Chapter 26

March 2nd, U.C. 0163, 5:43 PM, Central Standard Time

From the moment the woman stepped into the saloon, Special Agent Julian Wilder couldn’t take his eyes off her. It wasn’t just that she was, in his opinion, beautiful, she was also unlike any woman he had ever seen. Everything about her, from the way she moved to the way she dressed, captivated him. So when she saddled up to the bar and asked for a glass of water, he got up from his table without a word to his companions and strode over to where she was sitting.

“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you,” he warned, placing his hand on the woman’s wrist just as she grasped the glass.

“Oh?” the woman said, turning her head slightly to observe the man who had so impudently touched her. “N—Why not?”

“You ain’t from around here,” Julian observed.

“How could you tell?” the woman asked with a smirk.

“Well, for one, you ain’t carryin’ a gun.” Julian answered. “That’s dangerous ’round these parts.”

“I can take care of myself,” the woman said, pushing his hand away. Julian had large, strong arms, capable of easily holding the woman in place, but as she pushed, he felt strangely compelled to let go.

“I meant no offense,” Julian said, taking a seat on the stool next to her. “I just wanted to warn you that the water here contains microorganisms that your body won’t find too agreeable.”

“Really?” the woman asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “I wasn’t aware that was a mon—a problem anywhere in the northern hemisphere.”

“Well, it’s not like we don’t have the technology to filter them little critters out,” Julian explained. “It’s just that some folk think they keep us hardy. We don’t get too many visitors this far south, so it’s not often a problem.”

“Thank you for the warning,” the woman said. “If the water’s no good, what would you recommend?”

“Well,” Julian smiled, “the coffee here tastes like dirt, but at least they boil the devil out of it.”

“Hmm,” the woman mused. “I prefer tea myself.”

“Tea?!” Julian chuckled. “You really ain’t from around here.” he lowered his voice before asking, “You’re from Neo Crystal Tokyo, right?” The woman looked away from him and he followed her gaze down to the glass of water she was still holding. It now had a tea bag floating in it, and steam was rising from it as bubbles began to form on its surface.

“Where I’m from isn’t as important as where I’m going,” the woman said, jerking Julian’s attention away from the cup. As soon as it was no longer in his vision, his memories of the tea vanished completely. “I’ve heard rumors of a large settlement in the southern hemisphere. Do you know anything about it?”

“I’ve heard those rumors too,” Julian admitted. “Big walls, armed guards. It may be the only place down there where the rule of law has any sway. But you don’t want to go there, especially unarmed. I hear they shoot at anyone who comes near it.”

“Like I said, I can take care of myself,” the woman said. “Any idea where I can find it?”

“Beats me.”

“Do you know of anyone who might?”

“There’s an expedition team that set up base a few miles southwest of here,” Julian found himself answering. He didn’t want to give this woman information that might put her in danger, but he felt oddly compelled to. “Someone there might know, but I doubt they’d tell you. It’s for your own protection.”

With a small smile on her face, the woman brought the glass of boiling hot tea to her mouth and gulped it down. The heat, apparently, wasn’t an impediment to her, Julian noted, before his mind was once again scoured of any memory of the tea.

Having finished her drink, the woman swiveled to face him and reached towards his collar. She wrapped her fingers around a chain necklace and pulled it free of his shirt. There was a crucifix attached to the bottom of it, which she cradled in her hand.

“Are you a religious man?” she asked Julian.

“About as religious as anyone, I suspect,” Julian answered. “Truth is, I wear it more for fashion than anything else.”

“That’s good,” the woman stated. “There’s no god to save you, Special Agent Wilder.”

“How do you know my name?” He asked, his eyes widening in shock.

“The two men you were with know it,” the woman explained. “They’ve been debating the best way to kill you. I’d say your cover has been blown.” She dropped the necklace and it floated back towards him, tucking itself beneath his shirt. This time, she didn’t erase the memory of the spell she had just cast. Julian looked down towards his chest, then back up at the woman, recognition finally dawning on him.

“You’re Élis—” he managed to say before she pinched his vocal cords shut. She raised a finger to her lips, and when he nodded, she released him. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I wanted to see the world I’m helping to save.” Élisabeth said, “to check if there was anything worth saving.”

“Well, how about starting with me?” Julian asked sheepishly. “I don’t fancy getting done in by those yayhoos.”

“No,” Élisabeth told him. “Mahou—you would call it magic—is best saved for truly important problems.”

“Oh,” Julian’s heart sank. Élisabeth stood up and turned towards the door.

“Hey,” the bartender called out. “You didn’t pay.”

“For water?” Élisabeth asked incredulously.

“This is ‘Murica,” Julian answered her. “Ain’t nothin’ free here. Tell you what, I’ll pay for you,” he said, plunking some coins down on the bar.

In the ‘Murican cultural lexicon, his words carried a double meaning, but he was so perturbed by his predicament that he didn’t realize it. The other patrons of the saloon picked up on it, and their reactions clued Élisabeth in on his faux pas. Taking one last look at the man, she pulled her hand back and slapped him across the cheek before turning on her heels and quickly exiting the saloon. The two men Julian was with broke out into raucous laughter.

“Better luck next time, lover-boy,” one of them taunted. It was the last thing he ever said. Julian was quick enough on the uptake to recognize the distraction Élisabeth had provided for him, one that hadn’t required magic.

