Lina, it turned out, had a healthy appreciation for heavy ordnance. Her power set was appropriate. In fact, Eva was into martial arts and academics, and her powers were focused on hand to hand combat and increased sensory acuity. Amaterasu was cheerful and kind, and her powers were rainbow-themed.

Was there some unconscious power selection? Did a granter of power try to match personality and theme? If you sort of squinted, the powers made perfect sense for the people.

Looking more closely, I couldn't see any particular reason Amaterasu was better suited for a disintegration ray, even if it came in rainbow colors.

The powers were almost all combat oriented. Most utility was a side effect or secondary usage. Were the powers some sort of alien weapon package, the visualizations and themes varying based on the subject?

Maybe the powers just malfunctioned on humans. Why give the girls powers anyway? So they could fight Mechaner? Or some other threat? Or destroy the world?

The quad-copter drone veered past her shoulder, rotors whining against the sudden blast of wind. A bright flash indicated its suicidal explosion.

The sensors lining her body displayed massive damage down her right flank - the path of the hypervelocity stream of metal. With that damage she couldn't run. I doubted she could crawl. I sighed and radioed her. "You can't let the drones get that close. One good shaped charge detonation and you are toast."

"Yeah yeah. I just wanted to see if I could knock it out of the air with wind control. I don't want to have a storm up all the time. Here, go again."

Amaterasu was nearly immune to the drones. If she was taken completely by surprise she was vulnerable. If she had the time to start a spell, she would always cast it before the attack could interrupt her.

She didn't start casting before there was some indication that an attack was coming - casting time always just slotted into the available space. The casting time was sometimes shorter, but not unreasonably fast - just plausibly fast speaking.

This feature was shared by the other girls. It just didn't convey as much invincibility, as they lacked Amaterasu's shield. Eva's Third Moment Celerity did make her fast enough to dodge many threats, leaving Lina as the most undefended party. Hence this practice.

I revived the drone from its station-keeping hover and ordered it to rise several hundred meters. "Okay, go." I fed the drone targeting information for Lina and confirmed the kill order. It flipped over and dropped out of sky, faster than falling.

Lina sprinted forward. The drone corrected, weaving in a random pattern to avoid any targeted attacks. When the drone was nearly within range she shouted "Descending Glacier Conjuration!" A layer of ice swiftly congealed out of the air onto nearby surfaces, including the drone.

The rotors whined at the sudden weight and obstruction. At first I thought the drone would correct its trajectory, but the ice built up sufficiently on the top surface and blocked a rotor. The drone tried to correct its path with the remaining rotors, but a second was soon overcome as well.

Recognizing its fate, the drone fired the last two rotors to rotate the shaped charge simulator in the direction of Lina. It flashed, fractions of a second before hitting the ground. I looked at the damage indicators on Lina. Nothing. It had missed. She was out of effective range anyway.

"Nice job. Let's try that against missiles."

The island was just north of tropical climate. Volcanic sand circled a lush forest that thinned out on the slopes of a small peak: a stereotypical pacific island. I half expected to find a barely clothed man making a raft.

It was also close to being a stereotypical supervillain lair, what with the secret fortress dug into the extinct volcano. My grandfather had purchased it decades ago during the cold war as an extreme survival shelter and weekend getaway. It never got used as a survival shelter, but was still stocked with enough surplus military gear and rations to survive a long nuclear winter.

Unfortunately it was also too secluded to be practical as a weekend getaway. Now it could be a secret hero lair. The seclusion would help ensure privacy during our practice session.

I'd asked Lina to put up some thin cloud cover to prevent satellite surveillance (at least in the visual spectrum), though it might be unnecessary. Anyone of means who wanted satellite coverage of the magical girls could have obtained it over the past couple months.

It might also be superfluous if whoever was censoring videos of the magical girls had as extensive a reach as advertised. Tonight we began a simulated invasion of the island.

Jackson had been preparing automated defenses for a week (I was considering converting some to live ammo afterwards). He had a scenario planned. All we knew was that our objective was to extract a certain briefcase.

Our current plan was to swim to the forested eastern shore of the island while my portable drones (I was only allowed what I could carry on me) scouted ahead stealthily. We would try to remain undetected for as long as possible.

We bounced across the waves in the zodiac as the sun set. Amaterasu talked nervously, making joke after lame joke. Eva sat quietly, staring at her least human prosthetic - a heavy metal appliance strapped around her forearm.

Lina hummed an upbeat tune while listening to her music player.

An alarm on my phone went off. I jerked and checked the time. We had decided to begin as soon as the simulation started. We considered waiting for a less predictable time, hopefully letting Jackson's focus slip, but we didn't want to risk detection by long-range drone surveys or other scouting methods.

I was the only one wearing armor. I was also carrying lots of gear, which seemed a bit unfair considering I was the only one without super-strength. I was supposed to coordinate the girls and our technological assets.

