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Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights

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Chapter 42: Special Chapter

The Bird in the Cage

The Lighthouse

Vertex Point Five

Homura Akemi's Room

Incubators don't panic.

Hmm.

True, this particular Incubator was trapped in some unknown location and imprisoned with little hope of escape. True, this one was cut off from the group mind, and if Homura Akemi's word was to be trusted, the group mind was either gone or corrupted beyond hope of recovery. For most other sentient beings, such circumstances would induce fits of helpless panic.

Incubators, however, don't panic.

He ("he" being the pronoun Incubators generally used for ease of communication with humans, despite its fundamental inaccuracy) was perhaps the last unaltered Incubator in existence, and true Incubators did not fear. Humans had a curious idiom he remembered hearing: "Afraid? I don't know the meaning of the word!" The statement implied ignorance to basic vocabulary on a surface level, but as he understood it, it was intended to be a boastful declaration of personal courage. Curious, then, that Incubators seemed to embody what it represented: not ignorance, but absence of fear.

He was not afraid. Of course he wasn't; Incubators did not fear.

An idea occurred to him. Homura Akemi's adjustments to the Isolation Field, his prison, enacted filters that blocked all but visual and auditory stimuli… and telepathy, of course, but telepathic access remained under her strict control. However, he reasoned, Homura Akemi in all likelihood had no knowledge of the exact range of Incubator vision. If she limited control of the visual filter to match the specifications of the typical human eye, as he suspected, then ranges outside of that of the human spectrum would likely be overlooked, and therefore might not be blocked.

Intriguing. Kyubey decided to test his hypothesis. It worked; a simple reconfiguration of his body's optical receptors switched the spectrum of his vision to an infrared wavelength. He could now see the heat signature of Homura Akemi asleep on opposite side of their room. The room was programmed for a standard Earth twenty-four-hour day/night cycle, and the lack of illumination plus her dormancy plus her lowered temperature drove Kyubey to conclude that it was "night", and she was asleep. He did not quite see the logic of adhering to such a cycle when Earth was an unknown but significant number of units and realities away, but he supposed that human circadian rhythms, inefficient as they were, would not adjust well to an entirely diurnal or nocturnal period of activity. As always, they sought normality in most matters. A curious species, to be sure.

With his hypothesis validated, Kyubey proceeded to experiment with altered visual spectrums. Observing alpha, beta, and gamma frequencies offered little of interest, but upon adjusting the spectrum to x-radiation...

Hmm.

Now he could observe the Lighthouse beyond the confines of his prison. Since he was, after all, still in place inside the prison, it was only logical that Homura Akemi would find no fault in his actions, and thus would have no logical reason to enact disciplinary measures. Of course, Homura Akemi seldom followed any logic when it came to disciplinary measures toward Incubators, or when it came to anyone or anything else, for that matter. With her asleep, however, there could be no reprimand and no attempts at discipline. Therefore, he concluded, he was free to observe as he wished.

With that decided, he returned to his observation. There was something on the x-frequency that caught his interest. Scanning through the structures of most of the Lighthouse revealed little. The humans, humanoids, animals, assorted extradimensional "fairy" creatures, and others were uniformly asleep. On board the Arthra, a few nightwatch officers made patrols of the ship's decks at regular intervals, but most of the staff was inactive. However, when he directed his attention to the highest peak of the Lighthouse, the presumed location of the constant sweeping ray of light that gave the structure its name… he could see nothing of it. The uppermost portions of the crystalline tower were a black void, a blind spot in his vision.

Kyubey blinked. The blind spot remained.

Hmm.

One by one, Kyubey cycled through his current body's available visual reception filters. He attempted to pierce the strange, inexplicable blind spot by every means at his disposal: every wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum from red to violet, but he was stymied at every turn. Perhaps a different approach? He engaged in a form of echolocation, similar to that of Terran chiropterans, but still the spot remained. Upon adjusting his auditory receptors, however…

Kyubey heard music.

He tilted his head. Incubators understood that humans found modulated and harmonized sound frequencies to be stimulating. There was an art to it, they understood, but like most human culture, art held little interest to them except when it could be used to their benefit.

