Sailor Moon 4200: What has gone before
Crystal Tokyo was destroyed in the year 3478. Civilisation fell; a dark age began. Now, the year 4200 is a time of renaissance, and the city of Third Tokyo is defended by a new generation of Senshi. Some of them are old faces, reborn yet again. Others are newcomers. But all of them are in trouble—because the enemy that annihilated Crystal Tokyo was never defeated. And it is waiting for them…
In recent chapters:
* ‘S’ Division learn Itsuko’s true identity and—believing that she is working with the Sankaku—try to arrest her. * With the aid of Sadako, she escapes to an emergency bolt-hole. * Miyo is forced to join her, and has to leave her current school. * Itsuko secretly visits a black-market “fair” to buy new identity papers for herself and Miyo, but ‘S’ Division see her there and threaten her again. * The next night, she goes back to the Olympus to retrieve the sacred fire; however, Hiiro’s team are ready and she is finally arrested. * The Senshi come to the rescue, but Sailor Jupiter is nearly killed by a new prototype anti-Senshi weapon. * Then a group of vitrimorphs attack, and all seems lost…until the arrival of some unexpected, but long—awaited help…
By Angus MacSpon
Sailor Moon 4200 Home Page
Based on “Sailor Moon” created by Naoko Takeuchi
The Sunday morning sun poured down on central Third Tokyo, glinting off a myriad of windows. Down in the street, a faint breeze stirred a few stray pieces of litter. The sky was clear and blue, though a low bank of cloud on the horizon promised a later change in the weather.
In the Council Chambers, reflected light shone through the windows of the chairman’s office, casting a brilliant band across the wall. The air conditioning made a faint, steady drone in the background. The two people in the office paid no attention to either.
“It becomes,” observed the chairman, “an interesting political problem.”
Number Twelve shot him a look of amused scorn. “How you do love to posture,” she said. “Political problem! As if that matters.”
“Oh, but it does,” he insisted. “If the government were to fall, you would be put to some inconvenience, would you not? Stability benefits us all. And, of course…” He put on a placating tone. “As matters stand, we are in the driver’s seat. It’s always better to be the champion than the underdog.”
“You think so?” Twelve said sardonically. “In the first place, you forget our true goals. Champion or underdog, it makes no difference. All that matters is pushing our pawns in the right direction, and that can be done just as effectively without wasting time on political problems. As I believe others have shown in the past.”
She gave him a rather nasty smirk before continuing. “In the second place, stability is also irrelevant. One might have thought that the Fall would teach you something. Because, in the third place…were your precious government to topple, it would inconvenience the Master not at all. We would simply push from a different direction.”
“I did not mean it would inconvenience the Master,” said the chairman quietly. “I meant it would inconvenience you.”
Twelve stared at him for a moment. Then she laughed. It sounded surprisingly natural at first: almost human, in fact. Then it changed, taking on a colder, harsher note, like the grating of stone, before breaking off suddenly. She regarded him with dark, reptilian eyes and said, “The two are one and the same.”
“I wonder,” he murmured. But he could not meet those eyes for long; he had to look away.
To give himself a moment to think, he stood and went to the bench at the rear of the office, and filled a fine bone china cup from the teapot. It was Darjeeling, and black-market; the idea of illicit tea in the Council Chambers amused him at times.
Absently, he picked up another cup and made an interrogative gesture to Number Twelve. She gave him a flat, chilly stare that brought him to his senses immediately. “I do not eat or drink,” she said.
There was an almost pitying derision in her tone, as if she felt sorry for his weakness. The chairman wondered at it for a moment. How did she survive? The Master must sustain her. Surely?
Returning to the desk, he sat down once more, taking a single sip of the tea and then forgetting it. “Irrelevant or not,” he said carefully, “the political problem remains. The Serenity Council rules in the name of the Queen, and until her return. It’s in the constitution; we can hardly resile from it. If she returns, she could order us to step down…and take up the reins of power herself.”
He regarded Twelve levelly. “Would that,” he asked, “be enough of an inconvenience to bother you?”
He was spared her answer when a knock came at the door. A young man in a plain dark suit came in, bowed, and then laid two folders on the chairman’s desk. He bowed again and left briskly.
“At last,” Twelve grated. She picked up one of the folders and started to leaf through the report within. The chairman followed suit. They read for a time in silence.
“Well,” the chairman said at last. “It could have been worse, I suppose.”
“Worse?” said Twelve. “It was a triumph.”
The chairman looked down once more at the report. It spelled out, in a fair amount of detail, the events of the previous evening. He had known part of it already, and he liked the full story even less.
“Mm. Quite,” he murmured. “But for whom, I wonder? Them, or us?”
Twelve smiled, and in her eyes there was an avid, wolfish glee. “Both,” she said, and laughed. “This only makes it better. Every battle they win makes our victory more certain…and what triumph could be better than one your enemy wins for you?”
The chairman stood up from his desk—making a small grunt of pain as the motion flexed his hands—and went to the window, looking out with a thoughtful expression. “I’m not so sure,” he said. “After all, triumph or not, you still hadn’t planned on her appearing—”
Eight hours before:
There were three doors in the darkened office of the Olympus Gymnasium. All three were open. One, hanging on broken hinges, led out into the corridor. The second door was normally hidden, but now it stood ajar, allowing a thin red line to shine across the office floor from the little room where the sacred fire burned. The third door led into Itsuko’s apartment suite.
All activity in the office had come to a halt. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the two figures that stood in the third doorway, silhouetted against a pale, glimmering halo of light. One was a masked man: tall, dark and dressed all in black, an archaic top hat on his head and a cane in one hand, his long cloak swirling about him.
Before him was a slender girl with a golden tiara on her forehead. Her costume was just as ancient: a sailor fuku, in white, blue and red. The words she spoke were a challenge so well-known it was legendary. In another’s mouth it could have sounded hackneyed, even ludicrous. But there was a ring of conviction in her voice that left those who heard it in no doubt that she was there to fight for justice…and love.
“Princess of the Moon Kingdom and heir to the throne of Queen Serenity of Crystal Tokyo, I will right wrongs and triumph over evil. And in the name of the Moon—I’ll punish you!”
The moment was pregnant; it seemed to stretch forever. As the watchers held their breaths, the girl took one step forward, and opened her mouth to speak again—
And then Sailor Venus seemed to explode. “Ya-HOOOO!” she shouted, punching the air in joy. Then, grinning wildly, she launched herself across the room in an almost feline bound, springing up and wrapping her arms around a vitrimorph’s head. “Get it, Sailor Moon!” she yelled. “Get it!”
For an instant the room froze again, though this time for a very different reason. A moment later, and the stillness became chaos.
Sailor Uranus ducked to her left, manoeuvring behind the vitrimorph that threatened Itsuko. It reacted instantly, whirling and lashing out at her with ponderous force. But the arm it struck with ended in a clean stump; its hand had been sliced off by Moon’s attack, seconds before. The stump whistled harmlessly past her face, leaving the vitrimorph standing foolishly.
Uranus did not hesitate. She leaped back nimbly and cried out her attack: “Music of the Spheres!” In the dim light, the beam was clearly visible; it struck the vitrimorph’s head dead-centre. The monster froze for a second, almost seeming to shudder. It made a strange moaning sound, almost animal-like.
Then it moved again, surprisingly fast, reaching down with its remaining hand to pick up a chair and throw it at her with stunning force. Uranus tried to dodge, but the range was too short; there was no time. She felt a single instant of panic. Then the chair caught her across the ribs and knocked her flying. She crashed into the wall by a row of filing cabinets and slid to the floor, stunned. The room spun about her. Before she could move again, the vitrimorph was standing over her, its hand raised to smash down.
With a sharp, flat crack, two shots rang out. A pair of tiny holes appeared in the centre of the vitrimorph’s forehead, surrounded by a web of fine cracks. The vitrimorph paused; it almost seemed puzzled. Still half-dazed, Uranus looked around. Not far away, the tall blond man from ‘S’ Division lowered his gun and shouted at her, “Move, you idiot!”
Weren’t we supposed to be fighting these guys? she wondered muzzily. Then her instincts took over.
She rolled to her feet, barely in time to avoid the massive crystal fist that sent three filing cabinets into oblivion.
As Uranus fired her attack, Itsuko clapped her hands over her ears with a cry of agony. The Music of the Spheres was a sonic beam, and in these close quarters the sound seemed to cut through her head like a buzz-saw. The pain was incredible. She staggered back, almost blinded by it, still clutching her head long seconds after the sound had stopped. When she finally dared to lower her hands, she saw that they were stained dark with blood.
She leaned back against the wall, suddenly giddy. Her knees did not want to support her. She sank into a crouch, and fumbled her way into dubious shelter behind an overturned chair. Around her, the madness continued: a vicious, close-quarters battle fought in the dark. Impossible odds; but the Senshi had no choice other than to fight. When did they ever?
It wasn’t completely dark, though. There was a thin light spilling into the room from the sacred fire, and a dull red flicker from the smouldering papers on the floor that had been set alight earlier, when Jupiter’s powers went mad. But there was something else, too: a soft, pearly glow, coming from the door where Sailor Moon had entered. What was that? Certainly not an electric light. It was dim, but she could almost think that, little by little, it was getting brighter.
She glanced around blearily. On the far side of the room, half-visible, Sailor Mercury fired another Ice Spear into the vitrimorph with the rose in its eye. With a muffled crunching sound, a palm-sized piece of its head was ripped away. It paid no attention; its return blow missed Mercury by a hair.
Meanwhile, the vitrimorph that Venus was wrestling reached up to pull her away. She twisted like a cat, avoiding its hands and still shouting at the top of her voice. Before it could get a grip on her, she swung down head-first, slipping deftly between its legs to come up behind it. She cried out her attack—and as her chain formed, she looped it around the vitrimorph’s neck and started trying to throttle it.
Itsuko goggled at the sight, and shook her head. I have got to have a talk with that girl, she thought.
If she survives, that is. And if I do.
Sailor Mars hung in the background, waiting for a chance to act. Going unnoticed was something that she was very good at. So was patience. Both of them, for her, were survival skills.
Dhiti had shown her that she had a new skill, though: concentrating heat. A few days before, she’d used it to help destroy a vitrimorph like the ones they fought now. If she was careful, if she picked the right moment, she could help her friends. She could be one of them. She could be powerful.
She could be worth something.
The idea thundered in her mind. The chance to show, finally, that she was not a born mistake; to do something that would scream at the world, “I am not a failure!” It burned in her…like fire.
All she had to do was wait, and watch. And pick her moment.
There was someone else doing the same thing, she saw. (She was good at seeing things. She might hang back, but she kept her eyes open.) A burly man with a heavily-stubbled face; he stayed in the shadows, a gun in his hand, and he watched intently as Senshi and monster whirled and spun through their battle-dance.
Then, across the room, Sailor Mercury tried to dodge another blow from the vitrimorph she was duelling. In the dark, her foot came down on a fragment of ice from one of her own attacks, and skidded. She cried out and started to fall—and the vitrimorph reacted instantly.
The man reacted faster. His gun barked, once and again. Shards of crystal flew from the fist that was raised to smash Mercury. The vitrimorph froze, then swivelled to face the new threat; but already the man was gone, fading back into the shadows. Mercury scrambled clear and fired off another ice spear, and the battle resumed.
Sailor Mars watched it all. Part of her raged with shame and envy, thinking that if only she were stronger, she could have been the one to save Mercury. Another part of her, secret and buried far below the surface, thought that she rather liked the burly man. But the rest of her, the Iku on the surface, simply watched—and waited.
Her moment came at last. There was a pile of loose papers in front of the desk that had somehow caught fire. The flames had been spreading slowly, no more than a thin line of orange-red creeping across the sheets, but now they were finally catching the carpet alight as well. Bright yellow tongues of fire began to dance. And, as if in answer to her hopes, one of the vitrimorphs—rocked back by an attack from Sailor Uranus—stepped squarely into the flames.
Mars took a breath. Unbidden, a memory returned from the previous Wednesday, after the battle at the mall: of Suzue, her eyes wide, after they heard what Mars’ attack did. “You’d better be very careful,” she had said. “You could burn down the whole city.”
I can be careful, Mars vowed silently. Just watch me. Then she raised her hands and called out, low but clear: “Burning Mandala!”
Thin lines of light swirled about the vitrimorph. Sparks leaped futilely from its crystalline body. And then, to her horror, the fire at its feet flickered once…and went out.
Sailor Mars stared down at her hands. Her lips moved soundlessly.
She had failed. Again.
Miyo awoke in a dark, silent void. She felt terrible; her whole body ached, and her neck and forehead throbbed as if burned by fire.
She tried to make sense of what had happened. She had gone to the Olympus as Sailor Jupiter and confronted the men holding Itsuko prisoner. They had refused to let her go. She had made threats. And then—
Something had moved behind her; something touched her neck. An instant later, her powers ran wild. It was as if the whole of her Jupiter Power had triggered at once—not in a controlled manner, like when she transformed or used her attacks, but wild, open-throated, the entire power of a world channelled through her body in one savage overload. There was no way to escape it, no way to channel it somewhere safe; just endless convulsing pain, until oblivion claimed her.
She thought about how Sailor Neptune had died, during the Fall. Had Michiru burned the same way?
But somehow, it seemed that Miyo had survived. Father Jupiter looking after his daughter, perhaps. She felt as if she had been plugged into the National Grid, but she was alive. Where? In a hospital, perhaps?
She opened her eyes—and as if she had thrown a switch, the world exploded into being around her. A confused jumble of moving shadows filled her vision; a roar of sound assaulted her ears. Her mind reeled, unable to grasp what she was seeing. Then, in one sharp moment, it all snapped into focus around her. She was lying on the floor in Itsuko’s office; the room was only dimly lit; and there were people fighting all around her.
She groaned and tried to get up. Her body would not obey; she could barely manage more than a twitch. The motion sent a wave of nausea through her and she groaned again.
“Stay down,” said a voice in her ear.
Miyo turned her head and saw a man crouched at her side, watching the battle intently. His face was in shadow…and he was holding a gun.
She jerked at the sight and tried to roll away from him. It worked a little better this time; she managed to turn halfway over before he caught her by the shoulder and pushed her back down.
“Don’t be a fool,” he rasped at her. “If you attract their attention, they’ll kill you.”
As he spoke, he turned his head a little and his face caught the light. She recognised him: he was the man who had been arresting Itsuko when she’d arrived. The man who’d given the order to take Jupiter down.
Furiously, Miyo wrenched herself free of his hand and managed to get up on one elbow. It was easier to move now; the anger seemed to help. She had, she saw, been pulled back into a corner of the office, out of the way of the battle.
That was just as well. She goggled for an instant as she saw four vitrimorphs together, and the other Senshi locked in battle.
With a grunt of effort, she forced herself to sit upright, bracing herself against the wall. The man with the gun reached for her shoulder again, then hesitated and withdrew his hand.
“Damn it,” he whispered, barely audible above the noise of the fight, “be sensible! Stay out of the way and I’ll protect you—”
“Protect me?” she hissed back. “Damn you, I’m a warrior! I don’t need protecting, I need to fight!”
Something in his face changed—it was almost a flinch. Then, in a voice that was queerly matter-of-fact, he said, “I don’t think the others need your help right now. Not since…they arrived.”
Then Miyo saw the couple he was talking about, and forgot to finish her sentence.
Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen. They came in fighting side-by-side: he with calm efficiency, she with unalloyed passion. When Sailor Venus looped her chain around a vitrimorph’s neck and tried to hold it in place, Moon leaped forward, dodging a blow from a second crystalline monster, and threw her tiara again. The first enemy managed to duck, flipping both Venus and her chain over its head in the process, but the tiara hit it in the shoulder and gouged out a wedge of crystal the size of a fist.
Behind her, Tuxedo Kamen moved in to take on the vitrimorph she had dodged. The cane he had held earlier had somehow become a sword; now he fought with a cool economy of motion, blade in one hand and a rose in the other. His cape swirled about him, distracting the eye and making it hard to follow his movement. The top hat, as absurd in this day and age as a doublet and hose, seemed glued to his head.
Moon caught her tiara once more and stood for a moment in what was unquestionably a pose. The monster Sailor Uranus was duelling nearby aimed a fist at her, but at a warning shout from Tuxedo Kamen, Moon dodged out of the way.
As she did so, her feet somehow became tangled together and she fell flat on her face with a startled yelp. A fraction of a second later, another massive crystal fist whistled through the spot where her head had been.
Uranus hit the offending vitrimorph with another Music of the Spheres, giving Moon time to stand again. She gave Uranus a quick, embarrassed grin, and repaid the favour with another Moon Tiara Action.
This one caught the vitrimorph dead-centre. It let out a howl that almost seemed to contain words, and disintegrated into a pile of dull crystalline rubble.
Behind her, Tuxedo Kamen finished off the monster he had been fighting, by throwing his rose into its face and then smoothly beheading it with his sword while it was distracted.
With two of the massive creatures gone, there was room to breathe in the office, and they started to relax. Then, to everyone’s dismay, the remaining pair began to move faster. The ponderous, almost clumsy quality of their actions seemed to vanish, and abruptly the arena became more dangerous than ever.
The other Senshi had seen this rapid escalation before, but Sailor Moon was visibly thrown by it. She froze for a moment, her body stiff with shock. The vitrimorphs seemed to recognise her surprise, for without warning, the one that had been fighting Sailor Mercury suddenly wheeled about and charged directly at her.
She started to lift her tiara once more, but too slowly. In a heartbeat the monster was towering over her, one hand theatrically poised to slam down. Moon stared up at it, her eyes enormous, her mouth open—
—And several things happened at once. A fusillade of shots rang out from four separate guns, starring the crystalline form. A rose planted itself in the vitrimorph’s shoulder. A razor-sharp bolt of ice struck it full in the back. And a slender figure leaped out of the shadows and knocked Moon aside, sending her sprawling to the floor some distance away.
With Moon out of her line of fire, Uranus fired her own attack once more. The Music of the Spheres seemed to light the vitrimorph up from within, before it burst into a cloud of glittering shards.
That left only one enemy, and they made short work of it. Venus lassoed it with her chain and held it in place; Mercury and Uranus battered it from either side…and Sailor Moon, rising shakily from where she had been thrown, bisected it with her tiara.
A deep silence fell in the ruins of the office. The survivors looked around at one another. None of them spoke; there was no sound except for their rapid, heavy breathing, and a distant crackle from the sacred fire in the next room. The odd light coming from the apartment door had intensified further; they could now see each other clearly.
Moon caught her breath and reached down, helping the girl who had tackled her to her feet. “Sailor…Mars?” she said tentatively.
The girl nodded meekly. Moon smiled at her and said, “Thank you.” Mars flushed and looked away, and Moon blinked; but before she could pursue the matter, Sailor Venus bounded up to the two of them, Uranus hot on her heels.
From the moment Moon had appeared, Venus had been burning with a hot, giddy joy, so strong that she could hardly keep from shouting in glee. She wanted to jump up again and whoop in triumph; she wanted to sing, or dance, or break something. Sailor Moon was here at last; their leader had come and everything was finally going to be all right. Their victory was certain now; the enemy would fall in no time, and oh, she wanted to yell out her delight!
What she said was, “Hi there. Glad you could make it.” She tried to keep it cool, play the whole thing casual, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the way she could not help grinning, so widely that it threatened to split her face.
Sailor Moon gave her a rather uneasy smile in return. “Thank you,” she said cautiously. “You’re…Venus, right?”
“Right! Listen, you—”
Venus was cut off as Sailor Uranus arrived. The girl looked giddy, half-afraid. “Is it you?” she asked Moon in a hushed voice. “Is…is it really you?”
If anything, this made Moon look even more nervous. “Yes,” she said, “it’s me. Why, who were you expecting?”
“Oh, Blessed Lady,” Uranus whispered. That was a strange thing to say; but Venus had no time to think about it, for at that moment a new crisis exploded on the other side of the room.
Itsuko was moving, even as Sailor Moon reached a hand down to Mars. Her head still throbbed, and her mind swam chaotically—so many things had happened, so much to try to take in at once—but one thing loomed paramount over the rest. She pushed her way out from her bolt-hole and scrambled across the floor, toward the corner of the office…and the girl who lay slumped against the wall, her face a ghastly chalk-white.
“Miyo-chan,” she said urgently. “Miyo-chan, are you all right?”
One of the ‘S’ Division men—Captain Hiiro—was kneeling beside Miyo, gun in hand. His eyes narrowed as Itsuko approached, and he started to raise his weapon. Then he appeared to think better of it. With an almost inaudible sigh, he stood up and stepped away from the girl.
They exchanged a brief look as he rose. Hiiro was the one who had started all this…but he was also the one who had pulled Miyo to safety, and stayed by her to defend her. It changed things, but how much?
Deliberately, she turned her back on him and knelt by Miyo’s side. “Miyo-chan?” she repeated. “Can you hear me?”
Miyo looked up at her. A thin trickle of blood ran from her nose, and for a moment, her eyes did not seem to focus. Then they cleared. She looked up at Itsuko with a twisted, painful grin and said, “Hiya, Itsuko. It’s a mess, isn’t it?”
Itsuko managed a smile of her own. “I’ve seen better,” she admitted. “Think you can stand?”
Miyo tried, and sank back with a gasp. “Give me a minute.”
“Take your time.” Itsuko touched her shoulder gently, then rose again and turned to Hiiro. “As for you—” she began. But she got no further, for at that moment, Sailor Mercury came up to them.
The dark-skinned girl was limping, and sported a spectacular number of cuts and bruises. Her hair was wild and tangled. The ribbon on the front of her uniform had been torn away by a blow that must have come within millimetres of gutting her; only a thin, tattered strip of blue remained.
She seemed oblivious to her wounds, though. Her gaze was fixed on Miyo, her face intent, her eyes burning. She came onward, mouth open to speak, and then came to a sudden halt, glancing uncertainly at Hiiro.
In an instant—Itsuko looked on and could only shake her head in admiration—the tension erased itself from Mercury’s face, and she said in a voice of calm solicitude, “Are you all right, Miss? What happened to you?”
Miyo gave a ragged chuckle. “Don’t bother, Mercury. He already knows who I am. He saw me change.”
Mercury’s eyes narrowed. “Did he now?” She gave Hiiro a hard glance, then looked back to Miyo. “What happened? It wasn’t the vitrimorphs; you were already out cold when we arrived—”
“‘S’ Division,” Itsuko put in. She could not keep a touch of bitter spite from her voice. “They used some kind of device on her, made her powers overload—”
“Itsuko, no!” Miyo cried out.
Itsuko looked down at her, startled. “What?” she began. Then something made her turn back to Mercury.
She was just in time to see the moment of cold, black rage that washed across Mercury’s face.
In an instant it was gone, and there was only calm interest in the girl’s eyes. “Is that so?” She turned to face Hiiro and asked politely, “Would you care to explain?”
Hiiro looked back at her, his face blank, his eyes impenetrable. After a pause that was barely noticeable he said, “No. Not really.”
Mercury’s expression did not change at all. “I don’t think you heard me,” she said, her voice still calm. “I said, would you care to explain?” And then, in one swift motion, her hand came up, pointed directly at him, almost touching his forehead. Her words became a rasp of fury. “Before I blow your fucking head right off?”
Itsuko froze. Suddenly Miyo’s warning was all too clear…because Itsuko could see the murderous truth in Sailor Mercury’s eyes. The girl was serious. One ice spear was all it would take, and she was hair-trigger ready to do it—
Hiiro said, “No.”
Mercury stiffened. “What?” she demanded. “What did you say? You want me to kill you?”
“I said, no,” he repeated. “I won’t justify myself to you, girl. I did my duty. Now you go ahead and do yours.” After a deliberate pause he added, in a tone of sour disgust, “If that’s what you really think it is.”
He folded his arms and glared at her, his eyes cold and impassive. Waiting.
Mercury stared back at him. “You—you—” She faltered, confused. Her hand wavered. For a breathless second it looked as if she might back down.
Then the rage was back in her face. Her hand steadied, the fingers spread almost like claws. “All right,” she snarled.
“Mercury, don’t,” Miyo pleaded. “They were helping us. Itsuko, tell her!”
“Sailor Mercury,” Itsuko said carefully. She knew the fury that Dhiti was feeling. She had felt it herself, more than once. A single wrong word was all it would take to set Mercury off. “You—”
Then, another factor. A dark man appearing out of the darkness, so swiftly and smoothly that none of them saw him coming. Big and burly, his face rough and unshaven…and the gun he held to Mercury’s temple, cold and bright.
“Back off, little girl,” he said. “Right now.”
The words froze in Itsuko’s mouth. She did not know what to do. The Senshi were tough, yes; but a bullet in the head at close range would probably kill Mercury all the same. But what could she—
“No,” said Hiiro. “Kuroi, no. Stand down. That’s an order.”
And a new voice said, “All of you, stand down.”
They froze, a living tableau: Hiiro, his arms folded, grim and defiant. Mercury, burning with rage, her hand outstretched to attack. Kuroi, cold and dangerous, ready to shoot. Itsuko and Miyo, looking on helplessly. And the impossible girl, Sailor Moon…
She came up to Sailor Mercury, her movements calm and unhurried, and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think you should do that,” she said softly.
Mercury stared back at her, the moment of stillness broken. “Why not?” she asked. She sounded almost petulant.
“Because…” Moon paused. “Because revenge doesn’t help. In the end, it will only hurt you more than him. He might be dead, but you’ll have to live with it—always.” She blinked, once. “In time, it will poison you.”
“I—” Mercury’s hand wavered. She looked…hunted. “I don’t even know you,” she whispered.
“I know. But still.”
They held each other’s eyes for a moment longer; and then Mercury looked away and snarled, “Oh, damn it, anyway.” All at once, the strength seemed to drain out of her. Her arm dropped to her side, and she sagged back. As she did, Kuroi stepped back from her, his gun vanishing into some hidden pocket. Mercury paid no attention; she flopped to her knees at Miyo’s side and said, “You sure you’re all right, Hayashi?”
Miyo smiled at her wearily. “I will be.”
Captain Hiiro made a quick decision and turned away from Mercury. He shot Kuroi a look, and saw the man nod in understanding. Hiiro returned the nod, and then gave all his attention to the newcomer. The living legend.
She looked like…something out of a fairy tale. She seemed to glow, almost to sparkle. But she was there, real; he had seen her fight. He had seen her destroy, almost effortlessly, a massive crystalline monster that was immune to bullets.
He weighed his options, estimating chances. The mission was shot to hell, that was for damn sure. How to salvage the situation? What would Colonel Shiro want him to do…?
“Ma’am,” he said. Suddenly, he felt unspeakably tired. “With your permission, I’ll see to my people and we’ll be on our way.”
Sailor Moon regarded him with clear blue eyes. Her gaze was an uncomfortably searching one, and he found himself squirming mentally. “What’s your name?” she asked suddenly.
He blinked. “Uh. Hiiro, ma’am,” he said. “Captain Hiiro Yoichi, ‘S’ Division.”
