react. Then I was ducking again as they opened fire, but at such close range all I
needed was a simple weave-and-slice once I was inside their guard. Blood rolled in a steady carpet across
the black metal, and I tried not to look at the faceless minions I'd just dismembered.
          I was searching for the Adept, though I didn't know how close it would have to be and the sounds
of combat from behind me were getting nearer. Beyond the doorway was a narrow room that led on to two
more corridors, one of which, at a glance, was packed with Sa'an troops. I hit an obvious control beside the
door and was mildly surprised as it actually worked, hissing the metal portal shut in their faces. Down the
other corridor --
          A humanoid figure, armored entirely in dull black, stood a good twenty meters away as if taunting
me.
          "Jahara!"
          The green-haired giant backed into the room, decapitating a trooper who charged after him with an
open-handed chop.
          "There are a large number of Adepts the way we came."
          "The right path only has one that I saw, and he was running for it."
          "Lead the way, then. I will act as rear-guard."
          I nodded and charged down the corridor, after the fleeing Adept, and I heard Jahara follow me. I
caught a glimpse of him at the next turn, and through a door an instant before it closed. I wasn't quite able
to stop myself in time and ran up hard against the cold metal portal, Jahara skidding to a halt behind me.
All was quiet for a moment -- apparently we'd left our pursuers behind. I was panting, out of breath, even
as the incarnation of Destruction.
          "Any…idea…where…we are?"
          "We are approaching the center of the ship. The contragravity cylinders are close by, as are the
officer's quarters. On the other side of this door are the Gates."
          "Gates?"
          "The devices used by the Sa'an to transform human beings into Legionnaires. I do not know much
about them." He put his head a bit to one side, as if listening. "The soldiers behind us have stopped."
          "What…" I put one hand on my side, suppressing a cramp, and caught my breath. "What does
that mean?"
          "Either they have given up, or Ami has succeeded, at least temporarily."
          "What now?"
          "Being this close to the Gates is too good an opportunity to pass up. We should inflict some
damage here, if we are able."
         "Lead the way." Something in the back of my head gave a prickle. It seemed like an awfully
large coincidence that the Adept had just happened to lead us right here… "Jahara?"
         He looked up from melting the door off its hinges. "What?"
         "This could be a trap."
         He nodded. "I am aware of that."

          We stepped through, cautiously, and found ourselves on a catwalk over a factory floor.
          Apparently we were nearing the end of a shift. The factory was arranged into two sections -- a
long, winding line demarcated by metal barriers and guarded by ever-attentive Legionnaires, and a sort of
holding pen on the other side. Separating the two was what was best described as a giant blob of black
glop. It glistened wetly in the pale, sourceless light that seemed to pervade the Sa'an ship, and it had just
enough texture that you knew it would be sticky to the touch, like a perfectly round drop of tar.
          The line contained people -- there was room for hundreds, but it was now down to a mere dozen,
all young-looking guys except for one girl in the front. They were naked, and oddly docile, filing gently
along under the prods of the black-armored troopers. Just as we entered, the girl stepped up to the blob,
hesitated only a moment, and then walked in. The wall of the thing rippled over her body and closed
behind her, quickly returning to its perfect shape. Only moments later, the other side heaved, opened, and
another Legionnaire stepped out, already clad head-to-toe in impenetrable black. It -- it was impossible to
think of the girl as anything but an 'it' now -- picked up a laser rifle from a nearby stack and stood stiffly at
attention with a large group of newly formed recruits.
          "Gods…" I let out my breath in a quiet hiss. "It's horrible."
          "Yes." Jahara also kept his voice down. "I have never actually seen the process in action before."
          "I don't see that Adept anywhere."
          "Likewise. I suspect that your intuition may have been correct. Nonetheless, shall we do what we
came to do?"
          "Right." I caught his eye. "On three?"
          We counted silently. On the third second, I lunged forward and heaved myself over the fence
surrounding the catwalk. The floor was only twenty feet below; I landed on my feet and charged, whisper-
quiet, towards the guards around the queue of blank-eyed soldiers-to-be.
          Jahara took a more direct approach. He raised one hand and fired a lance of green fire into the
center of the black blob.
          I'd expected the black stuff to explode outward, splashing like liquid. Instead the Gate just hung
impaled on the line of green for a moment, then imploded, folding around the thin stream of plasma and
vanishing inwards as though it had never been. A second later, there was nothing left but a burnt spot on
the floor, and I reached the guards around the line down below. I cut them to bits before they could react.
          Scratch that. By the time I got to the last one I realized they weren't going to react -- the guards
had gone as still as statues, not even flinching as the Silence Glaive cut them to pieces.
          "Hotaru!"
          Not Jahara's voice. I spun on the balls of my feet, weapon raised, to find another white-and-black
uniformed figure approaching. Tsunami looked as though she'd seen better days -- her eyes were lost in the
middle of dark circles, as though she hadn't slept for a week, and her skin was smudged and dirty. This
time, though, her swords remained at her hips, which was an improvement. She stopped halfway across the
room. I think something in my stance told her not to approach any closer.
          "Tsunami?"
          "Yes!" She took another step forward. "You aren't dead!"
          I felt a trace of bitterness. "No thanks to you." She flinched, and I wished I could have taken it
back.
          "I know."
          The lights flickered during the pause.
          "What are you doing here?"
          I shrugged. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
          "Making a mess."
          I looked at her uncertainly. "Shouldn't you be trying to kill me?"
          "I'm on break." She looked around. "We should get out of here. I don't know why, but all the
Legionnaires have gone stiff -- we might be able to make it to one of the shuttles if the Adepts don't find
us…"
         "You're leaving?"
         "Trying to, anyway."
         No. You will destroy her, Tsunami.
         We both flinched; the voice rang loud and imperious. Tsunami gritted her teeth.
         "Just a voice, right?"
         "Right. What about your other reasons?"
         "I got rid of her." She gave the ghost of a smile, even against the pain. "So let's go."
         "Jahara?"
         "I am here." The Unforgiven's voice floated down from along the catwalk. "I am attempting to
locate the Adepts -- they are in the vicinity, attempting to restrict my powers."
         "Can we get out of here now, please?"
         "Certainly."
         I gestured to Tsunami, and we ran to one of the stairways leading back up on to the catwalk.
         "Best to leave the way we came."
         The other girl nodded. "I don't dare access the Grid, they might find us. So I'm as lost as you
are."
         We reached the top and made it halfway back to the door, with Jahara paralleling us on the other
side, before we noticed the doorway was occupied by a single, thin figure in a familiar uniform, with a pair
of braids that reached practically to the floor. I pulled up short, with Tsunami right behind me, and stared
uncertainly at the silhouette.
         "U…Usagi?"
         She stepped into the room, confidently, and something in her stance made me back up and grip the
Glaive a little harder. I blinked when I saw her eyes -- they were black, the same shiny, sticky black as the
Gate. Her uniform was covered in strange runes, hastily daubed onto the fabric, and something dark and
malevolent played about as she smiled.
         "Tsunami." Her lips parted, showing perfect white teeth. "Fly-by-wire."
Chapter Thirty
       Ami

