Sailor Moon 4200: What has gone before
In the year 3478 Crystal Tokyo was destroyed in an as-yet unexplained disaster. Queen Serenity and her Senshi died fighting a hopeless battle against the invaders. Civilisation fell; a new dark age began. Now, in the year 4200, a new world order has risen, centred on the city of Third Tokyo and ruled by the shadowy Serenity Council.
Artemis survived the final battle; now he and his great-granddaughter Bendis are searching for a new generation of Senshi. Working separately after a violent argument, the two gradually succeed: Bendis finds Sailor Venus (McCrea Beth) and Mars (Kodama Iku); while Artemis locates Jupiter (Hayashi Miyo), Mercury (Sharma Dhiti) and Uranus (Itagaki Suzue).
The first exploits of the Senshi are national news but public opinion soon takes a disturbing direction: some people hate them; others want to worship them. The Council, who are already searching for Bendis, create "vitrimorphs"—sinister, crystalline monsters designed to hunt Senshi, under the command of Twelve, a Council member who has been given strange powers by the unseen Master who rules the Council.
Meanwhile, two other survivors of Crystal Tokyo have become involved: Pappadopoulos Itsuko (previously known as Hino Rei), and Fumihiko Sadako (once Meiou Setsuna). Itsuko, now powerless, lives quietly as the owner of the Olympus Gymnasium. The Olympus comes under Council investigation when Itsuko tries to aid Artemis, and to preserve the secret of her past Itsuko seeks help from an old friend with criminal connections; but this only makes the investigators more suspicious.
Artemis learns that Miyo is actually Kino Makoto, now reborn into her third lifetime. When her family learn her secret, they are shocked; her father formally disowns her, and she moves into the Olympus with Itsuko. At the same time, a new attack by Twelve finally brings the two teams of Senshi together…
By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on "Sailor Moon" created by Naoko Takeuchi
"So," said Dhiti. "This is where you live now."
Miyo nodded, sitting down at the table. "So what do you think?"
Dhiti shrugged, affecting nonchalance. "Nice enough place, I suppose," she said. "But—well, a gymnasium? That's kind of weird, Hayashi, even for you."
"So sorry," said Miyo acerbically. "I'll just go and find somewhere else to live, shall I?"
"No, no! This is…well, it suits you."
"Uh—" There was a slight pause as Miyo tried to decide whether this was a compliment or not. In the end she gave up. "Thanks," she said.
Dhiti was clearly being diplomatic, in any case. This place—this room, at least—did not suit Miyo…yet.
They were in Miyo's room at the Olympus. It was a little larger than she'd had before, and bright and cheerful; there was a big window that looked out over the city, flooding the room with morning light. But by comparison to her room at her parents' house it looked almost empty. The shelves of romantic novels were missing; there was no sign of the neat pile of binders that Miyo used to keep her favourite recipes (and the ones she'd created herself); and above all, there were almost no plants here. A cluster of cuttings in tiny pots showed that she'd made a start at remedying that lack; but it would be some time before she had anything approaching the profusion of greenery she'd had before.
"No probs," said Dhiti nonchalantly. She sat down cross-legged on the floor beside Miyo and leaned back, stretching her arms. Then she gave Miyo a sharp look; and the good humour suddenly vanished from her face. "So, Hayashi," she said. "How're you holding up?"
Miyo shifted uncomfortably. "I—well, I'm—" She fumbled a little before finally saying, "I'm fine, I guess. I…look, I'd really rather not talk about it, if you don't mind."
"Uh-huh." Dhiti nodded slowly. "So, how long do you think before the others get here? It's going to be weird, having five at a meeting. Oh, and by the way, how are you holding up?"
"Look, can't you take a hint?" Miyo burst out. "I don't want to talk about it, all right! I don't—" She stopped suddenly. Dhiti did not flinch or look away. "Oh—hell," she said at last. The anger faded from her voice, to be replaced by resignation. "Look, I have good days and bad days, all right? That enough, or do you want more? Yesterday was…not so good. After we got back from that warehouse, Itsuko had to go down to the offices, and Artemis took Bendis off to yell at her some more, and I…" She looked down. "I tried to call my parents."
"Oh, no." Dhiti tried to bite the words back, in vain.
Miyo showed no reaction. Perhaps she did not hear. She went on, almost mechanically, "I got my mother. I said, 'Hello, okaasan.' She didn't say anything. I heard her start to cry. Then she hung up."
"Oh, no." Dhiti didn't quite say it this time; but the words hung in the air between them regardless.
"So…yesterday was a pretty bad day." Miyo gave a forced smile. "But who knows? Maybe today will be good. If I can just manage to concentrate on this meeting, and forget about…all the rest. So, now, can we change the subject, please?"
"Sorry." Dhiti could not meet her eye. She cleared her throat unnecessarily, visibly groping for another topic, and finally said, with a forced smile, "Um…I was thinking it's funny, the way we always end up meeting at your place, even when—well, you know."
Miyo shrugged, ignoring the gaffe. "Can you see us going to your place? Your father didn't like me before. When he hears I've been thrown out, I'm sure he's going to change his mind, right? And Suzue-san's place would be—" She hesitated. "Well, look how she got when we were talking about it last meeting. All funny about her family."
"Maybe they're really wealthy or something, and she doesn't think they'd approve of us," suggested Dhiti. "Hey, don't look at me like that! It could be! You remember how she was dressed on Tuesday."
"Yes, but—" Miyo sighed. "Oh, well. It could be. Anyway, here seemed convenient, and it'll be a bit more private than…you know." She sighed again at the memory.
"Pappadopoulos-san doesn't mind, I take it?" inquired Dhiti. Miyo shook her head. "Right. Now she definitely must be loaded, to own a place like this. Hey—" A frown crossed her face. "This Pappadopoulos-san, she wouldn't be the 'Itsuko' that you and Artemis were being so coy about on Tuesday, would she?"
"Um. Yes," Miyo answered reluctantly.
"So, you know the owner of one of the most successful health clubs in Third Tokyo…well enough that you can move in with her when you get thro—well, um. Sorry. So what is she, an old family friend?"
"I've known her for a while, yes," said Miyo truthfully.
"I just hope your parents don't make any trouble, that's all—oh, damn, I'm sorry, I did it again—"
Miyo sighed. Having Dhiti try to stay away from the topic was almost worse than just talking about it outright. "It's all right," she said patiently.
"Sorry," Dhiti mumbled again. "I just wish I had your connections, that's all. This Pappadopoulos-san must be so rich—hey, wait a minute!" She stared at Miyo. "You said—no, Artemis said that she knows that you're…"
"Sailor Jupiter, yes." Artemis strolled in through the door casually. "Don't worry about it, Dhiti-san. I already told you, Itsuko can be trusted. I've known her for ages." He jumped up onto the table and sat down calmly. Then, glancing up at the clock on Miyo's dresser, he added, "What's keeping everybody else? They said they'd be here by now."
"There's still five minutes to go," Dhiti pointed out, glancing at her watch. "Don't be so impa—" She stopped, staring at Artemis. "Quite a coincidence, you both having known this Itsuko for a long time."
Artemis shot her a quick look. "Yes, it is, isn't it?" he said, a little too casually.
"Did I ever tell you how much I hate riddles?" asked Dhiti meaningfully.
"Once or twice," said Miyo. "Look, Dhiti-chan, I'm sorry. I've asked Itsuko if I can tell you about—about her. She said she's thinking about it. I know it's not fair, but…but, well, she does have her reasons."
Dhiti was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Does she know about me? Who I am?"
Miyo and Artemis looked at each other. Neither spoke.
"Is she going to want to be at this meeting?"
Miyo hesitated. "I doubt it—" she began.
"Probably not," said Artemis at the same time. "I think she'd find that…well, uncomfortable. Which is a pity, in a way—"
"She'd find it uncomfortable?" demanded Dhiti incredulously. "What about us? What is this? Why don't you just give her a henshin wand and have done with it? Maybe she can be Sailor Pluto, if she likes being so mysterious. Always assuming there is a Sailor Pluto, state secret or not." She shot a look at Miyo, who looked guilty.
"State secret?" said Artemis, puzzled. "What are you talking about? Pluto keeps a low profile, sure, but she's perfectly real. I saw her, Friday before last."
"She is?" said Dhiti, distracted for a moment.
"You did?" said Miyo at the same time.
They glanced at each other. In other circumstances it would have been funny. "Now who's keeping secrets from who?" muttered Dhiti.
"I'm sorry," said Artemis to Miyo. "It just…never came up, that's all. It was only for a few moments, anyway—she dropped a few cryptic hints, as usual, then took off—"
"She survived the Fall," murmured Miyo. "It figures she would."
"Yes, and maybe someday we'll be able to persuade her to tell us why she just disappeared like that," Artemis added grimly. "Or why she didn't warn anybody about what was coming. Look, this is beside the point. Dhiti-san, I'm not going to give Itsuko a henshin wand. She…she isn't a Senshi. She's someone who, ahh, someone who's helped me out on a number of occasions, and I think she deserves a little—"
"Forget it, Artemis," said Miyo suddenly. "Look, Dhiti-chan's right. She deserves to know. Dhiti, I—I'll tell you everything. I promise, whatever Itsuko says. After the meeting. All right?"
"Why not now?" muttered Dhiti, a little sulkily.
"Well, it's…er, kind of a long story."
"That's putting it mildly," said Artemis. "She won't be happy when she hears about this, Miyo."
"Too bad. I told you, Dhiti-chan's right. If we can't trust the other Senshi, who can we trust? They all ought to know about this."
"Let's not jump the gun," the cat urged. "All right, tell Dhiti-san if you have to, but there's no need to go making public announcements without at least checking with her first—"
There was a rap at the door, and they all jumped. Miyo went to answer it, and found Suzue standing outside. "I take it this is the right place?" she said.
"Yes," said Miyo, looking relieved at the distraction. "Come on in. We were starting to think everyone had gotten lost." She led Suzue through to her room.
"Well, I wasn't sure I had the address right," Suzue said, sitting down. "You didn't mention it was a gymnasium. I just wasn't expecting…" She trailed off, reddening.
"Umm, yeah. Sorry." Privately Miyo thought that Suzue looked more than a little out of place here. She looked…well, elegant. As at their previous meeting, she was dressed expensively, in a matching blouse and slacks that might have been tailored to fit her. The scarf around her neck was the only bright spot, though; everything else was in dark, subdued colours. Maybe she'd been depressed when she got up that morning. But did she dress this well normally, or was she trying to impress them? Or both? Miyo did not quite like to ask. Maybe Dhiti was right; maybe her family was wealthy.
"It's all right," Suzue answered. She glanced around the room. "So, the other two aren't here yet? I wonder what they'll be like?"
Miyo was looking forward to finding that out herself. What with one thing and another, they'd all had to leave in a hurry after the battle in the junkyard the previous evening. All the noise and destruction must have set off burglar alarms in the nearby warehouses, and police Opals had been moving in. They'd never gotten a chance for proper introductions. And the usual disguise effect was still in place; she had no idea what Mars and Venus would look like in civilian form.
"Well, Mars seemed…" Miyo paused for a moment. Mars had seemed as though she was about to faint whenever any of them spoke to her. "The shy type," she finished tactfully. That was putting it mildly. It was hard to believe that she was Rei's—Itsuko's—successor.
"Mars?" said Dhiti, looking up. "Oh, right, the Stuttering Senshi. It was kind of cute, actually." She grinned. "Don't worry, though. I'm sure she'll work out fine." There was an odd glint in her eye. What was she planning? Miyo made a mental note to warn Mars to be very cautious about anything Dhiti told her.
"Um…we'll see," she said. Then she grinned too. "As for Venus, that's easy. Just imagine a carbon-copy of Dhiti-chan here—"
"Hey!" protested Dhiti.
"One who thinks she's a cat," Miyo finished, grinning. "You'll see. They're bound to get here soon…"
"Let's hope so," said Artemis, stretching. Suzue started at the sound of his voice. It was odd, the way she behaved around him. Sometimes she was deferential—almost subservient, even—but at other times, she treated him with an almost exaggerated familiarity, as if she were forcing herself to be casual.
Odder yet, once or twice Miyo had caught Suzue treating her the same way.
She seemed normal enough for the moment, though, after that one twitch. "What happened to Bendis?" she asked.
"Out keeping an eye open for Venus and Mars," said Artemis. "After all, she's the only one who'll recognise them." He sniffed. "At least she can hardly mess that up."
Miyo almost winced at the distrust in his voice. The two cats had obviously not finished settling whatever lay between them. After yesterday's battle, when Artemis led a very chastened-looking Bendis back to rejoin the five Senshi, Miyo had thought it all dealt with. Then, when he announced that Bendis was coming back with him, there'd been a shouting match with Sailor Venus that only ended when Bendis unexpectedly agreed to go. And once they got back to the Olympus, she'd heard the two of them yelling at each other several times. (Miyo had stayed well away, at Itsuko's insistence.)
What was their problem, anyway? Why couldn't they get along? Both of them refused to speak about it…
She was distracted by a light tap at the door. Suzue looked up quickly. "That could be them now," she said, a definite note of anticipation in her voice. Miyo went to get the door, and Suzue followed. With a sigh, Dhiti got up and trailed along behind them.
There was a girl of about their age, a Claver with light brown, shoulder-length hair, on the landing. She was just reaching for the door to knock again when Miyo opened it; she snatched her hand back quickly. "Umm…I was looking for, uh, Hayashi Miyo?" she said tentatively.
"That's me," said Miyo. "Come on in. You'd be one of our two…err, missing members?"
"Um, I suppose so." The girl gave a quick, shy smile. "I'm McCrea Beth. I, er, saw Bendis downstairs, and she sent me up. Ahh…hi."
Miyo breathed a silent sigh of relief. All right, that was easy enough: timid, fidgety, diffident; she was even wearing a red shirt. She had to be Sailor Mars. That only left Venus to come.
She took a good look at the girl. A Claver; that surprised her, though rationally she could not think why it should. She looked pretty nervous, but at the same time expectant. That was natural enough. Miyo was feeling more than a little nervous herself. After more than a thousand years working with her friends—with the old Senshi—it was a wrench to try and adjust to so many new names and new faces in the old costumes. Dhiti had been her friend already, when her memories re-awoke; but Suzue was an unknown to her, still something of a cipher, and now there was this new girl, and another one due in just a few moments…
She shook herself mentally. This was no time to go bemoaning the good old days; she thought she'd managed to cure herself of that.
"Come on through," she said with a smile, trying to make the girl feel more at ease.
They trooped back to Miyo's room, where Miyo performed introductions. "So," she said finally, "that just leaves one, and then we can get started."
"I'm sure Iku-chan will be here soon," said Beth hesitantly. "She can be a little…umm, nervous about strangers, but—"
"Really? Nervous?" said Miyo, surprised. The last thing Venus had ever seemed to her was nervous. Oh, well, it could happen to anyone, she supposed. Maybe she overcompensated; maybe that was why she seemed so over-the-top…
"Oh, yes," Beth replied earnestly. "You must have noticed, last night."
Nervous? Miyo thought back. Venus had seemed a little spaced-out. "I thought she was just dazed," she said.
"Well, maybe," Beth answered doubtfully. "Anyway, I'm sure she'll be here soon." She gave a rather uneasy smile.
"Don't worry about it," said Dhiti cheerfully. "Come on, sit down and relax!" She waved Beth toward the table. "I promise, we can survive without her for a little bit longer."
Miyo snickered. "You just don't want the competition."
Dhiti glared at her. "There seems to be some kind of delusion going around," she said, "that Venus and I are in some way similar, when it is blindingly obvious to anybody with a grain of sense that she is as nutty as a fruitcake, whereas I am merely, umm, a little exuberant—"
"Don't be silly, Dhiti-chan, of course you're crazy," said Miyo sweetly.
"You're just saying that," grouched Dhiti. Her eyes flashed. "Anyway, you're a fine one to talk! I'm not the one who threatened to maroon her own brothers on Io—"
"You don't have any brothers."
"Oh, that's right. Well—that's beside the point—"
Beth was watching them both, a little puzzled. "I suppose Sailor Venus is a little…um, wild," she admitted.
Dhiti snorted. "You could put it like that," she said. "You should have seen her when we were being chased by an Opal, though. 'Wild' was not the word. Remember, Hayashi? She gave this big, crazy laugh, and jumped off a building, and went swinging away on that chain thing of hers…"
Beth gave her an odd look. "Yes, I know," she said.
"Oh, she told you about that? And there was the time before that, when we were at that fire, and she did that crazy rescue…" Dhiti tsk'd reprovingly. Then she winked at Beth. "At least you seem normal enough. It'll be nice to have someone sane to be Sailor Mars."
"Look who's talking about sanity," murmured Miyo, with a faint grin.
"Mars?" said Beth, confused. "I'm not Sailor Mars."
"Can we leave out the slurs?" asked Dhiti plaintively. "I'm not…" She trailed off slowly, looking at Beth. "You're not?"
"Umm, no," said Beth. "I'm, er, Sailor Venus." She looked around at them all. "Can't you tell?" she asked, a little hopefully.
"It's the disguise field," said Miyo after a moment. "I thought—no, never mind." She did a double-take. "Wait, you're Sailor Venus? And Iku-san is Mars? But that's not—"
"This is some kind of trick," declared Dhiti, adding uncertainly, "isn't it? You—don't act anything like she does…"
"Well…I guess not," Beth answered glumly. "It's like—Sailor Venus is—" She fumbled to a halt, and spread her hands helplessly. "That's sort of hard to explain, actually," she said.
Artemis jumped up on the table and stared at her. "Bendis didn't do anything funny to you, did she?" he growled. "Hypnosis, or anything like that? How's your memory? Do you remember any past lives?"
"Have you been eating slugs without noticing?" added Dhiti.
"Slugs?" Beth inched a little away from Dhiti. "Bendis wouldn't do anything like that to me," she told Artemis. "And my memory's fine. I mean, I remember everything. The fire, and the man that turned into that—you know, thing. Vitrimorph. And when we were chased by that Opal. And all the rest."
Miyo scratched her head. "This has got to be some kind of mistake," she said. "I mean, you're nothing like Venus—"
"That's what I said," muttered Dhiti.
"Prove it," suggested Suzue. "Show us!"
"What, in here?" said Beth doubtfully.
Miyo thought about it, and said, "Sure, why not? No—wait a moment." She got up and closed the curtains. Then she waved Beth on.
Beth shrugged, and pulled out what was unmistakably a henshin wand. It had the symbol for Venus—the circle and cross—on one end. She glanced at Miyo once more, and then, before Miyo could stop her, stood up and cried out, "VENUS POWER, MAKE-UP!"
The room was filled with light and sound and energy. They saw her shift, change. And when it was finished—
"I am Sailor Venus!" Venus proclaimed, taking up a dramatic pose. "The spectacular Senshi of the Planet of Love! On behalf of the planet Venus, I will—I will—" She stopped, looking vexed. "It's no good, it's just not the same without a villain," she announced to nobody in particular.
They stared at her.
Venus shrugged, and put her henshin wand away. "Boy, you're a talkative lot all of a sudden, aren't you?" she commented. "So, what, am I supposed to just stand here? Sign autographs? Or is this some kind of audition?" Her eyes widened. "Wait a minute!" she exclaimed delightedly. "You're testing me! Of course!"
"Um—" began Miyo.
"What do you want me to do? I know, what about target practise? Watch this! VENUS LOVE-ME—" She stopped suddenly. "No, wait, Bendis gets mad when I do that inside," she said in a very different, more subdued voice. Then, just as abruptly, the manic glint was back. "I could stand on my head," she suggested. "Or I could juggle—I haven't actually tried juggling before, but it can't be that hard—has anybody got any balls? No? Well, how about—"
"That's the Sailor Venus I remember," said Dhiti firmly.
"The one and only!" agreed Venus cheerfully. "You're Mercury, right? You don't know how to juggle, do you?"
"Er, yes I do, actually. You're right, it's not that hard. You just need to—"
"Dhiti-chan!" snapped Miyo.
"Oh, right. Sorry."
"I don't believe this," said Suzue. "I saw it, and I still don't believe it."
"You don't?" Venus gave her a concerned look. "Boy, that's rough. Wait a minute, who are you again? Uranus, right? Somehow I thought you'd be taller." She stared at Suzue for a moment longer, frowning a little, as if she held it against her, and then suddenly shrugged. "Oh, well, I expect it doesn't matter," she said, dropping back to her seat on the floor. Her gaze fell on Miyo, and she waved. "Hiya, obaachan," she added breezily.
Miyo started to bristle, then gave up. Somehow she didn't think it was likely to do any good.
"Artemis!" Venus exclaimed, hitching herself closer to the table, where the white cat was still staring at her. "Oh, wow, this is great, I was so looking forward to meeting you! Well, I met you last night, of course, but, I mean, it's just…wow!" She beamed at the cat, and leaned forward to bump noses with him, cat-fashion, before he could react. "Hey, you're not much like you look on that viddy program, are you?" she prattled on. "Um, not that I watch it any more, of course. Do you suppose they'll want to make a new program about us, now? Oh, I'm so glad to meet you at last, I mean, Bendis talks about you so much…"
"She does?" said Artemis, startled and a little overwhelmed.
"Well, not really, I suppose. Actually she refuses to talk about you at all, but in a way that's almost like talking about you all the time, isn't it?"
Miyo shot Venus a considering look. That had almost sounded like an intelligent thought. But buried in that constant chatter it was hard to be sure…
One thing was for certain. Beth might have been nervous, but Sailor Venus was definitely not. And whatever did that mean? It was hard to imagine a greater contrast; it was as if they were dealing with two completely different people. A Senshi with a split personality? That could make things difficult. Or was it possible that—
She felt a sudden chill.
Might it be a split personality in truth? Was it possible that, buried somewhere deep inside, there was…someone else? Was it just barely conceivable that, against all odds, an old friend of hers had somehow survived, reborn in this Claver girl?
Might it be—could it possibly be—Minako in there?
There was a lump in her throat. And Venus had seemed to recognise Artemis—
Later, she told herself. It was hard; she wanted to jump up and shout in excitement, but she forced herself to put it aside. Later. Later on, Artemis might be able to detect if it was true; but now was not the time to go into it. They would be able to speak in private after the meeting, and maybe talk to Bendis about exactly what she knew about the girl. After all, if Minako was in there, then Beth was apparently unaware of it (though she certainly seemed to know that something was wrong). For now, they had other business.
She cleared her throat. Venus, who was still chattering away at Artemis, glanced up in surprise. "Do you think you could change back again?" Miyo asked.
Venus looked faintly disappointed. "Oh, well," she said, shrugging, and let her transformation lapse.
McCrea Beth sat at the table where she had been. She looked around at their faces—everyone seemed to be looking at her—and flushed scarlet. "Um," she said.
"That is just so bizarre," Dhiti said, shaking her head in wonder. "You and…and…and her…are so completely different!" She studied Beth, a tiny frown on her face. "What's it feel like?" she asked curiously.
Beth considered it. "It's like…like I'm me, but…but more. You know? Like…like…well, it's hard to describe, really," she finished, a little lamely.
"She certainly is…enthusiastic," remarked Suzue.
"Well, yeah," Beth answered. She had an oddly wistful look on her face. "Sometimes I wish…" She sighed. "Never mind. It doesn't matter."
"No, what?" Suzue prodded her.
Beth fidgeted. "Well, sometimes I…I wish I could be like that." She looked down at her feet. "But I'd never dare."
"It has its down-side," said Miyo dryly. "Just ask Dhiti-chan."
"Hey!" Dhiti looked at Miyo reproachfully. "You'll regret that, obaachan. I'll have you know that it doesn't have any downside at all. Can I help it if I'm perfect and everyone else is envious of me?"
"Perfect? Is that what you call it?"
Dhiti assumed a saintly expression. "You see?" she said to Beth and Suzue. "Envy. Pure envy." Beth gave a tentative grin. Suzue sighed and rolled her eyes.
Miyo took a deep breath. "You can call it envy—" she began. It was, perhaps, just as well that at that moment, there was a hesitant knock at the door.
"Ah," said Artemis. "That may be our missing Senshi at last."
Miyo snorted, cast a humorous just-you-wait look at Dhiti, and went to answer it. There was a tall girl with long black hair outside, accompanied by a small tabby cat. The girl looked upset; her body was tense, and she was playing with a strand of her hair, twisting it nervously between thumb and forefinger.
"Finally!" said the cat, looking relieved. "Hi, Miyo-san. This is Iku. Iku-san, this is Hayashi Miyo. She's Sailor Jupiter. Are the others here, Miyo-san? I sent Beth-chan up."
"Yes, they're all here," Miyo answered. "Hello, Iku-san. Nice to meet you." She smiled in welcome; and after a few seconds Iku smiled back. If it could be called a smile. It was more of a grimace.
"I'm sorry," she said in a quick, nervous voice. "I didn't mean to be late—I tried, really I did—"
"What? Hey!" Miyo stared at her, astonished. The girl actually sounded terrified. What was wrong with her? She opened her mouth to ask, and then bit the question back. At her first words, the fear had drained out of Iku's expression, to be replaced by…resignation?
She changed tack hastily. "It's okay," she said, as soothingly as she could. "It doesn't matter. Really. Nobody's upset, I promise."
"You aren't?" There was a quick flash of something on Iku's face. Hope, perhaps. But she looked so pale and shaken…
Miyo reached a quick decision. "C'mon through here," she ordered. She led Iku into the kitchen and poured her a glass of water. "Here," she said. "You look like you could use this."
Iku took it gratefully. As she drank, Miyo stepped aside and hissed to Bendis, "What the hell's wrong with her?"
"I don't know," the cat whispered back. "She had a kind of panic attack on the way up. I thought I'd never get her here."
"Is she always like this?" Miyo demanded incredulously.
"Ask Beth! I only met her yesterday myself."
"Oh, great." Miyo turned back to Iku, hoping she hadn't noticed the hurried debate. "Feeling better?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm and soothing.
Iku nodded quickly, putting the glass down. She'd only half-finished it. There was a little more colour in her cheeks, though. Her skin was actually rather dark, Miyo noticed absently, though not as dark as Dhiti's. Her features were pure Japanese, though.
"Come on," she said. "I'll introduce you to the others."
They went through to her room, where the others were waiting. Out of the corner of her eye, Miyo noticed that Bendis held back, following on behind Iku. That was actually pretty smart of the cat, she thought approvingly. Still, Iku seemed calmer now, even docile. She wasn't sure if that was better or worse.
What was wrong with her? What had made her so afraid? Beth had said Iku was nervous about strangers, but this went beyond nervousness.
As she stepped into her room, she was almost shaken by the contrast. Everyone there was relaxed, cheerful. Dhiti was as manic as ever; Suzue was leaning back contentedly, listening to the other two (Miyo was beginning to realise that she simply didn't talk much, though she always listened carefully to what was going on); and Beth, while she wasn't exploding the way she had as Sailor Venus, was chatting away happily enough; in fact she was—
Oh, no. She was telling Dhiti and Suzue the story about why she called Miyo 'obaasan.' And while Dhiti already knew part of it, the rapt expression on her face suggested that Miyo was in for trouble…
She cleared her throat, and the others looked up quickly. Beth cut her story short with a cough, looking faintly guilty. Dhiti made a face, and sighed. Suzue raised an eyebrow.
Iku came in after Miyo, and Beth waved to her with a smile. She gave a much more vigorous wave to Bendis as the cat followed after. Bendis bounded over to her, and Beth swept her up in her arms, saying happily, "Bendis! Where have you been?"
"Don't be silly," the cat answered in a slightly muffled voice. "You just saw me a few minutes ago, down on the street." She was purring rather loudly, though. In fact it almost sounded as if Beth were purring herself, but of course that was silly.
"Yes, but that hardly counted," objected Beth, somewhat nonsensically. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. I missed you…"
"Ahem," said Artemis, unnecessarily loudly. "If I might interrupt for a moment?" he went on in a sarcastic tone. "We do have a meeting to run, remember?"
"Oh, right." Bendis squirmed free of Beth's arms and jumped up on the table. "All right, everyone, this is McCrea Beth—um, well, I suppose you've met Beth now, haven't you?" She brushed her whiskers quickly and padded over to Iku's side, then tried again. "All right, this is Kodama Iku…Sailor Mars. Iku, this is Hayashi Miyo; she's Sailor Jupiter. And…" She hesitated, glancing at the other girls. She hadn't actually met them before, but Miyo had told her who to expect. "Um. This is Sharma Dhiti, Sailor Mercury, and Itagaki Suzue, Sailor Uranus. How's that?" Artemis made a threatening noise and she added, "Oh, yeah, and Artemis, too."
Miyo hid a smile as Artemis visibly fumed. She gave a friendly nod to Iku, as Dhiti and Suzue added their own welcomes. Now, had she managed to calm Iku down enough…?
Iku stared back at them all uncomfortably. She licked her lips nervously and said, "Um…hello?"
Miyo sighed. Suzue frowned. Beth shook her head wryly. Dhiti…
Dhiti grinned. "Hi!" she called cheerfully. "Come on over here, sit by me. Welcome to the all-Senshi basketball league." Iku stared at her, baffled, and Dhiti beckoned, still grinning. "C'mon, sit down! I won't bite you. I hardly ever bite my friends. Well, there was that one time with Hayashi, but—"
"For heaven's sake, Dhiti-chan—" began Miyo.
"Pay no attention to obaasan, it's just her arthritis acting up," went on Dhiti blithely. "Come on, sit down! There, that didn't hurt, did it? We don't electrify the floor until next meeting. Don't mind the others, they stare at everyone. Boy, you are a talkative one, aren't you? Did you ever think about going into public speaking? Well, it's no big deal; we'll have you up singing karaoke in no time…"
She rattled on, as Miyo groped for a way to shut her up. The poor girl was already scared half-witless, and the last thing she needed was an overdose of Dhiti. At this rate they'd be lucky if she didn't break down completely—
But just as she was about to get up and knock some sense into her best friend, she stopped. Iku was sitting next to Dhiti, staring at her, a stunned expression on her face; she was all too obviously overpowered, swamped, drowning in a sea of nonsense…
And just for a moment, helplessly, she smiled.
Miyo forced herself to relax. Then again, she thought, maybe I'll leave well enough alone.
She managed to catch Dhiti's eye for a moment. Dhiti winked.
Miyo took a deep breath. "All right," she said. "Welcome, everyone. It's good to see you all…together at last."
Together at last. That was one way of putting it. They were all in the same place at once, yes; but what sort of team was this unruly bunch going to make? A teenager with thousands of years' memory swirling around in her head; a smartass with a runaway mouth; a girl with multiple personalities, who occasionally thought she was a cat; another girl who seemed to be terrified of everything, including the universe in general; a pair of talking cats, one of them millennia old and the other hardly more than a child…at least Suzue seemed normal enough. Mostly.
She sighed, and got the meeting under way.
On a narrow back street behind the Olympus building, a big, beaten-up old van was parked. It had been there for several weeks now, and nobody even noticed it any more. It was visibly a wreck; the sides were scratched and battered, with body panels hanging loose or missing altogether, and both rear wheels were gone. Worse, it appeared that squatters had taken up residence; there was a frayed power cable hanging from the roof down to a nearby charging station. The wonder of it, to anybody who bothered to give it a second glance, was that it hadn't been towed away long ago.
Inside, it was another matter. Hiiro's team had been using the van as a mobile base for several years now (those missing wheels were actually mounted inside the van's body, and could be dropped into place in a few seconds if they actually had to move), and the interior was fitted out as a highly-efficient command post.
It was mostly empty, of late. Hiiro himself had not stepped in for several days; he was spending most of his time on the recent Hoseki raid, and the questioning of witnesses. Aoiro was still working steadily on the Olympus operation, but it was clear that his heart was not in it; he arrived, put in his hours, and left again with hardly a word. Kuroi spent most of his time working with Kitada, putting him through endless training exercises and swearing to himself at how well the young Irregular was doing. And Mitsukai—
Mitsukai Senritsu was still there, day after day, sitting in the van at her electronics post. She was very busy indeed. There were technical journals to read, and records to browse, and Lieutenant Murasaki's team over in the Han Domain had asked her for help in a decryption problem, and there was the Hoseki data to help analyse, and…somehow, looking for a missing cat was no longer very high on her task-list. She occasionally glanced at the transcriptions of the bugs inside the building, but there was never anything interesting on them. The cameras watched over the Olympus building, faithfully recording everything; but most of the time, nobody checked the recordings.
It was a pity, really. For several minutes that morning, the cameras that monitored the main entrance to the gymnasium had clearly showed a small tabby cat with a circular mark on its forehead. The faces of the girls that the cat met and spoke to were quite recognisable. If Mitsukai had happened to glance up at the right moment, the mission would have been over.
She tapped a key on her console and started to read the next page.
Bendis was in heaven.
Somehow or other the conversation had worked its way around to how each of the girls had been discovered. Naturally Bendis, who had found three of them (one more than Artemis, but of course she wasn't going to rub that in…much), was having a wonderful time.
Dhiti had told her story to start with, with suitable embellishments and unnecessary digressions (and with various sarcastic comments from Artemis). Miyo, rather more reluctantly, talked about her own discovery—and thoroughly delighted Bendis with the news of Artemis' mistake in restoring her memories.
Then it was Beth's turn. She did her best; but Bendis could not resist helping her out on a few of the details, and before long Beth simply gave up and let the cat handle it.
"—And the same morning that he threw me out, I ran into Beth," she was saying now. Artemis put in something grouchy about how he didn't remember doing any throwing, but she ignored him. "I didn't realise which girl it was at first, but I soon managed to track her down." Well, with a little help from a certain obnoxious human, but like she was really going to tell them that. "After that, it was just a matter of working out which Senshi she was."
"Yes, I'd been wondering about that, actually," said Artemis coolly. "How did you manage that? Normally Senshi powers only manifest during a crisis. It's very difficult to pinpoint them otherwise; it took me years to learn it. So how did you work it out?"
Bendis hesitated, suspecting a trap, but couldn't resist. "Oh, that was easy," she bragged. "Like you said, it takes a crisis. So I just had to—"
"Wait a minute!" Beth burst out. "You mean that's what you were doing?" Addressing the others, she said, "All that afternoon, I kept having these little…accidents. Things falling on me. Getting tripped up. You know. And she was always there…"
Dhiti stared at her. She started to snicker. "You…you mean she was deliberately putting you in danger, to try and make your…your…" She would have said more that that, but she was laughing too hard.
"It worked, didn't it?" protested Bendis.
"You dropped a piano on my head!" Beth complained.
At that point, Miyo lost it too.
"So let me get this straight," said Artemis, with ominous calm. "You kept on causing her bigger and bigger accidents, until finally her powers manifested?"
"Right," said Bendis, nodding in satisfaction. Some vestige of honesty made her add, "Oh, well, I suppose the last one really was an accident. I was…er, nearly hit by a truck, and she jumped out to save me. The truck almost hit her, instead. That was when the symbol appeared on her forehead."
Artemis sighed, shaking his head. "You little idiot. It doesn't matter how big an accident you make it. I thought I taught you better than that. An ordinary, mundane accident is not something that will bring out a Senshi's powers."
Bendis blinked at him. "Than what—"
He sighed again. "She didn't become Venus because she was in danger, you ass. She became Venus because you were in danger."
Bendis stared. After a while, she said, "oh," in a very small voice.
"To defend, and to serve, Bendis," he told her. "Serving the Queen, the Princess, the Kingdom and all its people…and even fat-heads like you, because you have a part in this too, though goodness knows why. Whether it's by fighting against a youma attack, or an invasion from Nemesis—or just protecting some idiot who doesn't know better than to stand in front of an oncoming truck. That's what it's all about. Not silly little contests to see who can find the most Senshi!"
"I know, I know," she grumbled, subdued.
He batted her gently with one paw. "When you really do know, you'll actually be ready to go out on your own," he said, not unkindly. "For now, though—"
"Go easy on her, Artemis," said an amused voice from behind them.
They all looked around quickly. There was a woman standing in the doorway: tall, slender, young-looking, with close-cropped hair of a pure, brilliant white. "I think she's got the idea," the newcomer finished.
Oboy, Bendis thought. She's doing it. She's actually going to do it.
Meeting Itsuko the night before had been rather a shock. Long before, when Artemis had told her about the backup contact point, he'd said that the human there could be trusted. But he'd never mentioned just who she was. Coming face-to-face with a two-thousand-year-old legend had been disconcerting, to say the least. Then they'd explained to her why Itsuko was keeping her identity hidden, and how bad it would be if anyone found out, and they'd sworn her to secrecy, and—
And now, it looked as though Itsuko had decided that enough was enough, after all.
The white-haired woman looked around the room slowly. The five girls were all staring up at her. Miyo looked surprised, but pleased. The others' expressions ranged from shocked…to outraged.
"So," Itsuko said. "This is the new crop of Senshi." She was smiling faintly.
That produced an even bigger reaction, as she'd probably intended. Beth looked appalled. Suzue actually gasped in dismay. Iku shrank back. But Dhiti—
What was wrong with her? She looked furious! Bendis found herself shrinking back involuntarily as the girl stood, fists clenched, her face dark with anger, and burst out, "Hayashi!"
Itsuko seemed to understand, though. She reached out and touched Dhiti lightly on the shoulder, and whispered, "Relax." Dhiti froze. "Miyo had nothing to do with this," Itsuko told her quietly. "She didn't know that I was…planning this. It's time, that's all."
Dhiti scowled again, refusing to look at her. Itsuko nodded slowly, then removed her hand and left Dhiti's side, moving around to stand at the head of the low table. Perhaps it was a coincidence, perhaps not; but as she stood there, her back to the window, her face was half in shadow, and when she spoke her voice seemed almost disembodied.
"My name is Pappadopoulos Itsuko," she said softly, "and I am the owner of the Olympus Gymnasium. I am Miyo's host, for the time being. I am also an old acquaintance of Artemis; I have worked with him in the past, and I know at least a little about all of you. I know who you are…and what you are. But I know how to keep a secret, too, and I will not give any of you away."
She was silent for a moment. Then she said, "This is all true. But it is not the whole truth."
Her voice seemed to grow deeper as she spoke. "I was born in the days of the Silver Millennium. I died when it was destroyed, only to be reborn, two thousand, two hundred and twenty-two years ago. I grew up in the city of Tokyo—First Tokyo, you call it now. I survived the time of the Great Ice. I walked the streets of Crystal Tokyo. I was injured during the time of the Fall, but I survived that, too, and the dark years that followed. When they began to rebuild Tokyo again, I came back, and I have been here ever since. My true name—" She paused, and her eyes seemed to burn. "My true name is Hino Rei, and I was the Senshi of Mars in the court of Queen Serenity."
The room was completely silent as she finished speaking. Nobody spoke; nobody even dared breathe. Even the distant sound of traffic from outside seemed to have ceased. They could only stare up at her; she seemed to tower over them, silhouetted against the window, faintly haloed in light.
Then Miyo said, "Geez, Rei, you don't have to be so pretentious about it."
"Umm, I think Suzue-san has fainted," added Beth.
To Dhiti it came as a revelation. A whole collection of facts suddenly rearranged themselves in her mind. Artemis' hints that Itsuko knew all about them. The way Miyo suddenly moved into the Olympus building. Her reticence about the mysterious 'Itsuko.' And maybe even that time, a couple of weeks ago, when she had been so upset about something…
She stood quietly for a few minutes, putting the pieces together. I'm going to have to apologise to Hayashi, she thought absently; but for now it was a distant concern. She barely even noticed the fuss as everyone else crowded around Suzue, helping her up and asking if she was all right.
A thousand random thoughts buzzed through her mind. The real—the original Sailor Mars! And I just almost decked her. Oops. Hey, does that mean we're going to have two Marses now? Is there any such word as 'Marses'? I can't believe she's real. She doesn't look two thousand years old…
But that, too, was distant and unimportant. Instead, what was foremost in her mind was: it was all right. Miyo had had a good reason to keep all this from her. They could still be friends. And it was truly amazing, how relieved she felt knowing that.
—She blinked. Somebody was waving a hand in front of her face. "Um, what?" she said.
