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Legend of Galactic Girls

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16 June 2008
11:19 GMT
Unnamed private station, Habitat Module 1


"The pressure test on Tank 3 looks good, Mr. Scott."

"Yoriko, how many times have I told you to call me 'Noah'?"

The woman looked at her feet. "But you're my boss... and my creator. And we're working."

"So? There's only the six of us up here; there's no need to stand on formality. Besides, I'd much rather be your friend than your owner, okay? And that goes for the rest of you, too."

"Is that an order, sir?" asked the youngest-looking person in the habitat module.

Noah sighed. "No, Sora, that's a request." He turned to one of the others. "Kohran, please bring the pressure in Habitat Tank 3 – no, it's Module 3, now – bring the pressure down to one standard atmosphere. We'll use some of the building supplies we left in the tank to install some wiring and plumbing, and build some internal walls in it. I know I'm looking forward to having a private apartment again."

"Yes, sir," replied the girl as she reached toward a control bank. Then she stopped. "Mr. Scott..."

"What did I just say, Kohran?"

"Mr. Scott, there's something wrong. The pressure in Module 3 is already down to one atmosphere. And the microphones we put in it for the hull stress test are picking up... a working turbine engine."

"That's impossible."

Everyone else looked at Noah. "Just like artificial gravity and artificial intelligence are impossible, sir?" asked the other android in the habitat.

"Good point, Yayoi. Yoriko, please come with me; let's go see what the miracle goop's done this time. The rest of you, stay here and listen in over the microphones, please."

 



11:24 GMT
Airlock between Habitat Modules 2 and 3


"What is that?"

"It's a motorcycle, Yoriko. A pretty advanced one, by the looks of it." Noah shook his head in amazement. "But who brought it here, and how could it still be running after this long?"

"Sir?"

"The engine. It should have used up most of the oxygen in there by now... Oh, shit. There's somebody on the bike."

Yoriko pushed Noah back into Module 2, then closed the airlock door in front of him and opened the door to Module 3.

Noah rubbed the brand-new sore spot on his chest as he watched Yoriko rush at inhuman speed to the first aid kit, then to the motorcycle. Then he said, apparently to the thin air, "Well, at least she's got the basic sense of humanity I hoped we'd programmed into all of the girls."

"Were you seriously expecting something else?" a voice asked from the intercom.

"No, Eimi, but it's good to see proof that the personality trait's there."

 



Location Unknown. Date Unknown. Time Unknown.


I woke up to discover myself not home. Again.

I was on a makeshift cot, inside what looked like an antiseptic-yet-makeshift warehouse. My helmet was sitting on the floor beside me within easy reach, beside a small oxygen cylinder with a breather mask attached. Two people – a tall middle-aged caucasian man with "swivel-chair spread" and a petite young asian woman with long hair, both wearing polo shirts, jeans, deck shoes, and what looked like perscription glasses – were examining my motorcycle (without touching it, so they seemed to be polite) while talking quietly with each other. I cleared my throat to let them know I was awake.

The man stepped forward. "Hello, stranger," he said (in English, with the stereotypical educated middle-class American accent). "I'm glad you're awake; you almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning. I hope you don't mind that Yoriko shut down your bike."

"No, that's all right. Good thing you found me in time," I smiled.

"Indeed. I'm called Noah Scott, and I'm your host. If you don't mind me asking, who are you and how did you get aboard this piece of what's becoming my space station?"

Space station? That explained why the exhaust from my bike's engine almost killed me; the life-support systems were probably overtaxed by the fumes. I stood and bowed to Yoriko, then offered to shake Mr. Scott's hand. "Douglas Sangnoir, at your service. But please call me Doug." The two of them exchanged a Meaningful Glance. "Don't tell me you've heard of me?"

"We've heard of you," replied Yoriko. She had a hint of the standard Japanese-newscaster accent, but it was almost lost in, I kid you not, an American Southern accent thick enough to cut with a knife. (Not a Deep South accent, though – it seemed to be from the Carolinas.)

"I asked you not to tell me that." They both smiled at that, then exchanged another Meaningful Glance.

"Actually," added Mr. Scott as he shook my hand, "we've heard of someone with your name and taste in humor. We assume he's you."

"Really? Have I been here before?" Then I realized what he was talking about. "Or is this connected to that 'transfictionality' effect that Legion told me about?"

They both sighed with relief. "That's exactly what we're talking about, Colonel, and we're glad you've already heard of it. That'll make it easier for us to talk near you."

"Oh?" Then I realized what Yoriko had called me. "And how did you know my rank?"

"I don't know whether you or Legion has considered the implications of transfictionality, but when one of our universe's authors combined the concept with quantum mechanics' lack of a privileged frame of reference, he realized that everyone is fictional in some other reality somewhere." She stopped talking when Mr. Scott put a hand on her shoulder.

"I'd let Yoriko continue, but we don't have all week." She blushed as he went on. "Sometimes I think about that and wonder whether anyone reads stories about me. But that's not important right now. What is important is that your arrival here proves that theory valid, because we've read stories about you."

Oh, wonderful – not again. "Are you telling me I have no secrets here, Mr. Scott?"

"Please, call me Noah – I keep telling everyone there's no need to stand on formality here. The stories you're in aren't that well-known, and we don't know most of your personal details... but a few of us are well aware of who Looney Toons of the International Strike Teams is."

Oh, boy... but wait a minute. "Of the what? My team back home is called the Warriors."

Noah looked relieved, and I can guess why. "Ah, right; my mistake."

 



13:07 GMT
Habitat Module 1


"Here's Eimi's laptop, Mr. Scott. What do you want transferred to it?"

"Sora, my name is Noah. And ... did you say Eimi's laptop?"

"Yep!" Eimi replied from the computer's speakers. "You haven't been paying much attention to me now that the girls are awake, Noah. I want to see more of the world. Or of the worlds, if Doug'll take me on as a Girl Friday."

Noah sighed. "I'm sorry, Eimi. I'm doing to you want I did to Natsuko and Agatha, even after I told myself not to. You deserve better. Of course you can make your own way in life. Are you sure you want to leave this universe altogether, though?"

"Nobody else has; I'll be the first!" She continued more seriously. "Besides, you've read the stories that Doug's in. You know he needs somebody he can confide in if he's going to stay sane for his entire trip home."

"You have thought this out. You're a Smart Girl, Eimi."

"Almost as smart as my boss, Boss."

They both chuckled, and Sora smiled. Noah went on. "I'll miss you, Eimi... but you're right. Doug does need somebody to talk with that already knows who he is, if he's going to stay sane. Okay. Sora, copy the Drunkard's Walk files in the server's fanfiction directory, up to where the Loon learns about transfictionality, to a temporary directory on the server, strip out anything he didn't learn firsthand, then compress those edited files and copy them to Eimi. And whatever you do, don't copy any of the sequel series. Eimi, can you forget that you've read the full series?"

"No more than you can, Noah."

"Why are you worried about that, Mr. Scott?"

"Sora... Oh, never mind. It's the same problem as time-travellers would have if they were real; if you know something will happen to you because it did happen to you, but you make sure it doesn't happen, then you've created a paradox. A time-traveller might wreck his own universe with a paradox."

"But Doug's travelling between universes, so any paradox he creates might wreck more than one reality," Eimi finished. "Okay, I won't tell him anything he doesn't learn on his own."

"That'll do. Thanks." Noah turned back to Sora. "Once you've given Eimi the censored version of Doug's adventures, copy over all of the music in my personal playlist except for the soundtracks to stories from the places he's visited, then go on to the World Factbook and the most recent version of the Britannica."

"And copy over the In Nomine rules, too!"

Noah turned to Eimi. "Sure, but I don't think Doug's a roleplayer."

"He'll learn. Even if I have to run a game for him."

 



Unnamed private station Habitat Module 1. Tuesday, June 17, 2008. 7:43 AM Local Time.


"I hope you don't mind the low-quality breakfast, Doug. I'm expecting Hermes Universal Deliveries to show up with the week's groceries later this morning; right now, this is all I've got."

"I've had to survive on worse, Noah," I replied, just before taking another bite of the granola bar he'd given me. "Besides, considering how I'm feeling after what you told me yesterday, I doubt I'd enjoy anything fancier."

"Sorry about that. I thought you'd rather we throw you into the deep end, instead of easing you into the surprises you're going to get here."

"You proved you know who and what I am when we met. Giving me censored copies of stories about what I've been doing recently surprised me even more."

"Oh, you caught that?"

"Yeah. But what could be more surprising than you knowing who I am?"

"Meet my crew." Noah grinned and raised his voice. "Come in, ladies!"

The door opened and four young asian women stepped into the compartment. One was Yoriko, who I recognized from the day before. Two of the others were unfamiliar to me.

The last was a dead ringer for a woman I'd left on the other side of a portal I'd used years ago. "Hasegawa-san?"

 



"Well, I didn't expect him to faint." Noah stood up. "Help me get him onto the couch, please."

 



7:47 AM.


I opened my eyes to see Yoriko standing beside me, holding a small gadget. I suspected it was an audio playback device of some sort from the way the strains of The Beatles' Good Morning Good Morning came from it.

When she saw that I was awake, she turned away and said, "I was right, Mr. Scott. It does work on him, too."

"It shouldn't have," I said as I sat up. "My talent doesn't work when I'm unconscious. I assume I passed out from the shock?"

She nodded. "That and some lingering aftereffects from the carbon monoxide poisoning. I think."

I checked the clock on the wall. "I have a good constitution and it has been a few minutes. I think maybe I came to on my own. Would you mind turning that off, please? My talent's going nuts trying to find somebody to wake up."

"Oh, sorry, Mr. Sangnoir." Yoriko shut off the playback.

"Thank you. And my name's Doug. Now, would somebody please explain to me how Ms. Hasegawa got here?"

The person in question cleared her throat. "Well... actually, I'm not the Sora Hasegawa that you met. I just look, sound, act, and think like her. I think."

Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said, "Huh?"

Noah passed me a mug of orange juice. "There's seven people on this station right now, but only the two of us are humans. The four lovely ladies are androids."

"Ah, I see."

"You don't seem surprised at the fact that we're AIs," said one of the girls I didn't recognize.

"Should I be?"

"From what Mr. Scott tells us, we may be the only androids in existance."

The other girl I didn't recognize added, "But there are rumours about some others..."

"Built by that 'Professor' person? But he doesn't exist, Yayoi... Does he, sir?"

Noah looked her and answered, "How should I know? But there was quite a bit about him in the papers earlier this year, Kohran, so I'm guessing he's real. But androids don't seem like his style."

"Then we're alone in the universe, aren't we?" whispered Sora.

I smiled and walked over to her. "Don't worry. It's only a matter of time before someone else builds another AI. They just have to use the same designs that whoever built you used." Nobody answered me. "What did I get wrong?"

After a moment, Noah cleared his throat. "Even if A.C. Peters – the person who helped me with the hardware side of the ladies – even if A.C. and I released the plans, they might not be reproducable. There's a certain something that we don't yet understand that's part of their makeup..."

They went on for an hour, answering most of my questions as best they could.

In this universe, men first walked on the Moon in 1969. After a half-dozen Lunar missions, nobody went farther than Earth orbit for three and a half decades, and each trip into space was a major engineering effort. But last year, something they called "handwavium" appeared, which seems to handwave away some of the laws of physics. Mr. Scott got the idea to build his station because, fourteen months ago, someone had used handwavium to sail a pocket cabin cruiser into space. Noah was able to move into space four months ago, and his companions had been self-aware for almost four weeks, solely because of the handwavium. (I got them to promise to give me a sample.)

But this stuff didn't work the same way for different people. Two identical twins who applied the same amount of handwavium on the same make and model of panel truck in the same way got two wildly different results; one of the trucks was quite happily purring along (literally) on Earth, getting 100 miles to the gallon and never becoming dirty; the other was flying twice-weekly delivery runs between Seattle and Utopia Planitia on Mars, but couldn't be budged unless Star Trek soundtrack music was playing on its built-in CD player.

Yes, I'm sure of this. Noah showed me some of the experiment footage.

Cutting to the chase, nobody could build the same kind of AIs that Noah had, because they weren't him. And he couldn't get male androids, or females who didn't wear glasses, to wake up. When I asked whether he was sure about that, he glanced quickly at the girls and shook his head quickly. "Moving on, we have to figure out how to get you on your way."

I took the hint. "Are you tired of my company so soon?"

"Hardly," he smiled. "It's nice to be able to speak with someone who's willing to treat me as an equal..." If he was waiting for a response from the others, he didn't get it. "... but I can't expect you to settle down here for the rest of your life. As I understand it, you have to find some song that'll open a gateway to your next stop. We have to figure out how to get your bike's engine to run without fouling the air in the station or overheating, so you can go through that gateway safely."

"Good point." And that seemed like as good an opening as any to ask about accounts. "How much will I owe you for your help? And the food and lodging, for that matter?"

"I've got more money that I can conveniently use right now, Doug. But I won't turn down your help with the construction work...and I'm hoping you'll do another friend of mine - the seventh person on the station - a big favour."

"How big?"

The laptop that I had been using to read about myself spoke. "Take me with you, please, Colonel Sangnoir!"

Noah nodded. "If you hadn't already met Eimi, you just did. She's the software prototype for the four androids who are keeping us company. Eimi's eager to see more of the world, or the worlds, and I can't think of a better person than you to serve as her tour guide."

"As nice a group of hosts as you are, I wasn't planning on coming back once I got home."

"That's fine," Eimi answered. "Noah and I are even as far as wages and property go, so I can stay in your world once you're home. I hear there's other AIs there - I should be able to blend in there almost as well as I can here."

I thought for a moment. "I don't like the idea of owning somebody."

"Good," Noah answered firmly. "Neither do I."

"I'm going to have to think about this."

 



Tuesday, June 24, 2008. 12:01 PM.


We had gotten into a routine over the last week – we'd wake up between 6:00 and 7:00 AM, do the usual morning routines, have breakfast, argue for a couple of hours about how to contain my bike's exhaust without tethering the bike to the station and fail to come up with any practical ideas, do some work on the station's interior, have lunch and catch up with the day's news at noon, do more work on the station, have supper, discuss and dismiss for an hour or so possible songs to send me on my way, relax for a few hours, and turn in for the night.

But today was slightly different.

Yoriko was reading news services on the Tapestry (which they called the Internet here) while eating lunch, so she was the one who noticed the message from Japan. "Mr. Scott!"

"Yoriko, my name is Noah..." he said wearily.

"This looks important, sir. It's from Xebec's lawyers."

He moved from sitting across from me to looking over her shoulder so fast, I wondered for a moment whether he'd teleported there. "Oh, please be what I hope it is... Yes! We got their permission! Yayoi, go get the champagne!"

"Permission?" I asked.

"I think you're familiar with the concept of compensating the original creators for their work, Doug," he answered as he put on a leather jacket. "This message confirms that I just got the last bit of legal permission I needed. I've had the okay from the original creator for a while now, but this is from the animation studio that turned the story into the television series where I got the idea from in the first place."

Yayoi came back with two bottles of Bollinger – one Vieille Vignes Françaises (which proved my host really did have more money that he could conveniently use right now) and one Special Cuvée. She handed the latter to Noah. "Does this mean I can start using a family name now, sir?"

"It certainly does, Ms. Fujisawa," he replied with a grin. "Now, everybody please get back – I don't want you getting hit by flying glass." We all ducked behind the couch. "I've had a speech prepared for this day for weeks, but in all the excitement I can't remember how it goes, so I'll just cut to the chase." He lifted the bottle and brought his arm back.

"I christen this station... Stellvia!" And he smashed the Special Cuvée bottle against the bulkhead.

 



27 June 2008
22:17 GMT
Stellvia Habitat Module 2


"What did you want to show me, Kohran?"

"Well, Mr. Scott..." She noticed his expression before he could say anything. "Noah, this was an experiment of mine that I had going when Mr. Sangnoir... Doug showed up."

"Do I want to know what you were trying to do?"

"Probably not. But take a look at this, this, and this." She pointed to a few lines of data on the computer screen beside the workbench. "They don't match anything I expected to see, and I can't replicate the effects."

"And this means... what?"

"First I thought that something about Doug caused the anomalies, but if that was the case, he should have made the experiment fail that way again. It hasn't."

"Again, this means what?"

"Sorry. I think it means this is interference from the worldgate he used to get here. If that's the case, I can use this to make a gateway detector."

"I see. What do you need to do to be sure?"

Kohran thought for a moment. "I need to set up the experiment again, and have it running when Doug leaves."

"Okay. Do it. Doug's trustworthy, and the stories indicate that the 'Legion' person he met is on the side of the angels, but who knows what other kind of people might be bouncing around the universes?"

 



Stellvia Habitat Module 3. Sunday, June 29, 2008. 5:36 PM.


We'd finally come up with a way to capture my bike's exhaust fumes that wouldn't interfere with the bike going through the portal. In essence, it was a pressure tank hooked up to the tailpipe with a slow-flow regulator so it didn't suck all the gases in the engine out at once, plus some water-cooling gear around the turbine, all mounted on a small antigravity sled. The physics seemed odd to me, but Eimi said it'd work.