This particular composition was not performed in modern Japanese, the common language that most all residents of the Lighthouse spoke. Kyubey searched through the limited data at his disposal. French, he concluded. Mid-20th century C.E., Belleville, Parisian dialect. Piaf, Édith. He listened further. The harmonics did make for interesting wavelength patterns, and the meter and structure of the lyrics were competent enough, though the subject matter was typically rife with human sentimentality.

"Quand il me prend dans ses bras

Il me parle tout bas

Je vois la vie en rose…"

The questions remained: why was there such a composition playing during this hour of the sleep cycle, with seemingly no one to hear it? Were it and the blind spot connected?

Kyubey pondered. As it stood, he had very little means to further his investigation. The logical thing to do would be to abandon it until more appropriate opportunities presented themselves. However, something made him cycle back through the spectrums with more care than before. On one in particular…

Particles of quantum energy? That was strange. Humans don't possess the level of technological prowess to properly identify quantum particles, much less harness them.

The greatest concentration of quantum particles centered around the blind spot at the top of the spire. Readjusting his auditory system confirmed that the music came from there as well... it was faint, probably inaudible to the rest of the Lighthouse, but it was there. Whatever the source of these phenomena, it was located there.

For lack of any other logical action, Kyubey projected a telepathic thought at it. Hello…?

Some unknown and irresistible force seized both him and his prison, and pulled him into a localized temporo-spatial crack before the impulses of the incoming visual and auditory data could reach his brain. The crack manifested to his senses as little but a searing flash of ultramarine light—

Kyubey blinked. Hmm.

His prison now sat on a wrought-iron table set before a tiny café, basking in afternoon sunlight that glittered golden on the burbling waters of a river running through an old stone canal. A two-wheeled, manual-powered recreational vehicle sped by, ridden by a post-adolescent human male in frilled attire, who rang the vehicle's bell twice as he coasted down a cobblestone path bordered by granite walls choked with climbing ivy. Down the riverbank was a suspension bridge set over the canal, composed primarily of cast iron arches and masonry. Looking further, he noted a certain architectural structure, a wrought-iron lattice tower recognizable in nearly all human cultures, a structure that served as an extremely effective indicator of exactly where the temporo-spatial crack had deposited him. It was an extremely noteworthy location in human culture; in fact, it was...

La Rive Gauche. The southern bank of the River Seine. Paris, France, he concluded. Circa late 19th to early 20th century, C.E. Intriguing.

Why a temporo-spatial crack should lead from the Lighthouse to the city of Paris, France from a century past, he could not begin to hypothesize. Examining his surroundings, Kyubey noted that the surroundings were not composed of Immaterial. What were clearly living, breathing humans passed by him without a glance: some carrying packages, others browsing the array of riverside shops and restaurants, still others lounging in the sun and admiring the many landmarks visible from the riverbank. Too many landmarks, in point of fact.

Assuming my geographical data is accurate, he thought to himself as he corroborated his findings, the Eiffel Tower should be located approximately two kilometers northwest of this location, and therefore mostly hidden from sight by other structures. Viewing conditions from this area of La Rive Gauche are not optimal. Yet the Eiffel Tower appears to be approximately one hundred meters away, and is clearly visible. Furthermore, the Arc de Triomphe should be approximately five kilometers to the northwest of La Rive Gauche, yet that structure is also visible from this location as well. Humans tend to avoid relocating historic landmarks whenever possible. Ergo, it is reasonable to assume that this is not La Rive Gauche, Paris, France, circa late 19th or early 20th century, C.E., but an elaborate reproduction of the same.

Further analysis: the composition by Piaf, Édith, continues to play. He followed the vibrational patterns to their source. The origin point appears to be a circa-late 19th century, C.E., phonograph, utilizing a primitive wax cylinder as a storage medium. However, said composition dates to the year 1947, C.E., by which time human audiophonic technology had progressed in the form of mass-produced vinyl audio storage discs, known as "records" in common parlance. A commercial release of a composition dating approximately forty to sixty years ahead of this time period, on a storage medium which would by that time be rendered firmly obsolete, is highly improbable, if not actually impossible.