"Earth to Dhiti-chan, Earth to Dhiti-chan. Are you receiving me, over?" said Miyo, smiling.
She breathed a silent sigh. Yes, it really was all right. And that being the case…
The manic spark flared into life again. "Calling Earth, calling Earth," she said into an imaginary microphone, grinning wickedly. "Your signal is breaking up, say again. What was that about goats?"
"Are you all right? You were looking a little zoned-out there for a—" Miyo broke off. "Goats?" she said.
Dhiti winked. "Gotcha," she said. Then, in a whisper that only the two of them could hear, she added, "I need to talk to you, Hayashi."
Miyo nodded. "I know," she replied, equally softly. "Later." Then she grabbed Dhiti by the arm and pulled her over to where the others were standing. Everyone was talking at once, it seemed. Suzue was upright again, though her face was pale. It had been a bit of shock, Dhiti supposed. Coming face-to-face with a figure from the past…
At that moment she came literally face-to-face with a figure from the past. "Itsuko," said Miyo, "this is my best friend, Sharma Dhiti. She's Sailor Mercury."
Itsuko studied her for a moment. "Yes," she said to Dhiti slowly. "I've been hearing quite a lot about you, actually."
Dhiti's mind went blank. What should she say? What should she say? What could she say to a living legend? "What did you do to your hair?" she blurted out.
Itsuko stared at her. Then her lips twitched. "I see what you mean," she said to Miyo.
"Told you so," the latter answered smugly.
Shaking her head ruefully, Itsuko said to Dhiti, "Believe it or not, I can do without everybody in the world knowing who I am. There are enough pictures of me around in the history books that a few minor changes seemed a good idea. If that's all right with you?" There was a dangerous glint in her eye that suggested that it had better be all right.
Dhiti cleared her throat hurriedly, before she said something that really did get her in trouble. "Um…so what happens to Iku-chan now?" she asked. "If you take over as Sailor Mars, does she had to leave the team, or something?"
To her surprise, the question seemed to upset Itsuko. She and Miyo exchanged glances, and Dhiti could tell that whatever it was, it bothered Miyo too. More secrets? But then Itsuko said, "No. But I should explain that to everyone…"
She raised her voice a little. "Can I have your attention for a moment?" The room fell silent with remarkable speed, making Dhiti suspect that the others had been listening in.
"I should tell you this now, before we go any further," Itsuko told them all. "I am no longer Sailor Mars. I lost my ability to transform after the Fall, and have never regained it—" Her voice broke for a moment. The look on her face was…painful to see. She cleared her throat and went on after a moment. "Obviously I still don't age, and I do seem to be able to tell when the Mars Power is being used—that was how I guided Miyo to bring you all together last night. But apart from that…Iku-san is the only Sailor Mars now. I'm sorry if any of you were getting your hopes up."
There was silence for a few seconds. Dhiti tried to imagine what it would be like. She had only been Mercury for a little while, but the idea of having to give it up…She shuddered.
(And a memory stirred, a voice that she had heard in a dream. "If you take this chance, there's no way out. No turning back. You must follow the path all the way. Wherever it leads…")
She shook her head sharply, trying to shake off the thought. Itsuko was speaking again. "—Hope I may be able to help you in other ways," the woman was saying. "I do have a fair bit of experience, and I may be able to offer some advice in your training, or with any other problems you're having. Miyo and Artemis can do that too, of course; but I hope I can contribute something. If…if you'll have me?"
She really meant it, Dhiti realised, amazed. Itsuko genuinely wasn't sure that they'd accept her. She was…afraid?
And with that realisation, her awe for the woman suddenly vanished. Itsuko might be the legendary Senshi of Fire; she might be thousands of years old; she might have been Queen Serenity's closest friend, all those years ago—she might be all this and more; but over and above that, she was still a human being. As capable of doubt and uncertainty as anyone. Maybe, just maybe, somebody that Dhiti could get to like.
Someone who was still waiting for an answer. Break the mood, Dhiti's instincts told her. Quickly, before everyone else gets maudlin too.
She snickered. Everyone looked at her. "Like we're really going to say no to that," she said. "C'mon, this is a joke, right?"
And Miyo smiled, and McCrea grinned; Iku and Suzue both seemed to relax, and the look of relief on Itsuko's face was inexpressible.
"That being the case," Itsuko said, "perhaps we should discuss what's been happening lately—"
Beth was uncomfortably aware that she had not made the best of first impressions. They would have to ask her to change to Venus! Everything had been going so well up until that point, too (though she wasn't quite sure why they had mistaken her for Iku).
She squirmed at the memory. Had she really volunteered to juggle for the others? What had she been thinking? But of course she hadn't been thinking. Venus had been doing the thinking, and Venus would do just about anything if it seemed like a good idea…
(Venus got all the fun.)
She sighed and tried to concentrate on what Itsuko was saying. It was difficult to keep her attention focused, though. Some of the bruises she'd gotten the previous night were uncomfortable to sit on for long, and she had to keep shifting around, trying to find a more tolerable position; and that disturbed Bendis on her lap, and Bendis wasn't afraid to use her claws.
It was worth the discomfort, though, to be together with Bendis again. Strange, how quickly the cat had become part of her life. It had only been a month since they'd met; but it seemed like they'd been together forever. They were partners; and the idea of anyone breaking that partnership was unbearable.
She had never realised how strongly she'd come to feel, until someone tried to separate them. The previous evening, when Artemis had said he was taking Bendis with him, it had been as if he was threatening to cut off her arm. She'd overreacted (or rather, Venus had)—screaming at him for wanting to take her friend away, promising to do unmentionable things to him if he touched a hair on Bendis' head…it was kind of embarrassing to remember, now; but she was pretty sure she'd do the same again. And all of it over a single night apart. Bendis had been away from her for much longer than that when she was out looking for Suzue. But this time it was a forced separation, and that made all the difference.
If only she could work out just why Bendis was afraid of Artemis…
Bendis had agreed to go with him, though. She had seemed…defeated, somehow. It was almost as if she'd been expecting it; as if she were going to face some unpleasant fate that she'd been avoiding for a long time…
Could that be it?
Yet when Beth arrived at the Olympus this morning, and met Bendis at the main entrance, the cat had seemed relaxed, even cheerful. And when she went in to meet the others, Artemis had been perfectly friendly, and somehow her anger from the previous evening had faded, and all she could remember (all Venus could remember) was how much she'd been looking forward to meeting him. So what had happened?
She shifted uncomfortably, trying to find another position that didn't hurt. As she did, her eye fell upon Iku, sitting next to Dhiti on the other side of the table.
There was another riddle. Back when she'd first met Iku, the girl had been almost normal. Oh, she'd been shy, quiet, she always kept to the background; but she would talk to people, at least. Then she began to change. She became uncomfortable when anybody paid attention to her. She seemed perpetually nervous, afraid of almost everyone except Nanako. It seemed to get worse and worse as time went by. By the time she and Beth met last night, when she became Sailor Mars, she was a virtual wreck. And today…well, Beth and the others had heard a little of what was said when Miyo answered the door.
Something changed, though, when Iku met Dhiti. She had actually smiled. And now, as she sat listening to Itsuko speaking, she seemed relaxed, almost peaceful—
Whoops. The thought of Itsuko brought Beth back to earth in a hurry. She had been speaking for some time and Beth hadn't heard a word of it. Flushing guiltily, Beth turned her attention back to what the woman was saying, and hoped that nobody had noticed.
"—suggest that the first thing you need to consider is what their primary objective is," the white-haired woman was saying. It was hard to believe that she was really the legendary Hino Rei. Beth wondered what Venus would say about the matter, and hastily suppressed the thought.
"That's easy enough to say," protested Dhiti. "But how are we supposed to tell? They appear, they cause trouble, and then we show up and blow them to pieces."
"That's all very well," said Itsuko patiently. "But I doubt that they're simply attacking at random. There may be some common element. What sort of 'trouble' do they cause?"
"The first one just attacked Venus," said Miyo thoughtfully. "It didn't seem to do anything else at all."
"There was that fire," Beth pointed out. "It might have started that."
"Yeah, but why burn down a department store?" asked Dhiti. "It doesn't make any sense. Look, none of them make any sense! The second one was trashing a dressmaker's when I found it! It was even disguised as a dressmaker's dummy!"
"The third one attacked a theatre," Miyo said. "It managed to hurt quite a few people. That might be a common thread—if the first one set that fire, then maybe they're just trying to kill people—"
"Then how do you explain the dressmaker's?" demanded Dhiti. "And that woman who's controlling them? The way she acted at the theatre, she wasn't just out to kill people."
"Woman?" said Beth. "What woman?"
"You know," said Miyo. "The same one as last night. Blue clothes, jewel in her forehead, remember?"
"She was at the theatre?" said Beth, startled. She looked over at Bendis. "You didn't tell me anything about that."
"I didn't see her," protested Bendis. "Must have been after I left."
"Oh. She did seem surprised that I didn't recognise her—"
"I think she's the same one as at the dressmaker's," put in Dhiti. "You know, when she told the thingumajig to kill us."
Beth blinked. "That's right!" she said. "Last night, she looked normal to start with. Then she…changed." She shivered suddenly.
"We're getting off the point," said Miyo. "The one last night wasn't trying to kill lots of people, either. So much for my idea, I guess."
"It was trying to kill me," said Iku in a very small voice.
They were silent for a moment. Dhiti flashed Iku a quick grin, then frowned in thought. "The whole thing last night looks like a trap," she said slowly. "They were deliberately trying to kill you, Beth-chan. Came pretty close, too," she finished with a faint smirk.
Beth flushed red. "She's a lot faster than she looks," she muttered. "And a lot stronger."
"This is all very well," said Itsuko, "but—"
"The only common point," said Suzue suddenly, "is us."
Miyo stared at her. "What?" she asked.
"They aren't attacking people or buildings or anything, at least not consistently. From what you've said, they seem to act differently every time. The only thing they always do is…attack us."
"That can't be right," objected Beth. "If we were…" She trailed off. "Maybe you're right," she admitted after a few seconds. "That first one actually acted like it was looking for me." It was a queasy thought. "It started off looking human, and it didn't change until I said I was Sailor Venus."
"And then it kept on ignoring me, and only going after you," added Miyo. "Just like that second one kept on concentrating on you, Dhiti-chan…"
"The third one wasn't concentrating on anyone," pointed out Dhiti.
"No, but the one last night was focused on Iku-san," said Bendis unexpectedly. "Even when Beth was attacking that woman, it ignored her and kept after Iku-san."
"So…you're saying they're Senshi-killers? They just show up and make trouble until one of us comes along, and then they attack us?" Dhiti made a face. "So what does Lady Blue have against us?"
"'Lady Blue'?" said Artemis.
"You know. The one with the crystal. Hey, if she won't tell us her real name…" Dhiti shrugged.
"The third one," said Miyo grimly, "might have been hunting us as well. Your 'Lady Blue' had a Crystal Tokyo tracker. She could have used it to find us—locked onto our henshin wands, or something like that."
"But if they're hunting us," said Beth, "why are they doing it so badly?"
The others stared at her. "Badly?" said Bendis. "They almost killed you last night, Beth!"
"But they didn't," Beth pointed out. "And they could have. Lady Blue could have done it, easily. It was like she was…playing with me. And that vitrimorph thing at the fire—it acted slow and clumsy at first, but it was moving much faster later."
"The one at the dressmaker's was the same," said Miyo thoughtfully.
"And the one at the theatre was actually shooting at us," added Dhiti. "I wonder if the others could have done that, too?"
Bendis cleared her throat. "Last night, when Lady Blue ordered the vitrimorph to kill Iku-san, she said she needed an 'object lesson.' I never thought—but if she meant—"
"They're playing with us," said Beth in a low voice. "She wanted to make an example of Iku-chan so the rest of us would try harder."
"But why?" protested Bendis. "What's she doing this for?"
"Maybe they're hunting Sailor Moon, and they want us to find her," said Suzue.
A silence fell as everyone thought about that. Itsuko hitched herself forward, looking interested. "Why do you say that?" she asked.
Suzue looked embarrassed. "Well…they seem to be pushing us to do something," she said. "And that is what we do, isn't it? Serve the—the Queen?"
"Well…I wouldn't put it quite like that—" said Miyo, a little uncomfortably.
"And if they're after the—Sailor Moon," Suzue went on, stumbling for a moment, "couldn't they be connected to the ones who destroyed her in the Fall? They were crystal warriors just like these ones."
"Not quite like these ones," said Dhiti, shooting a glance at Miyo and Artemis. "I already asked about that."
"But there could be a connection," admitted Artemis. "If this Lady Blue had a tracker—well, crystal technology doesn't work any more, everyone knows that. But the ones who destroyed Crystal Tokyo might be able to get one working—considering what they were able to do back then."
Dhiti sighed. "It would help," she said, looking pointedly at Miyo, "if we had a better idea of just what did happen during the Fall."
Miyo looked pained. "You keep asking me that," she complained. "Look, it's a long, nasty story. You're the history buff; you probably know as much about it as I do anyway…"
Dhiti snorted. "Right."
"It might be worth going into," said Itsuko slowly. "I've had certain…presentiments…that the Enemy is still active."
Miyo glared at Artemis. "I know what you're going to say—" she began.
"You can tell it, Miyo," said Artemis cheerfully. "After all, your memories are so much fresher than Itsuko's and mine."
"We'll all tell it," said Itsuko firmly. "I'm sure there are parts that you and I remember that Makoto never knew. Look, the way it started—"
Artemis cleared this throat. "If you're going to be that way—I think I was with Ami when it started, actually," he said. "She was—"
Ami listened to Artemis with half an ear as she worked. She was sitting in her workshop, a large room filled with bookshelves, equipment benches and computer terminals, going through a fairly dense scientific paper of some kind, and occasionally tapping in an annotation. Artemis was not offended; he knew that she was listening to him.
"—Just can't get her to commit herself to anything," he was saying. "Luna hasn't had any better luck. Maybe if you could speak to her?" He waited hopefully.
"If Luna can't persuade her, I doubt that I'd be able to do any better," Ami said calmly. "Endymion would have more chance."
"He won't touch it. He's already been through it himself. He just laughed when I tried to talk him into it."
"He would." Ami looked up for a moment and smiled. The Queen's Consort affected a dignified (and occasionally rather pompous) manner in public, but privately he had not changed much, and he had a fairly shrewd idea of when it was wisest to stay out of an argument.
"I really don't think you've got anything to worry about, though," she went on, looking back at her screen. "Serenity would never let everyone down by refusing to make an appearance. She's just dragging her feet a little. I can't say I blame her."
Artemis could sympathise with that, too. Some of the plans that were being proposed for the following year's celebrations of Serenity's 1500th birthday would have made anybody shudder. But still—
"Okay, the whole System is going nuts about this," he admitted. "But you know there has to be some kind of ceremony, and I can't even get her to confirm where she'll be on the day! And some of the plans those people are talking about will take months of preparation."
"Give her time," Ami advised. "You know Serenity. She'll do it in the end. Anyway, surely she'll be here on the day?"
"She's been making hints about wanting to spend it in the old palace on the Moon."
Ami raised her eyebrows. "Now that is an interesting idea. You're right, though; it'd take a lot of preparation."
"That's what I keep telling her."
"Anyway, you might try asking Rei about it. She's an old pro at getting Serenity to do things. Oh, for heaven's sake!"
"Rei said she didn't want to—what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Ami stared at her screen, looking irritated. "What on earth are they thinking of? This is nonsense!"
Artemis stepped closer to look at what she was reading. "What is it?"
"It's a new geological survey of Japan, mapping underground structures and deposits. The team that did it used a new resonance-echo technique that they hoped would give them much greater resolution and accuracy. I designed some monitoring systems for them, and I think they got Haruka in to trigger seismic echo-pulses."
"What, doing a 'world shaking' for real?" Artemis laughed. "Well, I guess it's a change for her. So what's the problem?"
"Oh—they got a signal back that their theory won't explain. It's a localised region that doesn't act quite the way they think it should. It's right at the limit of accuracy, so it's quite likely to be a simple error. But instead, they're calling it a mascon. Of all things!"
"Um…" Artemis cleared his throat. "Maybe you know what a mascon is, Ami, but…"
Ami sighed. "Never mind. It's not important. It's just lucky I noticed this before publication. Let me get this cleared up—"
She started to type rapidly, her eyes far away. When she was young Ami had wanted to be a simple doctor, but in the centuries since then, her talents had exploded in a hundred different directions. She was a natural polymath; her name was in the top rank of a dozen disciplines, and highly-rated in many more. Artemis no longer understood even half of what she did.
He watched her work for a minute or two longer, then gave up and left her to it. He decided to try asking Rei for help again.
As luck would have it, he found Rei in the royal quarters, talking to the Queen. There was no more official business scheduled that afternoon, and the two were cheerful and relaxed, chatting amiably. Serenity had doffed her more formal dress and was wearing a simple cream blouse and skirt; and Rei was actually out of her Senshi costume, which she tended to wear as a uniform, and dressed in a sloppy pair of shorts and a T-shirt.
"Hi, Artemis," said Rei as he came in. "What's up?"
"Oh, nothing much," he answered. "Minako called in to say she's getting bored up on the L-307 habitat and she's coming home. Ami's getting all worked up about a geological survey. Diana says she wants to dye her fur blue, but Luna says she'll disown her if she does. You?"
Rei shrugged. "Pretty quiet."
"Blue?" said Serenity, interested. "Why blue?"
Artemis shook his head. "I've given up trying to understand fashion, even for humans. Fashion for cats is…" He shuddered. "I don't want to think about it."
"Hmm." To his alarm, he saw that the Queen was giving him a speculative look. "What do you think, Rei-chan? If he dyed his whiskers red…"
But Rei had a devilish glint in her own eye. "That could work," she agreed, smirking visibly. "Or maybe—just the tip of his tail—"
"No, that would make him look like a fly whisk. Perhaps a ginger streak down his spine…?"
"I'll tell you what," said Artemis icily. "If you can persuade Endymion to go blond, I'll dye my whiskers."
They exchanged glances. "Hmm," they chorused.
Endymion chose that moment to walk in. He walked over to Serenity and bent to kiss her cheek, but stopped short as he saw the look that both women were giving him. "What?" he said nervously.
Serenity and Rei looked at each other again, and burst out laughing. "All right, Artemis," Serenity admitted. "You win. I can't imagine that at all."
"I can," said Rei. "I could get Ami-chan to do a simulation for you, so you can see what it'd be like." She started to snicker again.
"What are you talking about?" asked Endymion.
"Trust me, you don't want to know," Artemis muttered.
"Now, now," Rei admonished. "Be nice, or I'll tell Minako about this."
He flinched. "Don't," he begged. "Please. She'd think it was a good idea. She'd…she'd do it to me in my sleep!"
"I think I really don't want to know what this is about," Endymion said, grinning. "Not if it involves what you and Minako do in your sleep."
Artemis groaned. Not that old rumour again. Hastily changing the subject, he said, "Look, Rei, I wanted to see you, but—" He glanced at the Queen. "It can wait. I'll catch you later—"
Serenity looked at him, her eyes narrowing. "This isn't about the ceremonies next year, is it?" she asked suspiciously. Endymion started to laugh.
"Well…yes," Artemis admitted.
"Oh, and you wanted me to do your dirty work for you and talk her into something?" demanded Rei, annoyed.
"Yes!—No! It's not like that!" he protested. "Look, a lot of the planning has to be done a long way ahead! Especially if you really want to have it on the moon. We're already pushing the deadline for some of the proposals—"
Rei gave Serenity a curious look. "The moon?" she asked. "What have you been telling him?"
Serenity looked innocent. "Just a thought," she said.
Endymion sat down next to her. "Artemis does have a point, you know, love," he told her. "You're being a bit unfair, putting things off like this."
"But—" She sighed. "I just want it to be a private day," she said. "Just you, me, Usagi, and the Senshi."
"I know," he said comfortingly. "But something like this is just too big to keep private. 'Noblesse oblige,' remember. Your people want to show that they love you."
She looked away, sighing again. At last, resigned, she said, "All right. Let me see the plans tomorrow, Artemis. I'll go through them with Luna, and we'll decide what we'll do."
"Er—what about the moon idea?" Artemis pressed.
She shook her head, smiling sadly. "No. The old palace there has been undisturbed this long…let it keep its dead."
"All right." Privately, Artemis was relieved. He hadn't liked the moon idea much; the thought of returning there stirred old, old memories that he would just as rather let lie, forgotten.
"Just keep the ceremonies down to a reasonable length," Serenity ordered. "Six hours total, maximum. I want some time for family and friends—"
"You think we'd miss it?" said Rei, smiling. "You gave us all the year off, remember. Half of us are here already. Mina-chan's on her way. The others will be back in a couple of months. It's going to be our year too, after all."
"How could I forget?" But Serenity still looked melancholy. "I just wish Hotaru could be—"
"It was her decision, dear," Endymion told her, squeezing her shoulders. "She chose not to live forever." His eyes grew distant as he remembered. "I don't think she ever regretted it."
"Usagi still misses her. So do I."
"I know, love," he said, drawing her gently to her feet. "I know." His arm about her, he escorted her slowly out.
Rei and Artemis watched them go silently. In each of their minds was an image of a delicate, black-haired woman: the lost member of their company, the first to pass on, never replaced. Hotaru, the firefly, who chose to live a normal life-span, to grow old and die with her husband. The gentle Senshi of life and death, who had loved the former, yet had not feared to embrace the latter…
Every year on her birthday, all the Senshi who were able to gathered together in remembrance of her. It was a morbid custom, perhaps; but there was an unspoken agreement among them that to let the day pass unmarked would have been worse.
At last, in a deliberate attempt to break the silence, Artemis said, "Do you think Setsuna will come to the celebrations?"
Rei shrugged, apparently glad of the distraction. "Who knows? Serenity says she still pops in from time to time, but I haven't seen her in decades." She shook her head, and added, "What was that you were saying about Ami, before? What's got her worked up?"
"Hmm?" Artemis tried to remember what he'd said. "Oh. Some glitch in a geological survey. Nothing important."
"Nothing important," Rei echoed.
Makoto reached Crystal Tokyo late at night. It had been a long trip—the Pacific Shuttle was a two-hour flight—and she was tired. She'd spent the last two years in Toronto, acting as Serenity's diplomatic envoy and keeping a quiet eye on the bickering and political manoeuvring that had been going on with the Lakes Republic since the last election. It had been very boring, for the most part, and she was glad to be home.
She took a flyer from the shuttle pad to the Palace. There was a full moon that night, and the sky was clear; the city below her was an eerie sight, pale silhouettes of buildings divided by rivulets of light. Here and there brilliant sparks, flyers like her own, drifted through the air. Ahead, the spires of the Palace glittered in the moonlight, clean and elegant. She owned a house out in the suburbs, but she had not lived there regularly for decades. The Palace was home.
While she was still some distance away, her attention was caught by something new: a tall, spindly structure, hardly more than a framework, looking like an uneven series of slender towers. She was past it before she could make out more, but if it was a new building going up, it was a very strange-looking one.
Her flyer landed before she had much time to wonder about it. A group of Serenity's household guard came out to meet her, saluting as she climbed out of the flyer. She nodded wearily to them and went on inside. She had signalled ahead from the shuttle pad, and the service units had prepared her quarters and turned on the lights and the heat. The door unsealed at her touch, and she fell into bed thankfully.
The next morning was grey and dreary. She woke early, her body-clock still on Canadian time, but long experience told her that trying to sleep longer would be useless. She crawled out of bed, still groggy. A long, hot shower helped. Food would be even better. Her rooms had excellent kitchen facilities, of course, but she wanted company. She went out looking for breakfast.
To her delight, she found Minako in the common dining room a few floors below. The blonde Senshi jumped up as she came in, beaming a welcome.
"Mako-chan! When did you get back?"
"Last night. Hi, Mina-chan. How're things?"
Minako grinned. "Great! It's nice to finally have some time off…get a few things sorted out, catch up on the soaps…raid Rei's manga collection…"
Makoto laughed. "Bored?"
"You betcha." Minako laughed too, then gave a shrug. "What can you do? It's been so long since I had a real holiday, I don't know what to do with it. And with a whole year off…"
"Yeah." Makoto filled a plate, and sat down next to Minako. "I kind of wish they weren't making such a big fuss about the anniversary. Okay, it's nice to be all getting back together again, but still, I wish Serenity wasn't doing it…"
"You think she had a choice?" Haruka came in, yawning. She sat down across the table from the other two, and said, "Hi, Makoto. How was Canada?"
Makoto waved a hand noncommittally. "Politics. Dull." Then she brightened. "I did meet this one guy, a couple of months ago, when—"
"Spare me." Haruka grinned to take the sting from her words. "I think I know this story."
"Well, yeah." Makoto sighed, and shrugged. "How's Michiru?"
Haruka raised her eyebrows. "Well enough," she said. "She's been held up for a while at the Miranda Institute. She's due back in a couple of weeks."
Makoto nodded. It was rather rare to find the two apart; after Serenity and Endymion, they were the system's stablest couple. Haruka hid it well, but Makoto could see that she wasn't happy at the separation.
"What was that you were saying about not having a choice?" she asked.
"Talk to Artemis about it sometime," Haruka suggested. "He's acting as coordinator. It wasn't a matter of deciding to make a big thing of it; it's more a case of, it's going to be a big thing whether we like it or not, so we might as well take it gracefully."
"Personally, I could do without the reminder," Minako grouched. "'Her majesty's sesquimillennial celebration…' Is that even a word? It's on all the vid reports."
"Ha! You'd be lucky to get two words out of Ami at the moment. She's up to her eyeballs in this survey project of hers."
"Survey?" Makoto raised her eyebrows. "What's she up to now?"
Haruka laughed softly. "Someone found a geological fault, a couple of kilometres down, that doesn't act the way Ami thinks it should. She's spent the last three weeks trying to work out what it is."
"She's set up these towers down in the city, and she's drilling down and setting off bombs to try and figure it out," added Minako.
Makoto looked at her, shaking her head fondly. "Translation, please?" she requested. A certain amount of Minako's ditzy act was just that: an act. But you could never be sure which part.
"Actually, that's about right," said Haruka. "She's been sending down test bores, and setting off micro-charges to trace the seismic whatchamacallits. Some of the people down in the city were getting quite worried about it, and Serenity had to meet them and tell them it was all right." She grinned. "I'm not sure that Serenity really understood what she was talking about—but then, I'm not sure that I understand what Ami's doing, either."
Makoto groaned. "That sounds like Ami." She cocked her head and added, "Maybe that's what I saw last night, as I was flying in—a group of towers, like scaffolding frameworks…"
"That's the one," Haruka confirmed. "We could go down and take a look later, if you're that interested."
Makoto shrugged. "Not really. What's interesting about a hole in the ground?"
Rei got up, sighing. She had been meditating before the sacred fire for more than an hour. Her head swam for a moment as she rose.
She stood there for a little, staring into the flames. The air was thick with the scent of incense and wood-smoke, and a faint, tantalising hint of vanilla. The only light in the room came from the fire. The heat on her face was fierce, but after so many years of doing this she barely noticed it any more. She of all people was accustomed to flame.
Sometimes, standing here like this, she felt the weight of all the years that filled this room. The decades and the centuries hung about her. The few simple furnishings were antiques, many of them hundreds of years old; but the fire itself was the oldest thing here. This fire was the same one that had burned in the Hikawa shrine in her youth. In all the years since, it had never gone out.
Oh, it had been quenched for a time during the Great Ice; but afterward, as the world began to rebuild, she had worked up her nerve and asked Setsuna to help her preserve it. For a wonder, the Senshi of Time had agreed. The two of them picked a moment when they would not be disturbed, stepped into the past, brought back a fire-pot—and the sacred fire burned anew.
She smiled at the memory. She had been surprised when Setsuna agreed to help; but the risk was minimal, and perhaps Crystal Tokyo had mellowed even Sailor Pluto. And when they had gone back, when she had stood again in the Hikawa Shrine as it had been before the Ice…that was a moment she would treasure forever.
It had been like going home, one last time. A return, for one brief moment, to a time that was lost; to a life that had been simpler, and in many ways more satisfying. A final glimpse of the life she might have led, the priestess she might have been.
Outside this room was a different world, a newer world. Out there she was Hino Rei: warrior, Senshi, companion of the Queen. A public figure, always busy, always in demand. It was strange, that this new world could make her feel so old.
But in here—here with the darkness and the flame and the stillness and the endless peaceful years—here, for a time, she could be a simple priestess again. And she felt young.
The fire cracked, and she started. Guiltily, she realised that she had been standing, lost in thought, for more than twenty minutes. She was expected back at the Palace. There were a million things to do…
With a quiet sigh, she turned and left the room. Back to the real world, she thought sarcastically; though sometimes she was not sure which of her two worlds was the more real to her.
All the same, she felt refreshed, more at peace that she had when she had gone in. The weight was gone from her shoulders; she was smiling as she stepped outside. So perhaps, in the end, the two were not irreconcilable after all.
A thought occurred to her, and she chuckled out loud. When she left the Palace, when she went to the fire to pray and meditate, it was because she was searching for peace, tranquillity…serenity. Yet those were exactly the qualities that she was leaving behind, in the heart of the one who was the centre of the Palace. How ironic, that the rabbit should turn out to be so much better at it than the priestess…
How her grandfather would have laughed.
Shaking her head, still smiling, she went on. The Palace was only a few minutes' walk away. On her way, she reviewed her day's schedule. Meetings, discussions, planning committees, ceremonies…all the thousand thousand details that kept the world running. It was not as bad as it might have been—she, Artemis and Luna, as the ones who got stuck with it the most, fought a never-ending battle to keep the bureaucracy to a minimum—but there was still a lot to get through.
(Chief of Staff and head of the Civil Service was not quite how she'd seen her future when she was young. But it was a necessary job, not actually that far removed from her childhood vocation as priestess, and it kept her in Crystal Tokyo—and how could she ever leave Serenity? Oh, she'd been sent on other jobs, even been off Earth a few times, when she was needed, but that was increasingly rare. She was more valuable where she was, serving and guarding the Queen…and if there were more personal reasons why she could not bear to leave, well, they were nobody's business but hers.)
At least the load was a little lighter at the moment. There was more to do than ever, preparing for the celebrations coming up in June; but with all the other Senshi on Earth, she could spread some of the work around. It was technically a violation of their holidays, but it was in a good cause.
And how they complained about it! Her smile widened into a grin. A couple of days ago, Minako had even suggested that they make another search for the Younger Senshi—the new generation of Senshi that everybody knew would eventually arrive to replace them, as the endless cycle turned. Minako had said that she wouldn't mind being replaced if she could get a bit of peace and quiet in return…
Rei's grin faded. Everybody had laughed, then, but there had been a faint hint of unease behind the laughter. They had searched before, several times, but always in vain. In all the years since the founding of Crystal Tokyo, only one Younger Senshi had ever been found—and that was Princess Usagi, the new Sailor Moon. The present generation of Senshi had been active for more than a thousand years, and in the history of the Silver Millennium that was unprecedented.
Where were the Younger Senshi? Why had they never appeared?
Rei thought—feared—she knew.
She kept her suspicions to herself. What was the point of upsetting the others? But she was sure of her answer. There were no Younger Senshi because there was no longer any need for them. Because the Queen had made all the current Senshi immortal.
The function of the Younger Senshi was to maintain the cycle; as one generation grew older and their powers began to fade, a new generation was always born. But now, all the Senshi (except for poor Hotaru) were ageless, and the cycle was in suspension. Saturn would not be reborn unless there was a need for her. Princess Usagi had become Sailor Moon—but only after her mother had left the position behind and become Queen. There were no new Senshi, and unless the situation changed there would be none. Rei could not decide if that was good or bad; but in some way it disturbed her.
Unless the situation changed. But how likely was that? The human race—the whole solar system—was at peace. There had been no new crises since the Black Moon invasion. They had achieved a world that was little short of perfect, and nothing seemed to threaten it at all.
Certainly, there was nothing ominous in the offing at the moment. As always, Rei had checked in the sacred fire. And she could see nothing bad ahead of them at all.
"There is something down there," Ami said firmly. "I'm certain of it."
She was sitting in Serenity's private office: a spacious, comfortable room, informally furnished, that the Queen used when she wanted to get any real work done. Rei and the cats, and their staff, could insulate Serenity from a lot of the bureaucratic trivia of rulership; but even so there were some things that had to be seen to by the Queen personally. That being the case, Serenity preferred to be as comfortable as possible while she did it. (Ami had a vivid memory of coming into the office, a few years back, to see her lying on her stomach on a bean bag, surrounded by piles of documents, singing along with the stereo system at the top of her voice as she scribbled notes on an agricultural subsidies proposal.) There was another, public office, much more formal than this one, where the Queen received guests, but she used it as little as possible.
"A few weeks ago, you were saying it was just an unusual rock formation," pointed out Artemis. "Suddenly you've changed your mind?"
"That was what I thought at first," Ami admitted. "But all my tests have shown that it's more than that. There's something down there, two kilometres underground, that is opaque to everything I can think of. It acts as a near-perfect reflector to seismic waves, but it seems to absorb most other forms of energy. That makes it very difficult to investigate, especially when it's so far down, and there's very little I can tell about it directly; everything has to be inferred. But it's quite small—no more than ten metres in diameter. And it seems to be spherical."
"All right," Serenity said agreeably. She had been lying with her head on Endymion's lap, but now she sat up, looking over at Ami expectantly. "What is it, then?"
"I don't know."
There was a slight pause. Then Endymion said, "So why have you come here today? Just to give us a progress report?"
"No." Ami looked oddly nervous. "I came because…there's only one way left that I can think of to investigate it."
Serenity looked shocked. "You want to teleport down there? You can't! It's too dangerous!"
"I know that," said Ami patiently. "I could hardly teleport into solid rock anyway."
"Oh, mother." Princess Usagi stood up and came forward to join the others. "She wants to tunnel down, obviously." She had been listening to the discussion, but until now she had remained silent, sitting inconspicuously a little behind her parents. The princess was not shy about speaking her mind, but when her parents were acting in an official capacity she usually preferred to remain in the background.
"Yes," Ami agreed, grateful for the interruption.
"You want to drill down two kilometres?" Endymion raised his eyebrows. "That's quite an undertaking."
"Not as much as you might think," Ami replied. "Bores have gone much deeper than that before, even back in the twentieth century. But still, it would be a fairly major project, yes. And the location would be a problem."
"Oh?" said Luna, glancing up sharply. "Where is this mystery of yours?"
Ami sighed. "It's right below the city. As a matter of fact, it's directly under where the Tokyo Tower used to be."
"Umm." The Queen looked wistful. "Do you remember, Endy-chan, when we went there on our sixth anniversary—"
Endymion coughed. "Is that just a coincidence, do you think?" he asked Ami. "Or could it be…" He trailed off.
"I have no way of telling," said Ami. "But it's…odd."
"This whole thing is odd," said Artemis thoughtfully.
"I wonder how long it's been there?" mused Usagi. "When was the Tokyo Tower built?"
"Nineteen fifty-eight," Ami answered promptly. "But what data I've been able to gather suggests that the object was down there long before that. Probably tens of thousand of years, at least."
"You say 'object,'" Luna noted. "Do you think it's artificial, or could it be natural?"
"It's impossible to say for sure. It could be a lump of highly-compressed stellar material, perhaps one that crashed here as a meteor long ago. It could be a deposit of rare earths, in a rather remarkable formation. Or…" Ami shrugged. "It could be some kind of alien artefact. Or any number of other things. I'm afraid I've run out of ways to investigate, from up here."
"In any case," put in Endymion, "what is it exactly that you want to do, Ami? You don't want to set up a drilling rig in the middle of the city, I hope. Those towers you've already got are bad enough."
Ami flushed. "Well, that was one possibility," she confessed. "But I was thinking about adapting a subway bore. Not one of the main drilling machines, but there are smaller ones that cut auxiliary tunnels big enough to walk in. It would take some time to do the modifications, but still, in a few months we should be able to—"
"But Ami-obachan," said Usagi mischievously, "you can't start a project that's going to take several months. You're supposed to be taking next year off, remember?"
Ami stared at her. Her mouth opened and closed several times, soundlessly.
Endymion laughed. "Don't be cruel, Small Lady. This is the sort of thing Ami does in her time off." Usagi threw him a dirty look at the name—when she'd turned thirty she'd announced that the next person to call her 'Small Lady' or 'Chibi-Usa' would get a kick in the teeth—and he laughed again.
"Umm—" began Ami.
"All the same," Endymion went on, "you're talking about quite a major project. Those subway bores cost hundreds of millions—and you're talking about melting out a hole two kilometres deep…" He looked over at Serenity; but there was a twinkle in his eye. "What do you think, dear?" he asked innocently.
"Don't be silly, Endy-chan," the Queen replied. "If Ami wants to do it, of course she can. After all, what harm can it do?"
It was a cold, grey, rainy day. They gathered in silence in a small hall at the rear of the Palace. Everybody came—even Setsuna, who slipped in at the last minute and sat at the back, her face rigidly expressionless.
There was no formality or set order to the service. It did not last long. One by one, they got up and spoke a few words: recounting an incident, or sharing a private memory. One by one, each of them walked up to the table at the head of the room, and placed a lily on the simple white cloth, before the photograph that stood there.
The Queen wore black; her face ran with tears. Princess Usagi wept openly. Haruka and Michiru held each other tightly. The others, their faces grave and unhappy, stepped forward in their turn.
A stranger came last. Higoshi Hato had been invited by Michiru; she was one of Hotaru's few surviving descendants. She stood at the table for a little, staring down at the picture of a woman who had died before she was born. At last she touched her fingertips to her lips, and then pressed them for a moment to the picture. Softly she said, "Sleep well, obaasan." Then she turned and walked quickly out of the hall, almost running.
The Senshi filed out after her, as silently as they had entered. Only Setsuna hung back for a moment, staring at the picture of one she had loved like a daughter. Her lips moved almost soundlessly.
"Happy birthday, firefly," she whispered.
Luna crouched down, watching the tangled patterns of force intently as they pulsed and flickered. "No," she said sharply. "Tighten the weave there. Yes, there—on the fourth vertex. A little more—good."
Diana relaxed with a sigh, stepping back from the energy-construct she had been building under her mother's supervision, and looking at it with some distaste. The three cats were gathered in a sheltered courtyard at the rear of the Palace. At this time of day the courtyard was in shadow, making it easier to see the force lines, and Luna was determined that they should make the most of it.
"It would have worked as it was," Diana protested.
"There's no need to get sloppy," Luna told her reprovingly. "You run the risk of having it all unravel on you if you're not careful, and that's…not a prospect to take lightly."
"She speaks from experience," said Artemis, half-jestingly.
Luna gave him an irritated glare, then looked back to Diana. "Yes, I do," she admitted. "That was—oh, about thirty years before the Silver Millennium fell. I was careless, and a weave I was working unravelled in mid-transition. The retrieval was disrupted, I almost got my brains fried, and it took most of our people on the Moon, working together, six months to clean up the local force lines properly. The Queen was quite upset with me."
"Yes, but—" began Diana.
"No 'buts'," Luna insisted. "Now, dismantle that lattice and try it again. If you're getting this sloppy, you obviously need a lot more practise."
Diana sighed and obeyed. As she frowned in concentration, an intricate web of force patterns took shape in mid-air in front of her. Slowly it expanded, shifting and turning as it grew more complex, forming knots and junctions at the required points to create intangible energy pathways, and spinning off linkages into the ghost dimensions to keep the construct anchored in space-time.
A passing human being would have seen three cats, staring intently at nothing at all. He or she might even have walked straight through the weave that Diana was building, without disturbing it in the slightest.
"How's that?" inquired Diana at length.
Luna nodded slowly. "It looks all right," she said. "Finish the exercise, though. Trigger it."
Diana hesitated, obviously remembering Luna's story of what might happen if she'd got it wrong. Then, taking a deep breath, she leaped toward the weave. At the apex of her jump, she turned a perfect somersault and touched the trigger-point. The weave collapsed, twisting space as it did so into a precise configuration—and the subspace interstices opened, and something dropped out.