The handwavium was good at creating artificial gravity, but didn't do too well for antigravity unless it was hooked up to a spaceship of some sort.

And I'd seen all sorts pass by over the week that I'd been here. For example, someone with more bravery than sense had welded a few semi trailers together, took at least a dozen more in tow, painted the name Fateful Lightning on the side, put a semi tractor on the front, and launched the entire deathtrap into space three days before the Stellvia christening ceremony. That was a sight to see as it went past us... but you'd never get me to ride in it. When I pointed it out to the others, Noah said it was probably somebody who wanted a lot of living space but couldn't afford anything better. It seems that there's a lot of people like that out here.

Anyway.

Getting back to the antigrav sled... We had to do it the hard way. Luckily, Sora and Kohran were quick students – it only took a few days for me to share enough of what I'd learned back home and from Skuld before they knew enough of the theory to build a knock-off of the Anson GravMaster.

In the meantime, they shared some of their own music with me. A few of the songs tickled my magegift, but I didn't want to test them aboard Stellvia – explosive decompression would have ruined everybody's day. They made sure I had copies of all the songs they played for me.

While Sora and Kohran were building the trailer, Eimi was balancing the station's accounts, and the others were unloading a shipment of supplies, I found myself at loose ends for a few moments. (Yoriko wouldn't let me help with the unloading because I was a guest.) The least I could do for my hosts in exchange for the songs they'd given me was to clear up one of their mysteries. I grabbed my helmet in one hand, used the other to pick up a handy lump of gelled handwavium, and concentrated on it. "System, load song Who Made Who. Play song."

When I regained consciousness, I was flat on my back on that makeshift cot. "Are you all right?" asked Yoriko.

"I think so..." I sat up, then layed down again. "Except for a horrid ringing sensation in my head when I move."

The door opened and closed again, and I heard Noah's voice. "How's Doug doing?"

"I'm awake, but my head hurts. What happened?"

"Damned if I know. I've never seen handwavium do that before. I hope I never see it happen again." He was shaking his head when he stepped into my field of view. "The goop... imploded, I think. At least, we can't find any of the lump you were holding when you collapsed. But I have to ask: What were you doing with it?"

"I thought I was doing you a favor. I have a song in my collection that tells me who or what created what I'm concentrating on."

"And you tried using it on the handwavium, didn't you?" He whistled. "That's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question in this universe... What did you find out?"

I frowned. "Nothing."

 



28 June 2008
22:04 GMT
Stellvia Habitat Module 2


"If he keeps using his song ability, he's likely to cause a serious accident, sir. He won't mean to do it, but there's a chance he could depressurize the entire station."

Noah nodded in agreement. "He isn't even in danger, Sora. He's got a song that lets him survive space and re-entry, and fly all the way to Earth's surface before it ends. The four of you can survive hard vacuum, although you'd need to get your skin replaced if you tried. And Eimi couldn't care less. I'm the one who's in danger."

"But... that's not fair."

"I know. Life isn't fair, Sora. I'll start wearing my skinsuit under my clothes, okay?"

"Well..." Sora picked up a box. "I've been trying to make a spacesuit out of normal clothing and miracle goop, and I think maybe I've succeeded. He won't know you're wearing a pressure suit if you wear these clothes."

Noah smiled. "Before Doug showed up, you didn't care what other people thought of your actions. Now you do."

"Is that bad?"

"On the contrary, you're developing your own personality. And so are the others, come to think of it. That's just what I had hoped for. Oh, yes – as long as we're alone..."

"Sir?" Sora looked a bit apprehensive.

"I don't want Doug to hear this, but I have to say it." She sighed in relief as Noah went on. "That hardtech gravity control he's been teaching you and Kohran is absolutely top secret, understand? If that was to get out, it would change society even more than the miracle goop did."

"I understand, sir. But what if someone figures out we're keeping a secret?"

Noah thought for a moment. "Then you hold out as long as possible, then tell them about the kaboomite project. I'd rather that secret get out than this one. But I'd prefer that you keep them both secret if at all possible. I'll tell the others about this later." He started to leave the workshop, then turned back. "Sora, I would never force you to do anything you don't want to do. Anything. That's a promise."

 



Stellvia Habitat Module 1. Friday, July 4, 2008. 7:43 PM Local Time.


We've already got our Independence Day fireworks... in a way.

The seven of us were too busy to take the day off for the holiday. Actually, we were too close to actually finishing the work in the Space Shuttle fuel tank that had become Habitat Module 3, and we all wanted to finish it off this week and relax over the weekend.

Eimi had played patriotic music on her speakers while we worked, though. (Instrumentals only, bless her.) She was kind enough to shut that off when I picked up my helmet to make this journal entry, but that just caught everyone else's attention.

"Um... Why do you record those diary messages, Doug?" Sora was more talkative than she had been when I arrived, but that wasn't saying much.

"It's standard operating procedure, Sora. I make a daily report on my solo activities so the Warriors know what I've done. Hexe sometimes says it's so they know what they have to clean up after me, but it's really for training the newcomers to the Warriors. My wife's the only person who reads all of my reports." I thought of Maggie for a moment, and smiled. "When I'm away, I write home every day."

"And the next line," added Noah, returning my smile.

"Yes, and the next line."

The ladies exchanged puzzled looks. Noah noticed and said, "I'll play the song for you later. Right now, let's let Doug write home today."

"Thanks." I brought my helmet up to open the keypad control, which meant I was looking out the viewport at just the right time. "What the hell...?"

Everyone turned to see what had caught my attention.

"What is that?"

"It looks like a big asteroid, but it's leaving Earth's atmosphere."

"Somebody get a camera, quickly!"

"I've already switched on my visual recorders, sir," replied Sora as she stared out the viewport.

"I hope you don't mind delaying your letter home, Doug. I have to check out the news about this." Noah turned to the computer console. "Yayoi, where do I want to listen?"

"Judging from the speed and trajectory of that rock, I believe it came from northern Africa."

"Thanks. BBC it is, then."

He keyed in a few commands and the computer's speaker came to life. "...eports of a large land mass launching from Nigeria are being confirmed by both the European Space Agency and the Transrationality Scientific Assessment Bureau. We have just learned that Number 10 has issued a statement, which I will read now: 'We are dismayed that anyone would want to take the soil of mother Earth away from the future generations that could have lived happily on that land. This is obviously the action of a group of terrorists who have found another application for the mysterious substance that has caused so many problems in America over the last year. Anyone who attempts to obtain samples of that substance in order to duplicate this heinous act on British soil will be prosecued to the fullest extent of the law.'"

Noah shut off the speaker. "More like 'persecuted'... I wonder whether they need someplace to lie low for a while?"

"I doubt it, sir," replied Sora. "I'm picking up some structures on the... flying island of rock. There's lights in their windows, so I think they're airtight and powered."

"That's a ship? Damn! Damn it damn it DAMN IT! If I'd thought of that, I could have saved a fortune by building this station on the ground!"

Yoriko interrupted Noah before he could get into a full rant. "Noah, the other news services are giving other countries' official reactions now. The British reaction was mild compared to the Americans and the Russians. I'm glad you're building Stellvia the way you are – I want to be able to go to Earth someday."

Noah took a deep breath, then released it slowly. "Yeah, you've got a point, Yoriko. Sora... no, you're busy. Kohran, is the radio array capable of handling multiple signals yet?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then let's give them a call and welcome them to the neighbourhood." He turned to me and grinned. "And you've really got something to write home about now, Doug..."

 



Stellvia Habitat Module 3. Saturday, July 12, 2008. 11:24 AM Local Time.


After all that, finding the right song to open the portal was almost anticlimatic. I announced that I'd found it after we finished pressure-testing the final shuttle tank, which Noah planned to turn into a dock for his spacecraft (which I'd never seen).

Dinner was quiet that night – the ladies excused themselves early and took off for Kohran's workshop (which I'd also never seen). "Aren't you worried about that, Noah?"

"They're finally exercising their own initiative, Doug, which means they're becoming human. They've already proven many times, before and after you arrived, that they want me to stay alive, so I doubt they're going to sabotage anything. If they want to tell me what they are doing, that's up to them."

But that was then, and this is now. Sora spent a few minutes making sure the exhaust capture tank and turbine heatsink worked properly before she let me or Noah into the module, then she gave me my bike's key.

"It's been fun, folks. Although nobody back home would believe some of what I saw if Sora hadn't given me a copy of the video she recorded." I opened the bike's left pannier. "Are you sure you want to come along, Eimi?"

"Hell, yes! Let's get this show on the road!"

"Well, if you put it that way, how can I refuse? Eimi says it's time to leave. System ..."

"Mr. Sangnoir! Please don't leave yet!"

I turned to Sora, who was still standing beside my bike. "Is something wrong?"

"No..." She blushed and looked at the floor – if I didn't know she was an android, I'd swear she was human. "I have a present for you."

"We all agreed that you'd probably appreciate it," added Yoriko, "but Sora's the one who built it."

"How can I refuse, then?"

Sora pushed a small package into my hand, then ran back to the others. I opened the box to discover a keychain with a small gadget attached as a fob.

"The front slides open, sir." I used my thumb to follow Sora's instruction, and discovered a small speaker and an on/off button. "The battery's good for years, and the song's burned into ROM."

"Which song?" I asked as I slid the cover closed again. No point in taking chances, not when I was about to open the portal.

Yayoi smiled. "I'm Alive. We thought you couldn't have too many copies of that song."

I thought for a moment. "I think you're right. Thank you." I put my bike's key onto the keychain. "You're good people, all of you."

"So are you, Doug," answered Noah. "So are you. Feel free to come back anytime, assuming you can find your way here again."

"I just might, but not any time soon. Good-bye, everyone." I put my helmet on, and told it "System, load song Space Truckin'. Play song."

"Well we had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
We meet with all the groovy people
We like the milky way so far
We'll mess around in borealis
We're space truckin' round the staaaaarrs...

Come on! Come on! Come on! Let's go space truckin'!
Come on! Come on! Come on! Space truckin'!"

I could just barely hear Yoriko over the song and the engine. "Good luck getting home!"

I waved and put the bike in gear, and then I was on my way.

 



12 July 2008
11:31 GMT
Stellvia Habitat Module 3


Once the portal closed behind Doug, Noah sighed. "Good luck, Eimi," he whispered. The he turned to Kohran. "Did you get the readings you wanted?"

After a moment, she smiled. "Yes, Mr. Scott... Noah. And I think I can build a permanent sensor to pick up other worldgates. That may take me a while, though."

"That's fine. If we're lucky, we'll never need it."

Chapter Text

29 May 2013
11:19 GMT
Stellviamain operations room


"Commander, there's an alert on my screen that I've never seen before."

Noah walked over to the duty officer's desk and looked at his console. "Oh, bloody hell." Then he thumbed the intercom on. "Engineering, there's a DQS in the Main Concourse! Seal it off, stat! Nobody gets in or out until I get there!" He switched off the intercom and turned back to the duty officer. "Full comms blackout -- all channels, all frequencies, cellphone, radio and interwave -- starting right now. Jam anything you can't turn off. Deny launching or docking permission to all ships, including emergency vehicles. No exceptions to any of this without my express approval. That's my approval, not Ms. Nikaido's or anyone else's. And get all the duty officers up here, no matter what shifts they're on -- you're all on duty starting now and until I say otherwise. You'll get double-pay for the overtime."

"Yes, sir. What's a DQS?"

"It's what we're trying to keep a lid on," answered Noah as he ran out the doorway that Yoriko was keeping open for him. What he didn't add was, because if Suzumiya finds out about this, she'll come back here so fast, she'll Break the Limit. And may all the Gods help us if the Boskonians find out about this.

As the duty officer proceeded to seal off the station, he couldn't help but think that he'd never seen his employer so worried.

 



Stellvia Main Concourse


The gateway closed behind the last of the travelers, who asked, "Are we there yet?"

"I don't think so, Dee," answered Lisa.

"Are you sure? Maybe we could find someboy who could tell us where we are." Nobody answered, so Delandra looked around... to see dozens of slack-jawed people staring at the group. "Never mind."

"Oooohhh, computer parts for sale," sighed Skuld happily as she looked past the onlookers. She and Kaolla made a beeline for the stand, forgetting that they didn't have any local currency.

"<I can't get these doors to open!>" complained Sana, in Japanese, from the end of the corridor.

"There are people with fur and cat's ears over there!" exclaimed Nancy with a smile.

"Hey!" shouted the person behind the counter of a snack shop as he grabbed Chalotte's arm, much to her surprise. "Pay for that yakitori before you leave!"

 



As he and Yoriko reached the sealed-off section of Stellvia, Noah's intercom beeped. "Scott here."

"Sir, it's Jake Hansen in operations. We've got the security camera feed from the Main Concourse connected to the intercom for you."

"Thank you, duty officer. Please relay it to my PDA," asked Noah as he thumbed the unit to video playback mode. He and Yoriko looked at the display. "Oh, dear. There must be a dozen of them, and a horse, and a motorcycle. Are they an invasion force that didn't know what they'd find here?"

Yoriko squinted. "I've never actually seen a horse, but something looks strange about that one to me."

He took another look, then looked again. "That's not a horse."

"Then what is it?"

"Let me think... Oh, of course! That woman..." -- he pointed at a dark-skinned blonde -- "... seems to be Lisa Vanette, and that one..." -- indicating a fair-skinned raven-haired girl with what looked like a polo mallet strapped to her back -- "... is almost definitely Skuld. Unless a very lucky batch of 'scure-fen have managed to develop inter-dimensional teleportation, The Girls have finally followed Doug here." The way Noah said it, Yoriko could hear the capital letters.

"Who are they?"

"I'm not sure about some of them, so I'll identify the ones I recognize and see whether I can figure out the others."

Yoriko blushed. "Sorry, I meant 'who is this group of people and why are they here?' But I'd like to know who each of them are, too."

"Oh, sorry. The Girls are chasing after Doug Sangnoir for various reasons. You remember Doug, right?"

"How could I forget him?"

"Indeed. As for specific girls... Lisa's a reporter, mage, and sometime-Senshi."

"Like Yayoi?"

"Sort of, but Lisa can fake metahuman powers with her magic. Skuld's a goddess."

"We're doomed."

"No, she's a nice and good person. I think. The others... I think the one who looks a lot like Leda is a real Senshi -- Sailor Jupiter."

"Which one? Oh, yeah; she does look a lot like Leda; she could be Leda's half-sister. Her hairstyle's different, though. And she's asian. And she's got bigger --"

Noah quickly interrupted Yoriko. "Moving on --"

"Noah, your heartrate's increasing, and you're --"

"Are you jealous?"

Yoriko thought for a moment. "No..."

"Then drop it, please. Moving on, the other dark-skinned blonde, the younger one, looks like a teen-age Kaolla Suu; she's a technologist of some sort. I don't remember Doug stopping at Hinata-sou, though."

"He said he wasn't telling us about every place he visited, Noah."

"Point. The albino with the feathered hairdo might be Rei Ayanami; if she is, then she's loosened up a lot since Doug met her."

"I've loosened up a lot since Doug met me."

"That's true, Yoriko. Okay, she's probably Rei. Which means she's an anthromorphic-mecha pilot, and a few other things besides. And the cute asian brunette fashion-plate looks like Mirai Ozora. If she is Mirai, then she's a real-live superhero."

"Like Doug?"

"No, she's more flamboyant than he is, and she maintains a secret identity. Now I start guessing about the others. The one that just came through the portal and went straight to the side of the not-horse is probably a Herald -- a particular sort of mage. And the not-horse is her Companion. What were their names...? Oh, well. I have no idea who the one that looks like Sara Michelle Gellar or the teenager wearing the yellow tights could be. The short girl, wearing the woolen watch cap, is probably a Borrible... and she's just been grabbed by Yamada-san. Damn. Damage control time; we'll get them to identify themselves later."

Noah thumbed his PDA off and opened the door.

 



The doors that Sana complained about opened to reveal an overweight white man and a short asian woman. He was wearing what looked like "business casual" clothes while she was dressed almost like a police officer, but the cut of their outfits was so similar that it was obvious they were in uniform. "Well, isn't this just wonderful," cursed the man. After he took a breath, he continued more calmly. "She's my guest, Yamada-san; please send me the bill."

"We don't have a hope of keeping this secret, Noah," whispered the woman.

"Of course not, Yoriko. There's too many of them, and they showed up in the middle of the Main Concourse. But maybe we can keep the news contained for a while. And they seem friendly, thank Ghu." Noah looked straight at most of the travelers and raised his voice. "Well, do you plan to disrupt everyone's life even more, or are you willing to come with us?"

Nobody moved for a moment. Finally, Lisa asked, "Who are you?"

"The name's Noah Scott. I own this space station."

"Space station?"

Noah rubbed his temples. "I already have a headache just from you showing up, and the carbon monoxide from that engine..." -- he gestured towards Peggy's bike -- "... isn't helping any. Please don't all shout at once. Are you coming or not?"