          It wasn't so much a gentle touchdown as an explosion to gain us entrance, followed by a drawn-
out series of bumps and scrapes accompanied by the protesting scream of metal-on-metal. Everyone in the
cabin held his or her breath, including me, until I finally got the gunship down. Rei raised an eyebrow, but
only Hudson dared to actually comment.
          "Nice landing, chief."
          "Thanks." I matched his smile. "It's all in the wrist. Now let's get going."
          The bottom hatch slid open without a sound, opening onto what was left of a medical bay. It was
like some bizarre parody of a sci-fi show -- the Starship Enterprise, decorated by Goths. Everything was
black on black, with the tiny power lights of equipment glowing everywhere like a swarm of demonic eyes.
Not exactly welcoming, but an improvement over the firing squad I'd been expecting. My team -- that
thought felt odd, I'd never really been in charge of a team before -- spread out without being prompted,
covering the pair of doors that served as exits. Kyn and Kyoko stuck close by me, the former so she could
jump on me without warning and the latter because she was obviously a bit nervous.
          "Okay." I shivered a bit -- the air inside the ship was cold enough that I could see my breath. I
pondered using magic but decided against it. No need to give away our position. "Rei, Shard, you're in
front. Kyn and Kyoko with me. Hudson, Wyrsbowski, you're behind. We've got to keep moving -- I'm
going to try breaking into their network, but if we stand still they'll just surround us. Kyoko, can you find
the way to the room they were holding Usagi in from here?"
          "I…think so." She took a better look at our surroundings and nodded. "Yes. We need to go down
a few levels, towards the center of the ship."
          "All right. You tell Rei which way to go. And for God's sake don't wait for me to decide if
something happens -- I'm not sure how distracted I'll be with this network stuff. Somebody drag me along
if I'm zoned out and we have to run, okay?"
          "Haiii!" Kyn raised her hand. "I'll take care of you, Oneesama!"
          "Good." I pointed to the door Kyoko had indicated. "Go for it."
          The door didn't open as we approached, but Rei soon figured out the trick to it. Her blue-black
sword cut through the metal like warm butter, and she carefully carved out the locking mechanism and
watched the rest shoot back into the wall with a hiss. The corridor beyond was wide enough for two people
to walk side-by-side, barely, and twisted after only a few meters. I looked over at Kyoko.
          "The interior of this ship is a maze." She shook her head. "I think we can find our way, though."
          Shard drew a nasty-looking pistol in each hand. "Then lead on."
          I nodded to myself. "Right. And here goes nothing."

          I'd added a simple on-off switch to the design of the black implant, just to reassure myself. I
wasn't sure if I could turn it off once activated, at least not safely, but I'd certainly been able to prevent it
from turning on. I released this final safety with barely a twinge, bringing the tender flesh of my brain into
direct contact with the extra-dimensional network of the Sa'an, what Kyoko called the Grid.
          I could feel the other nodes in the network, extending away from me in all directions, as though
they were extra limbs. Or, more appropriately, as though I was merely a limb in some vast being that
extended across light-years and dimensions. Some huge creature, fed on a constant stream of hapless
recruits, conquering world after world to feed its endless hunger. The feeling of vastness passed in a bare
instant, and I was left with the odd sensation that the Grid, the whole multi-dimensional construct, was
hovering just over my shoulder.
          Then it started to pull away, and I realized I had to stop thinking in metaphors and really
understand what the hell was going on. With a little effort, I could feel the flow of messages through
receptors the black implant had wormed into my brain, the background protocol on which the giant network
was built. At the moment, nasty messages were flooding my system -- the Grid had recognized after a
split-second that I didn't belong, and the rest of the nodes were simply abandoning me.
          Some kind of commotion in the real world threatened to distract me, and I concentrated angrily on
the task at hand even as I felt Kyn drag me sideways and throw me heavily to the ground. Weapons roared;
I did my best to ignore them. The message to ignore anything coming from me had to propogate through
the entire network, and even through higher-dimensional space this took some finite amount of time. In
that time I hammered out my own message, a simple self-replicating packet that countermanded those
instructions and left the door open for my further input. It made it to some of the farther nodes just before
the door slammed shut. Then I was shut out, my new sense cut off as though it had never been; I opened
my eyes.
          Kyn was standing over me, looking confused. "Oneesama? What are you doing?"
          "Working on something." I touched the implant again, out of habit; it felt warm. "What's going
on?"
          Shard leaned over. "We're holed up at a T-junction. There's Legionnaires ahead and behind, and
either way it's a dead-end; we're pinned down."
          I looked around to find that he was basically right. Our little cross-corridor was barely big enough
for the seven of us, and the other half of the T was filled with an intermittent storm of laser fire, the angle
slowly changing as the troopers on either side crept closer. Kyoko was behind Shard and I, flattened
against the wall, and Rei and the two Americans were trapped on the other side of the junction.
          "Rei?" I had to shout to be heard above the coughing, rumbling storm of the lasers.
          "Yeah!"
          "I'll block the ones from behind. Can you charge the other way?"
          Being Rei, she didn't argue or offer bravado, just nodded curtly. "Shard, you two -- cover me."
          "Right." Shard grinned like a maniac under his green glasses. "Say when."
          "Now!"
          Rei charged out of the intersection, hand sweeping across.
          "Mars Plasma LANCE!"
          At the same time the troopers in that direction were flashing into vapor, I threw up a shield behind
us, bending the lasers until they hit the walls. Shard opened up on the suddenly flat-footed troopers with
glee, forcing them into cover, and Rei drew her magic sword and charged in the other direction at top speed.
I gestured Kyn and Kyoko out of the corridor and followed her, staying close to the wall. The two
Americans joined Shard's fusillade, further blocking the way back.
          "Yee-HAW!" Hudson's odd battle-cry was audible even over the sound of battle.
          By the time I reached where the troopers' line had been, it was already in ruins; Rei's broadsword
apparently carved through Legionnaire armor and flesh as easily as it did metal. Kyoko thought for a
moment, then pointed the direction at the next branch, and I called the information back to the three in the
rear. Then we were again running through the darkness of the Sa'an cruiser.