"Younger Pluto's henshin wand," said Artemis. "Interesting choice."
"I just wanted to see if there actually was one," Diana admitted. "I mean, I've never actually heard of there being a Younger Pluto…"
"Who has?" inquired Luna rhetorically. "All right, you've demonstrated that you can open a pocket if you need to—though it took you three times longer than it should. You really do need to practise this. In an emergency, you might need to do it in a few seconds."
Diana winced. "A few seconds?" she protested.
Snorting, Luna said, "Watch." She sat back on her haunches, staring at nothing—and a new lattice took form before her, flickering and twisting and knotting with blinding speed, growing to a bewildering complexity almost faster than the eye could follow—and Luna leaped, and another henshin wand dropped to the floor beside the first.
Diana stared at it, trying not to show how impressed she was. "Younger Mercury," she breathed. Then: "How did you do that?"
"Practice," said Luna.
"Lots and lots of practice," Artemis added wryly. "You always did have much better control than me."
"Thank you," replied Luna primly.
"But—" Diana trailed off. "I think I still prefer Father's way," she grumbled at last.
"You would," muttered Luna. "For heaven's sake—"
"No, let me," interrupted Artemis. "Diana, your mother's right. Her way of opening the pockets is better. I'd do it that way myself if I—" He cleared his throat. "If I could. Here, look at this…"
He padded over to the henshin wands, touched them gently with one paw, and closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he began to spin in place. A passing human would have seen nothing but a cat chasing its tail. But as Artemis whirled, a spindle of force-lines wove itself in the centre of his pattern, overlapping, merging, and condensing down to a tiny glowing core—
There was a wink of something that was not light, but which made all three cats blink anyway, and the two henshin wands were gone.
Artemis came to a halt, breathing heavily. "You see?" he said after a few seconds. "It works, but it's all brute strength, not…not finesse. It's tearing the interstices open, rather than triggering them properly. The continuum seals itself shut again, true, but still it's not a good method to use regularly. Why do you think I usually let your mother handle this stuff? My way may be easier, but it's certainly not better."
"All right, all right," Diana mumbled. Then, trying to make a joke of it, she added, "Too bad I can't just do it the way the Senshi do, then."
Luna winced. "That's even more limited," she said. "They can't see the weaves any more than a normal human can. Each of them is attuned to a single subspace pocket; they can use it, but that's all. They can't control it like we can."
"Yes, but—" Diana began. Then she stopped, shaking her head. "All right. I'll practise more. Okay?"
"Don't use the Senshi's pockets," suggested Artemis. "Some of them are sensitive enough to feel the triggering, and there's no need to bother them. I'm not sure about Ami, but Setsuna probably noticed what you did just now."
"Oops," Diana said guiltily. "Wait a minute, does that mean I have to use—?" She winced. "Not the training matrix again."
"I'm afraid so," said Luna, mock-sympathetically.
"I'd like to get my hands on whoever thought it was funny to put a ball of wool in there," Diana muttered.
"Yes, I'm sure," Luna agreed. There was a twinkle in her eye. "In the meantime, though, you should go through the exercise two or three times a day for the next few months, and then we'll—"
"Exercise!" Diana suddenly sat bolt-upright. "I forgot! What time is it? Oh, no, I'm going to be late…"
"What's wrong?" asked Artemis.
"Princess Usagi's been taking physical training with some of the Palace Guard, down in the old arena…I was supposed to meet her there. I have to go, I'll see you later…" Diana ran off hurriedly.
Artemis shook his head humorously, watching her go. "I wouldn't have thought it was that urgent. Maybe she's keen on avoiding more lessons?" Luna did not answer, and he started to ask her what was wrong; but something suddenly struck him. "Hold on. Today's Friday. Aren't those lessons only on Mondays and Thursdays?"
Luna still did not reply. "What is it?" he prompted her.
"Usagi stopped those lessons two months ago," Luna said quietly. "Diana ought to know that."
The two cats exchanged glances.
Rei stopped dead when she saw the expression on Serenity's face. She was just coming in to deliver a bundle of reports—and maybe share a cup of tea—but from the contorted look on the Queen's face something was dreadfully wrong.
"What—" she began.
"Shh!" Serenity hissed, holding a finger to her lips. "Quick, come through here!"
Rei followed her, now seriously worried. They walked silently through into the Queen's private quarters. There was an odd noise coming from somewhere.
"What is it—?" she tried again.
"Quiet!" Serenity whispered. She pressed her ear against a closed door, and motioned Rei to do the same. "Listen!" she ordered. "You've got to hear this!"
Rei listened. Her eyes opened wide.
The sound was that of falling water. Endymion was taking a shower. And he was singing: a song from an old, old movie that Rei remembered well. In spite of herself, she began to giggle.
"Be a man!
You must be swift as the coursing river!
Be a man!
With all the force of a great typhoon!
Be a man!
With all the strength of a raging fire,
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!"
When Endymion emerged, several minutes later, he was quite at a loss to explain the two women rolling on the floor of the lounge, hysterical with laughter.
"I have to admit, Ami," Makoto commented, "this is the ugliest thing you ever built."
"It's not supposed to look pretty," Ami said defensively. She looked up at the modified subway bore, and quite unconsciously patted it on its side.
It was an imposing sight, certainly, standing in the underground construction bay, starkly lit by brilliant white working lights. A long, tubular device, just short of two metres high, with a blunt, faintly rounded nose that was pitted with hundreds of tiny nozzles in an arcing, spiral pattern. The nose was slowly turning, and Makoto half-thought that she could see a faint, bluish haze rising from it.
Set far back from the nose, giving the whole machine a curiously unbalanced look, were six sets of caterpillar tracks. They were spaced evenly around the body, so that at present, four of them stuck out into the air. They reinforced the bore's lopsided appearance, making it look rather like a demented millipede with its legs in the air.
Most of the bore's body appeared to be made out of some kind of ceramic, creamy white in colour. Between the nose and the caterpillar tracks, though, was a massive sleeve of some darker material, that looked as if, like the nose, it could rotate. A cooling jacket, Ami had said, but Makoto had not really followed the explanation.
At the rear, the bore had a massive open exhaust port, and a pair of sealed valves that were apparently intended for refuelling the machine. At the top of the rear panel, she was amused to see, was a small plate marked with the royal crest.
The bore stood with its nose aimed down a dark hole that had been cut in one wall of the construction bay, the same diameter as the bore itself. The hole, only a few metres deep, sloped sharply downward. In less than an hour, the bore's nose would be aligned with that hole as a guide, and it would begin its long journey through the earth.
"So where's the hatch?" Makoto asked. "Where do you climb in?"
Ami sighed. "There isn't one," she said. "It's all fully automatic. You wouldn't want to ride inside this. It moves very slowly; it's going to take a week to get down where we want it."
Makoto raised her eyebrows. "Why so long?" she asked. "Don't the regular subway bores go much faster than that?"
"Yes. But the tunnels they make are more or less level. This one has to go downward, and at a fairly steep angle. Those nozzles in the nose produce a very hot hydrogen flame. The bore doesn't cut a tunnel; it melts one. And if it heads down too fast, it'll be moving through a pool of its own lava."
Makoto nodded slowly. That explained why the caterpillar tracks were so far back from the nose, she supposed. "So what happens to all the lava?" she asked. "Does it get shot out this hole at the back?"
"Only a little of it. Most of it is cooled as the bore passes through it, forming a layer of very dense, very hard rock around the tunnel. That makes the tunnel a lot more durable, naturally. The port is for passing out exhaust gases—superheated steam, vaporised rock, and so forth. It's also a valuable way of dumping heat, of course."
"Of course," echoed Makoto.
"You wouldn't want to be standing behind this when it's running. The exhaust temperature is thousands of degrees."
That, at least, Makoto understood. "So is it ready to go?" she asked. "All tested and everything?"
"Yes," said Ami patiently. "A few of the others said they wanted to see it in action, but as soon as they arrive I'll start it up." She smiled suddenly. "Or you could press the button, if you like."
"Me?" Makoto was taken aback. "No, I wouldn't want to spoil your—"
"Who's pressing whose buttons?" came a voice, unmistakably Minako, from behind them. They turned to greet her, and Makoto had to hide a smile. Minako was wearing a pair of battered overalls, and a bright yellow hard hat. As she came into the construction bay, she looked around with a faintly disappointed expression. "Oh…I thought it'd be, you know, all grease and oil and stuff in here," she said.
"I'm sure Ami could arrange something," said Makoto, grinning, before Ami could reply.
"Nah, that's okay. So, this is the tunnel?" Minako peered down the guide hole. "Where're all the stalactites? Just kidding," she added as Ami opened her mouth again.
Ami took a deep breath, appeared to count to ten, and said, "Good morning, Minako-chan. How are you today?"
"Pretty good," Minako answered cheerfully. "So, when are you starting this thing up? Should be quite a sight."
"When the others—" Ami stopped, looking at something behind her. "Oh. Pretty soon now, I think."
Makoto looked around. Rei and Serenity were just coming through the door, followed by Haruka and Michiru, and then Usagi and Diana. The Queen was laughing at something Haruka had just said.
"Wow, is everyone coming?" Minako said, surprised.
"It's that, or sit around trying to work out what to get Rei for her birthday," said Michiru dryly.
Haruka laughed. "Who'd have thought a year off would get boring so fast?"
"Well, it's better than dragging everyone back to Earth for each birthday," said Rei. She and Makoto exchanged glances. Then they carefully ignored each other.
"I suppose," grumbled Haruka.
Michiru dug her in the ribs. "You didn't think it was so boring a week ago," she teased. Haruka scowled, and she laughed. Michiru's fifteen hundredth birthday party had been quite a splash—a society event, as all their birthdays were this year (though Serenity's, in three and a half months, would be an altogether different scale)—and Haruka had enjoyed it immensely, whatever she was pretending now. Michiru had even allowed herself to be persuaded to play the violin in public, something that she did increasingly rarely.
They continued to tease each other, and Rei joined in, taking both sides at once; but Makoto stopped paying attention. Minako was talking to Ami, asking a series of pointless questions about the bore. Usagi was still arguing with Diana, which was a little odd. Makoto started toward them, curious, but stopped as someone else came in. She blinked in surprise. Setsuna?
She stepped over to meet her and said, "I wasn't expecting you to come." That was no more than the truth. Even today, when all the other Senshi were public figures, Setsuna was a virtual recluse, shunning all publicity. A lot of people believed that she didn't actually exist at all, and all indications were that she preferred it that way.
Setsuna simply shrugged. "I was curious," she admitted.
Makoto blinked. "Don't you know what Ami's going to find, then?"
"Contrary to what you may think," Setsuna said patiently, "I am not intimately aware of every tiny thing that's ever happened or is going to happen. What would be the point?" She shook her head. "I have a rough idea of what's ahead, but I only look at details when there's a good reason to. Knowing too much about where you're going…spoils the journey."
Makoto nodded slowly. "So, I guess this thing of Ami's is nothing earth-shattering, then."
Setsuna laughed. "The next few years are pretty quiet."
"Oh?" Makoto narrowed her eyes. Setsuna was being remarkably open. "How many years?" she asked slyly.
"Don't push your luck."
Makoto chuckled. "Worth a try." She wandered over to chat with Serenity and Usagi, who were admiring the bore. (Serenity laughed when she saw the royal crest on the rear plate.) They spoke for a few minutes, until Ami held up for attention.
"If nobody else is coming, we may as well get started," she announced quietly. She led them through into the control room, carefully closing a heavy, insulated door behind them and checking that it was sealed.
Several of Ami's assistants were already at work in the control room. They glanced up as the Senshi entered; a few of them looked startled, seeing Serenity come in, but they hid it well. One of them quietly showed the Senshi where to stand, then returned to his own work.
The control room featured a large window of thick, darkened glass, overlooking the construction bay. At one end of the room was a long, complex-looking control console, covered with monitoring and tracking displays. Ami sat down and flicked a switch, and the screens glowed with power.
"Communications are active," she announced. "Internal diagnostics…power and fuel…inertial tracking…all systems read green. Let me check the alignment with the bore-hole…" She ran her fingers over the keyboard. "Twelve millimetres off, well within parameters." She continued on in a dialogue with her assistants for a few minutes, but Makoto stopped paying attention. Down in the bay, the bore stirred, and ground forward slowly until its nose was just a few centimetres from the guide-hole.
"All right," Ami said at last. "Bringing it up to speed now…"
For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then, gradually, the bore's nose began to rotate more quickly. The faint blue haze that had clung to it faded out of view. Faster and faster it spun, until all details were lost and Makoto could only see a blur of motion. There was a high-pitched whining sound, faint at first but becoming louder and louder, and rising in pitch until it was almost painful. The floor seemed to vibrate, very faintly. One of Ami's aides passed around earmuffs, and they put them on gratefully.
There was a sudden click in Makoto's earmuffs, and she heard Ami's voice say clearly, "And here we go."
Suddenly there was a brilliant white light down in the bay, coming from the bore's nose. It dimmed a little, flickered, then became constant. The hydrogen flame, Makoto realised. Was it just her imagination, or were the edges of the guide-hole already glowing red? She thought she saw drops of molten rock fall to the floor.
"Makoto-chan, are you sure you don't want to do the honours?"
Makoto looked around. Ami was grinning at her. She shook her head hastily.
Ami shrugged, and pressed one last key on her console. The bore began to move forward once more. As the nose touched the edges of the guide-hole, there was a veritable explosion of dust, splinters of rock and globules of semi-molten stone. Many of them struck the window with a series of sharp cracks, causing several of the Senshi to jump back, startled. At the same time, the sound from within the bay rose to an unearthly roar. Makoto could feel it in her bones now.
She had seen a rocket launch into orbit, once, back in the early twenty-first century, a little before the Ice began. That was the only noise she had ever heard that was louder than this.
Slowly, the bore passed into the tunnel. As the upper caterpillar tracks found a purchase on rock, the whole bore shuddered, and the noise peaked again. A vast jet of material—powder, white-hot droplets of lava and a thick, dark, roiling smoke—shot out of the rear port like water from a geyser. Several of the lights down in the construction bay exploded. In moments, the smoke blocked all view of what was happening—except for the brilliant glow that came from the tail of the bore, which continued to be visible for a few minutes more before all sight of it was finally lost.
"Wow," said Haruka's voice through their headsets. "Quite a show, Ami-chan."
"Thank you," replied Ami. "It all seems to have gone quite well."
"What, are you kidding?" said Makoto involuntarily. The noise from the bay was still ear-splitting, but she heard her own voice through her headset, and realised that they must all have two-way communication.
"Not at all. Compared to some of our test runs, that was quite smooth."
"And I thought geology was a boring subject," murmured Michiru.
"So it's off," intoned Minako, "on a Journey to the Centre of the Earth!"
"Not quite the centre, Minako-chan—"
"Oh, well. A miss is as good as a molehill."
They all heard Ami sigh. "Whatever you say…"
The Queen went back to her palace, and the other Senshi to their holidays. Time passed, as Ami's machine worked its way patiently into the Earth.
It moved slowly, once it began to pass through solid rock: less than a centimetre a second. It was aimed downward at an angle of twenty degrees, so it had nearly six kilometres to go before it reached the anomaly. Even so, it should have made the trip in a little under seven days, and returned to the surface in only another two more.
Things did not work out quite that simply. The bore broke down twice, and had to be repaired. Each time, this required leaving it to cool for some time before technicians could venture down the tunnel, wearing breathing masks and protective suits, to make repairs which, performed in such cramped conditions, were rather lengthy.
Rei's birthday was on the 17th of April. Makoto did not go to the party; she claimed to be ill. Rei did not seem noticeably upset at the news.
As the bore approached the underground anomaly, its onboard sensor package began to return some very unusual readings. Most of them did not make much sense. Ami was almost bursting with frustration.
There was no moon on the 25th of April. The bore finally returned to the surface shortly before midnight. It had penetrated to a carefully-calculated two metres short of the target. Ami had to be physically restrained from going down to investigate as soon as the way was clear; but she had hardly slept for two days, and her assistants cared more about her than they did about the threats she made as they put her to bed.
The next day was the beginning of the end.
The workmen sent down to clear the last two metres of rock were the first to see the anomaly. Ami had wanted to be with them, but the workmen had pointed out, very politely, that she would be in the way. Tense and angry, mostly with herself, she sat in the control room at the head of the tunnel and listened as they worked. Artemis and Minako waited with her, carefully staying out of her way.
For a while there was only the screaming of drills and saws, and an occasional clatter as another chunk of rock fell to the floor of the tunnel. Then they heard one of the drills whine to a halt.
"Mizuno-sama?" came the voice of one of the workmen. "Are you there?"
"Yes," Ami replied instantly. "What is it, borehead?"
"How long ago was that bore working down here?"
Ami raised her eyebrows. "About two days ago," she said. "Why? Is the tunnel still too hot?"
"Well…no." The man sounded puzzled. "That's the thing. It isn't hot at all. It's cold."
"Cold?" she answered, not certain she had heard correctly. "How cold?"
"You know when you open a freezer and touch the ice inside, and your finger sticks to it? That cold. If it weren't for these special suits of yours, we'd be freezing."
The other two men chimed in, adding their agreement. Ami frowned in thought. The insulating suits had been made to keep heat out, not in, but they worked either way. Still, what could explain the heat loss? The anomaly could hardly be acting as a heat sink; it would have warmed to the temperature of the surrounding rock millennia before.
Briefly, she considered pulling the men out, and going down to check herself. It would be the prudent thing to do. But they were supposed to stop just short of the anomaly itself anyway; Ami was to handle the actual penetration herself. And if they were nearly finished…
"How much further do you have to go?" she asked at last. "Is it too cold to continue? I could send down a heating unit, but it would take a while to get there."
She heard a hurried discussion between the men. "Another twenty minutes should do it," came the reply. "We can manage that long."
"All right. Let me know if anything changes."
The drills started up again. Ami sat back, still frowning. She turned on the Mercury computer and tinkered around with it for a while, trying to come up with a model that would explain the temperature drop. It was a pity that she hadn't sent an instrument package down with the workmen; but the drills would have thrown off the readings, so she hadn't bothered.
"What could be causing that?" asked Minako softly after a little.
"It's too soon to tell," she answered absently. "There could be a pocket of ice in the rock…" She trailed off dubiously. "Or it may not be a natural phenomenon," she admitted.
"Something wrong?" said another voice behind her.
She looked around, to see Princess Usagi and Diana coming in. "Not wrong, exactly," she said, frustrated. She explained what was happening. "I was expecting some unusual physical properties," she finished. "I noticed that the anomaly absorbed most kinds of energy, last year. But drawing in ambient heat on this scale…I never expected anything like this."
"Is it dangerous?" insisted Minako. There was no sign of her usual spacey personality; she was all business now, totally focused.
Ami gave a helpless shrug. "I don't see how it could be," she said. "Their insulating suits should protect them from—"
The sound of drills over the commlink whined down to a halt again. "Control room, say again?" queried one of the workmen.
Ami blinked. "What was that?" she said into the commlink. "We didn't say anything to you."
There was a pause. "I thought I heard your voice," the workman said. "It sounded like—"
There was a sudden burst of static from the commlink.
"Borehead, what did you say?" called Ami.
The workman did not answer.
"Hello?" Ami checked the commlink. "There's no carrier signal," she said, frowning. "It's as if they just disap—"
The sound came back with a crackle, making them all jump. "—trol room, are you there?" called the workman.
Ami shot a look at Minako—puzzled, and beginning to be a little worried. "Borehead, we hear you," she said. "Are you receiving me?"
"Received that," the man replied, sounding relieved. "We're getting some odd signals down here—" He broke off. "There it is again," he said, suddenly agitated. "A funny sound. Like an echo…"
There was another short burst of static.
"Say again?" said the workman.
"Borehead, we didn't say anything," said Ami.
"Borehead, do you read me?" Ami glanced around at Minako again, then back to her console. She was definitely looking worried now.
"Get them out," said Minako.
More static on the commlink. Then: "Say again?"
"It could just be the commlink," said Usagi tentatively.
"Get them out," Minako repeated.
Ami hesitated. "Maybe you're right," she said reluctantly. She tapped at the controls. "Borehead, abort the operation," she ordered. "Return to the surface. Do you read me?"
There was a long silence. Then there was another sharp burst of static, and they heard a voice: a young child's voice, reciting. It counted from one to ten, then started over again. In the middle of the third repetition, the static returned once more and there was silence.
"Interference," suggested Artemis nervously.
"No," Ami said, checking her instruments. "No, that came down there."
There was a faint hiss from the speakers. A voice said, "Borehead." It was fuzzy, distorted, but it was clearly Ami's voice. "Borehead," it repeated.
They exchanged glances.
Suddenly, shockingly, the speakers burst into a roar of sound, an ear-splitting tearing cacophony. All of them jumped, and Usagi cried out in surprise. Then, one by one, they recognised the sound.
It was the drills at work again.
"They're going on," whispered Ami.
"Usagi!" rapped Minako. "Change. We're going down."
The princess stared at her for a moment, open-mouthed. Then she raised a hand to her brooch and cried out, "Moon crisis make-up!" The lights of transformation began to swirl around her.
Minako did not bother with her henshin wand. She narrowed her eyes in concentration, and a wave of colour washed over her. Moments later, Sailor Venus stood in her place.
"Minako," said Ami. "You can't take Usagi! She's the princess—"
"She's also a Senshi," said Venus coldly, "and I want you to stay up here for now. Keep trying to contact those men. See if any of the other Senshi are around, and get ready to call them if I give the word."
Usagi was not in her Eternal form, Ami suddenly realised. She had only become Super Sailor Moon. None of the other Senshi had ever gained an Eternal transformation; but Usagi had reached hers long ago. Of course, wings would be inconvenient in the tunnel…
"Mina-chan," she tried again, "don't you think you're overreacting?"
Venus did not spare her a glance. "No," she replied calmly. "You'd better contact the Queen as wel—"
Over the commlink, the sounds of the drills suddenly rose to a scream. They heard a shout of surprise—and then a shriek of pain. Somebody cried out a question, barely audible. There was a strange whining sound. Then one voice cut across the noise.
"I…I broke through into something…" the man gabbled. "It felt like…I don't know what it felt like…" His voice became a wail. "I can't feel my hand!"
There was a new surge of static over the link. For an instant it cleared and they heard the other men, crying out in shock and fear. Then the static was back, smothering all other sound.
"No," Ami whispered. "They were supposed to stop short of the anomaly. They weren't supposed to go all the way…"
"You ready, Usagi?" said Venus calmly.
"Yes," said Sailor Moon.
"Then let's go. Grab that first-aid kit." Venus began to unseal the door that led out into the bay where the tunnel began. Moon snatched the first-aid kit from its wall mount, and a pair of torches; then, as an afterthought, she bent down and picked up one of the satchels of instruments that Ami had prepared.
She doesn't want me to go, Ami thought with a shock. She wants me to stay at the controls. It was a disturbing thought. Did Venus only think of her as a scientist? Had Ami become that far removed from her duties as a Senshi, over the years?
The door swung open. A faint chill seemed to enter the control room; but that, surely, was only imagination. Venus did not hesitate; she ran out into the bay, closely followed by Moon. Moments later, the two entered the mouth of the tunnel and were lost to view.
The minutes passed. Ami contacted Rei and briefed her on what was happening, asking her to stand by in case she was needed. By the time she was finished, her computer showed that the rescue party had almost reached their target. The link to the borehead was completely dead now, except for a faint hiss that rose and fell regularly.
"You're getting near the bottom," she told Venus. "Another five hundred metres."
"Roger," Venus replied. "It's hard to make any speed in this tunnel. The walls and floor are covered with this fine powder, but underneath that it's very smooth. Not much traction."
"Yes, I know. The suits those men are wearing have special boots that help, but they wouldn't fit a Senshi uniform. All the same—"
The door opened suddenly, and she looked up, expecting to see Rei. Instead, to her surprise, Sailor Pluto came in. "Setsuna?" she said, startled.
The Senshi of Time looked as if she had been running. "I thought I felt…something," she said. "I couldn't tell what, but—"
Artemis began to explain what was happening. Ami listened for a few moments; but then her communicator beeped again. She tapped it quickly. "Yes?" she said.
"It's me," came Venus' voice. The little screen remained blank; it was too dark in the tunnel to pick up her face. "We've met the workmen; they were heading up on foot. One of them—" She broke off for a moment, then said, "The one who was hurt. His hand. I've never seen anything like it."
"His glove was torn off. Shredded. His hand—he—it's like a burn, but more than that. It's…blurred, it's as if—as if something's taken his whole forearm and…twisted it somehow, distorted it—" Venus sounded sick. "It hardly looks like a hand any more…"
"Minako-chan—" Ami began.
"No," Venus said quickly. "It's all right. I'm all right now." They heard her take a deep breath. "We're heading up. I'm carrying the man who was hurt. Usagi is bringing up the rear, in case…you know. In case anything happens."
"I'll come down," Ami said. "You should have taken me in the first place. I'm a doctor—"
"How well could you have treated him when he's sealed in an insulating suit?" pointed out Venus. "We'll be back at the surface in another ten minutes anyway."
Ami forbore to mention that ten minutes could mean life or death. Venus knew that. But Venus, like all the other Senshi, had had a fair bit of paramedical training. If she didn't think there was anything Ami could have done for the man…
Instead she asked, "Is he still alive?"
"Yes. I think so. He's unconscious, anyway. He—where I can touch it, his skin feels cold. Clammy. But he's breathing." Venus' voice dropped to a near-whisper. "They were right. It was icy down there. We didn't get right down to the bottom, we met them some way up, but even there it was freezing."
Ami did not answer immediately. At last she said, "Hurry back."
"We are," Venus said promptly. "It's easier, going up." After a moment she added, "You'd better have an ambulance standing by."
"I've called one," Ami replied. "It'll be here by the time you arrive."
"This shouldn't be happening," said Pluto softly. "I didn't foresee this."
Ami looked up at her quickly, then bent her head to her communicator once more. "Usagi, how are you doing?" she asked. "Are the other two men all right?
There was no answer.
Ami stiffened, and glanced back at Pluto once more. "Usagi? Sailor Moon, do you hear me? Are you—"
"I hear you."
She let out a breath. "What's wrong? Why didn't you—are the other two men all right?"
For a moment, Moon did not reply. Then she said, "I'm not with them. I sent them on ahead."
"You—" Ami looked stunned. "Why? What did you—" She broke off suddenly, and checked the tracking monitor on her computer. "Princess, no!"
"I'm almost at the bottom now, I think. It's very cold, but I can stand it."
"Usagi, no!" Ami shouted. "You mustn't! It's too dangerous—"
"Ami-chan," Moon interrupted her. "Somebody must. We have to know what's down here. And I'm not a kid any more, remember?" For a moment there was amusement in her voice. Then she went on, "I have one of your instrument packs, too. You'll be able to get some decent readings."
Before Ami could respond, she added, "You know I'm right."
For what seemed like a long time, Ami did not reply. At last she said, "It's not as though I have a choice, is it?" She sighed. "Be as quick as you can, then. And be careful, Usagi. When you get back up here, you know your mother is going to have a few words with you about this."
Moon laughed. "I know."
The communicator fell silent. Ami looked around to Artemis and Pluto, silently asking for suggestions. After a moment, Artemis said, "You could try teleporting down to help, if anything does go wrong."
Pluto shook her head. Ami replied quietly, "No. I thought of that; but the gravimetric distortion from the anomaly makes it impossible to get near. Even if it weren't for that, it would be risky through that much solid rock. That's why the two of them had to go down on foot in the first place."
She took a deep breath, and said, "She's on her own. And she knows it."
"This shouldn't be happening," Pluto repeated quietly. Then she added, "Something is twisting my sight."
Ami looked up at her. "What does that mean?" she asked. "What could be causing it?"
Pluto met her gaze, then glanced away. "I don't know," she said. There was a note of frustration in her voice. "I can't see it. I can't see…anything." She wrinkled her brow. "If I could just remember—"
Moon's voice came from the communicator once more. "I'm at the bottom," she said. "I can see the gap the men opened up." She sounded puzzled. "It's—larger than I'd expected. I didn't think they could clear that much so fast…"
Immediately Ami's attention was back on her controls. "Is there any activity coming from the anomaly?" she asked. "Any…sign of life?"
"No. It's completely quiet. I can't see anything in there at all, it's just a solid black. I—wait a minute, I'll take a closer look—"
"No!" Ami shouted. "Stay away from it! Just…activate that instrument package and get out of there, all right?"
Moon hesitated. "All right," she said reluctantly. "I'm setting it up now…There. How's that?"
Ami checked her readouts, and sighed. "Nothing," she reported. "All the signals are being blocked." She frowned. "That package broadcasts on a very wide band. How could it—"
"Ami?" called Moon. "Did you hear me? How's that?"
"Still nothing," Ami responded. "Could you try pointing your communicator in the same direction as your torch? I should be able to feed the picture into my computer and—"
"Ami, can you hear me?"
Suddenly Pluto was at her side, speaking into her own communicator. "Princess, if you can hear me, get out now," she said urgently. "Princess, can you hear me? Small Lady?"
"It shouldn't be able to block our communicators," Ami whispered. "They don't use radio waves at all—"
"Ami, can you hear me?" Moon called. "Ami? Anybody?"
"We hear you!" Artemis shouted. "Sailor Moon, answer me!"
Ami looked up at Pluto, white-faced. "Can't you—"
Her communicator came to life again. "All right," Moon said. Her voice was calm, quiet; but they could hear the hidden strain in it. "I'm going to keep talking, and assume that you can hear me. Just…just in case. I'm collecting the instrument pack, and then I'll head straight back up. The anomaly is still quiet, so I hope I—that is, I'm pretty sure I'll be all right."
Much softer, under her breath, they heard her add, "Scared of the dark…like a stupid little kid…"
Then louder, and apparently making a deliberate effort to sound cheerful, she went on, "Did I tell you, Ami-chan? I saw the temperature readout on these instruments of yours. Minus seventeen degrees. No wonder those workmen were complaining!"
"Minus seventeen?" Ami said. "But that's…"
Her eyes widened suddenly, and she tapped at her computer. "Two million years," she murmured after a moment.
"What?" asked Artemis.
"We analysed some of the rock fragments that came back on the bore," she said. "That's how old the strata that the anomaly is lying in is. That thing's been there for a long time."
Pluto frowned. "Two…?" she muttered.
Artemis looked at Ami, incredulous. "But if the anomaly had been down there for that long, absorbing heat energy like that…it would have been found long ago!"
"Or," Ami said grimly, "it wasn't that temperature all that time. Maybe something woke it up. Something like a series of seismic echoes, sent out to probe it. Or something like a subway bore sent down to carve out a tunnel leading right to it…"
"Two million…" said Pluto. She was still frowning.
There was a sudden bang, making them all jump. The door into the bay had been thrown open. Venus stood there. She was covered, head to toe, in a fine black dust; her hair was grey with it. She left black footprints as she came in.
"What happened?" she demanded. "I've been trying to get hold of her, and she doesn't answer. What happened to Sailor Moon?"
Ami whispered, "She's still down there. Right at the bottom…"
Artemis began to explain to Venus, but Ami was hardly listening. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see activity down in the bay: a medical team, clustered around the three workmen. One of them was being strapped to a stretcher. She turned away from the sight, looking back to her control panel. Its blank displays stared mockingly back at her.
I did it. I triggered it…
As if in response to her thought, her communicator came to life once more. "I'm finished," Moon reported. "The instruments are all packed away. I'm starting back up now; I shouldn't be too—"
"Usagi!" shouted Venus.
For a moment longer the communicator was silent. Then they heard Moon start to curse. "Oh, no. Oh, damn, no, oh shit—"
She fell silent once more, but they could still hear her breathing, as if she were angry—or afraid. Then her voice returned—tense, half-strangled. "The lights are going out," she whispered. "The torches are going out. All of them. It's getting dark. They're going out…"
Two miles underground. No darkness could be deeper.
"Those torches have crystal cells," said Venus, eerily calm. "The power supply should last forever. It shouldn't be possible to drain them."
"I know," said Ami.
There was silence for a few seconds. Then Moon said, in a voice whose mask of control almost matched Venus', "They're gone. It's pitch-black. I think I…can manage. I hope. I'll start to find my way up. I-if you can hear me, send someone down to meet me, with another torch. Please…"
Venus nodded shortly. Ami pointed to a nearby locker, and Venus opened it, pulling out an emergency kit and another pair of torches.
Then Moon cursed again. "Wait a minute, I'm all turned around. Which way is up—?"
"Usagi, no," groaned Artemis.
Moon's voice came again, low and tremulous. "I can see something," she said. "It's not dark. There's a faint glow coming from…somewhere. Very faint, and dim. It's—it's coming from the gap. It's coming from…from behind the blackness—
"Wait. I see. The anomaly—it's an energy field. A force field of some kind. Like a bubble. Hollow. The field isn't quite opaque—it's translucent, I can almost see through it, there's something inside there…something glowing—
"I think it's alive."
Venus threw the door open and sprinted out into the bay. She vanished down into the tunnel.
"I think it's looking at me," Moon whispered. "It sees me…how can it see in the dark? I don't like the dark."
Artemis stared at the communicator. "What are you—" he began incredulously.
"It can't be used to light," said Moon. Her voice was strange: slow, dreamy. "Maybe that's why it's…it's draining everything. I'm cold, Mama." She did not appear to notice the non sequitur. "I'm going to make a light. A bright light. If I could just see it clearly, maybe I could…could…"
"What is she talking about?" demanded Artemis. Knowing it was useless, he shouted, "Princess, leave it! Get out!"
The communicator seemed to ring as Sailor Moon shouted. "MOONFLASH!"
Pluto's eyes snapped wide open. "Oh, no," she said, and vanished.
Suddenly the communicator burst into a roar of sound. Static, surely; white noise at a volume that seemed incredible for such a tiny device. But mixed with it, the listeners almost thought they could hear voices—thousands of voices, calling. Screaming.
Just as suddenly, it stopped, and there was a bare moment's silence. They heard Sailor Moon say clearly, "It is free."
There was a strange splashing sound, like a cup of water being poured out on the ground.
The communicator went dead.
Numbly, Ami stared down at the little unit in her hand. The screen was glowing with a message that she'd hoped she'd never see: a completely automatic signal, horribly clear. TERMINATION. Then that too blinked out.
She tried again and again, knowing it was useless; but the only signal she could pick up now was from Venus, still on her mad, desperate, futile race back down into the Earth.
After a while, the shock wore off enough for her to be able to call Venus and tell her the news.
When Venus returned to the surface, Ami finally transformed to Sailor Mercury—there hadn't been any point before, not until the very end, and by then it was too late—and the two of them teleported, with Artemis, directly into the Palace. It was a breach of protocol, but none of them cared. They materialised in the Throne Room, and immediately saw that they did not need to look any further for the Queen.
Where the twin thrones had stood, there was a sphere of energy, several metres wide. It looked like a huge ball of glass…or perhaps crystal. It was perfectly transparent; it would have been invisible, if its surface had not caught the light and reflected it at a hundred thousand angles.
In the centre of the ball was Queen Serenity. She floated there, curled up in a foetal ball, suspended in mid-air. Her eyes were closed. Her hands were clasped to her breast; there was something glowing held between them. She did not appear to be breathing.
The sphere was surrounded by people, gesturing and talking and arguing. Mars and Endymion and Luna were among them. Venus recognised most of the rest as being personal aides and city officials. They all looked up as she and Sailor Mercury appeared.
Sailor Mars stepped forward to meet them. "I was just about to call you," she said.
"What happened?" Venus demanded. "Is it the attack? Did it hit her too?"
Mars appeared to be controlling herself with an effort. "Actually, as far as we can tell she did it herself," she answered levelly. Then she froze. "Wait. What do you mean, 'too'?"
And then they had to tell them all what had happened to the Princess.
Mercury let Venus do most of the talking. She did not have the stomach to listen for long. When she heard Endymion's incredulous grief, she backed quietly away and went to look at the sphere.
There were no tears in her. Not yet. She was still numb.
She reached out and touched the surface of the globe. It was cool and slick to the touch, but there was a tingle in her fingers. She pressed a little harder. It did not give at all. She filed the information away for later contemplation and turned her attention to the Queen.
From this distance she could make out what Serenity was holding. She hissed in shock at the sight.
The Ginzuishou was cupped in Serenity's hands. It flickered and pulsed madly, like a thing alive, as if some titanic battle were raging in its depths. At times it was incandescent, too bright to look at. At others it seemed almost dead, little more than a many-faceted glass bauble. And now and then, just for an instant, she thought she could see something else: a wink of darkness, a cancerous un-light that stabbed at the centre of the stone, before a new pulse of light drove it out—
"What…?" she breathed.
"It began just before you arrived," said Luna. Mercury glanced down quickly; she had not heard the cat approach. Luna continued, "She was talking to a Finnish party of trade officials. Then suddenly she stood up. She shouted, 'No, don't!' Something like that. Then she screamed, and pulled the Ginzuishou out. It was glowing, but not—not normally. A dark kind of glow. I don't know how to describe it…"
"You're doing fine," said Mercury. "What happened?"
Luna shook her head. She said, "She held it for a few seconds. It looked as though it was hurting her. Then she screamed again. 'No, I won't let you!' And there was a brilliant flash of light, and when we could see again—"
"You saw this," Mercury finished for her. She touched the sphere again. It tingled, as before. "Some kind of protective shield, perhaps."
"How can you be so cold?" someone said from behind her. Mars' voice. "How can you just talk about it so calmly when the Princess is—"
She broke off. There was something odd in her voice. Mercury looked around and saw why. Mars was crying; the tears ran down her cheeks ceaselessly. She did nothing to stop them; she simply stood there and wept. It was one of the most heart-rending things Mercury had ever seen.
The Princess, she realised. Usagi was dead: Small Lady, Chibi-Usa, Sailor Moon…the daughter of Serenity and Endymion, but in many ways a daughter to them all. Gone. Dead.
She wished she could cry too. But she could not. She was not certain that she had the right.
Luna cleared her throat, and she looked down quickly. The cat was outwardly calm, but Mercury suddenly saw how much of an effort it was for her to keep from joining Mars.
"Serenity implied that something was attacking her," Luna said. "Or perhaps, striking at the Ginzuishou itself. Do you think it's connected to what happened to…to the Princess?"
"I would say," said Artemis, "that that is a pretty safe assumption."
Mercury turned away from the sphere. She did not want to look at it any more. She felt suddenly tired. Stress; shock; emotional exhaustion, she thought analytically. She sat down on the dais beside the sphere. She wanted it all to go away. She wanted to stop thinking.
Something hot fell on her hand. She looked down. Amazing. It seemed that she could cry after all.
Above her head, the world rolled on. Venus and Endymion had joined them now. In the background, somebody was clearing all the other people out of the Throne Room. Within an hour, the whole world would know that something had happened to the Queen.
She heard Endymion's voice, though the words did not register. He had stopped crying; now, he sounded as if he were barely controlling his rage.
Rei's voice: sharp, just as angry, snapping something back. Then Artemis, soothing, trying to play the peacemaker. Good luck to him. Mercury had an idea that the time for peace was gone.
Venus' voice was suddenly raised in protest; in spite of herself, Mercury lifted her head to listen. "But how?" Venus burst out. "I thought the Ginzuishou was supposed to be—I don't know, invulnerable! Impervious! What could affect something that powerful?"
Mercury shook her head, and said, "Something new."
"Or something very old," put in Artemis.
She looked at him. "Yes," she admitted.
"Have you called the others?" asked Mars. "If this enemy can affect the Ginzuishou itself…and, oh, God, the Princess…"
Venus shook her head wearily. "Not yet," she said. "But you're right. We're going to want everybody in on this…"
She activated her communicator and started making calls. As it turned out, though, their information was already out-of-date.
Makoto was in Bali when everything went mad. She was lying on the beach, lazing in the sun. It was only the middle of spring, and it had rained earlier, but now the sky was clear, the air warm and humid. A music rom was playing by her side, and she was humming along contentedly, when the first screams began.