“Thank you.” Another moment under that frank, open look. “Why are you here tonight, Captain?”
Hiiro saw no point in denying it. “To arrest Hino-san, ma’am.”
“Uh…Pappadopoulos-san. Pappadopoulos Itsuko.” He controlled his reaction to the question. That was an interesting admission. Sailor Moon didn’t know who Pappadopoulos really was?
“Oh. And why were you arresting her?”
“Charges of criminal conspiracy and treason, Ma’am. Also fraud and a few others.”
“Really?” Sailor Moon’s eyebrows shot up, her poise momentarily lost. “Wow.” She stole a quick glance at Itsuko, then looked back to Hiiro. At last, regaining her calm, she said, “All right. You and your people can go. I’m afraid I can’t let you take Pappadopoulos-san, though.”
Hiiro nodded; he’d expected that. He thought about saluting as he turned away from her, but decided not to. Legend or not, he was damned if he was going to salute a teenage girl.
He checked the rest of the team. Kuroi was fine, of course. Aoiro was bleeding from a scalp wound, and looked to have taken some minor cuts and bruises, but he looked steady enough. Mitsukai was the worst off; she was limping, and held her shattered wrist in the crook of her good arm. She looked to have some electrical burns, too. Her face was pale and beaded with sweat, and she was taking quick, shallow breaths.
He told Kuroi and Aoiro to help her out. As they lifted her gently in a two-handed seat carry, he turned back for a moment.
As he’d expected, Pappadopoulos was looking at him. “This isn’t over,” he told her quietly. “You’re still wanted…and we will find you.”
She lifted one eyebrow, but did not reply. Her face was unreadable; her gaze never wavered.
He nodded once more to Sailor Moon, who had watched the exchange with obvious interest, and followed Kuroi and Aoiro out. The office door hung loose on broken hinges, but he closed it as far as he could behind him.
Outside, the corridor almost completely dark, but he could just make out the shadows of the other three, waiting for him. He opened his mouth to speak to them—
And a sudden glow of pastel light washed over the four of them, freezing them in place; and a voice that was not a voice spoke directly into his mind. «I’m sorry, Captain…but I can’t allow you and your friends to remember all this.»
“After all,” the chairman said, “triumph or not, you hadn’t planned on her appearing.”
The vulpine glee on Twelve’s face faded. “True,” she admitted. “We miscalculated slightly. After all, we are still only half-awake, the Master and I. But what of it? We wanted her to appear; and even if we did not expect it last night in particular, I see no reason to be dissatisfied.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Still…I wonder,” the chairman repeated. “They managed to surprise us. In a small, unimportant way, perhaps, and one that was ultimately to our benefit. But what if they do it again?”
Twelve’s grin returned. “That’s what makes life interesting. Let them have their moment! The final victory will be all the sweeter.”
“There is that.” The chairman looked around at her and licked his lips, a quick, almost nervous gesture. “Why four vitrimorphs, though? They’ve never faced more than one before. It seems like overkill.”
“Obviously not, since the Senshi won,” Twelve said sardonically. “But then, her arrival wasn’t the only surprise last night, was it? There was the…most interesting device that your men were using.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”
“No? I hope not…for your sake.” For just an instant, there was a terrible, dark look in Twelve’s eyes, one that spoke of an endless, insatiable hunger. The slow pulsing of the jewel in her forehead quickened, and then steadied. “Let me be clearer, then,” she went on. “The Interdiction Controller used against Sailor Jupiter…and, I believe, developed by ‘M’ Division. How did that come to be there?”
The chairman frowned slightly. “I know of the project,” he admitted. “I did not authorise its use.”
“Then it would seem you have some investigation to do! Tell me,” she said, her voice hard and flat, “when were you planning to inform me of this…project of yours?”
“When it was ready to be tested!” he snapped back. He closed his eyes, calming himself, and in a more controlled tone said, “I had not been informed that the prototype was this far advanced. I still have no idea how ‘S’ Division got hold of it. I will be investigating both questions today.”
He gave Twelve a quizzical look. “Why are you concerned, though? Surely it was to our benefit last night? Knowing that we have an effective weapon against them may even spur the Senshi on a little harder—”
“Fool,” Twelve rasped. “Why do you creatures keep imagining you are permitted to think? Can you not see that a signal that disrupts a Senshi’s powers will interfere with a vitrimorph as well? How could it not? When I realised what you’d done, I sent in as many vitrimorphs as I could…not to attack the Senshi, but to destroy that machine!”
He stared at her. “Interfere—”
“Fool, I say!” Twelve’s voice was full of contempt. “Do you want to see an army of vitrimorphs running wild, completely out of control? You have no conception of what you’re tampering with! You will see to it that all development of the Interdiction Controller is halted, is that clear? All records of the project will be erased. You’ll see to that personally!”
“I…yes.” The chairman’s mind raced. The implications of what he had just been told—
“And—” Her eyes flashed, and for an instant the jewel in her forehead lit up with a sickly pale glow. “You will find out who gave that prototype to ‘S’ Division. And then I will pay him or her a visit.” She gave a thin, hard smile, wolf-like once more. “You had best hope it was nobody important.”
He listened to her with outward equanimity, and bowed his head in silent obedience. Inwardly, he winced, knowing that he had just heard a death sentence pronounced. He only hoped that she made it quick.
Another part of him, though, still churned with the news she had given him. Interfere with a vitrimorph…out of control! If the controllers somehow affected the Master’s control…Somewhere deep in the private recesses of his mind, in a place that he hardly dared acknowledge still existed, he found himself thinking that having such a device might be no bad thing. If he would find a way to preserve the project—put it undercover, hide it somewhere Twelve would never think to look—
Then, with a burst of dismay, he remembered that the Master could hear his every thought. Hear, and punish.
He stood stock-still, eyes closed and fists clenched, and waited for the bolt to descend: for the icy cloud to close over his thoughts, and the cold, cold voice to pronounce judgement in his mind, and the torment to begin. Already, his hands burned in remembered agony.
But nothing happened. He waited, and nothing happened.
“Well?” said Twelve impatiently. His eyes snapped open in shock. “Do you remember after all? Something else you may have accidentally ‘forgotten’ to mention before?”
He shook himself mentally, trying to remember what they had been talking about. Calmly, he said, “Ah, no. I’m afraid not. But I will certainly investigate and give you the results as soon as may be.”
She snorted. “Weasel,” she said, her voice rich with contempt. But her anger was redirected, and he breathed a silent sigh of relief.
What had happened? Why had the Master not reacted to his moment of rebellion?
A thought came to him suddenly, so unlikely that he almost rejected it out of hand—and yet, so enticing that he could not help but cling to it. Since Twelve had undergone her second initiation and become the Master’s hand incarnate, the Master had not controlled him even once. Could it be—was it just possible—that the Master had limits? That while he controlled Twelve so absolutely, he could not divide his attention to watch the chairman as well?
Could it be that—in a limited, but very real way—the chairman was free?
He had no more time to consider the matter. Twelve went on, “I am still waiting for an explanation of why your division was developing the controller at all—in particular, without the Master’s knowledge.”
“Surely that’s obvious?” he asked smoothly. “One does not put all one’s eggs in a single basket. I decided that we should at least investigate whether other…options might be effective. I saw no point in raising the matter unless the results seemed promising.”
She sighed. “You still seem to be under the impression that initiative is to be desired.” Fixing him with a baleful stare, she went on, “Let me be plain, then: all decisions relating to the Senshi are the prerogative of the Master alone—and, through him, of me.” The jewel on her forehead pulsed once, and her eyes began to glow a cold, pale green. He recoiled at the sight, even as she added, her voice rising to a roar, “You are a useful tool, true, but you are not indispensable. Further indiscretions will not be tolerated! Is that clear enough for you?”
An icy wind swept through the office. Loose papers swirled about the room in a mad flurry. The walls themselves seemed to groan under the onslaught. In the centre of the whirlwind, Twelve hovered, her feet half a metre off the floor, her eyes and jewel blazing with power. A foul smell filled the air.
Half-blinded, in sudden mortal terror of his life, the chairman threw himself to the floor before her. All his hopes of the previous moment were forgotten, washed away in the face of the demon before him. He bowed his forehead to the floor, trembling, his heart beating wildly, and waited for the end.
The wind died away. A quiet voice said, “Get up, fool.” He raised his eyes and saw Twelve sitting back in the chair before his desk, leafing idly through her folder once again as if nothing had happened. The floor was littered with papers.
Shakily, his heart still in his throat, he climbed to his feet and lurched back to the desk himself. As he was sitting, Twelve said casually, “I trust that your pet scientist had nothing to do with the controller’s development, at least.”
“My—?” It took him a second to change mental gear, and longer to get his voice under control enough to be able to speak normally. “Oh. No…no. ‘M’ had nothing to do with it.”
“Good. I know how you like your little hobby. We wouldn’t want to have to deprive you of that, would we?” She gave him a malicious smirk, and threw her folder down to the desk. “All right, that’s all. Let me have that name by this evening, and I’ll take care of your blunder. As for the rest, I think we’ll give the Senshi a few days to settle down before the next att—”
She was interrupted by a sudden, urgent knock at the door. Before either of them could speak, it was flung open and the same messenger who had brought in the reports earlier entered. He looked agitated. He hurried over to the chairman and handed him a single sheet of paper, then left even more quickly, bowing three times as he closed the door.
Twelve watched him go with lazy contempt. “He looked like a mouse making a delivery to the cat. Maybe I should follow him and…extend the metaphor.” She laughed at the thought. Then she glanced back at the chairman. “What now? Some dreadful new crisis?”
The chairman skimmed the sheet quickly, and froze. He read it again. “Yes,” he said, “I’m afraid so. It seems they were busier last night than we thought.”
“Criminal conspiracy and fraud?” said Sailor Moon. Her eyes were wide and innocent…but was there a glint of mischief in them? “Wow. Really?”
“Of course not!” Itsuko snapped. “The whole thing is an idiotic misunderstanding.” She glared down at the girl in the blue, white and red seifuku. “But I think we have more important things to talk about, don’t we? You have some questions to answer, young lady.”
Moon seemed to wilt. “Oh,” she said in a small voice. “You know, then.”
“Know?” Itsuko hesitated. She had a sudden feeling that she was missing something.
“I’m sorry,” Moon went on glumly. “But I just never dreamed that you and Miyo-san would get involved in this. I still don’t see why—”
“‘Miyo-san’?” repeated Itsuko, her eyes narrowing. “What—wait a minute. How do you know her name?”
Moon gaped at her. “But you said…I thought you—”
“Who are you?”
“She is Sailor Moon,” said a man’s voice. A low, thrilling voice, filled with sincerity and passion.
Even as she turned, Itsuko knew who she would see, and cursed herself. They had forgotten him again, just as they always seemed to forget him. The faceless one, the eternal outsider, never quite part of the team and yet always there to back them up when he was needed…
And he still spoke like a cornball.
In the shadows on the far side of the room, something stirred; a patch of darkness seemed to detach itself from the rest, and became a tall, slender young man in a perfectly-tailored black tuxedo and top hat, a white domino mask covering his upper face. An opera cape swirled about him as he advanced. The sword he had wielded earlier had vanished; he once more bore an elegant black cane under his arm.
“Sailor Moon,” he repeated in the same vibrant tone. His gaze swept over them all, ending on the new Senshi. The girl stepped forward to meet him, her eyes widening.
He raised a hand to cup her cheek lightly, then dropped it again. “At last,” he said huskily. “You are here, and the true light of love and justice returns to the world.”
“Who are you?” whispered Moon. “Are you the one who keeps leaving me roses?” He towered over her; even without the top hat he would have been much taller than she. She looked very small in his shadow. But his words were gentle, even tender, and her face showed no alarm.
“I am the one who has been waiting for you,” he said softly; “and now, inevitably, the fates have drawn us together. Don’t you see it? Can’t you feel that we are destined for one another?”
At that, Moon’s composure was finally shattered. “I—I don’t know,” she stammered. In the dim light, her eyes were very big. She sounded half-afraid—and half-rapt. “I do feel…something…”
He stepped closer. “Then let me remind you,” he murmured. He lifted one arm and swept his cape around her, drawing her to him. Even as their bodies met, his other hand touched her chin, lifting her face up, as he lowered his lips to meet hers.
Sailor Moon stiffened; then, slowly, she relaxed and melted into his embrace. Her arms crept around his back.
The kiss lasted several eternities. Then the two parted. Sailor Moon was breathing fast, and her cheeks were flushed. Tuxedo Kamen’s face was unreadable beneath his mask, but his own chest rose and fell quickly. He stood facing her for one more moment, as if wrestling with himself; but then, with a sudden bound, he sprang across the office and placed one foot smoothly on the sill of the open window. There he paused, and looked back one last time at Moon.
“Truly,” he whispered tenderly, “the moonlight carries a message of love.” Then he turned away, ducked his head to step easily out of the window, and was gone.
“Wow,” said Sailor Venus sardonically. “What a smoothie.”
Sailor Uranus had been staring after Tuxedo Kamen, open-mouthed, but at Venus’ words she shook her head sharply, the spell broken. She ran to the window and looked out. A second later, she turned back. “Nothing,” she reported. “He’s gone.” She shook her head, looking almost shell-shocked. “I…well. I’ve read the old stories, but I never expected him to be like that.”
“I know,” Moon sighed happily. She had a silly little smile on her face. “Wasn’t it just the most romantic thing you ever saw?” Across the room, Sailor Mars nodded silently, three times.
Uranus hesitated. She wanted to agree. She knew all the legends, virtually by heart; she knew that the story of Serenity and Endymion had been one of history’s greatest love matches, the subject or the inspiration for countless songs and epic poems. The two of them had been role models for a thousand romantic leads in plays and viddies, and for young teenagers, for centuries. How could she lie to Sailor Moon, of all people? Yet now that she had seen the man for herself—
“No,” she said, resolute. “I don’t know about romantic…but it may have been the corniest.”
“Oh, pooh.” Moon did not seem in the least bothered. “You’re probably just jealous.”
“What? I—I am not!”
“Good,” Moon said, grinning. “‘Cause he’s mine, and you can’t have him.”
“I—” Uranus spluttered to a halt, the blasphemy of the suggestion forgotten in a surge of indignation. “What makes you think I’d want him?” she demanded.
After all, she had Minoru. And Minoru was quite satisfactory, thank you, even if the two of them had not actually gotten anywhere yet. Admittedly he was not as good-looking as Tuxedo Kamen; nor did he have that electrifying voice—or those beautiful hands—or that…that utterly perfect butt…
She broke off the train of thought, unaccountably flustered, and wondered what was wrong with her.
“So was he any good?” put in Venus, thankfully not noticing her confusion.
“Oh, was he!” said Moon enthusiastically. “Maybe there’s something to those stories about fate after all. You know, I think he’s been leaving me flowers? I keep finding them outside my door.” She paused, and her brow wrinkled. “It’s funny, though. I didn’t expect him to have a pony-tail.”
“No,” said Venus thoughtfully. “Or the accent.”
Miyo and Sailor Mercury exchanged a glance. Mercury started to speak; but Miyo shook her head and murmured, “Not now.”
There would be time later to go over the implications; time to work out what to do about it. Time to kick themselves for the enormity of their mistake.
After all, the truth had been staring them in the face all along. They had simply overlooked it, over and over again, because the answer had seemed so obvious. The two boys even looked alike, if you ignored their hair; but they had managed to miss that too. It was not until they heard him talk that the truth became inescapable.
Tuxedo Kamen had spoken with a strong Eirish accent.
“I think,” Itsuko said, “that we’re getting off-topic.”
“We had a topic?” she heard Mercury mutter distinctly. “Damn, I must not have gotten the memo.” She turned her head to glare at the girl, and was gratified to see Miyo clout her on the side of the head.
Itsuko returned her attention to Sailor Moon. She was suddenly unsure what to say; the only things that came to mind seemed trite and altogether inadequate. She settled for giving the girl a short bow and saying, “Welcome. I’m glad you’ve come at last.”
It seemed to surprise Moon, who gave her a puzzled look and said, “But I thought you said you—”
She got no further; abruptly she was surrounded by girls, all trying to speak and ask questions at once. Even Miyo joined them; Mercury helped her to her feet, and while she was visibly unsteady at first, she seemed to be recovering fast.
When Moon saw the tall girl, pale and tottery but smiling nevertheless, she broke away from Sailor Venus—who was now talking so fast she was almost unintelligible—and said, “Miyo-san! Are you all right? I’m sorry; I saw you were hurt, but I kept being…” She waved a hand around the room helplessly.
“I’ll be fine,” Miyo reassured her. “Uh…you know who I am?”
“Yes, of course,” Moon replied. Her eyes widened suddenly and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Are you an international criminal, too, like Itsuko-san?”
Miyo started to answer, but then realised that she had no idea what to say to that. Mercury, alas, had no such failing. “‘Criminal’ is such a harsh word, don’t you think?” she said, dropping an arm around Moon’s shoulders smoothly. “Okay, sure, Hayashi robs banks in her spare time, and she likes to blackmail elderly women. But is that so bad, really?”
“Uh. Yes?” Moon hazarded.
“Dhiti!” yelped Miyo. “Don’t listen to her, Sailor Moon, she’s always like this.”
“I think I was starting to guess,” Moon said dryly. Mercury dropped her arm, pretending to look hurt. “But Miyo-san, what happened? Why were those men hurting you?”
“Eh?” Miyo shook her head. “Why do you think? I was trying to save Itsuko. I told them I’d put a lightning bolt up their asses if they didn’t let her go.” She saw the increasing confusion in Moon’s face and added, “Well, I am Sailor Jupiter.”
Moon gaped at her. “You are?!”
Itsuko watched, growing more puzzled each moment. Sailor Moon obviously knew both her and Miyo, but she kept on avoiding saying how, or from where. But who knew both of them? She had the maddening feeling that she was missing something terribly obvious—
“Of course,” Miyo answered. Her eyes narrowed slightly and she said, a little brusquely, “And who are you?”
“And how did you even know to come here?” put in Venus.
Moon glanced around at the interruption, and looked faintly embarrassed. “Well, actually, I was already here. I was asleep just down the hall. The noise woke me up when you started fighting.”
Already here?! And then, at last, Itsuko knew—and she started to laugh, at the irony of it.
The girls looked up at her, surprised. Still chuckling, Itsuko came forward and put her hand on Moon’s shoulder. “All right, but the fighting’s over,” she said. “It’s about time you changed back, don’t you think?” She paused, and then added, “…Ochiyo-chan?”
Moon stared at her for a second longer. “But if you knew, why did you pretend you—? Oh, never mind.” She shimmered abruptly, and became a teenage girl wearing rumpled pyjamas. She was perhaps a fraction shorter than average, with a round face and long, dark brown hair in a pony-tail.
For just an instant, as she changed, a golden symbol glowed on her forehead, then faded away. But it was not the crescent that Itsuko had expected; it was a plain golden circle. A full moon.
Miyo and Sailor Uranus both stared at her, apparently thunderstruck. Miyo blurted out, “Ochiyo-san? But—you—” Then she, too, began to laugh.
“You know her, too?” said Uranus, her eyes still wide.
“We—” Miyo stopped laughing, then snorted and started to giggle again. “We sleep together, once a week.”
Ochiyo gave her an incredulous, almost panicked look. “We do not!” she protested. “I mean…in separate beds! Separate beds!”
Uranus groaned. “I don’t even want to know,” she said, in apparent pain. Then she, too, detransformed, and abruptly knelt at the startled Ochiyo’s feet. “Princess,” she said, “I am Sailor Uranus.”
Ochiyo gaped down at her. “Itagaki-san?” she said. “But you—” She broke off suddenly, her eyes narrowing. “All right,” she went on in a very different tone. “Thank you. But please, don’t kneel. And don’t call me ‘princess’.”
“But—uh, yes, ma’am.” Suzue bit her lip as she stood once more. “I mean, Aizawa-san.”
“You know each other?” put in Venus, interested.
“We go to the same school,” replied Suzue. At the same moment, Ochiyo said, “She’s in my Home Ec class.” They glanced at each other, and Ochiyo grinned. Suzue did not.
Itsuko watched the exchange, mentally frowning. There was something funny going on there. Maybe the two did not get along? That could be a problem. She was distracted, though, as she saw Sailor Mercury lift her head and whisper in Miyo’s ear. She was just close enough to make the words out: “Wow, she even wears elegant pyjamas.”
Miyo shushed Mercury hastily, but she was hiding a grin. Itsuko had to repress a smile of her own. Like them, she had noticed before that Suzue tended to be a bit of a clothes-horse. Her night-dress, of a very sheer dark green material, fit the pattern.
Meanwhile, Sailor Mars had taken Suzue’s place. She did not kneel; she detransformed and then bowed deeply. “Ma’am. I’m Kodama Iku,” she said in a low voice. “I—they say I have to be Sailor Mars, but I’m not—I’m not very—”
Ochiyo shushed her, and studied her with what Itsuko, watching, thought was an unexpectedly shrewd eye. Then she said, “You saved my life tonight.”
“I—” Iku tried to look away, then visibly steadied herself. “Yes.”
“You could have been badly hurt yourself.” Ochiyo smiled suddenly, and touched Iku under the chin. “I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed of.”
“But I—” Iku trailed off. Very softly, she whispered, “Thank you.”
As Iku retired, Venus took her place, grinning. “Sailor Venus,” she said jauntily, and let her transformation drop. “And, uh, my name is McCrea Bethany. Um. People just call me Beth, mostly. I, er, suppose you can call me whatever you want…”
Ochiyo gave her an odd look, as if trying to match this suddenly diffident girl with the Senshi who had been chattering away so excitedly a minute before. “Aizawa Ochiyo,” she said, a trifle warily. “Pleased to meet you.”
Then it was Mercury’s turn. She gave Miyo a wink, and stepped up to Ochiyo. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Sharma Dhiti, Sailor Mercury.” She detransformed. “And I have to say, you—”
She broke off. Everyone was staring at her.
She looked down at herself.
Then she let out a high-pitched, incoherent squeak, tried frantically to cover herself with her hands, looked around desperately, and dove behind Itsuko’s desk.
The others all watched her go, still staring. After a moment, Suzue said thoughtfully, “The weather has been warm lately.”
Miyo sighed. “She always has to make a spectacle of herself.”
Hiiro and his team climbed wearily into the van and buckled themselves in. Aoiro took the driver’s seat and started them back toward ‘S’ Division headquarters. They drove for a while in silence, the pale blue of the streetlights flicking across their faces.
“So,” said Hiiro after a little. “That went well.”
Kuroi snorted. “What do you expect?” he demanded. “You want us to walk into the middle of a pitched battle?”
“Don’t be silly.” Hiiro shook his head. “Damn it—I wanted to get there ahead of Pappa-san. We could have set up a trap and taken her nice and quietly. Instead we arrive and find her and the Senshi already fighting giant monsters! Not what I had in mind.”
“Yeah.” Kuroi grumbled for a moment under his breath. “What were those fucking things, anyway?”
“Why don’t you go back and ask Pappa-san?”
“Yeah.” Hiiro made a sour face. “Goddammit. I lost the Interdiction Controller, too. Shosuke’s going to be pissed.”
“A little something I borrowed from an old friend. Should have come in useful if we’d had to fight the Senshi. But one of those crystal things knocked it out of my hands as we went inside, and I saw it get smashed.”
“Oh, yeah. Your friend at ‘Q’ Division. I remember you mentioned.”
“I’ll have to buy him a drink. Sometime after I work out exactly how I’m going to report all this.”
Aoiro glanced around, his hands still on the van’s steering bar. “What’s to report?” he said. “We arrived, we saw Pappadopoulos and the Senshi fighting monsters. We saw the monsters get their asses kicked. Then we went away again before the Senshi noticed us and decided to kick our asses too.”
“So you write the report,” said Kuroi sardonically. “You’re halfway finished already.”
“We do have one bit of news, anyway,” said Hiiro. “They had another new Senshi.”
Nobody answered. Sailor Moon; none of them wanted to say the name. And Hiiro had a pretty strong feeling that nobody at headquarters would be pleased to read it in his report, either. If she had finally arrived on the scene…what came next?
In the rear of the van, Lieutenant Mitsukai listened to the others talk, but did not try to join in. From time to time, she rubbed her wrist absently. She kept having a nagging feeling that it should be hurting, for some reason, but she could not think why. After all, like the rest of the team, she was in perfect health.
Ochiyo ducked out of the office and returned a few seconds later with a light yukata, which she threw over Itsuko’s desk. A hand reached up to grab it and, after a minute, Dhiti rejoined them. Her face was flushed with embarrassment.
“Um,” she said. “I…don’t quite know what to say.”
Miyo cleared her throat. “It’s not actually all that different from if we were at a public bath, or a hot spring,” she pointed out.
“Yes it is, Hayashi.…But thanks.”
Dhiti looked around the room. Some of the others had suspiciously straight faces, or were trying to hide a smirk of some description—like old poker-face Pappadopoulos. Others weren’t even trying. Iku was actually crying with laughter, in almost total silence. Okay, that was weird.
Suzue just looked pained. No surprises there.
“Right,” Dhiti said. She coughed self-consciously. “Um. So, as I was saying—”
That was too much for Ochiyo. Her face twitched, and then she pitched forward and exploded in a bray of laughter. She wrapped her arms around her middle and shook with it, for all the world like a rag doll.
Dhiti watched her dubiously. She was starting to feel just a little annoyed. Playing the fool was one thing, but doing it by mistake was another. Flashing the whole team was definitely another. Peevishly, she said, “Come on, it wasn’t that funny.”
With some difficulty, Ochiyo managed to get herself under control. “It’s not that,” she gasped. “It’s—it’s just that I suddenly recognised you. You’re the Masked Avenger!”
“I’m the—?” Dhiti froze, suddenly remembering. Then, helplessly, she started to laugh herself. “That was you?”
“That was me.” Ochiyo wiped her eyes, and chuckled again. “I never did find out what that was all about. Maybe this time someone can explain it to me.” She cocked her head at Dhiti, a glint in her eye. “But tell me: are you going to steal things or return them, this time?”
“Umm.” Dhiti looked down at herself. “I may have to steal this yukata. Or borrow it, at least.”
Ochiyo waved a hand in the air. “Help yourself.”
“Very generous,” growled Miyo. “Considering it’s my yukata.”
“Excuse me.” Beth cleared her throat. “Could the rest of us ask…what are you talking about? Who’s the Masked Avenger?”
The glint in Ochiyo’s eye sharpened. “Ah,” she said. “Now that’s a very interesting question.”
“Hey! They don’t need to know about that!” Dhiti said hastily.
“No?” Ochiyo purred. “Well, perhaps later.”
“What happened to your hair?” asked a timid voice.
They looked around, surprised, at Iku. The girl shied back half a step at the movement, but went on, “I—I thought you were supposed to…” She trailed off, holding her hands up on either side of her head.
Suzue nodded and added, “I’d been wondering about that too, actually. After all, traditionally Sailor Moon—”
“Traditionally? You want me to wear my hair in odango?” interrupted Ochiyo, lifting her hands to her head to mime the shape. “In this day and age? Ha! She wanted me to try them, too, but—” She rolled her eyes. “Please. Just shoot me.”