The others were wearing their revised costumes. They weren't bulletproof, but they were very tough, fireproof, and easy to move in. They still adhered to the basic magical girl standard of bright and cheerful appearance, but they were reversible with dark camouflage-toned inverses.

The new footwear was also significantly improved. Apparently the reason the girls were always buying shoes was because jumping down from multistory buildings took a toll on regular footwear.

I had convinced them to each wear a small HUD with built in radio and video camera. They also had a pistol hidden in a personalized embellishment at their back. My armor was colored slightly darker than the girls' uniforms, but still had some frills that hearkened back to knightly armor.

Amaterasu had insisted on a team pose, complete with photo op. Lina, Eva, Amaterasu, and Odysseus: my new code name. I nodded to Lina and she intensified the fog. If her practice had paid off, a roiling mist would be crawling across the waves and creeping into the island from all sides. The thickening of the mist might be more abrupt than discretion dictated, but the enemy was already warned.

I pulled my breathing mask on and flipped over the side. The girls followed me. Amaterasu pulled on her hilariously oversized flippers in the water, having found them too cumbersome while in the boat (she insisted on switching seats every few minutes).

She swam over and handed me a cord before flitting off into the dark water. With giant flippers and super strength they could really move. We reached the shore line with no incident.

I pulled out my stealthiest drone and tossed it gently into the air. It unfolded rapidly, recovering from its spin just in time to hover an inch above the water. I directed it onto the idyllic beach, trying to keep myself still in the surf.

Watching the result of its scanning pattern I let out a breath. A single motion detector. I pulled out a simple fabric bag and directed a second drone to cover the motion detector.

In a hushed tone I said, "Eva go." She whispered "Third Moment Celerity," and darted forward. Once safe in the trees she activated her Cognizance Mediation. There was a long moment of silence before she said "clear."

We surged forward, running across the soft sand until well within the edges of the forest. Eva spoke calmly. "I don't sense anything moving or dangerous within 100 meters."

"Excellent. With all deliberate haste then. Eva, take point," I replied.

Eva had focused on practicing her cognizance meditation. She had found that she could, with care, flicker it while moving in bursts. She had to be still and concentrate completely for tens of seconds to get the full use of the meditation, but immediate use of the power granted decently increased senses and a little danger sense.

This base level was sufficient to identify significant and immediate dangers. Oddly enough, these seemed to include alarms, even if the effect of the alarm was not immediate.

I had tried threatening to shoot her if a particular stock price didn't go up in one hour, to determine whether her danger sense could predict stock prices, but it didn't work. Possibly it was because she easily disarmed me when the stock price fell.

Maybe I didn't muster enough determination. My attempt to replicate the experiment with a higher calibre weapon was halted by an earnest entreaty from Amaterasu. I wasn't convinced, until I realized she was worried about my safety, not Eva's.

We had a strategy for tonight, though. Eva would freeze, mutter 'Divine Cognizance Meditation,' take a second to check for dangers, then sprint forward for a few seconds and repeat.

While the meditation was not particularly tiring during use, this method was quite exhausting - both magically and mentally. Of course, I wasn't entirely sure whether magical exhaustion was distinct from physical or mental tiredness. We had done tests where the girls cast to exhaustion under different circumstances.

Eva had already been keeping track of how many of each spell they could cast, but it was unclear whether their gradual increase in magical stamina was from practice or some intrinsic increase. While physically and mentally exhausted from mundane exertions they could still cast spells (though slowly and imprecisely), so it seemed there was more to magical exhaustion.

On the other hand, magical exhaustion didn't seem to adhere to a strict 'mana' cap or regeneration rate. It behaved more like physical exertion in the nature of its maximum usage and the benefits of rest. Regardless, we had calculated that Eva could continue in this manner to the base of the mountain with an expenditure of half her reserves.

Our approach was uneventful, interrupted only by two nearly invisible trip wires. We were a little over halfway through, when Eva suddenly paused her approach. "Motion detectors ahead," she hissed. She started going around before pausing and backing away again. "Damn, tremor sensors that way." She froze for a longer period. "And the other way. Okay, we'll have to backtrack."

She raised her foot to head in our direction, before freezing. "What! Tremor sensors right here! Don't move!" We stilled further, watching her with confusion. I hissed, "We came through there, how did we miss them?" Eva frowned, glancing around the forest, trying to find a way to escape.

"They couldn't have been placed after our arrival. We've been here seconds, and there are sensors right here!"

She paused and a thoughtful expression descended on her face.

"Unless they haven't been turned on. They aren't a danger if they aren't on, so I wouldn't have noticed them."

"How did Jackson know we were here to turn them on? Oh never mind, he's probably just turning them on every fifteen minutes or so, making sure we are likely to get too far into his web to escape."

