The rifle was a bit too large for nine-year-old Sachiko Cook, but she managed to keep it level, looking down the sights at a boulder ten meters away.
“Good,” Sgt. Max Lucert, an ex-’Murican soldier employed as a private guard, praised her. “Don’t move your arms, just squeeze the trigger.”
Doing her best to follow his instructions, Sachiko pulled the trigger, but she unconsciously rotated her shoulder slightly as she did so. A bolt of light erupted from the barrel and bored into the rock, ten centimeters to the right of a sloppily painted target.
“Not bad for your first time,” Max said. “Relax your shoulder. With these energy guns, you don’t need to worry about bracing yourself for the recoil. If we’d had these during the war, the damn reds—”
Sachiko pulled the trigger again, and this time, she hit the boulder dead center, leaving a smoking hole where there had once been a dab of paint.
“Attagirl,” Max exclaimed. “How did that feel?”
Without answering, Sachiko lowered the rifle, brought it back up to firing position, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. At first, Max thought she had missed the boulder completely, but when smoke began wafting out of the center hole, he realized that her aim had been perfect.
Max let out a slow whistle. “You were born a generation too late, girl. You woulda made a fine sniper, I reckon.” It didn’t bother him that she had ignored his question. He couldn’t help but admire her cool demeanor. When he was her age, he would have been feeling himself after making two shots like that in a row.
What he didn’t realize was that she was just as ecstatic, but her excitement had been tempered by the way he called her “girl”. She knew he did it to be motivating, to challenge her to earn his respect, but she hated it nonetheless. Were she a bit wiser, she would have asked him to stop, but she feared losing the company of one of the few people on the island who voluntarily hung out with her, and she knew he was oddly sensitive when called out on his bullshit. He’d been in a foul mood for weeks after being reprimanded for letting a slur slip in front of a Soviet investigation team, and now only talked freely in his private life, which included his time with Sachiko. Although the hateful sentiment behind his words bothered her, they were also something her parents wouldn’t approve of, and not making a big deal out of them made her feel more independent.
“How different are ‘Murican and Soviet guns?” she asked, removing the magazine and firing one more time, just to be sure that no energy remained within the weapon.
“Like night and day,” Max answered. “Our energy weapons were much more primitive, so we preferred good, old-fashioned bullets. They got quite the kick, and they’re loud as hell. Makes it harder to aim, and you need ear protection unless you want to go deaf. You’re much better off sticking with one of these.”
“But what if I run out of energy and need to salvage a weapon from a fallen enemy?”
Max let out a hearty laugh. “You really were born a generation too late. Tell you what, build up some more muscle, and I’ll see about getting you a carbine to practice with.”
Before Sachiko could accept the deal, a siren sounded from the direction of the main reactor facility, about eight kilometers away.
“We have to get back,” Sachiko said, running towards Max’s car, still cradling the rifle.
“No, we have to evacuate,” Max said, quickly catching up to her. “Your parents told me that if something like this were to happen—”
“If the alarm’s going off, the reactor needs to be shut down,” Sachiko interrupted, “and I’m the smallest person on the island who knows how to do it. If the entrance has been blocked off, I may be able to reach it the fastest.”
“No, if the reactor’s gonna blow, we need to get outta here,” Max insisted.
“We won’t clear the blast radius in time,” Sachiko told him. “Every moment counts.” She slammed the magazine back into the rifle and pointed it at Max.
“Hey, don’t point that thing at anyone you don’t intend to shoot,” Max yelped.
“I will shoot you,” Sachiko promised. “Too many lives are at stake. If you’re not going to drive, get out of the way.”
“You convinced me,” he said, “now put the gun down.” As he spoke, Sachiko’s vision distorted, and Max appeared to shimmer. “What the hell?” Max shouted. He was apparently experiencing the same phenomenon.
“We’re hallucinating,” Sachiko guessed. “The reactor’s magical energy must have reached us.”
“It runs on magic?!”
“No time to explain,” Sachiko yelled, getting in the car. “Come on.”
Max scrambled into the driver’s seat and accelerated down the road. He was driving much too slowly for Sachiko’s liking, but with his vision impaired, and the road unpaved, there was little she could do to change the situation. As they drew near, the hallucinations became more frightening. Max now appeared to her as a demon, with red skin and black hair sprouting from his body. As he spoke, his mouth was filled with needle-like teeth one second, and was a bottomless pit the next.