          I had almost convinced myself that I'd led us all to a grisly demise when the nodes of the Grid
started lighting up again, one by one. The phony packets I'd inserted into the network had propagated -- not
exactly a virus, which the Grid's self-defense systems would have undoubtedly recognized immediately, but
something disguised as a system message that tricked the low-level routines into replicating it before it
activated.
          So I had access, for a while. Presumably they would eventually figure out what I was up to and
start a partition, chopping all links to the Grid as a whole and rooting out the little backdoor I'd introduced.
Until then, though, we had a little time.
          "Kyoko, how far?"
          The green-haired girl tried to speak, but all that came out was a wheeze; I gestured for Rei and
Shard to stop while she caught her breath.
          "Another…two levels down…maybe a couple hundred meters. There's a big room. Not much
between here and there."
          "Great. Are you going to be okay?"
          She nodded weakly. "Just…give me a second."
          "Right. Rei?"
          Rei still had her sword in one hand, and I swore I could hear it humming. "What's up?"
          "How're we doing against these Legionnaires? If Usagi's guarded, do you think we can break in?"
          "Sure." She shrugged. "That's not the problem, though. We haven't run into any of the Adepts
yet."
          "Hopefully the Americans can handle them." I glanced over at Hudson, who was enthusiastically
loading a big metal sphere into the gaping maw of the tachyon gun. "We'll see."
          "Right. What about…" She tapped the back of her neck.
          "I think we're in. I want to give it as much time to spread as I can before I actually use it -- once
they catch on, I imagine they'll shut it down pretty quickly.'
          "So it's our ace-in-the-hole."
          "Pretty much." I turned to the next face on my circuit. "Kyn, you doing alright?"
          "Haiii!" The catgirl grinned. "This is fun!"
          With all present and accounted for, I nodded to Rei, who got up and led the way at a thankfully
more sedate pace. We descended another pair of stairways in quick succession, ducked into a main
corridor that was luckily unoccupied, and found ourselves facing a pair of double doors. I glanced at
Kyoko, who nodded slowly; Rei stepped carefully to one side of the doors and Shard to the other, with
Hudson and Wyrsbowski in the center, hoisting massive weapons. Kyn, Kyoko, and I stood off to one side.
          "Here goes nothing." Rei kept her voice at a whisper as she plunged the blue-black blade of her
sword into the metal. Halfway along one side she hit the catch, and the whole door flashed backwards into
its casing faster than the eye could follow. We had a bare instant to take in the scene beyond before
jumping out of the way; along the back wall of the room, a line of Imperial troopers crouched behind the
cover of assorted machinery opened fire.
          Shard and Wyrsbowski returned the favor, the bounty hunter leaning around the doorway and
raking the Imperial line with explosive rounds while the American stood at the other corner and plugged
away with his heavy railgun. Hudson fired one shot and then jumped for cover. The tachyon gun coughed
sullenly, and some thirty meters away a big section of the Imperial line simply ceased to exist. The weapon
had carved a sphere the size of small car a out of the machinery, the floor, the troopers, and anything else
that happened to be in its way. I raised an eyebrow despite myself -- I was impressed.
          The firing started to slacken as the superior weaponry Jahara had supplied us with took its toll, and
I risked a look around the corner of the doorframe to confirm that we were indeed in the right place. A big
green column of fluid, presumably the Sa'an equivalent of a stasis tank, occupied the center of the room. It
was cloudy, but even from here it looked unoccupied, and I was suddenly worried.
          "Kyoko, are you sure--"
          "Look out!"
          Rei's shout came just in time -- behind us, in the corridor, half-a-dozen of the tall four-limbed
walkers that had attacked the apartment complex stepped out from behind a door and opened fire. I threw
up a shield by reflex, with everything I had behind it; even so I felt the blow like a punch to the solar plexus.
Hudson was frantically trying to load his weapon again, and Wyrsbowski turned to bring his railgun to bear.
His first shot went wide, knocking a two-inch hole in the ceiling.
          "Back! Into the chamber!"
          Rei and Shard needed no urging -- they were already scrambling forward through the doorway,
trying to avoid the dregs of the troopers' laser fire. Hudson followed, cursing his unwieldy bazooka-like
weapon. Wyrsbowski fired again, and the counter-attack made my shield flicker.
          "Go!" I shouted, jumping through the doorway. He tried for one last shot, before I could stop him.
The powered armors' beams were monsters, with a huge amount of energy behind them, and on the third try
they tore through what was left of my shield like tissue paper. The railgun 'cracked' one last time, this time
nailing one of them right in the faceplate, but its owner was shredded into a thin goo under the plasma
stream.
          Rei cursed as one of the lasers from inside the room caught her on the shoulder, leaving a nasty
burn. Shard gunned down the offender, but the Legionnaires had retreated behind the stasis column to hard
cover and were doing a remarkably good job of keeping us pinned down. All in all, I decided, it was ace-
in-the-hole time. I reached out, through the implant.
          <Query?>
          No time for anything fancy. <Deactivate everything near my position, now!>
          <Warning: request possibly ambiguous. Warning: Request conflicts with security directives.> I
held my breath. <Proceed?>
          I let it out with a long sigh. <Proceed.>
          <Engaging system shut-down.>
          The firing stopped as though someone had thrown a master switch, which in a sense I just had. I
looked back into the corridor, and the black armors were frozen in their positions. Hudson had the good
sense to take advantage of the situation -- he'd managed to reload, and the tachyon gun coughed once again,
sending the four-limbed machines to oblivion.
          The sudden silence hit us like a hammer.
          "What…" Rei looked around. "Did you do that, Ami?"
          "Yeah." I found my hands shaking a little. "Too late, though."
         Hudson shook his head. "Shit." It seemed to express everything that needed to be said.