She sat up, letting the rom shut off automatically. Some distance down the beach, people were running and shouting. They sounded frightened, but why? Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary—
Then she saw the bodies, and the blood soaking into the sand.
She stared in shock. What had happened, what could possibly have killed them? She stood up and started toward the scene to investigate—
Just a few metres away from her, a man suddenly clutched his head and cried out in pain. Makoto looked around quickly. She took a single step toward him, one hand outstretched to offer help…and froze.
The man's body began to twist and writhe. He shrieked. Bones shattered with a series of muffled cracking sounds. His screams cut off as his skull abruptly deformed into something utterly inhuman.
He tumbled to the sand, obviously dead.
All around her, the same thing was happening to others. Most of them died, thankfully. But a few of them did not. Their transformations continued, and continued. They shifted and warped, screaming in torment all the while. They began to grow. Their skins became hard and glossy…crystalline. When the change was finished at last, she found herself looking at monsters.
They were the size of grizzly bears: squat, powerful, and apparently made out of living glass, but Makoto had the feeling that it would take more than throwing stones to shatter one. They had no heads, but in the centre of their chests were faces, startlingly (shockingly) human-like, their eyes closed, their mouths hanging slackly open. They had four arms. When they walked, she could feel the impact of their footsteps in the sand.
They began to move about. Their targets seemed to be the people who had not changed. Several of them made for her.
She transformed to Sailor Jupiter, just in time. Within three and a half minutes of the first screams, she was fighting for her life. When Venus' call came through, she had no time to spare to answer.
Haruka and Michiru were strolling through an art gallery in Osaka when the madness began. A third of the patrons began to scream and mutate. Most of them died. A few of them became…monstrosities.
Sailors Uranus and Neptune went into action before the first vitrification was complete. Neptune got the remaining people to safety, while Uranus went on the attack. She soon found that, glasslike or not, they were amazingly tough. It was not until Neptune returned and joined in the attack that she managed to make any headway.
Their combined attacks were enough to destroy the things, thankfully. They were just polishing off the last one when Uranus' communicator bleeped. She answered it somewhat testily.
"Just fine, thanks," she said to Venus' orders to report in. "Couldn't be better. A nice romantic outing, a few glass monsters, a bunch of dead people, the day just couldn't be better. Oh, and how are you?"
"Monsters?" Venus sounded disconcerted. "This may be more widespread than I thought. Uranus, we have major trouble back here—"
"Here, too," interrupted Neptune. Uranus looked up at her, surprised, and she pointed to a nearby window. Uranus glanced out, and her eyes widened.
The street was filled with more of the glass creatures. All of them seemed to be heading directly toward the gallery.
Uranus let out a whistle. "We're going to need reinforcements for this one," she said. Neptune nodded. The two of them linked hands and teleported to Crystal Tokyo.
The question was not whether reinforcement were needed, but rather where to reinforce.
They held a council of war in the Throne Room. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Uranus, Neptune and Endymion were present. Serenity was in the room, but none of them could tell if she was hearing them or not. Jupiter was still in Bali—they had had a short, hurried message from her that spoke of the same kind of monsters that Uranus and Neptune had met. Unfortunately, Serenity, Venus and Pluto were still the only ones who could teleport alone; the rest of them needed to be in at least pairs. Jupiter was on her way, but it might take her an hour or two to get there.
Pluto did not answer her communicator. Nobody knew where she was.
With reports of attacks in two places already, Rei did a little investigation. The results were shocking. Reports were coming in of similar occurrences in other places. A great many other places. Kyoto, Sapporo, Nagasaki, Kagoshima…and Beijing, Calcutta, Johannesburg, Rome, London, Montreal, Los Angeles, Sydney…
It was everywhere.
Some newscasters were calling it the Glass Plague. Others spoke of the Madness. Countless thousands of people were dead already. And everywhere, the monsters roamed the streets, destroying.
Clearly, precisely, Mercury explained what had happened. She made no attempt to conceal her own guilt in the matter. "I've been able to check the timing pretty accurately," she said. "These glass creatures began to appear just a few seconds after Sailor Moon d-died," she said. Nobody said anything about the stumble. Mercury's face was pale and there were dark shadows under her eyes, but she was holding together. "The overwhelming probability is that there's a connection," she went on. "Whoever—or whatever is down there must be responsible for the creatures."
"What do you think it is?" asked Endymion quietly.
Mercury shrugged. "Some kind of alien life-form, I would assume," she said. "The energy barrier Sailor Moon spoke of could have been a type of protective stasis field—"
"Or a prison," said Uranus grimly.
Mercury looked startled. "Yes, perhaps," she said. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Does it really matter?" demanded Luna. "Our first priority has to be helping the Queen. Nothing's more important than that!"
"Actually, I disagree," said Neptune calmly. "The Queen is safe, for now. Our first priority needs to be stopping the enemy. Destroying it, if necessary."
"How?" demanded Artemis. "Do you want to go down and attack it in person? It can drain a torch, remember. I hope you like fighting in the dark—"
"There are other kinds of torches," said Mars, her voice cold. "Simple wooden ones, if necessary. I'd like to see it drain a flame."
"What if it can?" asked Venus.
"Do you have any better ideas?" Mars flared up.
"Actually, I have a thought," put in Endymion unexpectedly. They all turned to look at him. "How smooth is the floor of that tunnel? And how steep is it?"
Venus raised her eyebrows. "Pretty smooth, and pretty steep," she said. "I can tell you that from experience."
"Twenty point three six degrees," added Mercury. Then she flushed. "Sorry."
"What are you getting at?" demanded Uranus.
"I was thinking of rolling bombs down," Endymion said. His voice was quiet and composed, as if he were discussing the weather.
Uranus stared at him, half in admiration. "You what?"
He looked up at her. "That thing down there killed my daughter," he said simply. For just a moment, the calm veneer cracked, and she recoiled from the look in his eye: a smouldering, murderous cauldron of grief and rage that threatened dire vengeance on anyone who got in his way.
"Could it be done?" Venus asked Mercury.
Mercury thought about it. "Yes, I should think so," she said after a moment. "It would take a day or so to build—the bomb would have to be carefully shaped, and I'd have to shock-proof it—we wouldn't be able to set it off remotely, so it would have to be a timed fuse…"
"Don't bother," said Luna.
Endymion gave her a hard look. "Why not?" he asked dangerously.
"Just send the bore back down," she suggested. "It should go a lot faster through a ready-made tunnel. Only this time, don't stop it when it gets to the anomaly."
They thought about it. Mars, Uranus and Endymion began to smile. Artemis shook his head. "Did anyone ever tell you you have a vicious streak?" he asked Luna.
"It killed Princess Usagi," she said quietly.
He looked away for a moment. "I've been trying not to think about it," he admitted. "It's too…too big. I can't…" His voice broke for a moment. "She's gone, and we don't even have time to mourn her," he went on at last. "It's not…not…"
"Not fair," said Endymion softly. "No. It's not fair." He took a deep breath, then stood up and shifted into his armour. "Sailor Venus, please consider me under your command for the duration of this crisis," he requested.
Venus nodded. "Thank you," she said. She looked at him sidelong for a second, and then added, "In that case, my first order is: don't go off half-cocked. You are not to go taking private action, understand? If you're going to be part of the team, you are to act as part of the team."
He took it fairly well, all things considered; he gave her a single mute nod and then sat back down.
"That goes for the rest of you, too," Venus went on, glaring around at the others. "This is too big to go playing those kinds of games. Understand?" One by one, they nodded back at her.
"All right," she said, relaxing a little. "Mercury, get onto that bore right away. It sounds like our best shot for now. Can you program it to do what we want? I suppose you won't be able to steer it by remote control."
"Not with the signal jamming," agreed Mercury. "Give me half an hour to reprogram the onboard computers. I'll set it to—"
Venus waved her silent. "Tell me the details later," she said. "Just get started. Mars, get back to the communications centre. See if you can get me a better picture of what's happening. Uranus, Neptune, take a flyer and have a look around in the city. Keep an eye open for any of those monsters. Take care of them if you see any."
"And if we run into too many of them to handle?" asked Neptune with a faint smile.
Venus looked her straight in the eye. "Deal with it," she said.
Uranus grinned. "Gotcha." She and Neptune left quickly.
"What about me?" asked Endymion quietly.
Venus nodded. "You'll act as backup, for now. Be ready to move out if Haruka and Michiru run into trouble. In the meantime, see if you can get hold of Makoto, and get an update from her. And…" She hesitated. "Try and find Sailor Pluto. You're Serenity's consort, she may pay more attention to you."
"Do you really think so?" He looked amused.
Venus did not. "It's worth a try. Also—" She wrinkled her brow, looking around the room. "Has anybody seen Diana?"
Luna looked up. "She ran off when she heard about Usagi. I think she was going to—" She stopped suddenly. "Well, that doesn't matter now," she went on after a moment. "I don't think you need to worry about her, though."
Artemis gave her a puzzled look. "Where—"
"I'll tell you some other time," she snapped.
"All right, enough chatter," Venus ordered. "Let's get going, everyone. Move out!" She watched as they left. In a few moments, there were only herself, the cats, and the unmoving Serenity left.
"What are you going to be doing?" asked Luna curiously.
"Going to the borehead, I think," she said absently, gazing down at the Queen. "I wish…"
She knelt suddenly by the sphere, looking into her still face. "Dammit, Serenity!" she whispered. "First the Black Moon, now this! Why do you always have to be immobilised when we need you the most?"
She stayed there for some time, waiting for an answer that never came. In the Queen's hands, the Ginzuishou continued to pulse and flicker, echoing some titanic inner struggle. She could only guess at what Serenity was going through, locked in that bubble.
Then she realised that something had changed. The Queen's eyes had been closed, before. Now they were open. They stared sightlessly up at the ceiling, but they were open.
She stared for a moment. Then she whispered aloud, "She's alive. She's alive."
Until that moment she had not realised how much she had been afraid that the Queen was dead. She lay there, so still and calm; the only sign of life at all was the flickering of the Ginzuishou in her hands. But now, there was no doubt.
She lifted a hand to touch the sphere for a moment. "Hold on," she murmured. "Just hold on. We'll get you out of this. I promise."
After a little, she could bear to turn away. She took a deep breath, and looked down at Luna and Artemis. "I'm going to the borehead," she told them. "Contact me if anything changes." Then she sped off.
The two cats exchanged glances; then, with a shrug, Artemis followed her.
Venus and Artemis arrived just as Mercury gave the bore's onboard computer the last of its instructions. She swung the access panels closed and re-sealed the heat shielding carefully, then ran back into the control room.
Her assistants watched her uneasily as she began to power up the control and monitoring stations. Distantly, she realised that this was probably the first time they'd seen her in her Senshi form, at least up-close. She didn't transform often, these days.
Down in the bay, the bore lurched forward. For several seconds it halted at the mouth of the hole, grinding slowly back and forward, aligning itself with the hole. Then it started forward once more, slowly passing out of sight. A jet of fine dust shot out of the rear port behind it.
Mercury sat back, satisfied. She turned and saw Venus, who raised an eyebrow. "It will take about three hours to reach the anomaly," Mercury said firmly. "I've programmed it to ignite its flame two hundred metres short of that point, or if it detects anything out of the ordinary in the tunnel. When it's gone two hundred metres past the anomaly, it will stop and return to the surface again."
"You'll be monitoring it, I assume," said Venus. "When do you expect to lose contact with it?"
Mercury shrugged. "If I had any idea what's causing the loss of signals from below…" She shook her head.
"All right." Venus thought for a moment. "Do you need to be here, or can your assistants handle things for now? If you can get away, I want you do take a better look at the Queen. See if you can find some way to shield the Ginzuishou."
"Yes, of course." Mercury glanced around. "Artemis, can you keep an eye on things here? Contact me if anything happens."
Artemis nodded. As the two left—not quite at a run, but moving fast—he hopped up onto one of the monitoring stations and settled down where he could see the displays. It would be a while before he could expect anything to happen, he knew. But if everything went well, this was where the battle would be won, in just a few short hours…
Sailor Mars cursed to herself, silently but steadily, as she went through report after report in the Palace communications centre. The madness had begun only two hours ago, but already the messages showed that this was the biggest disaster since the Black Moon invasion, centuries ago. Maybe the biggest ever.
It struck everywhere, but not with equal strength. More people were affected in large population centres, of course; but still, the ratios were not the same. In smaller, rural areas, the change struck down barely one in twenty. In larger cities it was double that. In a few areas, it was nearly one in six. Was there any pattern? She did not have enough data…
Ami would be able to make more sense of this, she realised. But Sailor Mercury had other priorities right now; and in any case, Rei had gotten very good with reports and statistics over the last few centuries.
(Rei the bureaucrat! The others wondered why she'd taken such a role, she knew. Well, let them wonder. But she thought sometimes that maybe, just maybe, Serenity understood.)
The timing was strange. The plague had struck everywhere, more or less simultaneously—and then stopped. There was one single, massive wave of changes, and then nothing. A few scattered reports of belated metamorphoses, but they were well within the margin of error. Had the plague somehow used up everyone who could be affected?
She began to plot all outbreaks of the Glass Plague on a world map. It appeared to cover the entire globe; even the undersea habitats had been hit. There were no reports of it from the orbital colonies or anything further out, which was interesting. There were major concentrations in all the cities, of course—
Then she saw one glaring inconsistency, and wondered how she could have missed it before. She almost broke her thumb, activating her communicator to call Venus.
Sailor Jupiter fired off one last Oak Evolution, reducing the glass-like monster before her to splinters. She sagged back against a nearby wall, exhausted. She had been fighting for nearly two hours, almost non-stop. The creatures were everywhere. They seemed to follow her. Wherever she went, more turned up. She'd killed—she'd lost count of how many of them she'd killed.
And all of them used to be innocent people. But she couldn't afford to think about that. She was fighting for her life. If only she'd gotten them all…if only she could stop to catch her breath…
No such luck. The familiar thud-thud-thud of their footsteps came again, from behind her. The wall at her back shuddered, the impact sending her reeling away. Then the stone burst open, and two more of the monsters stalked through toward her.
Sooner or later we're going to have to work out what to call these things, she thought irrationally. Then there was no more time for thought.
They didn't just rely on strength and toughness. They could move quite fast, for all their bulk, and some of them had other attacks. There was a kind of whirling cloud that they could produce, that she'd learned to watch out for. It looked like a puff of dust, but it could eat right through solid stone without slowing down, and she didn't want to find out what it would do to flesh.
She managed to blast an arm off one of them. It didn't seem to notice; it threw a massive punch at her that would have caved in her ribs if it had connected. She flung herself back, just in time, and fired her Echo Convulsion attack at the other one. The multiple arcs of energy danced about it for a second, then collapsed inward, piercing it from every direction at once and shivering it to pieces. She shouted in triumph—and realised her mistake an instant later as a new blow from the first monster clipped her in the side, knocking her flying.
There were black spots dancing before her eyes as she levered herself up again. The Convulsion attack had taken more energy than she could afford; she was close to passing out. She was pretty sure that blow had broken a rib or two, as well. But she had to keep going—the last monster was right on top of her—
There was a whooshing sound, and a loud explosion. Almost deafened, she looked around wildly. The monster was staggering back. There was a crater in its chest, and half of another arm was missing. What—?
"Are you all right, Ma'am?" somebody shouted in English. They must have been shouting, for her to hear it at all. Her ears were ringing. She glanced about, and saw a young man with the missile launcher over his shoulder. He was wearing a uniform that she recognised.
I'll be damned, she thought wildly. So Australia does have a secret base in Bali. I'll have to tell Endymion…
A moment later, and the soldier was gone from the waist up. The vortex of crystal shards chewed him apart in a fraction of a second, leaving nothing but a bloody shower of shredded flesh behind. Jupiter cried out in fury, and fired her Supreme Thunder—all she had left—at the glass monster.
It was enough…barely. The monster shattered, even as Jupiter sagged back, all strength gone from her limbs. Two hours of combat shouldn't have exhausted her like this. Normally, though, she'd be fighting with the others; their backup and support would ease the load, let her even out the drain so she could keep going. But all on her own like this…
There were footsteps around her. Not heavy ones; these were lighter…human. She opened her eyes once more, took a deep breath, and managed to stand up.
"Lieutenant," she said in English to the leader of the little troop standing around her. With a wry grin, she went on, "Under the circumstances, I think that Crystal Tokyo may be prepared to turn a blind eye to any…er, activities that Australia may be conducting in Bali."
The attempt at humour fell flat. "With respect, Ma'am, I think that's kind of irrelevant now," he answered heavily. He was dirty and he looked tired. There were burn-marks on his uniform. She hadn't been the only one fighting, she realised.
She nodded, her own grin fading. "Yes, I suppose so," she replied. "Lieutenant, do you have transport? I need to get back to Japan as quickly as possible."
He rubbed grime from his forehead uneasily. "Well, not exactly, Ma'am," he answered. "Actually, that's sort of the problem."
Then he showed her why.
The vehicles were flying by themselves. They floated to and fro through the streets of Singaraja, moving with a silent, eerie precision. There were no people at the controls; as far as she could see, all of them were completely empty.
"That isn't possible," she whispered. "The safety interlocks should—"
"That's not all," the lieutenant replied, equally softly. "Watch this." He picked up a pebble and tossed it toward one of the flyers. His aim was good; but as the stone came within a few centimetres of its target, there was a sudden, brilliant flash of light. Jupiter heard a splinter fly past her ear, and there was a sharp crack from somewhere far behind.
"Some of my techs think it's an energy spike from the liftor field," the Lieutenant said grimly. "It's all gibberish to me. But if anybody tries to touch those things, they get hurt." He shrugged, making a disgusted face. Then, eyeing her slyly, he added, "Unless you can—?"
Jupiter echoed his head-shake, grinning mirthlessly. Blow one up, probably. Disarm it? Nuh-uh. Her talents didn't run in those directions.
She turned her attention back to the flyers. It was an unnerving sight. She could not help thinking that there was a strange, unseen purpose in the way they moved.
"But what are they doing?" she muttered.
When Endymion called her a little later, she had to report that she would be delayed in leaving Bali.
"There aren't any of those things in Crystal Tokyo at all," said Mars urgently.
Venus had been standing at Mercury's side, watching silently as the latter methodically scanned the Queen. At Mars' words, though, she looked up sharply. Mercury glanced up for a moment as well, then returned to her work, the visor over her eyes alive with flickering readouts.
"None?" Venus said, frowning.
"No reports at all. There are millions of those things, all over the world, everywhere I check. But none in Crystal Tokyo."
"Millions of—?" Venus blinked. Then she tapped her communicator. "Sailor Uranus, are you there?" she asked.
"Here," came the reply a moment later. "Minako-chan, you're not going to believe this—"
"You aren't seeing any of those things, right?"
There was a pause. "How did you know?" asked Uranus suspiciously.
"A little bird told me. You and Michiru had better head back in. This isn't going to be fun." Venus deactivated her communicator. Her face was grim.
Mars could see the implications as well. "If there aren't any here, then we have to go out of Crystal Tokyo to fight them. And that leaves the city undefended."
"Especially with Serenity out of action," finished Venus. She glanced at Mercury, who was still at work with her computer, and shook her head. "If that bore doesn't stop this thing…"
Endymion walked in at that moment, his armour clinking faintly. "I got hold of Sailor Jupiter," he announced. "She's run into a problem; she can't come back. At least not right away."
Venus sighed. "Wonderful, let's have the bad news all at once. What's gone wrong now?"
He explained quickly, not bothering to mention the identity of the people Jupiter was with. Before, they would have been his business as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Japan. Now, as Jupiter had pointed out, the issue hardly seemed relevant.
Venus swore. "I'd better teleport over, bring her back."
"It might be better to let her stay," he suggested. "She sounded confident enough—said she was with some other people who'd rounded up weapons from somewhere. And she said she wanted to find out what the vehicles are doing. Where they're going."
Venus hesitated for a few seconds. "All right," she said at last. "We need information more than anything else right now. Tell her to call for a pick-up if there's any trouble. We can't to afford to lose any more—" She stopped suddenly, seeing Endymion's face. "Sorry," she muttered.
Mars was more thoughtful. "First people…now vehicles," she murmured. "What next? What else can it control?"
Something nagged at the back of her mind, but she could not place it.
Artemis sat watching the instrument readouts in the borehead control room. One of Ami's assistants had shown him what everything meant. (The man had been rather nervous, talking to a cat. Even after all this time, Artemis still got that reaction from humans. In other circumstances, it might have been funny.)
The numbers on the monitor ticked by steadily. Everything was going very smoothly.
"Well?" asked Neptune. "What have you found?"
Mercury flipped her visor back up, rising and stepping back from the Queen. "I can't tell much," she confessed. "The energy extends far beyond the shell that we can see. The whole Throne Room is saturated with the power of the Ginzuishou. Maybe the whole Palace. If it were dark, we'd almost be able to see the air glowing."
Uranus whistled in surprise.
"That, and the sphere itself, is blocking my scans rather effectively," Mercury went on. "I can detect that some kind of struggle is going on in the heart of the crystal. But—" She shook her head slowly, looking worried. "I can't find any trace of what Serenity's fighting against. It's as if the energy of the Ginzuishou is all turned against itself, somehow."
"But Serenity said 'I won't let you do it'," Luna pointed out. "That certainly suggests that she could feel somebody else attacking her."
"She's always been attuned to the Ginzuishou," said Mars. "It's not surprising that she'd be able to sense things Ami can't." She tightened her lips. "Maybe we should just get her out of here. The orbital habitats haven't been affected; if we teleport her there, say to the L-22 station—"
Mercury was shaking her head. "There's too much power. The sphere is blocking the attack, but it blocks us, too. She'd have to drop her barrier for us to move her—"
"And we can't even get to her to ask her to do it," finished Uranus sourly. "Damn it…she might as well be sealed in crystal all over again…"
"How sure are you that the shield is hers, and not the Enemy's?" asked Neptune. "And how long can she keep it up, before she drains herself to a dangerous level?"
Mercury sighed. "There is no safe level for this kind of thing," she said. "Oh, it's Serenity doing it, all right. The force pattern is unmistakable. The Ginzuishou has a fractal lattice; it extends into multiple dimensions, on a resolution that may approach the infinite—" She broke off, shaking her head. "No. Never mind that. She won't drain herself, anyway, or not in the way you're thinking. Serenity's linked her own life force to the Ginzuishou. She's pouring everything she has into it. At the same time, though, she shares its resources. She could stay like that for a year, or a thousand years, and not run out of strength. Though what would be left of her once she broke contact would be—"
She shivered suddenly. "And all that power is just barely enough to resist the attack," she added in a low voice. "You can see the struggle in the Ginzuishou's light. Some of the Enemy's influence is breaking through, and all she can do is interpose herself to protect it…"
"Then we'll just have to remove the attacker," stated Venus firmly. "The bore's on its way, and once it arrives this will all be over. Right, Ami-chan?"
Mercury checked the time. "It should reach the anomaly in another half an hour," she said. "Perhaps we should head over to the borehead—"
The ground shook.
"What the hell was that?" demanded Mars, keeping her feet with difficulty. Across the room, several ornaments toppled to the floor with a crash of breaking glass.
Mercury did not answer. She was looking out the window. There was a bright light shining down in the city, ruddy-gold. As she watched, it was hidden by a pillar of smoke.
The windows burst inward as the sound of the explosion reached them.
A bell chimed softly in the borehead control room. After a second, it sounded again.
Artemis looked around, stretching. "What was that?" he asked idly.
One of Ami's assistants, a tall, gaunt man with a receding hairline, looked puzzled. "I'm not sure," he said. "It sounded like—"
The bell chimed.
Another assistant checked an indicator light, which had begun to flash steadily. "That can't be right," she muttered.
"The proximity alarm?" said the first man. "Don't be silly. That would mean the bore's about to arrive back at the surface." Frowning, he checked the other readouts. They indicated that the bore was operating normally, still on its way down. He flipped a switch below the proximity indicator, to no avail. He began to flick it on and off, the frown growing. "Some kind of malfunction," he grumbled.
The alarm rang.
Artemis stared at the display in front of him. All the readings were normal—perfectly normal. But the bell…His fur was all standing on end. He added several and several together and got—
"We've got to get out of here," he said.
The woman stared at him. "What—?" she began.
"It's the bore!" Artemis shouted. "It's been taken over! It's going to arrive here any moment now, with the flame still going, and it's not going to stop when it gets to that bay down there!"
The two of them simply stood there, open-mouthed. The man's adam's apple bobbed up and down convulsively.
Artemis looked him firmly in the eye and said, very quietly, "If we don't get out now, we are going to die."
They began to move. Slowly, oh, far too slowly, but they began to move at last. He bit back an incredulous oath when he saw what they were doing. The man stepped to the door and hovered in it uncertainly, looking back at the controls. The woman…sat at her console, and began to check the readings one last time.
Artemis ran. Hating himself, he left them to their fate and ran. He could wait no longer; he was probably too late already. He wanted to curse their stupidity; he wanted to curse himself for abandoning them. Instead he simply ran, and hoped that he would still be alive tomorrow to feel guilty.
He went what he hoped was a safe distance, then paused and looked back. There was a faint noise coming from somewhere, just at the limit of hearing but steadily growing. The ground was beginning to tremble under his paws. Back in the doorway, he could see the two of them, coming out of the doorway at last. They were running, but too slowly. Far, far too slowly.
The trembling was still growing. Suddenly terrified, he turned and began to run again, with a speed born of desperation.
The bore site became a column of fire. The blast caught him and flung him head-first into a wall and he knew no more.
Eventually, the city's emergency services got the fires under control. The Senshi helped out as best they could. Quite a few people in the area around the explosion had survived, trapped in the ruins.
Uranus was the one to find Artemis. She carried him to the hospital herself, holding the limp body tenderly in her arms. The doctors were startled at their new charge, but did their best. Mercury arrived a little later to lend her considerable experience. He was badly hurt, but would survive.
By eleven o'clock that night, the situation was enough under control for Venus to be able to check out the bore site itself. It was buried in a vast pile of wreckage. She gave the order to start clearing it away, but she doubted that it would do any good. If the bore had returned to the surface with its flame running, the borehole would be melted shut. The anomaly was inaccessible.
So ended the first day.
Crystal Tokyo was a city under siege.
By dawn on the day after Usagi's death, it was already clear that the glass creatures were on the move. None of the Senshi were really surprised to hear that they were headed straight for Crystal Tokyo.
At first there were only a few of them. The crystites—a newscaster in the United States had dubbed them that, and unfortunately the name had stuck—travelled slowly, and not many of them had been in the vicinity of the city to start with. But hour by hour, more arrived. They were tireless, and unrelenting.
The Senshi destroyed the first of them to arrive with ease. On their own, they were not much of a challenge. Their numbers increased steadily, however; and they kept coming from all directions. Gradually, the pressure increased, and some of them began to slip through the gaps.
Long ago, after the Nemesis Invasion, a comprehensive defence system had been built to protect Crystal Tokyo; but in the centuries since then, the city had spread far beyond them. Now, the perimeter of Crystal Tokyo was far too large for five Senshi and one Prince to protect. There was a near-disaster, with more than fifty people killed, when the crystites began to cross Tokyo Bay. The water did not seem to affect them; they simply walked across the seabed.
The Palace Guard was mobilised almost immediately: the first time they had been issued with live weapons, other than in training, for years. They were primarily an exhibition unit—Serenity had little use for soldiers—but they were the only armed force the city had, or, in quieter times, needed. Their casualties were high to begin with, but the survivors learned fast.
Ordinary weapons did not have much effect on the crystites. Most energy weapons were almost useless. Ami experimented briefly with ultrasonic attacks; but while the crystites were slowed briefly, they were otherwise unaffected. Artillery could destroy them. So could concentrated fire with high-impact, armour-piercing rounds, if kept up for long enough; but the crystites could move fast enough that it was difficult to keep them targeted for long enough. Landmines also met with some limited success, but a heavy charge was needed do enough damage. The city's supply of ammunition, limited to begin with, began to fall with alarming speed.
Venus tried to bring in more supplies; but the first time they sent out a flyer to bring in a cache of ammunition, it fell under the Enemy's control as soon as it passed beyond the limits of Serenity's power. The pilot was killed instantly. Mars, Uranus and Neptune, working together, did manage to teleport the supplies in; but the effort exhausted them, and as a long-term solution it was clearly useless.
In any case, they were not the only ones who needed the ammunition.
Only the crystites in the surrounding regions were heading for Crystal Tokyo. Elsewhere, they moved around on their own mysterious errands—as incomprehensible and unpredictable as the vehicles, all over the world, that now moved according to the Enemy's will. The crystites generally ignored surviving humans, as long as they were alone. Groups of three or more people were almost always attacked. So was anybody who was seen carrying anything—even something as innocent as a piece of paper.
Resistance groups were springing up all over the world, with gratifying speed. Mars organised a communications centre to try and coordinate them, offering advice and spreading word on any tactics that worked against the crystites.
Not many tactics did work; and they never worked twice. The enemy learned fast.
The Senshi teleported all around the world, meeting resistance leaders and helping where they could. Some heartening victories were won. But always, after a defeat, more crystites simply began to move in from other areas until the loss had been made up.
Furthermore, Mars began to receive reports that the Enemy was controlling more than just vehicles. All kinds of machinery were working by themselves. The reports suggested that the crystites and the machines were working together to build something, but details were maddeningly vague. Spy cameras failed to operate, and anyone who physically approached the building sites was killed. Mercury, Mars and Endymion teleported to a site and tried to break in, so that Mercury could examine what was happening; but the mission was a disastrous failure. They had expected a strong defence, but, faced with a dual assault from both the crystites and the machinery, they were lucky to escape with their lives.
The subversion of the machines caused a new problem. The world had mostly been at peace for many years, and there were few arms, and little ammunition, anywhere. Now, there was no way of making more. The initial victories won by the rebels were soon reversed, and no more followed.
After the debacle when the crystites crossed Tokyo Bay, Venus tried to contact Sailor Jupiter again. There was no reply. She teleported over to Bali immediately, and found traces of a major battle, and an area littered with bodies and the remains of destroyed crystites. Of Jupiter herself there was no sign.
The defence of Crystal Tokyo was holding—barely. When the crystite attacks began to cause heavy casualties, the Inner Senshi came together and prepared to raise the force shield that they had used during the Nemesis invasion. To their shock, they could not do it. The shield refused to form at all.
Instead, they had to resort to more physical defences. A wall around the city was under construction, and growing with gratifying speed. A team of engineers had designed a new weapon: a railgun that accelerated and fired needle-sized metal slivers at hundreds of kilometres a second. A direct hit would destroy a crystite; but the weapons were difficult to build and too big to be carried, and the rate of fire was poor. Still, they helped stem the tide for now.
The borehole, as Venus had feared, was sealed shut. She put a crew to work carving it open again, but activity came to a halt when the workmen began to suffer strange injuries. Some of them looked exactly like the organic fusing that had struck down the worker in the tunnel. The men would have worked on anyway—they knew how much was at stake—but Venus pulled them off and grimly set them to work on a more direct route: a vertical tunnel, directly over the location of the anomaly. As Mercury pointed out, going straight down meant they would only have to dig a third as far. Before long hundreds of people were at work over a steadily-deepening pit.
Sailor Mercury herself examined the railgun design and made a few suggestions, and supervised the progress of the new excavation; but her main work was elsewhere. She was helping defend the city, of course, fighting with the other Senshi. Most of her time, though, was spent on two projects: trying to find a way to block the Enemy's control of the crystites and the machines, and trying to find a way to shield Serenity and the Ginzuishou.
Nothing seemed to work. She developed batteries of new devices intended to scan through the interference caused by the Ginzuishou's power. At one time, the entire Throne Room was filled with banks of equipment. But as before, she could not even detect the Enemy's attack taking place, let alone find any way to block it. She did eventually announce that the aura of power that extended out from Serenity's bubble spread far beyond the palace, and was what protected the city from the Enemy's control—and what prevented the Senshi from raising their own force shield.
They were left with little choice but to fight. So many other possibilities had already failed. They could not teleport the Queen away. Physically transporting her was equally impossible; the bubble around the queen was utterly immovable. For a time, they had hopes of evacuating the city; but when a lander from one of the orbital habitats did try to reach Crystal Tokyo, it fell under the Enemy's influence while still beyond the atmosphere, and was destroyed during reentry. The Senshi themselves could have left, but that was not an option that any of them were prepared to consider.
In spite of Mercury's warnings, Venus finally gave in to the others' pleas and allowed them to try to teleport down to the anomaly. Mercury supplied coordinates, and insisted on joining the attempt. It was a disastrous failure. They hit some kind of barrier, deep underground, with blinding force, and rebounded in horrible pain. Venus and Uranus, struggling to stay conscious, managed to materialise the others back on the surface; but the others were senseless for hours. The new tunnel remained their best chance of reaching the Enemy.
There was nowhere to turn to for help. With Pluto gone, sending to the past—or even the future—was impossible. Seeking aid from outside the solar system was equally futile; Kinmoku, like many other worlds with Senshi defenders, had been devastated in the new wars that racked the galaxy after Galaxia began to restore the damage she had done. Endymion tried to reach Elysion, but found it shielded by the same kind of barrier that protected the anomaly. He materialised back in the palace throne room, dazed and wracked with pain. Crystal Tokyo was on its own.
After several unsuccessful tries, Uranus and Neptune managed to capture a crystite alive. As they brought it into the city, though, it exploded violently. Other crystites had entered Crystal Tokyo before, during any number of attacks, so they were forced to conclude that the enemy had destroyed it deliberately. They were willing to try again, but Venus forbade any further attempts, for the time being.
Serenity herself continued her own unending battle. She floated, untouchable, in the centre of her force bubble, the Ginzuishou held to her heart. Her eyes were closed again. Sometimes the flickering in the Ginzuishou's depths seemed to slow and fade, as if the Enemy were abandoning the attack, or turning its attention to other things. At those times they sometimes saw the Queen's eyelids flicker, as if she were close to waking up. The attack always resumed after a short time, though; and the Queen fought on: grimly, silently and endlessly.
Mars wanted them all to link with her, to join their strength to hers as they had done before. When they tried it, they found that they could not penetrate her shell. To let them in to join with her, she would have had to lower her barrier; but doing so would let the Enemy in too, and that would be the end of it…
Still, the defence continued. Every entrance to the city was blocked off now, and there was no shortage of volunteers to protect the walls. Uranus and Neptune spent endless hours training new recruits. The railguns were an important help, too. The Senshi sent the plans out all over the world, and even managed to teleport a few to resistance groups outside the city, but the guns were too big to deliver in quantity, and Crystal Tokyo was the only place left that had the machinery to make them.
Beyond the defence perimeter, the crystites gathered.
Mars looked up when Michiru came in to relieve her, and let her transformation lapse with a sigh. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep.
"Bad night?" Michiru asked.
"Bad enough," Rei said wearily. She stifled a yawn.
Michiru did not press the question. She knew how it would have been. Floodlights lit up the ground all around the barricades, so that the crystites could not approach under cover of darkness. Volunteers kept a ceaseless lookout. Often they had only a split second to warn of an attack; the crystites' whirling clouds of razor-sharp shards were deadly from a considerable distance. Lookout was a high-risk position. There were teams working around the clock to get every approach monitored electronically, but it would be another week before they were finished.
When an assault came, the action would be savage and furious. The roar of the railguns opening fire. The sharp cracks of more conventional gunfire, and the thunder of artillery. And, where the action was thickest—always, where the danger was greatest—the cries of the Senshi launching their attacks.
Perhaps the worst of it was a fact that they never discussed, but which none of them could forget: that every crystite they destroyed was another innocent human life lost. It could not be helped, they had no real choice; but still, in her heart Rei suspected that if Serenity were awake, she would find a way to save them. Sometimes Rei dreamed of an endless sea of faces, all staring at her reproachfully. Then she would get up and go and fight some more.
All night, and all day. But for now, Mars' watch was over; now, Mars could go back to being Rei, and try to get a few hours sleep. In her place, Michiru would become Sailor Neptune and take her own turn under the grindstone.
(They had to detransform, to get any sleep at all. It was hard to relax in Senshi form during a crisis; some kind of instinct, perhaps. And lately, they'd had nothing but crisis.)
"Bad enough," Rei repeated. She glanced up at Michiru. "Sato in the comms centre says they've lost contact with another six resistance groups."
That did provoke a wince. Going out of contact could mean a lot of things, but usually it only meant one.
Michiru nodded slowly, her lips tight. "Anything new happen?" she asked.
Rei shrugged. "Nothing important." The corner of her mouth quirked suddenly. "There was a message from L-117. They say they've solved all our problems. They've designed an orbital laser cannon. They want Ami to check it over."
Michiru snorted in exasperation. "How many crystites at a time do they think they can hit? How accurately do they think they can aim it?"
"Oh, it's even better than that. I had a look at the specifications myself. They'd left out the power consumption figures." Michiru began to grin, and Rei smirked back. "Right. It'd take more power crystals than the whole city of Crystal Tokyo uses."
Michiru laughed. It was black humour—joking about flaws in a plan that was supposed to save them all—but lately, black humour was all they had. "At least they're trying," she said.
"Yeah, I suppose so." Rei leaned back. "If they could build a laser cannon that easily, they might as well forget shooting monsters and use it to help us drill that damned pit."
"Wouldn't that be convenient?" Michiru gestured toward the monitoring station, and Rei stood up obediently, letting her sit down. "I checked on the way in," she added. "They're down to three hundred metres."
Rei nodded. "Not bad," she said. "All things considered." She started toward the door, stretching. "I've got to get some sleep."
"Good luck," Michiru said ironically.
Rei made a rude gesture and opened the door—and the alarm sounded, and she was back at the monitors, her eyes wide open, in a heartbeat. "Where?" she rapped. "How many?" Unspoken was the question, Do you need me to stay?
Michiru was already tapping up the display. "North-east," she said. "Hibari district." She bit off a curse. "Two or three hundred of them."
"Let's go." Rei was out the door, running. Michiru followed her an instant later.
They transformed wordlessly on the way out to the flyer. They could have teleported to the attack point, perhaps; but neither had the strength to spare. (A full, unbroken night's sleep was almost a forgotten dream.) They would need all their energy for fighting.
As their flyer neared the wall, they were joined by Mercury, in a flyer of her own. Her face was drawn and weary, but she looked alert. Good. They could use the help.
The guns had already opened fire. There were three railguns covering this direction: more than a lot of the perimeter had. They made an eerie humming sound as the accelerators charged, followed by an earsplitting crack when they launched. The shots moved so fast that they were ignited by friction; they looked like streaks of white flame. Shots that missed did not come down again.
Mars jumped out of the flyer before it had stopped moving. The other two followed her an instant later. The three of them leaped up to the top of the wall, keeping low to avoid the razor-sharp return fire.
They risked a quick look out over the battlefield. The crystites were approaching the defence perimeter in a wedge formation: not too tightly packed, so that a single shot could take out more than one at a time, but closely enough that those further back had reasonable cover. Their tactics were slowly improving.
The guns were not having much effect; crystites were falling, but slowly. The three Senshi exchanged glances. "Freeze and shatter?" suggested Mars. The other two nodded.
It was a fairly basic move. Neptune produced water and Mercury froze it, chilling the crystites. Then Mars used her flame, and the sudden temperature difference shattered them. An elementary combination, but one that worked well from a distance, and one that could, ideally, hit a lot of the enemy at once.
But they couldn't keep it up forever; that kind of wide-area attack took a lot of energy from all of them, and they were tired to begin with…
Before long, as always, they were down off the wall, and fighting up close. Up close and dirty, with no time to think or plan, only react; dodge and weave and strike, and know that the others were doing the same. Alone, against these odds, they would have died quickly; but working together, protecting each other's backs, they could fight off vastly superior numbers—as long as they stayed close together. At this range, too, they could use their older, lower-powered attacks to devastating effect.
So they fought. Neptune was poetry in motion, as always; she moved with cool poise and grace, her every action calculated and precise, seemingly inexhaustible. Mercury was equally precise, her attacks mathematically exact; but she fought with a passion that would have surprised someone who knew her only for her scientific and academic work. And Mars—Mars burned. Always, she burned; her whole life was fire, aflame to give warmth and light and love to those she loved—and a flame to burn those who would destroy them. Spirit of fire, a spirit on fire…
The enemy fell before them.