“You could wear them instead, Suzue-chan,” Dhiti suggested in an arch tone. “Just to keep up tradition, of course.”
Suzue gave her a cold look. “I think not.”
“No, you wouldn’t, would you?” murmured Ochiyo thoughtfully.
Itsuko coughed to draw their attention. “Excuse me,” she said. “Maybe we should consider moving out of here? It’s pretty late, after all, and maybe not such a good idea to be standing round in—” she sighed “—a wrecked office. We’re lucky we haven’t drawn attention already, with all the noise we’ve made. Though I suppose losing the lights helped—”
“Oh, that wasn’t luck.”
“I turned the lights off,” Ochiyo explained. “At the mains. That was right after Tuxedo Kamen arrived—he came in my window, actually. I don’t know how he knew what was going on.” She grinned at the memory. “Anyway, then she told us that she could make it so people wouldn’t notice what was happening upstairs. But that we ought to make a dramatic entrance. So I turned off the lights, and we—”
“Wait a minute,” said Miyo. “Who’s this ‘she’?”
Ochiyo paused. “That’s a little hard to explain—”
And a voice that was not a voice echoed in their minds. «SHE…IS ME.»
The light in the office changed.
That light…it had begun as a faint, pearly glow spilling in through the open door, silhouetting Sailor Moon against a luminous halo. But it had grown in Moon’s wake, gradually brightening until it filled the office, increasing so slowly and subtly that they barely noticed it. Now it was everywhere. And now—
It rippled, like light seen through a multihued layer of water, filling the room with delicate, pastel shades. Then it began to gather together: as if a cloud of pure radiance had filled the room, but was now condensing into a ball that hung in midair, drawing inward and growing ever brighter as it did so.
As it shrank, the ball began to change its shape, taking on form and definition. For an instant, it separated into two and became a great pair of eyes, gazing serenely down at them. Above the eyes, the air seemed to split open and a golden crescent hung there, glowing brilliantly and flooding the office with a surge of colour.
At the same time, they all felt a surge of something powerful wash through them: an overpowering sense of potency, but at the same time, of wonder and passion. They felt peace, and love, and pure happiness.
Then the eyes and crescent were gone. The hazy form taking shape in the air drew in on itself once more—and suddenly, in an eye-blink, it was over. A dim light still filled the room from some indefinable source, and by it they could all see the form that stood before them. A young girl—younger than any of them, perhaps no more than fourteen—in an archaic sailor-suited school uniform, smiling happily at them. A girl with long blonde hair done up in odango, and a face that all of them knew at once.
Another blink, and she changed. Suddenly she was older, perhaps their own age, wearing a different uniform. But her smile never changed.
Another blink. She was an adult, now, and held a pink-haired infant at her breast. Her smile was infinitely tender.
Another. She was a winged queen, tall and elegant, radiant and majestic, holding a glittering jewel that filled the air with a silvery glow.
One more shift—and a strange form was before them, a translucent globe holding something that looked like an unborn child. It hung in the air, staring back at them with vast, curiously ageless eyes, silent and enigmatic. Yet somehow, the feeling of peace and serenity never left them.
“What…what is that?” whispered Beth.
“It’s—” Itsuko shook her head, and sighed. “It’s the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” she answered. To the shape, she said, “Stop it, Usagi-chan. You’re being silly.”
They all heard its laughter. «Dearest Rei.»
Then the globe was gone, and the queen stood there once more, tall, golden-haired, winged and beautiful, clad in a long, flowing white robe. She smiled at them, and though her mouth never moved, her voice was clear in their minds. «Welcome,» she said. «Welcome to you all: dearest friends, bold new warriors…and beloved daughter. I’m so glad to see you all at last.»
Around the room, they each had their own reactions. Beth’s eyes grew wider and wider, and she found herself smiling helplessly. Dhiti stood very still, and let out a sigh of pure contentment. Iku closed her eyes, feeling as if she were basking in the welcome, and was startled to find her cheeks wet with tears. Suzue swayed on her feet and then collapsed to her knees, her face pale. She reached up and touched her forehead, tracing a curve there.
Miyo saw Suzue’s strange reaction and wondered at it, but only for an instant. She was too distracted, filled to overflowing with incredulous joy, to think of other things. Her friend was back. Tsukino Usagi. Queen Serenity. Friend, teammate, leader, ruler; oldest, dearest, most treasured. Usagi. Somehow, improbably, back from the dead.
Almost in unison, she and Itsuko took one faltering step forward, arms flung wide to embrace her—
Then the queen held up a hand, and they faltered to a stop. «No,» Serenity said. «I’m sorry, but that’s not possible.»
“But…why?” asked Itsuko, her voice raw and half-choked. “What’s wrong?”
«I’m dead, Rei-chan. You can’t touch me; I’m not really here.» After a moment, the queen added, «I’m sorry.»
Itsuko stared at her, the glimmer in her eyes belying the look of mulish rebellion on her face. “It’s always something with you, isn’t it?” she whispered; and, amazingly, she smiled through her tears.
Miyo was holding back tears of her own, but she managed to keep her voice steady as she asked, “Are you…some kind of hologram, then? Like that one of your mother on the Moon?”
Serenity shook her head slowly. «No. I am here, in spirit. During the battle against the enemy, I bound myself to the Ginzuishou to preserve it from the enemy’s control. Too closely. When they killed me, a part of me stayed behind—still locked inside.»
“Inside the Ginzuishou?” Miyo wrinkled her brow. “But…well, where? Where is it, then?”
«I don’t know,» the queen said calmly.
“You don’t know?” flared Itsuko.
«It is dark where I am…dark, and cold. I cannot see where it is. There is nothing to see.» The golden figure paused. «I can send my spirit out, for a little while, but not everywhere. Only to places where there is light.»
“But it’s dark here, tonight,” Miyo protested.
«Not that kind of light. I mean the light of a pure heart crystal. The light of a starseed. The light of a Senshi.»
She looked around the room, her gaze falling on each girl in turn. Her voice sharpened suddenly. «Now pay attention, all of you. I have been watching you for some time, and there are things I must say to each of you. So listen—»
«—Listen,» she said to Miyo. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of them can hear what you and I say.»
Miyo glanced around, and saw that the other girls were frozen in place, caught like statues in mid-motion. She was amused at first, but when she noticed that they were not breathing, either, it became a little disturbing. “You’ve…stopped time?” she asked. “How? I thought that was one of Setsuna’s tricks, and she was forbidden to—”
«Not quite. It isn’t time that I’ve frozen, but them. I can’t do it for long, but it’s harmless enough. They won’t even notice that it’s happened. As for how…that doesn’t really matter. I’ve had quite a while to learn things, that’s all.» She studied Miyo for a moment and then suddenly smiled; and with that, her face took on a radiance that was dazzling. «But we’re wasting time. Oh, Mako-chan, I’m so glad to see you again.»
Miyo found herself smiling fondly in return. “Me too, Sere-chan. Me, too.” She tossed her head and brushed hair from her eyes, which were unaccountably moist. “Can’t you stay? Isn’t—isn’t there any way to bring you back for good? If we could…” She trailed off uncertainly as she saw the queen shake her head.
«No. I’m sorry. I could send some of you on to a new life, Mako-chan, but how could I send myself? And even that much went wrong.»
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Miyo firmly. Then: “Are—did any more of us make it? Or am I the only one?”
«You have already met one other.»
It took Miyo a few seconds to realise what the queen meant. Then she said, “Mamoru.”
«Yes. Be kind to him, Mako-chan. He will find it difficult, when his memories awaken.»
“Artemis thought it might be kinder not to—” Miyo broke off. “No, that’s not an option, is it? He’s becoming Tuxedo Kamen already. If he doesn’t remember why, he needs to.”
«I’m afraid so. It will not be easy for him; he will have to make his own happiness, in this life. But this isn’t what I needed to talk to you about.» Serenity paused, and looked her straight in the eye. «I have to ask, Mako-chan: is it well with you?»
“I—” Miyo froze. “What do you mean?”
«You know what I mean. Mako-chan, I’m so sorry! I tried to send you on to a better life—all of you. But I’ve seen what’s happened to you, and it seems like I’ve just made things worse than ever—»
“Stop that!” Miyo glared at her. “Stop that right now, or, spirit or not, I’ll…I’ll give you a good shaking! This isn’t—how can you even think it’s your fault?”
«Mako-chan,» Serenity said. «Three lives now…and you’ve lost your family in all three.»
“That’s my father’s fault, not yours. And—” She hesitated. “And it’s even my fault, a little. I knew how he hated lying, and I still never told him. He had a right to be angry.”
«You’re saying that you’re to blame for being disowned?»
“No! He was wrong. He was—” Miyo shook her head. “I can’t find the words for how wrong he was. But I…I’m not innocent, either.” She grimaced. “Maybe it’s just my destiny, to be without a family.”
«And yet, whether they have disowned you or not, you have parents…and also two brothers and a sister.» Serenity’s voice in her mind was very soft. «Do you really believe you’ve lost them all?»
She froze—and suddenly she remembered, and the blood drained from her face. “Fujimaro,” she said. “And Miliko, too. I gave Fuji-kun my comm number—but Itsuko and I had to move in a hurry, and I never—oh, no, he probably thinks I’ve—”
«You must do what you think is best,» the queen said. «But don’t give up on them too easily. Family ties should not be discarded lightly.» She paused. «Or other ties,» she added. «Ties between teammates, for example.»
Miyo blinked. “What do you mean?”
«I see that relations between you and Rei-chan have improved.»
«Not at the time. Later, when I had…time to think, I realised the truth. I realised many things.»
“Well, you can stop worrying,” Miyo said firmly. “Rei-chan and I have talked it out, and we’re okay again. All right?” She made a wry face. “Life’s too short for grudges. She might still be immortal—but I doubt that I am; not any more. It’s time to make the most of life, instead of dwelling in the past.” She hesitated, and then added, “Maybe Hotaru had the right idea, all along.”
«Perhaps,» said Serenity. «It’s something I’ve thought about, now and then. And yet, life is precious…» She shook her head, and her face grew more sombre. «Mako-chan…I’m running out of time. I have to go, and this isn’t the reunion I wanted.» She gave her a sad smile. «Can you forgive me?»
Miyo returned the smile. “You have to ask?”
But then her smile faded. The memories crowded in: joyous days in Crystal Tokyo; schooldays in Juuban Junior High; being bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. They were all so close, so easy to touch, as if they had been only yesterday. Darker times, too: bloody battle in the snowy arctic wastes, as they fought to enter Beryl’s realm; the apocalyptic final struggle as the crystites invaded the Crystal Palace; a dozen others. But always, light or dark, happy or sad, this woman had been the focus of her life—whether her name had been Usagi or Serenity. To have to say goodbye again was more than she could bear.
“Will I ever see you again?” she asked in a small voice.
«I can’t answer that,» Serenity told her. «Perhaps. Yes, perhaps one more time. But Mako-chan…whether we meet again or not, it will make no difference. You will always be in my heart. You will always be my tall, proud, strong sister. And I will always love you.
«That will have to be enough.»
«—Listen,» the queen said to Ochiyo. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of your friends can hear what you and I say. Whatever you tell them of what happens is up to you.»
Ochiyo nodded. “All right,” she said firmly. And waited.
Serenity chuckled. «Always so direct. You’re very different from your elder sister…and yet I believe that the two of you would have been friends.»
“Princess Usagi?” Ochiyo paused to think this over. At last she said, “What was she like?”
«Well, I’m not the most objective person to ask,» the queen admitted. «You might be better off asking Makoto-chan or Rei-chan. She was…I don’t know what to say. Chibi-Usa, we called her when she was young, or Small Lady. How she hated those names, when she grew up! She was smart and she was funny and affectionate. Very stubborn, very determined, very headstrong. And she could be incredibly obnoxious when she wanted—though she mostly grew out of that, thank goodness.» The mental voice grew wistful. «But oh, how we fought! Almost constantly, when we were young, when she visited me in the past. Perhaps it was because we were too much alike. Later, though, when she was older and we could put that aside…we became friends. What was she like? She was smarter than me, I think, and stronger-willed; and she was physically stronger, too—she got that from her father, I suppose.
«What was she like? She was a daughter to be proud of. That’s what she was like, Ochiyo.» Serenity looked thoughtfully down at the girl. «Was that what you wanted to hear?»
“I’m not her,” said Ochiyo quietly.
«No. You’re very different. Truthfully, I think you take after your father more than me—in your looks, and your personality. That’s not a bad thing; as I recall, I was rather fond of those looks and personality.» A flash of impish smile. «Never doubt that we would have loved you no less than your sister…had you been born.»
Ochiyo shook her head. “I still don’t understand that part. When I first saw you, you said I’d been reborn in this time. But how? You only had one daughter!”
«Yes,» said the queen. «But I was pregnant when I died.»
Her daughter stared at her. After a little, she said, “Oh.”
«Four months along when the attack began—you weren’t even showing yet. Only Ami-chan knew about it; we hadn’t told anybody else yet, because—» Serenity hesitated. «Well, I’d had some problems. A series of miscarriages. But you were doing fine, and we planned to make the announcement during my birthday celebrations. Obviously that never happened.»
“So,” said Ochiyo slowly, “I wasn’t even born yet, and you sent me into the future—”
«—To be born now, at last. Yes.» The queen’s voice was very gentle. «I could not save Small Lady. Should I have let both my children die?»
“I have to say, I prefer the alternative.” Ochiyo smiled for an instant, then grew more thoughtful. “But it’s a lot to take in. Hey—what was my name going to be?” she asked suddenly. “Had you decided?”
«Not finally. We were thinking about ‘Hikari.’»
“Hmm. Kind of old-fashioned. I’m not sure if I like that or not.”
«I’m sure you would have coped,» Serenity said dryly. «Ochiyo, I know this must seem strange: talking to a stranger who says she’s your mother, when you already have a mother and father—parents you’ve known and loved all your life. Believe me, I know how that feels! But for you it’s different. I at least had a few memories, however vague, of my past life; but you don’t have a past life. I…could understand, if you feel that it’s not—»
“Relevant?” suggested Ochiyo. Her face was almost expressionless.
«—Yes. I am laying claim to a kinship that, for all intents and purposes, may not matter to you. Whether you realise it or not, you may feel that this is the only life you have ever lived, and that you are under no obligations to a past that you had no part in.»
“You sound like you’re trying to talk me out of this. If you’re that worried, maybe you should have mentioned this before you gave me the brooch!”
The queen was silent.
“Obligations to a past life? What about this life, then?” Ochiyo demanded. Suddenly she was angry with the golden woman. Kinship be damned, did the queen really think she was so shallow that she might just turn her back and walk away? It was almost insulting. “You made me Sailor Moon! I have the power to fight those—those crystal things, and you think that isn’t an obligation? You think I could walk away from that? Well, forget it! You have some pretty strange ideas, lady! What the hell kind of queen were you, anyway?”
«The kind,» said Serenity, «who is prouder of her daughter than she can say.»
“Oh, I get it. Some kind of character test.” The girl shook her head, scowling. “I always hated that stuff on the viddy, and it isn’t much better in real life.”
A ghostly hand brushed her cheek. There was no physical sensation, but she felt a strange kind of tingle inside her head. «You have passion,» Serenity said. «That’s good. Cling to it. And forgive me, if I’m…concerned for you. That is a mother’s prerogative, always.»
“And now we’re back to you being my mother again.” Ochiyo looked up at the ghostly figure and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m going to call you that. I don’t even know if I’m ever going to see you again. But—” She paused. “I don’t hate you. And I’m glad we could talk again.”
«As am I.» Serenity smiled for a moment. «Ochiyo, there is one more thing we must discuss. Something that…may affect things. Or may not. I don’t know—but you should be aware of it, at least.»
“All right,” said Ochiyo cautiously.
«You’re aware that, before Crystal Tokyo fell, I bound myself to the Ginzuishou. For two months I used it constantly, working to keep the enemy from controlling it. My whole spirit—my self—was virtually joined to it. Making myself a conduit for its power.»
Ochiyo had not, in fact, been aware of this; she had not heard the story of the Fall as the others had. But all she said was, “Okay. And so?”
«So, you were in my womb for those two months. If I was filled with the power…you were, too.»
«Yes. I truly don’t know what it means. Whether it might have had any lasting effect on you or not. But you may want to bear it in mind…along with everything else you’ve heard today.»
Again Ochiyo felt that ghostly touch. «And now…farewell, daughter. Go with my blessings—and my love. Always.»
«—Listen,» the queen said to Beth. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of your friends can hear what you and I say. Whatever you tell them of what happens is up to you.»
“Okay,” said Beth cautiously. She glanced around and noticed that the other girls were inexplicably frozen in place. It was odd, but no odder than anything else that had happened tonight. “Uh…what did you want to talk about?”
«This and that,» Serenity replied, smiling faintly. «McCrea Beth, you have been a surprise to me. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Senshi trying to train herself the way you are.»
“Oh.” Beth thought about it. “Er, you mean the cat thing? Because that was sort of Bendis’ idea. And I’ve told her that humans just don’t do that sort of thing, but she—”
«No, not that. I mean your new reading habits.»
“Oh,” Beth said again, this time with some surprise. The books were just something that had seemed like a good idea at the time. It had occurred to her a few weeks ago that as a Senshi, she was likely to get into a wide range of situations where a little inside knowledge might help; so she had decided to do a little private study.
In practice, since she could only guess what situations might actually arise, her reading had been rather haphazard. She had read books on martial arts. She had read medical textbooks (and only later realised that practical first-aid manuals might have been more useful). She had read books about psychology and architecture, and books about botany and code-breaking and book-binding and hydraulic dams and symbolism in traditional Indian folk-tales. Some of them had been quite interesting; some had been completely over her head; and quite a lot of them had been stupefyingly boring. So far, though, she was persisting.
“You don’t think it’s going to help, then?” she asked cautiously.
«No, I d—That is—Actually, I have no idea.» The queen gave her an impish grin. «It might be completely useless. Or, who knows? Something you read might save your life someday.» She chuckled. «I recall a Senshi who once told me that learning something new is always worthwhile, even if you never use it at all.»
Beth thought about this. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she complained.
«That’s what I said, too, and Ami-chan got quite upset with me. She had some funny ideas about books…» Serenity gave a ruminative pause, then went on, «I’d say, carry on with it if you want to. It’s original, at least…and I think originality might be your strength.»
“Oh, not me,” said Beth. “Sailor Venus is the original one, not me. Or Bendis.” Honesty made her add, “Or maybe Dhiti-chan.”
«Ah? Well, I won’t discuss Dhiti with you,» the golden woman told her. «That’s for you to decide. As for the other…hmm. I have to thank you for being a friend to Bendis. I think she’s been looking for a friend like you all her life.»
The idea was a pleasing one. “You’ve met Bendis, then?”
«I’ve watched the two of you work together, though she has never seen me.» Serenity sounded a little sad for a moment. «But I knew her grandmother Diana well, and of course her great-grandmother Luna. Luna was…almost like another mother to me. When I learned how she died…» Another pause. Then the queen seemed for draw herself up, forcing a more cheerful expression. «But we were talking about originality. Yes, Bendis is inventive. It comes with her age, perhaps! But don’t sell yourself short, Beth. You have much to offer yourself.»
Serenity stopped suddenly and frowned, as if she were debating with herself. At last she went on, «That brings me to what I really wanted to say to you, and I’m afraid it may be a difficult thing for you to hear. Beth, a minute ago you said something rather odd. You told me that Venus is the original one…not you.»
“Oh, but I didn’t mean…” Beth trailed off. What had she meant? It was always so difficult, trying to think about Venus. She knew the answer, truly; it was on the tip of her tongue, but—
The queen was watching her with an oddly sympathetic expression. She reached out to touch Beth gently on the forehead, leaving only a faint tingling sensation, and said, «Have you told the others yet?»
«Have you told them who you are? Don’t you think it’s about time they knew the truth?»
“But they do know who I am! I’m—I’m—” She faltered: suddenly, crazily, uncertain.
«Some of them think that you are Aino Minako reborn. Or, at least, that a part of you is.»
“What?” Beth stared at her, dumbfounded. “I don’t understand.”
«I think you do.»
“Is…is it true?” Beth was not sure if she wanted to hear the answer—or dreaded it. Either way, she found herself holding her breath as she waited.
«That is a very interesting question. It is not, sadly, one that I can answer for you.» Serenity’s eyes were compassionate. «I could tell you to believe in yourself, but that’s what you have to learn, isn’t it? Instead, take courage. The truth may be difficult for you to bear, but you can do it.»
Very softly, she added, «You will find, in the end, that that is where true heroism begins.»
«—Listen,» the queen said to Dhiti. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of your friends can hear what you and I say. Whatever you tell them of what happens is up to you.»
“Hmm,” said Dhiti. “So I could tell them you said anything at all, and they’d probably believe me?”
Serenity chuckled. «Or perhaps none of them would believe you, even if you told them the truth! You do inspire a certain…scepticism in others, Sharma Dhiti.»
The girl grinned back. “I am good at it, aren’t I?” she replied, not without a certain satisfaction. “You’d be amazed how often it comes in useful.”
«Ah? But useful for what, I wonder? For keeping others at arm’s length, perhaps? You do seem reluctant to let others get too close.» Serenity gave her a long, level look, her head tilted slightly to one side. «You build a barrier of humour around your heart…Are you so afraid of what might happen, if you let people in?»
“Wrong.” Dhiti shook her head. “That’s not it at all. Far too simplistic, Queenie-chan.” She grinned, not at all perturbed by the golden woman’s words. “You know, it’s funny. I had almost this same conversation with Artemis, last week.”
«Oh? And what conclusion did the two of you reach?»
“That people are complicated. There aren’t any simple, pat answers.” She shrugged. “What did you expect? I know who I am. It doesn’t bother me.”
«You really think you know who you are? I wonder.»
“Oh, now you’re just being pointlessly obscure.” Dhiti cocked her head up at the queen with a smirk. “I like that. I’ll have to try it, next time I want to annoy Suzue-chan.”
The queen shook her head. «You make light of everything. Why try to annoy her? Mightn’t it be a better idea to be her friend, instead? She needs friends, you know.»
“But that’s what I’m doing.”
“I—” Dhiti started; but then she broke off. She was silent for some time, debating with herself. At last she said, “All right, then. You really want to know who I am? I’ll tell you. I’m the Court Jester, that’s who! Ready to poke fun at everyone. The girl nobody takes seriously. The one who can do anything, say anything—even the things nobody else dares to say.” She looked defiantly up at the queen. “So, yeah, I make light of everything. But also…I’m the one who gets Suzue-chan so worked up that she actually breaks down and acts human once in a while. I crack jokes at Iku-chan until she forgets to be scared, and sometimes she even smiles! And when Hayashi gets too wound up, I bug her until she relaxes a little.” Her voice had risen as she spoke, growing more passionate; but then, all at once, she broke off and sighed. “It was an honourable calling, once.”
It was Serenity’s turn to be silent for a little. «You take a lot on yourself,» she said.
“Oh, well, maybe.” Dhiti grinned suddenly. “That’s who I am today, anyway.”
“Tomorrow, maybe I’ll go back to just being the resident smart-ass. The day after that, who knows? Maybe a lion-tamer.” She gave the golden woman an impish look. “Didn’t you hear? I’m as slippery as ice.”
“Had you going, though, didn’t I?” She chuckled. “Come on, Queenie-chan. Life’s too short to be stuck doing just one thing, and I want to do everything! Sure, I might try out the Shakespearean clown thing for a while, but as a profession? Nahh.”
Serenity shook her head. «I don’t know. You are slippery. I think you meant more of what you said than you want to admit. And I think…I think that…»
«I think that I definitely don’t want you to call me ‘Queenie-chan’ any more.»
Dhiti burst out laughing. “Touché! A very palpable hit.” She winked slyly. “I took fencing for a while, you know.” Then she cocked her head up at the queen and said, “Hey, did you notice that all the others aren’t moving?”
«I may have had something to do with that.» The queen smiled.
“Oh, and here I thought something mysterious was going on. Pity. Still, it’s a good trick. Boy, if I could do that, the things I could get away with! I don’t suppose you could—?” She saw Serenity’s expression and grinned. “Didn’t think so. Oh, well, easy come, easy go. You know, this whole thing is such a shame.”
“You’re a ghost, right? You can’t touch anything?”
Another sigh. “Otherwise, I’d ask you for your autograph. It’d be worth a fortune!”
Serenity chuckled, and shook her head. «If I could, I’d give it to you. Dhiti…listen for a moment. You spend your life on dazzle and flair, always trying to blind everyone with your intelligence—» She paused. «Or, no, not your intelligence. With your cleverness. It’s not the same thing, is it?»
“If you say so.” Dhiti frowned. “What’s your point?”
«You do use it as a shield, whether you admit it or not. Beware, Sharma Dhiti. Someday, you will have to open your heart at last.» Serenity gave her a sombre look. «Doing so may lead you down some dark roads. I wonder, will you have the courage to walk them to the end?»
Slightly unnerved, Dhiti tried to shrug it off. “Hey, don’t worry. I told you; I’m as slippery as—”
«As ice, yes.» The queen nodded. «But then, that’s always been your problem, hasn’t it? What happens when you want to stop slipping away?»
«—Listen,» the queen said to Iku. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of your friends can hear what you and I say. Whatever you tell them of what happens is up to you.»
Iku’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly. She hunched herself back, her eyes lowered and her arms closing around her body, and said in a tiny voice, “Yes, your majesty.”
Queen Serenity studied her for a little, her eyes compassionate. At length she shook her head and said, «There are so many things I’d like to say to you…but I’m not sure how much is wise. I’m not sure, to be honest, that I’ve got the right.»
“I…” Iku raised startled eyes to meet the queen’s for an instant, and then flinched away again. “I don’t understand,” she whispered.
The queen smiled in reply. «Don’t worry. It’s not important; not yet. For now…Kodama Iku, I should start by saying how grateful to you I am. You don’t know how much it means to me, that you’ve joined the other girls.»
The girl’s head shot up, so startled that, for a moment, she forgot to be afraid. “Grateful?” she burst out. “But—but I—”
«Yes.» Serenity’s voice was grave. «For, Iku, you alone, out of all of them, had a choice. The others were all born to their roles…but you, you could have said no. And you chose to help them anyway.»
Iku stared back at her, uncomprehending. She did not understand this; none of it made sense. Chose to help? Her mind swam. She had not helped; she had failed in her attack earlier, just as she always failed. And the queen was grateful?
“You’re making fun of me,” she whispered.
«No,» said Queen Serenity. «Never.»
The sincerity in the queen’s voice was unmistakable, and suddenly, it was just too much. Something long-buried and almost forgotten, deep within Iku, boiled up inside her. “I don’t help them!” she cried out. “I just get in the way. I…can’t do anything right! I’m just worthless…” She fell to her knees, her eyes cast down, her voice shaking. Hot tears stung her eyes. In a voice filled with bitter acceptance, she repeated, “I’m worthless.”