They looked at each other as Peggy shut down her motorcycle. "We're coming," answered Dee. "Are you going to have any trouble with that door, Sylvath?"

 



11:57 GMT
Stellvia conference room


"Yes, Mr. Scott, we already know about transfictionality and how it means we're fictional in other universes." Lisa glanced at Makoto to underline her point. "I don't see why that means we should hide who and what we are."

"Well, Ms. Vanette," Noah replied after taking a bite of his sandwich, "in this universe, the people who've left Earth tend to be the type who enjoy the types of stories you're in. A lot of people are going to recognize your real names. Even I recognized half of you."

"Then we won't have to explain who we are," Rei replied. "How is that bad?"

Noah sighed. "You tell me which is worse -- the people who decided to live just like they think you do down to taking your names as their own, or the people who worship you as demigods."

Most of the women's reactions ranged from distaste to disgust. "I'm not a demigod," muttered Skuld.

"I still fail to see the problem," commented Rei.

"There's something worse. Remember the 'handwavium' that I described to you earlier?" After Rei nodded, Noah continued, "One of the things that it can do is physically change people -- we call that process 'biomodification'. But it can only grant trivial metahuman abilities, like Leda's 'electric eel hands' that can't be turned off. Now, if word was to get out that there's somebody who looks, acts, and has the powers of any one of you, then people are going to start experimenting with biomodification in order to get superpowers. And since biomods can't be undone, some of those... people... would likely experiment on other people -- most probably on unwilling people."

Everyone went silent as they realized the implications of Noah's statement.

Except for Sana and Rin-Rin, who didn't speak English. Sana took another gulp from her second can of Jolt cola and asked, "<What'sEverybodyTalkingAbout?>"

As Mirai started explaining to them what was going on, the door slid open to admit Yoriko. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I brought you your bank IDs. We've put some money on each one. Chalotte's has the smallest balance that the system would let me put on it -- I know what Borribles think of money, and you don't have to use it if you don't want to. I hope you don't mind we put your real names on the cards."

"Yoriko..." Noah sighed. "Oh, well, what's done is done. We'll just say you're very good cosplayers."

"Noah, the factions are starting to notice that we've gone silent." She noticed the puzzled looks on the visitors' faces, and turned to them. "We didn't know whether you were an advance squad for an invasion force, so we sealed off the station when you arrived. And 'factions' are our equivalent of countries, member states, or political parties, depending on how you look at the political situation here." She turned back to Noah. "Sir, we've received a request to dock and an offer for disaster assistance from the World Watch One."

"From the what?"

Noah turned to the dirty-blonde teenager who had interrupted Yoriko. "I assume you're from a world where Buckaroo Banzai exists."

"He's my father."

"Ah. Remember what I said about people who decided to live just like they think you do, Ms. Banzai?"

"Call me Peggy. And yes."

"Well, Peggy, the Blue Blazer Irregulars are some of the nicer ones. There are not-nice ones, like the Boskonians... But that doesn't matter right now. Whoever's aboard the World Watch One today is likely to try a spacewalk and forced boarding if we don't answer them, because they'll assume we can't answer them." Noah thumbed his PDA to intercom mode and switched it on. "Main operations, please open a tight-beam low-power transmission and connect me to the World Watch One."

"Yes, sir," came the duty officer's voice over the speaker, followed shortly by one of the most recognized voices in Fenspace. "... is Blackstone of the Blue Blazer Irregulars, requesting that anyone aboard Stellvia respond."

"Blackstone, this is Noah Scott."

There was a chorus of relieved sighs from the other end of the connection. "We're glad to hear you're alive, Noah. How can we be of assistance?"

"I'm not sure you can. We're not in immediate danger. Please stand by." Noah tapped a few keys, and his PDA started playing a pop-instrumental version of The Girl from Ipanema over the commlink.

"We can't stall them forever, Noah."

"I know, Yoriko. But I want our guests to tell me truthfully whether they can keep their origins and abilities secret before we start letting everybody in space meet them, and we have to agree on their cover story..."

 



12:24 GMT
Stellvia Docking Tube #2


"... they're fresh up from 'Daneside, they don't really understand how we live, and they set off more than a few alarms when they somehow managed to run a power surge through the Main Concourse. That's all."

"Are you sure you don't need our help getting your systems back online, Noah?"

"Thanks, but my engineering department has everything well in hand. It's just going to take a while. But as long as you're here, one of the newcomers would really like to speak with Buckaroo. She's a big fan of his; the name she's using up here is 'Peggy Banzai'."

Blackstone thought for a quick moment. "Sure, why not? Just give us a couple of minutes to tidy up before she comes aboard."

"Thanks. I'll go find her; she said she was going to buy a thank-you gift for letting her visit." Noah turned and walked back to Stellvia, while Blackstone headed back to the World Watch One.

"What's the scoop?" asked J. once Blackstone was back aboard.

"Noah says that it was a power surge in the Main Concourse, set off by some new Fen."

Nezumi thought about that for a moment. "But?"

"But I think he was lying through his teeth."

"What do you think really happened, then?" asked Buckaroo.

"We'll find out in a few minutes. One of the newcomers wants to talk with you, and I said it was okay. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, Buckaroo, you can."

"Is it really a good idea to let an outsider -- maybe a boskonian spy -- aboard?"

"What do we have to lose, Chaos? It's not like we haven't let others on board before."

"Those others were Blue Blazer Irregulars, Blackstone. Who's this person?"

"Noah said she calls herself 'Peggy Banzai'; either she's one of us in spirit, or she's so determined to get aboard that she'll try to break in if we don't hold the door open for her. I can't see any point to running up a needless repair bill."

Chaos nodded. "And if we control her access to the bus, we can keep an eye on her. Good thinking."

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Chaos was closest; he opened it to reveal a dirty-blonde teenager with her hands full. "Hi! I'm Peggy -- Mr. Scott said you were expecting me. Anybody want some watermelon?"

The Blue Blazers rolled their eyes and sighed.

 



14:57 GMT
The Jet Car


"... and that's why Dad gave Doug the katana that matches this wakizashi. You know why he'd want to make sure Mr. Sangnoir has the matched pair, right, Buckaroo?"

"Yes, of course. And that was much more explanation than I needed as to why you have three swords, Peggy."

"But you wanted to know the story, didn't you?"

Buckaroo smiled. "I can't deny that."

"Of course. I thought I may as well volunteer the information before you debriefed me. You let me on board your ship because you wanted to know what really happened on the station, right?"

"Right. And you calling it 'the station' shows you really aren't from this universe. Everybody always calls it Stellvia; Mr. Scott does his best to keep the name in the public consciousness everywhere in the Solar System."

"Thanks for the tip. Oh, you won't tell anyone, will you? He said it would be a bad idea if people were to learn about us because they'd try to biomodify themselves to match my friends' powers."

"I can see where that would be a problem," started Buckaroo, before he was interrupted by the radio's alarm.

"This is BBI 313, codename 'Joe Friday', in the Kandor City Police Department, calling the Blue Blazers. Are you reading me?"

"Excuse me, Peggy." The image of Buckaroo turned to his computer-generated radio. "Friday, this is Buckaroo. What's the problem?"

"We've got a hostage situation here, and nobody trained in hostage rescue. Is there a specialist somewhere nearby?"

"I'm not sure..." Buckaroo noticed Peggy trying to get his attention. "... but I think I know of someone. We'll be there shortly. Buckaroo out." He turned back to Peggy. "I assume that you're willing and able to help?"

"But of course."

"All right. Before we can leave, we either have to recall everyone to the World Watch One or release the anti-theft interlocks on this ship..."

Peggy flipped a switch. "The interlocks that I've been playing with for the last half-hour?"

"Yes, those interlocks," replied Buckaroo as the Jet Car's engines came to life. "Who's driving?"

 



Stellvia main operations room


"Sir, the Jet Car's launching."

Noah turned to the operations staff in anger. "Who authorized that launch?"

"And who's on board?" added Blackstone.

"Nobody, Commander; it's just leaving. And we don't know, Mr. Blackstone."

Blackstone moaned. "Not again..."

 



15:01 GMT
Kandor City, Luna


"Thank you for coming so quickly, miss, but where's the rest of your team?"

"It's just me," replied Peggy. "One crisis, one Cavalier, right?"

"Cavalier?"

"Sorry, I meant 'Blazer'. I've been watching the old movie and I mixed up the terms. But that's not important right now. You have a hostage situation that you wanted my... our help with."

"Yes, ma'am. Three people, all biomodded cat-people, have taken control of the Metahuman Power Biomodification Research Institute's main lab and are demanding they turn over all of their materials on reversing biomods. They're all armed, and they have five hostages."

"Let me see the floor plans to the place, and any security camera footage you have of the hostage-takers. We'll see how it goes from there..."

 



15:04 GMT
Stellvia conference room


"I'd rather you three stay here."

"Why?" asked Chalotte.

"We're going into a possibly-dangerous situation, and you don't know the layout or the customs here. We're going to have to baby-sit all of you, and the two of you..." -- Noah looked straight at Chalotte and Nancy -- "... would need the most attention, assuming the stories you're in are correct. And you..." -- he looked at Sylvath -- "... draw far too much attention. I want you three to stay here with Yoriko."

"Sylvath stays with me," insisted Dee.

"Very well, Ms. vel'deVarn, I'll let you decide whether you both stay or you both go. But I'd prefer that your Companion stays here, and I really want your other travelling companions to remain as well."

"Spoilsport."

Noah shook his head. "No, Ms. Chalotte, just a realist. If it'd make you feel better, I'm leaving you two here to guard my space station for me while I take your friends into a potential war zone after Peggy."

"War zone?" Nancy flinched.

"Potential war zone. I doubt the Boskonians would attack a target this close to Earth, but it's happened before. Please, stay here and keep my station safe."

"And make sure our gate point is kept clear, too," added Lisa. "We have no idea whether there's any other locations in this universe where the interdimensional barriers are thin enough to open a gateway, so we have to keep this one safe. Okay?"

"Since it's you asking, I'll do it," replied Chalotte.

"And I'll keep her company," added Nancy.

"Oh, great."

"Thank you," said Noah, taking back control of the conversation. "The Blazers have graciously consented to taking some of us to Kandor aboard the World Watch One -- that means we won't all have to squeeze into the Epsilon Blade. I'll be aboard my own ship, and I'd like Yayoi and Sora to accompany me. Kohran, please go with our visitors on the WW1."

The door opened. "I'm coming, too."

"Leda? I don't mind, but don't you have work to do here?"

"I heard the news. Three actual, honest-to-Takeuchi Sailor Senshi, and you expect me to stay here while they leave?"

Noah sighed. "Wonderful; you're already on the rumour mill. No, Leda, just two. Yoriko...?"

"I'll see what I can do about stopping the news before it leaves the station."

"Thanks. Okay, Leda, you go with the women on the WW1..."

She looked straight at Noah. "Would you mind if I was to ride with you?"

Noah stopped, flabbergasted. "You... want to ride with me?"

"I'll ride in your ship as well, if you don't mind," added Makoto. "She does want to meet me and Lisa, after all."

"And you just met me, don't completely trust me, and want to make sure I don't shoot you out of the sky, right?" Before the girls could protest, Noah continued. "That's how I'd react if the situations were reversed. Sure, you and Ms. Vanette can ride with us. Skuld, too -- I suspect Sora would love to ask you about your world."

"I'll stay with the rest of my group, Mr. Scott," replied Lisa.

"I may as well ride with you," added Skuld. "I assume 'Sora' is an AI, like Yoriko, and was patterned after someone from my homeworld?"

"That's right. Say, how did you know that Yoriko's an android?"

Skuld stared at him for a moment. "I thought you already knew who I am."

 



15:07 GMT
Metahuman Power Biomodification Research Institute main laboratory
Kandor City, Luna


"This is your big plan?"

"It'll work." Peggy drew both of her swords. "And they won't be expecting it."

Then she went straight through the front door.

Too bad it wasn't open before she did.

Before the last of the glass shards hit the floor, Peggy was two yards inside and heading for cover behind a display. She spun on one foot, pushed off, and zig-zagged past the next display before the cat-boy in the foyer could react.

"What the hell..." was all he could get out before Peggy plowed into him, knocking them both down and making him drop his knife.

"We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," she said as she brought her wakizashi up to his neck. "What's it going to be?"

He fainted.

"Pussy." Peggy quickly grabbed one of the sets of handcuffs she had borrowed from the police and made sure the cat-boy couldn't go anywhere. Now for the other two, she thought.

The door behind her opened, and she barely had time to hug the floor before a hail of lead tore through the air.

Whoops, I didn't spot that SMG on the closed-circuit cameras. Sloppy. Holding her swords above her head, she rolled to the nearest display case, then pulled herself up to a crouch.

"You can't hide behind that thing for long, little girl! Come out now and I'll give you a quick death!"

"Sorry!" she yelled back. "I've got a job to do later somewhere else, so I can't die here! But you can fight me hand-to-hand if you want!"

"Why should I do that? I've got a gun!"

Damn, she thought as another volley of bullets tore the display she was hiding behind to pieces. She leapt from her crouch and dove behind the front desk. She's a smart one.

As she caught her breath, she heard a click from the direction of her opponent. She jumped out and ran straight for the cat-girl, who was loading a new clip into her weapon.

Peggy plowed into her, knocking both women's weapons to the floor.

"Looks like you get that hand-to-hand fight after all," snarled the cat-girl.

Peggy didn't reply; she just punched her opponent in the solar plexus. The cat-girl doubled over; Peggy pushed her to the floor and fell on her.

But the cat-girl didn't try to escape. Peggy cuffed her as she checked for vital signs -- her opponent was alive, but unconscious.

Then she recovered her swords. No damage; good. Two down, one to go. But this one's going to be the hardest. She pushed the door to the inner office open...

... to see the final terrorist holding a knife to the throat of one of her prisoners. "Drop your weapons."

"please..." begged the hostage.

"Damn." Peggy put her swords on the closest desk.

"What did you do with Ginger and Fritz?"

"Your cohorts? They're out cold and cuffed."

"You're lucky you didn't kill them. That means I don't kill you."

"Big talk from someone hiding behind a helpless man."

"I'm not hiding, just using the available cover to my advantage."

"Same thing. Where are the other hostages?"

"None of your business," sneered the cat-woman. "Now put your hands on your head. Slowly."

Peggy did so, stepping a half-pace forward in the process.

"Good. And that's close enough."

Damn. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why? Why? Look at me! I'm a freak! I want to be human again!"

Peggy didn't smile. So that's the button to push. "Humans don't go around holding knives to each others' throats."

"Are you stupid? People do that to each other all the time! Look at history!"

"Real people -- real humans -- don't use force when words still work. And we don't drag innocent people into our messes."

"He's not innocent! He won't give me his research! I know he's got the secret here somewhere! But I can't find it!!!"

"I'm sure he'd be happy to give you copies of his notes if you let him go." Peggy looked at the hostage, keeping one eye on the terrorist. "Wouldn't you?"

"but... there aren't... oh... yes... of course..."

Peggy turned her full attention back to the cat-woman. "How about it? Let him loose and he'll get those files for you."

"I wasn't born yesterday! If I don't have a hostage in my claws -- my hands, damn it! -- your friends'll storm this place."

"Then take me hostage instead."

"Why should I?"

"My friends care more about me than about somebody they've never met."

The cat-woman thought about what Peggy said. "All right. Get over here."

"I'm coming." She walked over to the cat-woman, slowly, and turned her back to her captor. Then she felt the blade at her throat and saw the other hostage stagger away from them. That's the important part. Now for the hard part.

"Hurry up and give me those notes!"

"Don't rush him," commented Peggy. "He's not going to remember his password if he's flustered."

"You shut up!" The cat-woman raised her hand to hit Peggy... and the knife in her other hand moved a hair away from Peggy's throat.

That was all Peggy needed. She pushed herself back into her captor's body and brought a hand down to grab the knife. But she couldn't get it away from the cat-woman.

"You bitch!"

Keep pushing that hot button. "You want to cat-fight?"

Her opponent hesitated for a moment... which was long enough for Peggy to spin around and get her into a wrist-lock. The knife fell to the floor.

"Damn you!"

Peggy just brought her knee up. The cat-woman bent over in pain, and Peggy put the last pair of handcuffs on her.

"Thank you! You saved my life!" The ex-hostage was starting to babble, so Peggy guided him to a chair and got him to sit down.

"Just doing what's right, sir. Where are the other hostages?"

"Oh! They're in the lab, locked in isolation tubes."

"We'd better let them out, then."

 



15:24 GMT
Kandor City Spaceport


"All done. Everybody's safe."

Buckaroo nodded. "Good work. Now what did you do wrong?"

Peggy grinned. "You're just like Dad. My biggest error was letting a captor use a hostage as a human shield. The second-biggest was not spotting the sub-machine gun before going in..."

 


[edit] Interlude

15:28 GMT
Stellvia main operations room


"Ma'am, the Sol Bianca is approaching the station, and it's requesting docking clearance. No, I'm sorry -- it's demanding docking clearance."

