I. New York, New York, 2011
"Welcome to The Daily Show! I'm Jon Stewart, and, folks, we have a fantastic program for you tonight. Our guest is Souichi Tomoe, and I hope to god I'm pronouncing that correctly, whose work in cybernetics has been an amazing help to countless physically disabled people, including, in recent years, a lot of our wounded troops. He's working on a new project that he's kept pretty quiet about, but we're going to get a sneak preview of that tonight.
"But first!" With one hand, Jon tossed his pen into the air. With the other, he gave his desk a decisive smack.
By the time pen landed, the audience was screaming, security was sprinting into the room, and Jon was wondering how the hell he was supposed to hit the panic button on his desk when it wasn't his desk any more.
The only person not pre-emptively running for their life was an audience member he had barely registered during the Q&A: waves of red hair spilling down past a plunging neckline just this side of "ma'am, we're going to have to ask you to put a real shirt on." He barely registered her now. He was more occupied with the monster, especially when a black star spun onto the screen in its stomach (shown off by a midriff-baring bikini that appeared to be made of lucite) and shot him.
He felt his body crash into the backdrop of the set, then straight on through (it was only cardboard, after all). The impact was nothing compared to the pain in his chest, a tearing like a gunshot in slow motion plus the shattering sense of loss of being dumped by your first serious girlfriend all wrapped up into one.
The cacophony of shouting and trampling and gunshots faded to a dull roar in the distance, overshadowed by the crumpling of materials, the blood pounding in his temples, and a ringing in his ears that sounded unearthly, almost musical.
Then, mercifully, the whole world winked out.
Jon woke to a pounding head, an unaccountable sense of loss, and a crowd of people staring at him. And he couldn't figure out why the hospital ceiling looked just like the one in the studio.
"Did they—" He clutched vaguely at his chest, baffled to find no bandages, not even any blood. Someone had gotten rid of his jacket and loosened his tie, but that was all. He was still in the same shirt, for crying out loud. "Was I—what—?"
"The monster took your heart crystal," said Olivia from between Wyatt and one of the camera guys. "You were out cold for a while there, even greyer than usual—we all figured you were a goner. Then Sailor Moon showed up and blasted it with some kind of bright spiral thing. It was awesome! I mean, not awesome that you almost died, but to see the Sailor Soldiers up close like that...I mean, not that it was a good thing we needed her in the first place...um...listen, do you want me to get you an aspirin or something?"
"Um," said Jon dizzily. All he could think about was the field piece Sam had done last month on the "short-skirted urban Bigfoot," and how if his head ever cleared he was going to write a personal letter of apology to everyone it had mocked.
His timely recovery got even less likely when, somewhere beyond the crowd, a door banged open. "Jon!" bellowed a familiar voice. "I had an amazing show planned for tonight! How dare you pre-empt it by getting attacked, without even keeping Sailor Moon here long enough for me to get her autograph?"
Olivia patted his shoulder. "I'll get that aspirin. You're going to need it."
II. Mitakihara, Japan, 201X
Homura froze the world, fed the ribbon-daimon a grenade, shot Eudial in the head, and pushed the first gleaming spire of the heart crystal back into Madoka's chest.
"I know you're there," she said to the extra shadows in the trees, as daimon egg and ribbon both were swallowed by a fireball and Madoka collapsed into her arms. "She's not a Talisman holder. She just happens to have a heart crystal so big it would crush this entire island if it took material form. She's of no use to you, and if you trouble her after this anyway, I won't forgive you."
Then she went back and shot Eudial five more times, just to make the point.
III. Oxford, England, 19XX
"I don't like the look of her," whispered Lyra.
Pan knew in an instant who she meant. The golden-eyed woman reminded them both of Mrs. Coulter, even if on the surface the only similarity was their hair color. Mrs. Coulter would never have permitted a skip in her step, or a childish moue on her face. And she certainly wouldn't have worn such ridiculous spectacles.
Still, there was an air of something deeper about her, slippery and sinister under the batting lashes and pouting lips. When the eyes of the cormorant-daemon on her shoulder passed over Pan, he shuddered. The thing looked...hungry.
The woman bustled around the stalls of the covered market, looking at everything and touching nothing. Lyra yearned to send Pan sneaking closer, but the place was full of people who knew her, at least by reputation, and the last thing she needed was to arouse their suspicions.
"Did you hear that?" she whispered, when when the woman chortled something to her daemon. "Something about talismans. Three of them! You know what that means?"
"I know what you think it means," grumbled Pan. "The alethiometer, the knife, and Dr. Malone's spyglass. When likely as not she's looking for a matched set of ordinary charms, and it's just a coincidence her daemon has eyes like a death."