          Now, I decided, was not the time to hang around feeling exhausted. I forced myself back to my
feet and went to examine the stasis column and surrounding equipment. The troopers stood around it like
statues, or soldiers frozen in time -- I kept seeing them out of the corner of my eyes and having to stop
myself from turning. A quick check proved what I'd already feared. The column was empty.
          Kyoko moved up behind me, shaking her head. "She was here."
          "I believe you." I ran one hand over the flank of some massive, black machine. "This is
obviously a pretty fancy set-up. They must have moved her recently."
          "So now what?"
          "We look for her. And for Makoto. I'll see if I can find her through the Grid."
          "You got in?"
          I gestured at the motionless Legionnaires all around us. "Yup. Don't know how long it'll last,
though." I closed my eyes, though it didn't really matter, and tried to manipulate the implant.
          <Query?>
          <Where is Usagi?>
          <Question ambiguous. Define 'Usagi'.>
          <Where is the test subject from this stasis tube?>
          <Question potentially ambiguous but answerable. Test subject 001 is in Factory Alpha.> The
map bloomed in my head, pure data just dropped into my conscious mind. I couldn't help but smile --
regardless of their use, the Sa'an implants were extremely effective.
          <What about Makoto?>
          <Question ambiguous. Define 'Makoto.'>
          <Where are the other test subjects?>
          <Test subject 003 is in Factory Alpha. Test subject 002 has been captured by the enemy, current
location unknown, presumed dead.>
          "That's her," I muttered. <I need what's left of test subject 002. Memory files, personality files,
something like that.>
          <Question ambiguous. Probable reference: Fly-by-wire system.>
          <Give me the data on fly-by-wire.>
          It dropped into my skull like the map had, a chilly cube of information that took a moment to
parse. The end result took my breath away.
          "They…" My breath caught. "Oh, no." <Where is the personality construct from test subject
002?>
          <Unknown. The data partition was destroyed with the subject.>
          And now for the important question. <Was fly-by-wire installed in subject 001?> That had to be
Usagi.
          <Yes.>
          "Shit." I spoke out loud, which made everyone in the room look at me. "This is going to be
harder than we thought."
          "What's wrong?" Rei stood from where she'd been leaning on the wall. "Did you find Usagi?"
          "Sort of. I found out what was wrong with Mako."
          "What?"
          "Fly-by-wire."
          She shook her head. "Which means…"
          "They copied Makoto's conscious mind to the network, where it would be easy to control. They
could dissect it, use whatever parts they wanted to operate her body."
          Rei blinked. "The process can be reversed, right?"
          "I hope so. We need to find the personality construct. But they've done the same thing to Usagi."
          "So how do we find these constructs?"
          <Where is the personality construct for test subject 001?>
          <That construct is stored in Central Processing.>
          <Can it be retrieved from here?>
          <Yes--> The voice, or whatever it was, stuttered briefly. <Warning. Warning. Grid partition in
progress. This subcell will now commence independent operations.>
          <Answer my question! Can we retrieve it from here?>
          <Insufficient resources for natural language processing exist in this subcell. Please format query
as a direct data command.>
          "Shit."
          "What!" Rei looked frantic. I didn't blame her, frankly. "What the hell is going on?"
          "They locked me out. Partitioned the Grid."
          "Can you still find Usagi?"
          "Assuming her body doesn't move much. Let's head downstairs."
Interlude Five

           "Commander!"
           "One moment…" Ashghar held up a hand, listening to something over his Grid link. "Excellent.
What is it, Vice-Commander?"
           "The Deathgrip is under attack." She snapped it off in a manner that was probably insubordinate,
but Ashghar didn't seem to mind.
           "I am well aware of that."
           "Why have our troops pulled back? We should move to contain the invaders. They've already
inflicted significant damage on Factory Alpha, and another group is cornered in one of the test chambers.
We should--"
           "Patience, Kaia." The Commander stood from behind his desk. "The time is ripe, and everything
will fall into our laps."
           Kaia dimly registered that the Commander had used her name, but she had more of an eye for his
expression. He kept staring off into the distance, presumably distracted by something from the Grid.
Annoyed, she opened her own Grid link to find out what was going on--
           <Warning. Warning. Grid partition in progress. This subcell will now commence independent
operations.>
           "What? Are you insane?"
           "Remember your protocol, Vice-Commander."
           Kaia swallowed and regained her composure with an effort. "With all due respect, Commander --
partitioning the Grid leaves us nearly helpless!"
           "It was necessary. We are under network as well as physical attack."
           "But the Grid defenses--"
           "Are inadequate." He walked past her, towards the door. "Trust me. Now the intruders should be
isolated, and we can deal with them easily."
           "With what? Our troops will be operating on default instructions."
           "Not entirely. Our subcell retains contact with Central Processing and a few other key positions.
But mostly…" He gestured the door open. "With them."
           The Adepts of the Dark stood in perfect ranks, two dozen or more, weapons slung over their
shoulders. They made no move to acknowledge the presence of the two humans. With all of them together
in one group, the creepy feeling they generated was enough to make Kaia shiver.
           It's nothing. They are tools, like anything else.
           "Adepts. Follow me."
           "Commander--" Kaia hurried to follow as he led his perfect line of black-armored things to the
stairwells. "Is there actually an Unforgiven on board?"
           "I believe so, yes."
           "Can this many Adepts really stop him?"
           "Possibly." Ashghar smiled. "But for that I'm relying on my…special test subject."
Chapter Thirty-One
       Tsunami