She knew it was true. She had heard it so many times before.
For a moment there was no reply. Then she heard the queen say, «It is hard for you, I know. That’s to be expected.»
“Why?” she wept. “Why?”
«Because you are not truly one of my Senshi.»
Again, she froze. The words rang in her years, a hollow thunder that echoed and re-echoed in her skull. She felt numb; empty. This was it: the blow she had been waiting for for so long; the ultimate rejection. She had never truly understood why the other girls had wanted her in the first place, but here, at last, she had the truth. It had all been a mistake. Of course it had. A voice, all too familiar, rang in her memory: Who would ever want you? And she knew that it was true.
“I’m not,” she repeated dully. And, slowly, she climbed to her feet once more. She could bear this, too; she could continue. What was one more blow, to her?
«No,» Serenity said. «Truthfully, I don’t know what you really are. You must have realised that some power is calling you, some destiny that you’re being summoned to answer. I don’t know what that might be. And yet…» She paused, and there was soft amazement in her voice. «And yet, when you offered yourself—when you picked up the henshin wand and spoke the transformation phrase—the Mars Power accepted you. Accepted you! Iku, you were born to be something else, not Sailor Mars…but the power responds to you anyway, of its own free will. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.»
It…wasn’t a rejection? It was something…else?
“It doesn’t respond to me,” Iku said, her voice filled with bitterness. “No matter how hard I try, it doesn’t work.”
For the first time, the note of gentle sympathy left the queen’s voice. «Yes,» she said sharply. «And we both know why that is, don’t we?»
Iku’s head snapped up in startled indignation. “No,” she protested. “No, it isn’t my fault!”
«Isn’t it?» insisted Serenity. «Is it so surprising that the power might be unwilling to serve someone who fears it?»
“But—I—” Iku faltered to a stop. “You said it accepted me,” she finished weakly.
«And so it did. I wonder why?» The queen looked thoughtful for a moment. «I wonder if it isn’t trying to help you—to give you a chance to become what you need to be?»
“I don’t…know what you mean…”
«Hmm. It doesn’t matter for now, I suppose.» The golden woman gazed down at Iku, her face still pensive, and nodded. «Iku, we both know the problems you have. I can’t say that facing them will be easy; it would be a lie, and we both know that, too. But I’ll tell you this: if you want help, you are surrounded by people who will do their utmost to give it. All you have to do is ask.»
Iku bit her lip. All you have to do is ask… The idea was so tempting, so seductive; she longed to say yes, to reach out a hand then and there. To be wanted…to be free!
Then she thought of what she would have to do—to open herself up, to reveal herself like that—and in an instant, her moment of shining hope crumbled to ashes. She could only shrink back in horror from the idea. It was more than impossible; it was simply inconceivable.
For a little while there, she had stood tall; she had spoken to the queen the same way…well, the same way a proper girl would. But it was better to understand the truth; better not to reach for what could never be. She knew the truth; she had been told it a thousand times. Better to just accept it.
“I can’t,” she said. “They’ve got more important things to do. They shouldn’t have to bother with someone like me…”
«As long as you think that, you’ll be trapped in your cage,» Serenity told her sadly. «Did you ever think that perhaps they would like to bother with you?» She shook her head, and sighed. «If you will not ask, things will have to take the other path after all. It’s a darker road, and it leads to a great deal of sorrow. But we all make our own choices; and in the end, there is hope…»
“What do you mean?” Iku asked desperately. “How do you know all these things? I don’t understand!” The last came out in what was almost a wail, an infant cry of protest. And then, very softly at the end: “What am I?”
«I know because before I died, I bound myself to the Ginzuishou—joined myself to the living light. It’s a wonderful way to purify and clarify your thoughts…the only downside is that you have to die to do it.» The queen smiled for an instant, then grew serious once more. «Since then, I have had a great deal of time to watch the world—and think.»
She paused. «Iku…I don’t know what you are. I’m sorry. In the end, when you have become what you must become…I hope that you will come back and tell me.»
«—Listen,» the queen said to Suzue. «I have divided us away from the others for a moment. None of your friends can hear what you and I say. Whatever you tell them of what happens is up to you.»
Suzue heard the words of the Holy One with awe, joy and not a little dread. Her chest was tight, her head swimming, and her knees felt disturbingly weak. She struggled for calm. One should not show fear before one’s goddess.
She knelt, her head lowered. “Blessed Lady, I am your servant,” she said humbly. “Command me as you will.”
Queen Serenity regarded her with solemn eyes, her face thoughtful and calm. At last she said, «Rise, faithful one. You need not bow to me.»
In fact, Suzue would have preferred to stay kneeling. It was easier to control herself that way; also, it de-emphasised the fact that she was wearing a rather daring night-dress. But she could not disobey, of course. “Your will, Blessed Lady,” she said, and rose smoothly.
«Thank you.» The queen studied her for a moment longer. «You are faithful, I think—to your beliefs, and to what your heart tells you. These are good, worthy attributes.»
Words of praise from her deity. Unexpectedly, Suzue felt a prickle of tears in her eyes.
«It is a shame,» Serenity continued, «that you cannot open your heart enough to trust your teammates.»
“What?” Suzue blurted out in surprise, then blanched as she realised how rude she was being. “Uh, I’m sorry, Holy One—ah, I mean—um. I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
«You are not alone in that.» The queen smiled for an instant, then became serious once more. «I mean that you have not trusted them enough to tell them who you are. And what you are.»
“Oh.” Suzue bit her lip. Of all the things in the world that she dreaded having to face, this one ranked among the highest. To have it brought up by Queen Serenity, of all people…She looked away, her face reddening. “I—”
«Are you ashamed?»
“No! Of course not. I’m proud of who I am. How could I ever be ashamed of serving you?” she asked, almost pleading. “It’s—I’m—”
“…I’m afraid,” she admitted. “Blessed Lady, you know what most people think of us. They call us names; they hit us; they think we’re crazy! When I tried to tell people at school, years ago, they—no, that doesn’t matter.” Despite her words, she could not help shivering at the memory. “Even now, I can’t even talk to my own best friend about the most important thing in my life! Not even to my boyfriend—”
«Hush.» The queen held up a hand and Suzue fell silent, breathing a little hard. «I know,» Serenity continued, «I know what trials you face. I know what it costs you to maintain your beliefs.» Her voice held warmth and sympathy; but even so, there was a note of reproof in it as she said, «But Suzue, that does not excuse you, does it?»
“…No, I suppose not,” Suzue admitted. “I…I did try to tell Beth-san, a few days ago, but…well, that didn’t work. And when I told Itsuko-san—I mean, Hino-sama—she said—”
«Yes, I know. Dear Rei-chan. She has quite a temper, doesn’t she?» Unexpectedly, the queen chuckled. «You should hear some of the names she used to call me. ‘Odango-atama’ was one of the mildest.»
Suzue stared at her. “H-Hino-sama used to…?”
«Oh, yes. She was quite the fireball—and still is, when she wants to be. I used to annoy her deliberately, sometimes, just to see her explode…but I’m getting off the topic. You’ve made up with her since then, haven’t you?»
“Yes…mostly. We’ve talked a few times, and I think we’ve more or less decided that we can disagree without fighting. And I think she does know the truth, really; she just doesn’t want to admit it.” Suzue gave the queen a quizzical look. “Why is that? She was your friend; why doesn’t she—?”
«That is for you and she to discuss. For now, there are other things you need to consider.» The queen paused. «Suzue, I am not telling you that the other Senshi will take your news kindly. Some of them may not be troubled by it; others may react badly. But I do know one thing: they have stood by you and fought by your side, and they deserve your trust. And if you cannot trust them, how can they ever become your friends?»
“I…suppose so.” Suzue was silent for a moment. “Still, it’s hard.”
«Many things are. That does not make them less important. Have a little faith, Itagaki Suzue. They are worth it.»
Suzue swallowed. “All right. I’ll do my best.”
«I know you will.» Serenity paused. «My advice would be to tell them soon. The longer you leave it, the worse it will be. But it’s up to you, of course.»
“I will.” Suzue blinked several times rapidly, and then said in a rush, “Blessed Lady, may I ask? Why does it all have to be this way? Why don’t you just…reveal yourself, and set everything to rights?”
The question seemed to take the queen aback, and she did not reply for some time. At last, quietly, she said, «Because I must not. Suzue, the battle against evil should be fought by human hands. Always. How else can people learn, and grow?» Serenity shook her head. «You can’t just tell people what to think; you can’t make them do the right thing. That only leads to—» She broke off suddenly, and a look of profound grief passed over her face. «That leads to a world full of disaffected exiles on the planet Nemesis…and even greater evil later on, when they want to return home. At least, that’s what happened when I tried it.»
“But that wasn’t your fault!” protested Suzue.
«No? Not all of it, perhaps; but I began it. Now I know better. There is no easy solution to evil, Suzue, except to fight it. That applies to you and your church, too. If you value your beliefs, you need to be prepared to fight for them.»
Suzue thought about that. Then she nodded. “We will,” she vowed. “We do.”
«Good, then.» Serenity looked down on her, smiled, and reached out to touch her cheek gently, a ghostly touch that left a tingling sensation in its wake. «Yes, I think you will do well. You remind me of Haruka, a little. You both seek absolutes…and you’re both not afraid to do what you have to do, to find them. Only beware, my faithful Suzue, of what that might lead you into. Remember that the ends never justify the means—never. That’s something that I think Haruka couldn’t truly understand.»
Suzue knelt once more, her eyes never leaving the golden queen’s face. “Yes, your majesty. I’ll try.”
The queen smiled back down at her. «Then I can ask no more.»
Suzue smiled in return.
Itsuko watched, a little bemused at first, as six silent conversations took place before her, one after another. It took her a while to notice that as each girl spoke with Serenity, all the others were frozen in place. It was strange, and rather funny, to see. She wondered how long it would last; and she wondered why she was not being frozen with the rest of them.
Then she noticed something else, and her blood began to boil.
By the time the last girl froze back in place and the luminous eyes of the queen turned to her at last, she was as angry as she’d ever been with Serenity…or Usagi. She barely even noticed as all sound in the room around her took on a curiously flat, anechoic quality. She strode forward to face the queen, and let her rage spill over.
“You didn’t tell her, did you?” she demanded.
«Rei-chan,» said Serenity.
“Don’t call me that, damn you! Don’t you try to soothe me! Just answer the question. Look at her! You talked to her and she’s all smiling, happy. She called you her goddess and you didn’t deny it, did you?”
«No, Rei-chan. I didn’t.»
The plain, unvarnished answer almost brought Itsuko to a stop. There was none of the evasiveness or guilt that she had expected; just a simple agreement. As if…Serenity had expected this confrontation.
“Why?” she hissed.
«I’m sorry, Rei-chan; I know you don’t approve. But there were many reasons. Perhaps the biggest is that I am not certain that she would have believed me.»
Itsuko stared. “…What?” she said stupidly. Then her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about? You’re her fucking goddess and you think she wouldn’t believe you?”
«She didn’t believe you,» the queen pointed out. «Rei-chan, Suzue is an intelligent girl who has been brought up in a very unpopular belief system. She has gone through a great deal of hardship for her beliefs—more than you may know. She has certainly thought about whether those beliefs might be wrong, many times. This isn’t just something she’s been taught; it’s a faith she has chosen to keep. I’d have thought you would understand the strength of that.» She hesitated and added, «Suppose a Jew encountered a burning bush that spoke to him and told him that everything he believed was wrong, and he should go and become a Buddhist instead. Do you think he’d believe it? Or would he think it was a trick?»
“Well of course he—” Itsuko broke off. “Damn it, it’s not the same!”
«Isn’t it?» Serenity smiled. «As you wish. Let me suggest another reason, then. Supposing I did convince her that she was wrong. How do you think she would feel?»
“I don’t care,” Itsuko muttered sullenly. “Oh…she’d be upset, I suppose. Angry, maybe.”
«Betrayed, I think, might be closer. Rei-chan, what would she do?» The queen paused for a moment, but then went on before Itsuko could answer. «Do you think she could go on being a Senshi? Continue working with a group who were a living reminder of the mockery her life has been? Could she really do that? Or would she leave?»
“I…don’t know,” Itsuko admitted. She bit her lip. “She…might stay. She knows how important this is.”
«Yes. She might. But I think it would poison her, even so. Whether she could overcome that…I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to ask.»
The queen fell silent, her eyes on Itsuko calm and unyielding. Itsuko tried to glare back, but in the end she found that she could not. She looked away, grimacing, and sighed. “Is that all?” she grumbled.
«Not quite. It’s just a feeling I have, Rei-chan…that somehow, for some reason, in the time to come she is going to need her faith. Why, or how, I don’t know. I can’t see the future. But I believe that things happen for a reason…and that means there’s a reason that Suzue is who, and what, she is. And who am I to meddle with that?»
Itsuko shook her head. “But she worships you, Usagi-chan. She thinks you’re a goddess! How can that be right? How can you stand it?”
«By realising that what she and her church are doing has no effect on me at all. It affects only them…and the effect is not altogether a bad one. Genuine faith seldom is.»
«And by looking at what else Suzue is…and seeing that, regardless of what she believes, she is not unworthy.» Serenity gave her a crooked smile. «She is an intelligent girl, Rei-chan. She’s been thrust into the middle of a great adventure that’s a direct extension of everything she believes in, and she’s surrounded by people who are the stuff of her legends. What do you think is going to happen? I think that, in the end, she’ll understand the truth.»
“When…” Itsuko gave her a quizzical look. “This isn’t you. When did you become such a deep thinker?”
Serenity laughed. «I’ve had a long, long time, with nothing else to do but think. No TV to watch…no manga to read…» She winked.
“Oh, you.” But Itsuko found herself smiling back. “So what did you tell her, then?”
«I gave her…what she was able to accept. Let it rest there, Rei-chan. If you want more, ask her yourself. For now, there are other things we need to discuss.»
Serenity paused, and gave Itsuko an unexpectedly piercing look. At the same time, almost imperceptibly, something seemed to change in the room about them. But Itsuko had no time to try to analyse it, for the queen went on at once. «It’s nearly time for me to leave, Rei-chan.»
Itsuko broke off in dismay. For all her sardonic comments about how deep the queen had become, still this short time had been like the old days all over again: arguing, laughing, making up—rediscovering the joy of each other’s company. And it was nearly over?
She groped for words, but nothing came. “No,” she said. “You can’t go!”
«I can’t stay. Appearing for this long has been difficult, and I won’t have the energy to do it again for a long time. But even apart from that…sooner or later, I have to go. You know that.»
“But I—” Something was happening inside her. A soft, insistent pain in her chest; a lump in her throat. Her breath, quickening. The room, the entire world seemed to be rushing away from her. All that was left was Serenity. Golden hair and odango. Golden crescent moon on her forehead. And the smile, the warm golden smile that had warmed her, filled her life for centuries.
“No! You can’t leave again now! Not so soon! Not when—” Her voice cracked. “Not when I haven’t said—said—”
«Just say it, Rei-chan. Just say it.»
“Oh, gods,” she whispered. “Don’t go, Usagi-chan. I need you. I—” Almost, she could not continue—but then she looked up, into the eyes of the queen…and at last, after so long, she finally managed to say the words. “I love you.”
«Oh, Rei-chan. Dearest Rei. That was so hard for you, wasn’t it?» Serenity took a step forward, reached a hand up to touch Itsuko’s forehead. Itsuko felt nothing; but suddenly her legs would not support her and she fell to her knees. Dimly, she realised that she was crying.
«Rei-chan…don’t you think it’s about time you grew up?»
Itsuko did not understand at once. Then the words sunk in, and hit her as if she had been slapped on the cheek. Her head snapped up in shock.
«I’m dead, Rei-chan; I’ve been dead for seven hundred years. And all this time, you’ve been pining for me?» The warmth in Serenity’s eyes had disappeared; in its place was a deep, pitying sadness. «Waiting patiently, clinging to a few precious remnants of the past, and hoping I’d find a way to come back and make it all better. ‘Keeping faith’—is that what you called it? For seven hundred and twenty-two years?» She shook her head. «How can you do that to yourself? It’s grotesque!»
«Meanwhile, you cut yourself off from the world. Always moving on, always hiding, never letting anybody get close to you because your eyes are fixed so firmly on the past that you haven’t got any time for the future at all. No wonder you stopped seeing visions for so long! I’m surprised the sacred fire didn’t reject you completely.»
“No,” Itsuko protested feebly. “It’s not like that!”
«Then what is it like?» the queen insisted. «Tell me, Rei-chan; tell me what you’ve been doing with your life. Tell me your plans. Your hopes. Your dreams. You used to have big dreams, Rei-chan; do you remember? Of helping people, at your temple. Of being a singer. Instead you hide yourself away in this…this gymnasium of yours; you run the occasional aerobics class and try to pretend you’re happy. Is that what you wanted, when you were young?»
That was too much. “Of course it isn’t!” Itsuko exploded. “Damn it, you know what happened! I lost the temple and everything else when I became your Senshi. You—you took them all away, all my dreams…you didn’t leave me room for anything else!”
«Nothing except your precious fire; you held onto that. I even helped, a little, because I thought it would make you happy. But that’s over now, isn’t it? You’re not a Senshi any longer. You’re free now; you have been for centuries, free again to follow any dream you choose. So what have you done, Rei-chan? What dreams have you followed?»
Itsuko closed her eyes. Her anger had already faded, replaced by a deep, centuries-old weariness. “This dream,” she said sadly. “The dream that it might all start again; that the enemy might return, and the Senshi come back to fight him…and that I might be able to help somehow. And that someday I might even see your face again.”
Slowly, a little heat came back into her words. “And yes, I call that ‘keeping faith’…and am I so wrong?”
«But is it enough for you?»
«Is it enough to satisfy you? To fulfil your life? Rei-chan, is it enough to make you happy?»
Again, Itsuko did not reply. She could not. The moment stretched on and on; she struggled with herself, trying to find an answer—any answer, anything to fill the silence and the yawning void that seemed to have opened up inside her. The pain was back, worse than ever. At last, almost inaudibly, she whispered, “No.”
«Then what is it you do want?»
“I…” She felt as if she were suffocating. Her breath was coming in short gasps. “I want…”
And then, with a burst of grief, she had it. “I just want to be with you again. Oh, gods, Usagi-chan, I’ve missed you so much! And it’s been so long, and—and I’m so tired of living, and I don’t want to be alone any more…”
And she fell to the floor at the queen’s feet, and wept.
Serenity watched her for a time. Then, slowly, she bent down until she was kneeling, her face at the same level as Itsuko’s. Very, very softly, she said, «I can’t come back, Rei-chan. I’m sorry. It’s just not possible.» And then: «But you can be with me again if you want.»
Itsuko looked up with sudden, incredulous hope. “How?”
«I think you know how.»
She gazed into the queen’s face for a moment that seemed to last forever. Then she said, “What do I have to do?”
Serenity held out a hand, palm-up. «Just reach out and take my hand,» she said gently. «Your immortality will be over, and you will join me here in the heart of the Ginzuishou.»
«For as long as we have.»
Itsuko hesitated. “And—and what will happen to the others? Mako-chan? The other Senshi?”
«That won’t be your concern any more. They will have to do without you.»
She squeezed her eyes shut. A few last tears ran down her cheek. Her fists were clenched on her knees. Patiently, the queen waited for her to answer; the outstretched hand never wavered.
Sadly, she said, “I can’t do it, can I?”
“I can’t leave them. I can’t just…walk away.” She tried to smile up at Serenity. “Oh, I know they don’t really need me. It’s their world now and I shouldn’t begrudge them that. But I still…I still think I can do something. I might be able to help. And—” She shook her head, her mouth twisting in bitter resignation. “I’ve come this far. I’d…kind of like to see it through.”
The queen smiled back, and with one flowing motion she stood once more. Itsuko followed her. «Rei-chan—I’m so proud of you,» Serenity said. «Promise me, then. Promise me that you won’t keep shutting yourself away. When all this is over, move on. Grow. Start to live your life again. Look ahead of you, instead of behind. Will you?»
“I’ll try,” Itsuko promised, and sniffed. Her nose was running, for some reason.
«All right.» The golden queen regarded her with affection…and evident approval. «Then there are only two things left for me to say,» she told her. «The first is ‘good-bye.’ We may meet again, once, before this is all over, but I don’t think we’ll have a chance to talk. Good-bye, my precious Rei-chan; be well, and be happy.»
Itsuko nodded. “I love you,” she said quietly.
«I love you, too. You’ve always known that, haven’t you?»
«Good. And…when you see Mamo-chan again, give him a message from me. Please? It would be best, coming from you.» Serenity smiled fondly. «Tell him I love him…and that he should move on. We’ll be together again in the end—and I can wait.»
“Mam—Wait, you’re saying that Tux—?”
«Hush. The second thing I have to tell you, Rei-chan…is your punishment. For selfishness. For shutting the world out, and hiding from yourself for all these years.»
Itsuko’s eyes widened. “Uh—now wait a minute—” she began, but the queen continued remorselessly.
«You remember that while I spoke to each of the girls, the rest were frozen? Well, your punishment is this: I unfroze them all several minutes ago. They’ve heard everything you and I have said since then.»
«Good-bye, Rei-chan. Good-bye, Mako-chan. And all of you. I love you all; remember that. Always…»
As she spoke, Serenity began to glow once more. Swiftly the light became brighter and brighter, until they had to shield their eyes. With a final, sudden flash, she was gone. For a second or two, Itsuko thought she could see a faint afterimage, like a golden crescent moon. Then nothing.
Night returned. The room was left in darkness, with only a faint glow of streetlights from the window, and a thin thread of fire-light from the open secret door. Then suddenly, with an audible click, the ceiling lights flickered and switched themselves on. In the distant background, the air-conditioning rumbled back to life.
Itsuko turned to face the others.
Most of them were staring at her, wide-eyed. Itsuko opened her mouth and closed it again, several times. She had, quite simply, no idea what to say. Never, in all her life, had she felt so…naked. She wanted to run and hide her face in shame.
Then Miyo solved her dilemma for her. The tall girl came forward and, without a word, wrapped her arms around Itsuko and held her.
In another moment, the others were there too. Embracing her. Holding her, and each other. She almost felt like crying again, but she did not. She felt…happy. Somehow, she knew, in spite of everything, it was all going to be all right.
“What do we do now?” asked Beth at last.
“Go back to bed?” suggested Dhiti hopefully.
Miyo rapped her on the head with her knuckles. “Hush, you,” she said. “Itsuko—uh, there are some things we need to take care of.”
The white-haired woman did not answer at once; her eyes were far away, lost in some private remembrance. Then, abruptly, she shook herself. “What?” she said. “Oh. Yes. What did you have in mind?”
“Well…while we’re here, I was thinking you and I might want to collect some belongings.”
“Good idea,” put in Dhiti. “After all, you wouldn’t want to have to break in and steal them later.” Miyo rapped her on the head again. “Ow. Actually, I was thinking of something, too, Itsuko-san. Where do you keep your customer records for the gymnasium? Are they in those filing cabinets?”
Itsuko gave her an incredulous look. “What do you want with customer records? No, of course they’re not. They’re on the computer.” She pointed to her overturned desk, and the equipment that had been strewn across to the floor.
“Oh, great. Computers again,” Dhiti muttered. “Well, maybe I can get this thing to connect to your network.” She pulled her Mercury Computer out of thin air and started to tap at it, frowning.
“But what are you doing?”
Dhiti glanced up for a moment, raising one eyebrow. “Looking up the home address for one of your customers. A guy named Keenan Liam. I don’t think we’d better talk to him at school; it might get awkward.”
“Ah,” said Miyo in sudden understanding. “Good idea. But we could just have asked Kin, you know.”
“You sure you want to tell her why we’re asking?”
“Why are you asking?” insisted Itsuko testily. “Who’s this Keenan?”
Miyo glanced around the room and saw that the other girls were listening avidly. She shrugged and said, “A boy in our class at school. He’s Tuxedo Kamen, Itsuko. Almost certainly.” After a moment she added, “And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know it.”
Itsuko sighed. “The Moonlight Knight, all over again. Wonderful.”
“Did you say Tuxedo Kamen?” interrupted Ochiyo, grinning. “Good! I was hoping I’d be able to see him again. Hey, Itsuko-san, did I tell you, I think he must be my secret admirer? You know, the one who kept on giving me flowers? Because—”
“Oh, damn,” Itsuko said, as several pieces clicked together in her mind. “Of course he is. Let me guess: when there was trouble, he’d go to defend you, find you were perfectly safe, and just leave you a bunch of roses instead. Why didn’t I think of that before?”
Ochiyo blinked. “Okay, if you say so. But if he’s supposed to be my destined boyfriend, I think I should—”
Itsuko smiled at her, a little maliciously. “You, er, do remember what Serenity said? That he isn’t actually supposed to be your boyfriend? He’s actually Chiba Mamoru, reborn?”
Ochiyo looked at her in stunned silence. Then her face screwed up in disgust. “Oh, yuck!” she wailed. “You mean I’ve been kissing my own father? That’s…that’s so gross!”
Suzue’s eyes bulged. Beth began to snicker.
“And he used tongue!”
Dhiti, too, started to chortle. Miyo raised one hand to hide a grin. Iku looked horrified.
“If it’s any comfort,” Itsuko added on a conciliatory note, “he probably had no idea who he was really kissing.”
Ochiyo paused from frantically scrubbing at her lips, and fixed her with a frosty look. “That,” she said, “may just be worse.”
“So, tell me about revenge,” said Dhiti.
Ochiyo looked up in surprise. She was holding a large plastic bag open as Miyo dumped armfuls of clothing into it. In the next room, they could hear Itsuko muttering to herself as she rummaged through her own belongings. “Revenge?” said Ochiyo, baffled.
“You said it poisons you. The way you were talking, it sounded like you had personal experience.”
“Ah.” Ochiyo frowned. Her face, normally so round and open, became cool and distant. “I suppose I have,” she said.
Miyo looked over her shoulder. “Is it something you don’t want to talk about?” she asked. “Because—”
“No, no. It’s just that I’ve never told anyone about this before. It’s not something I’m proud of.” Ochiyo paused, her expression thoughtful. “Well. It was a few years ago, I suppose, at a party. My birthday party, actually—”
“Oh? And when is your birthday, Aizawa-san?” came a challenging voice from the doorway. “June, perhaps?”
Ochiyo looked up and smiled. “No, Itagaki-san. Not June 30th,” she said. “September, actually. The 25th.” At the door, Suzue subsided, abashed. She stayed to listen, though.
“Anyway,” Ochiyo went on. “My parents had organised a party game—a treasure hunt; you know the sort of thing. All sorts of prizes, hidden around our back yard. But it turned out that my best friend, who lived next door, saw my mom hiding all the prizes; so when the game started, she knew exactly where to go.”
Dhiti wrinkled her brow. “Wait a minute. How old were you?”