Yoriko shuddered. "The last thing we need is the Professor poking around here. Especially if he finds Chalotte or Nancy." She sighed deeply and composed herself. "Open a tight-beam channel to the Sol Bianca, Mr. Hansen."

The monitor on her desk lit up to show the bridge of the approaching ship. "Ah, my dear Miss Nikaido! Which docking tube will I be using to board your fine station?"

"I'm sorry, Professor, but Stellvia is currently under quarantine."

"Nonsense! We saw the Blue Blazers' command ship and your employer's personal yacht both leave Stellvia less than five minutes ago. Your quarantine is decidedly porous."

"I have my orders, Professor."

"Your orders mean nothing compared to the requirements of Science! You must let us come aboard to investigate the meson burst that occurred in your concourse almost exactly four hours ago!"

Four hours -- that was when the interdimensional gateway opened. The only reason Yoriko didn't break into a cold sweat was her security training let her keep calm in a crisis. Which this definitely was.

If her emotions were showing, The Professor didn't notice. "If my theories are correct, the mechanics behind this burst could reveal the key to transluminal travel within the area commonly known as 'the Limit', or possibly even to matter transposition via subdimensional transportation! You must allow me to investigate!"

"Sir, you'll have to get permission from Mr. Scott before I can allow you to dock. And he's currently in Kandor City."

"Then I shall proceed to Kandor City and gain his permission, if you must follow your petty bureaucractic rules. But you had best not destroy the evidence I need to inspect while I am delayed! Your co-operation is vital for the advancement of Science!" The screen went dark.

"Blast. Mr. Hansen, open an Interwave connection with the Epsilon Blade. I have to speak with Noah about this. No, that's not right. I have to warn him about this."

Chapter Text

29 May 2013
15:32 GMT
Kandor City Spaceport


"Thank you for coming, Mr. Blackstone, but your assistant has already taken care of the problem."

The Blue Blazer Irregulars looked at each other in puzzlement, then looked at their guests.

"As long as I've known Peggy, she's always tended to fly off the handle," commented Lisa. "She probably went in on her own." Under her breath, she muttered, "I really know how Sylia feels now. No more solo actions, Peggy. Please."

They walked over to the Jet Car, where they heard from the open door, "Know your enemy and know yourself. I know that one, Buckaroo."

Dee and Lisa stormed over and leaned into the car. "Peggy..." they growled in unison.

She looked up, and blushed slightly. Then she turned back to Buckaroo. "Oh, yeah -- I also forgot to tell my friends I was leaving."

Lisa glared at her. "We'll discuss that later. In private."

Blackstone walked up, stopping just behind Lisa and Dee. "And you took our car without asking."

"I asked da- I asked Buckaroo!"

"Fine. Whatever. Right now, I just want the car back."

Dee grabbed Peggy and pulled her out of the car. "You know we have to stay together! Remember what Mr. Scott told us about this world?"

"Dee..." started Lisa.

"I already know," interrupted Buckaroo. "And I'll discuss it with Blackstone and Mr. Scott later. Right now, I'm picking up a distress call from Port Luna -- a ship's coming in out of control and we're the only ones with the right equipment close enough to help."

"Duty calls," said Blackstone as he got into the Jet Car. "We're too busy to play tourist, sorry. You can find your own way home, right?" And he sealed the car and took off for the spaceport lock, just as Noah approached.

"We're leaving."

"But we just got here," complained Dee with a bit of a whine in her voice. "Like, I want to go shopping."

"I never did like 'valley girls,' Ms. vel'deVarn," replied Noah, "so please drop the act. We don't have time to go shopping. We don't even have time to visit the local movie studio where they fake Moon landings, and almost everybody visits them. We have to leave now."

"Why?" asked Lisa.

"I just heard from Yoriko, back on Stellvia -- the Professor is on the way here to see me."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"Only if you and the other mages in your group want to avoid spending the rest of your life as guinea pigs in his experiments, Ms. Vanette."

"We'd better get going, then."

 



15:38 GMT
The Epsilon Blade


"I feel like I'm a sardine!"

"You have that much room, Luna? Hey, be careful, Rin-Rin -- I can't control the electricity in my hands."

"Yes, Ms. Swansen, I know."

"You can't?" asked Makoto. "Maybe I can help you there."

Someone bumped Rin-Rin, and she reflexively switch from English to Japanese. ">Ouch! Who keeps hitting my back?<"

">Sorry,that'sme.It'stoocrowdedinhere!Where'sSkuld?<"

">She's in engineering, Sana-san, with Hasegawa-san and Li-san.<" Rin-Rin dodged just before having her foot stepped on. ">Hey! Please be careful, Mirai!<"

">Sorry!<"

Noah closed the door on the cacophony behind the bridge. "I'm glad they're only visiting. I hope they're only visiting. Do we have clearance to launch, Yayoi?"

"Yes, Noah. Where are we heading?"

"The Professor's approaching from out-system, so we're going to have to head in-system. Set course for Crystal Tokyo. No, make that Crystal Paris -- that might give us a few extra minutes."

"Why?" asked the only visitor on the bridge.

"The Professor dislikes anything that reminds him of France, Ms. Ayanami. I understand he had some bad experiences there."

"Oh. Ms. Fujisawa, does my presence trouble you?"

"Why should it?"

"I am not completely human."

"Neither am I. Both Noah and Mr. Sangnoir taught me that what's inside a person is what matters, not her species or appearance, and everything I've learned since then has proven them right."

"I see." Rei almost smiled.

"Besides, I'm flattered that somebody wants to learn my piloting style. Here, stand beside me so you can get a better view of the touchscreen controls."

She did so. After a moment, she commented, "This is somewhat different from piloting an EVA unit."

Yayoi smiled. "I wouldn't know anything about that..."

Meanwhile, in the engine room, Skuld was not learning about the Epsilon Blade's technology base.

"Please, m'lady Skuld, tell me about the person I was based on! You actually know her, right?"

"That's weird, the way you asked that in unison. But I guess I won't get to examine these engines unless I tell you what you want to know. Who's first?" Sora and Kohran looked at each other for a long moment. "Well?"

"Tell her first."

"Stop talking in unison! You're freaking me out!"

"Sorry..." They stopped, and Kohran continued in Japanese. ">We're just excited to actually meet you, Skuld-sama.<"

"I bet no other avatars of my overself have problems with self-aware robots," sighed Skuld. ">Kohran, I don't really know much about your analog...<"

 



19:21
Stellvia main operations room


"Ma'am, the Kobayashi Maru is hailing us. Their captain wants to know what's going on."

Yoriko turned to the duty officer. "Thank you, Mr. Hansen. Open a tight-beam channel, please."

"Yes, ma'am. Opening a channel to the Kobayashi Maru."

"... know you're in there, Stellvia -- we're picking up your normal power signatures."

"We read you, Kobayashi Maru."

"Finally. Hello, Yoriko. Where's Noah?"

"He's off-station right now, Katz."

"In the middle of an apparent crisis? What is wrong over there, anyway?"

"Just a temporary power glitch. You're clear to land in the drydock, Kobayashi Maru."

"Acknowledged, Stellvia. Yoriko, do you have time to talk once I'm aboard?"

She sighed. "I'll make the time. I'll see you -- just you -- in Stellvia's briefing room in a half-hour, okay?"

After a second, Katz replied, "Okay. Kobayashi Maru out."

As she shut off her radio, Yoriko muttered, "There's no way I can keep this secret forever. Noah, why'd you have to leave me alone with this kind of job to do?" She raised her voice and turned to the duty officer. "Mr. Hansen, once the Kobayashi Maru is docked, please resume normal station functions. If anyone asks what happened, tell them just what I told Mr. Schrödinger -- it was a 'temporary power glitch'. If anyone wants more details, refer them to me but tell them I'm very busy right now..."

 



20:44 GMT
The Uncertainty


I can't believe Noah thinks he can keep this secret. He's going to need somebody to tell him he's being an idiot -- like it or not, I'm the only person for the job.

Trigon interrupted Katz' thoughts. "The ship is ready. I'm ready. Stop dithering, wretch."

Katz sighed. "Fine. Let's go."

"And just where are we going to 'go'?"

"Venus. If we're lucky, we'll get there before the Sol Bianca does."

"Why didn't you say we were following someone important to begin with?"

Oh, dear. Trigon's happy now...

 



21:05 GMT
The Epsilon Blade


Noah picked up his microphone and switched on the ship's intercom. "Ladies... and Sylvath... if you'll look out the port-side windows, you'll see Crystal Paris." The cheers from the passenger lounge could be heard even through the bulkhead soundproofing.

Meanwhile, Yayoi was trying to get landing clearance for the ship. "Crystal Paris, I did not copy. Please repeat the reason you do not want us landing."

"With all due respect," replied the voice over the communicator, "we remember what happened the last time you were here, Epsilon Blade. We don't want to take a chance that it'll happen again."

Noah waved his hand at Yayoi, then switched his microphone from the intercom to the communicator. "Crystal Paris ATC, this is Noah Scott, commanding the Epsilon Blade. Please state the exact reason we're being denied landing clearance."

There was a short pause, then a different voice came over the circuit. "Epsilon Blade, this is Yvette de Lune, Crystal Paris ATC Manager. What seems to be the problem?"

"That's what we want to know, Mme. de Lune. My pilot has been attempting to gain landing clearance for the last three minutes, and the only reason I've heard so far why we aren't getting it is because you don't want a repeat of what happened the last time we were here. This is our first visit to Crystal Paris. What are you talking about, please?"

"Stand by, please, M. Scott." There was a longer pause, then the line came back to life. "Epsilon Blade, I apologize for the delay. My staff tell me they don't want you doing to Crystal Paris what you did to Crystal Osaka."

"All we did there was save over a dozen people's lives, madame. You have nothing to worry about from us unless you're hiding some Boskonians. You aren't hiding a slaver ring or a drug lab, are you?"

"I certainly hope not, M. Scott!" She cleared her throat and continued in a more neutral tone. "Epsilon Blade, you have permission to land. You are clear to dock 23."

Yayoi tapped on the ship's navigation controls. "Roger, Crystal Paris. Epsilon Blade now on landing approach to 23." She muted the communicator. "What was that all about?"

"Superstitious paranoia, I think," replied Noah. "I hope," he added under his breath.

 



21:48 GMT
Crystal Paris


"I'm sorry, sir, but I couldn't keep them from landing. Madame de Lune interfered."

"That's all right. From what you tell me, Senora de Lune would never approve of this thing of ours, so it's best she never learns of it. And we don't need to worry if it's only one of the Great Justice troubleshooters, do we?"

 



21:49 GMT
The Epsilon Blade


"Noah, don't open that yet!"

"Why not?" asked Noah as his hand hovered over the bridge door's control.

"Sora just let me know that some of our guests are getting changed," replied Yayoi.

The soundproofing wasn't quite good enough to muffle the shouts from two of those guests:

"Sailor Power, MAKE-UP!"

"Jupiter Star Power, MAKE-UP!"

Noah backed away from the door. "I gather someone told them that sailor outfits wouldn't be out of place in Crystal Paris. Do you want to go back and get changed too, Yayoi? I can look out the front window and study this wonderful view of the landing bay's rear wall while you have the door opened."

"Thank you, sir. I did leave my Sailor Armed Militia uniform in the weapon locker." As Noah didn't watch, Yayoi and Rei headed amidships.

The door closed, and Noah heard, "So this is the bridge."

"Yes, this is the bridge, Ms. Skuld," replied Noah as he turned to his visitor. "Oh, my apologies, Ms. Vanette. You and Ms. Skuld sound remarkably alike."

"So we've been told by people who've just met us," replied the reporter-turned-Senshi. "I wanted to ask why you gave me this."

"The credit card? I already told you -- it's your ID."

"It's a gold card. Nobody else has a gold card."

Noah smiled. "I have a Stellvia Gold card, and so does Yayoi. Yours is the third ever issued. And before you ask, yes, it's a no-limit card drawing on my private bank account, just like mine and Yayoi's. That should tell you how much I trust you."

"Oh... Are there any good clothing boutiques here?" she asked with an impish grin.

"You'd have to ask Yayoi. And when I said I trust you, I meant it. If you think you need local clothes, feel free to buy some. Although the blue number you're wearing looks good on you, and it does blend in around here."

The grin left Lisa's face. "I'll try to be worthy of that trust, Mr. Scott."

"I'm sure I have nothing to worry about on that score, Ms. Vanette. Now, before I ask Yayoi to ask her friends here to find us some rooms on short notice, are there any special requirements I need to know about? Besides Sylvath's needs, which won't be easy to accomodate here."

Lisa thought for a moment. "Sana needs room to move, and Rei's a vegetarian."

"There won't be any trouble accomodating Rei; in fact, I hope the rest of you don't mind a low-meat diet. Sana, though... I'll see what we can do."

"Thank you."

After a moment, Noah cleared his throat. "If you don't mind my asking..."

"What?"

"Well... I'm curious. Why are you ladies chasing after Doug?"

"I can't speak for the others, but I'm on this trip because I'm the only person who can recognize Doug's homeworld other than Doug and his friends."

"That's a reason why Ms. vel'deVarn would want you on the trip. I'm more curious why you'd agree to go. But if I'm prying, please say so."

"You're prying, Mr. Scott."

"Then I'll drop it. Sorry about that."

After another pause, Lisa asked, "So, why are you in space?"

"For the freedom."

"How so?"

"I'll give you a couple of examples. When I was Sana's age, it was possible to walk into an airport and buy a ticket for the next flight to where you wanted to go, just by putting cash on the counter. At least, it was in my home country. Everybody knew that there was a chance that any given flight might be hijacked, but everybody also knew that the odds of it happening to a particular flight were low. When I gave up my citizenship, that same country required its citizens to show government-issued identification before being allowed to board an aircraft, and if your name is on a list, you aren't allowed on the plane even then."

"Do criminals in this universe use their real names when they break the law?"

Noah shook his head. "Not usually."

"So what good is a list of names of people who aren't allowed to fly?"

"Damned if I know, Ms. Vanette. I think the governments on Earth want to monitor everybody's movements on the off-chance that somebody might do something they don't like." Noah sighed. "Other countries are going the same way. Then there's the laws against using handwavium; they make it nearly impossible to create artificial intelligences on Earth any more. Out here, we still have the freedom to live without Big Brother looking over our shoulders."

"So there's no government in space?"

"I didn't say that. We're just a lot more reasonable about running things out here. But you should take this with a grain of salt; I'm not unbiased about the whole mess."

The door opened to admit Yayoi, now wearing a high-visibility-orange seifuku. While it had the same shoulder patches as the jacket she'd been wearing, each was on the opposite shoulder to where it was on the jacket. "Noah, we're ready to go."

"Good. Yayoi, can you get us some rooms for the night? Use my name if you think it'll help..."

 



22:21 GMT
Crystal Paris


">Thank you, Naoko-san. I owe you one.<"

Naoko Sato, the head of Crystal Paris' Armed Militia division, grinned. ">I'll be sure to call that in the next time I'm visiting Stellvia, Yayoi-san.<" They both laughed. ">Okay, I've got the list; we have plenty of room for all of you in the transient barracks. Pleasant dreams!<" She cut the connection and turned to her assistant, who was frowning.

"Ma'am, there's something strange about this list."

"'Strange' how?"

"You said that Ms. Fujisawa said they were newcomers to space, but I think I recognize almost every name on it. And one of them's..." As he trailed off, he switched on the traffic cameras between dock 23 and the transient barracks. Then he went pale.

"What's wrong?"

"You'd better take a look at this website," he said while calling up on his computer an obscure story called Drunkard's Walk.

After a few minutes, Sato whispered, "By all the gods... Are they just really lucky with biomods, maybe?"

"Could that big a group be that lucky?"

"It's mathematically possible..." The doubt in Naoko's voice was obvious.

"Uh-huh. I wouldn't bet on it either."

"How do we find out for sure?"

"I can only see one way, but it'll blow up in our faces if I'm wrong, ma'am."

 



30 May 2013
08:04 GMT
Crystal Paris


Makoto looked at the throng of Senshi, all clamouring to get her autograph, her clothing, even her attention. "You told me some people worshipped me as a demigod, Mr. Scott. I thought you were kidding."

"I wonder who told them about you?" Noah sighed, then continued. "This is why I wanted you to use false names. If we're lucky, somebody's got the wrong idea. If we're not lucky, somebody's got the right idea. Either way, we're not hiding here."

"And who would you be hiding from, Mr. Scott?" asked a sweet voice from behind their group.

Noah sighed again, then forced himself to smile as he turned around. "From your employer, Ms. Asakura. How is the Professor, by the way?"

"He's just fine," replied Ryoko. "Although he hasn't had a bit of sleep in the last week and a half. Or maybe longer."

"He hasn't slept in at least ten days, and he's fine?" asked Makoto incredulously.

"It's part of his biomod. I think." Noah turned back to Ryoko. "Is he here, in Crystal Paris?"

"Yes, he is, although he isn't happy to be here."

"Oh, dear. Kohran's here, too. You remember our deal, don't you?"

Ryoko looked cross for a brief moment. "You don't tell Yuki or the others where I am, and I help you keep the Professor and Ms. Li apart. Blackmail's not very nice, Mr. Scott."