Addendum: Passing humans display anachronistic apparel. So-called 'New Look' fashions of circa 1930s C.E. did not coexist and intermingle with the periods of Rococó, Neoclassicalism, and Belle époque haute couture at any point in a linear time scale. Conclusion: this reproduction is patently inaccurate.

A long, thin, wheat-based loaf, a comestible of some sort, struck the upper surface of his prison and interrupted his deliberations. A voice spoke from directly behind him, in American English with no clear regional dialect: "Would you kindly explain just why you're peeking into a lady's room in the middle of the night? I'd like to know how offended I should be."

A baguette, thought Kyubey, gazing up at the comestible. He pivoted to face the speaker…

Though it showed clear signs of greatly diminished capacity, the owner of the baguette still radiated an incredible aura of quantum energy, a blinding bright spot in his vision. It was the center of an enormous conglomeration of fractured and interwoven timelines, much like Madoka Kaname and Homura Akemi in their primes. No, he realized, not simply a temporal anomaly, but a living quantum superposition. His ears perked with the closest thing to giddy excitement an Incubator could feel. Another adjustment to his visual receptors, and he made out the details of the humanoid shell that the superposition cloaked itself in…

He could find no logic to its outward appearance: a late-adolescent human female, Caucasian-featured, draped in a royal blue cloak. Her irises were of an unusually bright and uniform pigmentation for her species; "robin's egg blue," in human vernacular. They were set in a face that conformed to—or perhaps exceeded—typical human female aesthetic standards: full lips, pronounced cheekbones, clear, fair skin. Her face was framed by parted side curls, raven-black and tied with a blue bow. One slender black eyebrow raised in an expression of disapproval as the superposition sat back in her wrought-iron chair, withdrawing the baguette she had used against Kyubey as an inefficient blunt instrument. With her free hand, she retrieved a china cup of aromatic black tea from a lacquered saucer on the table before her, bringing it to her lips as she stared at him, awaiting an answer.

Kyubey blinked. Hmm. Intriguing. If I may ask… exactly who and what are you?

Her lips pressed together in faintly amused smile. "I am Fantine."

I have significant reason to doubt that, said Kyubey. "Fantine" is a character from Les Misérables, a famous work of 19th century French literature. A metaphor for the loss of innocence, and a representation of the apathy and cruelty that humans often inflict upon one another.

"Well," said the superposition, apparently Fantine, "my other names wouldn't mean much to you, anyway. I'm not a part of your story."

I fail to see how that is accurate either. By your very nature, you should exist everywhere, in every universe, including mine. In addition, the mere act of observing and interacting with me and with the magical girls you have sheltered here makes you an integral part of our "story", as you put it.

"You're a smart little weasel, I'll give you that."

Fascinating. While I concede a slight outward resemblance, I bear no genetic resemblance at all to any species of Terran mustelids. If you are indeed the entity that controls the Lighthouse, you would presumably be aware of this.

Fantine grimaced and sipper her tea. "Smart enough to combat the principle of entropy on a universal scale, but you still can't understand metaphors."

You know of our goals?

"I pretty much know everything." The statement was not a boast, it was a fact. She crossed a leg over her knee… there were dark, lace-up boots beneath the hem of her dress. "I see everything."

Then have you seen the outcome of the war against Dead End?

Her features tensed. "No. I try to keep my personal time scale linear unless I absolutely have to," she said. "Experiencing the totality of everything that can ever happen all at once… There's too much pain, too much darkness, and no matter what happens, it all inevitably leads to the end of everything."

The heat death of the universe. Or universes, rather.

"Most universes are lucky if they last that long. Besides," she said, setting down her cup. "It's hard to relate to other people when I'm non-linear. I'd rather put up the appearance of still being human."

"Still?" Kyubey's ears perked. You were once human?

"Was, am, will be, never was." Her laugh was musical, but bitter. "The language doesn't exist to describe what I am, so I have to go with the closest thing. But yes, in linear terms, I was just a human, for a little while, once upon a time."

And clearly, you are not now.

"Not by choice. What I am now is an accident, something that should have never happened."