At last, after a time that could have been minutes or hours, they drew to a halt, chests heaving, gasping for breath—victorious once again. A shot from a railgun took out the last crystite on the battlefield, and Neptune raised a hand to salute the marksman.
They all heard the beeping, as the silence fell.
It took a moment to sink in. It was the emergency alarm, coming from all three communicators. The three exchanged horrified glances. How long had it been sounding, unheard?
Mercury answered for all of them. It was Diana calling, and she sounded frantic.
"Oh, thank goodness," she burst out, almost gabbling. "You've got to hurry! It's Venus and Uranus and the King—there's a big attack—hundreds of crystites, maybe thousands—and Venus sent out a distress call and you know she doesn't do that unless it's real trouble and she said they couldn't handle it alone and that was nearly half an hour ago—"
"Where?" demanded Mercury. Her face was pale.
The south side of the city, Diana told them. Almost directly opposite to where they were now.
"They tricked us," Mars said incredulously. "All of this—it was just a diversion while they—"
"Never mind that now!" Neptune roared at her, her composure failing her for once. "Come on!"
They scrambled to the flyers and took off. They flew with breakneck speed, fast enough that in an open cockpit it was hard to breathe…and every moment of the trip thundered in Mars' pulse like the beating of a funereal drum.
Half an hour late.
It took nearly four minutes to cross the city. The roar of the wind in their ears was deafening—but over it, clearer and clearer, they could hear the rumble of the guns. As they approached the southern wall, they saw the size of the enemy force.
If anything, Diana had underestimated it. There were nearly five thousand crystites massed on the south side of the city, spread out over a wide front. They were being bombarded ceaselessly, and more fell every minute—but still they came onward. They glittered in the sunlight, eerily beautiful. They were clearly unstoppable.
Venus, Uranus and Endymion were doing their best.
The sparks and flashes of power were unmistakable. They were out there, caught in the centre of the densest cluster of the enemy—of course. They looked battered—from this distance it was hard to make out more than that—but they were still on their feet.
Mars put the flyer into a long, shallow curve over the battlefield, looking for a clear space to land. For a moment they passed over the three down on the ground, and she got a quick, confused glimpse of the struggle. Venus and Uranus were fighting back-to-back; Venus seemed to be letting off Crescent Beams almost ceaselessly, shattering any crystite that came near, while Uranus was wielding the Space Sword, firing bolts of power and using it as a weapon at the same time. Endymion had his own sword drawn; he was wearing full armour, but he bounded and leaped about with an easy athletic grace, making it look effortless—and everywhere he went, the black sword cut a swath through the enemy.
The flyer rocked suddenly, and Mars glanced around in time to see Neptune jump out. She blinked, startled. Well, that was one way to join the battle in a hurry, she supposed.
Then she looked down at the controls, thought for a moment, and aimed the flyer at a dense cluster of the enemy. A second later she followed Neptune over the side.
She hit the ground with bone-shaking force, rolling over and over. Moments later, as she climbed shakily to her feet, she heard the sudden explosion as the flyer crashed, followed an instant later by a second explosion. Mercury must have followed her example. She hoped they had done a lot of damage.
She looked around quickly (and dodged a pair of crystites that were aiming hammer-blows at her), trying to get her bearings. A flash of light from some way off caught her eye. She nodded to herself, took a quick breath, and ran.
A group of crystites were in her way. The faces in the middle of their chests—slack-jawed, eyes closed as always—made excellent targets. She destroyed them all with a Burning Mandala without breaking stride. Crystal fragments stung her arms and legs as she ran. She barely noticed.
A shout came from just in front of her: "CRESCENT BEAM SHOWER!" It was followed by a shattering sound. Mars leaped over a pair of crystites, dodging their eight-armed swipe at her as she passed, and landed in a little clearing in the middle of the battlefield.
"Glad you could make it," said Venus casually.
She was a mess. She was bleeding freely from cuts all over her body; half her hair was gone—it looked as if it had been burned somehow—and the ginger way she was standing suggested that she had some broken ribs. But she was surrounded by piles of destroyed enemies; the light in her eye was undimmed, and that cocky, indomitable grin was firmly in place.
Mars wasn't in the mood for snappy comebacks. "There's too many of them," she said roughly. "You've got to pull back."
"The thought had crossed my mind," Venus admitted. She glanced around and shot something over Mars' shoulder. "But it was a little difficult to make any headway. Now that you're here…"
There was a sudden blur of motion from their left, and Mercury joined them. "We have a problem," she said tersely. "There's a big cluster of the enemy, moving up fast. I don't think we can hold them."
Venus swore. "All right," she said. "Let's get out of here. What happened to Uranus—?"
Endymion landed next to them. He was breathing hard, his armour was pitted with nicks and gouges, and there was a bloody gash on his forehead, but he looked otherwise unharmed. "She's a little way off that way," he said, pointing. "Neptune's with her."
"Okay." Venus glanced around quickly. "Mercury, go help them," she ordered. Mercury gave a quick nod, and sped off. Venus sighed. "Mars, Endymion," she said. "Let's go…"
They began a fighting retreat. It was slow going. The crystites were generally spread quite thinly, but wherever the Senshi went, the enemy converged on them. They had to fight almost every step of the way.
A Flame Sniper might have cleared a path for them, Mars thought grimly. But she didn't have the energy left; she had been on the go for so long already that Fire Souls were almost all she could still do. Venus was in a similar state; her Crescent Beams were still deadly, but she wasn't trying anything more. Endymion was the only one of them who was still really in good fighting condition; but even he had run out of roses, and his Smoking Bomber attacks were becoming an obvious effort.
Still, this time they were headed in the same direction as the crystites. That helped a lot. Slowly, painfully, they worked their way through. Another few minutes, and they would reach the walls.
Then, as they came to the top of a low hill, Mars heard Venus curse.
She looked back quickly. From this height she could see some distance—to where Mercury, Uranus and Neptune were fighting. They were cut off: surrounded by fifty or sixty of the enemy, clustered so thickly around them that they could not work their way free. And the larger group that Mercury had warned them of was approaching fast.
Mars made a quick decision. Endymion was really best at close combat. Venus was almost spent. Mars was, too; but she wasn't as badly hurt as Venus was.
"Take care of her, Mamoru," she said quietly, and somehow dredged up the energy to run again. She heard the King shout after her, but ignored him.
The going was a little easier now. They had almost made their way to the front line; the numbers were fewer here, and she could actually get up a little speed. She conserved her powers, ducking and leaping rather than fighting. Gradually she worked her way free—and then arced around and plunged back into the enemy once more.
Before long she had to stop. There were just too many crystites; they changed direction and made for her as she approached, and she couldn't get through. She tried to zig-zag, ducking and weaving around them, but it didn't help much.
Still, she could see the sparks and flashes of power, not too far ahead. She simply had to hope that she was close enough for it to work…
"Mercury! Uranus! Neptune!" she shouted. "Get ready! When I say go!"
She heard an answering shout. She dodged back, then forward past one more pair of crystites. A gap opened up in front of her for a moment. She took a deep breath, drew in everything she had left, and let it all out at once.
"FIRE SOUL BIRD!"
She heard them launch their own attacks in reply.
"MERCURY AQUA RHAPSODY!"
The quadruple assault did it: opened a hole in the wall. She saw Mercury, followed by Neptune and Uranus, break through. They began to run toward her.
At the same time, she felt her Senshi transformation ebb and vanish. She turned and ran ahead of the other three. She was drained dry; there was nothing left, she could not have transformed again if her life depended on it. But she could still run, and they were close to the walls; close enough that nothing could stop them. They were all going to get out of this, once again; they were home free—
She looked back, and saw it all start to go wrong.
That big body of crystites was still moving up fast, and the others, strangely, seemed to be making way for it. A group of them surged in from the side, casting their razor-whirlwind attacks.
A hail of crystal shards caught Uranus in the side.
She shrieked in agony. A cloud of fine red mist seemed to hang in the air. The attack knocked her sprawling, limp and bloody, and instantly the crystites rounded on her.
Neptune cried out in horror and fear, and turned back to help. She pulled out the Aqua Mirror and started to throw her Typhoon Shock attack again; but another cluster of the enemy surged up and swept her away before she could complete it.
Mercury whirled about and launched her Shabon Spray Freezing. It hit the crystites around Neptune and turned them into splinters. Neptune leaped away from them and looked around desperately for Uranus…
Too late. The crystites were all around Uranus, dozens of them. Rei caught one quick glimpse of her as they converged on her, saw her arm reach out between two of their bodies as she struggled desperately to break free. Then it was jerked back suddenly. They heard Uranus cry out in pain once more. More crystites continued to gather around her, and all sight of her was lost.
Neptune moaned in disbelief, in agony herself.
There was a sudden flash from within the mill of crystites. A blaze of power. Rei never learned what final attack Uranus found in her ultimate crisis; but it blew the enemy away from her as if a bomb had gone off in their midst.
Sailor Uranus leaped out from the horde of crystites. They began to close in on her once more, but she moved too quickly; she escaped their grasp and began to run.
She looked terrible. She was covered in blood. Her uniform was torn away all up one side; there was a deep open wound beneath her ribs, and something long and ropy-looking was dangling out of it. But she was running, running, and the way ahead of her was clear—
She almost made it. She almost almost almost made it.
Rei saw what happened clearly. It seemed to take place slowly, in complete silence. Far behind, one of the crystites shuddered, and the face on its chest suddenly came alive. Its eyes flicked open. They burned with a pale blue light. Its mouth twisted into a hungry grin.
It bent down, picked up a stone, and threw. The missile caught Sailor Uranus squarely in the small of her back; it lifted her off her feet and sent her tumbling, spinning, face-first to the ground. Before she could move again, the enemy were upon her.
They swarmed over her like ants. They closed around her. Their arms rose and fell. The fists were stained with red.
Rei caught hold of Neptune's arm, holding her back. Neptune jerked free effortlessly, stumbled forward. She was making a thin whining noise, a high keening that sounded like a baby crying. Her face was chalk-white; her eyes were enormous.
Rei took her arm again, gently. She did not try to break free this time. She did not seem to have any strength left in her at all. She only stared—stared at what was happening before her, what was being done. A hundred metres away; a lifetime away.
The crystites finished their work. The group split apart, leaving something huddled and broken where they had been. It did not look even faintly human any more.
Neptune threw her head back and screamed. Her voice was full of shattered glass.
The crystites began to advance once more.
Someone else appeared at Rei's side. Mercury. Rei gave her a quick look and said, "We've got to get her away from here."
Mercury did not look much better than Neptune; but she nodded in understanding. They each took one of Neptune's arms and began to lead her back. She came docilely at first, as if that scream had taken up all the defiance left in her. Then she began to struggle.
"No," she whispered. Then, louder: "We…we can't just give up!" She looked back over her shoulder, straining, unable to escape their grasp. "We can't just leave her there!" she wailed. "We can't!"
Rei and Mercury glanced at each other once more, and then back behind them. There were more than fifty crystites coming up behind them, moving fast. They tried to hurry Neptune along a little faster.
She stumbled along between them, still trying to break free. "We can't leave her," she sobbed. "Please…please, we have to go back…please…"
Perhaps somebody heard her.
A thunderbolt crackled over their heads.
It was followed moments later by a second, and a third. They slammed into the crystites in quick succession, blowing them apart as if they were made of tissue paper.
Rei lifted her eyes, and saw who was standing just ahead of them. Sailor Venus: tired, hurt, but with the light of battle in her eye. King Endymion: battered, weary, but grim-faced and ready for action. And between them, impossibly, smouldering with power and very much alive, was Sailor Jupiter.
Mercury hesitated, staring at them. "Rei…" she said. But Rei was already waving her on. Mercury nodded; then, deliberately, she released Neptune's arm, and went to join the three.
"Come on, Michiru-chan," Rei said gently. "Come with me. They'll take care of Haruka now. I promise."
She led Neptune back to the wall, ignoring the sound of battle behind her. Inside the gates, she knocked on the door of the first house she came to and asked for a bed. The people there recognised her, and let her in. She made Neptune detransform and put her to bed tenderly, and held her hand until she fell asleep.
Then she went back to the wall and ordered the defenders to give her a gun.
All along the southern wall of the city, the artillery were firing without pause. The crystites died hard, but they did die. Out on the battlefield, three Senshi and a King fought their own kind of war; and wherever they went the enemy fell.
Somehow, the tide had turned. Perhaps the unexpected return of Sailor Jupiter had revitalised the defenders. Perhaps the true Enemy, the controlling intelligence, had given up, or lost interest. But the crystites appeared less driven; their actions were more random, and they no longer seemed to fight as hard. One by one, they fell.
An hour before sundown, the gates opened and the Senshi re-entered the city. Sailor Jupiter was at their head, carrying a limp, wrapped bundle in her arms. The defenders at the wall bowed their heads as she passed.
After the battle came the inquisition, apparently.
"So what happened?" asked Venus flatly. "Why did you vanish like that?" There were bags under her eyes; she had been in Senshi form all night, taking advantage of the accelerated healing that offered, and it didn't look like she'd had much sleep.
Neither had Makoto, though for a different reason. As she'd lain in bed, the image of Haruka's broken body had returned to her, again and again. We've lost three, now, she kept thinking. Four, if you count Pluto. Five, if you count the Queen. If this goes on…
No. The pit they're digging, down to the Enemy, that'll work. We'll be able to attack then. We'll win then. Of course we will…
With difficulty, she brought her attention back to Venus, who was waiting impatiently for an answer.
"I didn't have any choice," she answered. "They attacked the group I was with. Everyone—" She paused, took a deep breath. She'd grown to like the little band of soldiers she'd been working with in Bali. "Everyone except me was killed," she went on in a level tone, "and I wasn't in great shape myself. And my communicator was damaged. I couldn't call for help.
"Freak chance," she added at Venus' inquiring look. "They—the crystites—got a lucky shot. A splinter hit my communicator. I brought it back; maybe Ami can repair it." She shrugged. "Anyway, I had to keep moving after that. Everywhere I went, they seemed to home in on me. I don't know if you've noticed that; they can always tell where we are…"
Venus nodded. "Whenever we go out to fight, they head straight for us. If it weren't for that, Haruka—" She broke off suddenly.
"Yeah." Makoto was silent for a moment. "How's Michiru?"
"How do you expect?" Venus snarled. "She's…bad. It's just lucky for us that they used up all their forces in the area on that attack. We'll have a bit of a breathing-space before they're back."
"There'll be more of them next time. You know that."
"Yes." Venus shrugged. "But there are more factories getting tooled-up for making guns, too. We'll be better-armed by the time they arrive."
"Will it be enough?"
"It'll just have to be, won't it?"
A silence fell. Makoto poured herself another cup of tea—Western tea; it was in short supply now but she loved it—and added a large helping of sugar.
"So why didn't you call?" demanded Venus suddenly. "Okay, your communicator was busted. But you could have found an ordinary radio. Hell, even the telephones are still working in some places."
"But if I'd—" Makoto began. Then she stopped, staring at Venus. "You don't know," she said. "Oh, God. You don't know—"
"What?" Venus' voice was impatient.
"I told you the Enemy can control machines. Flyers, factory assemblers, anything. I found out too late, but surely one of the other resistance groups must have—" She saw Venus' expression. "It's not just those," she went on hastily. "It's anything. Any machine. Including radios. And telephones."
Venus frowned for an instant, not understanding. Then her eyes widened. "Wait a minute. You're saying—"
"I mean they can hear anything you broadcast! Scramblers, encryption, they don't make any difference. If I'd called you and told you where to come to find me, there would have been crystites waiting for you when you arrived."
Makoto sighed. "We might have been able to work out a way around it, but I never dreamed how bad things were getting here. I just thought it was safest to make my own way home. It took me a while, but I managed to find a sailboat." She smiled mirthlessly. "One with no automatic systems. Everything manual."
Venus had something else on her mind. "But—but Rei's gone and set up a big communications centre to link all the resistance groups. You mean that—"
Makoto sat for a moment, taking in the implications. "Then the Enemy knows all about them," she confirmed grimly. "Where they are. Even what they're planning, if they've talked about that on the air…"
"And we get reports from the orbital habitats about the crystites' movements…" Venus closed her eyes, wincing as if in real pain. "But why?" she demanded. "If the Enemy knows where all the groups are, why haven't they been destroyed yet? Why are they just being picked off a few at a time?"
"Who knows?" Makoto made a face as a new thought occurred to her. "Maybe…maybe the Enemy isn't interested. Maybe, unless they get inconvenient, it thinks they just aren't worth the bother."
They exchanged worried looks.
"All right," said Ami briskly. "I've made some progress, at least. I think I've worked out how the Enemy controls machinery—and the crystites too, for that matter."
They were all gathered together, at her request, in a private room in the Palace. It was a dull, murky day outside, and there had been no new attacks for several hours, so everybody was present—even Michiru, who sat at the back and did not speak.
"Have you found any way to block it?" asked Rei eagerly.
Ami shook her head. "No. Actually, what I've found may make things worse—if that's possible. But still…"
"Anything we can learn about the Enemy may help," said Endymion. "Right?"
"Let's hope so." Ami tapped at her computer for a moment, and a display flashed up on a wall-screen behind her. "I've been looking for common factors in the people who became crystites," she explained. "I built a list of names from refugees' reports, and I've created a database of personal and medical histories."
The display showed a slowly-scrolling list of details: names, birth-places, ages, occupations, blood-types and other medical details. "I was able to eliminate most environmental factors almost immediately," she said. "They were pretty unlikely anyway; the changes were just too widespread. Then I started to weed out the medical details. Before long, I found I'd eliminated everything. There weren't any consistent common factors at all.
"But then I noticed something rather odd…"
Rei had been watching the list as it scrolled up the display. "They don't all have the same blood type or anything," she murmured. Then she sat up. "Wait a minute, I see it, they all have—no, wait, there's one who doesn't…"
Unexpectedly, Ami was smiling. "What?" she asked. "What did you think you saw?"
Rei shook her head. "It doesn't matter," she said. "It wouldn't make any sense anyway." Ami prompted her again, wordlessly, and she sighed. "I thought for a moment they all had bad eyes, all right? But they don't. Look—there's another one with perfect vision…"
"Nevertheless, about eighty percent do have poor eyesight," said Ami calmly. "That was what I noticed, too. It's not a universal common factor—but it is strange, you must admit."
"Eyes?" demanded Michiru. "Eyes? Is that your miracle solution? Short-sighted people become crystites? That's the most ridiculous—"
"Michiru," said Minako sharply. She fell silent. "Let her finish," Minako added in a softer tone.
Michiru sank back into her seat. There was a look of sour contempt on her face that had been there all too often since Haruka's death. She had become rough, abrasive and short-tempered; there was not one of them who had not felt the lash of her tongue. It was hard to accept, but the others bore it patiently. They could see that most of her anger was directed at herself. Haruka had died and she had not; she blamed herself for failing to protect her lover, and they could not convince her that she was wrong.
She had insisted on returning to duty even before the crystite attacks resumed. She renewed the defence training courses that she and Haruka had been running; but after only two days Venus had to order her to stop, after too many reports of "accidents." Her anger and her loss drove her to push the recruits too hard; broken bones and other injuries became common for new recruits who could not do what she demanded of them. After that, the only thing left for her was fighting the enemy, which she did with a fury and a viciousness that sometimes frightened the other Senshi. Ami was concerned that she was heading for a breakdown of some kind; but the truth was, on the battlefield her anger was too useful to stop…
Ami cleared her throat self-consciously. "Eyesight," she repeated. "Not all the warped people had bad eyes. But if we consider those that didn't…"
She paused her display, and began to point to entries. "Ichikawa Isako—hard of hearing," she said. "Also Ebina Yugoro and Sanda Harukichi. Terakado Sen had a pacemaker. And here, and here…more hearing defects. This man had lost a foot in an industrial accident and had an artificial replacement. This woman had an artificial larynx. There's a group here with blood-pressure control implants. And this woman…" Ami paused, and blinked. "…Had nothing wrong with her at all," she finished, puzzled. "Wait a minute. She had an cosmetic optical enhancement to give her slitted pupils." She shook her head in wonder.
"So what is the common factor?" asked Makoto, baffled. "None of those have anything to do with bad eyes. Do they?"
"Most forms of myopia or hypermetropia are treated with a simple implant that generates a focusing field just in front of the eyes," Ami pointed out. "They were introduced about three hundred years ago; it's a very simple, common procedure. The implant constantly measures the eyeball's shape and focal length and adjusts the field to compensate. Nobody needs eyeglasses any more…"
"So the common factor is…cybernetic enhancements?" suggested Endymion. "Optical fields…pacemakers…artificial limbs…any kind of implant…"
"Not quite any kind," said Ami quietly. "Any powered implant. The power source, of course, is a crystal cell. Cheap, reliable, and never needs replacing.
"Oh, there were all sorts of variations," she told them, "but I've checked every case, and there are no exceptions. One way or another, they all had some kind of crystal, physically within their bodies."
A silence fell as they took in the implications. After a few seconds, Makoto shuddered. "That's…disgusting."
"Yes, it is," Ami agreed.
"Wait just a minute!" Minako was standing; she seemed agitated. "You're saying that…this Enemy somehow controls crystal? That's how it took over all those people?"
Ami nodded solemnly. "Yes. There may be another factor at work, too—some of the victims had DNA sequences on record, and I think that there may be some kind of genetic propensity as well. But the crystal connection is definite."
"And if it controls crystal, then we know how it's taken control of all those machines as well, don't we?" said Endymion.
"But…but we use crystal power cells for everything!" Minako looked appalled. "Vehicles, lights…everything!"
"Maybe we need to start looking for new alternatives," said Ami.
"If there's time," said Makoto.
As Makoto and Luna hurried through the corridors of the Palace, they were interrupted by a small grey figure.
"Yes?" said Luna. "Can it wait? I'm in a bit of a hurry. Makoto and I are supposed to be meeting with the Supply Council."
"I need to talk to you," said Diana. "In private." She hesitated for a moment, then said reluctantly, "I have a problem…"
"Ami!" Rei called. She hurried down the corridor toward her fellow Senshi. "I got your message. What's the problem?" she asked as she reached her.
"It's Michiru," said Ami quietly. She was standing at a window, looking out over the city. From this high up in the Palace tower, everything looked almost normal.
"Oh." Rei bit her lip. She had been afraid of this. "What's she been doing now?" she asked at last.
"She's been asking me some very…strange questions." Ami looked upset, Rei realised. Disturbed. Whatever Michiru had said had shaken her. She looked up at Rei and said, "You've seen her the most since Haruka…died. What's she doing? She won't talk to anyone else, usually; when she's not fighting she stays in her rooms all the time, with the privacy barrier up…What is she up to, Rei? What is she doing in there?"
Rei tried to make a joke of it. "Well, maybe the sort of thing most people want privacy for—"
She gave in. "I'm not quite certain," she replied slowly. "She's spending a lot of time with the Aqua Mirror, I think. She sits staring into it, almost in a trance. For hours on end. I don't think she's sleeping enough—"
"Is she trying to see Haruka, do you think?" asked Ami.
"No. That's the strange part." Rei closed her eyes for a second, thinking. "She's…trying to find something. But not Haruka. She borrowed some texts from me, did you know? Old scrolls; meditation techniques, very esoteric stuff. And other things—invocations. I don't understand some of them myself. But I think she's…trying to use them somehow."
"What did she ask you?"
Ami did not try to dodge the question. "She asked me if I thought the Ginzuishou was Serenity's talisman."
"She what?" Rei demanded, astonished.
"Yes. Do you see now why I'm worried?"
Rei did not answer immediately. "What did you tell her?"
"I told her I don't know. But I don't think so. The Ginzuishou is a different…order of power from the talismans."
"If anything," Rei said slowly, "the Grail would be…" She trailed off. "I wonder if—"
"It occurred to me," Ami said in a low voice, "that she might be looking for the Space Sword—maybe as an anchor to try and get Haruka back. Or perhaps…Setsuna's staff."
"The Time Gate? I don't think so. She—" Rei hesitated, then said flatly, "She says Setsuna is dead."
Ami was caught by surprise. "She—?"
Rei grimaced. "I'd been starting to think that myself. I mean, you know, Setsuna could be cryptic, aggravating. She never told us everything we needed to know. But…she wouldn't just abandon us when we need her like this, either. She wouldn't—" She stopped, and shook her head. "Michiru said she'd looked for her. But there was no sign. Setsuna was gone."
"But…how?" Ami sounded bewildered.
"The Enemy controls crystal, remember?" Rei said dully. "When it broke free, I think it attacked her through her staff. Pulled her down into that cave…" She shivered. "When they finish that pit, I think we'll find her. Down there."
"You never said anything."
"No. Who needs more demoralisation? But if Michiru is starting to talk—"
"No. It doesn't add up," said Ami. "Why does she need advanced meditation techniques for that? And what's the connection to the Ginzuishou? She can't still be—" She swallowed. "All right. I won't talk to the others about Pluto; you're right. But she must be looking for something else, too. Haruka. Or perhaps some way to break through to the Enemy…"
"Perhaps." Rei's voice was noncommittal.
"Or she might want to try to form a link between the Ginzuishou and the Mirror…" Ami shook her head. "But why won't she say?" Ami looked at her sharply. "You think you know, don't you?" she said. "You've been dodging the question all along. What is it? Tell me!"
Rei stirred. "I think," she said carefully, "that she's looking for something different. Something more. More power. The ability to fight better…maybe the ability to do a whole lot of things."
Ami frowned, not understanding. "But—"
"I think she's looking for her Eternal transformation."
Ami stood stock-still.
"I think she believes that she can use the Aqua Mirror to trigger it somehow." Rei shook her head. "She tried to use the mirror to reach Haruka's spirit, and couldn't. So she's looking for justifications in other directions now. She still thinks she failed Haruka because she wasn't strong enough…"
"But…" Ami finally found words again. "But she can't…can she? I mean, none of us have ever had an Eternal transformation except Sailor Moon, and that was because she had—" She stopped suddenly. "The Ginzuishou," she breathed. "Her talisman? Rei, is it possible?"
"I don't know," Rei answered sombrely. She sighed heavily. "I wish we could talk to Serenity about this. I don't think Michiru can do it; the talismans aren't that kind of tool. Just trying it could be dangerous to her. But…" She shrugged. "What if I'm wrong? The way things are going, do we dare keep her from trying?"
Ami bit her lip. "Have you talked to Minako about any of this?" she asked.
"Some," said Rei. "She said I shouldn't do anything to stop her…for now. But to watch her."
Ami nodded slowly. She looked worried. "Yes," she said. "Watch her. I think that may be wise."
Slowly, the net tightened about Crystal Tokyo.
Everywhere, all over the world, the enemy were on the move. In most places, the crystites went about their own mysterious business. They roamed the deserted streets of the world's cities, apparently moving at random. They worked in the factories, making strange, meaningless objects that served no apparent purpose. They killed every squirrel they saw, though nobody could suggest any reason why. Now and then, vast numbers of crystites—sometimes ten thousand or more—could be seen in wide open spaces, moving in intricate, dance-like patterns, all of them perfectly in step.
One by one, the rebel cells throughout the world stopped communicating. Some of them were known to have been wiped out by the crystites. Others, the majority, simply fell silent, one by one. Rei and Ami teleported out to look for a few of them. They found well-stocked headquarters, without any signs of fighting—but with no people.
Early in June, the factories suddenly opened their doors, all over the world, and a host of machines rolled out and swarmed into action. Their exact purpose was uncertain, but it quickly became apparent that they were building something new in their turn: a strange, elaborate network, a web of crystal filaments, ranging from a few centimetres thick to over a metre, spreading slowly across the countryside. Cables, perhaps, or pathways of some other kind; but even to Ami they were incomprehensible.
The webs came together at certain locations: less than a score, over the entire globe. At the confluence points, different machines began to erect huge, alien structures, built of glittering crystal. They reminded some observers of hives. Or perhaps they were set up as mockeries of Crystal Tokyo itself.
Ami plotted the locations of the hives, and announced that they did follow a mathematical pattern. There was a gap in the pattern, though: one point where a hive was missing. No-one was particularly surprised to hear where that point was.
The people on space habitat L-117 went ahead and built their laser cannon, and fired it at one of the hives. Five-eighths of a second after they opened fire, an unexplained resonance effect travelled from the hive back up the beam. When it reached the habitat, every power crystal on board shattered at once. The habitat itself exploded moments later; there were no survivors.
That same five-eighths of a second, however, was enough to melt or shatter a large portion of the target hive. The enemy showed no reaction to the damage, though. The construction machines simply stopped what they were doing and began to rebuild the structure. Within six days, it was difficult to see where the cannon had struck.
The Senshi attempted to teleport into one of the hives, to investigate what the Enemy was doing there. They encountered the same cripplingly painful barrier that surrounded the underground anomaly. Rei and Ami were unconscious for a day.
In Japan, a new army of crystites was on the move. From all over Japan they came, from all directions, more than fifty thousand of them, heading directly for Crystal Tokyo. There were reports of crystites simply walking south from Hokkaido, across the floor of Tsugaru Strait.
Here and there, scattered among their number, there were other, different creatures. Another kind of crystite, it seemed; similar in form, but larger, and a pale, delicate blue in colour. The regular, clear crystites seemed to defer to them. Perhaps the army had found leaders. Perhaps the Enemy had found—or made—Captains.
Meanwhile, Crystal Tokyo had not been idle. More and more of their resources were being converted to war production every day. The pause in the assault after Haruka's death had been enough for them to develop a slight edge. Every attack since then had been beaten off with little difficulty. The Senshi remained the city's main defence, but they were no longer being worked to exhaustion. The railgun design had been improved, and a portable version was being tested. Nobody had any doubts that, as things stood, they would be able to hold off the crystites indefinitely.
Nobody had any doubts that once the new crystite army arrived, the edge they held would vanish.
The pit in the heart of the city continued to deepen. As the workers dug further down, progress slowed; but a simple calculation showed that they would reach the anomaly at about the same time as the army reached the city.
As the day approached, the whole city held its breath.
Minako stood in the excavation site, keeping out of the way. Around her, an army of workers surged. There was an air of expectancy about them, an eagerness that shone even through the tension and the weariness stamped on every face.
The air was filled with the constant roar of heavy machinery. A dense cloud of dust hung over the area. There was a constant gritty taste in Minako's mouth. A few of the workers wore breathing masks, but most found them too hot or inconvenient. The site foremen had tried to make everybody keep them on, but Minako had stopped them; it was a horrible, cynical move, but a few cases of silicosis or pneumonoconiosis were a small price to pay for more speed.
Now and then, someone would glance up from what he or she was doing, catch her eye, and grin confidently. She would grin back, and raise her fingers in the V sign. It seemed to inspire them to work even harder.
Artemis was curled around her neck. It was uncomfortable, but she felt absurdly pleased to have him there. He hadn't ridden her shoulders like this in decades. It reminded her of the days when there had been just the two of them…
"How much longer?" she asked.
"You keep asking that," he complained. "They should break through to the anomaly in about an hour."
"And the enemy won't be here for six," she answered. "We're going to make it, Artemis, we're really going to make it!"
She felt, rather than heard, him snort. "And then the hard part begins," he pointed out. "Calm down, Mina-chan."
"Spoilsport," she said cheerfully, reaching up to ruffle his fur. He was probably right; but all the same, she could barely restrain her excitement. It was tempting to pull all the Senshi in now, ready for the attack. But there was still the possibility of something unexpected happening at the walls; she did not want to take the risk. Maybe in another half an hour…
She was still pondering the question, occasionally stepping out of the way as a vehicle roared past carrying another load of debris, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked around to see Makoto.
"You're early," she commented.
Makoto shrugged. "Everything's quiet on the walls. If something comes up, you can always help me teleport back. And…" She grinned. "I couldn't resist it. The chance to strike back at last…" She punctuated the words by slapping a clenched fist into her hand.
Artemis groaned. "Not you, too," he said.
Minako sighed. "Artemis—"
"You think you're just going to drop down there, blast some evil monster, and it'll be all over?" he demanded. "You should know better than that. You should have learned better than that. You think this is going to be a pushover? Look what happened to Usagi!"
After a long, uncomfortable silence, Makoto said, "That was pretty low, Artemis."
"Maybe it needed to be," he said quietly. "This isn't a game, Makoto. You can't afford to treat it like one."
"Is it treating it like a game to be pleased that we can actually do something at last?" she demanded. "Is it a game to want to strike back? Damn it, Artemis, there isn't a day when I don't remember Usagi. There isn't a day when I dread seeing the look on Serenity's face when she wakes up and we have to tell her that Small Lady is dead! So—" there was sudden pleading in her voice—"is it so wrong that I should be looking forward to giving a little payback to the one who killed her? Is it?"
Artemis shook his head. "You're missing the point," he told her. "It's not wrong, Makoto. But it's not wise, either. If you go down there all excited and itching to strike back, you'll make mistakes. And that's something you absolutely can't afford. You should know that. You know what this enemy can do."
"We know," put in Minako. "Artemis, you're overreacting. We do know. We've had a dozen planning sessions for this, we've sat through Rei's meditation lessons in case it tries to affect our minds like it did Moon's, we've gone through scenarios until the cows come home—" Makoto coughed suddenly, and Minako raised an eyebrow. "Yes? Something you wanted to say?"
"Sorry," said Makoto, straight-faced. "Dust in my throat."
"Of course," Minako purred. Then, to Artemis, she added, "High spirits don't mean we're not ready. So lay off a little, huh?"
He sighed, and grumbled, "I suppose so." Minako chuckled.
They watched the activity in silence for a few minutes. The pit was almost twenty metres across at the top, narrowing to less than three at the bottom, almost two kilometres below. A set of three rails ran down one side, bolted into the solid rock. Two of them carried broken-up rock up from the bottom, in a continuous circular train of iron scoops. The third rail carried a platform for transporting tools, equipment and people. Minako had ridden it down to the bottom once, two weeks before. It was rickety, bumpy and very noisy, and took more than five minutes to make a one-way trip, swaying and lurching from side to side all the way. In other circumstances, it might have been one hell of a fun ride.
As they watched, the platform reached the surface with a shrill whining screech that set their teeth on edge. A group of workmen got off, staggering a little as they set foot on solid ground once more. Three more stepped on to descend. They took it very casually, Minako saw. One of them didn't even hold on to the handrail; he kept his hands stuck in his pockets, even when the sudden jerk as the platform started downward made him stagger.
Minako shook her head in wonder. All of this machinery had been built from scratch; there had been no heavy mining equipment within Crystal Tokyo when the Enemy struck. Industrial lasers could cut rock, but it still had to be shifted out of the pit by manual labour. These people had worked miracles to have done so much, so fast. If the Senshi won this battle—no, when they won this battle—she was going to make sure that the miners received the highest honours Serenity had to give.
"Forty minutes to go," Makoto sighed.
"Well, more or less," Artemis said pedantically. "It could take a little longer. Or even a—" He saw the look she was giving him, and got the message. "Why don't I go and check the progress board, just to make sure?" he said rapidly.
"Why don't you do that?" agreed Minako, smirking. With a put-upon sigh, he jumped down from her shoulder and hurried off. "Rat-bag," she muttered, watching him go and rubbing her neck. He hadn't been too careful with his claws. "He does worry, doesn't he?" she said affectionately.
Makoto chuckled. "Are you ever tempted to do something horrible to him?" she asked.
"Periodically," Minako admitted. "Hit him with catnip just before an important meeting, maybe." They both laughed. "He does worry," she repeated. "But it's nice to have someone who does that…"
After a little, Makoto said tentatively, "Isn't it about time to call the others in?"
Minako rubbed her shoulder absently. "I suppose so," she mumbled. She looked up suddenly and said, "Look, what is the problem with you and Rei, anyway?"
Makoto jerked, startled. "What—" she fumbled. "What do you mean?"
"Are you and her having some kind of squabble? I've noticed, the last few days, that you're keeping out of each other's way."
"Oh!" Makoto seemed unaccountably relieved. "We, er, had a bit of an argument a little while ago," she said cautiously. "Don't worry about it. We can handle it."
Minako snorted. "You could have picked a better time for it. Oh, well, I suppose—" She rubbed her shoulder again, and frowned. "I've seen that man before," she muttered.
"The one on the platform." She looked over at the pit, still frowning. "He reminds me of someone. Who does he remind me of?"
"Your sempai?" suggested Makoto, grinning.
"Don't you start." Minako scratched her head. "He reminds me of…he reminds me…" She blinked, suddenly looking confused. "He reminds me of Artemis. Now why is that?"
Makoto rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I wouldn't want to speculate about that."
"Oh, go wash your mouth out. Why would he remind me of—" Minako came to a sudden stop. Her eyes widened. "They're both a pain in the shoulder," she said. "Oh, no!"
Makoto stopped grinning. "What?" she asked sharply.
"He's the man I carried up from the borehead, back when all this started. He was the one who broke through to the anomaly. It did something to his hand…"
She cursed furiously. "He even had his hands in his pockets just now! Mako-chan, call the others in. I've got a bad feeling about this—"
Without waiting for an answer, she transformed and sprinted over to the pit.
She paused for a moment at the edge to glance down. A column of electric lights, evenly spaced, ran down the three rails. Every few seconds, they were blocked out of sight as a debris scoop rattled past. The passenger platform was out of sight, lost in darkness far below.
She watched the scoops, timing them carefully. Then she took a single quick breath and jumped.
At the last moment, as she hung suspended for an instant in mid-air, something hit her in the back, sending her tumbling off-balance. She felt needle-sharp claws digging into her. A familiar weight. Artemis, she realised. You crazy idiot—
She twisted in mid-air and just managed to catch hold of one of the descending scoops. She pulled herself up onto it, breathing hard, and resisted the urge to bawl the cat out. Instead she glanced down, checking her timing once more.
"Ready?" she asked Artemis shortly. She felt him tense in response. Then she started downward again, leaping from scoop to scoop. It was a wild, dizzying, maniacal ride. She could feel the blood pounding in her veins. She felt utterly alive.
She felt desperately worried.
She gasped out the situation to Artemis as she went, plunging ever deeper into the ground. The man she had seen had no business being here. He was a cripple: his hand and lower forearm had been warped, distorted, the flesh transmuted into something resembling crystal. He had come into direct contact with something awful, and it had twisted him. The last Venus had heard of him, he was in hospital, in constant pain, surrounded by a team of scientists trying to analyse what had happened to him for some hint about the Enemy. His doctors, she thought, wanted to amputate the arm, but the scientists would not let them while there was any chance of learning more…
Here at the pit-site, dressed for work, was the last place he should have been. She did not know what it meant, but she was absolutely certain that it was nothing good. The timing of it, if nothing else, was ominous. And he was still far below them; he had several minutes' lead…
To her right, the passenger rail suddenly rattled, and ground to a halt. Then it began to rise again. Startled, she almost missed a jump. Makoto must have done it, she realised. She should have thought of it herself. Now she ought to have plenty of time to—
With a jerk, the passenger rail stopped once more. She heard a mechanical whining, like a machine overloading; then, from far below, a scream of tearing metal.
She gritted her teeth. She was out of time. All right, she'd just have to try this the tricky way…
She shot out her Love-Me Chain, wrapping it around the scoop she was standing on. Then, quite deliberately, she stepped off, holding onto the chain.
This was the quick way down. The hard part would be when she wanted to stop again.
Below her there was light, coming rapidly closer. She caught a confused glimpse of the passenger platform: a twisted, shattered ruin, hanging from the third rail as she went past. The wind was roaring in her ears. Then there was no more time; she tightened her grip on the chain, felt it tearing at her hands, the sudden wrench in her arms, the panicky grip around her neck as Artemis held on for dear life—the pain in her hands, the burning—
At the last moment she let the chain dissolve. She hit the bottom of the pit, hard, and rolled shakily to her feet to confront the man there.
Except that she was not sure that he was a man. Not any more.