          The following analogy occurred to me in a flash:
          I am not a big video-game player, myself, but I do indulge on occasion. My personal specialty
was flying games, of the not-very-realistic sort. I always found the tilting-your-head-to-one-side that other
people seemed to do when performing a hard turn vaguely amusing until I realized I was doing it myself.
You identify with the view on the screen, not in an emotional way but in a kind of physical, sensory way.
Pay enough attention, and it becomes a substitute for your normal inputs and outputs.
          The jarring part is when someone walks in front of the screen, or pulls the controller away from
you. Suddenly that link is broken, and it becomes impossible to think of the game as anything other than a
semi-random pattern of dots on a specially treated glass plate, responding to your movements in a more or
less consistent way. Getting back into the mood takes time.
          What happened to me was not even vaguely like that. But it was even less like anything else I've
ever experienced, so that analogy will have to do. To make another attempt: it was like realizing, all of a
sudden, that my body was merely a squishy mannequin of flesh, blood, and bone only nominally under the
control of the part of my mind that thinks of itself as 'I'. Or, to make yet another, it was like having a filter
slipped between me and my perception of the world. It was still there, not blurred or indistinct but
somehow distant. Like a time-lag in a phone conversation that is just long enough to be annoying.
          Analogies fail me. It was fly-by-wire. I was totally aware that while I still controlled my body, I
was not in my body. And, more to the point, someone else was controlling it with me, and was capable of
using exactly as much or as little of my conscious mind as it desired.
          Hyde! What the hell is going on?
          I have no idea. If I didn't know any better, I'd say the voice sounded frightened. This isn't the cut-
off system. It's operating at a higher level -- there's nothing I can do.
          You bastard! You told me they couldn't--
          The flash of the transformation interrupted me. Hotaru didn't notice -- she couldn't seem to take
her eyes off of the strange blonde girl in front of her. I wanted to scream as one of my swords drew itself
and took aim.
          Hotaru! Get out of the way!
          I couldn't speak, of course. But somehow she managed to hear me all the same. The other Sailor
Saturn backflipped over the edge of the catwalk to land smoothly down below, twisting her glaive back into
a ready position. This only bought her a temporary respite, however -- I followed her with a jump and we
squared off on the ruined factory floor.
          "Tsunami?" Even Hotaru seemed to sense that something was wrong.
          Hotaru! Can you hear me? I can't stop!
          Tsunami? The weird link we shared, presumably because we both embodied the same force,
wasn't particularly clear. What should I do?
          Get out of here! Tell Kyoko… I didn't have anything good to follow that up with, and the Grid
saved me the trouble by throwing me forward to the attack. I was dimly aware that my fighting was better
than it had ever been -- while there was a bare fraction of a second time-lag between thought and action, the
Grid apparently knew how to compensate. Hotaru was almost immediately forced onto the defensive,
spinning the glaive desperately and ducking to one side just in time to avoid being skewered. I followed
relentlessly, and she backed further and further into the corner.
          Look out! I realized what my handlers were up to far too late. Without realizing it, Hotaru had
moved to the point where the walls no longer gave her enough room to spin the massive glaive; one end
glanced off the metal and jarred the whole thing out of her hands. She ducked the first slice, which raised
sparks as the blade carved through the wall, threw herself out of the way of the second, and ended up
sprawled on the floor. I brought the sword back around in a backhand swing that would have bisected her
skull--
          There was a flash, and a green blur. The huge green-haired man was just there, blocking the blade
with his forearm. It cut maybe a quarter-inch into his flesh, starting a long trickle of blood that wound its
way down to his elbow and dripped onto the floor.
          The giant frowned. "I do not wish to hurt you, girl."
          I couldn't respond, but the blonde did, her voice echoing in an odd, multi-layered way that set my
teeth on edge. "Tsunami. Kill them both."
           The Grid gamely tried to do just that, whipping my swords around towards the giant's neck at
lightning speed. He was no longer there when they arrived, and I dimly felt the massive bloom of pain in
my back as he gave a gentle push that sent me stumbling forward. I turned, one side in agony, and brought
the blades back to a ready position.
           The Grid flickered to life in the back of my mind. <Threat assessment: High. Engage maximum
combat mode.>
           What? What the hell?
           When the giant moved again, I could actually see him. Everything else seemed to be in slow
motion -- Hotaru was frozen in mid-breath on the ground, and the blonde was drifting slowly to the ground
after jumping off the catwalk. Even through the gauze of fly-by-wire, I gloried in the sensation. All my
senses were supercharged, and the pain was just gone. Despite this, my opponent's punch came in at a
respectable speed -- I ducked to the side and swung the swords at what must have been an absolutely
amazing velocity. He pushed one aside and got out of the way of the other, just in time, and I watched the
expression on his face change as he realized what he was up against.
           Then it all blurred together into a complex dance of sword and fist, dodge and block and strike
again. If he was showing any strain, I couldn't see it, but I could feel my body protesting. Muscles jerked
faster than any human should be able to move were tearing under the fantastic stress, and every parry jarred
my relatively tiny frame. The pain started building up, all over, until it was all I could not to scream. And
still the Grid fought on, oblivious to what it was doing to me.
           I brought the swords up in a cross, right in front of his outflung fist, and he hit with enough force
to drive through steel. I felt rather than heard the 'snap' of my wrist, and the sword in that hand clattered
uselessly to the floor. Before I could recover, he followed it up with an open-palmed blow to the chest. I
felt myself flying until my parabola was rudely interrupted by a wall, hard enough to crack bone.
           Even then, I was still aware. The pain flooding my mind was like a distant warning klaxon,
fortelling doom but easy to ignore, and the Grid ordered my body back to its feet despite the stabs of agony
with every breath.
           The giant was ignoring me, turning to face the strangely painted newcomer. His voice was low
and dangerous.
           "What manner of thing are you?"
           The blonde smiled. "We are the end result of two hundred thousand years of perfection,
Jahara. We are the ultimate synthesis, the power of the Dark given form and reason."
           Hotaru staggered to her feet, having regained her weapon. "You're just another Sa'an experiment."
           "You are wrong, little avatar. We have been waiting for this moment for two thousand
millennia. Waiting without sentience, waiting without mind. We are the last weapon of the Elder
Gods, and this is the end of days."
           "Usagi! Don't give in to her!"
           Her laugh was horrible. "Not much chance of that. This vessel has become one with the Dark.
Nothing else remains, now."
           "I don't believe that."
           "Don't worry." A new voice, rich and self-assured, from the catwalk behind the Avatar of the
Dark. "Your friend is perfectly safe."
           Ashghar stood framed in the doorway as the Dark Adepts filed in on either side of him, lining the
catwalk with shotguns at the ready. He seemed remarkably calm, under the circumstances.
           "Who are you?"
           "I am the Commander of this fleet, and I'm here to thank you for being so cooperative. I had my
plans formulated long ago, but trapping one of the Unforgiven has turned out to be quite an ordeal. You
people are survivors."
           Jahara raised an eyebrow. "You seek to trap me?"
           "I believe I have." Ashghar gestured to Usagi, if that had been her name. "Look at her. So much
power, and she's just an ordinary guardian fused with the Dark. If a being of your power were to undergo
the process, the results would be unimaginable."
           "You're bluffing. Your network is disabled, and without it your ship is inoperable. I could destroy
it now."
           "I doubt it. The Adepts here have been instructed to focus on neutralizing you, so I believe you'll
find your power quite curtailed."
          The Unforgiven didn't bat an eye. "Then I shall stay. Let everyone else go, and withdraw your
forces from this planet. We can end this without further violence."
          "No!" The shout came from Hotaru, but Ashghar was already shaking his head.
          "Why? I hold all the cards, so you have nothing with which to bargain."
          Hotaru drew herself up in front of the green-haired giant, the ridiculous contrast only slightly
softened by the size of the Glaive. "No!"
          "How sweet. Please deal with her."
          Usagi smiled and stepped forward; Hotaru swung the butt of the Glaive at her legs, a stroke which
the taller girl simply ignored. The weapon rebounded as though it had struck solid steel, and in two quick
steps the Avatar of the Dark had reached the little girl and grabbed her by the throat.
          "Don't hurt her. They are all my valuable test subjects."
          Usagi tossed Hotaru aside, and she slid bonelessly across the metal deck. I didn't even see Jahara
begin to move, only the flash of dark light as the blonde blocked twice and countered with a roundhouse
kick that the Unforgiven barely avoided. Avatar of the Dark or not, Usagi was clearly enjoying herself.
          "You can't touch me, Jahara." She launched into a series of attacks, driving him back one step
at a time. "Your power is worthless. The strongest of runeblades would shatter on my skin, the
darkest incantation from the pits of Hell shred at my touch. And when I have your body, and your
power, I will be invincible."
          One final blow left Jahara staggering back against the wall of the factory. Usagi cracked her
knuckles and stepped into the center of the room.
          "None of your weapons, none of your petty magics can harm me!"
          Across the floor, one of the doors blew open in a spray of sparks. Behind it, through the clearing
smoke, I could see Rei and another Senshi I didn't recognize, plus two men in combat fatigues, a cat-girl,
and--
          "Kyoko!" I coughed, spattering red across the floor and trying to haul myself to my feet. Usagi
turned to face the newcomers, smiling beatifically.
          "Ah. More of my friends. I'm glad you could make it."
          The other Senshi, short and blue-haired, shook her head sadly. "I'm really sorry about this."
          One of the men knelt, raising some kind of weapon to his shoulder. It was large and bazooka-
shaped -- Usagi kept smiling and put her head to one side.
          "And what is that supposed to--"
Chapter Thirty-Two
       Hotaru