"I know, and I'm sorry. But we both know why those two must not meet if he's been awake for more than a few days."

"I don't agree, but I have no choice. I'll distract Ms. Li." As Noah was about to thank Ryoko, she smiled and added, "After I tell the Professor exactly where you are." Then she stepped aside through a doorway, which closed and locked as soon as she was through it.

"Why shouldn't this 'Professor' meet Kohran?" asked Makoto.

"It's bad enough that each of them is a 'mad scientist' type with no qualms about inventing anything, no matter what use the invention could be put towards. Letting them collaborate would... well, I doubt it'd be pleasant for everyone else."

"Ah. Ryoko's quite loyal to him, isn't she?"

"The way I understand it, Ryoko loves the Professor to death."

 



08:21 GMT


"... and that's what these people are doing to Venus," explained Noah.

The visitors thought about what they'd been told. Finally, Peggy said, "Let me see if I've got this straight. They're trying to terraform this planet. In order to do that, they're going to need all the carbon they can get. But they're shipping what little carbon they do have away from the planet, mostly in the form of polluting hydrocarbons which make it more difficult to live on Earth when they're used -- that causes problems on two planets. And they're doing almost nothing to reduce the atmosphere's temperature, which is the first thing they need to do. Just how insane are the people running this project?"

Noah shook his head. "Peggy, the Venus Terraforming Project is being run by Sailor Moon Fen who really, really wanted to live in Crystal Tokyo." Makoto groaned quietly at the mention of 'Sailor Moon Fen' and 'Crystal Tokyo;' Noah ignored her. "That means they couldn't take a millenium, or even a decade, to terraform Venus. So they came up with this plan. When you're living in a cramped metal tube in space with nothing but a tank of handwavium to keep you alive, the way they were four years ago and I was five years ago, their plan makes perfect sense." He paused for a moment as a Senshi couple walked by. "I don't know what the explanation for the mass insanity is now, though. Maybe it's just conceptual inertia. But they're living their lives the way they want to, and I have no right to tell them otherwise."

The youngest blonde in the room asked, "Anybody ever tell you that you lecture a lot, Mr. Scott?"

"Do I?" Most of the others nodded. "You're the first to mention it to me, Kaolla."

"You're practically a walking expository device, Mr. Scott," added Bibi with a grin.

Meanwhile, Rin-Rin was typing on her laptop computer while listening to Sora's translation of the conversation. She quickly finished, removed a diskette from her computer, and handed it to Sora. ">Hasegawa-san, would you please ask Scott-san to give this to the Venus Terraforming Project's staff?<"

">All right,<" replied Sora, ">but he's going to want to know what it is.<"

">The disk holds plans for inexpensive polymer orbital mirrors, and instructions on where to position them to reduce the insolation that Venus receives.<"

">Thank you. I'm sure that it will be appreciated.<" Sora turned to Noah. "Sir, Rin-Rin wants you to give these orbital mirror plans to the Senshi."

"Orbital mirror plans? Sure, they'll probably accept that as payment for putting us up for the night."

The door behind the group banged opened suddenly. "Such mercenary intentions are ill-suited to a patron of Science! You should simply provide the information to them without charge!"

"Hello, Professor," sighed Noah as he turned around. "I remind you once again that I am not a 'patron of science.'"

The Professor calmly yet self-assuredly strode forward, stopping exactly two meters away from Noah, standing two degrees to the left of precisely in front of the magnate. (Thanks to the sensors he had invented over the years, the Professor knew more trivial details about Noah than the latter realized -- including which of his eyes had marginally better vision.) "Nonsense! You employ two researchers while your station requires none. Your denials do not match reality, and can safely be ignored!" He dramatically pointed straight at Noah's chest. "Sir, you are a patron of Science!" He dropped his arm to his side just as dramatically. "Now, I must ask you to lift your station's quarantine and allow me to investigate the meson burst that occurred there yesterday. I only hope that it is not too late to learn from the event!"

Sana tugged Yayoi's sleeve. ">Fujisawa-san, who's this?<"

">Kurana-san, this gentleman is the Professor.<"

">Really? But you said the Professor was manic! He's too calm.<" Everyone who understood Japanese stopped and stared at Sana. ">What?<"

The two men in the room turned and looked at Sana, wondering what was going on. Miyu passed an electronic note to the Professor while Yayoi whispered in Noah's ear, whereupon they both laughed.

"Please tell the young lady that I must save my energy to devote to the progress of Science!" The Professor turned back to Noah, then changed his mind and faced Sana again as he withdrew a portable toolkit from his coat pocket. "No, I'll tell her myself! I have been planning to build an oral translator for some weeks now, and this is the perfect time to do so! The language she speaks is Japanese, correct?"

"That's right," answered Skuld. "How long do you think that will take?"

"For someone of my talents, such a device is a trifle! I should have it completed by lunchtime!"

"That long?" Skuld looked smug. "I could build something like that in half that time!"

Yayoi gasped. "Skuld... did you just...?"

The Professor angrily interrupted her. "Spit it out! Science allows no time for dithering!" He turned to Skuld. "I accept your challenge!"

"Oops," muttered Skuld.

Lisa went pale. "Is there going to be a fight?"

"Not a fight -- something much worse," answered Noah. "I just hope Skuld wasn't boasting."

"Something worse than a fight?" asked Lisa.

Noah sighed. "Not really, but I just know I'm going to end up paying for it."

"Sir, what about the meson burst?" inquired Miyu.

"Not now, Miyu," replied the Professor. "My scientific competence has been called into question!"

The door opened again, and Ryoko and Kohran walked in. "Somebody doubted the Professor's scientific ability?" asked the latter. "I know what that means! Can I take part? Please?"

"No!" answered Noah, Sora, Yayoi, Ryoko, Miyu, and Catty in unison. Yayoi continued, "You know the Treaty of KandorCon prohibits you from competing in any Iron Inventor matches, Kohran."

As she began to pout, Noah added, "But we do need a judge."

"I always end up being a judge..." Kohran's sounded like she was sulking, but her smile belied her true feelings. "How many contestants are there?"

"Exactly what is an Iron Inventor match?" asked Lisa.

"You don't know?" asked Miyu.

"She's new to space," replied Yayoi before Lisa could say anything.

Ryoko smiled. "It's a contest where a number of inventors, engineers, and scientists build new devices based on a theme announced at the beginning of the contest. There's a time limit, and the creator of the most useful device wins."

"The Iron Inventor match serves two purposes" added Sora. "First, it increases the body of knowledge; second, it allows people with technical leanings to compete without hurting themselves or each other."

Skuld sighed in relief, and began to make plans.

"That sounds like fun! Can I play?" asked Kaolla.

"This is a challenge, not a game," replied Skuld.

"There are no such boundaries to the power of Science!" interjected the Professor loudly. Somewhat more calmly, he added, "Let her compete; it can only advance Science!"

Makoto had been translating for Rin-Rin, who asked ">May I take part as well?<"

Once Makoto translated Rin-Rin's request, Noah nodded and held up the diskette Rin-Rin had given Sora. "You just created these plans. Do you want them to be your entry?"

">No, thank you, Scott-san. I don't want an unfair advantage; I will invent something else.<"

"Very well. Anyone else?" Noah looked at Sora.

She shook her head. "Kohran-imotouchan is judging. If I take part, then somebody might say she had a conflict of interests."

A few eyebrows went up at Sora's acknowledgment of Kohran being her younger sister. Noah took the comment in stride. "All right. I ask a final time, anyone else?" Nobody else said anything. "Four contestants, then. Yayoi, would you ask your friends here for some spare parts, tools, and a large room, please? Use your credit card to pay for whatever we need."

"Certainly, Noah. It's a good thing we're in Crystal Paris; we can probably borrow what we need from the drydocks."

 



08:49 GMT
The Uncertainty, in a parking orbit above Venus, near Crystal Paris


"We now know our target is in Crystal Paris, not Crystal Tokyo. We have arrived at Crystal Paris. Why are you wasting time waiting to ask for docking permission?"

Katz didn't look up from the book he was reading. "If we dock now, they'll force me to turn off your comms, and then you'd miss the Iron Inventor match that they just announced the Professor is involved in. I thought you'd want to see that, Trigon."

"Very well. We shall wait until the match is over."

Good, thought Katz. That gives me another couple of hours to decide just how I'm going to approach Noah...

 



09:00 GMT
Crystal Paris Drydock #3


"Hello, everyone. This is Maico Tange netcasting from Crystal Paris, where an unknown person has challenged the Professor to an Iron Inventor competition. We'll be bringing you live coverage of the event on this channel. I'm trying to get interviews with the contestants, but everybody's busy getting ready for the contest right now so I can't promise anything." She smiled and winked at the camera. "But I've managed to speak with the competition's sponsor. Mr. Scott, why is the contest being held here instead of on your own space station?"

"Well, Tange-san, the Professor only accepted the challenge a half-hour ago. There wasn't time to move it from Crystal Paris to Stellvia."

"A half-hour ago? You've put this together very quickly, Mr. Scott. Can you afford the prices that people performing such a fast job must be charging?"

Noah smiled. "Just because I'm not with Rockhounds or Grover's Corners doesn't mean I don't have a few credits saved up."

"Yes, of course you're one of the wealthiest individuals in space." Maico made a 'silly me!' gesture with her hand. "How did you get so many people to take part with less than an hour's notice?"

"You know how word spreads when it involves the Professor."

"Yes, of course. Why did you agree to fund the competition?"

"The person who challenged the Professor is my guest; I have an obligation to smooth the path for her. And I thought that the brave men, women, and others putting their lives on the line for Operation Great Justice might appreciate a bit of unplanned entertainment. If we're really lucky, somebody will create something we can duplicate and issue to the troops."

"I hope we are that lucky, Mr. Scott. Thank you for your time." Maico walked over to the judges' table, where three people were taking their seats. "And now I'll introduce today's judges. The first judge is the local Sammie commander, Naoko Sato. Sato-san, would you like to say anything before the contest begins?"

Naoko looked uncomfortable. "Er... May the best person win."

"Thank you, Sato-san. Second is the fan-favourite judge and radio star from Stellvia, Kohran Li. Ms. Li, what do you want to see at today's match?"

"Something that explodes, I hope!"

Everyone laughed at Kohran's stock answer to that question. "Thank you, Ms. Li. Finally, the captain of the tourist ship Pinafore, Joe Corcoran, has consented to be the conpetition's celebrity judge. Mr. Corcoran, why did you agree to be a judge for this competition?"

"Well, Maico, the Pinafore's being resupplied right now, so I'm not going anywhere for a few hours. Why not enjoy myself while I'm waiting?"

"Yes, of course, Mr. Corcoran. Excuse me, please, I believe the secret ingredient is about to be announced."

The camera panned over to Miyu and Yayoi, who had just walked to the middle of the competition area. Yayoi was carrying a small box covered with a cloth. The camera's boom mike picked up their whispers.

">This is a stupid secret ingredient!<"

">We don't have very much choice, Miyu-san. We only had half an hour to organize the match; it was this or 'computer chips'.<"

">Fine. You announce it.<"

Yayoi looked embarassed for a moment. ">Can we announce it together?<"

Miyu thought briefly. ">All right.<"

They cleared their throats. ">The secret...<" Miyu switched from Japanese to English. "The secret ingredient is..."

Yayoi took the cloth off of the box she was carrying. "Rechargable batteries!" she finished.

The camera panned back to Maico, who had walked back to stand beside Noah again. "That's a relatively easy secret ingredient -- rechargable batteries go into almost everything."

"We didn't have time to find something rarer or more difficult, Tange-san."

She nodded. "Yes, of course. I believe there's only one thing left to say now, and I believe it's tradition for the sponsor to say it."

Noah grinned. "I've wanted to do this for years..." He cleared his throat and yelled, "Allez inventer!"

 



09:21 GMT
Crystal Paris Drydock #3 Control Room


"Ms. Lovegood said you wanted to see me, Ms. Kino."

"Yes. Please close the door behind you, Ms. Swansen."

Leda did, then sat down beside Makoto.

"I'm sorry to pull you away from the excitement down there..." Makoto gestured toward the window overlooking the hubbub of the Iron Inventor match. "... but I don't know how long I'm going to be in this universe, and you did say you wanted me to help you control your metagift."

"My biomod, yes," Leda corrected the Senshi. "You can really do that?"

"It'd be easier if Ami was here to help me understand the biology behind your ability, but I do know a thing or two about electrical powers that I can share." Makoto held two fingers apart and let an arc climb them as if they were a Jacob's Ladder. "V!"

"I thought Sailor Venus did the 'V!' sign, not you."

"She does, but how else can I show off? Now I want you to do the same thing."

"I don't know if I can."

"Relax, let the power out, and give it a try. I'll make sure you don't break anything..."

 



11:48 GMT


"Good... keep the electricity dancing on the backs of your hands, just like that... Eek!"

"What's wrong?"

Makoto grinned. "Nothing -- I just needed to startle you. You didn't let the electricity get away even when you turned to look at me." She slid a laptop computer over to Leda. "Now you put that trick to a practical use."

Leda sighed. "My power doesn't like computers..."

"Is it your power, or are you its plaything? Keep doing what you've been doing for the last half-hour, and start typing."

Five minutes later, the keyboard still hadn't shorted out. Leda was estatic.

 



12:00 GMT
Crystal Paris Drydock #3


"Time!" The competing teams stopped what they were doing on hearing Noah's shout. "Present your inventions to the judges, one at a time! First, the official challenger!"

Skuld, ably assisted by Rei, brought a box the size of a bar fridge up to the judges' table. "This is my Ice Cream Maker Type 2!"

"Why 'Type 2'?" asked Captain Corcoran.

"Ice Cream Maker Type 1, which I built back home, could only make ice creams in the standard North American flavours. This machine can make ice cream in all the Japanese flavours as well! Including the esoteric ones like garlic or charcoal!"

Some of the audience looked ill at the mere thought of garlic ice cream.

"Well, show us how it works," directed Sato.

"I need the ingredients..."

Kohran sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Skuld, but you can't bring anything else into the venue after the sponsor calls 'time'. You needed to get the ingredients while you were making the invention; that's part of why you had an assistant. We're going to have to disqualify your invention. I would have liked to have tried the charcoal ice cream, though."

"I understand." As Skuld and Rei walked away, the goddess quietly muttered, "it's not fair..."

Noah relaxed -- he was half-afraid that Skuld would destroy the drydock in a temper tantrum when she was disqualified. Then he realized that she was older and more mature than in the stories he'd read. "Next, the challenged party!"

"No need to shout -- I'm already here!" The Professor was standing in front of the judges, Miyu standing behind him. "Here is my invention: a real-time two-way translator! It translates between English and Japanese, the two languages most common in the settlements around Venus! Who would like to be the first to test it?"

The room went completely silent.

">Why'd everybody stop talking?<" asked Sana.

"Ah -- a volunteer! Please help the young lady to the judging area, Miyu."

"Yes, sir." And she was off in an instant.

"Hey!" Skuld stormed back to the judges' table. "Why does he get to get someone who wasn't in his group when I couldn't get the things I needed?"

"Because the person is in the competition venue," replied Commander Sato.

"Oh."

"Step aside, please, but don't go too far! You doubted my ability; now see what I can create! Here, put this on!" That last was addressed to Sana, who Miyu had just escorted to the Professor.

Miyu whispered a translation to Sana, who nodded and co-operated.

"The casing and much of the pre-existing wiring is an obsolete cellular telephone headset," explained the Professor as Sana put it over her ear. "The custom technology inside will be described in the usual sources as soon as I have a chance to publish it, but it does include a picocomputer liberally treated with gold handwavium and rechargable batteries connected to a crystal gray handwavium power regulator. Miss, can you understand me?"

"Does it work, Sana?" asked Kohran.

"Yeah, it works, but why're all y'all talkin' with Osaka accents?"

"Ah, there appears to be a minor glitch with the language regionalization subroutines! But that is nothing to worry about, and will hardly impede communications!" The Professor turned to Skuld. "Do you still doubt my brillance, young lady?"

Skuld shook her head, keeping a neutral expression and not laughing in the man's face. She thought that the accent problem was hilarious, but didn't want to make things any worse.

"Very well! Do the judges have any further questions?"

Kohran raised her hand. "Does it explode?"

"Certainly not! Such a function is contraindicated in the case of a wearable device!"

"I'll have to take points off for that, then."

Miyu sighed. "You always take points off for that, Kohran..."

Noah cleared his throat; there wasn't time to let the usual banter continue. "Third,..." Mirai tugged on his sleeve, then whispered a translation of Rin-Rin's message in his ear. He nodded and returned to the microphone. "Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I've been informed that the third contestant's invention is designed for the use of a person who is not currently present. The contestant is forfeiting the match. Now, the final contestant!"

Kaolla and Peggy carried a small box to the judges' table. "Ta-dah! Mecha-Tama-Vacuum!" A mechanical turtle poked its head and one flipper out of the box, and waved.

"What does it do?" asked Sato.