“Seven. Anyway, when I found out, I poured a cup of lemonade over her head. She cried and cried, and her party dress was ruined. My mother was furious.” Ochiyo shook her head sadly. “I had to go without any birthday cake.”
Miyo seemed to choke. She turned her back hastily and coughed into her hand, several times.
Meanwhile, Dhiti stared at Ochiyo. “And…this is why you say revenge is poisonous?”
“What, are you serious? It was my birthday, and I had to go without cake!”
“Just checking.” Dhiti shook her head in wonder. “Wow. And for this, I passed up blowing that guy’s head off.”
She thought about it, and began to laugh softly. The sound finally broke Miyo’s self-control; she coughed once more, then gave up, collapsed backward onto the bed, and started to laugh too. Suzue, still watching from the door, groaned and held her head in her hands.
Ochiyo looked at them all. “Well, I thought it was significant!” she protested.
Dhiti calmed down and sighed. “What the hell. Maybe you’re right, Ochiyo-chan. One reason is probably as good as another.” She gave the girl a sly look. “And cake is pretty important, after all.”
“Right!” Ochiyo nodded happily.
“What’s that about cake?” came a voice from behind Suzue. They looked around, to see Beth hovering at the door. “What are you all laughing about?”
“A lesson in applied philosophy,” said Dhiti.
“Oh. One of those.” She wrinkled her nose, then glanced around the room in a quick, almost furtive way. Then she stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. “Um,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” said Miyo, a little amused by the show. “Something on your mind, Beth-chan?”
“No! I just heard you and I wondered, ah, what you were doing, and I just…” She faltered to a stop, biting her lip. At her side, unconsciously, her left hand traced quick, nervous patterns in the air.
“Just say it,” Ochiyo suggested.
Beth visibly wavered, then took the plunge. “I…was thinking about what Itsuko-san said,” she admitted. “To the queen. Um…about how she—she—”
“Ah,” murmured Ochiyo.
“It was common knowledge in Crystal Tokyo,” said Miyo quietly. “We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew.”
Suzue stared at her. “You—really?”
“Yeah. Look, the rest of us went all over the world—all over the solar system; heck, a couple of times even to other stars. Keeping things running smoothly, fighting bad guys, acting as ambassadors for Serenity…you know the sort of thing. But not her. She was the one who always stayed with the queen. Oh, there were a few times when she got sent out—she had quite the reputation; no-one wanted to tangle with her. But we could tell; she was always unhappy at being away from Queen Serenity.”
Across the room, Dhiti saw Ochiyo listening, her eyes wide. The girl had coped quite well, all things considered, with being told exactly who Itsuko and Miyo were. All the same, hearing personal memories of another age was enough to throw anyone. It still gave Dhiti a thrill, knowing that her friend had been there.
This topic, on the other hand, was a little uncomfortable. Dhiti was not quite sure what she thought about Itsuko’s confession of love; but she was reasonably certain that now was not the time for a wisecrack.
“Wow,” said Beth quietly. “All those centuries.”
“I don’t think it was ever, uh, consummated, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Miyo added in a low voice. “I mean, I doubt that Rei-chan ever said anything to the queen, and I’m pretty sure Serenity wouldn’t have—”
“But she said she loved Itsuko-san, too,” said Beth.
Miyo paused, and gave her a long, careful look. “Does the idea bother you?”
“What? No!” But a moment later, softer, Beth said, “Yes.” And then, even more quietly: “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.”
They were silent for a moment. Then, just as softly, Suzue admitted, “Neither do I. I keep telling myself, ‘this changes everything’…but then I think, why should it? Why should anything be different? Itsuko-san is still the same person we knew yesterday. And yet I look at her and somehow, it is different. I think—” She paused, then said, “I think perhaps I like her better for it.”
“It makes her more human?” suggested Ochiyo.
“Yes! You understand.” Suzue gave her an odd look, then repeated thoughtfully, “You do understand.”
“But they’re both women,” Beth protested. “It’s…it’s weird.”
Miyo grinned. “You obviously never met Haruka and Michiru.”
“Oh, come on! You must—” Miyo broke off, and stared at her. “You really don’t know—?”
“They aren’t in the ‘Queen Serenity and her Senshi’ anime,” explained Dhiti, and Miyo gave a short bark of laughter.
“How can you not know who they were?” asked Suzue, looking faintly disgusted. “Don’t you study history at all? And that…that anime…is the most disgraceful, ludicrous piece of trash—”
“Oh, no, it’s great!” protested Beth.
“Yeah, it’s not bad, in a goofy kind of way,” added Dhiti.
“It’s pretty funny, actually,” put in Miyo.
“I like it,” said Ochiyo.
Suzue stared at them all, horrified. “Oh, Blessed Lady, please don’t tell me I’m going to have to start watching it,” she muttered.
Dhiti patted her on the shoulder. “There, there,” she said. “It’s all right. You can keep on watching nice, safe documentaries about earthworms. We don’t mind.”
Without thinking, Suzue reached up and took Dhiti’s hand in both of hers. “Thank you,” she said sincerely.
Miyo cleared her throat. “Anyway,” she said, suppressing a grin. “Getting back to Itsuko…or, well, Rei. Look, we all knew she was in love with the queen. It was pretty obvious, to be honest. But they were both of them perfectly happy, so what was the harm?”
“Hey, it doesn’t worry me,” said Dhiti. Well, not much, anyway.
“Yeah, being invaded by Mongol hordes wouldn’t worry you, Dhiti-chan. Still, we didn’t see any reason to trumpet it about back then, and I don’t think we need to now, either—okay? Actually, it’s probably a good idea if she doesn’t find out we’ve been talking about her, if you catch my meaning. She can be pretty cranky—”
“She also,” said Itsuko from the door, “has pretty good ears.”
They all looked around, startled. Beth muttered, “Whoops.”
“While it is certainly pleasant to know that you all care about me so much that you feel the need to discuss my love life behind my back—”
“It wasn’t like that,” protested Miyo.
Miyo fell silent.
“It’s especially interesting to hear that my sexual preferences were a matter for gossip back in Crystal Tokyo. I bet Minako-chan got a good laugh out of that one, huh? Or maybe Haruka-chan?”
“No,” said Miyo quietly. “Nobody laughed at you.”
“Oh? Well, that’s comforting, isn’t it?” Itsuko shook her head. “I really don’t know what’s worse: that you’re gossiping about me…or just how ridiculously wrong you are, if you think I was in love with Serenity.”
Suzue said diffidently, “Excuse me, but we quite definitely heard you tell the queen—”
“I know what I said,” Itsuko snapped, cutting Suzue off. She glared around at the girls. “Damn that woman!” she muttered. “This is probably her idea of a joke. I bet she’s laughing her fool head off, wherever she is…” She pursed her lips, then shook her head and took a deep breath. “All right. If you’re so damn curious, I’ll tell you.
“There was never the slightest possibility of a sexual relationship between her majesty Tsukino Usagi, Neo-Queen Serenity, and myself…because the queen is and always was one hundred percent heterosexual.” She fixed Miyo with a piercing glare. “And so am I. Is that clear enough for you?”
Miyo flinched back half a step under that glare, unable for a moment to reply—and with no idea of what she might have said, anyway.
“Yes, I loved her. Of course I did. But, Kino Makoto, are you going to tell me that you didn’t? Or Minako-chan? Or Ami-chan?”
“I—well—of course I did!” protested Miyo feebly. “But…well, not—”
“‘Not like that.’ Really.” Itsuko have her a sardonic look, her lip curling. “But of course Rei-chan was different, because everyone knew there had to be something there; after all, she was the weird one, with her sacred fire and her temple and all that rubbish…” She broke off, snorting. And then, shockingly, she let it all go; she dropped her anger like a glove. She stood facing them all, her body taut with passion, and while the intensity in her eyes grew no less, the bitter sarcasm in her voice was gone. “Yes, Mako-chan, I loved her. I still love her. I would have died for her; I would have given her my soul, if she’d needed it. I gave up my life, my hopes and my dreams to be her Senshi, and I never regretted it—because she became all my hopes and my dreams. She became the centre of my life. So is it really so surprising—is it so hard to believe—that I wanted to be there? To be near her?
“To be near her, Mako-chan. Not to have sex with her.”
She flicked her eyes around the group of girls, her face quiet and composed. “And then she died. She went away, and she took my heart and soul with her, and left me empty. And so I waited. I waited, all those dark and lonely centuries, because what else could ever fill the hole she left? There was nothing left for me, nothing…so I nursed the sacred fire, and I found things to do to pass the time—and I waited.”
She paused; and when she went on, for just a moment, her voice broke. “And I gave up. Somewhere along the way I stopped believing that she’d return. I told myself that this would be forever: this grey, empty feeling. And I thought about ending it all.”
Almost in a whisper, Miyo asked, “Why didn’t you?”
“Because somebody had to stand watch. We couldn’t be sure—Artemis and I—that the enemy was gone. The crystites might have crumbled to dust after she died, but neither of us believed that the true evil was gone. Somebody needed to survive: to remember, and to be ready to give the warning, if it began again. Everything else might have been gone for me, but there was still that. One last duty to perform, one more thing I could do for her.”
She shook her head, her eyes cast down. “And I suppose, if I’m honest, that sometimes I saw it as my penance. I couldn’t die for her, in the end…so what else was there to do but live?”
“Oh, Rei-chan.” Miyo stepped forward and made to hug her; but Itsuko shrugged her arms away, looking up into her eyes with a sad, weary expression.
“And now she’s back,” she said. “Just for a few moments she comes back, and lets me hope that everything will be all right again…and then she tells me good-bye, and orders me to move on, and build a new life without her.” Her voice sank down to a whisper. “It’s hard, Mako-chan. It’s very hard.”
“She believes you can do it, though. She thinks you can be happy again. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?” Miyo touched her lightly on the shoulder. “She wants you to live, Itsuko. So live.”
“So live,” Itsuko echoed.
She closed her eyes and stood for a minute, scarcely seeming to breathe. Then, at last, she opened them once more and looked around the room. They all looked back at her: Ochiyo, Suzue, Dhiti, Beth, Miyo. Only Iku was absent, still in the next room.
“All right, then,” she said. Her eyes were dry. “All right. So we’ll live. In that case, we’ve still got a lot to do, haven’t we? Have you finished packing yet?”
The tall girl smiled back at her. “Nearly.”
“Well, get a move on. What are you all standing round for?” She went to the door and started to go out; but then she paused. “Oh—and listen, let’s have no more of this ‘Rei’ and ‘Itsuko,’ all right? I have a new name now—and so do you, for that matter. It’s time we started remembering them, or we’ll have bloody ‘S’ Division breathing down our necks again.”
She glanced around the room one last time, addressing them all. “My name is Hiyama Seki. And she is Hiyama Makoto. Try and remember, huh?”
Then she was gone.
A little later they were ready to leave, and gathered back in the office. Makoto had filled two bags with clothes and books; she had, regretfully, bid her plants goodbye. Seki had a pair of massive, heavy-duty suitcases.
All the girls except Ochiyo changed back to their Senshi forms, ready to leave. (Dhiti ducked into the bathroom to remove her borrowed yukata, and changed in private. The rest of them pretended not to notice, and exchanged grins.)
When it came to Makoto’s turn, she hesitated, looking uneasy. Seki shot her a curious glance, and the girl grimaced. Seki suddenly realised what the problem was; but before she could speak, Makoto produced her henshin wand and spoke her transformation phrase. The change to Senshi form left her pale and shaken all over again, and Seki hurried to support her, cursing herself for not thinking. Sailor Jupiter waved her away, though. Now that she had changed, the colour did seem to be coming back to her face faster, and she stood more confidently.
Once they were all finished, Seki looked around the office, made a wry face, and said, “So. One last thing to do.”
She pulled the secret door wide open and started to go through. Then she paused and looked back at the girls. “You can come in, if you want. I don’t think that—” She broke off suddenly. “Dhiti-chan, you’re a Hindu? And—” Her eyes rested for a moment on Sailor Venus, then Uranus, and then moved away. Mercury nodded, her eyebrows raised; Uranus remained utterly still. Venus only looked confused. Seki paused a moment longer, then said, “All right. Come in, if you wish. Be careful; it will be rather cramped.”
The Senshi followed her curiously. The hidden room was small, no more than two by three metres, and panelled with dark wood. Heavy straw ropes, shimenawa, lined the tops of the walls; from them hung gohei, zigzag paper streamers. A narrow shelf inside the door held a neatly-folded pile of clothing: chihaya and hibakama, the traditional garments of a miko. Seki hesitated as she passed, reaching out to touch them, and then shook her head and moved on. Another shelf held a pitcher of water and a bowl. She washed her hands and rinsed her mouth using a little wooden dipper, then dried her hands carefully.
At the end of the room was the altar and the sacred fire. The altar was low and broad, perhaps fifty centimetres high; it was built of a rich, light-coloured wood, set on a base of dark, polished stone. Slender wooden wands stood upright at the four corners of the altar; from them hung more gohei. And in the centre was a shallow depression in which danced the fire itself, small but bright.
Seki knelt before the altar in one smooth, flowing movement. She bowed deeply, then sat upright, breathing slowly and regularly. Then she began the kuji-in, the ritual to focus the mind, the will and the psychic senses: the recitation of the nine sacred syllables, with their accompanying inzou, or gestures. “Rin, pyou, tou, sha, kai, jin, retsu, zai, zen!”
For a moment the room was utterly silent. Then, with a sudden rushing sound, the fire blazed higher. The colour of the flames changed, becoming a rich gold. Again, Seki bowed low.
She rose quietly and went to the rear of the room. The Senshi clustered back out of her way as she picked up a ceramic firepot and placed three sticks of dense, slow-burning fuel in the bottom. Then she returned to the altar, bowed a third time, and lit a taper from the sacred fire. She used this to light the fuel in the firepot.
When she was satisfied that it was burning steadily, she laid the pot down and sat facing the altar for a moment, eyes closed. Then she leaned forward and blew softly.
It should not have been enough to do more than make the flames gutter. But at the touch of her breath, the fire went out—instantly.
The room became very dark, lit only by the light coming from the door to the office, and a faint glow from the firepot. In the shadows, the Senshi dimly saw Seki half-rise and reach behind the altar for a moment. A faint hissing sound, so soft that it was unnoticeable until it ended, suddenly stopped. Seki picked up the firepot, stood, and turned toward the exit. There was a jam at the door as everyone tried to get out at once, but a few seconds later they were all standing in the office once more, blinking.
Seki set the firepot down, stifling a yawn. It was very late, and she’d had almost no sleep the night before, either. And now she had to install the sacred fire at her new house, and that would take some time, with the necessary ritual purifications on top of everything else…But that could wait until morning. The fuel in her firepot would last that long. She could afford to relax a little now.
“All right,” she said, and yawned again. “I’m finished. Thank you all—thank you very much, and not just for saving me. We will have to talk again, soon, about what comes next, now that we have our new Moon Princess.” She glanced at Ochiyo and saw the girl colour faintly. “But right now…I think we could all use some sleep, hmm?” Several of the Senshi nodded, and the group began to break apart as they said quiet good-byes. “Mako-chan, I left the car a couple of blocks away—unless you’d rather go on foot.”
Jupiter shook her head with a wry grin. In a low voice she said, “My legs still feel like toffee, to be honest. Sitting down on the way home sounds good…”
“All right. Let’s head down, then. Oh—wait a moment.” Seki looked around, then walked across the room. A twisted, crumpled metallic object lay on the floor near the outer door. She picked it up and returned to Jupiter’s side, tossing the object to the girl. “Souvenir,” she said with a wry smile.
Jupiter stared at it, uncomprehending, for a few seconds. Then her eyes widened. “It’s that…thing they hit me with, isn’t it? I never did see it; just a cold touch on my neck, before—” She broke off, her lip curling. “What is it? What happened to it?”
Seki’s smile faded. “They never gave it a name. That man Hiiro said it was a prototype from ‘M’ Division—though I’m not sure why a maintenance and supply office would be making anti-Senshi devices.” She frowned. “That is odd, now I think of it. One of those vitrimorphs took it off the agent woman and crushed it. That’s odd, too…”
“‘M’ Division? Again?” Jupiter rubbed her chin. “Huh. It was an ‘M’ Division Opal at the warehouse yard, a couple of weeks ago. Or, well, they said they were Sankaku in disguise, but—This doesn’t make any sense.” She turned the ruined device over in her hands idly, then paused, looking more closely. “There is an ‘M’ Division logo on it.”
“So? Hiiro was telling the truth.” But Seki’s voice trailed off uncertainly. Jupiter was right; there was something strange about what had happened. Sankaku masquerading as ‘M’ Division agents was one thing, but now an actual ‘M’ Division link?
Jupiter had her eyes closed in concentration. “Why would they even make something like this, anyway? I’d have thought it would come from ‘K’ Division; after all, they fund all the research institutes.” She rubbed her temple. “Why does that sound so…? Damn it, I know I’m forgetting something—
Her eyes snapped open. At last, after so long, she had it—and it was worse than she could ever have dreamed. “Oh, no,” she said. “DHITI!”
Across the room, Sailor Mercury was chatting amiably with Mars—or rather, she was talking, and Mars was listening, as usual. They both looked up at Jupiter’s call, and Mercury jogged over. “What’s up?”
“Your computer—it has a network link, right? You can access the public net?”
“Well…sure. But what—”
“I need you to run a search for me. See if you can find a picture of someone, will you? A woman named—oh, what was it? Araki. Araki…Mamiko, I think.”
“Um. Okay.” Mercury opened her computer obediently and started to type, occasionally cursing under her breath. “What’s this about, Hayashi? She owe you money?”
“She owes me,” said Jupiter grimly. “But not that.”
“Hmph. Someone needs a hug. Ah, here we are…Oh, shit.”
The tiny screen lit up with a picture. The woman in the news photograph was standing in the middle of a group of men, smiling and shaking hands. She wore a smart, expensive suit that did nothing to hide her femininity. She looked every inch the successful businesswoman. She also looked very familiar.
“Lady Blue,” Mercury whispered. “Well, well, well.”
“Lady Blue, hell,” snapped Jupiter. “That’s Araki Mamiko. Don’t you know who she is? Only Number Twelve of the goddamn Serenity Council!”
The other Senshi, attracted by the sudden commotion, had begun to drift over to see what was happening. At Jupiter’s pronouncement they froze, suddenly silent. Then there was a rush to look over Mercury’s shoulder; and an almost universal gasp as Jupiter explained what they had worked out.
Ochiyo’s voice cut through the babble of voices. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Jupiter confirmed, her words and her expression bitter. “Damn it, I knew I recognised her from somewhere. The damn viddy!”
“But this means—” Venus broke off. “What does this mean?”
“Trouble, that’s what,” answered Uranus grimly. “She cannot possibly be doing this alone.”
“No,” said Jupiter with a sigh. “No, I’m afraid you’re probably right.”
“Well, you’ve lost me,” complained Venus.
“They’ve infiltrated the government,” said Uranus. “They must have. Think about it: ‘M’ Division, secretly making anti-Senshi devices and doing whatever they were doing at the warehouse. ‘S’ Division, attacking us here tonight…bringing vitrimorphs with them!”
“And even that Opal that followed us through the city, a while back,” said Venus thoughtfully. “I’d almost forgotten about that…hey, wait a minute. Those ‘S’ Division guys didn’t bring the vitrimorphs tonight. They were fighting them.”
“That’s true,” said Jupiter thoughtfully. “One of them actually told me to stay down, and he’d defend me. Strange…hey, Seki, did they say anything? Anything that might give us a clue?”
Seki had listened as they put the pieces together. Sadako had made her promise not to tell the girls everything, and intellectually, she even agreed. In her heart, it was another story. It was time the girls started to realise who they were facing; but they did need to work it out for themselves, Sadako was right about that. So Seki had given them a little nudge…and now she was surprised in return. It seemed that even Sadako did not know everything. The involvement of Number Twelve, neither of them had suspected.
Meanwhile, how much to answer? “No,” she said truthfully. But then she remembered. “No, wait. Those men, the vitrimorphs. Before they changed, they showed Hiiro some kind of ID, and it surprised him. He…he said it was government ID.”
There was a long, chilled silence. Mercury said, “I’m getting a bad feeling about this.”
“You, too?” asked Jupiter dryly. “How much of the government are we fighting here?!”
Uranus rubbed her forehead, closing her eyes for a moment. “Let me think. We know the enemy has connections to ‘M’ Division. And ‘K’ Division, of course. They don’t seem to control ‘S’ Division, though. There may be two factions here.”
“Hold on,” said Ochiyo. “My head is spinning. ‘K’ Division?”
Jupiter said, “‘K’ Division—the Science and Technology department of the government—is the portfolio of Number Twelve of the Serenity Council.” Her face twisted, and she almost spat out, “In other words, Lady Blue is running it.”
“And who is Lady Blue?”
They told Ochiyo who Lady Blue was.
“So,” said Ochiyo thoughtfully as she took it all in. “An interesting task we’re left with, yes?”
Seki snorted. “That’s putting it mildly. You could be right about those two factions, Suzue-chan. That might be why that vitrimorph took the anti-Senshi device from the ‘S’ Division woman. They’d borrowed it from ‘M’ Division, and of course the enemy wanted their anti-Senshi prototype back.”
A little reluctantly, Uranus said, “It almost looks like ‘S’ Division didn’t know what they were up against. Perhaps the lower-downs aren’t privy to what’s really going on…”
“No, wait,” said Mercury suddenly. Her computer was still open, and she was tapping quickly at the little keyboard. “You’re all missing something.”
Jupiter looked around quickly. “What?”
“You were talking about how this Araki runs ‘K’ Division. But we know that ‘M’ Division is involved too—probably even more so. Hayashi…who runs ‘M’ Division?”
Her voice toneless, almost completely flat, Uranus said, “‘M’ Division is a very minor government portfolio. Normally it would be given to a junior council member—say, Number Fourteen or Fifteen. But instead, because he has so many responsibilities that he doesn’t have the time to run a major department as well…‘M’ Division is held by Doctor Fukuda.”
“Fukuda Ikemoto,” echoed Jupiter. “Number One himself. The chairman of the Serenity Council!”
“Yeah,” said Mercury, looking up from the screen of her computer. “That’s what it says here, too. So if Lady Blue links to ‘K’ Division, we have to assume that ‘M’ Division links to the chairman. In which case—”
“In which case, the enemy hasn’t infiltrated the government,” Uranus finished. “The enemy is the government.”
A long silence fell.
“Then…then what can we do?” said Sailor Mars timidly. That brought a new silence. They all looked at one other uncertainly, none of them knowing what to say. Until—
“We strike back,” said Ochiyo.
Jupiter stared at her. “Uh…what?”
“We strike back, I said. We go on the offensive.” Ochiyo returned her look with a calm expression. “I’m really not seeing the problem here.”
“But—but we can’t just go attacking the government,” protested Venus. “I mean…can we?”
“I don’t see why not.” Ochiyo shrugged. “They attacked us tonight, and nearly killed Miyo-san. I mean, Makoto-san. From what you’ve all said, they’ve attacked you several times before, too. All the evidence says they’re in league with the enemy who destroyed Crystal Tokyo. How much more do you need?”
“Now, wait,” said Seki, alarmed. “A lot of this is supposition, remember. You can’t just go declaring war on the Serenity Council without evidence.”
“But we have evidence.” Ochiyo pointed to the twisted metal device that Jupiter still held. “Right there. ‘M’ Division have been designing weapons to use against us. I’d call that a hostile act.”
Seki was inclined to agree, but she felt compelled to play devil’s advocate all the same. Couldn’t this girl see the implications of what she was about to do? “Some might say it’s merely pragmatic,” she argued. “Even a perfectly honest government would want to be able to deal with super-powered criminals, if necessary. It’s not enough—”
“Wait, you’re saying we’re criminals?” demanded Uranus furiously.
“You might be, if you go attacking the government. It’s a big step, Suzue-chan. Be sure that you’ve thought it through. The evidence may seem convincing right now, but you need to be certain! After all, if it weren’t for what we’ve heard tonight, I’d have thought the government was actually doing a pretty good job—”
“That’s what you think,” Uranus snarled. “If you knew some of the things they—” She broke off suddenly. “No. Never mind that now. I’m with you, Aizawa-san; let’s attack. Tonight.”
Hating herself a little, Seki tried one last time. “Ochiyo-chan—you do realise that you could order the Serenity Council to step down in your favour, and legally they’d have to do it?”
Ochiyo blinked. “Hmm. That might be fun.” Then she smiled. “Maybe next week.”
“It wouldn’t work,” put in Jupiter. “Itsuko, if they are the enemy, she’d just be playing into their hands. They’d be able to lock us up in endless legal battles while they fired more monsters at us behind the scenes, and we’d be exactly where we are now—or worse. You and I both played Serenity’s ambassadors—you must remember how it works.” She hesitated, and then said, “Anyway, you didn’t feel what that thing of theirs does to you.” She rubbed her neck and winced. “I think Ochiyo-chan’s right. We should strike back.”
There was a chorus of agreement from the other Senshi. Knowing she had lost, Seki said, “But where? How? You don’t have a target!”
“I think we do,” said Ochiyo. She pointed again to the device in Jupiter’s hands. “‘M’ Division. Sailor Mercury, where would that most likely have been made?”
“Huh?” Mercury stared at Moon, then down at her computer. “That’s—umm. Give me a minute.” She tried typing a few tentative commands. Then a few more. After a little she admitted, “Uh…this may take me a while.” She added, under her breath, but quite audibly, “And why does everyone think I’m supposed to be a computer expert, anyway?”
“Shinmei district,” said Sailor Mars in a quiet voice. Mercury looked up at her, surprised, and she added, “It—it’s the main office. And the research and development sections are there. I walk past it, on my way to the botanical gardens sometimes…”
Then, suddenly, she noticed that everyone was looking at her. She let out a gasp and shrank back. “I—I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt—”
Half the Senshi started to speak at once, reassuring her, but they fell silent as Mercury cleared her throat loudly. Mercury stared around at them, as if daring them to speak, before returning her eyes to Mars. Then she smiled. “Shinmei, huh? Let’s have a look.”
She looked back to her computer, glared at it, and tried a new command. That did not work; she tried again, cursing under her breath, and finally the screen lit up with a reply. “Ah! There it is. Um, let’s see. Three linked buildings…offices, workshops…and—huh. Research and development section. What do you know?”
Uranus and Jupiter peered over her shoulder. “It makes sense,” Uranus said. “Head office…if Fukuda-san is working for the Enemy, he’d want to keep this kind of project close at hand.” Jupiter nodded.
Mercury looked over at Sailor Mars, grinning. “Nice work,” she said, and winked. Mars flushed scarlet; her mouth opened and closed, but she did not make a sound.
“So,” said Ochiyo. “Are we agreed, then?” She glanced around the group, seeing them all nod. “All right.”
With a sharp gesture, she raised one hand into the air. It held a small, glittering object: a brooch, with a circular emblem on the front. “MOON PRISM POWER, MAKE-UP!”