          The room exploded into gunfire, all at once.
          The Adepts must have still been concentrating on Jahara, because they lost a crucial split-second
trying to adapt. In that time, Shard pulled out a pair of pistols and opened fire, and Rei joined in with some
sort of automatic rifle. There was a storm of fiery black implosions from the catwalk as the shots found
their marks.
          I couldn't take my eyes off the spot where Usagi had been standing. She was just gone, along with
a circular chunk of the deck, as though a spherical portion of the universe had simply been erased with the
cough of the tachyon gun. Tsunami lay nearby, struggling to breathe, and I made my way over to her at
about the same time Kyoko sprinted to her side.
          "Tsunami!"
          I knelt next to her, still a bit wobbly myself, and tried to get some sense of her injuries. Asking
'Are you okay?' seemed a little inappropriate, but Kyoko, who apparently had less of a sense of cliché, said
it anyway.
          "Are you okay?"
          Tsunami coughed. "I've been better." She blinked. "You should…stay away from me. Fly-by-
wire…"
          "We're working on that." Ami strode over. Looking up, I could see that Ashghar and the
surviving Adepts had retreated through the doorway. Rei and Shard looked anxious to follow them. "I've
got our subcell trying to get through the blocks into Central Processing, so we can get you back into your
body."
          "That would…be nice." Tsunami managed to get to a sitting position, holding her side. "What
about Ashghar?"
          "I assume he's trying to get away. We'll worry about him later."
          "That would not be wise." Jahara towered over all of us. "If he is indeed abandoning the ship,
standard Sa'an procedures would dictate--"
          "That he dumps Central Processing to the Grid and self-destructs." Kyoko's eyes widened. "We
have to get out of here."
          Ami was grim. "If he manages it, we'll never get Usagi or Tsunami back. We have to stop him.
Hudson!"
          "Yes, ma'am?"
          "Get your friends on the line and tell them to head for Central Processing. We've got to get there
before he does."
          "Roger." He muttered into his comlink. "He knows the ship a lot better than we do. We might
not make it."
          "Then it's game over, man. Game over." She raised an eyebrow. "Let's get moving."

          Between Jahara and Kyoko, we knew our way around the cruiser pretty well. The Unforgiven
carried Tsunami, who was still semi-conscious -- Ami had taken a look and decided that she wouldn't die in
the next few hours, but she still looked like she was in a lot of pain. Kyoko hovered next to them,
alternating between holding her hand and looking around in red-faced embarrassment.
          Rei, on point, reached the big reinforced doors first. She glanced back at Jahara, who nodded.
          "This is it."
          I looked at the behemoth of a portal worriedly. "How do we get through?"
          Rei shrugged and swung her sword, but instead of slashing a neat groove in the metal it rebounded
with a clang. Jahara shook his head.
          "He has the Adepts using their power to reinforce it. Our magical means will be ineffective."
          Hudson stepped forward, shouldering the massive tachyon gun. "Allow me."
          "Wait. How many rounds do you have left for that weapon?"
          "One."
          The Unforgiven turned to Shard and Rei. "And how are you for ammunition?"
          The bounty hunter shrugged uncomfortably. "Not great. A couple of clips."
          "Our stocks of conventional weapons are running low, and the Adepts are immune to anything
supernatural."
          Hudson blanched. "So what are we supposed to use, harsh language?"
          "Give me a second." Everyone turned to look at Ami. On the way here, she'd looked sort of
dazed -- I assumed she was messing around with something I wouldn't understand, which frankly was
pretty typical. Now she was grinning nastily. "I think I've got it."
          "Got it?"
          "Go ahead and bust the door open, Hudson. We'll be okay."
          "Ami--"
          "Trust me." Ami looked happier -- and more evil -- then I'd seen her in a long time. "This will be
fun."
          "O-kay." Hudson shouldered his weapon again. "Here goes…"
          The tachyon gun rumbled once again, and a spherical section of the door, the walls, and the floor
plating vanished into thin air. The room beyond was massive, bigger even than the factory and far more
poorly lit. We only got a vague glimpse of most of it, row upon row of layered…shelves, I guess would be
the most apt description, with each shelf packed with horizontal black-armored forms, shoulder-to-shoulder.
A single walkway wove back and forth through the shelves, guarded by a couple of dozen Sa'an
Legionnaires, now inactive. There was no sign of Ashghar or his Adepts.
          "What is this place?"
          I was talking to Jahara, but it was Kyoko who answered.
          "Central Processing." Her voice was a whisper. "Legionnaires who aren't…fit…end up here,
never moving, to act as a core processor node for the Grid. The armored suits keep them alive practically
forever…"
          "That's horrible."
          Ami shook her head. "Remember. Everyone in here is already dead -- they died after going
through the Gate. The Sa'an just keep their brains alive to use as computers."
          "Right." I looked around. "So where's Ashghar?"
          "In here somewhere. He's waiting for the processor core to finish dumping all its data out into the
network. Then he'll cut the links, and--" She waved a hand vaguely. "Boom."
          "So we find him." Jahara carefully laid Tsunami out on the floor. "Hotaru, you stay here with
Kyoko."
          "But--"
          "You're still hurt. Everyone else, fan out in pairs and see what you can find."
          The group gave a series of curt nods, breaking off into twos and disappearing into the darkness. I
was left alone with the green-haired girl and her friend, who was still breathing in a wet rasp.
          A minute passed, then another. All I could hear was the occasional click of a footstep.
          "Hotaru…"
          I leaned closer to Tsunami. "You shouldn't talk. Once we get Ashghar and get out of here, we'll
take you back to Aegis and fix you up."
          "I'm sorry."
          "For what?"
          "Trying to…kill you."
          "It wasn't your fault. Fly-by-wire--"
          She shook her head, weakly. "No. I was just…wrong."
          "It's okay." I don't know if I really meant that or not -- I could see that she didn't believe me.
          I heard the click of a footstep behind me, and turned around. "Hudson? Is that--"
          Ashghar's smile was awful in the half-light.