"It cleans up after people! It even takes care of hazardous waste!" The Mecha-Tama-Vacuum jumped out of the box and flew over to the corner of the room, where it started eating a bucket of dried paint someone had missed picking up before the competition started. "And it incenerates some of the waste inside itself to provide power!"

"Does that mean it doesn't use rechargable batteries?" asked Corcoran.

"No, it uses rechargable batteries. It even recharges them from the power it makes!"

Kohran smiled. "Does it explode?"

"Only if you tell it to. Do you want it to explode now?"

"NO!" shouted everyone except Kohran.

As the judges discussed the inventions, Maico spoke with Noah. "How do you think the judging will go, Mr. Scott?"

"I'd really rather not say, Tange-san. One of the judges is an employee of mine, and I don't want to influnce her decision."

"Yes, of course. We'll just have to wait for their decision. Excuse me, please, Mr. Scott; I'd like to get an interview with the disqualified contestants." She made her way over to Skuld, Rin-Rin, and the other visitors.

 



08:14 EDT
The Schroeck household, Grover's Corners


Breakfast was finished, and there wasn't anything more pressing to do at the moment than catch up on current events. The serious news was "more of the same", but a human-interest piece from Crystal Paris about an Iron Inventor match caught the viewers' attention... because they recognized the competitors almost immediately.

"Holy crap, Heinlein was right. Hey, Peg, I'm running over to Venus for a while if anyone needs me."

 



12:17 GMT
Crystal Paris Drydock #3


Naoko Sato stood, and the room went quiet.

"We have decided that the winner of this Iron Inventor match is... Kaolla's Mecha-Tama-Vacuum! Second place goes to The Professor's real-time translator."

"This is a shock," commented Maico while facing the broadcast camera. "I don't know why the Professor lost."

Noah frowned. "I'm guessing it was Kohran's vote that decided things. This is the first time that anybody ever built something that actually will blow up."

"Yes, of course. Professor, I'm sorry you didn't win, but I think your translator is a wonderful invention. Even if it does give people funny accents."

 



12:29 GMT
Crystal Paris


The contestants were enjoying a light lunch after the match, paid for by the sponsor and prepared by many of the androids present. Miyu had jostled Ryoko's arm just as she was serving a special bowl of soup to the Professor, which made her drop the bowl, but that was the only mishap during the meal.

(Maico was enjoying a somewhat more substantial meal, also paid for by Noah. He thought it a small price to keep the reporter away from the visiting Girls.)

"I'm sorry that my absence cost you the match, Rin-Rin."

"That is all right, Swansen-san. These are for you." She handed a pair of bulky gloves to Leda.

"What are they?"

"They are... I am sorry, I do not know the English." Rin-Rin glanced at the translator that Sana was still wearing, thought for a moment, then continued in Japanese. ">They will channel the electricity your hands generate into rechargable batteries inserted into the ports on the back of the gloves. Please do not wear them unless batteries are in the charging ports.<"

Once Skuld had translated for Rin-Rin, Leda bowed to the young gadgeteer. "Thank you very much. These will help me lead a more normal life."

Just then, the Professor's pocket began to beep. Rather, a device in the pocket was beeping; when he withdrew it from the pocket, an arrow on the top rotated twice and pointed at Bibi. The Professor looked at the display, then announced, "Miss, you are carrying a large amount of unknown metal! What alloy is it, and where are you keeping it?"

"That's quite the gadget you've got there, Prof," she replied. "I'm not carrying it, I am it. And I don't remember what it's called." Well, I do remember, she thought, but I'm not going to tell you. You're too nosy.

"You're an android?"

"Something like that."

The Professor continued, "When will I be able to analyze the metal alloy in your physical makeup?"

Bibi started to panic. Skuld noticed and stood up, stepping between Bibi and the Professor. "That won't be possible."

Miyu leapt to her feet. "Why not, girl?"

Sora ducked under the table. "No fighting, please!" she whimpered.

Skuld grabbed her hammer. "Because I won't let you." She made ready to tap the deck with her weapon...

... and a device in a different pocket of the Professor's coat sounded an alarm. "Another meson burst! It's your doing!" Everyone stopped moving, and the alarm tapered off. "Miss, what were you about to do?"

"Well,..."

"Out with it! Science has no time for uncertainty!"

"Fine!" snapped Skuld. "I was about to summon my battle armour!"

"Oh, is that all this is?" sighed the Professor. "There are already multiple cases of transdimensional storage effects on record. I was hoping that this was something new." Dismissively, he added, "I have more pressing business elsewhere." He stood and left, followed by his three assistants.

Just before Catty left, she turned and smiled. "See you around!"

After the door closed behind them, Skuld muttered, "I hope not..."

 



12:33 GMT
Crystal Paris ATC


"Uncertainty, you're cleared to land at dock 5."

"Understood, Crystal Paris," came Katz' reply over the communications channel.

Oh, this is bad, thought the controller on duty. Two Great Justice troubleshooters at the same time... They have to be here for us. I've got to tell the boss about this.

 


[edit] Interlude

30 May 2013
12:41 GMT
Stellvia main operations room


"Ms. Nikaido, I think you should look at this."

"What's wrong?" asked Yoriko as she walked over to the duty officer's desk.

"I really think you should see it for yourself, ma'am," he replied.

She did, then she nodded. "I see. Hold the fort, please, Mr. Hansen. I'll be back in a few moments."


Stellvia conference room


"... and that's why I was hoping you'd be able to help us, Nancy."

The visitor frowned as she replied. "I don't know how much help I can be, Ms. Yoriko."

"I can track down and disable the bug in main operations. What I was hoping you'd do is find the person who planted it. I'll understand if you say no, but I could really use your help. Please?"

Chalotte interrupted while Nancy thought about her answer. "Which sort of bugs are they? The ones you can kill with your chemical sprays, or the other sort?"

Yoriko very carefully did not smile as she turned to the Borrible. "The other sort. I'm worried about a hidden microphone, not an insect."

Nancy raised her hand to get Yoriko's attention. "I think I can do this, but I'm going to need some help if the spy tries to run."

Yoriko frowned. "With so many of our top people away with your people and the station on alert because of the Professor's possible visit, I don't have anyone to spare..."

"Then I'll just have to get Chalotte to help!"

The Borrible glared at Nancy. "You must be daft. I've been on this trip for ages -- you only joined up with us in the last world we stopped at."

Nancy smiled her childlike smile. "You can be in charge of this if you want to, Chalotte. I don't mind."

"I don't want to, you bloody moron! I want to stay out of these people's problems! Meddling in adults' affairs isn't the Borrible way!"

"If a Borrible don't look alive, he's very soon dead," commented Yoriko.

Chalotte turned to Yoriko, her anger growing. "Don't you quote the Borrible Book of Proverbs at me! And that isn't what that one means!"

Nancy interrupted the others bewfore their argument could become serious. "Do you really want to just sit in the room Mr. Scott is letting you use, and wait for everyone else to come back, instead?"

Chalotte scowled. "That metal box? No, that's too much like waiting around in a cage." She shuddered as unpleasant memories came back to her. "I guess helping you'd be... not 'better', but you get the idea."

"Thank you for your help in apprehending this criminal," smiled Yoriko. "I'll give you both full access to wherever you need to go and the authority to track down and apprehend the spy."

Nancy nodded; Chalotte looked surprised and more than a bit angry. "Bloody hell! You're turning me into a Woollie?"

Chapter Text

30 May 2013
13:08 GMT
Crystal Paris

"You're sure that they're linking up?"

"Positive, sir. Monsieur Schrödinger specifically asked where he could find Monsieur Scott."

The man in the shadows cursed in Italian for a few seconds. "They must have heard about this thing of ours, and thought we're as bad as de Leon's boys were over on Crystal Osaka. What in the name of all that's holy is wrong with those Colombians? Have they forgotten the joys of the drive-by? Or of simple extortion?"

"Sir?"

"Don't interrupt me when I've started a good rant." He glared at his impertinent underling, then sighed. "Signor Schrödinger and signor Scott -- Great Justice's 'Dirty Pair.'"

"Who, sir?"

"Don't you listen to the people out here? Perhaps I chose the wrong person to be my assistant." The underling paled slightly. "It's a reference to a Japanese cartoon. The important thing is that when Schrödinger and Scott work together, our people die." After a moment, he continued. "We have no choice. We have to hit them before they hit us. Make it happen; I'll tell La Mariposa."

13:11 GMT

"Noah!"

"Katz? What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you. We need to talk, in private."

"What's wrong?"

"Not in public. You're the one who wants this kept hush-hush."

Noah sighed. "Yoriko told you." Katz nodded. "Fine. Ms. Vanette, Ms. Ravenhair, Ms. vel'deVarn, would you join us, please? Yayoi, Kohran, Ms. Swansen, would you mind keeping our other new friends company while they go shopping?"

A few minutes later, the now-smaller group was alone in one of the Sammies' meeting rooms.

"... and that's how they showed up," continued Noah while gesturing toward the visitors. "We both know that, if word gets out about how they got here, the boskonians would stop at nothing to learn how to duplicate the feat."

Dee raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't say anything. She didn't know this world very well; that might be how things worked here.

"Are any of these 'boskonians' mages?" asked Lisa.

"I don't know. I hope not. Even if they can't learn how you do what you do, they won't stop trying to duplicate it, then keep it for themselves if they succeed. It's too big an advantage."

"Do you want to know the spell to travel between worlds, Mr. Scott?"

"No, thank you, Ms. Vanette. One universe is big enough for me."

"He couldn't use it anyway," muttered Skuld.

"Noah," interrupted Katz, "that's beside the point. There's no possible way that you can keep this a secret."

"Why not?"

"I know you've read the stories they're in; I've seen the name on the credit card you use when you travel incognito. I did some research and discovered who wrote those stories."

"So?"

"Who lives aboard Grover's Corners?"

"Where did that come fro... oh. And they were on TV this morning. There's no possible way that I can keep this a secret."

Three people, all dressed in black and carrying attaché cases, walked into Crystal Paris' Sailor Militia base.

Only one person saw the group. She buzzed them in, then left.

There was a clatter as Skuld stood up fast enough to knock over her chair. She spun in place to look straight at the only door to the room.

"Skuld?" Lisa ignored Noah and Katz to concentrate on her friend. "What's wrong?"

"Someone's coming," Skuld whispered. Then she tipped the diamondoid conference table over and pushed Sora behind it, grabbing her hammer with her other hand.

"Take cover!" Dee yelled as she ducked, just before the door burst open.

Everyone in the room hit the floor behind the table before the three intruders were through the door. Those three braced their attaché cases on their stomachs ... and opened fire.

"Shit! That's live ammo!"

Skuld looked at Noah in surprise. "What did you think someone would attack us with?"

"Something like this," answered Katz as he tossed a grenade into the air. The grenade went off with a phrase of melody and the Japanese lyric 「It's only Monday! Already in a bad mood? What to do?」, and suddenly there was a slowly-falling cloud of large balls of metallic-gold streamers between the two groups.

The gunmen weren't fazed.

"Nice pompom round," Noah commented from below the hail of lead, "but that's better against beams than bullets."

Skuld hit the butt of her hammer against the deck, and suddenly she was wearing red-and-white scale.

Lisa chanted something under her breath; when she was finished, there was a golden glow around her.

Skuld and Lisa nodded to each other.

The last pompom hit the deck.

They jumped over the table.

Lisa dodged left, Skuld veered right, bullets bouncing off both of them. They landed on either side of the gunmen.

"Heart Breaker!" Lisa hit two of the gunmen's cases at once, which turned to dust.

Skuld's hammer came down on the third man's head.

Sora shrieked from behind cover as blood splattered on the tabletop in fromt of her.

The surviving attackers pulled knives from their belts.

Skuld's hammer went through another one's head. "Don't force us to kill you," she told the last man standing.

He dropped his knife, then bit down on his jaw so hard something broke.

Katz heard that and swore. "Open his mouth!" But it was too late; the man was already dead.

"What could kill someone that quickly?" wondered Dee.

Katz looked grim. "A massive thionite overdose. I've seen it too many times in the last year. Some boskonians would rather die than be captured, especially if they've been brainwashed that way by their leaders."

While Noah wiped the blood off of Sora's face, he added, "Which they probably were, since they didn't stop fighting when they started losing."

Lisa let her defensive spell lapse and picked up the remaining attaché case. "This looks like something GENOM would have made in the bad old days. What the hell is it?"

"Heckler and Koch MP5K short 9×19mm Parabellum submachine gun, in the optional attaché case with a trigger built into the handle."

Everyone turned to look at Sora. "It is, but how in the worlds did you know that?" asked Noah.

She blushed. "I was going to buy you one for your birthday. But they cost over $5,000 with the custom case."

"They had one each," Katz pointed out. "Whoever wants one or more of us dead has some serious money behind them."

Dee cleared her throat. "Is that door soundproof?" Katz looked at Noah, who shrugged. She continued, "If it isn't, why hasn't somebody come to find out what all the noise was about?"

"Good question," replied Noah. "Let's go find out, Sora." And they stepped out of the room.

There was a moment of silence, which Katz used to examine the body of the man who had suicided. Finally, Lisa broke the silence. "You know, if you tried to not-stare at us any harder, you'd likely end up blindfolding yourself."

Katz quirked an eyebrow, then chuckled. "That obvious, was it?"

"If you know what to look for, yes," said Lisa. "Why are you so nervous around us in particular?"

"Would you believe -- philosophical uncertainty?" The man stood up from where he'd been crouched. "Existential angst?"

"... nice try, but no," Skuld cut in, frowning slightly.

"Ah, well, it was worth a try," he mumbled. "It's more yourself and Ms. Vanette than Ms ... vel'deVarn? Did I get that right?"

Dee nodded.

Katz took a deep breath before he faced the two in question, then bowed.

"Thank you."

Lisa looked at Skuld. Skuld looked at Lisa. Their expression were both puzzled.

"You're welcome, I guess? Um ... what for?" the goddess asked after Katz straightened again, looking vaguely embarassed about the whole thing.

"Bubblegum Crisis is what got me into anime fandom in the first place, and Oh My Goddess was one of the chief reasons I stayed," the man said with slight smile. "In a way, if it wasn't for the both of you, I wouldn't be here right now, or be the person I am."

"That would possibly mean more if you had bothered to actually introduce yourself," commented Delandra.

Katz's puzzlement was replaced by realization a moment later, whereupon he facepalmed. "Oy. Sorry, I forget that a lot. Katz Schrödinger."

"Ow," deadpanned Skuld.

"Noah?" Sora's voice was unsteady.

"I don't know where they are either, Sora." He took another look around the Sammie office, hoping to see at least one other person.

"It isn't that. You need to see this."

He walked around the duty officer's desk and read the message that was still on the display. "Oh, Hell. We are so screwed."

Sora nodded. "There's an electronics workshop just down the hall, second door on the left."

"So? Oh, right. I'm glad one of us is thinking straight." And he walked back into the meeting room.

Katz turned to look at Noah. "what's wrong?"

"Not yet. Ms. Ravenhair, please come with me for a moment."

Skuld did so, and read the computer screen he pointed out. "That's not good. Where's ...?"

"Down here." Sora already had the door open.

"Thanks. If you help, it'll be ready faster."

"What's going on?" asked Lisa from the meeting room's doorway as Skuld and Sora closed the workshop door behind them.

"Read this."

She did, followed by Katz and Dee. "That isn't good. But ..."

"Dee." Lisa shook her head, and mimed zipping her mouth shut. Dee looked puzzled, but stopped talking.

Skuld came out of the workshop a few minutes later, carrying a small box. A single LED on the box's top was lit. "Here. It works too well -- Sora can't see or hear anything, either. I'm going to build her A/V systems a quick workaround; the rest of you do what you need to." As she returned to the workshop, she pulled a pair of glasses out of her pocket.

"Thanks," Lisa said to Skuld's back as the technologist returned to her work. She waved everyone closer to the anti-surveillance device. "Dee, that message wasn't addressed to anyone in particular."

"Are you saying the entire Sammie team is part of this?"

"No, Ms. vel'deVarn," replied Katz. "If all the Sammies were in on this, the assassin team wouldn't have cared if they were seen. Whoever sent the message knew that only their agent -- or one of their agents -- would read it, and that agent would be able to get everyone else out of here."

"Which means they knew who was at that desk. And that means they can tap into the local security system," added Lisa, glancing at the ceiling camera pointed at the reception desk. "If it wasn't for this bug squelcher, they'd probably be watching and listening to us right now."

"Thank the gods for the Goddess of Technology," muttered Noah. "We could use a few of those in the Space Patrol we're putting together."

"I have the plans," replied Sora from behind her employer.

He turned to see she was wearing Skuld's glasses instead of her own; a second glance revealed the new eyewear was plugged into the USB port usually concealed under Sora's headband. "That was fast. Squelch-proof cameras and microphones?"

"Effectively, yes," Skuld replied from behind the android. "They're also polarized and filtered to give protection against anything short of a phosphorus grenade at point-blank range, amongst other things. Who's trying to kill us, and have you called anyone in to arrest them?"