He still looked human. Mostly. He was burly, muscular, and a little taller than her; the hair at his temples was turning grey. He was bending over something, adjusting it, but as she landed he straightened up quickly. There was a very convincing look of innocent surprise on his face. If that had been all, she might have been fooled.
But his left sleeve was pulled back, and she could see what had once been his hand. When she had carried him up from the borehead, weeks before, it had been a twisted mockery of a human hand: the fingers blurred, fused together into a solid, twisted mass, the skin itself changed into a glassy, crystalline substance. Now, the mutation had progressed still further. The thing at the end of his arm was no hand at all; it was a massive clamp, vise-like, with a glittering spike protruding from the bottom.
The spike was red with blood. Behind him, lying at the base of the third rail, were the bodies of the other two who had come down with him.
She took it all in in one quick look. "You're not going to come quietly, are you?" she asked rhetorically.
He did not reply. Instead he lunged at her; the spike flashed out, ready to impale. She was already dodging; as he came in range, she took hold of his arm and yanked, pulling him off balance. She followed the motion through, spinning him around and sending him flying head-first into the wall.
It ought to have dazed him, perhaps knocked him unconscious, but no more than that; there was not enough room at the base of the pit to get up enough momentum to hurt him badly. Instead, she heard a brittle crunching, splintering sound, shockingly loud. The man collapsed without another sound, sprawling limply on the gouged-up rock of the pit work-face. His head was twisted at an unnatural angle.
She stared for a moment, startled. Then she ran to his side. A tentative check showed no pulse. His body was already turning cold. His neck was unmistakably broken. He was dead.
She stood, looking down at him bewilderedly. She had not thrown him nearly hard enough to break his neck. Surely? Numbly, she reached for her communicator to tell Makoto that the problem was over—
Wait a moment. How could his body already feel cold—?
His eyes flew open. "Boo," he said, and started to laugh. At the same moment, he began to change. His face blurred, rippled; his body began to twist, reform. As Venus stood staring in shock, he lifted one arm, almost casually, and smashed her off her feet. She hit the wall of the pit with bone-numbing force. By the time she could see again, much less move, he was towering over her.
He was no longer even faintly human. But he was not a crystite, either; he was something…new. Three metres tall, at least. His clothing had split, and was hanging off him; the skin underneath was translucent, crystalline—almost faceted. It shone with a deep golden light. His arms and legs were monstrous, club-like things; both hands were spiked clamps now. His face was distorted, like a parody of a human face. There was a third eye in the centre of his forehead. All three eyes glowed a pale blue.
She had no time to react. He picked her up and threw her up the shaft.
She spun uncontrollably as she rose, bouncing off the walls three times. It was painful. Worse, it was humiliating. Gritting her teeth, she reached out at the apex of her flight and caught one of the rubble scoops, which were still rattling along in their endless loop. She perched on it for a second, rubbing a sore shoulder. Then she tapped her communicator. Sailor Jupiter's face appeared.
"I could use some help down here," she told her. As she spoke, she leaned over the edge for a moment to check how far up the shaft she'd been thrown. "Our man's transformed," she continued. "He's big and strong, and pretty fast. Tell the others to—whuhh!" She cut off sharply as she saw what her enemy was doing.
He was only a few dozen metres below her, and gaining fast. He was swarming up the third rail, hand-over-hand, as easily as if he were climbing a ladder. There was a broad, hungry grin on that twisted face. His eyes blazed in the darkness.
She had just enough time to fire off a Crescent Beam before he reached him. He twisted, as if he had felt it coming, and it passed over his shoulder.
She dodged back, just in time, as he reached her level. A blow from one of those massive hand-clamps shattered the rock where her head had been. The wall cracked; fragments of stone caught in the scoops' drive-chain with an ear-splitting, grinding squeal. She ducked another blow, leaped across to a passing scoop on the other rail, and spun, firing a Crescent Beam at him as she went.
This time it hit him squarely in the chest—and suddenly he lit up, as if he were some giant crystal lamp and she had just provided the power. For a second she had to shield her eyes. In that moment, another blow caught her squarely in the chest.
It knocked her back, end-over-end, off the scoop. She began to fall once more, crying out in pain and surprise. Even so, long centuries of experience did not fail her. She managed to fire off another Love-Me Chain, wrapping it around a lower scoop. She swung in toward the rails, bounced once more off the wall, and finally managed to drag herself up onto one of the rising scoops. She lay in it for a few seconds, eyes closed, gasping for breath and trying to nurse her sore chest.
She managed to open her eyes, and found herself face-to-face with Artemis. He had been following her up in the scoop, she realised. "I'm okay," she groaned. "Just give me a moment." She had had worse before. Not often, admittedly.
She picked up Artemis and looked up the shaft for her enemy. He was easy to make out; his body was still glowing brilliantly, far brighter than before she'd hit him. He was no longer ascending; he was clinging to the side of the pit somehow, high above her. She had a sudden thought, and fired another Crescent Beam at him. Maybe it would overload him and make him shatter or something. He dodged easily, but otherwise stayed motionless in the shaft.
Far above, she could see other sparks of power, arcing down toward him. Jupiter, and at least two of the others, coming in range at last. But he ducked their shots as easily as he had Venus', without moving from his position on the wall.
"Damn it," Venus swore. "What is he doing up there?" She decided to see if he could dodge a Love and Beauty Shock.
The sound of an explosion interrupted her.
It came from far below her, a sudden bellowing roar, the sound amplified by the shape of the pit. She froze, taken by surprise. Too late, she remembered that he had been working on something when she had reached the bottom. A bomb? He'll bring the whole pit down around himself—
A second later, a great wind caught her, almost lifting her off the scoop. A reverse avalanche of loose rock and pebbles shot out of the depths, as if fired from a shotgun. She was struck a hundred times or more in a fraction of a second. The world went black.
—She opened her eyes an indeterminate time later. The air was chokingly thick with dust. It was dark all around her; the lamps that lined the shaft had been shattered by the blast. Some way above, she could see a few that were still working. The scoop she was lying on was no longer moving.
One of the lamps far above her moved, and she realised that it was not a lamp after all; she was seeing the enemy. He was still glowing, still clinging to the side of the pit.
As she watched, he became a star.
Another explosion. He had been setting a second bomb, she realised faintly. Or perhaps, his task accomplished, he had become a second bomb. Either way, it did not matter. Before the last of the lamps went out, she saw the sides of the pit began to cave in above her. Thousands of tonnes of rock began to fall straight toward her.
Artemis was shouting in her ear. "Teleport, Venus! Teleport!"
Teleport. Yes, that was a good idea. Somehow, she managed to drive the cobwebs from her mind; she took hold of Artemis, reached out for the power, and twisted the two of them through space a fraction of a second before the scoop she had been lying in was buried.
The pit was a total ruin. After Venus and Artemis had been taken to hospital, Jupiter ordered the pit crew to start digging it out again. The foreman warned her that the walls would be unstable after the cave-in; they would have to work slowly, strengthening them as they went. She listened, nodded curtly, and told him to do the best he could.
Then she went to the city wall. The crystites were about to arrive.
A high-pitched whine split the air and people dove for cover. A cluster of energy bolts struck the wall, tearing out a hole nearly a dozen metres wide. As the echoes of the explosion faded, they were replaced to the cries and moans of the wounded.
Moments later, the railguns opened up in reply. Pencil-thin lines of white flame shot back at the source of the bolts: a group of three Blue Crystites that stood outside the walls, in a triangle formation, about eight hundred metres away.
There was a an odd metallic glitter in the air about the trio: a shimmering that clung near to them like an almost-imperceptible shell of mist. As the railgun shots entered the shell, they twisted, their paths bending crazily. Most of them came straight back out of the shell, moving at wild, unpredictable angles. The shots travelled so fast that it all happened in the blink of an eye; they were fired and deflected in a microsecond.
Some few shots did not return. Whether they were actually penetrating the shield or not, nobody could say. They had no visible effect on the Blue Crystites.
Ami had tried to analyse the shield. She'd announced that it was not a magnetic field, or any other kind of electromagnetic field that she could detect. She also claimed that railgun shots showed a marked red-shift effect as they were deflected. The others nodded wisely and tried to look as though they understood.
The Blue Crystites were taller and heavier than the regular, clear variety. The faces in the centre of their chests were different, too; their eyes were fully open, and their mouths occasionally worked silently, as if trying to shout or scream. And, of course, the Blue variety had a few abilities that the others lacked.
The trio raised their twelve arms and gestured, and a new barrage of energy bolts arced toward the walls. Another section of the wall became rubble.
In the wake of the bolts came the physical attack. A vast army of regular crystites surrounded the city. Wherever the walls were hit, they swarmed forward. Defenders rushed to fill the breaches with sacks of rubble from the collapsed pit, but every time, there were fewer defenders to make the effort.
"They're destroying us," groaned Michiru. She was standing on top of the wall, perilously close to where the latest bolts had struck, but she did not flinch, even when they hit. She was being peppered with rock fragments, but she barely seemed to notice.
"For heaven's sake, at least transform!" hissed Jupiter, emerging gingerly from shelter. Endymion followed her, throwing a dark glance out at the enemy before stepping up onto the wall beside the other two.
Michiru did not seem to hear. "They hit us and hit us, and we can't…we don't even have the power to strike back," she whispered bleakly.
"We can strike back," said Endymion. "We are striking back."
Michiru turned her head, finally acknowledging him. Her eyes were dark, empty. "Pinpricks against an elephant," she said. "That's all. Do you actually think we can succeed?"
"We will succeed," said Jupiter grimly.
"We must," added Endymion.
She stared at them for a moment longer, then looked away, unable to meet their gazes. "This isn't—" she began, then broke off. "It's not what we need," she said hoarsely. "Not another attack. Not throwing more…more lives away. We can't just…it's not guns. We don't need more guns. We can't fight them with guns. We can't…"
She trailed away into silence. They saw that her cheeks were wet.
"What do we need?" asked Jupiter gently.
"A different weapon," Michiru whispered. "Not guns. Power. We have to find—"
The strength seemed to go out of her, all at once. She fell to her knees, clutching at the stone wall like a security blanket. "It's no good," she said mournfully. "It's no good. I've tried and tried, but I can't find—I can't find it—"
Endymion knelt beside her, and laid a hand gently on her shoulder. "You need to have faith," he suggested.
She turned on him. "Faith?" Her voice was bitter. "Faith? What use is faith? I used to have faith. It didn't help. It didn't—I couldn't—" She sagged back once more. "Half of me is missing," she said dully. "What is there left to have faith in?"
"Light," he suggested. His tone was firm, confident, full of certainty.
"Life," said Jupiter.
"Serenity," Endymion added.
Michiru opened her mouth, as if to contradict them, but then closed it again, shaking her head. "You can't see it. I can't argue with you," she muttered. "I can't…" She shuddered under Endymion's hand.
"Michiru," he said softly.
She did not respond at first. Then she sighed, and got to her feet slowly. "All right," she said wearily. "You want me to come with you, I suppose?" He nodded. "For all the good it'll do," she muttered.
Jupiter and Endymion exchanged glances. "Yes," Jupiter said. "You should come now. We're supposed to move out in a few minutes."
Michiru nodded shortly. She closed her eyes, and a ripple of change washed over her, leaving Sailor Neptune in its wake. "Let's go, then," she said.
They were staring at her. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Jupiter pointed. She looked down. The bow on her breast had changed. It was no longer blue. It had become so dark that it was almost black.
She gave a bitter laugh. "It's appropriate, don't you think?" she said. "After all, I'm the only one left. The only Outer Senshi…the last to stand against the outer darkness…"
"Michiru—" Jupiter hesitated, then said, "You sound like you…"
"Like I want to die?" Neptune laughed: an ugly sound. "You don't understand. I don't want that at all. I want—" Her eyes grew distant. "I want it to mean something."
"Haruka's death, you mean?" asked Endymion.
She laughed again. "You don't understand. I mean…all of this. Everything! Damn it—" She broke off. "Look," she said. "We sacrificed our youths…we gave our whole lives to build this. We worked for fifteen fucking hundred years to build paradise, and now look at it! Two months, and it's all gone! Can't you see?
"Think about it," she urged them desperately. "We built Utopia—no, Serenity built it, she was always the heart of it all, but damn it, we were a part of it too! We built Paradise! But if our Utopia was this fragile—if it could be destroyed around us this easily—then what good was it? If everything we worked for could be taken away so quickly, then what was the point? What does it mean?
"Don't you see?" she whispered. "I just don't want it to have been for nothing."
There was a long silence. Endymion and Jupiter stared at her. In the distance, they heard another series of explosions. Neptune sighed, and started to turn away.
"Then fight," snapped Jupiter.
Neptune looked around quickly, shocked.
"Fight, damn it!" Jupiter repeated. Her voice was filled with anger. "You want it all to be 'meaningful'…how dare you! The only thing that makes it meaningless right now is that you've given up! You want meaning? You want what you've done to be significant? Then defend it! Instead of just beating your breast and moaning about how sad you feel!"
"The surest way to defeat," said Endymion quietly, "is to give up before you begin." He shook his head, and something like a smile crossed his lips. "Michiru, it's not hopeless. It's not. You know that Ami's devoting every available moment to trying to find a way to strike back. Even if all we do is buy time for her…it's not hopeless. It's not meaningless. It's not."
"Maybe," said Neptune, her voice subdued. "But a chance of winning would be nice…"
She held one hand out toward them, the fist closed. "A way to strike back. Is that what you said?" She laughed mirthlessly, and raised her hand above her head. When she opened her grip, they saw that she was holding her henshin wand.
"Neptune eternal make-up," she breathed.
For a moment, there was utter silence. The dim, watery sunlight seemed to gather around the rod in her hand. A halo of power clung to it, and spread, reaching down her arm—
No. It was gone. More likely, it had never been. Sailor Neptune slumped back, her head bowed, her arms limp. Her face was pale, and beaded with sweat; her hands were shaking. "It's no good," she groaned. "I can't do it. I can't find it, no matter how hard I try."
"Eternal—?" Jupiter stared at her. "You—Is that what you've been doing?" She reached out and took Neptune by the shoulders, shaking her gently. "You know you can't—you know that none of us ever—oh, you idiot—" She drew her in, hugging her, holding her until the shaking stopped. "You idiot," she murmured again.
"I thought I—" Neptune's voice was muffled. She pulled back a little, without breaking Jupiter's embrace. She was shivering. "I wanted to find…I thought, there must be a way—if it's to mean anything, there must be a way to, to win somehow…a power that could help us…and the Eternal transformation was the only thing I could think of…"
"You should know that you can't force it," said Endymion softly. "If it's even possible at all, it will come in its own time."
"But we have so little time left!"
"Only if you give up," Jupiter said firmly. "If you're willing to try, there's no limit to what you can do."
"But I have been trying! I have been—" Neptune stopped suddenly. "Have I?" she asked, sounding oddly curious.
Endymion's voice was sad. "Have you?" he repeated. "Or have you been hiding away, looking for a magic way to make everything right again?"
"Maybe I have," she murmured. "Maybe I—oh, damn it, I don't know anything any more…if only—" She looked up at them, and her eyes were full of tears. "If only Haruka were here, to tell me what's right! She always knew—she was always so certain—" And with that, at last, the floodgates were opened, and she began to cry.
"You don't need Haruka for that," Endymion told her. "You need courage, and faith. Believe in yourself, Michiru. Believe that there's hope."
"I know," she wept. "I know." Then suddenly she laughed through her tears. "That's what you always say, isn't it? 'Believe in yourself.' How come you're always so right all the time?"
He buffed his fingernails on his armour. "It's a talent I have," he said modestly. "Pick a message and stick with it, that's the trick."
She sniffed. "Idiot," she whispered. But it had done the trick; the mood had been broken. She pulled free of Jupiter and said with a sigh, "It's time to go, isn't it?"
Jupiter checked. "Another five minutes," she said. "Then we'll find out…"
"So we will," Neptune answered sombrely. She looked out over the ruined, pitted land beyond the city wall. The trio of Blue Crystites was moving on; they were already several hundred metres further down the wall.
"Maybe we do have a chance," she said, half to herself. "Maybe…"
Sensing her mood, Jupiter and Endymion did not reply. They simply stood with her, waiting in silence, as the minutes ticked away.
At last, the signal came.
And the gates of Crystal Tokyo opened, and her people poured forth, and went to war.
The army surrounding Crystal Tokyo was led by some thirty-six Blue Crystites, raining down an almost constant, devastating hail of death and destruction on the walls. They seldom approached the walls closely; they seemed to prefer to strike from a distance, letting the Clear Crystites act as their infantry. Even so, in just three days they had brought the city's defences to the brink of collapse.
Nothing seemed able to stop them. Nothing seemed to touch them at all. The Senshi had tried to strike back, several times. The Blue Crystites simply fell back when they came on the field, and allowed their clear kindred to fight in their place. Each time, within a few minutes the Senshi were so outnumbered that they had no choice but to retreat.
They usually travelled in groups of three. Now and then, larger groups would meet and act in concert for a short time; but three seemed to be the minimum number. Venus had planned the assault for a moment when the trios were as close together as possible.
On her signal, one thousand, eight hundred and fifty flyers lifted over the walls and flew to the attack. Each of them was armoured, and each of them carried as many people and weapons as would fit. They opened fire as soon as they cleared the wall.
At first they concentrated their aim on the crystites surrounding the city gates, opening a space for the second wave of the attack. Once the way was clear, the gates opened and the ground forces emerged: a ragtag army, on foot or riding in ground-effect vehicles, carrying the new portable railguns.
Then the flyers swept out toward their designated targets. They were limited in range; beyond a certain distance from the city, the enemy would have taken control of them. Within that range, though, there was no shortage of enemies. The larger flyers set down and people and equipment poured out, establishing beach-heads. The others continued to move in evasive patterns, keeping up constant fire on the nearby crystites.
They were using more than just railguns, now. They carried anything and everything that had a chance of damaging the enemy; everybody knew what would happen if they failed. So the crystites were deluged with acid sprays and ultrasonic bursts, plasma torches and tachyon streams, and even simple, traditional high explosives. The air was filled with smoke and thick, choking fumes, and penetrated by the blazing white tracery of railgun fire. The whistle and crump of artillery was everywhere, and the constant humming of the charging accelerators. At this range, it was hoped that the bombardment would be enough to penetrate the Blue Crystites' shields. Nothing would be held back today; every possibility would be tried.
When the attack began, the Blue Crystites hesitated, as if uncertain. Some of them began to turn away from the conflict, as they did when the Senshi entered the field. In that moment, the bombardment actually penetrated their shields for an instant and struck home. Six Blue Crystites exploded into vapour.
The attackers raised a cheer at the sight; but this minor victory seemed to make up the other crystites' minds. They started to move again—the loss of their companions did not seem to bother them at all—and began to fire back. A wave of energy bolts launched out at the attackers.
At this range there was no defence. Seventy human positions were reduced to blood and ash.
The bombardment continued; but the Blue Crystites no longer seemed troubled by it. Shots that hit the shields glanced off, or ricocheted back. The crystites fired again. Three hundred men and women died.
Standing on top of the wall, overlooking the battle, Venus swore. "They're recovering too fast!" she said furiously. "Is everybody ready? We've got to start now!"
The other Senshi nodded, and stepped into place. Neptune and Endymion moved forward, ready to shield the others if they were attacked. Then, at their ready nods, the four Inner Senshi stood in a circle, linked hands once more, closed their eyes—and joined their powers.
They had been unable to use their force shield to cover the city; the power radiating from the Ginzuishou made it impossible. But here, on the fringes of that power, Mercury had calculated that they would be able to use it for more limited purposes. So they joined together and united their strength, and focused it into a tight ball, and cast it downward. Out and down, into the battlefield—materialising the field precisely around a group of six Blue Crystites.
For a few moments, it hung there, shimmering faintly, sparkling where the breeze blew clouds of smoke into it. Then the Senshi began to pour all their power into it.
It began to shrink. It collapsed inward upon the crystites, smaller and smaller. It caught their shield and drove that inward too, forcing it down, back. For a few seconds it seemed as though the Senshi were going to win unopposed. Then the crystites struck back. Their shield stiffened against the Senshi's. The implosion slowed, then stopped.
The intersection of the two fields began to glow. Energy arced across it. The Inner Senshi gritted their teeth and pushed harder. The shields shuddered, and closed a few centimetres further in. Then they stopped again.
One by one, the other groups of Blue Crystites on the battlefield stopped firing upon the attacking humans. One by one, they looked up at the little group of Senshi on the wall.
"Here they come," said Endymion softly.
The crystites opened fire. Energy bolts blazed through the air toward the Senshi. Neptune and Endymion sprang to the defence. Neptune pulled out the Aqua Mirror and summoned a sheet of water that arched through the air. Every bolt that struck it was absorbed in a burst of steam. For his part, Endymion suddenly shifted out of his armour, and into a costume that he had not worn in centuries: his black tuxedo, complete with mask, top hat and cane. With one quick gesture, he threw the cane up into the air. It hung there, spinning like a propeller, and somehow contrived to arc around, catching the incoming bolts and deflecting them.
Behind them, the Inner Senshi groaned with effort, and drove their shield inward another half metre. It now formed a sphere less than five metres in diameter. The conflicting energies were almost too bright to look at.
"They can't do it," Neptune breathed.
"Yes, they can," said Endymion, his voice filled with the utmost confidence and certainty. "They believe, so they can do anything."
He winked at her. "With a little help from their friends." And he plucked a rose out of nothingness, and threw it.
It flew in an improbably straight line, straight toward the sphere. When it hit, it somehow passed through, unhindered—and struck one of the crystites directly in the eye.
The stalemate was broken in an instant. The Senshi's shield collapsed inward, almost too quickly to follow. There was a blinding flash, and a sound like thunder. Moments later, where six Blue Crystites had stood, there was nothing but a faint glittering powder, floating in the breeze.
The four Inner Senshi opened their eyes and released each other's hands with a gasp. They staggered back, chests heaving, their faces pale with strain. "We got them," wheezed Venus. "I think we got them."
"Yes," confirmed Endymion. "They're gone."
But Neptune shook her head, and said, "You got them? Take another look. Who got who?"
They looked out over the battlefield, and saw what had happened while they had been busy.
The forces of Crystal Tokyo were in total rout. More than twelve thousand people had gone out to fight, and less than a tenth of them were left. None of the flyers were still in the air. Thousands of crystites were destroyed, their shards littering the battlefield; but the others simply ignored their losses and pressed on. Here and there the Senshi could see scattered remnants of the human forces who were still fighting, but even as they watched another one of them broke and began to flee. The crystites cut them down before they had gone ten metres.
"Massacred," Neptune moaned. "They're being massacred."
"No…" whispered Rei in horror.
A large body of men and women, a thousand or more, were making toward one of the city gates. Behind them, a small group had stopped and turned to fight—deliberately sacrificing themselves to buy the others a little more time. They managed to bring down a few of the enemy, before the advancing crystites rolled over them.
The rest of the soldiers fought on toward the gates. There were under attack from every direction, but they were making headway. For a minute it looked as thought they were going to make it. Then an advancing flank of crystites surged out in front of them, cutting them off and forcing them to stop. In a few seconds more, they were surrounded.
The crystites began to close in on them, in a horrid mockery of the way the Senshi had close their shield upon the Blue Crystites only moments before.
"We've got to do something!" raged Neptune.
"How do we fight fifty thousand crystites at once?" shouted back Venus. "If you have any suggestions, I'd like to hear them!"
"The shield," rapped out Makoto. "Around those people. If we can cover them for long enough—"
"Quickly, then," Venus snarled. She held out her hands to Makoto and Rei. Ami closed the gap an instant later. They closed their eyes in concentration. Out on the battlefield, a glimmering formed, and spread to became a broad dome, covering the beleaguered soldiers.
"Follow them," Venus gasped through clenched teeth. "Move it…as they move…"
Slowly, the dome began to creep across the ground, following the people underneath as they started for the gates once more. For a little, it seemed that it was going to work. Then the Blue Crystites began to fire their energy bolts again—straight into the shield.
Nobody had to point out the obvious—that it was much harder for the Senshi to cast the shield from a distance, than when they stood at its centre. The bolts struck them like physical blows; as each one hit the dome, the four groaned in pain. Their grip on each other's hands was all that kept them from falling.
"Hold on," pleaded Neptune. "You've got to hold on!"
Endymion watched furiously. The remaining Blue Crystites were out of range of his roses, or even his Smoking Bomber attack. "Can't you help them?" he demanded helplessly.
"No!" she said helplessly. "None of the Outers could do it. We were there to attack the Queen's enemies. They were the ones who were supposed to shield the Princess…"
She cast a tormented look down at the battlefield. "But I can't attack now," she whispered. "I can't leave…and I can't fight that many of them anyway…"
She looked down at the Aqua Mirror, still in her hand, and then back up at Endymion. "You said they believe, so they can do anything," she said beseechingly. "What can I do now?"
The Blue Crystites fired again. A section of the dome flared with light, and Sailor Mars cried out in agony.
Neptune held up her henshin wand. "There must be more than this," she whispered.
Mercury groaned with effort. There was blood in her mouth, where she had bitten through her lip.
Sailor Neptune took a deep breath. "Neptune Eternal Make-up."
Another volley of shots. Jupiter gasped in pain. The dome blazed, and a narrow section of it winked out. Inside, a score of people fell.
"Neptune Eternal Make-up!"
"Michiru, don't," said Endymion.
More people died. Venus snarled in fury, and drove the gap in the dome closed again. In another moment, it was blasted open once more.
"No!" Neptune cried out. "Neptune Eternal Make-up!"
She was down on her knees, now, henshin wand in one hand and mirror in the other. Her face was chalk-white and beaded with sweat. Her words no longer drew even a glimmer of power from the stick, but each repetition was draining more from her all the same. She looked ready to pass out.
"Michiru, stop," Endymion pleaded. "You're only hurting yourself."
The crystites fired as one. The dome flickered, and for a moment guttered out of existence entirely. The Inner Senshi doggedly forced it back; but it was only a pale shadow of its former self now, a mere glimmer in the air.
"I don't care!" Neptune raged. "Do you hear? NEPTUNE ETERNAL MAKE-UP!"
Nothing happened. She swayed and fell. Her Senshi uniform flickered and faded. Kaiou Michiru levered herself painfully up onto her hands and knees, and then to her feet. She still held the mirror and her henshin wand.
The crystites fired. And fired. And fired.
The dome vanished like a soap bubble. The Inner Senshi collapsed to the ground, like puppets whose strings had been cut. Down on the battlefield, the last of the army of Crystal Tokyo began to die.
"No, damn it!" Michiru screamed. "NO! I WON'T LET IT END LIKE THIS!"
She held up the Aqua Mirror. For one moment it shone in her hand, as if a piece of the sun had been caught in the glass. Then, in one swift, sure motion, she brought it smashing it down onto the solid stone.
The mirror shattered with a gentle tinkle.
The world seemed to hold its breath.
A blaze of raw power erupted from the fragments. A fountain of light, a vortex of energy; it roared out of the splintered remains of the Aqua Mirror, an all-consuming, sea-green storm of chaos and destruction. There was a thunderclap of sound, like a storm-wave breaking, like the howling of a banshee wind, like the clamorous ringing of a thousand thousand bells.
Above it all, out of the centre of that vortex, out of a throat aflame with power and raw with need, came her cry.
"NEPTUNE ETERNAL MAKE-UP!"
The vortex became a whirling spindle of energy. It drew in, turned back on itself. Like an explosion in reverse, it collapsed inward. It poured itself into her; it filled her to bursting and then did it again, over and over. The air was sharp with the smell of ozone. Streamers of light, pale turquoise and aquamarine, burst out from the core of the spindle, arced back and shot into her like spears. The roaring of the ocean. A delicate shimmering, like sunlight refracted through an endlessly-moving watery surface.
The light and the power faded. They left behind a woman transfigured.
Her uniform was a delicate cream colour; her skirt was a pale green, with a double border of gold and aquamarine. Her gloves were longer, and of the same cream as her leotard. The bow on her breast had been replaced by a pair of stylised wings, of the same green as her skirt. The stone that had been in the centre of the bow had become a golden disc, imprinted with the astrological symbol for Neptune.
And on her back, there were her wings. But these wings were not flesh and blood and bone and feather. They were things of shimmering energy and pearly shadow. They seemed to ebb and flow, brightening and fading, as she moved.
"Yes," she whispered. "Oh, yes."
Then she took one short running leap, and soared into the air. Eternal Sailor Neptune circled once over the battlefield, and then swooped to the attack.
Her voice was clear and triumphant as she cried out her attack. "SOLAR TIDE EXECUTION WAVE!" And it came: a column of light, falling from the sky; a titanic beam of power, savage and beautiful, shimmering and rippling with all the colours of the sea. She caught it in her palms, and it gathered there; it swelled and took form, became a weapon of glittering energy. In the instant before she let it fly, it looked like a trident.
It howled down out of the sky like a meteor and struck the shield of a trio of Blue Crystites. It caught there for a moment, glowing brighter and brighter. Then it burst through. The shield flared out of existence, and the crystites followed it a microsecond later, swept away in a wave of sea-green energy that washed outward, taking more than a hundred other crystites with it before it finally faded out of view.
Down on the wall, the Inner Senshi were climbing back to their feet. They watched in stunned amazement; they heard her laugh in exultation as she launched the attack again and again. The sky was alight with green fire. Neptune herself almost seemed to be glowing.
"She's doing it," whispered Jupiter. "She's actually doing it."
The trident lashed down from the skies once more. Another trio of Blue Crystites became vapour. There were only four groups left now. They directed their energy bolts up at her, but she dodged them easily, wheeling and diving effortlessly around them. She was surrounded by a halo of blue-green light.
"No, wait," said Mercury. "Look."
Another hammer-blow from the heavens; another group of crystites flared out of existence, consumed by sea-green fire. The halo around Neptune continued to brighten. Her wings were glowing with a pale light.
There was horror in Mercury's voice. "It's too much for her," she said. "She can't—"
Neptune struck again; the trident thundered down toward its target—and missed. The Execution Wave hit the ground, carving out a deep crater. Neptune seemed to stagger in the sky; for a moment, it looked as though she was going to fall. Then she recovered and flew on, but more slowly than before. Still she glowed brighter.
Mercury's computer was in her hands; her fingers flew over it, scanning and analysing. "She can't possibly keep this up," she said. "The power is going to burn her to a cinder—"
Neptune's eyes were shining like twin stars. She left a luminous trail behind her in the sky. She was not laughing any more; she looked as though she were in pain. She threw another Execution Wave at the crystites that she'd missed before, and destroyed them; but as the energy left her hands, she seemed to sag. And still the aurora about her brightened.
"The power of the Talismans was never meant to be wielded so directly," Mercury said. "That's why it was bound away as it was. Her body can't channel that much energy." She looked sick. "She's burning herself up from within, with every attack…"
Above them, Neptune banked over another trio of crystites, and threw one more attack. It burned down from the sky—and behind it, for an instant Neptune too seemed to burn. They heard her cry out, faint and distant—and then she reeled and tumbled and began to fall, a helpless shooting star.
"No!" screamed Mars. "Sailor Neptune! Michiru!"
Barely fifty metres above the ground, Neptune stirred, and straightened out, spreading her wings and turning her plummet into a controlled dive. She pulled out of it just in time, skimming over the ground so low that she could have reached out and touched the crystites below her. They reached up for her as she passed, missing her by a hairsbreadth; in another second, she was moving upward again. She was so bright now that she seemed to leave a glowing trail in the air. But she was moving slowly, oh so slowly…
They saw her face for a moment as she passed over the wall. It was tense, drawn with pain, but filled with a grim resolution. She beat her way back up into the air, rising higher and higher. Below her, the last remnants of the human army escaped to safety through a field of enemy filled with confusion.
Venus tapped her communicator. "Michiru," she said urgently. "You've got to come back down, quickly. Ami says if you keep this up, you're going to—"
"Venus." It was Neptune's voice. But she sounded—strange.
Venus hesitated. "Yes," she said.
"Tell the others goodbye for me."
"What?" Venus looked down at her communicator, and then up into the sky in dawning realisation. "No!" she shouted.
"She knew," Jupiter said, horror in her voice. "She knew."
Above them, Neptune soared higher and higher. She was picking up speed now. She glowed, almost too brilliantly to look at. There were two suns in the sky, but one of them was green, and it moved rapidly through the air.
The sky darkened. Clouds began to gather around her. They moved in a vast spiral, slowly drawing inward.
Venus' communicator crackled, and they heard Michiru's voice say one more word. "Haruka," she murmured.
Then she cried out; and even from that great height, thousands of metres up in the air, her voice was piercingly clear and powerful; a voice filled with all the power of the sea, uttering words of thunder.
"NEPTUNE ETERNAL TSUNAMI!"
She flared with light. She became a star; she became a supernova. The heavens opened, and began to descend in fury.
Venus stiffened. "Get everybody off the wall," she snapped to Endymion. "Hurry!"
He lifted a commlink and began to speak quickly. Far above him, a sheet of solid water filled the sky. It drew nearer, and nearer. In the centre of it was a point of light.
All along the wall, people began to scramble for cover. Venus stood firm, her eyes lifted steadily upward. Her face was wet with tears.
The light grew brighter and brighter. Something was happening to the falling water. It foamed, roiled. There was a great wind, and a noise like a distant rumble, growing louder and louder. The water was boiling. Still the light grew, and the water became hotter yet; it became vapour, superheated steam, and then still hotter.
Venus looked over her shoulder. Above the city, the sky was clear. The tsunami was only falling outside the walls. Even in her final moments, Neptune's control was exquisite.
An ocean of raw, star-hot plasma descended on the crystites in almost perfect silence. From her place on the city wall, Venus watched it fall. A mighty scorching-hot wind came, threatening to lift her off her feet; but after a minute or two it dropped, and all was quiet again. The ground where the crystites had been was empty.
There was a sweet, fresh smell in the air.
"She knew," Jupiter repeated brokenly. "She knew it was killing her, but she wouldn't stop until it was finished…"
Endymion rested a hand on her shoulder. "Hush," he said gently. "She found the answers she was looking for."
She looked up at him defiantly. "How do you know?" she demanded. "How can you be so sure?"
Afterward, when the earth had cooled enough for it to be safe, Venus went out to see for herself. She found Neptune's uniform, some distance from the city gate. Her henshin wand and communicator were lying nearby. Nothing was left of her body at all.
The bow on the front of her uniform was a bright blue.
Neptune's sacrifice delayed the end for a full week.
By the time Venus carried her uniform back to the city, a new army of crystites was already on its way. A new group of thirty-six Blue Crystites led it. They reached the walls of Crystal Tokyo on the 29th of June, and broke through shortly after midnight the next day.
The moon had just set. The skies were deep and black. In the city streets, there was fire.
Most of the people were gone. The Senshi had spent their week of grace in escorting people away from the city. The camp they had been taken to was primitive, but it was the best that anyone had to offer. Too many defenders had died in that last disastrous battle, and it was painfully clear that, short of a miracle, nothing could save Crystal Tokyo now.
A few people would not leave; they insisted on staying and fighting to the last. Venus could not refuse them the right. Besides, with their help it was just possible that they would have enough strength to defend the Palace itself. Maybe, just maybe, there might be a miracle yet. If Serenity could break free…
The defenders met the enemy at the gates, and fell back along carefully-planned routes. At every step, they had set up barricades and other obstructions, designed to channel the advancing enemy through specific points. There were mines or booby-traps at some of those points. At others, concealed railguns were waiting.
The crystites paid them no heed. They advanced, imperturbable. Where there were obstacles, they smashed them or went around. Where there were booby-traps, the first to pass were destroyed—and the others came on. Where there were railguns, the crystites were shattered by tens and hundreds—but the gunfire could not hit all of them, and always, there were more coming.
They advanced from all directions, and they destroyed everything as they came, people and buildings both. Behind them they left nothing but a ruined wasteland.
At a little after nine in the morning, the last defenders fell back to the Palace and closed the doors. A curious silence fell. They exchanged glances and nervous grins. Win or lose, this was the last throw of the dice.
Venus looked down from a window high in the Palace and swore softly. "Look at them all," she said in disgust. "Where do they keep coming from?"
Mars shrugged. "One in ten people were changed," she said. "I doubt that we've seen even a twentieth of all the crystites in Japan alone." She looked over Venus' shoulder, down at the army surrounding the Palace. "A lot of them, aren't there?" she remarked.
Venus glared at her. "I'm glad you're taking it so calmly," she said acidly.
"Would you rather I panicked?" An angry gleam appeared in Mars' eye. "Or perhaps I could throw myself into the sacred fire, and see if it turns me into Eternal Sailor Mars?"
Venus winced. "Don't even joke about it."
"No," Mars agreed. Her anger retreated, a little. "Michiru despaired. I won't do that. She—she stole power, and used it to force a transformation she wasn't ready for, and she paid the—" She cut off short, unwilling to complete her sentence. Instead she sighed. "I'd suspected what she was thinking of, but I never dreamed she'd try what she did."
"She was always that way," said Venus morosely. "Her and Haruka. 'Sacrifices have to be made.' It was almost the Outers' motto."
Mars nodded. "Sometimes I thing that the Outers traded power for flexibility. Especially…moral flexibility. One way or another, they always demanded absolutes.
"But in the end," she added, "the one Michiru sacrificed was herself, to save others. And in a way, she saved herself, too. Perhaps Endymion was right; she found the answers she was looking for. Perhaps she learned something from Serenity…"
Venus did not answer for some time. She stood looking out of the window, down at the sea of crystites that surrounded the palace. At last she said, "I've been thinking about it, you know. About doing it myself."
Mars caught her breath. "You—Mina-chan, no!"
"I mean, wouldn't it be worth it?" Venus insisted. "If it meant I could destroy all their forces—save all those people—wouldn't that be worth it? Wasn't it worth it, in the end, what Michiru did?"
"No," said Mars softly.
"No," agreed Venus. She seemed to sag for a moment. "I thought about it a little more, and…it wouldn't work, would it?"
"No," said Mars again. "Michiru was driven to an extraordinary level of desperation. She was close to being able to change even without the power she stole. You don't have that…that need for justification. I think the power would simply kill you."
"Even if I had a source of power to break," Venus added. "And even then…if I destroyed another army, what would be the point? You said it yourself: we haven't seen a twentieth of the crystites in Japan alone. The Enemy'd just send more, and you'd be right where you are now, only without me."
"A poor trade," said Mars, carefully not smiling.
"Hey, yeah!" Venus brightened momentarily, then became solemn once more. "Anyway, we've evacuated the city. The only people left are volunteers. We should be able to hold the Palace for as long as we need, until Ami finds a way to shield Serenity."
Mars nodded. There was no need to point out the obvious. Deliberately changing the subject, she said, "Speaking of the evacuation—do you know if Higoshi-san and her children got out safely?"
"Yes. Three days ago. I made sure of that myself." Venus sighed. "I think they'll be safe. Not like the rest of us." She smiled, a little sadly. "Her line, at least, will continue."
They fell silent. There seemed little left to say. At last Venus sighed, and said, "We'd better get back to work. Colonel Shitsuji said he had everything organised, but there's probably a million things going wrong anyway…"
They shared a quick smile, and turned to go. At that moment, the alarms started to go off.
At first, the crystites tried simply breaking their way through. But the Palace defences had been carefully planned, long ago. The Nemesis invasion had taught Crystal Tokyo a lot, and Crystal Tokyo had not been slow to apply those lessons. If, in the centuries since then, the city had lowered its guard, the Palace had not. When it needed to be, it was palace and fortress both.
So the walls were layered and shaped to reflect physical force back upon itself; and the blows that the crystites directed against them did more damage to the attackers than to the walls.
So every centimetre of the exterior of the Palace was ray-shielded; and the energy bolts that the Blue Crystites aimed at it were caught, and twisted, and bent back again.
So, one by one, each attack failed; and all the while, the defenders inside the palace kept the crystites under a withering rain of fire. The enemy fell by tens and hundreds.
But there were always more to come.