           "I'm almost done here, I think." He gestured towards us with a sleek black pistol. "For the record,
this isn't one of the magically powered weapons we use for the Legionnaires, so it should prove quite
effective against a Senshi."
           I laid the Glaive down, carefully. "I thought you were going to self-destruct the ship."
           "Oh, certainly. Just a few more loose ends to tie up." He gestured with the gun at Tsunami. "I
can't leave an extra command-level interface lying around, can I? We've already seen how bad it is when
one of those gets into the wrong hands. The rest of you are just a bonus."
           "You'll only get one shot off."
           He shrugged. "True, but if I shoot you, I doubt the other two could stop me." The gun was now
pointed right at my forehead. "Any last thoughts?"
          Hotaru.
          The voice was Tsunami's, though it came over the same channel as the entity I'd always thought of
as Saturn did. Tsunami?
          I'm going to get in his way. Afterwards, you have to--
          No! Are you crazy?
          Nope. There was an odd certainty to her words. It doesn't matter what happens to me. Make sure
Kyoko knows that, afterwards. It doesn't matter.
          Tsunami!
          Fly-by-wire…
          Ashghar's finger tightened on the trigger, and everything happened in the space of one breath.
          Tsunami moved faster than I'd ever seen a human move before, nearly as fast as Jahara at full
speed, fast enough to get between me and the gun in the space of time it took for the Commander to pull the
trigger. It was too fast for her body, and I could hear bones snap as simple inertia stressed them beyond
their limits. I was moving on some kind of auto-pilot, too, rising from a crouch with one hand moving
down to scoop up the Glaive and bring it around for a single stroke. I rose as Tsunami fell, and felt hot
blood splash on my arm.
          The tableau froze, just for an instant. I stared at the Commander, not daring to move.
          "Just one shot, Ashghar."
          They both dropped to the deck, and Kyoko screamed. I let the Glaive fall to the floor and turned,
wearily. Tsunami had crumpled back to the deck, eyes staring sightlessly at the darkened ceiling, and
Kyoko was bowed over her, sobbing. I put one hand on her shoulder, awkwardly.
          "Kyoko…"
          "She…she…" She was staring at her friend, as though in disbelief. "She didn't…"
          "Kyoko, she's okay."
          "She…" She turned tear-stained eyes to look up at me. "What?"
          "She's not dead. Don't worry."
          "But…"
          "Fly-by-wire, remember? Tsunami, her actual self, wasn't really in there. She's somewhere else in
this room. Ami will find her."
          "R…really?"
          "Sure."
          Another footstep, this one the clomp of a heavily armored boot. I knew this couldn't be good. The
Adepts faded out of the darkness like solid ghosts, shotguns at the ready. I stared at the dully.
          "Hotaru…"
          "I know." I took a deep breath. "Ami said she'd deal with them. Just trust her."
          "Okay…"
          The lead Adept raised his gun, took aim. I took a deep breath.
          When Legionnaires sprang to life, the guards that were scattered all over the floor of Central
Processing drawing their rifles and gunning down the Dark Adepts in the crossfire, I wasn't exactly
surprised. Relieved, maybe. But not surprised.
Interlude Six

          Kaia sat alone in the Commander's office, listening to a litany of destruction.
          <Subcell 14562 compromised. Subcell 12901 compromised.>
          Damn you, Ashghar.
          <Severing extraplanar links.>
          That's it, then. The section of the Grid that served this fleet had decided that it was irrevocably
contaminated, and had severed all links to the network at large. It was a disaster that had only happened a
dozen times in the history of the Sa'an, and it meant that the invasion fleet was as good as destroyed.
          Damn you. If you hadn't brought those girls in as experiments…if we'd responded with enough
force to destroy them, instead of trying to capture… She closed her eyes. Saying 'I told you so' now lacks a
certain something, doesn't it?
          This situation was the one they didn't teach much about at the Academy on Sa'an Prime. Officers
who admitted defeat were unworthy; their destruction was only natural.
          Damn you.
          There was, of course, one last duty she could perform. Destroying the ship was out of the question
-- the enemy had compromised Central Processing already, though at least the Commander had managed to
offload the crucial data before the extraplanar link went down. In any case, the ship was not exactly
relevant. Just metal and parts. The only thing that mattered was the Grid, and the only remaining
command-level access to the Grid…
          She put one shaking hand to the back of her neck. It had been years since she'd thought of the
implant as anything other than a part of her body, and it was suddenly hard to picture it as anything but.
Ashghar's had self-destructed upon his death, and hers would do the same.
          You'd think they'd make a bigger deal of this, in school.
          It wasn't supposed to happen, though. This situation -- the Grid compromised, all the backup
system useless -- was supposed to be impossible. It was impossible, provided the regulations about Grid
access were obeyed. But Ashghar didn't listen to me. And now…
          She picked up the pistol that lay on the table in front of her, gripping the cool metal like a lifeline.
It was sleek, and black, and deadly. Kaia stared at it, dully.
          It's not so bad. My life is over anyway. My career, my friends -- High Command would consider
me contaminated, they'd never let me back in even if I somehow escaped. There's nothing left.
          Slowly, she reversed the gun. She considered putting it in her mouth for a moment, but couldn't
bring herself to do it. Kaia pressed the barrel of the pistol to her chest and closed her eyes.
          I'm what…twenty-five? A Sa'an officer could expect to live to be two hundred, three hundred with
some luck. She tried desperately to ignore the tears leaking from under her eyelids. Damn, damn, damn.
          One last duty.
          Her finger squeezed the trigger. Kaia's body jerked.
          No pain. I always hoped that when you died, you didn't feel any pain…
          Kaia opened one eye, hesitantly. The barrel of the pistol was still digging into her breast, and
beside it -- now that she took the time to look carefully -- the safety lock was clicked on.
          Slowly, afraid the universe would shatter if she made a false move, Kaia pulled the pistol away
and set it back down on the desk, facing away. She let out her breath in a rush, closed her eyes again, and
settled in to see what would happen next.