Yet you maintain this place, the Lighthouse, as "an extension of yourself." By your own admission, you watch over all time, all eventualities. You have displayed unfathomable power, enough to put a stop to the entity that consumed Vertex Three at the peak of its strength. Surely, such a being as yourself could prevent the accident that made you this way, could you not?

"It doesn't work like that."

Please explain.

Fantine leaned forward, elbows on her knees. She looked out at the water, wistful, melancholy. "It all started far from here, in a place beyond the universe you come from, beyond any of the Vertices. Somewhere in the deeper multiverse, in the infinite possibilities. Someone took me to a place I wasn't supposed to go, to another universe, another reality. Most of me made it through, but part of me was left behind. That disrupted everything… it all went wrong. It gave me powers I never should have had, and I became… well, this.

"For a while I thought I could make it all stop by dying for good. I thought I could collapse back into just one of myself, finish what I had to do, and then be at peace, just fade away into the night. But even someone like me can't travel the multiverse without leaving traces behind… blood. Hair. Sweat. Skin cells. Too many traces in too many realities. The me that was supposed to finish it all died, but just when I thought I would finally be free… I woke up here, in this room, in the Lighthouse."

You did not construct the Lighthouse? Kyubey asked.

"There's always a Lighthouse," said Fantine. "Always. Someone has to be here, lighting the darkness, keeping watch in the night. It's been here as long as I'll remember, and it'll remain long after I'm not around to… if that ever happens."

For a while, Kyubey fell silent, pondering the implications of her words. The only sounds were the bubbling laughter of the Seine, the soft chatter of Parisians as they went about their business, and Édith Piaf crooning her song from the old phonograph.

Another question occurred to Kyubey: How long have you existed?

Those remarkable robin's egg blue eyes bored into him, flooded with exhaustion and misery and anguish beyond imagining. Even Kyubey, a being that could not feel pain and could not comprehend human emotion, caught a tiny inkling of her suffering. "I don't know," she whispered. "It's been so long. It's been so, so long… I blink an eye, and an eon ends. I look away for one moment, and in that time entire galaxies are born, thrive, decay, die, and disappear… but it never ends. Joker's right about that much. It goes on and on and on and on, repeating for eternity after eternity… and even God gets tired sometimes, Incubator. Even God gets tired."

Fascinating, he said. Are you comparing yourself to the human idea of "God"?

She made a horrible face. "I'm pretty sure God has a lot more control over His life than I do."

Ah. Forgive my asking. If you answered in the affirmative, it would be cause for significant alarm. Comparing oneself to "God" is a common indicator of psychological distress.

"And the last thing you need when all existence is in danger is an omniscient quantum superposition with a god complex."

Exactly, said Kyubey. But if I may digress… why must you be so secretive? What, in any universes, could pose a threat to a being such as yourself?

"That's just it," she said, reaching for her tea again. "By any objective standards, I'm the most dangerous being to ever exist, but I'm not infallible, and I'm sure as hell not incorruptible. If Joker were to somehow learn who I am and what I can do, he'd literally stop at nothing to get me on his side. He's already proven that he can and will break all the laws of time, space, and reality for the sake of his sadism… nothing is impossible for him at this point." Vinegar seeped into her words. "And speaking as someone responsible for a war on reality… I can't let myself be used as a weapon again, not by anyone. That's why I'm hiding, Incubator: I know exactly what I can do at my worst, because I've done it before."

I must admit, I see the logic in your decision. Kyubey nodded and sat on his haunches. If I may ask a further question?

"You may. Be fast, I've almost finished my tea."

Noted. Kyubey looked around at the mock-Paris, impressed by the minute attention to detail. Every blade of grass in its proper place, and every pebble on the path sharp and defined… which made the inconsistencies all the more jarring. This place is a pocket dimension of your own making, is it not? With abilities such as yours, you could recreate any place, from any time, in any universe. Why Paris? More specifically, why this Paris, with all of its inaccuracies?

Fantine heaved a lonely sigh and sat back in her chair, watching life pass her by. "I've always loved this city. Since I was a little girl, I've dreamed of what it was like to be here, smelling the bread and pastries baking in their ovens, browsing the tiny little corner bookstores, dipping my toes in the Seine. I used to think that when I grew up, I would escape my tower and see the world… Paris would be my first stop, and my last.