Shortly after noon, they changed their tactics. The Blue Crystites slowly withdrew, and gathered together outside the main entrance. For a long time, they simply stood there, motionless, their eyes closed as if in thought. It was as if they were conferring. The defenders directed all their fire at them; but they ignored it completely. This close to Serenity and the Ginzuishou, the Senshi's force shield was useless; but the crystites' still worked perfectly.
Then a ripple of change swept over them. One by one, their eyes opened. They glowed a pale blue. One crystite stirred, and stepped forward. It marched unhurriedly up to the doors, held out one massive hand, and touched them.
Something like a spark leaped from its fingertip to the door; something tiny, motelike, but so bright that it was blinding. There was a sound like distant thunder. Almost imperceptibly, the doors quivered.
The Blue Crystite that had touched the door froze, and then—in less than a second—crumbled away into dust.
The remaining crystites showed no reaction. Moments later, a second one of them stirred to life, and marched forward. It touched the doors without hesitation. With a second flash and a thunderclap, it too became dust. And the doors quivered again.
One by one, they marched forward to their own dissolution. One by one, they touched the doors in turn. And with each touch, the doors shook a little more. By the twelfth crystite, they were quivering almost constantly. By the eighteenth, their rattling was becoming audible. By the twenty-third, they were bucking and flexing like live things.
The next crystite stepped forward. And the next.
Mercury and Jupiter were stationed at the front gates—perhaps the weakest point of the Palace's defences. They were busy checking over the gate defence systems when the soldiers stationed at the doorway called. Mercury dropped everything and came at a run, Jupiter at her heels. By the time they got there, the entrance hall was filled with a low rumbling sound; the floor was pulsing and shaking, and the doors—
"What are they doing?" Jupiter blurted out. At her side, Mercury frowned, but did not speak; she quietly dropped her visor over her eyes, and began to scan the doors with her computer. Her expression was grim.
One of the soldiers, a slender, grim-faced young woman, answered Jupiter. "It started just a few minutes ago. At first we thought they were trying to bash their way in again, but then—"
"It's some kind of harmonic effect," Mercury reported. Her fingers flew over her computer. "It's concentrated in the doors, but I don't see what they're—the defence grid is supposed to—"
The floor rocked, and she almost lost her balance. She continued to type furiously.
"Harmonic effect?" said Jupiter, looking confused. "You mean, like sympathetic vibrations? Are they trying to make the palace vibrate until it shatters—"
"No," Mercury said impatiently. "The palace structure is too inhomogeneous, it couldn't—never mind that now, I have to—" She stopped suddenly. "I think I see," she breathed. "They're feeding energy into the doors—they're setting up a kind of standing wave, a resonance loop—but if that's so, then—"
She froze. Her eyes widened.
"Jupiter, call the others," she ordered crisply. "Everyone, fall back. Now."
As the soldiers obeyed, puzzled and beginning to be afraid, she stepped forward and raised her hands. Ice began to cover the door. It was only a thin shell at first, barely visible. Then, faster and faster, it began to thicken.
"Ami-chan, are you—" began Jupiter worriedly.
Mercury's face was tense, taut with concentration. The ice on the door was nearly a metre thick. "Ice is a crystal, too," she ground out. "If I can add enough mass—fast enough to change the resonance patterns before they—"
The soldier who had spoken before hurried back to her side, saying urgently, "Ma'am, Colonel Nagumo says there'll be reinforcements here in two minutes…"
Mercury glanced over at her quickly. There was sweat on her brow; the effort she was making was clear. The ice continued to build under her hands. "All right," she gasped. "I think I can hold it that long…if I just—"
There was a sound of thunder.
The doors burst inward with a roar. Daggers of ice and crystal filled the air. The last thing Sailor Mercury saw was a splinter of ice, a metre long and razor-sharp, coming toward her like an arrow.
Sailor Jupiter saw Mercury fall with a spear of ice through her, sticking out from her back. She screamed in horror and ran toward her, but another explosion threw her off her feet. By the time she could stand again, there was only a huge pile of rubble and ice fragments where Mercury had fallen. One pale hand, bloody and still, protruded from the wreckage.
The crystites marched into the Palace.
Jupiter shouted something incoherent and attacked them. Beside her, the soldiers opened fire. Then, suddenly, Venus and Mars were there too. A blaze of lightning and fire and light drove the crystites back for a moment, and Jupiter broke away and ran to the rubble pile; but by the time she got there, there was no pulse in that hand, and the skin was already turning cold.
She knelt there, holding that still hand and weeping in horror and grief, unable to accept that Sailor Mercury, gentle Mizuno Ami, was dead, until an urgent warning shout from Venus roused her. At the same time, a shadow fell across her. She looked up in shock; she started to roll to one side, away from the blow; but it was far, far too late. A massive crystal fist shattered her skull.
The enemy advanced.
Luna found Artemis in a corridor just outside the Throne Room. The air was filled with the sound of shouts and screams, gunfire and distant explosions. The chaos had yet to penetrate this far into the Palace, but it was clear now that it was only a matter of time.
"You've got to save Diana," Luna told him.
Artemis stared at her incredulously. "I've got to—? Luna, what are you talking about? You can't just ask me to—"
He faltered as it sunk in. She was asking.
He tried again. "How can you even think that I'd…" And again, he trailed off. Luna was talking about his daughter. Their daughter. "Diana," he breathed. "Luna, what the hell? I thought she was evacuated a long time ago—I haven't even seen her for weeks—"
"She's still here," said Luna carefully. "She hasn't been getting around much, just lately."
"But—" Artemis fumbled for the words. "Luna, you know I can't. If she stayed, she…she knew the risks. I won't blame her if she leaves on her own, but—I—you, you can't ask me to abandon the others! You can't ask me to run away, Luna! I can't—"
"You have to," Luna told him fiercely. "You have to save her, Artemis!"
He shook his head wildly. "But—" he began.
"Because she's pregnant."
"She—" He stared at her, stunned. "What?"
"The child is due in just a few days," said Luna. Her voice was calm, but there was a furious intensity in her eyes. "Diana is in no condition to leave on her own. She was supposed to have gone to safety three weeks ago, but this morning I found out that she stayed anyway. And now, it's too—"
"But," he fumbled, "how—? Who—?"
"There's no time to argue about it!" she burst out, frustrated. "You have to! You're the only one who can do this!"
"You could do it yourself," he objected. Then, with a sudden chill, he saw the truth. "You could, but you won't," he said flatly. "So you picked me—"
"Because you will," she said. "If you have to." Under his accusing gaze, she crouched down, her hackles rising. There was only firm, cold determination in her eyes. "I'll never leave Serenity," she hissed. "Never!"
"Because she's your other child," Artemis whispered. "Your firstborn."
"That's right," Luna snarled. "That's exactly right."
He backed away a little from the rage in her eyes. "Then I don't suppose I have any choice, do I?" he asked, defeated.
Her anger seemed to retreat a little. "No," she said, "you don't."
He had to look away. "All right," he said. "All right. I'll go. Tell me where to find her—"
Luna gave him quick directions to a little-used section of the Palace, at the rear, close to the Guard headquarters. As he prepared to go, she said, "Take care of her, Artemis. And give her my love."
He nodded dumbly, realising that she did not expect to see him again. He stepped forward, touched noses with her one last time. Luna: friend, sometimes lover, companion of a thousand years. Good-bye.
As he turned to go, he heard her mutter, "Damn, but I hate doing this." He looked back, and saw her change. She shimmered, and her body stretched, reshaped itself. A young woman with black hair and a golden crescent moon on her forehead bent down to pick up a portable railgun that had been lying on the floor nearby. He saw her step out past the corner at the end of the corridor, crouch down, and open fire on the enemy.
He saw a whirling cloud of crystal shards rip her head from her body.
With a sob, he looked away, and ran to find his daughter.
So it came to an ending.
Sailor Venus, Sailor Mars and King Endymion made their last stand before the twin thrones. In the bubble behind them, Queen Serenity floated, her eyes wide open, staring sightlessly out at the enemies that poured into the Throne Room, and the lone trio who remained to defend her.
They fought with a brilliance born of desperation. But they were constrained by their surroundings, and by the necessity of defending the Queen. One by one, the trio fell.
Sailor Mars was hit in the leg by an energy bolt from one of the Blue Crystites. She staggered and would have fallen, but before she could hit the ground another crystite was upon her, four fists lashing out at once. The sound of bones breaking was horribly loud. Mars flew backward and struck the wall with an audible crunch, and slid limply to the floor. Blood spilled from her open mouth.
Sailor Venus fought on, last of the Senshi as she had been first. She was a blonde dervish; she kicked and leaped and spun, her every motion swift and clean, striking another enemy with every attack. But six Blue Crystites shot her at once, and she could not evade the crossfire. Her whole body lit up with the energy that poured into her; she seemed to hang suspended in mid-air. The body that hit the floor was a charred ruin.
And lastly there was Endymion, alone before his beloved. He fought on for longer than anyone might have expected; but in the end they brought him down. An energy bolt shattered his armour; a crystal foot broke his sword. His roses claimed a dozen more of them yet, before the end; but then one of them caught him by the throat, and crushed it. As he fell, a foot kicked out and smashed his chest.
Queen Serenity screamed.
When the enemy broke into her palace, her eyes opened. Nobody saw it; her head was bowed forward, her eyes in shadow. But she felt it; she felt the invasion, and slowly, she began to be drawn back to herself.
She had fought for so long already. She had wrestled with the Enemy, endlessly, for more than two months. With dogged determination she had blocked every attack, denied every attempt. She had bound her own life to that of the Ginzuishou; she had made it part of herself. Unheeding of what was going on around her, unaware of anything but the necessity of preventing the Enemy from possessing the crystal, she had sealed herself away, denying the invading force any access to what it sought. But now, she felt the invader drawing nearer and nearer in spite of all her efforts. She opened her senses, and she felt:
She felt Mercury be buried by falling rubble, the icy spear protruding from her back. She felt Jupiter's sudden end, and Luna's. She felt the death of every last defender in the Palace. She was in torment. She saw the enemy enter her Throne Room. She saw Rei fall; she saw Venus burn. But when she saw what they did to her husband, she could contain the anguish no longer.
She screamed. And in her hands, the Ginzuishou flamed.
It was a cry of protest, of anguish, of utmost extremity. Her pain, her loss, her ultimate rejection of this end blazed pure and clean within her. The crystal flared in her hands, incandescent. She called upon its utmost power. Unheeding of the destruction about her, she invoked life.
The Throne Room blazed with light. The shell around her blinked out of existence in an instant; in another moment, the crystites in the Throne Room became dust. Still the light spread. It filled the palace; it spread beyond. The streets of Crystal Tokyo became luminous rivers.
With a howl of frustrated fury, the Enemy broke away, unable to tolerate that deadly light.
Serenity lowered her hands, and the power ebbed away. Slowly, she got to her feet. She looked around the Throne Room and saw what had become of her people.
Artemis saw it end.
He had found Diana and carried her to safety, taking human form to lift her. He made his way out of the Palace through the link to the underground Archives complex; but once he had found a safe place to hide her he returned to the Palace, running like a madman, dodging and weaving past the enemy in cat form once more.
He reached the throne room just in time to see Minako fall. On top of Luna's death, it was almost more than he could take. Life-long companions, each of them, and in less than an hour he had lost them both.
Then Endymion died, and he saw Serenity's transfiguration.
As the light died away, the Queen stood and looked around the Throne Room. He heard her gasp in horror at the sight. He saw her steel her shoulders and step forward to confront the worst.
She knelt briefly, and touched the shoulders of her three fallen defenders. Then, silently, she rose and walked out of the Throne Room. Her eyes were dry, but there was a look of such grief and loss on her face that Artemis could hardly bear to see it. He fell in behind her, following her as she walked through the corridors of the Palace. She glanced back at him once, but did not speak.
At the doors of the Palace, she stopped, and looked out over her city, and saw what had been done to it. She buried her face in her hands and wept.
"Your Majesty…" said Artemis painfully.
"Who did this, Artemis?" she whispered. "Who did this thing?"
"We never knew," he answered wearily. He told her what had happened, from Usagi's death to the fall of the Palace gates. He spoke briefly, but he left nothing important out. "We never even found out why," he finished in a low voice. "They just attacked and attacked, and we never even found out why."
"No. I understand." She looked out across the smoking ruins of the city. "Is—is there anyone left? Anywhere?"
He nodded. "Yes. Some. We managed to evacuate a few of the people. And there are still survivors elsewhere in the world. Most people weren't affected by the Glass Plague. A lot—some of them should still be alive."
"Then there is hope for the future." Serenity drew a deep breath. "Thank you, Artemis. I—I want you to go now."
"What?" He stared at her, hurt. "Serenity, no! I can't—" He broke off. "Why does everyone think I'm ready to run away and abandon the people I love?" he asked bitterly.
"No! It's not like that!" she exclaimed. He looked up at her, startled, and saw with a chill just how pale her face was, and how drained she looked.
"Don't you see, Artemis?" she said. "Someone has to carry on. It's going to have to start over now, just…just like it did before. Someone will have to find them all, and show them who they are. Teach them about their heritage."
"No—" he protested. "You can't…ask me to go through that all over again…"
"Who else is there?" she asked gently. She held up the Ginzuishou, glittering in the late afternoon sunlight. Her hand looked almost transparent. "I bound myself to it too closely, Artemis. I don't have much time left." She gave a faint smile. "Just enough to finish what I have to, perhaps.
"I'm going to do it again," she told him. "Send them forward. I won't let them die like this. I won't allow it to end this way. The cycle will turn, Artemis; they'll live again, someday, and you'll find them, and teach them to be themselves again."
She gave a sweet, sad smile. "And this time, Small Lady will be their Moon Princess. Be good to them, Artemis. Take care of my daughter."
"Well, I can hardly send myself forward, can I?" she asked reasonably. "Besides, I have other things I have to do.
"There's an Enemy down there, underground. And once I've saved my people, we two will have one more contest. And we shall see who is the stronger, then."
He bowed his head. "Your Majesty," he said. Acceptance, acknowledgement, and farewell…with love.
"Go on, now," she said. "This Palace won't be safe once the battle begins."
"You were never my daughter," he said with difficulty. "But you were hers. Goodbye…Tsukino Usagi."
She nodded, and smiled that gentle, glorious smile. And Artemis turned away and left the Queen in the ruins of her city, and went to do her bidding.
He looked back, one last time, as he made his way away from the Palace. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something moving. He turned his head, but saw nothing. Then something caught the sun with a cold sparkle, and he saw.
Crystites. More of them. A party of at least twenty. Heading toward the Palace.
Without hesitation, he turned and started back. One last desperate race. Somehow, even as he ran, he knew he would not be in time.
Serenity was standing on the steps of the Crystal Palace. Her head was lowered, her face taut with effort. The power of the Ginzuishou was gathering about her. She was lost in concentration; all her senses were elsewhere. Reaching out, gathering in the souls of those she loved.
She was still at work, pouring all her spirit, all her love, into the crystal, when the invaders ran her through.
It was the evening of June 30th, 3478.
Happy fifteen hundredth birthday, Queen Serenity.
Hino Rei awoke in darkness and pain.
She reached out a hand, and even that small motion was agony. Her chest felt as though it was full of broken glass. Everything else hurt too; her back felt as though she had been beaten with a baseball bat, and there was a horrible, burning pain in her leg. But her chest was the worst. There was a foul taste in her mouth, and after a while she realised that it was blood.
Coughing up blood was a pretty bad sign, she remembered. Well, Ami would be able to take care of her.
Then she remembered that Ami was dead.
She wasn't Sailor Mars any more, for some reason. If she transformed, then at least the accelerated healing should help. She steeled herself and made the familiar mental effort that should have triggered her change. Nothing happened.
Too weak to do it, she thought muzzily. She felt around gingerly, and found her henshin wand lying nearby. Somehow, even in the darkness, she knew where it was.
"Mars Crystal Power, Make-up," she whispered. And again, nothing happened.
She tried the other variations—Star Power, and plain old Mars Power. Neither of them did anything at all. After some hesitation, she even tried for Eternal Power. Still nothing.
Tired, confused, and in a great deal of pain, she managed to lever herself up onto her hands and knees, and then to her feet. There was a little light filtering in from the windows high in the east wall. The sun was just rising, she realised. What day was it?
The light, slowly growing, revealed things she would rather not have seen. Venus' body, and Endymion's.
Serenity was not there, she saw with a flash of hope.
Slowly, haltingly, she made her way through the Palace. The building was half in ruins. On her way, she saw Jupiter's body, and was surprised to find that even that saddened her, for all the bad blood that there'd been between them in the last few years.
A dim red-gold light was spreading across the city as she emerged into the open air. On the Palace steps, she found Queen Serenity.
Crying was new agony, but she cried for a long time. She wanted to bury the Queen, but she could not even manage to lift her body. In the end, she had to leave her lying there, and that was worse than anything else.
Eventually, she thought to look for the Ginzuishou, but it was nowhere to be found.
The streets of Crystal Tokyo were filled with crystites, lying silent and motionless. It looked as though they had simply fallen over and turned to glass. She kicked one, and it broke into pieces with a faint clink. She gave a thin, rusty laugh.
Alternately crying and laughing, half-mad with grief and pain, Hino Rei staggered away from the palace, into a dark future.
For a long time after Itsuko's voice fell silent, nobody said a word. The room was darkened, and everyone's face was half in shadow. Somehow, as they had listened, most of the day had gone by.
At last Artemis said quietly, "So there you have it."
Still nobody else spoke. Itsuko sat back from the table, looking out of the window, a curiously pensive look on her face. Miyo had her hands in her lap, and was staring at them fixedly.
The silence was broken at last as Suzue took a long, deep breath. She bit her lip, and then said, "You never defeated the Great Enemy."
"No," said Itsuko, without turning.
"You never found out who it was."
"No," echoed Miyo. She did not look up.
"You never even knew why you were being attacked."
"No," said Artemis. He could not meet her eyes.
"How—" Suzue broke off, looking around the three. "How can you stand it?" she demanded.
None of them answered at once. At last, Itsuko turned to face her and said quietly, "It's different for Miyo. But Artemis and I—" She looked over at the cat, but he shook his head. "We live," she finished sadly. "We live."
"We work," said Artemis.
She nodded, looking grateful for the correction. "Yes. There's that. We work…" Her voice grew firmer as she spoke, echoing words that she had once spoken to Artemis: "We survive. We remember. And just maybe, if we can…we act." She stared at them all defiantly. "I may have lost my powers, I may have outlived her by seven centuries, but I am still in the service of my Queen. I failed her once before, but I will not do so again."
Miyo looked up at her, shocked. "Rei…" she breathed. "How can you say that? You didn't fail her—you would have given your life for her—"
"Then why am I alive, and she dead?" asked Itsuko simply.
"No! You can't blame yourself for that! It wasn't your fault!"
"Nevertheless." But after a moment Itsuko sighed. "In any case, it doesn't matter," she said. "Because now, there's a second chance."
She looked around the room. "Now that you're all here—" She lifted a hand to indicate the five of them. "Now, perhaps we have hope again. Perhaps you can finish what we could not."
Iku looked appalled. "We're going to fight…that?" she asked. A moment later, she looked shocked at the sound of her own voice.
Beth nodded in agreement. "An enemy that defeated all the old Senshi combined?"
"But it's different now, don't you see?" exclaimed Artemis. "Back then, the Enemy was so powerful because it controlled crystal, and the whole world ran on crystals. But now, none of that works any more! Nearly everything today is based on twenty-first century technology from the Archives. Most of the Enemy's power is gone! And there aren't any people left that it can transform into its tools. It's got to be a hundred times weaker than before, a thousand! It—"
"I'm not so sure about that," said Suzue.
"What?" Artemis rounded on her indignantly. "But it has to be weaker! Otherwise it'd already have—"
Suzue seemed to wilt under his glare. "I'm sorry," she said hastily. "Forgive my presumption, Artemis-sama."
Artemis came to a sudden halt. "Er, what?" he said. He glared at her. "Wait a minute. Are you trying to be funny?" he asked suspiciously.
Suzue's eyes grew large. "I would never—"
Miyo laughed. "She's got you, Artemis. Why don't you try listening to her? Don't let him bully you, Suzue-san."
"Err…" Suzue hesitated for a moment longer, but then said diffidently, "You said that there aren't any people left that the Great Enemy can transform. But that can't be true, can it?"
"Oh! You mean Lady Blue and her toys." Artemis thought it over. "But she actually has a crystal shard embedded in her skull. And the vitrimorphs could be entirely artificial; actually, from the shapes some of them have taken, that's pretty likely."
"I'm not so sure," Suzue said again. "I was thinking of what you told us about that thing that Sailor Venus fought, down in the pit. That wasn't a crystite. It was a vitrimorph—wasn't it?"
"What?" said Itsuko, startled. Miyo said, "Huh?" at the same moment.
Artemis seemed just as taken aback. "I—I don't—" he fumbled. At last he admitted, "Actually, I never got all that good a look at it. Minako was the one who fought it up close…"
Miyo glanced quickly at Beth.
"It could be, I suppose," the cat went on grudgingly. "The description she gave me later is pretty close. It never even occurred to me before—there was only ever the one of them, and it was all over so quickly…"
"But it does tie together," Miyo breathed. "Which would mean that somewhere in Third Tokyo, somebody's taking human beings and…" She shuddered suddenly. "Damn! I never really saw the thing, back then; I was stuck up at the top of the pit. The most I saw of it was the flash when Mina-chan shot it, and then when it blew up."
"That flash," said Beth thoughtfully. "I remember—hey, obaasan, back at the department store, when you shot the vitrimorph that was trying to kill me, it glowed, too."
"Don't call me—" Miyo began automatically, before giving up. "Yes, but the one down in the pit in 3478 was already glowing, even before Venus shot it."
"It glowed brighter after she shot it, though," Artemis put in. "A lot brighter."
"So…they absorb energy?" suggested Dhiti. "But my Ice Spear doesn't make them glow. Neither does Venus' Love-Me Whoozis. So—" She broke off. "Wait. That Music of the Spheres thing didn't do it either."
"But Suzue-san's attack is a sonic one," pointed out Itsuko. "That's an entirely different type of energy."
"Radiant energy…and electrical energy," mused Suzue. "I wonder what would happen if Sailor Mars attacked one."
"Just a few sparks," said Bendis. "But then, her attacks are so low-powered anyway—" She cut off suddenly at a look from Artemis. Iku was completely expressionless.
"So what are you saying?" Miyo asked Suzue.
"They absorb energy—but only if it's in an easily-convertible form," Suzue answered. "The one back in 3478 might have been glowing to start with because the city was filled with the power of the Ginzuishou."
Dhiti shot her a dark look. "Maybe you should have the damn computer instead of me," she muttered. Suzue blinked, then shrugged.
"What does it all mean, though?" asked Beth plaintively.
"The Enemy controls crystal," said Artemis slowly. "When Serenity died, crystal power stopped working, and all the crystites died too. But the vitrimorphs run on some other kind of energy—maybe they weren't used much during the Fall because crystal energy was so much more plentiful?"
"But what kind of power?" asked Beth. "Maybe if we could find a way to block it…"
"Planet power," said Iku in a low voice.
"Star power," suggested Dhiti. A half-forgotten voice whispered in her memory: Everything is governed by the stars… She shivered.
"Our power," said Miyo grimly. "When I shoot them, they get stronger. That one in the theatre didn't start firing energy bolts until after I hit it."
"Planet power, star power…and crystal power too?" wondered Suzue. She grimaced. "They seem especially designed to fight us."
"I'm beginning to think," said Miyo, "that it's been us all along."
The setting sun shone through the windows of the chairman's office, on the fourth floor of the Council Chambers. The chairman ignored it, as he ignored the view through the windows. 'C' Division regulations limited the height of buildings in the district around the Chambers, so the view was rather good. Still, he had other things to think about.
He was chairman of the Serenity Council; and whatever other, less public functions the Council had, he was still the leader of Japan, the most powerful nation in the world. There was a lot of work that went with the job, and he performed it punctiliously.
Wearily, he turned another page of the report: a lengthy monstrosity from 'F' Division on tariffs. When the computer on his desk pinged, it was a welcome distraction. He reached out with one gloved hand and turned the screen on. He stiffened when he saw who the message was from.
Three minutes later, he picked up his commset mobile and punched in a number. It buzzed for some time, before being answered with a sudden clatter. A voice at the other end said, "Yes?"
"It's me," said the chairman easily. "I've just had a report back from M. It seems that our crashed Opal was the victim of sabotage."
"Oh?" said the other.
"Very cleverly and subtly done, M says." The chairman smiled. "I've sent you on a copy of the report. I thought that perhaps you'd like to look into it personally."
"I'll do that," said Number Twelve.
The meeting wound on. The eight of them argued back and forth, but without reaching any more conclusions. After a while, seeing that the rest of them were getting tired and starting to lose their tempers, Itsuko excused herself and left. A few minutes later she called them through to the living room with an offer of food, and the discussion came to an abrupt end. For a while the suite became silent, except for the sound of chewing and the sipping of drinks.
"We still have to decide what to do about this Council offer," Itsuko announced, a little later. The others groaned at her, but she persisted. "They want to meet with the Senshi. The question is, do you want to do it?" she asked.
"Yes," said Beth.
"No," said Bendis.
The two glared at each other.
"Glad we got that cleared up," murmured Dhiti.
Miyo sighed. "Seriously, though," she said.
"Well, what do you want?" complained Dhiti. "They say they want to help us. That could be good. But…" She shrugged. "Are they going to want to know our real names?"
"What else will they want?" put in Artemis.
"I don't want them to find out my real name," said Iku in a small voice.
"I don't want anything to do with the Council," said Suzue flatly.
Beth blinked at her. "But don't they have a…a kind of right to know who we are?" she asked. "I mean, they are the Serenity Council."
"Just because they call themselves that doesn't mean anything," said Artemis. Itsuko caught his eye at that moment and gave a tiny shake of her head. It took him a moment to understand. Let the young ones make their own decision, she was saying. He thought about it, then nodded back.
"They do say they're ruling in the name of the Queen, and until her return," said Miyo thoughtfully. "They have the Swearing-In ceremony every year."
"That still doesn't mean anything," argued Dhiti. "Geez, Hayashi, politics!"
"I don't trust them," said Bendis darkly.
"You just think every Serry is after your neck," said Beth.
"Well, maybe they are!" snapped Bendis. "Remember that Opal that chased us! Did that seem so friendly to you?"
Beth flinched, almost unnoticeably. "But that was different," she said. "Wasn't it?" She sounded uncertain now. "I mean—you can understand why they'd be interested in…" She trailed off.
"It was pretty unfriendly of them," reflected Miyo.
"Unfriendly? They chased us all over the city," said Dhiti. "That was more than unfriendly, Hayashi. I'm with Bendis on this one. If they wanted to find out more about us, they could have stuck their heads out and said hi, or invited us to a clambake or something."
At her side, unnoticed, Iku mouthed the word 'clambake'.
"It could just have been the officer in charge of the Opal, though," said Miyo reasonably. "The Chairman did say the Council wants to help us."
"So you think we should talk to them?" asked Beth.
Miyo hesitated, then said, "Perhaps the real question is, can the Council help us? Or would we be better off working on our own?"
Dhiti looked interested. "I hadn't thought about it like that," she said. "After all, the vitrimorphs are coming after us. It's not as though they're laying siege to the city again."
"It's…our business, not theirs?" suggested Beth. She looked unconvinced, but she was beginning to waver.
"Sure!" said Dhiti. "The Serries probably just want us for publicity, or something. Get their pictures taken with the Sailor Senshi. Next thing you know, it'll be product endorsements." A glint appeared in her eye. "'Hi there! My name is Sailor Mercury. But sometimes, when I'm out fighting evil, the monsters just don't recognise me. That's why I always carry…Henshin Card!'" She struck a pose. "'Don't fight youma without it.' Or maybe—"
Miyo shuddered. "Please. I've been through that once before, and it wasn't any fun at all."
Dhiti smirked. "Could be worse, Hayashi. I mean—what if they want us to take power, or something? Start up a new Silver Millennium for them?"
Suzue looked shocked. "That would be…that would be blasphemy!" she burst out. "To usurp the throne of the ble—of Queen Serenity—you can't think that we'd—"
"Well, we couldn't, could we?" said Beth logically. "Not without Sailor Moon, anyway."
"That's not funny!" Suzue insisted.
Beth stared at her. "What? It wasn't meant to be a—"
"Look, let's not go over that again," put in Miyo. "We don't have a Sailor Moon, and we don't know if we're going to have a Sailor Moon. Serenity and Princess Usagi both died, and it's hard to see how either of them could be reborn, when the Princess died so long before the end. But with or without an heir to the throne, we still have a job to do."
She looked around them all firmly. "We—the eight people in this room now—may be the last remains of the Moon Kingdom. Or we could be the start of something new. For now…let's not get distracted, huh?"
Beth looked up at her doubtfully. "You think talking to the Council would be just a…distraction?" she asked.
"We can be celebrities, or we can get on with our work," Miyo replied flatly. "Think about it."
Beth hung her head, looking a little sheepish. "Maybe you're right," she admitted in a low voice.
There was a low murmur of agreement from the others. Most of them looked relieved.
Itsuko cleared her throat. "Is that your decision?" she asked quietly. "You'd rather not get involved in, well, public affairs?"
She ran her eyes around the table. One by one, they all nodded. Itsuko gave a quick, satisfied nod of her own. "All right," she said. "Let me take care of telling the Council, then. I think I can manage to do it quietly, without giving anything away."
More nods came from all around the table. In their wake, though, an uneasy silence fell. Suddenly, nobody seemed to know what to say. Miyo sat back, muttering something in Artemis' ear. Beth, Suzue and Iku just sat there, looking awkward. Dhiti sighed to herself. Guess it's up to me to save the day again, she thought with wry resignation. She opened her mouth to say something outrageous—
—And let out a startled squawk as something warm and furry landed in her lap, hard. She sat bolt-upright, reaching out to push whatever it was away, and found her hands encircling…Bendis?
The cat ignored her completely, stretched out her neck, and took another mouthful from Dhiti's plate.
Beth began to snicker.
"And what," asked Dhiti frostily, "do you think you're doing?"
"Well, you weren't eating it," Bendis pointed out. She took another bite.
"No, but I would have!" Dhiti protested. "Look, you can't just go around helping yourself to other peoples' food!"
"Why not? I am a cat, you know."
"But—but—" Dhiti couldn't believe it. She was playing straight man to a cat. "Why pick on me?" she asked plaintively. "What's wrong with stealing Beth's food, anyway?"
"Beth won't let me," said Bendis reasonably, not lifting her eyes from Dhiti's plate.
The girl glanced across the table. Sure enough, Beth was keeping a close eye on Bendis. She was also laughing openly at Dhiti. So were all the others.
"We'll see about that," Dhiti said firmly. She reached out and stole a rice ball from Beth's plate, popping it into her mouth and chewing quickly. For good measure, she took one from Miyo, too.
Beth and Miyo both yelped very gratifyingly…and the rumble was on.
There wasn't enough food left for a really satisfying food fight, unfortunately, but they did their best. Suzue turned out to be a demon shot, pelting all the others indiscriminately while managing to dodge almost all the return fire. Bendis dodged in and out of the rumpus, stealing food right and left and jumping up to catch titbits in mid-air. Even Artemis joined in, eventually. Only Itsuko and Iku stayed clear. The one time Dhiti tried to take anything from Iku's plate, Iku simply sat back and let her, a look of weary resignation on her face.
Eventually the food supply petered out, and the girls collapsed back to the floor, laughing and chattering. From the look on Itsuko's face, it wasn't nearly soon enough. But as it turned out, the rumpus was far from over.
The fight had succeeded in changing the mood completely. Somehow, the evening became more of a party than a Senshi meeting. Miyo got up to put some music on, and the talk and the laughter became a lot wilder and freer. More plates of food materialised from somewhere.
Dhiti tried dancing to the music, but gave it up when nobody else showed any interest in joining in. Instead, she and Miyo organised an impromptu Limbo contest. This proved to be different enough to get them all interested, and in the end, everyone had a try; and lo, there was much flexing of limbs and bruising of rears. (Dhiti won, but rather to everyone's surprise, Iku came second.)
And later—parental permission for a late evening having been sought, and granted—there was time to lounge back and sip tea and gossip, about nothing in particular, and about anything under the sun. So they talked about hobbies: Beth and her tramping and rock-climbing; Miyo's plants and her cooking; Suzue's love of fashion, and an unexpected passion for Bridge; and Dhiti and her general determination to try everything the world had to offer.
After a while, somehow the subject of boyfriends came up. Suzue admitted that she had been seeing a boy for several months now, and Beth shyly talked about a boy at her school. Miyo tried to deny any interest in men, but Dhiti insisted on telling the others about Mark.
"Why don't you tell them about your own boyfriend?" Miyo retaliated at last, before Dhiti could start into the slug story, or worse.
Dhiti pouted. "Unfair, Hayashi," she complained. "Like I ever have any luck with boys—"
"What about Okura? You went out with him a couple of times." Dhiti started to protest, but Miyo went on to the others, "We never found out what happened, that second time. Kin-chan and me found him running down the road, yelling at the top of his voice—he was covered from head to foot in motor oil—and there was Dhiti-chan running after him, without a single drop on her, shouting 'Come back here and try it again!'" Above the general laughter, Miyo added, "For the next few weeks, he used to turn pale any time he even saw Dhiti-chan…"
"That's not true!" Dhiti protested. "It wasn't—" She stopped, her face darkening. "It wasn't all motor oil," she muttered sheepishly, studying her feet. "Most of it was just mud."
That only made it worse, of course. "What did you do?" demanded Beth, laughing so hard that she could hardly speak.
"I can't say," said Dhiti. She brightened suddenly. "I promised I wouldn't," she went on. "Wild badgers couldn't drag it out of me. Threaten me with tweezers, I'll never tell! Ha ha ha! Anyway," she added, "he saw the funny side of it, eventually."
"Oh, yes," said Miyo. "That's what he said. 'It was sort of funny, in a way.' But he was shivering as he said it…"
Out in the kitchen, Itsuko was talking to Artemis. "I think they'll do very well," she said quietly. "Most of them seem fairly promising. And they respect Miyo, which helps…"
"Not like you and Usagi, eh?" said Artemis teasingly.
She grimaced. "That wasn't quite the same thing," she said. "What I meant was, they know who she is, but they don't seem intimidated by it. That's a relief."
"I can't imagine Dhiti-san being intimidated by anything," murmured Artemis.
"No." Itsuko suppressed a grin.
"She's an odd one, Dhiti," Artemis mused. "She's smart enough; I get the feeling she might even be as smart as Ami. But she doesn't care about it. She's just not interested in…well, the intellectual pursuits. I don't think she's really gotten the hang of her computer yet."
"Not everyone has to be a genius," Itsuko pointed out. "If you're looking for a brain, try Suzue-san. She seems pretty sharp."
"Yes, though she's a bit too serious for her own good. And there's something…odd about her."
"Just her?" Itsuko chuckled. "Which of them isn't there something odd about?"
Artemis snorted. "Well, yes. But she gets…twitchy sometimes. As if there's something she wants to say, but she's afraid to."
"Oh? I hadn't noticed…" Itsuko shrugged, and took a sip of coffee. "The really twitchy one was Iku-san, I thought."
"Yes. I want to have a talk to Bendis about her later—"
The door opened, and Miyo came in. She raised her eyebrows as she saw the two of them. "There you are," she said. "Good. Listen, I've been wanting to talk to you about something."
"About Iku-san, by any chance?" asked Artemis. "We were just talking about her."
"Huh? No. Well, yes, her too, I suppose." Miyo looked flustered. "But there was something I noticed before—about Beth. When she became Sailor Venus."
"Yes?" said Artemis cautiously.
Miyo stared at him for a moment. "Well, you must have noticed how she was acting," she said. "When she came in she was all quiet and nervous, and kind of shy. And then, when she changed—" She waved her arms expressively. "Artemis…do you think…is it possible…that she could be, you know…" She dithered for a moment longer, then said in a rush, "Do you think she could be Minako reborn?"
Artemis blinked. "Minako?" he blurted out. "Miyo, she doesn't look anything like her!"
"I know that!" said Miyo excitedly. "But isn't it possible that…somehow, she got…oh, I don't know!" she burst out. "If she was reborn differently, somehow? I know she's different most of the time, but when she's Venus, she's just so…"
"That's not—" Artemis began.
"I have to say that I was surprised when I met her," put in Itsuko thoughtfully. "Beth is certainly nothing like the Venus I'd been hearing about—or on those viddy reports. It's hard to believe that they're the same person at all."
"You're talking about a split personality," said Artemis, "with the other, well, half of her taking over when she changes? And this other 'half' is Minako reborn? I've never heard of anything like that before."
"But remember, Serenity wasn't able to finish sending us all forward!" Miyo pointed out. "Couldn't that have affected her rebirth?"
"Affected—?" Artemis shook his head. "I have no idea," he admitted.
"Thanks a heap," muttered Miyo.
"You could check, though?" suggested Itsuko.
"It's not that easy," protested Artemis. "Do you think I didn't hope she'd be reborn? I knew Minako better than…better than anybody. Of course I checked! I checked all of you! And you…you're the only one I recognised, Miyo."
"But would you have recognised Minako if she were…well, buried under another personality?" Miyo argued.
Artemis cursed. "How am I supposed to answer that?" he asked. "I would have said that I'd recognise Minako anywhere, in an instant. But from what you're saying…I don't know. I just don't know."
"Maybe if you check her again when she's Venus," said Itsuko.
"But when I touched her earlier, when she changed…" Artemis shook his head. "I didn't feel anything then. Though she might have been—"
There was a sudden crash from the next room, and a shriek of laughter. Itsuko muttered something under her breath, and went to investigate. Miyo and Artemis eyed each other.
"I don't know," repeated Artemis at last. "I'll keep an eye on her. But Miyo, the only way to be sure might be to try to awaken her memories. And you know what happened when I tried that before."
Miyo winced. "All right," she said in a low voice. "We'll watch her, then. If it is her, though…"
She left the sentence hanging. She and Artemis nodded to each other.
The evening whiled away. Bendis wandered around the suite, cheerfully eavesdropping on conversations and occasionally stealing titbits from unprotected plates. It was all going splendidly. Off in one corner, Dhiti was sprawled out on the floor, chattering away to Iku, who stared back at her as if mesmerised. Dhiti did not seem to find this off-putting; in fact, she seemed delighted to have found a perfect audience. Suzue and Beth were kneeling at the table, talking quietly, apparently comparing schools; they appeared to be mutually envious. Miyo was off in the kitchen, cooking something or other. (Bendis hoped that she'd do some more of those slug things of hers; they were apparently delicious.) Itsuko was sitting by herself, a distant, somehow unapproachable look about her, watching the others with a faint half-smile on her lips. And that was a funny thing; she was alone, and yet, in some indefinable way, she seemed to be the centre of the room, with everyone else revolving around her…
It was a queer thought, and after a moment Bendis decided that it did not make much sense, and put it out of her mind. Instead, she concentrated on the more concrete aspects of the day. All right, so Artemis had caught her; but she seemed to have gotten away with everything anyway. And after all, there were five Senshi now, and they seemed to be getting along well; and really, the whole thing was all thanks to her.
If only she could get Artemis to see it that way.
Humming softly to herself, she started back toward the kitchen. She was pretty full already, but there was always room for a little more—and Miyo, she had discovered, was something of a soft touch.
As she passed Beth and Suzue, she heard them talking about clothes (of all things). She stopped for a moment, startled, when Beth exclaimed, "Really? You make all your own clothes?"
Around the room, the others looked up at the outburst. Suzue flushed, embarrassed, and said, "Well—not all of them. I mean, only a few, really. But I—"
Bendis stopped listening. Clothes! she thought, half-scornfully. What a waste of time. But then humans were devoted to so many silly things. At least Beth was better than that, mostly. Actually, in some ways she was getting very promisingly cat-like.
Thinking about Beth brought an unexpected pang. Being separated from the girl, the night before, had been…strange. Upsetting. She had agreed to go with Artemis to save an argument, and because she was pretty sure that she'd have ended up going with him anyway, sooner or later. Better to get it over with; a strictly practical decision. That was the best kind, wasn't it? But still, when Sailor Venus had lost her temper and shouted at Artemis, it had felt…well, good.