Eva nodded abruptly. "Then we can't risk waiting for him to turn them off. He probably has drone patrols or something on top of this. Lina, start a storm, we need to slow down the drone response. Amaterasu, take Sebastian. We need to run fast."

"Uh... oof," I groaned, as Amaterasu picked me up bridal style and sprinted after Eva. I felt like I should make a humorous comment, but lost my breath to the sudden acceleration.

The eerie jitteriness in the air that presaged one of Lina's large storms was detectable even through the mist and headwind.

A close crack of thunder caused my earbuds to switch to dampening. A tree a little to our left was denuded by a red burst of ... paint? Was he using paint artillery shells? I felt a stab of fear - I wasn't super tough, and that shell must have had a gratuitous bursting charge.

The ride shifted from uncomfortably bouncy to reminiscent of a malfunctioning fair ride. Amaterasu leapt between tree trunks to avoid mines and tracer rounds from far-off drones. Eva ran ahead, using Celerity to keep easy pace while still scouting ahead with her Cognizance Meditation.

The storm arrived. Fortunately, this kept the worst of the drones off our back. We reached the mountainside with a scary posse of drones in close pursuit. After a quick moment to get our bearings and catch our breaths (mine, more than the girls') we continued towards one of the cave entrances.

Sprinting up the mountain side was completely different than running in the jungle. The storm winds were trying their best to rip me out of Amaterasu's arms while the drones now had both open (if hostile) skies and a clear shot.

Amaterasu freed an arm to shield against several suicide drones that got within detonation distance. The weather made it difficult for the close range drones. They had to go in a loop: leaving the worst of the wind, then following that same wind towards us.

This had a downside for us. The wind accelerated the already fast quad-copters into bullets. A wailing noise and red flashes on my HUD indicated I was hit. Not that bad, but I would need medical attention eventually or I would 'bleed out.'

We reached the entrance. Lina and Amaterasu blasted the cave mouth from a distance. We couldn't even see what was in there, and by the time they were done I doubted I would be able to uncover the contents without serious forensics.

We entered the room. Amaterasu put me down, but stood ready to scoop me up in case we needed speed. I wasn't feeling very useful. We strode down the smashed corridor, and into the lair.

A few mines and inconveniently placed turrets slowed us, but only slightly. Reaching the vault was not very difficult. Far from the surface there was an enormous cavern, partially a natural inclusion in the igneous rock, partially a hollow made by some industrious dynamite.

Nearly every passage into the mountain led eventually to this room. Directly below the vault a hidden spiral cut into the rock for ten meters before opening into a small sealed room. In a fit of imagination we called this the sub-vault. Our imaginary sources indicated that the briefcase would be within this room.

I had expected significant resistance in the vault, and I was not disappointed. Dozens of drones circled - even two large fixed-wing weapon platforms had somehow been trundled into the cavern. Ten turrets and three wheeled vehicles with lots of armor and bristling weapons completed the defenses.

I pointed at the entrance to the sub-vault, covered in sandbags and a turret. "We need to get in there as fast as possible, and not fight all of these emplacements. Lina, start making the best storm and mist you can in this enclosed space. Once we have some confusion, we'll sprint to the entrance. Lina and Amaterasu: fire off everything you have - try to remember where those vehicles are and hit them first. I'll take out the heavy weapon drones - hopefully the smaller ones won't be able to reach us in the wind. Eva: go ahead and clear off the turret on the entrance to the sub-vault. Oh, and Amaterasu, be ready to shield us."

Eva looked a little irked, but this was the closest to a space to breathe and strategize our fights had had so far. Eva could overrule me, but this was arguably within the scope of my role.

I unlimbered my rifle and ordered my combat drones to detach from my back and unfold. They would suicide on the floating weapons platforms at the top of the vault. The drones and turrets had turned in our direction, but Jackson seemed hesitant to send them into the narrow corridors where the magical girls' attacks had proved so deadly.

I hoped the close quarters and misty distraction would allow my drones to close sufficiently. The vault filled abruptly with mist and circling wind. A terrible deep throbbing moan filled the cavern -- from the acoustics of the wind rushing past the tunnel entrances, I assumed. Lina's voice sounded in my ear above the unbelievable wail. "Done the best I can!"

I nodded and shouted, "Go!" My pair of suicide drones shot out towards the now concealed ceiling. The girls raced across the ground, Amaterasu carrying me once again.

Eva reached the turret and cut it apart with one of her imbued swords. A series of blinding flashes lit the air as Lina fired off her Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade. Wide green cones radiated from Amaterasu.

Unfortunately the firepower emanating from Amaterasu made both of us an excellent target through the mist and electronic interference. Amaterasu dodged the first couple of attacks, but was forced to shield against a barrage of light beams representing missiles and hypervelocity rounds.