Élisabeth didn’t look back as two shots rang out from the saloon. She couldn’t tell who had shot who. Perhaps Julian had shot both of the militiamen, or perhaps one had shot him. Even if Julian managed to kill them both, his chances of eluding the militia and fleeing to safety were slim. Although Élisabeth had provided a distraction for him, she had only done so to return the favor he had done her by paying for her drink. Despite the fact that Julian was enforcing the peace treaty she had helped to negotiate, she couldn’t bring herself to care about him. She had looked into his heart and found nothing worth saving.

July 16th, U.C. 0142, 10:04 AM

Wakarimasen, hakase,” Élisabeth said. “Naze do you need my protection just to do research? I can’t think of a single person on Chikyuu who would want to interfere with your work on geoengineering.”

“It’s not the ends that they find unacceptable,” Dr. Himari answered, “it’s the means. This research is not without risks, but if it’s successful, we could restore Chikyuu overnight.”

“That seems very optimistic,” Élisabeth observed. “I’ve been studying mahou-based geoengineering for decades, and I’ve never seen anything that could indicate such a rapid change.”

“It’s… not mahou-based,” Dr. Himari admitted. “Rather, it has to do with the source of mahou.”

“Mahou comes from other dimensions,” Élisabeth said. “I’ve been to one of them. There’s nothing there that can save or replace Chikyuu.”

“That’s… not quite what I mean,” Dr. Himari said. “It’s more abstract than that.”

“There’s something you don’t want to tell me,” Élisabeth said. “I won’t help you unless you’re more forthcoming.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” Dr. Himari winced, “but I can’t. It’s classified.”

“No nation can keep naisho from watashi,” Élisabeth boasted. “I have ways of getting the information out of you, but I’d rather it not come to that. Out with it.”

“If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me,” Dr. Himari said, hesitating. “There’s a mechanism colloquially known as the lever…”

Élisabeth listened patiently as Dr. Himari described the lever and its history. The more she heard, the more embarrassed she became that she had never guessed that magic had entered the world through a modification of the physical laws. She had heard Aina say that magic was created by humans, but she had never thought too much about it.

“This is a lot for me to take in at once,” Élisabeth told Dr. Himari, once the professor had finished her lecture. “I’m going to need some time to think about it.”

July 19th, U.C. 0142, 3:22 PM

For the first time in a long while, Élisabeth was enjoying herself, flirting with the cute, young barista serving her tea. He was just her type, open-minded and easygoing, without a care in the world. Best of all, he seemed to be into her too. If she wanted to be certain, she could hypnotize him, forcing him to tell her how he really felt, but that would ruin what they had going. Things were progressing well, and if he kept responding positively, it wouldn’t be long before she asked him out.

Their relationship would most likely unfold like all her past flings, but Élisabeth was looking forward to that. She would show him places and things he had never dreamed of, and he would repay her with long nights of passion. For a few weeks, they would hold each other in their arms and allow themselves to forget how truly awful the world was. After that, before anyone could get too attached, Élisabeth would break it off, not because she wanted to, but because he would age and die. She wouldn’t end up broken-hearted like Aina.

Before she could seal the deal, Élisabeth was interrupted by the ringing of her mobile phone. Annoyed at the intrusion, she summoned the device to her hand with the intention of declining the call, but hesitated when she noticed it was from Dr. Himari.

“Gomen, I’ve got to take this,” Élisabeth apologized, accepting the call. “Moshi moshi.” Through the phone’s speaker, Élisabeth heard only distant banging noises, followed by a high-pitched scream. “Hakase?” Élisabeth shouted into the phone. No answer came, and she teleported away, leaving the barista dumbstruck.

When she arrived at the underground laboratory, Élisabeth was immediately overwhelmed by the dual stenches of smoke and blood. The bodies of the researchers and their assistants were strewn across the lab, and a familiar meido stood over them.

“Aina-san,” Élisabeth said. “Naze?”

“Their experiment backfired,” Aina told her. “I tried to save them, but there was nothing I could do.”

“Naze were you here?”

“After you refused to help them, they turned to me.”

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Élisabeth said. “If you were here to protect them, naze did the hakase call watashi?” When Aina didn’t answer, Élisabeth continued. “You killed them because they wanted to pull the lever? They wanted me to protect them from you?”

“So you know,” Aina said. She stared at Élisabeth for a long time before elaborating. “I came here intending to shut this experiment down, but I was too late. If I had killed them, they wouldn’t have had enough time to call you. They were destroyed by their own experiment. That’s the shinjitsu.” Élisabeth didn’t believe a word of Aina’s story, but it didn’t matter to her at this point.

“How did you know they were here?” Élisabeth asked.

“The GINZUISHOU told me,” Aina answered. This, Élisabeth believed.

“Soshite, how would you have shut down the experiment?”

“If I have the chance, I’ll kill anyone who tries to pull the lever,” Aina said, “and you should too. Without exception, they all want to remove mahou from the sekai. Nani do you think that would do to you?”

March 7th, U.C. 0163, 7:23 PM GMT - 4

It had taken Élisabeth days to find the research facility, but only minutes to raze it. It had stood on a remote island which had, centuries earlier, been part of the South American mainland, but was now far from civilization. She still had no idea what technology they had developed to hide it from her magic, but she would learn soon enough. The captured scientists were suspended in one of her pocket dimensions, where she could interrogate them at her leisure. Afterwards, she would redirect their efforts away from the lever, towards more fruitful research.

She had no use for the armed guards, but even so, she left them alive. For decades now, it had bothered her that Aina solved every problem by killing. She had to admit it was effective, and for someone like Aina, who possessed no magic, perhaps it really was her only option. Still, she felt it reflected a lack of creativity on Aina’s part. By not killing anyone, Élisabeth could distance herself from Aina and her methods. It allowed her to feel smarter than—and superior to—Aina, if only in this one area.