         It was an elegant room, floating in interstellar space, spinning slowly as it careered through
nowhere in particular. The interior looked as though it had been furnished entirely in crushed pearls,
outlining a huge bath, a comfortable bed, and a couple of couches that were exactly the right type of couch
for someone to lie on and be fed grapes by lithe young women wearing not very much at all.
         There was someone on the couch, and this was indeed what was happening. He brought one long-
fingered hand up to his face to brush bone-white hair away from his eyes. His eyes were also white, not the
way a normal person's eyes are mostly white but white from edge to edge, and glowing with their own
inner light. The young women were of every possible description, and seemed content to cluster around
him and run their hands through his hair and generally be as voluptuous as possible.
         "ERIDU!"
          The young women scattered like frightened quails to the corners of the room, and the man on the
couch sat up, annoyed. The main doors opened so fast they smashed against their backstops, and a palpable
aura of rage spread throughout the room.
          Jahara entered, moving slowly and carefully and surrounded by a six-inch aura of green fire. Ami
stayed well behind him, picking her way across a floor covered with discarded plates of food left behind by
the fleeing maidens.
          "Jahara!" Eridu seemed unconcerned. "How nice of you to visit me."
          "We have things to discuss."
          The white-haired Unforgiven waved a hand expansively. "Go ahead! Discuss! Do you fancy a
grape?"
          "Do you remember the world called Earth, where we last met?"
          "Earth, Earth…" He shook his head. "It doesn't ring a bell. What about it?"
          Jahara's face twisted. "The Sa'an arrived there, shortly after we left."
          "What a pity." Eridu shook his head. "The Sa'an are rather like a force of nature. There's no
stopping them."
          "I have become…involved in this matter."
          "Foolish of you."
          "And I have begun to suspect that their choice of targets was not entirely random."
          "No? I thought the Sa'an simply shifted to a random world."
          "One could intervene, guide them to a particular place."
          "One would have to be very skilled."
          Jahara nodded. Eridu stared at him for a while, then spread his arms.
          "My dear Jahara, don't say that you suspect me."
          "I do."
          "That's absurd."
          "There might be evidence."
          "Only in the Central Processor of the Sa'an mothership, which sadly is inaccessible to us." Eridu
waved a hand. "Really, Jahara, you shouldn't throw around such unfounded speculations…"
          "Eridu." Jahara didn't even move, he simply blinked forward, holding up the white-haired
Unforgiven by his shirt-front. "We have stopped the Sa'an, and I do have access to Central Processing."
          Eridu's white-on-white eyes were wide. "But…but…"
          "Now, Ami and I are engaging in a little project. Before we stopped them, the Sa'an uploaded two
friends of ours into the Grid using their fly-by-wire system. Those personality constructs were transferred
to the Grid at large before they could be retrieved. So we are going to get them back."
          "But…but…you have no idea where they are! You'd be going up against the entire Empire!"
          "So be it."
          "That's insanity!"
          Jahara leaned closer. "And you're going to help us."

         "This is going to take a lot of getting used to."
         "It's only temporary." The black-armored figure across from Ami waved a hand. "Until Jahara
figures out a way to transfer me back where I belong."
         "Still…" Ami sat in the Aegis' garden with a Sa'an Legionnaire, awkwardly pouring tea for one.
"Oh, well. I'm just glad we managed to retrieve you."
         "Still nothing on Usagi or Tsunami?"
         "Nope." Ami shook her head. "The Sa'an never throw anything away, though. They're out there
somewhere."
         "So you're launching a war against the largest empire the multiverse has ever heard of, just to get a
couple of your friends back?" The Legionnaire shook its head, and the gesture was so Makoto that Ami
almost laughed.
         "Well, there's also the freeing-of-billions-of-sentients-from-under-the-heels-of-tyrants aspect, too."
         "Of course. Has anyone told you this is insane?"
         "Sure." Ami leaned back in her chair. "Doesn't mean it can't be done. We've got a fleet, and an
army."
         "They outnumber you about a billion to one."
         "When has that ever mattered?"
         The Legionnaire laughed. "Ami, you're…"
         "Crazy?"
         "Possibly." It shook its head. "Here's something that may not have occurred to you. What
happens if you win?"
         "If we win?"
         "Destroy the Empire or something. What's left over? Billions of totally loyal soldiers and the
apparatus of the biggest government in history, plus thousands of worlds that haven't governed themselves
in a long time. What happens to all that?"
         "I don't know." Ami paused. "I guess we set up a democratic government, or something."
         "Maybe. The Sa'an system demands someone at the top, though -- somebody has to be the
ultimate authority on the Grid. Someone has root access, and whoever does is going to be the Emperor."
         "I suppose…"
         The Legionnaire leaned closer. "Got anyone in mind for the job?"
         Ami shrugged. "I guess I'll have to do it."

NEXT:
        Senshi and Empire
         Or
        The Empire Strikes Back
         Or
        Neuromancer Ami
         Or
        Shin Seiki Sailormoon
         Or
        End of End of Days
         Or
        The Return of the King

        To be continued…

				
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