"By the time I awakened to my real powers... I didn't deserve the real Paris anymore. I did terrible, unforgivable things, Incubator. I was responsible for pain and suffering and death beyond imagining, and in trying to fix it, I ended up just like the monsters that I hated so much. My life became one long act of penance for my crimes. Maybe that's the reason I woke up here in the Lighthouse… because my sentence isn't over yet. I've just traded one tower for another.

"You want to know why I'm sure I'm not God, Incubator? Here's why: I can exist anywhere and everywhere… except Paris. I can watch it from far away, and I can create silly illusions like this one, but I can't go there for real. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I want to, I can't taste a real Parisian croissant, fresh from the oven and all soaked in butter, and watch the flakes flutter down onto my plate like snow in winter. I can't feel the sun on my face as it rises from behind the Eiffel Tower in the morning. I can't rest my cheek against the Arc de Triomphe. I can't kneel down and touch the tiles of the mosaic on the floor at the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur…

"Paris is my Oz, my Neverland. It's so close that I can almost touch it, but it's always just out of my reach. All I can do is make an imaginary Paris like this one, every once in a while when the loneliness gets to be too much. That's all this is... just a dream." There were tears in her eyes. "Just a dream I dreamed."

You identify with Fantine, said Kyubey. You draw parallels between your suffering and hers. That is why you chose that name for yourself, correct?

"That, and it's always been my favorite book." A sorrowful chuckle. "The Stranger is my Cosette, you know. She's someone that I love dearly… but I'm scared to death that she's slipping away from me. Part of her is already gone, you know? I felt her tear away just now. If I lose her… I'll be all alone again."

Perhaps not, said Kyubey.

"What do you mean?"

I seem to recall Homura Akemi speaking a peculiar phrase to herself on more than one occasion, which ends with these words: "As long as you remember her, you are not alone." What exactly it means, or who "her" refers to, I cannot begin to fathom, but it always seemed to bring comfort, even to an illogical and irrational being such as herself. Perhaps the phrase is simple human sentimentality and has no deeper meaning, but regardless, it could be worthwhile to remember it, could it not? After all, as you said, you were once human… "once upon a time."

Fantine burst out laughing.

Kyubey waited patiently for her to finish.

"I'm sorry," she said, wiping tears of merriment from her eyes. "The thought that I'd ever get emotional support from one of you… I never would have expected it. It really is hilarious."

I must confess, I fail to see the humor.

"I'm not surprised. Well then, Incubator," she said after draining the last of her tea. She leaned forward across the table and flicked the iridescent tesseract of his Isolation Field prison with one finger. "Thank you for the conversation. It did help to have someone to talk to... in words."

I am pleased to have assisted you, said Kyubey, nodding his head. Now then, if you feel more emotionally stable, there are many more questions I must ask you. After all, if you know of our goals, it is only logical that you would be as invested in preventing the heat death of the universe as we are. If we were perhaps to join forces—

"You should have stopped while you were ahead." Fantine's features crinkled with distaste. "Sorry, but I'm going to have to decline your offer. There's really no point to accepting, as you're about to forget you ever made it."

Kyubey blinked. Please explain.

"I mean that thirty seconds from now, this meeting between you and me won't exist," said Fantine, sitting back in her chair once more. Those robin's egg blue eyes twinkled with stars. "It won't have happened, will have never happened. Whatever the conjugation you want to use is. As helpful as you've been, you've seen and heard too much… no one can know who I am, least of all you. And I think I'll be a little more careful about playing music up here from now on, just so it never happens again."

May I ask you to reconsi

-static-

The Lighthouse

Vertex Point Five

Homura Akemi's Room

Incubators don't panic.

Hmm.

True, this particular Incubator was trapped in some unknown location and imprisoned with little hope of escape. True, this one was cut off from the group mind, and if Homura Akemi's word was to be trusted, the group mind was either gone or corrupted beyond hope of recovery. For most other sentient beings, such circumstances would induce fits of helpless panic.

Incubators, however, don't panic.

END OF CHAPTER 42