Lyra gave him a chastising nudge with her toe. "You say that now. You'll be sorry later on, when it turns out she's a witch from a clan trying to overthrow Serafina Pekkala."
Pan's nose twitched. "Even witches' daemons don't look like that."
"I'll just bet...hey! Where'd she go?"
In spite of himself, Pan sat up on his haunches and sniffed the air. "That way."
Lyra scooped him up and set off at a brisk walk, threading through the fruit and vegetable stalls and around a column until she was in an empty open-air courtyard. For a moment she stared at the cobbles, cursing herself for losing the trail, until Pan raised his head and cried, "Look out!"
The cormorant struck like a thunderbolt, while on a high branch the golden-eyed woman giggled and clapped. Her coat had gone missing, revealing something black and slight that Mrs. Coulter wouldn't have won for all the worlds.
It wasn't the woman's daemon. It wasn't a daemon at all. Without the slightest hesitation it grabbed at Lyra, claws digging into her shoulders as its beak snapped at Pan; she gave a passionate cry and twisted as the wind rushed in her ears—
—and then pain, pain like crossing the Styx and losing Will again all at once—
—and the woman was telling the cormorant something about the Messiah, which was absolutely the last straw. She and Dr. Malone had had more than enough trouble playing Eve and Serpent, thank you very much. No need to get Christ into it.
They were walking away. She lunged.
"But—but—this is impossible!" sputtered the golden-eyed woman, too stunned to react, as the cormorant thrashed in Lyra's grip. "It took your pure heart! You shouldn't be able to move!"
Lyra's hands tightened on the bird-creature's throat. Its shape began to bubble and distort under the strain. "En't the first time we've been separate. Besides, I'm under the protection of a witch-clan and the armored bears, and I've held in my hand a knife that cuts through the very fabric of the world; so I think you'd just better run, because once I have my Pan back we're coming for you, unless you get out of here right quick. Understand?"
The witch stared, trembling, then turned tail and fled: not even caring to retrieve her coat, much less her illusory daemon.
Belching a final cloud of black smoke, the bird-figure dissolved under Lyra's hands, leaving nothing but Pan's limp form on the ground, a grublike white egg that cracked as it hit the cobbles, and an ordinary apple that crunched in her fingers.
IV. Battlestar Galactica, YR59
"It's not Cylon, sir," said Sharon, while the screens glowed a shade of blue they weren't supposed to produce and the rest of the crew tactfully avoided staring at the wires running into her arm. "It's not like any program I've ever analyzed. It feels...cold. And hungry."
"Metaphors can wait, lieutenant," said the President. "How did it get into our systems?"
"I wish I knew, sir. It wasn't there yesterday. It shouldn't have had time to get everywhere so fast. But—"
There was no warning. Just a brighter glow, and then screams, as delicate clusters of ruby crystal points were torn from almost every chest. They drifted toward the screens as their former bearers collapsed, slow and inexorable as autumn leaves floating downward, filling the console room with the song of ancient wind chimes.
Only a handful of people were left standing. Sharon, gaping in shock. Tory, catching President Roslin's body as it slumped in her seat, paler than ever with its inner glow ripped away. Tigh, looking shocked and personally offended in that way he did so well, opening his mouth to bark an order and coming up empty...
...and two of the Piconese prodigy computer techs, Yui Bidou and Ami Mizuno.
"Don't look at me," said Mizuno, hands raised. "I got mine stolen last month. Granted, I am a survivor of an ancient, technically advanced humanoid civilization, but not the one you're thinking."
"Oops," added Bidou, as she found herself fixed with both Tigh and Sharon's most patriotic military glares.
And something blue flashed in Mizuno's hand: "Picon Planet Power...."
V. Tau Nebula, 3459 BCE
"Oh, Doctor, I've got the most awful headache."
"Steady on, Sarah. You've been through a bit of an ordeal, but you'll feel better in a few minutes. Lie still. Have a jelly baby."
"What happened? What was that...creature?"
"Oh, one of those Lovecraftian ancient-evil types you get around this corner of the galaxy. Feeds on what you might call life energy, or the essential bits of your soul. L'hostie, to use the French term. Never fear, I've sealed it off in another dimension. It won't be troubling us again any time soon."
"Well, that's a relief. Lucky for the universe it didn't go after you first, hm?"
"Ah, it wouldn't have done that. It was only interested in pure hearts, you see. Although if there's anyone I would trust to face down cosmic horrors in my absence, it's my Sarah Jane."