A pair of bright flashes and beeps on my HUD indicated my drones had fired their suicide charge. The sudden slackening of the firepower raining down on Amaterasu's shield spoke to some success. She dropped the shield and sprinted forward, but only took three steps before being forced to raise the shield again.

We sat under the waning shield for ten seconds - unable to drop the shield for an instant. I tapped through my HUD menus before settling on the structure overlay. A grid shone out, showing the sub-vault entrance merely five meters away.

I could also see indicators of Lina and Eva inside the entrance, no doubt holding it open for us. I shouted over the barrage. "Five meters away, Lina and Eva are holding entrance."

Amaterasu shouted back, her vocal cords clearly unused to such volumes, "Show me!"

I remotely activated her HUD's map overlay, pinging the location of the sub-vault entrance. She looked below them at the sub-vault itself. We were crouched now, unable to stand inside the rapidly shrinking shield.

She smiled at me with a scarily Lina-esque look, and yelled, "Hold on tight!"

She moved her off-hand to point down at the sub-vault while still holding the shield up with her right.

I shouted (definitely non-squeakily), "What are you doing?"

She chanted slowly. "Perfect Blue Rainbow Resonance!"

A beam of blue, more brilliant and wider at the base than anything I'd seen her use before, cut through the stone right in front of her feet. She jumped into the tunnel, taking a barrage of bullets to the back as she did.

Clinging to her, I felt the claustrophobic tightness of the chute. Not tight enough, I realized - we skimmed down the sixty degree incline way too fast. I reached out and scraped the walls, but I felt my gloves heating fast.

We popped out of the chute still going quite fast. Amaterasu rotated in midair and tried to catch me. I landed on top of her. While I appreciated any cushioning, as a cushion Amaterasu wasn't quite up to snuff. Now Lina... bad mind, get back on topic.

I ended up bruised but intact. Amaterasu blocked the shaft with a Solid Light Reformation before opening the sub-vault's inner door and calling out to the others. The door was seriously heavy duty; I was glad we didn't have to burrow through it. Though Amaterasu's Perfect Blue Rainbow Resonance might make short work of it.

Amaterasu returned with Lina and Eva and shut the door. That should buy us some time. We all looked to the small briefcase that sat on the desk in the center of the room. I spoke. "Okay, five to one Jackson has this booby-trapped. Eva, defuse it with Cognizance engaged. Amaterasu, be ready to shield."

I was finding it difficult to walk after the drop, so Amaterasu held me up with one hand, the other ready to shield. Eva approached the package cautiously, pausing for a long time within arms length. She reached over carefully and started to pick up the briefcase.

A muffled series of bangs told me the drones were chipping away at the door. Jackson might have them bring a large shaped charge. Of course he couldn't simulate that safely so he'd probably just call us and say we were dead.

Amaterasu smiled at me sweetly, gave a little half-bow and said, "Sorry." Eva picked up the briefcase, and glanced down at the desk. Her eyes widened and she backed away from the desk, calling out, "Bomb! Amaterasu, shield!"

I realized Lina was getting suddenly larger because Amaterasu had thrown me at her. Lina was indeed a more pleasant cushion.

I righted my head to see that Amaterasu had wrenched the door open and blasted Eva with a quick Red Rainbow Resonance. Despite the Divine Cognizance Mediation Eva just stared in befuddlement as the attack blasted her against the wall.

A cloud of drones swarmed past Amaterasu and opened fire on us. Eva recovered from her daze just enough to block Amaterasu from seizing the briefcase. Lina pulled me behind her, and started her storm chant.

I sent a wild signal to all my drones to attack Amaterasu. My armor was insufficient against the firepower that slipped past Lina's body. The drones had switched to rubber bullets - unpleasant, especially at this range.

I had somehow retained my rifle, so I began untangling its straps. Three suicide drones hit Eva, and a concentrated barrage of rubber bullets allowed Amaterasu to wrest the briefcase from her.

Amaterasu ran towards the door, pausing to shield against Lina's Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade. Despite her injuries Eva shouted Third Moment Celerity and blurred forward, simply running through the drones in her way.

She grabbed Amaterasu by the foot, tripping her. Amaterasu flipped around and blasted Eva with a powerful Red Rainbow Resonance. Eva smashed back into the same wall as before, stunned either by the concussion or the disabling effect of Amaterasu's attack.

She had bought Lina time enough to knock the drones out of the air and slam the door shut with a blast of air. Amaterasu flinched towards the door, but both Lina and I opened fire, and she was forced to shield.

Eva started to stir. Amaterasu dropped the shield and, still clutching the briefcase, jumped straight up. She was out of sight in an instant - scuttling up the shaft she had bored into the sub-vault.

Eva choked out, "Third Moment Celerity," and blurred after her. She bounced off a new Solid Light Reformation. We shared a look of wordless entreaty and confusion. Then the bomb detonated.


Chapter 7: Traitor

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