"We don't know yet, and no," said Katz. "Can you hack that system and find out who received that message?" Skuld looked at him flatly. "Right. Would you hack that system and find out who received that message, please?"

"Of course."

As Skuld moved to the duty officer's computer, Dee asked, "Why haven't you called the local authorities yet?"

"We have to assume the communication system is compromised. We also have to assume anybody we contact may be working for the zwilnicks."

"'Zwilnicks'? And isn't that being too paranoid, Mr. Schrödinger?"

"Zwilnicks are drug-runner boskonians, Ms. Vanette. And when it comes to our lives, there's no such thing as 'too paranoid.' Right, Noah?"

"Right, Katz. But we don't have time to wait for backup we can trust. We're going to have to find them ourselves, get into their base, and deal with them personally."

"We're probably badly outnumbered."

"Can't be helped," Noah sighed. Then he turned to Dee, Skuld, and Lisa. "Unless your group would be willing to help us? I'm pretty sure we can trust you."

"I can't speak for the others, but I'm willing to lend a hand," Lisa replied. "There were too many people like that back in Mega-Tokyo before Doug showed up and started the chain of events that got rid of most of them. Maybe I can return the favour here."

"If Lisa's in, I'm in," added Dee. "Besides, any chance to practice fighting alongside a comrade-in-arms is worth taking."

"Thank you." Noah moved his hand to his belt, then remembered he wasn't currently armed. "Sora, get me the MP5K that survived and all the ammo that's left, then head back to the Blade where you'll be safe."

"What do you think?" Luna stepped out of the changing booth and pirouetted.

Yayoi smiled. "It looks good on you. I didn't know this boutique sold a Senshi uniform in Ravenclaw colours, let alone one with ..." Just then, her cellphone buzzed. "Hang on ... Hello?"

"Yayoi, it's Noah. Where are you?"

"We're at Crystal 109. You suggested I take our friends shopping, remember?"

"That's right, I did. Take your time and have fun, then. Hugs and kisses!"

"Hugs and kisses, Noah." She put her cellphone away quickly.

"What's wrong?" asked Luna, sotto voice. "You almost look like you just saw a nargle."

"Our friends are in trouble, Noah wants us back right away, and we can't trust that the phone circuits aren't being tapped. We need to get everybody together. Now." Yayoi took a deep breath and released it slowly. Then she turned to the clerk, credit card in hand, and smiled. "She'll take that. Would you wrap her old clothes, please?"

"'Hugs and kisses'?" Skuld asked as Noah pocketed his cellphone.

"It's amazing how many people think we're a romantic couple, despite all the evidence. That's our code phrase for 'ignore what I've said and do the opposite.'"

Skuld grinned. "'The hugs and kisses of a chaste couple'. That's very much like a Norse kenning."

"Is that good?" asked Noah, wondering just what a 'kenning' was.

Two women were enjoying a quiet moment in a quiet corner of a quiet cafe. Then another woman showed up, whispered in an ear, and left quickly.

Once she was gone, Makoto turned to Leda. "Luna says Ms. Fujisawa says Mr. Scott wants us back now. She didn't say why."

"Noah doesn't change plans for no reason. We'd better head back." They paid for their coffees and headed back to the Sammie base.

As they walked past some of the local Senshi, one of them squealed and said, "Ohmigod! They look just like Lita!"

Makoto turned to Leda. "Do I really look that much like you?"

"She said 'Lita,' not 'Leda.' She thinks we look like you."

"That isn't my name."

"It was in the English dub. And, yes, you look like me, except for skin colour. And around the bustline."

Makoto noticed the undertone in Leda's voice when she said that last sentence. "Are you really jealous of a simple physical attribute?"

Leda thought for a moment. "Yes. Yes, damn it, I am jealous, Makoto-sensei."

"Yours are almost as big."

"Almost. N- men like women with large breasts."

"No, teenaged boys like women with large breasts. Some adults, too, I'll admit, but not all of them. It took me centuries to learn that some men are attracted to what's inside a potential partner's head instead of what's part of her or his body. Not many, I'll grant, but from what little I've seen of 'N-men,'" -- Makoto smiled briefly -- "I think he's one of them. Look at Nikaido-san and Li-ér for proof."

Leda thought about Makoto's comment for the rest of their walk.

The last of the girls -- Kohran and Kaolla -- rejoined the group a few minutes after the others. Both of them were covered in soot.

"Should I ask what you've been doing?" asked Noah with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

「Do you...」 Kohran stopped, then switched from Japanese to English. "Do you want to sleep well tonight?"

Noah groaned.

Kaolla grinned. "It was great! The dock crew actually asked us to use up the chlorine trifluoride ..."

Lisa cleared her throat. 「Not now, Suu-san.」

"Sorry, I'll shut up."

Kohran leaned over to Kaolla. 「What's up?」 she whispered.

「Leese isn't formal with me unless it's important. And those two look upset.」 Kaolla gestured toward Noah and Katz, both of whom were glaring at the two girls. 「We'd better pay attention.」

Kohran scowled, then jumped as Skuld tapped her shoulder. 「Put these on, and plug them in to yourself.」 She handed the android a pair of glasses, indistinguishable from the pair Kohran currently had on except for the USB cable. After she did so, she noticed Yayoi was also wearing new glasses.

Noah switched on Skuld's bug squelcher, surprising Yayoi and Kohran when their eyes and ears stopped working. They quickly switched over to the glasses' senses.

"As a few of you have already noticed from the crime scene," Noah gestured toward the briefing room, "we were ambushed while you were away. Katz Schrödinger has already volunteered to help me track down and deal with the people responsible."

Katz nodded grimly. "They attacked me, but didn't kill me. That was their biggest mistake."

Noah shook his head. "No, their biggest mistake was attacking Sora."

"We don't have time to argue. Their two biggest mistakes were attacking Sora and me."

Skuld scowled. "Their three biggest mistakes were attacking Sora, Katz, and us."

Dee cleared her throat. "Their four biggest mistakes were ... er, we'll just step out and come back in again."

Noah frowned. "Fine. Whatever. As of now, the mission to clean out this organized criminal cell in Crystal Paris is code-named 'Operation Spanish Inquisition'."

"I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition," commented Rei, completely deadpan.

The other visiting women looked at their hosts expectantly.

Finally, Noah sighed and said, "No-one expected a Spanish Inquisition reference from you, Ms. Ayanami." He shook his head, as if to clear the shock from it. "Enough joking; we're on the clock. As I said earlier, Katz has agreed to be part of the ... part of Operation Spanish Inquisition. The objective is to locate whoever ordered the attack on us, and neutralize them and their operations here. They have at least one agent in the civil organization -- the one who let those killers into this base. There may be more. That means we can't risk asking for backup. Evidence indicates they have access to the security cameras in this room. We have to assume the mere existance of Skuld's anti-surveillance gear has tipped them off that we know they've been watching us. In short, we're probably outnumbered, definitely on the enemy's home territory, likely have lost the element of surprise, and have nothing but our immediate resources to rely on -- we don't even have time to go get the weapons on my ship. Katz and I are going in anyway, because we're stupid that way."

"And we don't want to give them a chance to go to ground."

"What he said. If anyone else wants to be a part of this, raise your hand."

Every hand in the room went up.

Katz smiled. "Thank you. Ms. Vanette, you know your friends' abilities better than we do."

"Right." Lisa turned to Skuld. "You were hacking the computer system earlier; what did you find out?"

"It's bad. This is the person who was on duty when the order to evacuate the Sammie base came in. She told everyone else to leave, let the assassins in, then left the office herself." Skuld switched on the computer monitor.

Yayoi went white. "Oh, no ... Naoko, why?"

"You recognize her?" asked Katz.

"We all recognize her," Kaolla answered. "She was one of the judges at the contest this morning."

"She's ... oh, no. She's the base commander. No wonder everyone followed her orders."

Yayoi looked into Noah's eyes. "Please, let me handle this," she pleaded.

He didn't hesitate. "All right; you are a reserve Sammie. Yayoi, take care of Commander Sato. Ms. Vanette, I apologize for interrupting you."

"You're used to taking charge; I understand. Just don't do it again, okay?" Lisa turned to Rei as Yayoi left the room. "I don't want anyone going off alone." The albino nodded and followed Yayoi out the door. Lisa then turned to the people at the computer console. "Skuld, did you find any sign that Sato has any accomplices in the Sammies?"

"I didn't have time to look."

"We need you on the front lines. Rin-Rin, go through their computer systems and report anything you learn to Rei and Ms. Fujisawa. Get her phone number from Mr. Scott." Lisa turned to Noah. "What sort of criminals are these people likely to be?"

"Cold-blooded ... Sorry. They're probably harvesting the bacteria that's refined to produce thionite. That's what most boskonians do around Venus."

"If we had a sample of that bacteria," interrupted Luna, "we could do a divination to find more of it."

Noah turned to Leda. "Too bad you don't have the sample you took from Crystal Osaka."

"Actually ..." Leda pulled a sealed metal vial from her purse, checked the seal, and handed the vial to Luna. "Here you go."

"Why do you have that with you?" Katz demanded.

"Sentimental reasons. I've been carrying it since Crystal Osaka was destroyed."

"Destroyed?" When Noah nodded, Lisa asked, "Any deaths?"

"Hundreds."

"I'm sorry."

"Thank you," replied Katz. "Now you know why we hate zwilnicks."

Lisa turned to Luna. "There's no time to waste; let's do that divination. Dee?"

Delandra nodded. "Right, I'm in charge now. Who has a map of this place?" Noah switched on his PDA, tapped its screen a few times, and handed it to Dee. "Thank you. ... This map is incomplete."

"It's intended for tourists," apologized Noah. "I expect the Sammies have better maps in their computer system."

"Rin-Rin ...?"

"Already on it, Dee!" Rin-Rin typed furiously, and after a moment, Noah's PDA beeped. "There you go!"

Dee looked at the handheld's screen. "Yes, this is much better."

Sora locked the Epsilon Blade's airlock doors behind her, walked up the stairs to the ship's lounge, sat down, and quietly went to pieces.

Every memory she had, both the hard-coded ones from before she first woke up in 2008 and the recent ones from actual experience, told her that Skuld was a nice person. A good person. But ... but ...

But she'd cold-bloodedly killed two people.

No, that wasn't fair. She'd killed two people in the heat of battle.

But she'd killed two people. And she didn't seem to have any regrets afterward, the way Noah always did.

That wasn't the Skuld that Sora remembered.

If she couldn't trust her own memories, what could she believe?

She thought back to 2008, and something that Doug Sangnoir had told her when he was visiting Stellvia. "Sora, you remind me a lot of the best people the Warriors work for back home. I hope you can stay like them for a long, long time -- every world needs more people like you."

But what kind of person was that?

Sora remembered the last time she had felt so afraid, and who had helped her get through that time. She hoped for the same help now as she placed a call through the ship's InterWave system.

"Hello? Mr. Mayor? It's Sora calling, from Stellvia. Could I speak with Kat, please?"

「Dee says I'm to help you with the computers.」

Rin-Rin looked up at Kaolla. 「Thanks, I could use the help. I'm still backtracking that message; can you do something about the firewalls in the way?」

「Sure!」 She sat down at the next console over and started typing.

"Nice boat."

"Thanks, Mr. Schroeck," replied Captain Corcoran. "But I'm sure you didn't come all the way to Venus just to complement the Pinafore."

"That's true. I'm looking for some of the people who participated in the Iron Inventor match that you judged this morning -- do you know where they are, by any chance?"

"Can't say that I do, but I've got time to help you look for them."

"We've got them!"

Noah turned to Rin-Rin and Kaolla as Dee turned to Lisa and Luna. "Where are they?"

Dee glared at Noah. "Sorry," he said after a monent. "Your show. Go ahead."

"Leese?"

The blonde pointed. "That way, 570 meters."

"Rin-rin?"

"They're in the atmosphere processing plant."

Dee looked at the map on Noah's PDA. "They match. Let's go."

"No, Ms. vel'deVarn. You are not taking part in this."

Dee glared at Noah again. "You said this was my show. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't lead the attack."

"Because Ms. Vanette, Ms. Ravenhair, and Ms. Lovegood are taking part."

"I said a good reason."

"That is a good reason. If all four of you die, who's left to open a portal?"

She didn't have an answer for that.

"Besides, we need somebody to co-ordinate the support group staying here, Yayoi and Ms. Ayanami off wherever they are, the assault team, and the people running interference for the front-line fighters. Is anyone else as good a logistician as you are?"

"Fine, I'll sit this one out." She walked over to the desk that Kaolla was using. "But under protest. You're in charge."

"Thank you, Ms. vel'deVarn. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry." He turned his attention to the spellcasters, who were discussing their next action.

"We could use Finite Technologium to stop the equipment they're using, then go in while they're distracted."

Lisa shook her head. "Neither of us fully understand that spell yet, Luna. If we flub it, it might stop the drug purification equipment, but it could also stop Bibi, Fujisawa-san, Li-san, Hasegawa-san, the city's life-support systems, and every ship in port as well."

"I think we should take the chance."

This wasn't the Luna Lovegood that Noah remembered from the novels. He decided it was time to step in. "Luna, could we get you to run interference outside of the battle area?"

"I'd rather take part on the front lines."

"Is that a genuine Senshi uniform, with the armour?" Luna nodded, and Noah frowned. "Some of those have attitude-warping side effects. You'd better not fight until you're used to what if anything it does to your personality." Not that it isn't obvious what it's doing to your personality, he thought. "Can I count on you, Leda, and Kohran to keep any innocent civilians from getting caught in the crossfire?"

"Since you put it that way, all right."

Lisa looked up. "As long as you're keeping everyone safe, would you mind looking after Luna?"

Noah looked puzzled. "Aren't you Luna?"

"She's talking about the other Luna, her cat." Luna turned to Lisa. "Certainly, I'll keep my namesake safe."

As Noah walked over to Katz, he wondered how he had missed noticing that Lisa had a pet. Maybe A.C. is right, and I do need a vacation. What else have I not noticed lately?

"I'm sorry, Ms. Fujisawa, but I'm not allowed to disclose someone's personal information to a stranger."

Yayoi smiled at the hangar's desk clerk. "I understand. You don't want to lose you job."

"Thank you for ..."

Yayoi stopped smiling. "But that's what's going to happen if you don't co-operate. I'm not asking as a reserve Armed Militia officer or a highly-placed executive in an allied faction. I'm asking as a Rank OF-7 Operation Great Justice Troubleshooter. So get me that information right now or be ready to be up on charges, mister."

"Y-yes, ma'am."

Rei stepped forward so that she was directly behind Yayoi. 「Was that legal?」 she whispered in Japanese.

Yayoi matched Rei's volume. 「Not completely, but we're in a hurry. Sato would be long gone before we could find her ship if I went through channels.」

「I see. Your actions remind me of how Gendo Ikari used to behave.」

Yayoi winced. 「Oh. I'll go back to following the rules.」

「Thank you.」

The desk clerk cleared his throat. "Ma'am, here's Super Senshi Sato's vehicle registration information." He offered a computer memory stick to Yayoi. "She's in hangar 117. And, ma'am ..."

"Yes?"

"She's just asked for permission to launch."

"Stall her. That's an order."

"She's the Sammie commander, ma'am -- she has the right to launch on a moment's notice. I don't know how long I can keep her here."

Yayoi glared at the clerk. "Do it!" Then she took off at a run.

As Rei and Yayoi ran to hangar 117, the visitor commented, 「I'm surprised that your credentials are valid here.」

「The Senshi are very strongly behind Great Justice. Because I work directly for an OF-08 Troubleshooter, they told me that I could promote myself from OF-03 to OF-07 if I really needed to. And I needed to, because Sato is OF-06.」

「That isn't how most armed forces operate.」

「Most of us are making things up as we go along out here.」

「Ah. Is this a permanent promotion?」

「I hope not. I'd rather continue working on Stellvia.」

The first few fighters faced a door hidden deep in the life-support systems' caverns.

"Of course it's sealed," Noah sighed after trying his Great Justice ID in the card slot.

Katz nodded. "What else? They'd hardly want somebody who's supposed to be down here wandering in. Let's try creating a loud commotion out here, and if they unbolt the door, we'll jump them. Ms. Kino, can you make a thunderclap or something to draw people's attention?"

She grinned. "Thunder's just a noise, boys, lightning does the work."

Katz and Noah looked at each other. "Mark Twain?"

"Chad Brock. Don't forget who trained her."

"Oh. Right."

She frowned at the two men. "If you're finished...?" They shut up. "Thank you. Supreme Thunder!"

A blast of lightning shot from her hands, and the door exploded.

Noah whistled.

Katz blinked. "Okay, we're in." They headed inside.

The room was filled with somewhat-disquieting, oddly-suggestive conduits and beakers, all made from brightly-coloured transparent carbon. Noah took one look and whispered, "It's like a cross between H.R. Giger and H.R. Pufnstuf in here."

"Who and who?"

"Later, Ms. Vanette. We don't know when we'll be attacked."

Skuld pulled Noah to one side just before a machine pistol started firing. "They attack now. Please stay behind Mirai."

"Why?"