It was then, really, that any lingering doubt in the others’ minds was removed. Ochiyo was immersed in glittering energy; her pyjamas melted away, replaced by a blue and white seifuku with red bows. For a moment, a golden full moon glowed brightly on her forehead, before it was covered by a gleaming tiara. High red boots formed on her legs. Then the power faded and Sailor Moon was with them once more.
She gave a brisk glance around the circle of Senshi. “Are we ready?” she said. They all nodded. “Then let’s go.”
Six Senshi ran to the window and leaped out into the night.
Hiyama Seki—formerly Pappadopoulos Itsuko and many other names, née Hino Rei—watched them go and felt old.
It was not merely that she was no longer one of them, or that they were going into action and she had to stay behind. It was their attitudes, as much as anything. They were young; they acted young and they still thought young. They still knew they could do anything, where Seki had learned differently. They learned of an enemy base—or, at least, somewhere that might be an enemy base—and immediately they went on the attack, with no thought for consequences.
Even Jupiter, whose memories were old but whose body was young once more, was ready to go along with them. Jupiter, who had admitted that she still felt weak and ill after the attack by ‘S’ Division. Makoto should have known better; she had had centuries to learn better, and just a few moments ago she had shown that she still remembered subtlety, when she wanted to. But no; she too was ready to drop everything and throw caution to the winds.
Worse still, Seki herself, she who had once been the fiery one, the dynamic go-getter Sailor Mars—she had argued for caution. She had acted old.
She remembered Sadako again, and wondered whether it was this way for the enigmatic Pluto. Seki had told her once that she thought she could understand the older woman’s perspective. Now, just three weeks later, she knew better.
She sighed, and shook herself. Standing here feeling sorry for herself; that was mature. And it was two-thirty in the morning, and she was desperately short of sleep from the previous night; and she still had so many things to do. She looked down at the little firepot on the floor, beside the suitcases, and smiled to herself at the smouldering red glow inside. Events might not have gone the way she’d intended tonight, but she had managed the important thing.
Then her eyes snapped back to the suitcases. Two of them: massive and sturdy, and packed very full. Beside them, Makoto’s two bags, lighter but nearly as large. All of them waiting to be carried down to Seki’s car…which was parked a couple of blocks away. She groaned aloud.
She sighed again, picked up the firepot, and got to work.
Sailor Mercury kept pace with Mars as they ran. Mars had improved a lot since she had first seen the girl, cowering at the foot of a warehouse building, unable to jump to the top to escape from the vitrimorph that was about to kill her. She was still awkward, her movements unsure, but she could get to the top of a building, at least; and given a little encouragement, she could run. Quite well, actually.
They were not going over the rooftops now, though. Why bother? The roads were almost empty at this hour. Side by side, they sped through the streets of Crystal Tokyo, Venus and Jupiter a little behind them, Moon and Uranus a little ahead. Now and then a car would pass them, and twice, a driver jammed on his or her brakes at the sight of them. The first time, Mercury ignored it; but the second time, she gave a cheery wave and a grin as she ran past. For a fraction of a second she saw the driver staring back, his eyes huge and his mouth hanging open; and then he was gone, receding in the night. Something for him to tell his grandchildren, perhaps.
She stole a glance at her companion. Mars really had changed since the battle at Zarigani Mall; she was keeping pace smoothly, her breath quick but steady, her limbs moving with an easy rhythm. How she managed it in those high heels, Mercury had no idea; though of course Mercury’s own boots were little better. Perhaps it was just one of the perks of being a Senshi.
Ten or fifteen minutes after leaving the Olympus, they came to a halt in a dark, narrow alley near a building in Shinmei. It was not all that large, only four stories, but they could see two other buildings—no higher, but much larger—behind it, linked to it by walkways. An illuminated signboard at the front proclaimed:
- - - - -
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
The building was mostly darkened, but the lobby was well-lit. Two men in security guards’ uniforms sat at the reception desk.
“Okay,” said Uranus. She had sounded confident enough back at the Olympus, but now her voice was nervous. “How do we handle this?”
“There’s pretty good security on those doors, if you look closely,” said Jupiter. She was breathing heavily after the run, her forehead dotted with sweat, but her voice was level and clear. “Palm-print readers, cameras, probably more we can’t see. And the guards. If we try to just break in the door, we’ll have the police here in five minutes.”
“Mercury, can you get anything?” asked Moon.
Uh-oh. Mercury winced. She had been afraid of this: Sailor Moon still thought she could do anything at all with her computer. Still, she obediently pulled the device out again and told it to check the building. The results did not surprise her. “No good,” she reported in a low voice. “The scan’s given me a better floor plan, but that’s about all. Their security system is locked down pretty tight. I can’t see any way to connect to it from outside.”
“Uh—” Sailor Venus spoke up unexpectedly. She was looking at the building with a vague expression, as if trying to remember something. “Try the fire control system,” she said.
“You want to set off the fire alarm?” Uranus gave her a startled look. “We’re trying to keep quiet, not attract more attention!”
“No, no. Look, the fire control system uses the building’s internal network. It’s a standard system called BACnet—Building Automation and Control. And security probably uses the same physical network! So if you can tap into the fire system—”
“—She might be able to use it to get into building security, too,” finished Uranus, nodding. “That’s not bad.” She blinked at Venus, bemused. “How did you—?”
Venus flushed. “I—I was reading a book about building design, a while back—” She broke off, shaking her head. “Well, anyway. There should be an external indicator panel for the fire system, somewhere outside…probably near the main doors. Sailor Mercury, you might be able to get access through that.”
It only took them a few seconds to find the panel: a board showing an outline of the building, with tiny green status lights for each floor. As Venus had suggested, it was not far from the main door—but, thankfully, out of sight of it, just around the corner in a narrow side street.
The Senshi stood in a huddle, watching as Mercury studied the board. There was no way to physically connect to it, but her computer claimed that it could do something called an ‘inductance link’—whatever that meant. Close proximity required, it said. Well, okay. Gingerly, she held the computer close to the board and pecked out a new command, one-fingered, on the tiny keypad.
And then, to her considerable surprise, the screen lit up with an acknowledgement message. “I’ll be damned,” she said. “I’m in.”
Hurriedly, she scanned through the building’s security control. There was a test mode that looked just what they needed: the security system would continue to register alarms, but it would no longer report them. She activated the mode and started to disconnect her computer again—and then paused as she noticed what else it was showing her. The automation systems shared the building’s internal data network, as Venus had said. By cracking into one, she had gained access to both.
More passwords, more security protocols; but whoever had programmed her computer, long ago, knew what they were doing. It broke through the layers of protection effortlessly; and just like that, ‘M’ Division’s records opened themselves up for her. Mercury gave herself a gloating smile, and started searching for information. Her computer could analyse data unthinkably fast; the only real limit was the connection speed.
She started by looking for lists of research projects, but there didn’t seem to be any central, master index. Then, in a flash of inspiration, she searched the personnel records for timesheets. Everyone would have to list what they were working on, right? This was a government bureaucracy. She cross-checked the records, and in another minute she had it. ‘Interdiction Controller’…cute.
“Found it,” she announced. She pulled up the building records—much easier to find—and a moment later, she had a floor plan showing the research lab they wanted. “South end of the building, third floor, room 3J.”
Moon raised her eyebrows. “Not bad,” she said, and grinned. “For someone who isn’t a computer expert.”
Mercury smirked back. “It’s my natural style and flair. Well, that and the adoration of my millions of fans.”
“Can we get on with this?” asked Uranus, pained.
Sailor Moon glanced at her, and chuckled. “Right.” She looked back at the building. “Up the fire escapes, I suppose, and in the windows.”
“No problem,” said Venus. She looked up at the fire escape gantries, high above. Then she took a step back, and launched herself forward: leaping up the building’s wall and rebounding back across the street to the building opposite, propelling herself higher, then bouncing back again, doing a preposterous back-flip in midair—and landing neatly and effortlessly on the fire escape, her hands by her side. She beamed down at them.
Uranus gaped up at her. “That…that one wasn’t a cat manoeuvre, was it?” she asked the others in a low voice.
Moon coughed, still staring up at Venus. “Well, I know I’ve never seen a cat do that.”
“No, I mean—” Uranus was interrupted as, above them, Venus released the fire-escape ladder, letting it down hand-over-hand so that it came quietly. “Oh, never mind.”
They climbed up the ladder, one by one, and stood for a moment, looking along the building. All the windows were closed. At last Sailor Moon said, “You said the alarms are off, right?” Mercury nodded. Moon smiled, clenched her fist, and casually smashed the glass of the nearest window.
Then she cursed, rubbed her fist and looked at it ruefully. “Ow. I don’t think that was normal glass. Lucky we’ve got these gloves…”
She cleared most of the broken glass out of the window frame and climbed inside. The others followed her. As Mercury entered, she muttered to herself, “I know I was thinking about being a burglar, but this isn’t what I had in mind.”
They stood in a darkened room. Mercury looked around, interested. It was very large and well-furnished: definitely an executive office. She itched to try out the big, plush leather chair behind the massive desk, but controlled herself. Maybe there was something to the management life after all.
Someone was speaking to her. “Oh. Right.” She shook her head to clear it, then pulled out her computer—again!—and laid it down on the desk so they could all see it, then pulled up the building floor plans she’d found earlier. “Okay”—she pointed—“we’re here. Our clever inventor’s in office 3J, which is up one floor, here. He’s also registered in the laboratory here, and the workshop here.”
“Three rooms,” said Moon cheerfully. “Okay. We split in three groups, then, one each. Find anything connected to the device and—”
“No, wait,” said Jupiter. “Just one man? He probably wasn’t working alone, you know.”
“He might have been,” said Mercury. “That thing was a prototype, right? The records call it an ‘Interdiction Controller’…and Egami Shosuke was the only one listed against the project.”
“One genius.” Moon made a sour face. “Right. Well, let’s see if we can put a little setback in Egami-san’s research, shall we?”
They split into three groups. Mercury was only a little surprised when Mars moved immediately to her side, but the others eyed each other uncertainly, Uranus and Venus both clearly wanting to go with Sailor Moon. At last Jupiter stepped firmly to the new Senshi’s side and said, “Let’s go, huh?” She opened the office door and walked out, Moon close behind her.
Venus and Uranus exchanged wry looks and followed them. Privately, Mercury spent a delicious moment wondering how long Venus’ cat antics would take to drive Uranus mad. Then she and Mars stepped out into the corridor as well.
As she went through the door, Mercury froze, then called out to the other in a low voice. “Hey! Look at this!” Jupiter turned back impatiently, but her eyes widened as she saw what Mercury was pointing to.
The nameplate on the door said clearly, “DIRECTOR.”
“Fukuda-san’s own office,” breathed Jupiter.
“Well, his division office,” said Mercury. “I suppose he has another one downtown in the Council Chambers.”
“This one will do.” A look passed over Jupiter’s face that was something close to satanic. “Give me a moment, will you?” She stepped back into the office and closed the door behind her.
It was a good, heavy door. They all saw the sudden flare of light around the edges, but they could hardly hear any noise at all.
As the door opened once more and Jupiter reemerged, followed by a cloud of smoke, Mercury mimed applause. She sneaked a quick look inside before Jupiter closed the door again. The office looked as though a typhoon had hit it. In a certain sense, perhaps one had. There had certainly been a great deal of thunder and lightning…
Jupiter’s face, she noticed, had a curious expression, as if something odd had happened. She was walking carefully, too; in fact, she almost looked…giddy. Belatedly, Mercury remembered that she was still recovering from whatever Egami’s invention had done to her. But here she was, using her powers again so soon! She stepped up to Jupiter and murmured, “You all right, Hayashi?”
Jupiter glanced at her and shook her head, as if to clear it. Then she winked. “Me? I’m fine,” she said—and laughed. She went up to join the others, moving more confidently now. Mercury watched her for a moment, puzzled. But Jupiter was the experienced one, she reminded herself. And she did seem okay.
They moved on once more. Venus and Uranus were in the lead now: Uranus calm but determined, Venus almost bouncing in excitement. They moved down the corridor quickly, and disappeared through the stairwell door at the end. Jupiter and Moon were close behind them. Mercury and Mars followed, and were halfway along the corridor when Mercury paused once more. Something was nagging at her memory, something she had seen just a minute ago—
She snapped her fingers, and checked her computer yet again. When she had scanned the building from outside, it had built up a new floor plan. But from this close, it had picked up something new: a very interesting feature that wasn’t on the official maps.
Silently, she pointed it out to Mars. The elevator back near the Director’s office, the one that went down to the car park—it didn’t just go up. It also went down, underground. A long way down.
Mercury could not restrain a triumphant smirk. “Someone’s got a secret,” she sang in an undertone. “I wonder what they’re hiding down there?” The scan showed the elevator shaft plunging below ground level—and then faded out, too deep for her computer to follow.
She gave Mars a cheeky grin and said, “Shall we?”
Mars’ eyes widened, and she looked at the map again. “But…but Sailor Moon said we were supposed to—”
“Oh, come on! That lot can take care of trashing a lab or two. You saw what Sailor Jupiter did in the office! But this is something the bad guys really want to hide. We can’t just let this go, Mars-chan!”
Sailor Mars seemed to shrink back a little—but there was no fear in her face, for once; only uncertainty. “Maybe we should tell the others first?” she ventured.
“Party pooper.” Mercury made a face at her. “Oh, all right. Just a minute.” She could not call Moon; the new Senshi did not have a communicator yet. Artemis had not been at the Olympus to give her one. She tapped her wrist, and the tiny screen lit up with Sailor Jupiter’s face.
“Mercury?” Jupiter’s voice was thin but clear. “What is it? Problem?”
“No, no. Look, Mars-chan and I found a hidden room, and we’re going to check it out. Okay?”
“Hidden?” Jupiter paused. Then, suddenly excited, she said, “Hold on. We’ll come with you.”
“Nah, don’t worry, obaachan. We can handle it. Hey, I’ll give you a call if we find anything good, okay?”
“What? Look, this isn’t a game, you idi—”
Mercury touched her communicator again and Jupiter’s voice cut off in mid-squawk. She beamed at Sailor Mars. “There! Okay?” She winked, then turned and jogged back down the corridor to the elevator doors near the Director’s office. After a few seconds she heard Mars follow her, and smiled to herself.
She touched the down button and a few seconds later the doors slid open. She stepped in and examined the control panel. There were buttons for every visible floor—but nothing for anything below ground level. Even better! They really were hiding something. She started to look around the elevator car for hidden controls.
Mars tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the control panel again. There was a narrow slot at the bottom of the panel: a standard port for a maintenance key. Mercury stared at it for a moment, then realised what Mars meant. She threw the girl a big grin, and held her computer up to the slot.
The elevator started to move. It went down a long way.
Jupiter stared incredulously at her communicator. “That—that—I don’t believe this. That idiot!”
“I don’t get it,” said Sailor Moon. “Why did she call you ‘obaachan’?”
“Don’t ask,” said Jupiter sourly. Then she sighed. “Oh, Dhiti…I should have known you couldn’t take this seriously.”
Moon gave her a quizzical look. “You’re really worried about her, aren’t you? Why? Don’t you think she can handle it?”
“I—” Jupiter looked torn. “Yes,” she said reluctantly, “she probably can. It’s just that…she isn’t an idiot; Dhiti-chan is the smartest person I know, when she wants to be. But that’s the problem, sometimes. Everything comes too easily for her, so she…she plays with it. She always has to stand out, you know? And she’s never been afraid of paying the price…”
“We can go after her, if you want,” offered Sailor Moon.
Jupiter hesitated a moment longer, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m overreacting. I mean—a hidden room? How much trouble can that be? It’ll turn out to be a switching room or a broom closet or something, and she’ll be back here in two minutes.”
“Sure.” Moon nodded. “And she can always call for help if there’s trouble. Anyway, she’s got Mars with her; two Senshi ought to be able to handle anything we’re going to find here!”
Sailor Jupiter gave her a flat, unreadable look. “Unfortunately,” she said, “you have a lot to learn about Sailor Mars.”
Uranus looked around the workshop. “You know,” she said thoughtfully to Venus, “I can’t help thinking that you and I don’t have the right power set for this sort of thing.”
Venus paused from where she was trying to push over a massive drill press. Unfortunately, it was bolted to the floor. “How’s that?” she asked, a little out of breath.
“Well, your Chain Thing is…just a chain, mostly. And my Music is an ultrasonic beam, and that’s just not very good at destroying things.”
“Huh? But it works on vitrimorphs,” Venus protested.
“Mm. But they’re crystal, and I can tune the pitch to hit their resonant frequency. All this stuff is pretty inhomogeneous, though; it doesn’t have any one resonant frequency.”
“Uhh…I have no idea what that means.”
“Oh, never mind. I don’t suppose you know any cat methods of mass destruction?” Uranus looked over at Venus hopefully.
Venus considered for a moment. “Shedding on things?” she suggested.
Uranus gave her a look filled with horrified fascination. “You…you can do that?”
“Well, not personally,” Venus answered, completely oblivious to her partner’s expression, as she tried the drill press again. “But you wouldn’t believe what my bedroom gets like sometimes, when Bendis has been cooped up in there for a while.”
“Ye-es. Not actually all that useful right now.” Uranus rubbed her brow. She seemed to be getting a headache. “Actually, Sailor Mercury might be the most effective one on this mission. She can just erase their computer systems, and that’d probably hurt them worse than anything—” She paused suddenly. “Hold on. Electromagnetic flux. That gives me an idea.”
“Oh.” Venus blinked. “I’m happy for you.”
“Come over here for a minute.” Uranus went to the other side of the workshop, to a massive piece of electronic equipment that she suspected was a chip-etching unit. She’d already put a few Musics of the Spheres into it, but she wasn’t sure that she’d hurt it at all. “Can you wrap your Chain Thing around this a few times?”
“Sure. VENUS CHAIN THING!”
A dozen loops of glittering chain settled around the unit, sparking and cracking. Uranus watched them, ignoring with morbid resignation the name of Venus’ attack, and reflected wryly that the sparks alone might hurt it more than any of her attacks had. “Okay,” she said. “Now, give me a second.” She lifted the end of the chain away, and started looking around the walls of the workshop. The chain seemed to tingle and vibrate in her hand, and she had an uncomfortable feeling that if she hadn’t been wearing gloves, it might be doing a lot more.
“Uh…what are you doing?” asked Venus nervously.
“Put a current through a loop of wire, and you make an electric field. The more loops, the stronger the field. If you vary the current, you get electromagnetic flux. That can induce another current within something inside the loop. So—” Uranus tried to remember more details from a physics class a year ago, and failed. “Well, anyway, with luck it might just fry this thing.”
“A current? Uh, Sailor Uranus, you—”
“Here we are. Alternating current varies sixty times a second. Lots of flux,” Uranus said happily. She flipped up the lid on an industrial power terminal and pushed the end of the chain in, then stepped well back and gingerly flipped the switch on.
There was a sharp crack, and a sudden yell. Uranus looked around and saw that the unit was smoking. “Great!” she said happily. “We should be able to fry most of the stuff in here with—” She broke off as she looked around still further, and saw Sailor Venus. The girl was lying on the floor. She, too, was smoking.
“Ah,” said Uranus.
Venus stood up gingerly. She shot Uranus an accusing look, opened her mouth, and exhaled a perfect smoke ring.
“All right. You were still holding the chain. I’m sorry—”
“If I let go of the chain,” said Venus coldly, “it disappears.”
Uranus took a deep breath, and released it. “I am sorry. I just…don’t think we’re doing a lot of good here, you know?”
Venus glared at her a moment longer, then subsided. She looked around the room. “We could set fire to the building,” she suggested. Her hair was standing on end, but Uranus decided not to mention it.
“If there’s anyone else inside here, they could get killed. We shut off the alarms, remember?” Uranus sighed. “I think I was right before. We should just get Mercury to erase their computers.”
“They’ve probably got off-site backups.” Venus’ brow creased in thought. “Actually, when it comes to that thing they used on Jupiter, the guy who made it probably just remembers how it works.”
Uranus stared at her. “That’s true. There’s—dammit, there’s nothing vital we can attack, is there? Nothing they need, like…oh, a Death Busters’ laboratory. Anything we do here is going to be a setback, that’s all. An inconvenience.”
“So?” Venus raised her eyebrows.
“So—” Lips tight, Uranus glanced around the workshop. Then she let out a breath and made herself relax. If this was all they could do, then…She looked back at Venus, and slowly, she started to smile. “Let’s make it a really impressive setback, shall we? One that sends them a message. What do you think?”
“Yeah!” Suddenly jubilant, Venus launched herself at the drill press again.
Uranus groaned. “Lady’s sake, that thing is bolted down! You’re never going to shif—” She broke off as, with a grating, tearing sound, the bolts ripped free and the drill press toppled to the floor. “I’ll be damned. You know, Venus…”
“Hmm?” Venus said, panting a little.
“Sometimes you scare me a little…no, forget I said that.” Uranus looked at the drill press again. “They can probably repair that thing, though. Why not make it a little harder for them, and pour it full of glue or something?”
“Glue? Where am I going to get glue?”
Uranus went to the far wall and yanked down a fire extinguisher. She took it over the chip-etcher and started to fill the machine with powder. Behind her, she heard exuberant smashing noises start up, but paid them no mind. Really, when she thought about it, wanton destruction in a good cause could be…quite soothing.
When the extinguisher rattled empty, she put it down and touched her communicator. As long as they were out to make an impression, it couldn’t hurt to ask Mercury to wipe the computers after all.
There was no response for several seconds. Then she heard Mercury say, “Hello?”
“Uranus here,” she said. “I was thinking—do you suppose you could erase all the computer systems in this place? It might help, um, get our message across.”
Again Mercury did not reply for some time. At last she said evasively, “Um…I’m sort of busy here. But I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great. Bye!” Uranus switched off her communicator and started looking around for something else to destroy. Sailor Venus had a good lead built up, and Uranus didn’t want the girl to think she was slacking.
She noticed a welding torch on an equipment rack. Hmm.
“They sound like they’re having fun,” said Sailor Moon. Another loud crash came from the other side of the wall as she spoke, followed by a long sliding noise and another bang.
Jupiter winced at the sound. “Maybe I ought to tell them to tone it down. There are still guards downstairs.”
“Yes,” said Moon, nodding thoughtfully, “and none of them would have heard, oh, say, multiple lightning bolts going off.”
Jupiter bristled. “Are you implying something?!”
Moon started to reply, but then appeared to think better of it. Instead she looked around the office and said, “I’d say we’re pretty much done here, don’t you think?”
Indeed, the room looked as if multiple cyclones had blown through it. There was little left that had not been damaged or wrecked in some way. Jupiter was particularly struck by the fate of the desk computer, which lay in pieces all over the office. She had not blown it apart with her lightning; instead Sailor Moon had used her tiara to—as she put it—slice and dice the unlucky computer into a large number of very small cubes.
The two of them had also spent some time going through all the papers they could find, hoping to uncover some further link to the Serenity Council and the Enemy. But there was nothing. The computer might have held the details they wanted, but they had thought of that a little too late.
However they had, rather to Jupiter’s relief, found definite proof that they had come to the right place. Another Interdiction Controller, this one only semi-complete, had been lying a locked cupboard to one side of the office. Jupiter took grim pleasure in destroying it personally.
When Egami Shosuke came in to work on Monday morning, he was going to be a very unhappy man.
Best of all, Jupiter was feeling almost her old self once more. The Interdiction Controller had almost killed her; and using her power again so soon, transforming to her Senshi form back in the Olympus, had left her weak and trembling. But the run through the streets, while tiring, had also helped; the purely physical activity had steadied her, gotten her on an even keel once again.
Later, when she had called down her lightning in the director’s office, it had felt for a moment as if the power were not going to come. Even worse, she had dreaded it, feared feeling the touch of electricity again. But when it did come, it had felt like…like a long, cool drink of crystal-clear water. It cleansed her; the true, unwarped power seemed to wash away all her ills. It left her feeling tired and light-headed, but nothing more. All she really needed now was a little rest…
“I suppose so,” she said. “Maybe we should take a look next door, see how the others are doing. There’s that laboratory still to check, too.” As she spoke, the lights flickered for a moment, then steadied. She glanced up, surprised.
Moon nodded, not appearing to notice. “Okay. Let’s go.”
As they left, Moon leading the way, Jupiter found herself studying her companion. In some ways, working with the girl was…difficult. Every time she saw her, she kept expecting long golden tresses, or shorter pink hair. Her heart would leap, and then fall again as she saw an unfamiliar face.
It was hard to see someone new in the uniform; harder than it had been with any of the other new girls. Ochiyo was very different from her mother—though there had been that one moment of all-too-familiar gawkiness during the battle earlier. And yet, thus far at least, Jupiter rather thought she approved of this Moon. She had certainly taken charge easily enough when she decided to come here. It was going to be interesting, seeing how things changed—
“What are you staring at?” said Moon, interrupting her wool-gathering. Then, outraged: “Are you looking at my butt?”
“Er—” Jupiter followed her out of the office hastily. “No. Sorry.”
“You were, weren’t you?” Moon gave an indignant sniff as she opened the door to the workshop. “What, you think there’s something wrong with it? Let me tell you, I have it on the highest authority that my butt is excellent.”
“Your butt is fine!” Jupiter shouted, just as exasperated. “And I was not looking at it!”
Then she froze. She was standing in the door of the workshop. Within the room, Uranus and Venus were…staring at her.
“Um,” she said.
Uranus exchanged glances with Venus. Then she shook her head. “I so do not want to know,” she said.
“I do,” said Venus brightly.
“No, you don’t,” said Jupiter, glaring at her. Then, still scowling, she looked around the workshop. In spite of herself, she whistled. “You two have been busy.”
The workshop had been well-equipped with tools, machinery and electronic equipment. Now, what it mostly seemed to be equipped with was junk. Lathes and milling machines had been turned on each other, reducing each to twisted ruin. A heavy drill press lay on the floor with a sticky, vile-smelling substance oozing out of its case. Racks of electronic instruments—multimeters, signal generators, oscilloscopes and other devices she could not name—had simply been smashed. A pile of power supplies that had been hooked up to each other was smoking gently. Still further appliances had been literally welded together into a huge, ungainly mass. Sailor Uranus, she saw, was still holding the guilty welding torch. She was using it—
She was using it to etch a message into the wall. Jupiter had to admire the idea. The message in question—a simple “SAILOR SENSHI” in letters more than a metre high—gave her a sudden flashback to an old twentieth-century anime, and she chuckled.
Uranus saw what she was looking at and cleared her throat, reddening. “I, ah, just thought that—” she began.
“That’s such a great idea!” Moon interrupted her, beaming. “Maybe we should do that in the other rooms as well.” Uranus’s head lifted and she started to smile in return. The lights flickered again.
“Yeah, about that,” said Jupiter, glancing up suspiciously. “We should probably move on to the laboratory. It looks like you’re about finished here.”
Venus said, “I thought Mercury and Mars were doing the laboratory?”
Moon and Jupiter exchanged a look. “Sailor Mercury said she’d found a hidden room,” said Jupiter. “I assumed she—wait. You haven’t heard anything from her either?”