She faltered suddenly on her way to the kitchen, then continued on with a new determination. Really, this was ridiculous! She was getting maudlin. The idea that she could form some kind of an…an attachment to a human was ridiculous. She knew where that sort of thing led; nobody better. For heaven's sake, next thing she knew, she'd be going back to Hideo and begging him to stroke her.
She found herself remembering peaceful Sunday mornings, dozing lazily in Beth's bed, feeling the girl's warmth at her back. Or sitting in her lap, talking quietly to her, and feeling Beth rub her head in just the right way. Or describing a new manoeuvre to Venus, one that she'd thought up the day before in an idle moment, and watching the girl not only make it work, but do things with it that Bendis herself had never dreamed of. Or the tremendous pride she'd felt watching Venus in action that time at the dressmaker's. Or the sudden horror, just the day before, when Lady Blue had attacked and she'd thought her friend had been killed—
Her friend. Her friend.
She mouthed the word over again and again, tasting it in wonder. Her friend. She'd thought that theirs was a teacher-pupil relationship (though there'd been times when she'd wondered which of them was which)—but could it have been something much more basic all along?
She remembered the moment, just a few hours earlier, when she'd brought Iku in, and Beth had picked her up and held her. For a few seconds, then, Bendis hadn't even noticed how loudly she'd been purring.
There was an old-fashioned wall clock in the kitchen. She looked up at it, and noticed with surprise how late it was getting. It had been a long day, all right. She realised that she was looking forward to going home. Home with Beth.
"Absolutely not," said Artemis. "I'm keeping you right here where I can keep an eye on you."
Bendis stared at him in shock. "What?" she said. "But…why?"
He made an impatient noise. "Do I have to spell it out?"
She felt a familiar sinking feeling in her gut. After all this time, nothing had changed. "You still think I'm a screw-up, don't you?" she asked bitterly. "You still don't think I can…measure up. Geez, didn't I do a good job with Venus?"
"Good job?" said Artemis incredulously. "Are you crazy? You call that a good job? Look at that insane training you've been giving her!"
"Hey, at least I was training her!" she retorted hotly. "What sort of training have you been giving Jupiter, Mercury and Uranus?"
He started to reply, then stopped. Bendis felt a momentary glee as she saw the barb hit home. "Anyway, I think I've done pretty well there," she said proudly. "Beth has come on amazingly. I'd never have believed she could get so good…"
"You're turning her into a cat!" Artemis exploded.
Bendis hesitated. "So what's your point?"
He took a deep breath and let it out again. "Bendis, listen to me," he said slowly. "Humans are not supposed to act like cats."
"I don't see why not," sniffed Bendis. "After all, we're the superior beings. I'm just helping her live up to her potential." She saw his expression and added hastily, "Anyway, it's working, isn't it?"
"What about Mars?" he asked. "Is it working there too?"
"That's not fair!" she protested. "I've only just started! But still…" she added reluctantly, "there's something—I don't know, strange—something seriously wrong with that girl."
"Eh?" Artemis tried to remember. "I know she seems a bit quiet…"
"Heh. You'll see."
"Anyway, that's beside the point," he said firmly. "You've made enough of a mess of things as it is. You do realise that Venus and Mars were nearly killed yesterday because you wanted to run things yourself?" He shook his head. "You simply don't have the knowledge and the training to do this kind of job. Until you learn a little more self-control and get a good deal more experience, you're going to have to—"
"Experience?" she demanded hotly. "Who found all those Senshi? If I hadn't gone to work on my own, we'd still be out there in the alleys, dodging Opals! I've been doing a good job here! I was the one who found Beth and Iku-san—and Suzue-san too, even if you stole her from me—"
"Don't be childish." He glared at her. "Though I suppose that's what I should expect from you—"
"Expect! When did you ever expect anything from me—when did you ever give me a chance—?"
"Um, excuse me…"
The two cats looked around. "Yes?" snapped Artemis. Then he saw who it was. "Oh, er, Beth," he said, a little taken aback. "We were just having a, ahh, private—"
"We were talking," said Bendis clearly, "about whether I was going to be allowed to stay with you or not."
There was a sudden silence.
"That was uncalled-for," said Artemis stiffly.
"But—" said Beth. There was shock in her expression, as if she'd been slapped. "But, but…but why not?"
Artemis took another deep breath. "Beth," he said quietly, "I know that you've become attached to Bendis. But you must understand that she is putting you in danger. I don't just mean that insane stunt of hers when she was trying to find out which Senshi you are. There's also the matter of the training she's been giving you—"
"No!" said Bendis urgently. Then, with a note of pleading: "No…"
"Bendis, what—?" began Beth.
"Beth," said Artemis firmly. He gazed up at her for a moment. "Do you trust Bendis?"
She stared at him. "Yes, of course I do," she said, puzzled.
Artemis gave Bendis a quick look. Bendis hung her head, unable to meet his eyes.
"I'm sorry to have to break this to you," he said heavily. "Beth, I'm afraid that Bendis has been lying to you. All along. From the day she met you."
Beth blinked. "I know that," she said.
"Not only that, she—" Artemis trailed off. "You do?" he said.
"Huh? You do?" Bendis said at the same moment.
"Well, of course." Beth seemed surprised by their reactions. "I mean, I noticed she was lying about you right away. She wasn't very good at hiding it. But I could never work out why. It always seemed like she was—well, afraid of you or something."
"Afraid?" said Artemis, startled.
"And I worked out that she was just making up most of those training exercises," Beth went on. "But it didn't matter, honestly," she added quickly. "I know Bendis wouldn't hurt me. I…" She hesitated. "I trust her more than anyone else in the world," she finished in a low voice.
"But…" Bendis sounded half-choked. "But why?" she asked.
Beth looked down at her, surprised. "Because you're my friend," she said simply.
Bendis gave a queer little half-gasp. "Beth…Beth, I…" She turned suddenly and ran out.
Beth stared after her. "Artemis," she said slowly, "can Moon Cats cry?"
He nodded. His eyes were very wide.
"Oh, boy, I have to find her—" Beth was already running.
Artemis watched her go, half-stunned. "Afraid of me?" he whispered. "No, that's not right. She was just supposed to listen to me. She wasn't supposed to be afraid. She wasn't supposed to be…"
There was a faint sound behind him. He turned, alarmed, to see Itsuko and Miyo watching him. They did not look happy with him. He realised with a sudden chill that they might have been there for some time.
"Is there something," Itsuko suggested, "that you'd like to tell us?"
It took Beth some time to find Bendis. Eventually she noticed a half-open window in Itsuko's office, and peered out. Bendis was sitting on the fire escape outside, staring down at the city lights below. One ear twitched for an moment as Beth stepped out behind her, but she showed no other reaction.
Beth sat down quietly, a little distance away from Bendis. They watched the lights of passing traffic in silence for several minutes. The evening breeze was warm and humid.
At last Bendis said, almost inaudibly, "Why?"
Beth did not answer in words. She reached out and ran her hand down Bendis' spine, then lifted it up and began to rub the cat's head gently.
"Why?" Bendis repeated. "Why do you trust me? How can you trust me?"
"Because you're my friend," Beth answered, her voice soft and calm. "Because I know that you'd never hurt me."
"I've hurt you a dozen times!" Bendis protested vehemently. "What about all those accidents I caused when I first met you?"
"You weren't hurting me," Beth said calmly. "You were making me into a hero."
"Hero!" Bendis spat. "What does that matter? Nearly everything I've ever told you is a lie. How can you trust that?"
"You taught me to fight. You taught me to swing between buildings." Beth smiled in remembrance. "You taught me to save lives. I trust that. That matters."
Bendis hung her head. "He doesn't think so," she murmured bitterly. "He doesn't think I've ever mattered."
Beth did not answer at once. At last she said cautiously, "Bendis…what is it? Why doesn't he—"
She broke off suddenly. In a sudden moment of insight, she realised why the question was so important to Bendis. It was not Beth's trust that the cat yearned for. It was Artemis'.
"Why?" she breathed. "Why doesn't he trust you? Why—why are you two always so angry with each other?"
For a long time she thought that Bendis was not going to answer. But at last the cat said, haltingly, "It was a silly fight in an alley. We argued, and I lost my temper and ran off. Then, when I found you, I thought that maybe I could—"
She stopped and shook her head. "No. It wasn't just an argument. Not just an argument. It was…" She took a deep breath. "All along, he's never trusted me. Not completely. He's never…thought I could measure up. So when I found you, I knew that it was my last chance…maybe my only chance to prove that I could do it, that I could be…"
"Be what?" Beth insisted. "Why doesn't he trust you?"
Bendis swallowed. Almost inaudibly, she said, "Because of my parents."
Beth stared at her. "What?"
"Beth, there's something about me that you ought to know…"
"Itsuko," said Artemis tightly, "you asked me once how I came to have a great-granddaughter, when there weren't any other Moon Cats left."
Itsuko raised her eyebrows. "Yes?" she inquired.
He have a short, humourless laugh. "You shouldn't have had to ask. It should have been obvious."
He looked around the room quickly. Having Itsuko and Miyo overhear the argument was bad enough. But then the others had overheard them demanding to know what was happening, and now he was surrounded. The only ones missing were Bendis herself, and Beth. It was, he thought with sudden anger, as if he were being put on trial.
Miyo stirred in her chair. "You said Luna told you that Diana was pregnant when the Palace fell. That was more than I'd ever heard." She wrinkled her brow in thought. "But there were only you three cats in the Palace—" Something in her face changed suddenly. "You didn't—surely you didn't—"
He snorted. "No, I did not. Don't be filthy."
"Diana mated with a human," said Suzue.
Her statement fell into an abrupt silence. Then the room filled with startled yelps and cries. Iku and Miyo stared at Suzue as if looking at a stranger. Dhiti cried out, "What, are you nuts?" But in Itsuko's eyes, there was a sudden comprehension.
"Yes," said Artemis wearily.
Suzue only nodded, ignoring the incredulous looks on the others' faces. There was a troubled look on her face, but her voice was steady enough. "How?" she asked. "And who?"
He shrugged. "You know that we can change shape—take human form, for a short time. It's difficult without the aid of the Ginzuishou, but—" He got to his feet, as if about to demonstrate, then thought better of it and sat down again. He looked old and tired in that moment; there were thousands of years in his voice. "I'd never have dreamed it was possible, what she did," he went on, faintly wondering. "The control it must have taken! To keep human form, while doing…that. I know I couldn't do it. But she'd fallen in love, and somehow she found a way to make it work—
"He was one of the Palace Guard, I learned that much. She never would tell me his name, but he must have died when the Palace fell." He sighed. "She met him when Princess Usagi was training with the Guard. After the Princess finished, Diana kept doing to the arena to meet him. In the end, I suppose the inevitable happened."
"But how could she—" began Dhiti.
Itsuko cut her off. "What happened to her?" she asked.
"I got her out of the Palace," Artemis said slowly, his eyes far away. "I remember she cursed me as we left. She didn't want to go; she wanted to be there in case he came back…" He sighed. "I picked her up and carried her out, and she struggled and cursed me all the way. But she couldn't change shape, in her condition. So she had to live on without him…
"The kitten was born five days after the Fall. It was a—difficult birth. Her son was bigger than normal…" He shook his head slowly. "She never really recovered. She got better, for a while, but it left her weak; and afterward, she just faded away." He closed his eyes. "She died four months later. We buried her…just a few kilometres from here, I think."
Nobody spoke for a time. At last Miyo said gently, "You said she had a son?"
Artemis grunted. "Yes," he said. "For what he was worth."
"Ah. I take it you didn't get along with him either."
"He was a wild one." Artemis made a face, remembering. "I think it was his half-human blood. He was moody, unpredictable. Sometimes violent. And sometimes he did…bestial things. I think he decided to hate all humans because he could never be one." His voice grew distant, unhappy. "He might have been content to have been just an ordinary cat, but he couldn't do that either. He was always caught in between…"
"What happened?" asked Itsuko. "How did he die?"
"Hit by a car." Artemis laughed bitterly. "Isn't that the silliest thing? He came to me, two years ago. I hadn't seen him in decades, but he found me somehow. He looked more alive, happier than I'd ever seen him. He kept talking about his daughter. We were on our way to see her, and he—" He stopped, and shuddered. "At least it was quick."
"So you had to bring up Bendis on your own, too," said Dhiti, her voice oddly quiet.
"Yes. And look how well I've managed there." He shook his head. "But I couldn't have just left her with her mother. It would have been too cruel."
"Cruel!" Miyo stared at him, shocked. "How can you—"
"No, you don't understand!" he insisted desperately. "It wasn't like that! Miyo, Bendis' mother wasn't…she wasn't human."
"She—" Miyo frowned in incomprehension. Then, suddenly, her eyes widened. "Oh, no. You don't mean—"
He nodded, and took a deep breath. "She was a cat. She was an ordinary, dumb, tabby, earth cat."
Beth held Bendis close. The cat was shivering in her arms. "Do you remember her at all?" she asked.
"No," said Bendis tonelessly. "Not a thing. I was so young…I don't think my eyes had even opened yet. I don't know anything about my parents except what he's told me."
Beth could not contain a shiver of her own. "How awful," she said, rather inadequately.
Bendis laughed: a short tinkle, bright and entirely false. "Awful?" she said. "Why? She was just a cat. I can look at any cat in the street and think, my mother was just like that." She laughed again, and shuddered briefly, and Beth realised that she was close to breaking.
The cat ignored her; she continued on, speaking faster now, as if she were afraid to stop. "She might even be alive," she said, "out there in some alley somewhere. I could go out and look for her." She tried to laugh once more, but it came out as a gasping, choking sound. "Except what would be the p-point? She wouldn't know me if she saw me. And what…would I have to say…to a…c-c-cat…"
And at last she began to cry, a thin hopeless wail, and Beth held her tightly and rocked her as if she were a baby.
"I don't know why he did it," Artemis said wearily. "It was the most irresponsible…obscene thing I can imagine. Like…like a human mating with a chimpanzee."
Dhiti made a face. "That's disgusting," she protested.
"But still, it produced Bendis," Suzue pointed out.
"Yes, and look at Bendis!" he snapped back.
Miyo stared at him. "You…you look down on her for it," she realised. "You don't think she's good enough."
"You don't understand," he insisted. "Miyo, Bendis thinks she can do anything, but she can't! Think about it! She's only a quarter Moon Cat. It's a miracle that she can even talk! She'll never be able to take human form. She…she doesn't even have the time we do! Makoto, she's going to live an ordinary earth-cat life-span, and then she'll die. If she ever has kittens, they'll be little more than earth cats themselves; they'll never be able to talk. Don't you see?" he urged her. "Bendis is too young, and too inexperienced, but she won't listen to me any more! She thinks she can do anything, but she's just going to get herself hurt, and maybe Venus and Mars with her!"
There was a long silence. Then Itsuko let out a breath. "Oh, Artemis," she said. "You're just as worried about her as you ever were about Diana when she was a kitten, aren't you?" She shook her head sadly. "Only this one, you can't bear to let go, because you're afraid of losing her too soon…"
"I—" He stopped, unable to speak, and stared down at the floor. "She has so little time, Rei," he said dully. "So little time. Fifteen years, and she'll be gone. And she's the last of the line. The last of the Moon Cats, and when she goes, there'll only be me…"
Itsuko nodded. "And so you try to shield her, and that makes her feel inadequate, to the point where she'll to do anything to prove herself to you. That's it, isn't it?" she said gently. "And you're both so strong-willed that you argue all the time anyway…"
He gave her a bleak look. "So what am I supposed to do?" he asked.
"What am I going to do, Beth-chan?" asked Bendis miserably.
"Silly." Beth smiled at her, rubbing the cat's head gently. "You're going to come home with me, of course. What did you think? That I'd just leave you behind again?"
"Oh." Bendis stared at her for a little longer, and for one moment Beth thought that she was going to cry again. "Really?" she said. There was fear and uncertainty in her voice; but mixed with it was a sudden eager hope.
Then, before Beth could answer, she abruptly sprang off her lap and began to wash herself with desperate intensity.
Beth watched, relieved and a little bemused. This evening had been a strange reversal for the two of them. Somehow she and Bendis had swapped roles. It was an odd feeling, having Bendis turn to her for once. Odd, but rather nice.
Bendis continued to lick her fur, though she seemed to be beginning to relax now. Perhaps it was a kind of calming process for cats, Beth thought absently. She wondered if Artemis did it, and smiled at the mental image. Usually, Bendis was so self-reliant, so much more in control…
A peculiar thought occurred to her. "Bendis?" she said. "How old are you, anyway?"
Bendis froze, one haunch raised comically in mid-air. "Er, what?" she said guiltily.
Ah-ha, Beth thought. "You heard me," she said. She was beginning to smile.
Bendis muttered something under her breath. "Excuse me?" Beth prompted. "I didn't quite catch that."
Bendis sighed. "Two, all right? I'm two. Are you happy now?"
The cat groaned. "It isn't the way it sounds," she said peevishly. "In human years that'd be…I don't know. Sixteen or seventeen."
"Sixteen?" Beth said in delight. "Sixteen? You're the same age as me?"
Bendis thought about it. "Seventeen," she decided. "Definitely."
"You're cheating!" Beth accused. She was grinning openly now.
"I am not!" Bendis shouted. "Listen, who do you think's the boss here? I'm the Moon Cat; I'm training you, not—"
She broke off abruptly. "Er," she said. The belligerence seemed to drain out of her in a rush. She turned away from Beth, suddenly looked completely wretched.
Beth cleared her throat. "It's all right, you know," she said reassuringly. "It doesn't matter. You can still train me." Bendis gave her a pained look and she added hastily, "Well, I mean, you always have all those ideas—and I could never think of things like that, so maybe it's best if you just keep on—"
Bendis snorted. "Don't lay it on too thick," she said roughly. Beth opened her mouth to reply, but thought better of it. Instead, she bowed her head meekly.
"Oh—I suppose we can keep going," Bendis said at last. "I mean…it has been fun, hasn't it? Mostly. I don't mean today, but…it has been fun. Hasn't it?"
Beth thought about it for a few moments. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world," she answered honestly.
Bendis nodded, satisfied. "Good," she said. "That's the main thing. Duty and obligations are all very well, but you've got to live."
"I, um, I suppose so," said Beth, not really sure how to answer. After a moment she added tentatively, "If you've only got fifteen years…"
Bendis shook her head. "I meant you, too, Beth-chan," she said patiently. "Think about it—you've only got another sixty, seventy years yourself. But look at Artemis. He's going to live practically forever, and see what it's made him! Stuffy, cautious…boring."
"But…the old Senshi were immortal too, weren't they? Look at Hino-sama—I mean, Pappadopoulos-sama—"
"The old Senshi had Sailor Moon and the Ginzuishou. You don't have the luxury of an immortal viewpoint." Bendis shook her head. "No, having fun is more important."
Beth bit her lip dubiously. "But…but what about being a Senshi? We have to fight, we have to defend the world—"
Bendis paused, and looked all around them carefully. Then she said, "Beth, change to Venus for a moment, will you?"
Confused, Beth obeyed. "Now," said Bendis. "What was that about fun again?"
Venus blinked, and grinned. "Well, I suppose you do have a point…"
"I knew you'd see it my way."
"But, well, maybe we can defend the world too?"
Bendis thought about it. "Oh—I suppose so," she said grudgingly. "I guess that wouldn't hurt…"
Affairs had quietened down inside. Itsuko and Miyo had dragged Artemis off for a private heart-to-heart, and the others had dispersed in their wake. Dhiti had stuck around, though. She had a hunch that the show wasn't over yet.
She was rewarded when she saw Beth and Bendis come in. They didn't look too unhappy, she noted; they were chatting away to each other calmly enough. "They never have days like this in the viddy program," Beth was saying, rather peevishly.
"I thought you said you don't watch that any more?" inquired Bendis.
"Er—" Beth cut off, looking guilty. "Well, not for a while now," she said, a little lamely. Bendis snorted.
"What program?" asked Dhiti, intrigued.
They looked around, startled. "Er—'Queen Serenity and her Senshi,'" said Bendis. "Beth-chan was telling me all about it, a couple of weeks back."
Dhiti wrinkled her brow. "But that's a kids' program," she pointed out, deciding not to mention that since she'd become Sailor Mercury she'd been watching it religiously.
Beth sighed. "What's so wrong with watching a kids' program?" she asked plaintively. "All right! So I used to watch it! Is that a crime?"
"Of course not," said Dhiti comfortingly. "Nobody would ever suggest that it's a little babyish for a sixteen-year-old to watch a program aimed at kids half your age."
"Think nothing of it," Dhiti said modestly. She eyed Beth, suddenly smelling a rat. "Just out of curiosity, when did you stop watching it?" she inquired innocently.
Beth flushed scarlet. "Er—" she began.
Dhiti smiled beatifically. "It wouldn't have been just after Bendis found you, would it?" she purred.
"What?" shouted Bendis. "Beth! You traitor! You know I wanted to see that!"
Dhiti sat back and watched as the cat chased the girl around and around the room, shouting insults wildly at each other and, before long, laughing so hard they could hardly breathe. Eventually, Beth managed to escape out the door, and Bendis pursued her, still shouting at the top of her voice.
Dhiti sighed contentedly. "Sometimes," she said to nobody in particular, "I'm so good I scare myself."
By ten o'clock, the party was starting to break up. Some of the girls could have gone on for longer; but after all, it had been a very long day.
Iku left first. She very nearly made it out of the door without anybody noticing; she muttered a goodbye at Miyo when the latter was in the middle of a conversation with Suzue, and gave a tiny wave to Artemis and Itsuko while both of them were looking away. Dhiti caught her before she could escape, though, and insisted on saying a loud farewell. Bendis (whom Dhiti had maliciously been briefing on the 'Queen Serenity and her Senshi' viddy program, in agonising detail) joined in, possibly out of relief. What with one thing and another, the two of them actually got Iku to smile again before she managed to leave.
"That is one strange girl," said Bendis thoughtfully as the door closed behind Iku.
"Yup," said Dhiti. She smirked. "I love a challenge."
Bendis gave her an interested look. "Oh? What kind of challenge?"
"I already said, this morning," Dhiti reminded her. "I'm going to get her singing karaoke. In public. And liking it."
Bendis thought about it. "Iku-san?" she said. Then: "Naaah."
"Want to bet?" inquired Dhiti.
"How much?" returned Bendis.
The two fell to plotting.
Dhiti left herself, twenty minutes later; she had some distance to go to get home, and after all they had school the next day. Somehow, without her the whole suite felt a lot quieter and less crowded, and Beth began to notice how tired she was feeling herself. She went in search of Bendis.
The cat was in the living room, eyeing a mostly-empty plate of onigiri. "You ready to go?" Beth asked her.
Bendis looked up quickly. She couldn't form expressions the way a human could, of course, but Beth could see her smile anyway. She smiled with her whole body. "I sure am," she said.
Beth grinned back at her. "Let's go, then…Bendis-chan."
Bendis looked up at her quickly, and snickered. Beth snickered back amiably. As they started toward the door, Bendis said, "You know, we're going to have to talk about this viddy thing, Beth-chan…"
"Oh, come on. It's not like it's that great a program anyway. If you're that keen, why didn't you check out an episode yourself? You could manage the viddy control with paws—"
At that moment Artemis stepped out in front of them, bringing them to an involuntary halt. "Going somewhere?" he inquired.
"Yes." Beth's voice was low but firm. "We're going home. Together."
He ignored her completely. "Bendis, you can't do this," he said insistently. "You have to stay. I—I have to tell you—"
He was cut off rudely as Beth picked him up by the scruff of the neck. Holding him up so they were eye-to-eye, she asked softly, "Just how were you planning to stop us?"
"Hey! Put me down!" he squawked indignantly.
"Certainly." Beth walked to the suite's front door, still carrying him. She held the door open for Bendis, then stepped through herself. As she closed the door behind her, she dropped him lightly inside.
He stood, staring at the closed door for a long time. His fur was bristling. When he turned away at last, he saw Itsuko watching him.
"Accept it, Artemis," she said sympathetically. "You have to let go sometime."
He sighed. "Et tu, Pappadopoule?"
Itsuko was in the middle of a yawn, by way of a gentle hint, when Suzue came up to her and asked her diffidently if she could speak to her in private.
Itsuko eyed her for a few moments. The girl looked tense and a little apprehensive. Wondering what could be bothering her, Itsuko nodded and led her to her office. She closed the door behind them, turned to face Suzue, and raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Suzue swallowed once, and said, "It was true, wasn't it? What you said before? That—" She gulped again. "That you are Hino Rei?"
Itsuko frowned. "Yes. Why would I lie?" With a touch of her old asperity she added, "What, do you want me to put on a black wig so you can check?"
"No! I mean, I—" Suzue broke off again. As if she were afraid of the answer, she said, "But…you were not reborn? You are—you are one of the Senshi of Queen Serenity, incarnate?"
"Incarnate?" That was a very odd way of putting it. "Yes," Itsuko snapped, "I was there, I saw it all with my own two eyes…Suzue-san, what the hell is all this? What are you trying to say?"
Suzue took a deep breath. Then, to Itsuko's utter horror, she knelt down at her feet, bowed her head very low, and said, "Please forgive me, Holy One. I do not know what is proper. What form of reverence would you prefer?"
Itsuko stared down at her for some time. At last, in a dangerously quiet voice, she said, "What?"
Suzue shifted uncomfortably, and tried to squirm a little lower. "I—I'm sorry. Should I—should I have some form of offering? Should I join the gymnasium? Would that be appropriate?"
There was an ominous silence. After a few seconds, she peeked up.
Itsuko had spent a very long time learning to control her temper. She had started to work on it during the first years of Serenity's reign, more or less in self-defence, and she'd had centuries of practice since then. Almost anyone she knew, if asked, would have agreed that she was a very calm, level-headed and politely-spoken woman.
It had been a long day, though.
"What the hell are you talking about?!" she exploded. "Is this some kind of pathetic joke? You think it's funny, spouting that gibberish like you're one of those—"
"Suzue-san," she said, far too calmly, "please tell me that you're not a member of the Church of Serenity."
Suzue looked up at her, her face white but determined. "Lady Hino, I am one of the faithful," she said defiantly. "And I beg you to accept my service and convey my allegiance and my oath of dedication to the ears of the Blessed Lady Seren—"
"No!" Itsuko roared. "How can you—damn it, Suzue-san, stop talking this nonsense! You cannot possibly believe that—"
She broke off, seeing the girl's face.
"You are testing me," Suzue said tightly.
"Suzue-san," Itsuko breathed. "You're an intelligent girl. How can you do it? How can you believe this nonsense?"
"It is not nonsense!" Suzue's eyes flashed. Her usual diffidence seemed to fall away from her like a cast-off cloak. "You were there! You saw Her in her majesty and might!"
"Yes, I was there," Itsuko snapped back. Her control was slipping again. "I saw her, all right. And one thing I saw was that she was no goddess!"
"She was! Time and time again she defeated evil and its servants! She slew Chaos itself! And when the Black One was reborn, and locked the world in ice for centuries, she broke free and cleansed the entire Earth of evil! Hino-sama—" There was pleading in Suzue's voice. "How can you say she was no goddess?"
"She was as human as I am." Itsuko's mouth twisted wryly. "More human." Then, shaking her head, she went on, "Believe me, Suzue-san. If you could have known her when she was a girl—how clumsy she could be, or just how rotten a student she was—if you could have heard that laugh of hers, or seen her hogging all the food at our meetings, or stealing my manga—" It was strange how irritating that memory could be, even now. All the same, she found that she had to clear her throat; there seemed to be a lump in it. "She was all human, I promise you," she finished with a melancholy smile. "As human a human could be."
"She transcended mortality!" Suzue insisted. "She was born twice; she died each time to save her people; and someday soon she will rise a third time, and her peace will the Earth and her reign will be without end!"
Itsuko grinned suddenly. "Miyo has been born three times now. Does that make her a goddess too?"
"Miyo-san is—" Suzue glared at her. "You're making fun of me. Miyo-san was reborn by the will of the Blessed Serenity. As you were yourself, in the Twentieth Century."
"Huh. Have you told her that?"
Suddenly Suzue's certainty seemed to evaporate. "No. I haven't talked to her about it. I'm not certain whether—I mean, she told me that since her rebirth she is basically a new person, with little more than the memories of her past lives. I wanted to talk about it with an Intercessor, but I wasn't sure if I should—"
Itsuko snorted. "Intercessor. You mean one of your half-baked 'holy men'? Let me tell you something, Suzue-san. Holy men are just as capable as being blind, or ignoring what's right under their noses, as anyone else." She scowled down at the girl. "As blind as you, for example."
"I am not blind!" Suzue was on her feet now, staring at Itsuko, her fists clenched. "How can you deny it? How can you deny what you yourself have seen? You were there when she defeated Chaos—"
"No," Itsuko said coldly. "As a matter of fact, I wasn't." And that was a memory that still made her shiver at night…But then she saw Suzue's sudden smile, and realised too late that she'd walked into a trap.
"No, you weren't," Suzue said triumphantly. "You were dead, and she restored you to life! Not once, but twice! Someone who can do that—how can you deny her power, and her strength, and her love?"
Itsuko took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was shaking, she realised, and hoped that Suzue could not see it. "I don't deny them," she said. "But I do deny that those made her a goddess. She was a wonderful, warm, caring person—the strongest person I ever met.
"But she was a human person, Suzue-san. And I know that she would be horrified if she knew that there were people who want to call her their goddess."
Suzue set her jaw. "But she—"
"Suzue-san, I was there. I knew her." Itsuko could not keep a slight vindictive edge out of her voice as she added, "And your 'Intercessors' weren't. Who do you think knows better?"
Suzue stared at her for a few seconds longer. Then, abruptly, she whirled and rushed out. Moments later, Itsuko heard the door to the stairs bang.
She closed her eyes, and said, "Shit."
Suzue walked home, her face pale and set. She did not cry. When she arrived, she went inside calmly, greeted her parents—who saw her face and did not ask where she'd been all day—and went to bed quietly. She did not shed a single tear.
She lay there, staring up at the ceiling all night, defiantly not crying.
Miyo and Artemis met Itsuko in the living room. "I heard shouting," said Artemis. "What happened?"
Itsuko hissed through her teeth. "Nothing," she said at last. "Just a misunderstanding. I think I've got it cleared up now." I hope, she added silently.
"Oh." Artemis was clearly dissatisfied, but he did not press her. Which was just as well, she suddenly realised. She had never thought to ask if he knew about Suzue's…beliefs.
He yawned instead, and said, "Well, I think I'll get some sleep." Very casually, he looked around the living room and added, "I don't know if I can say the same about you, though." There was a distinct look of smugness about him as he turned and walked out.
Itsuko sighed, looking around the room herself. He had a point.
The room—in fact, much of the suite—was a wreck. There were plates, cups and drinking glasses scattered all over the floor. One end of the living room was covered with the torn paper streamers they'd used as levels for the limbo contest. Cushions were strewn across the floor. There were sticky, discoloured patches in the carpet where something unidentifiable had been spilled. It looked, in short, as though a highly successful party had been held there. Itsuko didn't remember it being that good, herself. Though it hadn't been bad until things went downhill, toward the end…
"Who'd've thought six girls could make such a mess?" she muttered to herself. With another sigh, she knelt down and started picking the plates up.
Miyo joined her a few seconds later. "We could have met down in one of the rooms at the back of the gym," she pointed out. "They wouldn't have made this much mess there."
"No, the only rooms with the debugging equipment are up here," Itsuko replied absently. She dabbed at a patch in the carpet. "What is this stuff?" She sighed. "Maybe we can find another place to meet in future. But the Olympus did seem the best choice…"
As they continued working, Itsuko stole a quick glance at Miyo. The girl was rather quiet, withdrawn. Just tired? Or was she thinking of her parents again? She'd hoped that today would distract Miyo from that subject…
"What's wrong?" she asked at last.
Miyo did not try to pretend that she didn't understand. "I was just thinking," she said slowly. "All that talk about what happened before the Fall…it just brought it back to me. I couldn't help remembering what…what happened, that day in Amsterdam. What you—we said. What we did to each other."
Itsuko froze. That was another subject that she wanted to think of as little as possible. Try as she might to forget, though, it was a day she still remembered vividly—sometimes in her nightmares. She found herself touching her left shoulder, where the most prominent scars were.
"I know," she said reflectively. "I haven't forgotten. But it's all so much clearer for you, isn't it?"
There was a long silence. "You're thinking it was my fault," said Itsuko quietly.
"No. It was—it was my fault too. We were both to blame. But I—"
Itsuko got up and went to her side. "Do you want to talk about it?" She rested a hand on Miyo's shoulder gently.
Miyo shied away. "No! I—" She knelt there, her arms huddled around herself, for a few seconds. "I just think I…I'd like to go to bed now."
She stood and walked off, alone. Itsuko watched her go, but did not try to follow.
Takekawa Yutaka pulled up outside the 'M' Division manufacturing plant and hurried into the building. He showed his ID to the guards as he touched the palm-print reader at the gate. A dark-haired woman in Council uniform was waiting for him inside.
"Araki-san," he said, stopping to catch his breath. "Welcome to—"
"Never mind that," she said brusquely. "I need to see your entry records."
"I—" He blinked. "Of course," he said. "This way. May I ask why 'K' Division is interested in—?"
"It's a matter of Council security," she snapped. "That's all you need to know."
He bowed nervously. "Of course," he repeated.
He led her to his office, and called up the records she'd asked for. His mind was whirling. What did a Serry want with entry records to an 'M' Division plant? What was so urgent that he had to be called in late on a Sunday night?
Araki made an impatient gesture, and he stood up hastily. She sat down at his desk and began to tap away at the computer. Records flashed across the screen, impossibly fast. He watched, uncomprehending. She could not possibly be taking it all in at that speed. No human being could possibly—
"Here," she said. The screen froze on a single page of data. He leaned forward to peer at it. An entry record for a secure workshop? June 23rd, nearly three weeks ago. There was a small, rather blurred image of two people at the workshop doorway.
"Your ident code," she said, rather unnecessarily.
One of the faces in the photograph was his own. He stared at it, baffled. "But that's—" he began. "No, wait. I remember. She was a courier. I was showing her around the plant. That was all—"
"You were showing a courier around?" Araki asked sarcastically.
Takekawa flushed. "I made a mistake," he protested. "I thought she was—look, it was perfectly innocent! She asked to see what was going on, and it was just an Opal being repaired, so I opened the—the supervisor told me they were doing secret work and I took her out again immediately! There was no harm done!"
"Really? Let's see, shall we?" Araki said. She touched a key, and the security record began to play. For a moment, the face of the woman with Takekawa was clearly visible. She was tall and elegant, with long, green-black hair.
Araki caught her breath. "Meiou Setsuna," she breathed.
Takekawa said, "What?" He looked at the entry record again nervously. "No, her name was…" He tried to remember. "Sada—something. Sadako?"
"Meiou Setsuna," repeated Araki. "Oh, you fool, you let Sailor Pluto into the plant!"
His hands were shaking. "Sailor—? But there's no such—I don't—I didn't—" He stuttered to a halt. Then, for one last time, he lifted his voice in protest. "Even if I did, she's a Senshi! What's wrong with letting a Senshi in?"
The light in the room changed. He looked up. Araki was gone. Where she had been standing was another woman, dressed in midnight blue and silver. Her face was the same as Araki's, but different—twisted, somehow. In the centre of her forehead was a giant glowing jewel.
"I'm afraid, Takekawa-san," she said, "that you have made a rather unfortunate mistake."
She reached out toward him. He never quite managed to scream.
"It was Pluto," Twelve reported over the comm, some time later. "She just walked into the plant. One of the supervisors even showed her around. It was perfect."
"Indeed," replied the chairman coolly. "I suppose we have little chance of following the lead up, then. Give me the name she used, and I'll pass it to 'S' Division, but I doubt that they'll find anything."
"Unlikely," Twelve agreed. She looked down at her hand, and delicately licked a streak of red from one fingernail.
"Unless you have some means of tracing her yourself?" inquired the chairman. She could almost hear his mocking smile.
"Sailor Jupiter destroyed the only tracker we had," she answered, unfazed. "Even that one was…very draining to activate. We can't spare the resources to energise another at the moment."
"Then we've reached a dead end," he said.
"Yes." She paused, scowling. "The timing of this is bad," she said at last. "Pluto has caused the Master…severe difficulties before. We almost took her during the Fall, but she realised what was happening too soon, and managed to escape. She'll need to be handled very carefully." Another pause. "She may have gotten into other secure zones, though. Get 'D' and 'S' Divisions to check—but quietly."
"Very well," said the chairman at once. "But have you considered that, if she's working to protect the others, she may overplay her hand? She could end up leading us right to them."
Twelve snorted. "Not Pluto. She's too careful." Then she grinned. "Anyway, it's too soon for that."
So the long day ended. Across the city, as enemies continued their plotting, more innocent folk took to their beds. For some of them, sleep came easily; for others, less so. All of them had a lot to think about.
She saw a young girl standing on the branch of one of the giant trees of Callisto, the vast, pale shape of Jupiter faintly visible overhead, and knew that the girl was herself. The scene shifted and she saw the Queen's palace in the Silver Millennium, serene and beautiful, and recognised the five people she saw standing on a balcony. She saw the Tokyo of her youth, alive and bustling, and the familiar group of girls who walked, talking and laughing, down the street. She saw the glittering splendour of Crystal Tokyo and its Queen, and by her side, those who were her chief aides and friends. And she saw the Olympus Gymnasium, and the motley group gathered there…and she realised with sudden joy that these, too, were family.
She heard a quiet voice in her dream, asking her, "Which of these is your true home?" And she answered without hesitation, "All of them."
She flew through the air, effortlessly, arms outstretched, feeling the wind in her face and crying out with joy. She was a hero. Nothing could stop her. She could do anything.
Suddenly she heard a shout from below. She looked down and saw a teenage girl, waving her arm and calling for help. Effortlessly, she swooped down and picked the girl up, lifting her away from whatever unseen danger threatened her. The girl wrapped her arms around Beth's neck and said, "My hero!"
There was something familiar about her. Then, with a start, Beth realised why. The girl had Beth's own face. "But if you're Beth," she said, "who am I?"
She ran through a vast crowd of people. Everywhere she went, hands reached out to clutch at her: boys, girls, men and woman. She dodged them all easily. Nobody could touch her. She was Sailor Mercury. She was as slippery as ice.
"Can't anybody touch me?" she asked mournfully.
Suzue did not dream.
She saw the road ahead of her, the Longest Road. She saw the warhorse, and the spear of flame. She saw the Staff of Worlds. She heard the familiar, cold voice asking, "Are you ready?"
She hid her face in her hands. Eventually, the dream went away.
She heard someone talking to her, and turned and saw Sailor Moon—the new Sailor Moon. And when she recognised the girl's face, she burst out laughing at the irony of it.
The laughter woke her up, and the moment, the memory, was gone. She went into her secret room and knelt before the sacred fire, trying to recapture what she had seen, but the only vision that came to her was of the face of Queen Serenity.
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
END OF CHAPTER NINE
Next: A hunter finds her quarry; a Senshi finds an unwelcome truth; a young man finds a vocation; and several spies find entirely too much.
A few acknowledgements:
Some ideas in this chapter are loosely drawn—though much changed—from the BBC and Thames Television serials "Quatermass and the Pit" and "Quatermass" by Nigel Kneale.
The song quotation is taken from the Walt Disney film "Mulan"; lyrics by David Zippel, music by Matthew Wilder.
Astronomical data for the years 3477, 3478 and 4200 (moon phases and moonrise/set times) were calculated using "Starry Night Pro" from Sienna Software Ltd.
My thanks to those who gave valuable advice on this chapter: Ammadeau (who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer and insisted I change the bits that were wrong, and thereby immeasurably improved them); Sandy Drobic; David Farr; Jussi Nikander; and Helmut Ott.
Draft version: 25 December 1998 - 29 December, 1999.
Revised: 21 January, 2006.