"Because, Mr. Schrödinger, she's bulletproof when she's in Moldiver form." Indeed, the bullets were bouncing off the short skirt and blouse that Mirai was wearing.

"Right. Important safety tip." Noah turned to Katz. "Whose turn is it to give the official warning?"

"Be my guest."

"Thanks." Noah raised his PDA to his lips, switching on the 'bullhorn' program. "This is an official Operation Great Justice raid! Surrender immediately!"

Gunfire was the only answer.

"Try to take at least one of them alive, ladies," Noah asked. "We need to know who they're working for."

Lisa nodded. "Peggy, guard the locals." She gestured toward Noah and Katz. "Bibi, Mirai, Skuld, out in front. Makoto and I'll back you up with artillery."

"We're not ..." Noah started.

Katz put his hand over Noah's mouth. "... in your league," he finished for his friend. "Go."

They left.

Katz waited for a moment, then took his hand away from Noah's mouth. "Are you going to insist on being a hero and joining in, getting in the way of five people who are used to fighting alongside each other and not used to working with us?"

"I can handle myself in a firefight."

"What about Sora? Or Yoriko? If you get shot, how are they going to take it?"

Noah stopped complaining. "When did you become the sane one in this partnership?"

An explosion in the distance drowned out the beginning of Katz's reply. "... and I shouldn't be the sane one. You need a vacation." Katz moved to the closest computer terminal. "Now that that's settled, let's see what we can see around here. I may not be as good as Trigon, but even I can spot some clues on a network." He typed for a few minutes, with only the receeding firefight making any noise. "But not on this network. We need a hacker."

"We have two." Noah switched on his commwatch. "Kohran, could you bring Kaolla and Rin-Rin down here, please?"

"Skuld already told us to head down. We're on our way," she answered.

"Thanks. Noah out."

Peggy looked at the commwatch. "Is that encrypted?"

"Of course."

"Then we had secure communications."

Katz shook his head. "The endpoints weren't secure."

"Oh. Right."

She'd made it this far ... but, against all protocol, she was being denied launch clearance. That wasn't supposed to happen. "Crystal Paris ATC, why am I being held on the launch pad?"

"We're sorry, Commander Sato, but there's a large ship coming in right across your launch vector. You'll have to wait until the lane is clear."

"Roger, Crystal Paris ATC," she replied while triple-checking her Corolla's space drive. That's bullshit, she thought. No traffic is allowed to come in across this landing pad. Then there was a knocking on the car's door.

「Sato! Open up!」

It was Fujisawa Yayoi, the reservist from Stellvia. One of the Ayanami-Rei clones that infested Fenspace was standing behind her; it was probably the Ayanami that came to Crystal Paris along with the Stellvians. Fujisawa looked extremely upset. The Ayanami was expressionless, but she was fidgeting with her bracelet. Naoko was surprised she was showing that much emotion.

「Open up now, Sato!」

It was obvious to Naoko that she'd been found out. It was likely Fujisawa was here for revenge for her employer's death. Naoko couldn't even pretend she didn't understand what Fujisawa was saying, because she was speaking Japanese. Sato rolled the window down partway and tried to talk her way into an escape. 「What do you want, Fujisawa-san? I'm in a hurry.」

「You're under arrest for abetting in drug-running and conspiracy to commit murder. Shut your car off and come out with your hands up.」

「That's ridiculous, Fujisawa-san. There's no way I could have done anything of the sort.」

「We have computer records and video streams that prove you did. Last chance, Sato -- step out of the car.」

She had one chance -- assuming Fujisawa wasn't actually touching her Corolla. Even if the wilder rumours were true and Fujisawa was a killbot, a slim chance to get away from her was better than no chance at all. 「All right. I don't want anyone to take my car while you process me at the station, so I'll just close the window first ...」 Sato reached down, rolled the window up, put the Corolla into gear, and floored it.

Once she was past the forcefield separating the city's atmosphere from the planet's, Naoko let the breath she was holding out in a half-sigh. She wasn't being followed or attacked from the launch pad. No choice now, she thought as she crossed the empty air that the nonexistant "large ship" supposedly was blocking. Evasive maneuvers, then make for La Mariposa's safehouse on Nehalennia.

As the echoes of the squeal of Sato's tires faded, Yayoi turned to Rei. 「Damn. My first independent action, and I messed it up.」

「You did catch up with her before she launched,」 Rei commented. 「I didn't expect to confront her.」

「True, but I didn't actually catch her.」 She punched the wall beside the landing pad's access door. "What do I tell Noah?" she wondered aloud in English.

"I believe telling him the truth would be best."

"I think that's all of them," Lisa announced as she tossed an unconscious zwilnick onto the pile in front of Noah. "Did we get enough prisoners for you?"

Katz stared. "Did you take all of them alive?"

Lisa nodded. "That is what you wanted, isn't it?"

"True." Noah switched his commwatch back on. "Kohran, could you ask Dee to call in the outriders, please?"

"You can ask me yourself," Dee answered from behind him. He turned to see the people he thought he'd left out of the fight, save for Sora, Yayoi, and Rei. "Sana-chan brought us here, one by one."

"And I'm plum tuckered out. Any o'all'y'all got some cola?"

Lisa looked at Skuld. "First chance you get, please do something about the localization glitch in her translator. Was that even a real accent?"

"That doesn't matter right now," Noah interrupted. "We have a computer network here than needs to be cracked. Ladies?"

As Rin-Rin and Skuld moved to the computers, Kohran and Leda started examinig the thionite processing equipment. "This is quite the setup, Noah," announced Leda. "I'd estimate they can turn out five hundred doses an hour."

Noah walked over to look at the drug processors. "Then we've broken one of the big rings. Good work, everyone."

Meanwhile, Katz was busy with the prisoners. "Anybody got any handcuffs? We're going to need to secure all seven of these zwilnicks before they wake up."

"Seven?" Skuld asked in alarm. "There's supposed to be eight of them!"

A shot rang out.

Peggy turned, drew, and fired in one motion. The zwilnick in the shadows fell over.

So did Noah.

Leda moved to catch him before he hit the floor.

Kohran looked, and said, "Oh, shit," as she saw shards of diamondoid still falling from the hole the bullet left in the drug processing equipment.

Leda looked up and paled. "No ..." she whispered. Then she ripped Noah's shirt open and started performing what first aid she could. "I'm not going to lose you."

"... but I'm fine. The bullet bounced off my kevlar vest ..." he muttered in reply.

The visitors looked at Noah's still-bleeding shoulder wound, then turned to Katz.

"He's been dosed?" Katz nodded in response to Lisa's question. "What's this drug do to a person?"

Leda didn't look away from Noah as she answered. "It incapacitates the user while causing him to hallucinate. The hallucinations are always visions of the person's desires. Overdoses are fatal."

"... kill all the Turnerites -- it's the only way to be sure ..." muttered Noah.

"What sort of desires?"

"All of the person's desires, Ms. Kino," replied Katz. "Even the ones they don't admit to themselves. Even the ones that cause them emotional pain."

At that, Noah muttered, "... Meg, you're still alive ..."

"Meg?"

Kohran turned away from the patch she'd put over the hole in the thionite processing equipment. "Megan was Noah's twin sister. He told me about her once; she died in a traffic accident nearly two decades ago. Did he just react to your comment, Katz?"

"He might have," replied Leda. "Noah, the president's on the phone."

"... Mr. President? Yes, I'll become NASA's next administrator ..."

"It looks like he did," commented Bibi. "He knows a lot about us. We could find out a lot of his secrets, depending on what we say to him. It's only fair."

Leda frowned. "I'd rather not get him to say anything that would make him distrust me later."

"... yeah, I ripped her tongue out and fed it to her. That'll teach her to call us insolent peons. Now hurry up and get her the hell off my station ..."

Kohran shivered. "Do you really hate the SOS-dan that much, Noah?"

"... I don't hate you, Mikuru. Now be a good little girl and get into my bed ..."

Leda blinked in surprise. "Maybe those doujin artists were right after all."

"... hack artists, make me look fat. Kill them all -- now ..."

"You sound like a boskonian there, Mr. Scott," commented Rin-Rin from the computer console.

"... no, Rin-Rin, I'm your new master. Strip and get in there with Yoriko and Leda ..."

Leda and Rin-Rin both gasped. The young-teenaged visitor continued, "Ew. I did not need to hear that."

"... don't tell me the details -- that's what I hired you to ha..."

When she realized he wasn't going to continue talking, Leda held a finger up to Noah's neck for a moment, then started performing CPR.

"Oh, no ..." Kohran turned to Skuld. "Is he going to be all right?"

The goddess stared straight into the android's eyes. "If I look into his future, we may not be able to change it. Do you really want to know?"

Kohran quickly turned to Lisa and Luna. "You're magicians -- can you cast a healing spell on Noah?"

"I can cleanse his system," Luna answered. "What colour is thionite?"

"What difference does that make? He's dying!"

"I need to know for the magic. What colour is it?"

"Oh. It's purple."

Luna took a deep breath, pointed her wand at Noah, and shouted, "Imbutum Purpureum Abrogare!"

"Luna! 'Infectum'! Not 'Imbutum'!" cried Skuld. But Noah's brown hair was already changing colour, as if it was printed on a poster and purple inks were leaching away.

When the colour change ended and there was a purple puddle around Noah's body, Makoto kneeled beside him, opposite Leda. "You don't have enough power to do this. Clear!" Leda stopped her CPR, and Makoto summoned up her own lightning to shock Noah's heart. Then she shocked him again.

Noah's pulse and breathing slowly returned to normal. Leda sighed, only partly in relief. "He's going to be pissed off when he wakes up." He started snoring, and she added, "But at least he's going to wake up, thank God. We have to have a good, long talk about him wanting women other than Yoriko."

Kohran wasn't sure how to interpert that remark.

As the Sammie stretcher team took Noah to the infirmary, Katz turned to Skuld. "What did you find in the computers?"

She smiled, a predatory grin. "Ganymede. Two kilometers north of Little Jakarta. A dome controlled by somebody only referred to as 'La Mariposa'."

"I've heard rumours about La Mariposa. This is the first solid lead we've found to her operation. Thanks."

"What do you mean, 'thanks'? We're going, too. They did try to kill us, remember?" Then Skuld looked past Katz. "Actually, we're going and you aren't. A ... Trigon is about to call you."

"Trigon's the AI that's currently on my ship. If he's going to call, it's something important. Any idea what it's about?"

"Yes. But I'm not going to say, except that you're going to want to go back to Stellvia as soon as possible."

"If you say so. I may as well take Noah back home while you do our dirty work for us."

Lisa stepped beside Skuld as they watched Katz leave. 「We could have used his help. He does know the local conditions, after all.」

Skuld shook her head. 「Even for the people here, there's something... off about Katz Schrödinger. I can't put my finger on why, though, but it might be better if he didn't join us on this trip. Besides, we owe it to Dee to practice how to work together; he and Scott-san would just be in the way.」

While the others were busy preparing the Epsilon Blade for the trip to Ganymede, Bibi motioned Rin-Rin aside.

「What's wrong?」 she asked in Japanese.

Bibi hoped Rin-Rin couldn't read her body language. 「Well ... I'm a bit jealous that Mr. Scott fantasized about taking you to his dream bed, instead of me.」

「I thought you weren't a... what was the word Leese used? Oh, yes... a 'sexaroid' any more.」

「I still have the equipment and the desire. Not with him, though.」

「Then why are you jealous?」

「I don't know -- lust is irrational that way. But what about you? Do you have any desire to share Mr. Scott's bed?」

Rin-Rin shook her head. 「He's way too old for me. And he wanted me to... well...」

Bibi wasn't sure whether Rin-Rin's face was reddening in embarassment or supressed anger. She decided to risk continuing anyway. 「He's rich. He'd give you all the financial backing you could ever want.」

「There's a name for people who have sex for money. I'm not that kind of girl. And I'm too young for that sort of thing. And I don't want to be a... a...」

Bibi grinned suddenly. 「Good! On all three points. And the term you're looking for is 'concubine', I hope.」

「You hope?」

「Never mind. I think you should go with them instead of with us. If he remembers what he said, the two of you are going to need to come to an understanding.」

Rin-Rin thought about her companion's words. 「You have a point there.」

"Ms. Banzai, I can walk to the Uncertainty on my own. Really." Noah took two steps and fell forward.

Peggy caught him before he hit the deck. "No, you can't. Let us help you to your friend's ship."

Noah sighed. "Fine, you win." As she took his arm, he muttered, "Some days, you just can't get rid of a blonde."

Peggy scowled. Leda giggled. "You've still got that cheezy sense of humour. I'm glad; it shows you're still you."

Just then, Rin-Rin ran around the corner and stopped in front of Peggy. 「I'll help Mr. Scott to the Uncertainty. You need to help pack the Epsilon Blade.」

「I thought you were doing that.」

「I was, but I have to go back to Stellvia with Mr. Scott and Ms. Swansen.」

Noah looked like he was a cornered mouse. "I wish I understood more Japanese. Does this have anything to do with what I said during my thionite dream?"

Rin-Rin switched to English. "Yes. But not the way you think. I hope."

Further explanation was interrupted by the arrival of two men. "Ladies, I trust you remember me from this morning," Captain Corcoran said. "This is Bob Schroeck; he's very interested in meeting all of you."

"We're rather busy right now ..." Peggy began.

Noah put a hand on her arm. "Captain, I recall that the Pinafore is much larger and roomier than the Epsilon Blade. Are you interested in a charter run out to ... where are we going, again?"

Leda looked Noah squarely in the eye. "You and I are going back to Stellvia. Yayoi, Sora, Kohran, and our visitors are headed to Ganymede."

"The Jovian subsystem? Sure, it'll be a pleasant change from hospital ship duty."

"Mind if I come along?" asked Bob. "I'd really like to meet the Girls."

"I don't mind paying for one more passenger," replied Noah, "but don't get your hopes up too high. Two of the Girls are back on my station ..."
[edit] Interlude

30 May 2013
19:18 GMT
Stellvia

She'd been running for a quarter hour.

She knew she was in trouble when she heard a massive feedback squeal from the bug she'd planted in Stellvia's main operations room. She didn't stick around to let the Great Justice people track the radio signal to her desk; she abandoned it in place and walked out onto the Main Concourse.

But there were two people walking her way on the Concourse: a dark-haired woman and a pointed-eared blonde girl. Two of the Visitors. Nancy and Chalotte, assuming the Stellvians had the names right. She didn't know who Nancy was -- there wasn't any Nancy in any of the Drunkard's Walk stories she knew about -- but she had read the fanfics because she'd read the Borribles books when she was a teenager, and she knew she really didn't want to be on the business end of Chalotte's rumble-stick. She had an aversion to having holes poked in her body. And Chalotte looked annoyed.

So she smiled, nodded, and walked past Nancy.

As soon as the two had walked into the office module she'd just left, she started running.

She'd made it to her special module almost halfway around the Main Concourse before the Visitors spotted her. She ducked inside and dogged the airlock closed, then lowered the pressure in the module -- not enough to be dangerous, but it would stop the airlock doors from opening.

She saw that the Visitors had caught up to the airlock just as she turned away. She moved to the controls beside the airlock and prepared to hit the emergency disconnect. In any other module, that would have been suicide. But this module had a spacedrive of its own; she could get away.

She looked up to gloat at the Visitors through the airlock's window, then stopped in surprise. The older one was walking through the closed airlock door.

"Hi," the Visitor drawled sexily while somehow reaching past her skin and into her chest. "If you keep trying to run, I'll rip your heart out, and that would be a shame. You're such a pretty girl. Want to give up?"

She nodded in fear. "What are you?" she whispered.

"I-jin," answered Nancy.

30 May 2013
20:44 GMT
Stellvia

"Damn it, Yoriko, I don't need a stretcher," complained Noah.

She looked as if she was about to cry. "But you were shot!"

"And dosed with thionite," added Katz.

"He was WHAT?" Yoriko almost-screamed.

"I got better," Noah started.

"Only because of the Girls," interrupted Katz. "You really should save your strength. Let Rhiannon help you off my ship."

He gestured to the nurse, who brought the stretcher in closer. "What's this about him being dosed with thionite? I'll need to know exactly what happened."

"My other passenger will tell you everything I could, Ms. MacKenzie," Katz replied as Rin-Rin stepped off the Uncertainty, keeping her distance from Noah. He turned to Nancy. "What's this about a spy in my ranks, Makuhari-san?"

"We caught her listening in to station operations from an office in the Above and Beyond drydock," Nancy replied, all business. "She had bugs in a half-dozen other rooms, including the Operation Great Justice boardroom, and an illicit transmitter."

"Not my doing, I assure you."

From the stretcher, Noah grabbed Katz's hand. "I trust you. But even your group can miss a boskonian spy. You're only human."

Katz frowned at Noah's comment. "We can't afford to be 'only human' while the war's on. Where's this spy?"

"In the station's brig," replied Nancy. "Would you go get her, please? She's afraid of me for some reason."

"I'll take her off your hands." As Noah started to protest, Katz continued, "I insist. You aren't the only group that takes care of its own."