Uranus sighed, and made an irritated gesture with her welding torch. “What’s she up to now?”
“It has been a while,” said Moon with a frown.
“Um. Let me check if she went to—” Jupiter ducked out of the workshop and ran to the laboratory nearby. The others followed her.
The lab lights were off. Jupiter flicked them on and looked around. There was no sign of Mercury or Mars. She started inside to look more closely—
The lights went out.
She froze. It was not just the laboratory lights; the corridor behind her was suddenly dark as well. She heard the other Senshi exclaiming in surprise behind her, and for a moment she had a panicky flashback to the Olympus office. Then she took hold of herself. This was not like then, waking up surrounded by the din of battle. There was no sound at all, except for—
She heard Uranus growl, “Venus, did you touch something?”
“No! Honestly! I didn’t do anything!”
Moon’s voice cut through the chatter. “Shouldn’t the emergency lights have come on?” Nobody answered. If there were emergency lights, they remained dark. The only illumination came through the windows, and as the lab did not face the street, it was vanishingly weak.
Jupiter spoke up. “I don’t suppose anyone has a torch?”
“Oh.” Uranus again. “I think I did see one, in the workshop. Just a moment—” They heard quick footsteps, followed by a sudden heavy clatter and a yelp of pain. Then more deliberate footsteps, and the sound of rummaging. It seemed to last forever, but at last Uranus made a pleased sound and they saw a dim light filtering back through the corridor. It brightened as Uranus returned.
“There was an emergency kit,” she explained, passing a second torch to Sailor Moon. “Everyone okay? Any sign of Mercury and Mars?”
“I didn’t see them,” replied Jupiter. Uranus stepped past her and shone her light around the laboratory. The two Senshi were not there.
“Try your communicator,” ordered Moon.
“Oh, yeah.” Jupiter touched the device on her wrist. “Mercury?” she called. “Sailor Mercury? Sailor Mars? Come in!”
There was no answer.
“All right,” said Moon, her voice crisp and sharp. “We need to search the building. Spread out and see if you can find any sign of them. Uranus, Venus, try that way. Sailor Jupiter and I will—”
She was interrupted by a sudden voice from behind. It said, “What are you doing?”
The elevator went down a long way. Mercury shot Sailor Mars a triumphant grin as they began, but the grin faded after a little as they continued to descend. Just how far down could they go, anyway?
Then the elevator slowed and came to a halt. Mercury’s computer showed that they were sixty metres underground. What could be so important that it needed to be hidden this far down? And how had ‘M’ Division ever dug so deep without anyone noticing?
The doors slid open and they stepped out into a dimly-lit passage. The elevator doors rumbled shut behind them as they looked around. Two or three metres ahead, the passage opened out into a room with stark white walls. A desk stood against one wall, holding a computer and other equipment. At the far end of the room was a closed door.
Standing on either side of the door was an armed security guard.
Mercury had just enough time to say, “Uh-oh.”
The guards looked up as the elevator doors closed, and the flat, bored look vanished from their faces. For a moment, their eyes widened. Then they reached for their weapons.
The two Senshi reacted without thinking. Mercury dropped to the floor and rolled to one side; opposite her, Mars vanished back against the darkened side of the passage. An instant later a sharp chatter of gunfire filled the air and bullets peppered the rear wall.
Mercury glanced up at Mars. Rather to her surprise, the other girl was not cowering in fear; instead, she returned Mercury’s look with a determined one of her own. They shared a quick nod. Then they moved.
Even as the glowing tracery of Mars’ attack began to sweep across the floor, Mercury’s spear struck the wall just over the guards’ heads. It shattered in a spray of freezing white powder and splinters, and both guards ducked instinctively.
Behind them, as Mars’ Mandala passed over the computer, it suddenly made a hissing noise and spat out a cloud of smoke. The screen crazed, then went dark.
Two Senshi hurtled into the room toward the guards.
And it was so easy. They were upon the guards before they could straighten up once more. The two men were much bigger than either girl, but they did not have a Senshi’s strength or speed. Mercury started low and leaped up at the nearest man, hitting him at chest level and sending him staggering back to hit the far wall with an agonised grunt. He started to straighten back up and she hit him again, catching him under the jaw and spinning him back into the wall again. He slumped to the floor, motionless.
Wow, Mercury thought. Why can’t the vitrimorphs go down this fast?
Then she remembered Mars, and hastily looked around. She was just in time to see the other Senshi grab the second guard by the arm and toss him over her shoulder in a perfect flip. There was something familiar about the move, and after a moment she remembered: it was one that she’d seen Itsuko teaching the girl, back at their training session in the meadow. Way to go, Mars-chan!
While the second guard still lay winded, flat on his back, Mars stood over him and held one hand out, pointing at his face. “Don’t move,” she said quietly, “or I’ll blow your fucking head right off.”
Mercury stared at her in admiration, and almost applauded. She’d never suspected that Iku had it in her! Then she paused. There was something very familiar about that speech, too. Abruptly she remembered why, and had to turn away to hide a sudden laugh.
And she saw the third guard.
The rear door was open, and he stood in the doorway. His weapon was raised, aimed squarely at Mars. His eyes met hers. As if in slow motion, she saw his finger tighten on the trigger.
There was no time for thought. She moved, shouting. The gun fired.
With a cry of shock, Sailor Mars spun and fell.
The third guard slammed backward, a spear of ice ripping through his shoulder. He struck the floor, twitched once, and lay still.
Even as he landed, Mercury was running toward Mars. Distantly, she had a vague thought that this was yet another all-too-familiar scene; but then she stopped caring. Mars was lying on her face, one leg folded under her body, not moving. In a moment, Mercury was kneeling by her, holding her shoulder and anxiously asking how bad it was.
And…actually, it didn’t look too bad at all. There was no sign of blood. What, are we bullet-proof, too? she thought crazily. Then Mars stirred and pushed herself upright. She let out a faint hiss from between her teeth.
“Are you all right?” asked Mercury in a low voice.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the second guard—the one Mars had been threatening—make a slow, cautious motion. She looked around sharply and said, “Stop right there, asshole, or you’ll get what your friend got.” He stopped moving, and she stopped thinking about him.
Mars said, “My foot hurts.”
“What?” Mercury looked down. “Oh, I don’t believe it.”
She had fired her ice spear in time after all. She had not been able to stop the guard firing, but she had deflected his aim—just barely enough. The shot had blown the heel off Mars’ left shoe, probably given her whole left leg a severe wrench…and nothing more.
She looked up again and said, “You are one lucky girl.”
To her surprise, Mars flinched away from the words; her eyes closed, and her face twisted in a grimace. “No, I’m not,” she said in a low voice. “I’m not lucky at all.”
“What, are you kidding?” Mercury shook her head, and grinned. Suddenly she wanted to laugh out loud. Perhaps it was the sense of relief. She rose, and held out a hand for Mars. “Can you stand on it?”
Mars got up gingerly. She winced when she tried to put weight on her foot, and had to hold onto the edge of the desk. The two of them looked around, taking stock.
Three guards: one stunned, one thoroughly cowed, and the third unconscious and bleeding. With a scowl, Mercury found a first-aid kit in the desk and did what she could for the third man, drawing on a first-aid evening class she’d taken a few months before. He had a deep gash across his shoulder, but it was not spurting blood, so she decided he would live. In the end she could only pack the wound with sterile gauze and hope for the best; under the circumstances, she was not inclined to be too sympathetic. He had been about to kill them without warning, after all.
They tied the other guards up, using more bandages from the first-aid kit. Sailor Mars turned out to be good at knots. They disabled their guns as well, just in case.
Then, at last, they looked at the rear door, and the dark corridor beyond it leading away from the guard-room they stood in. They exchanged a glance. Mercury gestured toward the desk and said, “That thing next to the computer—I think it’s a retina scanner. With that, and the guards…it all kind of makes you wonder what they’re trying to hide, hmm?”
“Let’s find out.” She held out an arm for Mars to lean on—the girl still could not put any weight on her left foot—and the two of them started forward.
The corridor was not long: no more than six metres. At the end, it opened into a massive, dimly-lit chamber. At first it was hard to make out any more than that, for the room was filled with such a collection of dark, unidentifiable shapes that their eyes registered only a confused jumble. Then, as they slowly became accustomed to the light, details started to become clearer.
Dark banks of equipment lined most of the walls. Much of it seemed to be electronic—here and there Mercury could make out computer screens, glowing dimly—but elsewhere she could see other shadows, less familiar, unidentifiable in the gloom. In the centre of the room was a great, disorderly heap of strangely-shaped objects. From somewhere nearby came a sharp, chemical smell that reminded her of hospitals.
They stood for a moment longer, staring around the room. Then Mercury finally remembered her computer visor. She raised a hand to activate it, and at once her surroundings seemed to light up, as clear as day. She started to look around again—
They heard a gasp, from somewhere nearby. Instinctively, Mercury spun to face the sound. Mars, her hand shaken loose, staggered and nearly fell. She cried out. As if in reply, there was an audible click.
Without warning, accompanied by a low hum that faded away again almost instantly, the lights came on.
They froze, blinking rapidly, as the room and its contents suddenly became clearer. Stacks of computers and other electronic boxes were everywhere, interspersed with machine tools and other equipment, less easy to identify. Here was a cluster of tall cylinders that looked like oxygen tanks; there a long table holding a line of heavy upright rings, carefully aligned, with a massive attachment at one end that resembled a futuristic cannon; in one corner, a silvery vat that looked almost big enough to swim in; and opposite it, projecting out from the wall, a tank-like chamber with a heavy glass window and what appeared to be an air-tight door. The nearest corner held a well-equipped chemical laboratory; and the muddled heap in the centre of the room became, to their surprise, a disassembled Opal.
Not far away from the two of them, hand still raised to a light switch on the wall, was a woman.
She was middle-aged, perhaps older. Her face was lined and pale, as if she did not get enough sun; her hair lank and grey, tied back in an untidy bun. She wore a rumpled white coat that appeared to have been slept in. She stared at them in utter shock.
A beeping sound came from Mercury’s wrist.
Mercury froze, then cursed under her breath. She turned her visor off again and touched her wrist. “Hello?”
“Uranus here,” said the tiny face on her communicator screen. “I was thinking—do you suppose you could erase all the computer systems in this place? It might help, um, get our message across.”
From the corner of her eye, Mercury saw the old woman stiffen. Very carefully, she said, “Um…I’m sort of busy here. But I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great,” said Uranus. “Bye!” The communicator screen went blank, and Mercury briefly fantasised about throttling Suzue the next time she saw her. She looked back to the woman and tried to think what to say.
The old woman said, “You…you’re Sailor Senshi.” Her eyes were still wide in astonishment. Her hands trembled a little.
“Sure,” said Mercury, giving her a false smile. “I’m Sailor Mercury, and she’s Sailor Mars.” She resisted the temptation to add, “Who were you expecting? The three bears?” For all she knew, this woman could summon a dozen more armed guards. Just what had she gotten herself into this time?
“I—forgive me,” the woman said shakily. “I never knew—I never even dreamed—It’s you. Oh, heavens, it’s really you, isn’t it?” To Mercury’s astonishment, she was crying.
“Uh…hey,” she said. “It’s okay. Yeah, sure, it’s us. Why, who were you expecting?”
“I heard the noise outside, the gunshots, and I thought…no, I didn’t know what to think. I never…never imagined that the Senshi had come back at last…” The old woman rubbed her eyes. “I should have guessed. It explains so many things…”
“You never—?” Mercury raised her eyebrows. “Wow. I thought everyone in Third Tokyo knew by now.”
“Oh, I…I don’t get out much.” The woman pulled out a clean white handkerchief and blew her nose. She was still shaken, Mercury could see, but was getting control of herself. “Forgive me, dear. You caught me by surprise.”
“That’s okay. Uh—” Mercury gestured around the chamber. “Who are you, anyway? What is this place?”
“Oh!” The old woman was startled. “This is ‘M’ Division’s research department, of course. And I’m…oh, just call me Emma. I work here.”
Mars spoke up for the first time. “I thought the building upstairs was the research and development department.”
Emma wiped her eyes again, and gave her a faint smile. “This is the real research department, dear.”
Mercury glanced at the disassembled Opal again, and wondered what kind of research it was being used for. For a moment, she remembered being chased through the streets of the city by an Opal, a few weeks before. Was there a connection?
Emma noticed what she was looking at and said, “Yes, we work on those, too. They were invented here, did you know? Omni-Purpose Aerial Link. But that one was—” She broke off as Mars shifted restlessly, taking Mercury’s arm again for balance. Emma’s expression sharpened. “You’re hurt!”
“Sprained ankle, probably,” said Mercury. “But don’t you worry. Mars-chan is tough.” She gave Mars’ arm a quick squeeze, and was delighted to see the girl flush in response.
“Don’t be silly,” said Emma. “Let me see…come over here.” She indicated a table and chairs nearby, close to the chemical laboratory, and started toward it without looking back. Mercury and Mars exchanged glances and followed her. Mars was limping more heavily now.
The old woman ordered Mars to sit, and spent some time carefully examining her foot. Her hands must have been gentle, for Mars barely winced. Mercury watched the process, trying to restrain a glower. She could not put her finger on it, but something was wrong here; something about Emma that set her on edge. The more innocuous the woman seemed, the more her misgivings grew…
At length, with a nod of satisfaction, Emma lowered the injured foot and said, “Well. It’s a nasty sprain, all right. Ordinarily I’d wrap it well and tell you to use an ice bath to reduce the swelling, and stay off it for at least a few days—but somehow I don’t think that’s going to be an option for you, is it, dear?” She gave Mars a wry smile. “Still, the old stories say a Senshi heals fast.”
Mercury could take it no longer. “Look, why are you being so helpful?” she demanded. “We break in here, beat up your guards—who are you, really? And what is this place?”
Emma threw her a sharp look. “I already told you,” she snapped as she rose. “I’m a researcher, and this is my research lab.” She sniffed, and turned to open a nearby cupboard, pulling out a first-aid kit. She began to wrap Mars’ ankle tightly with an elastic bandage. “As for why I’m helping you—well, why wouldn’t I? I’m not inhuman. Even if your friend does want you to erase all my work.” Her eyes met Mercury’s with a challenge.
Aha. Now, at last, they came to it. “Your work?” repeated Mercury, refusing to look away. “You mean you invented the Interdiction Controller?”
Emma paused. “The what?”
Mercury smirked at her. “Yeah,” she said. “Right.”
The old woman frowned, and turned suddenly to a computer terminal on one of the lab desks. She typed amazingly quickly, her fingers flying across the keyboard. The screen flashed up a page of information and she stopped, her eyes flicking over the screen.
“Let’s see,” she said. “There’s only notes here…oh. Yes, I see what he was working on. Oh, dear.” She sighed. “That is rather nasty, isn’t it? I didn’t think Egami-san had it in him.” A moment later she added, “Did…anyone get hurt?”
“Sailor Jupiter,” said Mars. “She was almost killed.”
Emma nodded, turning to face them once more. “Yes. Now I know why you’re here. And why your friend wanted you to erase the computer systems.” As if to herself, she murmured, “Suddenly everything’s starting to make sense…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Mercury.
“Hm. Nothing you need to concern yourself with, dear.” Emma studied her briefly, and murmured again, “A Claver Senshi. That’s unexpected—but after all, why not?”
Louder, she said, “I think I’m going to help you after all, dear. Some scientists do have ethics, despite what you may have heard.” Her lips curled for an instant; then she became serious once more, her brow wrinkling in thought. “Let me see. Clearing the records here won’t work; they’ll have backups of everything. Hmm. Yes, that will do…”
She began to type again, fingers flying moving and faster. After a moment she remarked, “I’ve actually had a little data bomb prepared for some time now—against a rainy day, you might say. It just needs a few tweaks to fit the circumstances…” She finished typing with a flourish. “And there! That’s that.” She stood up from the computer, flexing her fingers.
“What have you done?” asked Mercury suspiciously.
“What your friend asked for, dear.” Emma gave her a slightly mocking smile, and indicated the computer. “Check, if you like.”
Distrustful, Mercury produced her own computer (Emma raised her eyebrows at the sight, and smiled again) and repeated her earlier query. In an instant, it told her that the data she wanted was missing.
It told her something else. Her link to the building’s internal network was still up, but it was behaving strangely. Something was surging through the network: short bursts of data in an odd pattern, building and multiplying in a curious kind of cascade…
She stared at Emma. “What have you done?” she repeated.
Emma nodded. “You two had better leave now,” she said. “Some of the, ah, amenities here might prove unreliable in a few minutes.” She looked at them both for a moment, her eyes moving from girl to girl and back again, and then said in a low voice, “I’m glad I met you, this once. But you should go back to your friends. There’s nothing more for you here.”
Mercury glanced at her screen again, then shut it off with a shudder. “I think she’s right,” she said to Mars uneasily. “She isn’t just erasing the computers; she’s going to bring everything down…Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
She held out a hand, and helped Mars up. They started back toward the elevators, and Emma followed them politely. As they left the huge chamber, the lights flickered, just for an instant.
When they came to the guardroom, Emma paused and looked down at the bound guards, tutting to herself. She knelt down by the man Mercury had shot. “You didn’t say you’d hurt them,” she said to Mercury, giving the girl an accusing look.
“Hey, they tried to kill us!” Mercury protested. Behind her, the elevator doors slid open.
Emma waved her silent. “Never mind,” she said severely. “Just go. I’ll take care of things here.”
Mercury gave her a mutinous look, but Mars pulled at her arm gently. With an irritated sigh, she helped the girl into the elevator and pressed the third-floor button.
The last thing she saw, as the doors closed, was Emma, examining the guard’s shoulder with gentle fingers. The guard-room lights dimmed, almost imperceptibly; and then the doors were shut and the elevator began to rise.
M looked up as the elevator doors closed, and shook her head. She left the guard—that girl had done a reasonably competent job on his shoulder—and hurried back toward her lab.
“Too soon,” she muttered to herself. Why did they have to come here now? She wasn’t ready yet!
Then she shook her head. Sailor Senshi, back in Japan! She had not even imagined this possibility. Seeing the two girls, young and naïve and yet somehow unmistakable, had been a shock.
Yet it explained so much. Many of the little tasks the chairman had been giving her lately, the random-seeming, almost meaningless requirements, all fitted. The sensor upgrade to the Opals, for example. Of course the Serenity Council would want to be able to track a Senshi.
She wondered what had prompted their return, though. Some new enemy? And what on Earth had induced Egami to create an obscenity like the Interdiction Controller? There had been only fragmentary working notes on the computer, but the intent had been clear. She had seem the man’s personnel records, and really, she had never thought he was that bright. Well, she supposed anyone was entitled to one moment of genius…
If only she had a better idea of what was happening, up in the surface world.
Well, perhaps she would find out. She checked a readout on one of the lab’s computer screens, tutted to herself, and started to work rapidly. She had a lot to do, and far too little time.
“Something about her bothers me,” Mercury grouched. “She wouldn’t say who she was—and then she was…almost too helpful, at the end. And what did she mean, that was the real research department?”
Mars was leaning back against the elevator wall, bracing herself on the rail. She listened to Mercury grumble for a while, thought, and then said, “Did she really erase everything?”
“Oh, yes, and more than that. She did something to the building network as well. But I’m, er, not quite sure what,” Mercury finished lamely.
Mars nodded. Then she said, “She looked at that design on the computer, and worked out what it was for—instantly.”
“What?” Mercury stared at her, uncomprehending. Then her expression changed. “The Controller thingummy? You think that she—”
Mars flushed. “I just wondered,” she said meekly, “if maybe she already knew all about it.”
Mercury thought about this for perhaps half a second. Her fists clenched, and she said, quietly but intensely, “Damn!” Then she reached out and pressed the emergency-stop button on the control panel.
The elevator ground to a halt. Mercury looked over at Mars, and saw no disagreement in the girl’s face. She held her computer up to the panel again, and entered in a command. After a second, the elevator began to descend once more.
“The old bitch really played me for a fool, didn’t she?” she growled. “When I see her again…” She broke off with a snort.
Then a sudden thought occurred to her, and she looked back at Mars. Sailor Mars, who had just chimed in with an intelligent suggestion. Who had, in fact, done so three or four times now tonight. And who hadn’t hesitated to attack those guards, either. Mars was getting unexpectedly bold.
Well, about time.
The doors opened with a subdued rumble, breaking her chain of thought, and the two left the elevator cautiously. To Mercury’s surprise, Emma was no longer in the guardroom.
She looked down at the three bound guards warily. Two of them looked back at her, their expressions unreadable. The third was still unconscious. Their bonds looked tight…
“Come on,” she said, making up her mind. “Hurry!” She ran on into the cavernous laboratory. The lights were still on; everything looked as it had when she had left. Except…there was no sign of Emma.
She advanced further into the chamber. There was a sizable alcove off to one side that she had not noticed earlier. She ran over and looked inside, and saw a disappointingly normal kitchen. A heavy shelf of rather battered books stood to one side; by it, on the floor, was an unrolled futon and a pillow.
Still no sign of Emma.
She opened the only door in sight. Bathroom and toilet. Both empty. Where had the blasted woman gone?
She went back into the main chamber, noticing for the first time that Mars was not behind her. Then she remembered that Mars could barely walk, and cursed herself. The lights flickered again and she glanced up, startled.
As she looked back around the room, she noticed that all the computer screens had gone dark. All of them, except for one. Crazy old woman has a flair for the dramatic, she thought, amused in spite of herself. She crossed to look at the screen, wondering distractedly if it would be showing a countdown.
She stared at it, startled. What, was she supposed to think that a bomb was about to go off, or something? But then she remembered the data cascade building in the networks…and that the building automation systems shared the same network. What had Emma said? Some of the, ah, amenities here might prove unreliable in a few minutes. She glanced up at the lights, which flickered again. Then her eyes returned to the countdown.
Less than a minute to go.
With a snarl of fury, she spun and raced back toward the guardroom. Sailor Mars was standing at the entrance, holding onto the wall. Mercury barely broke stride; she picked Mars up bodily and carried her back through the guardroom. The elevator doors were still open. She sprinted inside and slapped the third-floor button. Thirty seconds left, at the most, and they had a long way up to go…
They had nearly reached ground level when the power failed. The lights went out and the elevator ground to a halt.
Mercury heard Mars’ frightened gasp, and reached out to give her arm a comforting squeeze. Then she activated her visor and looked up at the emergency hatch in the ceiling. This was not going to be fun.
Sailor Moon gave a quick nod, then looked around at the others. “All right,” she said. “We need to search the building. Spread out and see if you can find any sign of them. Uranus, Venus, try that way. Sailor Jupiter and I will—”
She was interrupted by a voice from behind. It said, “What are you doing?”
She spun about, flicking the torch up. It picked out two figures not far away in the corridor. They were both liberally coated with grease and grime, and one of them was helping the other to stand…but the voice had been unmistakable.
“Sailor Mercury,” she said with relief. “Sailor Mars. We were about to go looking for you. Where have you been?” She eyed them and made a face. “What happened to you?”
Mercury hesitated. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a bath anywhere around this place…?”
“Don’t make me come over there and smack you,” growled Jupiter.
“Okay, okay. I did tell you what we were doing, obaachan.” Mercury quickly told them what she and Mars had found—and what had happened to the lights. “We had to climb the rest of the way up the elevator shaft,” she finished at length. “I did hear you calling, a couple of minutes ago, but I had to hold up Mars-chan and I didn’t really have a hand to spare. Sorry.”
“A crazy old scientist in an underground laboratory?” said Uranus sceptically. “This isn’t one of your stupid stories, is it?”
“Hey!” said Mercury, looking hurt. “I don’t lie.” She paused. “Okay, I may make things up, but I don’t actually lie.”
“And just what exactly is the diff—”
“Never mind that now,” cut in Sailor Moon, wondering if the two were always at each other’s throats like this. “This Emma…she said she’d erased all the computer systems?”
“Yes,” said Mercury. “That, I did check. They were gone.”
Moon made a quick decision. “Then I’d say we’re finished here. We’ve done enough for one night.” After a moment she added, “And I think I hear sirens. The power cut may have triggered some kind of alarm.”
“There were security guards downstairs, remember?” put in Venus. “They could have done something.”
“Right. Let’s go, everyone, before we’re caught in the act. Sailor Mars…can you make it?”
“I’m all right,” said Mars steadily. “Sailor Mercury will help me.”
The six of them scattered as they left the building. Jupiter and Venus went in their own directions, and Mercury carried Mars away on her back. Sailor Uranus followed them for a little way, but then paused in a side street a block away from the ‘M’ Division building, crouching down in a pool of shadow. A few seconds later, the emergency vehicles began to arrive: fire trucks first, followed by ‘P’ Division Opals.
She paid them little attention. Her eyes remained fixed on another figure, a little way in front of her in the side street. A girl in white, red and blue who stood in a shadow of her own, watching the men and women who raced into the darkened building.
After a little, suddenly impatient, Uranus rose and approached the girl. She moved slowly and carefully, making no sound; but somehow the girl knew she was there anyway. As Uranus had expected she would.
“Sailor Uranus,” said Sailor Moon quietly.
“I needed to speak to you,” said Uranus, her voice just as low.
“Yes, I thought you might. I was surprised you left it this long, actually.” Moon turned toward Uranus, and the motion brought her face into the light. Her expression was serene, her eyes a piercing blue.
“I couldn’t, before. Not while the others were around.” Uranus bit her lip, struggling with herself. Ever since she had become a Senshi, she had known that this moment would come. Until tonight, though, she had never dreamed that it would be with someone she knew. It made it so much harder.
“You know me from school,” she said. “You know…what I am.”
“Yes,” Moon answered, and waited.
Uranus stalled for a moment longer. Indecision and fear warred within her. In her mind’s eye she saw again the day, years before, when she had stood before her class at school and told them what she believed in. She remembered once more what had followed: the mockery, the bullying, the alienation. Ever since then, it had followed her. Whenever she moved up a class—or even when she transferred from middle to high school—there was always someone ready to warn all the others about what they had in their midst. Always someone to make sure she remained the pariah. The few friends she did make were the ones who never cared about the opinions of others anyway—people like Keiko and Minoru—and even they always had to make it publicly clear that there were certain things she could never discuss with them.
And yet. This was the day; this was the moment she had waited for. And she had promised the Blessed Lady that she would have the courage.
Deliberately, she knelt before Sailor Moon, traced the crescent sign on her brow, and touched her forehead to the pavement. “Holy daughter, Sailor Moon,” she said, her voice rough. “I greet you in the name of the faithful, and I pledge myself to your service. Command me as you will.”
The other girl was silent for a long time. Uranus remained kneeling, not looking up. She waited for laughter, or insults; she waited, a lump in her throat, until she could hardly restrain her trembling; until she wanted to scream at Moon to say something—anything.
And then Moon said, “This must be so hard for you.”
Uranus looked up…into a pair of bright blue eyes. Moon was looking down at her, and there was nothing in her face but sympathy.
“Stand up,” said Moon. “You don’t need to kneel to me.”
Uranus stood. She said, “I—” and then broke off. She honestly could not think of anything else to say.
“We’re teammates,” said Moon, “and we’re classmates. You don’t have to give me any titles. I don’t need a servant right now…but I could use a fellow Senshi. And maybe even a friend. That’s the only service I want for now. Is that all right?”
“I…yes, of course.” Uranus stumbled over the words, not quite sure that she believed what she was hearing. “Uh. Really?”
Moon chuckled. “Really.” The smile on her face fading, she said, “Look, Itagaki-san, I know what you believe. But the truth is, I don’t know. Okay? A week ago I’d have said it was nonsense. But then she came, and—well, you saw her tonight! And she’s supposed to be my mother?” She shook her head. “I already have a mother. I don’t know what she is. Not yet.”
She fixed Uranus with a clear, unwavering gaze. “I’m not trying to humour you, or put you off. I just. Don’t. Know. Do you understand?”
Oddly, Uranus found that she did understood. It was all too similar to how she felt herself, at times. Realising that Moon found the situation just as confusing was somehow comforting.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “It hasn’t been easy—to know that I’m a part of Her plan. I can only guess what it must be like for you.”
“Plan. Right.” Moon made a face. “I’d rather not think about that, to tell the truth.” With a shrug, she changed the subject. “What do the others think? The other Senshi?”
“Uh. I, well…I haven’t told them, actually. Except for Itsuko-sama—um, I mean, Seki-sama. She…” Uranus paused. “She wasn’t happy.”
Seeing her expression, Moon grinned. “She does have a temper, doesn’t she? I remember at work one time, she—no, never mind. Why was she upset?”
“She thinks I’m a blasphemer,” said Uranus shortly.
Moon raised her eyebrows. “Oh. Wow. I could talk to her, if you like.”
“No. She and I have already talked about it. I think we’ve come to an understanding…”
But at that, quite suddenly, the surreality of the moment caught up with her, and she fumbled to a halt. Here she was, standing out in the street, in the middle of the night…talking about Saint Hino, the Sailor Mars…to Sailor Moon, the daughter of the Blessed Lady herself! Talking perfectly familiarly, no less. It was enough to make her head swim.
More than that, this was a girl she had known for a long time—a girl she went to school with. True, they had never been very close; they only shared one class, and to be honest she hadn’t spoken to the girl that often before. All the same, they shared a connection that was undeniably informal.
All at once, the contradiction was too much to bear. She looked away, clenching her fists. “I—I can’t do this,” she said, frustrated. “I can’t!”
And again, somehow, Moon seemed to understand. “Yes, you can,” she told her, and smiled. Her eyes were warm. “Everything will be all right, Itagaki-san. You’ll see.”
She winked at Uranus, and touched her arm lightly. “Now go home and get some sleep,” she said. “And I’ll see you at school on Monday.”
Sailor Mercury came to a halt in her own back yard, and set Mars down. Mars’ house was still some distance off, but for some time now she had been hearing the quiet gasps of pain in her ear as each movement jarred Mars’ ankle, and she could not bear it any longer.
“Look, spend the rest of the night at my place,” she whispered to the other girl. “Get your foot a chance to rest. I’ll take you home in the morning, before anyone notices. Okay?”
Mars’ face twisted, and she thought she saw a flash of something dark and anxious there for an instant. Then the girl said, “Okay.”
Mercury helped her in the back door, closing it silently behind them, and then up the stairs to her room. They were met inside by a furiously anxious, and rather startled, white cat.
“Later,” she whispered to Artemis. “We have to get cleaned up, and Mars-chan needs to rest her foot. And it’s only an hour or so until dawn! I’ll tell you what happened later, I promise…”
Artemis clearly wanted to argue, but he said only, “Just change back. All the dirt should disappear with your uniforms.”
“Really? That’s handy.” Mercury made a mental note of the trick, and tried it. Then she wondered why the cat hastily turned away—and why Mars made a sudden choking noise.
Oh. Right. That was twice she’d done that now. Artemis didn’t count, of course, but Mars might be getting the wrong idea. Maybe she ought to start wearing pyjamas, if this sort of thing was going to keep happening.
Back as a normal girl again, though, she was suddenly too tired to care. She pulled on a T-shirt and underwear, then ducked out of her room to grab a spare futon and pillow. By the time she got back Mars had become Iku again and was curled up on Dhiti’s own bed, fast asleep. Dhiti groaned to herself, laid out the futon, and collapsed onto it. She was asleep almost instantly.
And she dreamed.
She saw a young girl, no more than ten years old, holding a puppy. The puppy was squirming and trying to lick her face; the girl held it away, but was trying just as hard to pet it in return. Her expression was serious, absorbed, but Dhiti almost thought she saw a hint of a smile. With a start, she realised that the girl was Iku.
Then suddenly, the scene shifted; it seemed to melt and dissolve away and Dhiti was looking at an older girl. Still Iku, but this time she was in her Senshi form, as Sailor Mars. She was on her knees, looking up at Dhiti, and there was something magnificent in her eyes: hope, trust, and other things Dhiti could not name. Distantly, she seemed to hear the echo of a voice: “I believe in you.”
Another shift, and Iku changed again. This time, absurdly, she was dressed as Sailor Mercury. Her head was thrown back, and she was laughing. Her face was more alive than Dhiti had ever seen it. Was this some kind of costume party? And why was—
Then one last shift and Iku was alone once more. She wore a deep blue robe, its hood thrown back, and her unbound hair—shorter than it should have been—hung down about her face. A dark wooden staff was in the crook of her arm. Dense mists swirled around her. She stared at Dhiti with a look of anguish, and lifted her hands as if to grab hold of her before Dhiti could be snatched away—
Dhiti woke up. She was lying on her futon. The room was dark. Not far away she could hear the real Iku thrashing about in her bed and moaning, as if she were having a bad dream. Dhiti started to sit up, but even as she moved, Iku quietened. After a second the room was silent once more, except for the sound of gentle, regular breathing.
“Well, that was weird,” Dhiti said aloud, and promptly fell asleep again. She passed the rest of the night in peaceful, dreamless slumber.
Far away, in her own bed, Suzue also dreamed.
She stood, or perhaps hung, in a vast, deep blue void. Her cheek tingled, as if at the touch of a ghostly hand, but she was alone. For a timeless period, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, the void flickered, and before her was another person: tall, slender, a tousle-haired blonde. She could easily have mistaken the newcomer for male…if she hadn’t known better.
“So,” said Haruka, “you’re my successor.” She sounded rather amused by the idea. Her voice was lighter than Suzue had expected.
“Lady Ten’ou,” Suzue breathed. Even as she spoke, she knew that this was a dream; but it hardly seemed to matter. She tried to bow, but it didn’t work very well in this place.
“None of that,” said Haruka sharply. “Haven’t you worked it out yet, kid? You don’t need to bow or scrape to any of us. Why do you think you have to do that, anyway?”
“Because…because I’m not worthy,” Suzue admitted.
Haruka chuckled. “Still don’t get it, do you? Kiddo, you’re a Senshi. You have been chosen! That makes you worthy. Understand?” Suzue started to answer, but Haruka cut her off. “Or, at least, it means that you’d better be worthy. Understand that?”
“…I think so.” Suzue hoped she did not sound as daunted as she felt.
“Good. Then where’s your sword?”
“Damn it, don’t try to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.” The elder Senshi frowned at her. “The Space Sword. Where is it?”
“I—I’m sorry.” Definitely daunted, now. “I don’t know.” Suzue’s head was whirling; there was a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. To be found wanting by her predecessor—!
Haruka stared at her mercilessly; there was a hard glint in her eye. “No?” she challenged. “And here I thought you were the one who knew everything about the old days. Isn’t it your religious duty?”
At that, something seemed to break inside Suzue. She found that she was tired of people speaking down to her. “No,” she snapped back. “My duty is to serve the Blessed Lady. Turning myself into…into some kind of walking encyclopaedia is strictly optional!”
To her surprise, Haruka burst out laughing. “So,” the older woman said, “you do have a spark in you. That’s good. All the same—” She sobered, and went on, “That sword is your birthright. It’s your talisman; it’s the ultimate expression of your power—and you’re going to need it. I think you know that, really.”
Suzue did not answer for a moment, collecting herself. To her surprise, she found that she did know. “…Yes. But how do I find it?”
“That’s the trick, isn’t it?” Haruka’s grin became something more contemplative. “I was never really very good at this, but…true strength comes from within,” she said slowly. “You have to look for it inside yourself. Search for a way to tap the passion of your pure heart.” She paused. “Even that may not be enough. But when you need it, the sword will answer.”
“All right.” Suzue did not really understand, but it seemed the safest answer. “I’ll try.”
“Good. In that case—huh?” Haruka broke off suddenly and looked over her shoulder, as if hearing something that Suzue could not. Then she turned back with a wry look. “Sorry. Time’s up; I have to go. I’d give you some last-minute advice, but…hell, you’ll find your own answers. That’s probably for the best, anyway.”
She hesitated for an instant, then said, “One last thing, though. Go easy on Michiru, will you?”
“Michiru?…You mean Lady Kaiou?”
“Yeah. Try not to give her too hard a time, when you meet her. She couldn’t accept how things ended, you see. It’ll be hard for her, when she realises I haven’t come back.” She shook her head…then gave Suzue a wicked smirk. “Give her a hug from me—but no kissing!”
Then, without warning, she was gone. Moments later, the blue void vanished too, and Suzue found herself lying in bed. She wondered for a while if any of it had been real, but then her eyes closed and she passed the nest of the night in peaceful sleep.
Beth dreamed, and knew that she was dreaming. Her forehead tingled, as if someone had touched it, but nobody was there.
She was standing by the seashore, wearing a rather daring bathing suit that she was sure she had never seen before, but which she decided instantly that she loved. The sun was bright and warm, the sand golden, the sea a pure, rich blue, and there was just a hint of breeze. Best of all, she had the beach to herself. She stood ankle-deep in foaming water as a wave rolled up the beach, breathed the fresh salt air, and decided that she had never felt so happy.
Then a shadow fell across her, and she looked up into a pair of dazzling blue eyes and a wide smile.
“Hi!” said Aino Minako. She stood next to Beth on the sand, wearing a jaunty gold-coloured bikini. The sun shone brightly on her hair, and her crimson ribbon bobbed in the breeze.
“Oh,” said Beth, startled. “I thought I was—”
“Yeah.” Minako looked out along the beach, and sighed in contentment. “But it’s too nice a day to be alone in a place like this, don’t you think? And I wanted to say hello.”
“Um, okay.” Beth cocked her head to one side, suddenly uncertain. “It…it is you, isn’t it? You look different in the anime.”
Minako’s eyes went very wide. “There’s an anime?” she said. “They finally made an anime about us? That’s so great!” She blinked. “And I can’t see it! That’s so unfair!” A heartbeat later, before Beth could even open her mouth to answer, she added, “So what’s it like? Am I any good?”
“Oh. Well—” They ambled along the beach, and Beth started to tell her all about ‘Queen Serenity and her Senshi.’ Minako stopped her when she got to the evil Queen Ryoko and her space pirates.
“Okay,” she said, her face perfectly straight. “So it sounds like they’ve changed one or two tiny details.” She gave a melodramatic sigh. “All the same. An anime about us, and I can’t even see it. That is so unfair!”
“Well, maybe you can,” said Beth cautiously, remembering what Serenity had told her earlier. “I mean, if I’m really you, or you’re really me, then when I watch it, you watch it too.”
“Ooh, deep. I’m just going to pretend I understood that, okay?” Minako grinned at her. “But let’s be serious for a moment, huh? Tell me…how are things going for you? I heard something about a boyfriend.”
“What?” Beth stared at her in dismay. “They’re talking about that in the afterlife?”
“Aha! Tell me all!”
“Oh—” Beth opened her mouth, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s over. He never liked me in the first place; and anyway, he’s got Nana-chan.”
Minako nodded wisely. “The classic love triangle,” she said gravely. “All that’s missing is for one of you to commit suicide.”
“I, ahh…I don’t think we’re going to do that.” Beth sneaked a look at the other girl from the corner of her eye, and tried desperately to think of a way to change the subject. Inspiration struck her. “Anyway, it’s not like I’m the only one with troubles. Just a little while ago, I saw Ochiyo-san—that’s, er, the new Sailor Moon—deep-kissing her own father! With tongue!”
“Ew.” Minako gave her a dubious look of her own. “You know what? The Senshi of Love is so not going to touch that one.”
Beth nodded, satisfied. Cautiously, she said, “Aino-sama…why are you here?”
“Oh, you know.” The other girl tossed her hair carelessly. “I wanted to say hello, see what the new me is like. That sort of thing. After all, there’s no reason we can’t get along, is there? You know what they say: ‘The grasshopper and the eagle can never be more than friends.’”
“Um. I don’t think they do say that, do they?”
“Oh, whatever. Why is everyone always so nitpicky? You know what I meant!”
“Actually…no, I don’t think I—”
“Anyway, I just wanted to say…ah. Now, what was it I wanted to say?” Minako pondered—and then suddenly looked around, startled, as if she had heard something. “Oh, damn. I don’t have much time left. Look, I remember now. You know how the Queen told you you might be me, reborn?”
Abruptly, Beth was all ears. “Yes?”
“Well, just remember this—”
And then, without warning, she was gone. Beth stood alone on a golden beach, under a glorious summer sun. She looked back behind her, and saw to her dismay that there was only one set of footprints in the sand.
“Bother,” she said.
Then the beach, too, was gone, and she realised that she was lying in bed, Bendis at her side. The cat was snoring again. She thought about waking Bendis up; but it was still dark outside, and in the end she simply turned over onto her side and closed her eyes again.
Ochiyo stood in Itsuko’s office in the Olympus; but somehow, it was an office restored. The desk was upright again; the filing cabinets were closed, and all the papers that had littered the floor were gone. All the disorder and chaos from the night before had vanished, as if it had never been. She realised that she was dreaming. Her cheek seemed to tingle for a moment, as if at the memory of a touch.
The window stood open, and a cool, gentle breeze stirred her hair. Outside the window…something was different. She went over to look.
There was a city outside the window, one she had never seen before. It was a glittering metropolis of arches and spires, gardens and fountains, one more beautiful than anything she had ever seen before, and it shone in the sun as if it had been built out of glass. She looked down, and realised that her window was improbably high up in a vast tower of some kind. Far below, she could see things moving, and after a moment she realised that they were vehicles. They were flying through the air like Opals, rather than crawling along city streets.
She looked up again, out across the broad expanse of the crystal city, and said in wonder, “I know this place.”
Behind her, an unfamiliar voice said, “Of course you do.”
She whirled about, and saw a young woman seated at Itsuko’s desk. She was even wearing one of Itsuko’s business suits, but there any resemblance ended. Her face was rounder, broader than Itsuko’s; her eyes were an unusual reddish colour; and her hair…her hair was done up in long, tapered odango, and it was pink.
Ochiyo said, “You’re—”
The other held up a hand. “Word of warning. Call me ‘Chibi-Usa’ or ‘Small Lady’ and I will hurt you. Got it?”
“Oh. Right. Okay.” Ochiyo cocked an eyebrow at her. “What should I call you, then?”
Princess Usagi smiled. “‘Oneesan’ might be nice.”
Ochiyo took a moment to consider this. “I’ll have to think about that,” she said. “It’s funny; I already had this discussion with the queen.”
“The queen our mother,” said Usagi. She was not smiling now.
“Your mother. I wonder if she’s mine, in any meaningful way?”
“That is what I wanted to talk to you about,” Usagi said, nodding. “And, well, I suppose I wanted to see what my sister is like, too. Because, little sister of mine, you might be unwilling to acknowledge the relationship, but I’m not.”
Ochiyo stared at her. Then she laughed. “All right,” she said. “I won’t argue—for now. But…word of warning. Call me ‘Hikari’ and I will hurt you. Got it?”
Usagi grinned back at her. “Got it.”
Ochiyo turned and looked out the window again. After a moment she felt Usagi join her. “It’s so beautiful. Is this really what Crystal Tokyo looked like?”
“Pretty much,” said her sister. “It’s the view from my bedroom window, actually.”
“Wow. You lived a long way up.” Ochiyo looked down again, and then back at the horizon. Almost afraid of what she would hear, she asked, “What was it like, living here? What…what were they like? The Queen? And the King?”
Usagi did not answer at once. She stood at the window, her eyes closed, leaning out a little. The breeze stirred her hair. Very softly, she said, “I don’t need to tell you about our parents. You’ve met them both; you’ll make up your own mind. But this place?” She nodded to herself, slowly. “It was like a dream. A perfect dream, of a perfect day; a dream that you don’t have to wake up from. Every day.” Opening her eyes, she gazed at Ochiyo. “That’s what the others have lost, you know—the ones who remember.”
Ochiyo tried to look back into those reddish eyes, but after a few seconds she had to look away. “A perfect dream,” she repeated, and something made her shudder. To lose perfection—
“I’ve been worrying,” she admitted, and gestured out the window. “Sailor Uranus told me I’m a part of a plan. Is this it? Am I supposed to rebuild all this?”
Usagi raised her eyebrows and laughed suddenly, and the stillness of the moment was broken. “Rebuild Crystal Tokyo? You’ve got a long way to go before you can think of that.”
“Yes, but you know what I mean! Assuming we win…I’m supposed to be the heir to all this, right? Do I have a responsibility to bring it all back again?” After a heartbeat Ochiyo added, “Is it a good idea to even try?”
The pink princess grew thoughtful once more. “You don’t have to choose right now, you know. You’ll have years, probably. All the time you want.” She stepped back from the window and leaned against the edge of Itsuko’s desk. “It’s different for you. Mother knew what she was supposed to do. She’d seen it; she’d actually visited this time. Not that I think she had any regrets! But you…you can choose your own path. In a way, you’re far freer than she ever was.”
“Free to be queen…or not.” And the princess had not exactly answered her question, Ochiyo noticed.
“Right.” Usagi nodded. “As I said, you have time. Talk to the others; don’t rush it. After all, you have things to do before you can even start!”
“Destroying the enemy.”
“Well, that too. I was thinking, finding the Ginzuishou.”
“Oh.” Ochiyo’s eyes narrowed.
“It is your inheritance, you know,” Usagi said. “Just like the Golden Crystal was Father’s, and the Pink—no, that’s another story.” She shook her head. “But you do need to find the Ginzuishou. You must know that! Of all the Sailor Crystals, it’s the oldest, and the most powerful. That’s your real inheritance.”
“Crystals,” said Ochiyo. “Why does it always come down to crystals?”
Usagi smiled. “It’s a mystery.”
“All right, then. Where is the Ginzuishou?”
“I can’t—oh, bother.” Usagi glanced over her shoulder abruptly, as if someone had called her. “I don’t have much time left. Look—
“Little sister, I can’t tell you where the Ginzuishou is; I don’t know. Puu might be able to help you; ask her.” She reached out, without warning, and took Ochiyo’s hand. Her fingers felt warm, human…real. “But you don’t need to be told,” she said, and there was a sudden fierce intensity in her voice. “You already have everything you need, within you. Because you are my sister. You are the heir to the Moon Kingdom, and you are a Sailor Senshi. You are Sailor Mo—”
She was gone. Ochiyo stood alone in the office, and outside the window it was night, and the lights of Third Tokyo shone. Then even the office vanished, and she opened her eyes in her borrowed bed in Miyo’s room.
She rose and padded down the corridor of Itsuko’s apartment, through to the office—the real office. It was still a wreck. The door to the secret room still stood open, but inside now there was only darkness.
Oddly troubled, she went back to bed, and slept restlessly for the remainder of the night.
In a small room in her new house, Seki knelt down and bowed her head. Flames warmed her face: a dancing, flickering heat, from a renewed sacred fire.
The altar here was rough and rather makeshift, but in some indefinable way it almost seemed better for that. Less polished, less ancient, but perhaps more in touch with the world of today. She thought of Queen Serenity’s words—‘Look ahead of you, instead of behind’—and felt a quiet satisfaction.
The air was rich with wood-smoke. For the first time in many years she had actually been able to feed the sacred fire with real fuel, instead of the careful gas feed at the Olympus. The flames danced merrily, and she felt, looking into them, that they even looked happier.
With an entirely unconscious smile, she closed her eyes, her head still bowed. She would meditate here for a few minutes more, and then finally get some sleep. All was well: the fire had been preserved; Makoto was home at last, asleep and dreaming in her own room; and here and now, in this moment, all was right with the world.
She opened her eyes again, for an instant—and in that moment she saw a new vision in the flames, and recoiled from it in horror. It was the future, she knew, absolute and inevitable. Blood and battle; a figure with glowing red eyes…and a fireball that blossomed in the darkness, and grew until it swallowed the heart of the city.
Sunrise at this time of year was a little before five o’clock. Dhiti woke at around half past, and stifled a groan. She felt groggy, her eyes hot and prickly…and it did not matter. Tired or not, she needed to get moving.
She was also, she found, both stiff and sore. It had been a while since she’d slept on a futon.
Sourly, she eyed Iku, still sound asleep, and poked out her tongue at the girl for stealing her bed. Then she grinned at herself, and pulled on a pair of jeans before waking the other girl.
Iku came awake with a start and a little cry of fear. Dhiti held up a finger to her lips, and she relaxed. “Time to get you home,” Dhiti whispered. Iku winced, then silently nodded.
Iku’s ankle seemed noticeably improved since the night before, but it was still too sore for her to walk on for long. Dhiti sighed to herself and changed to Sailor Mercury, then helped Iku downstairs and outside once more. She waved to Artemis, enjoying his irritated look in return, then lifted Iku onto her back and set out.
She could not move quite as fast with the girl on her back, and she did not want to try going over rooftops, so the trip took ten minutes or so. Iku murmured directions in her ear as they went. They took back streets, and it was early on a Sunday morning, but even so, twice she saw someone watching them from a window, and three cars slowed as they passed. Mercury could not quite decide whether to feel embarrassed or pleased at the spectacle she must be making.
As they neared Iku’s house, she found a secluded spot and paused to let Iku down, then changed back to Dhiti again. She helped Iku to walk the last hundred metres, her arm about the girl’s waist, Iku’s arm looped around her neck.
“Okay,” whispered Dhiti as they reached the door of the house. “Will you be all right, or do you want me to come—”
Before she could finish, the door suddenly opened. A woman stood looking out at them: middle-aged, with a touch of grey at her temples, she was lean like Iku and had the same deep brown eyes. Dhiti felt Iku stiffen at the sight of her.
“Iku!” the woman exclaimed. “Where have you been? I was about to call the police!” She stepped out and took Iku by the shoulders, pulling her close. “What in heaven’s name have you been doing? And who’s this?”
Dhiti cleared her throat, hoping to defuse the situation. “Excuse me, Kodama-san,” she said, bowing. “My name is Sharma. I’m a friend of Iku-chan’s from school.” She looked up at the woman with what she hoped was the right hint of nervousness. “We, ah, we were having a sort of…impromptu sleepover last night, and I kind of persuaded Iku-chan to come out and…I’m sorry.” She bowed again. “It was all my fault. We started dancing and she twisted her foot, and I had to help her home. I’m sorry,” she repeated.
“Hm.” Iku’s mother looked at her for rather a long time, and Dhiti started to feel genuinely nervous. Then the woman sighed, shaking her head. “Very well, Sharma-san,” she said. “Thank you for your honesty. I can’t say I’m pleased, but…well, we’ll say no more about it this time. I suppose you two are hardly the first girls to get into a midnight scrape, are you?”
“Er, no,” said Dhiti fervently.
The woman glanced at her watch. “It’s still very early,” she said. “Sharma-san, have you had breakfast? Would you like to come in?”
“Um. Thank you, but I’d better not,” Dhiti said. “I’d better get back home before my own parents—um.”
Iku’s mother raised her eyebrows, and laughed. “All right, then,” she said. “Another time, perhaps. Good-bye, Sharma-san.” She drew Iku inside the house and closed the door.
Dhiti grinned to herself and started to jog back down the street. Not a bad lady, she thought absently. Iku-chan’s lucky.
Then she glanced at her own watch and saw what time it was, and muttered an oath. She really did have to hurry, or her excuse would turn all too real. She started to run.
Inside the house, Iku’s mother released her suddenly and the girl stumbled, almost falling. It hurt her ankle and she winced, but she made no sound. Head lowered and one hand on the wall to hold herself up, she started meekly down the corridor for her room.
A hand fell heavily on her shoulder and the fingers tightened, digging in painfully. A moment later she was slammed back against the wall, brutally hard. She could not restrain a whimper of fear.
“Iku, Iku, Iku,” said her mother. All the warmth was gone from her voice. Her eyes were cold, and there was an ugly smile on her face.
“What are we going to do with you?”
“So,” said Twelve. “Very enterprising of them. They got away clean?”
“Yes,” said the chairman, laying down his commset. It had been a busy half hour, trying to find out exactly what had happened. “The main building’s security cameras show nothing. The underground lab cameras show two intruders, but—” He shrugged. “There’s the usual problem. We can’t even make out which Senshi they were.”
“But you say your pet didn’t escape with them?”
“Apparently not; but she’s gone all the same. We still don’t know how—or where.”
“More and more interesting.” Twelve gave him a vulpine grin. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy the cover story you come up with, to explain all the damage they did. In the meantime…what about the computer systems?”
“Wiped clean.” The chairman studied his gloved hands. “We still don’t know how they did that, either. Our techs have tried to restore the system from off-site backups, but when the backup volume was mounted, it got erased too. They say they’re investigating.”
“The Senshi did us a favour, then. Your little project is gone.” She gave him a scornful look. “Don’t think the inventor is off the hook, though. I still want that name.
“For now—” She shook her head, and started to laugh: that horrible, grating laugh that was like fingernails on a blackboard. “I wonder if they even realise how little damage they did? A trashed laboratory and a few lost files—how very heroic of them!” She snorted. “The computers will be repaired soon enough. They can just be replaced, if need be. The most significant thing that happened last night was the loss of your pet, and that wasn’t even their doing! And even that may help us, in the long run.”
She shot the chairman a vicious grin. “So I wonder. Do they know how futile their little expedition was? Do you think they have any idea just how ineffectual they were?”
The chairman shrugged, but Twelve was no longer paying any attention to him. Her eyes were far-off. “No…I think we have nothing to complain about. They’ve destroyed nothing vital. More importantly—”
She looked down at him again, and the jewel on her forehead gave a pulse of baleful light. She started to laugh once more. “They have accepted the Master’s gauntlet! And now—now it will be war between us!”
S A I L O R M O O N 4 2 0 0
End Of Chapter Thirteen
Next: The breaking and forging of relationships; happy families; a new beginning for a masked man; and the first battle of the war.
Sincere thanks to the pre-readers who helped improve this chapter: Chris Angelini, Chester Castenada, Jed Hagen, Amanda Lange, David McMillan, Bert Miller, Aaron Nowack, Helmut Ott, Jamie Smith, Joshua Stratton, Steve “Komodo” T.
Final draft: 11 August, 2007.