“Give me the gun, girl,” Max growled.
“Why?” Sachiko asked.
“Can’t you see the reds? Dead ahead.”
“I don’t see anyone,” Sachiko said. “You’re hallucinating.”
“Maybe you’re hallucinating,” Max shot back. “The commies’re probably responsible for this whole mess.”
“They’ve got no reason to do that,” Sachiko insisted.
“Maybe they’re after the magical energy,” Max argued.
“They have their own sources for that,” Sachiko yelled. “They wouldn’t have to risk a reactor meltdown. Besides, I’m younger than you. My brain isn’t fully developed yet, so the hallucinations don’t affect me as bad.” It was a lie, but she needed to say something to get Max under control. “Stay here and guard the car. We’ll still need to evacuate once the reactor is shut down.”
Without waiting for an answer, Sachiko exited the vehicle, still carrying the rifle. She only made it a few paces before a ripple of magical energy washed across the island, causing her to stumble backwards. When she recovered, it appeared to her that she was surrounded by a ring of fire. She couldn’t just see the flames, she could hear them crackle, and she could feel the heat against her body. The sky had turned a menacing dark green. Sachiko knew she needed to reach the reactor quickly, before it could release another burst of magic, but she also knew that would be impossible when she couldn’t trust her own senses. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath to reset herself.
Max and I saw different things, but the light that reached our eyes was the same. The magic didn’t change the world: It’s interfering with our brains. My eyes can still see what is real. Those images are still in my brain somewhere, but they’re being kept from me. I need to focus only on what’s real, like a good scientist, and filter out everything else. Concentrate! Find the truth, Sachiko. Your subconscious knows what’s real.
When Sachiko opened her eyes, thousands of glowing, shimmering teeth grinned back at her through the flames, which had now grown so high that they blocked out the sky. But she could see something else, too. There was a man limping towards her, still several meters away, and he should have been obscured by the fire. She still saw the hallucinations, but when she focused hard enough on what was real, she could see reality as well.
Part of her wished she couldn’t.
The person limping towards her had a large gash down the side of their leg, but they were making no effort to stop the bleeding. She recognized him as one of the postdoc researchers who had arrived on the last airship. There was also another scientist running up behind him, screaming his lungs out and carrying a rock high in the air. The limping man crumpled to the ground as the rock impacted the back of his head.
The other man let out one last yell and then dropped the rock. Noticing that his hands were now splattered with blood, he brought them closer to his face to inspect them. He tried rubbing the blood off, but that only caused it to smear all over his palms. He then tried scratching at it, softly at first, and then harder, until he was bleeding. With an anguished cry, he bolted away from the road, towards the ocean.
After recovering from the shock of the horrific sight, Sachiko ran forward, through the imaginary flames and towards the main reactor building. She stepped carefully over the body on the ground. As much as she wanted to help, there was nothing she could do for him now.
It wasn’t long until she came upon another scene of random violence. A man was chasing a woman, wielding a kitchen knife. This time, Sachiko thought about shooting the man to save the woman, but she quickly stopped herself. The two of them probably saw the other as some kind of dangerous monster. Even if she killed the man, the woman might go on to harm others in turn. She might even threaten Sachiko. The rifle only had enough energy for a few more shots, and it was important she used them to ensure she made it to the reactor controls safely.
A scientist focuses on what’s real, Sachiko recited to herself, but a successful scientist recognises what’s important. It was something her parents had drilled into her from a young age.
As she continued down the path, more corpses littered the road, and soon, she saw why. One of the guards, shaking with nervousness, was scanning around himself, shooting at anything that moved, real or imaginary. Now thankful that she had saved her ammunition, Sachiko raised her rifle to firing position and aimed at the guard’s chest, but found herself unable to pull the trigger. She’d never taken a life before, and she wasn’t eager to do so.
Thankfully, she was saved from her dilemma by a shot that came from far to her right, one that pierced the guard through the skull. Lowering her rifle, Sachiko saw a dozen gynoids, each with a pistol, running towards the main reactor building. She hadn’t been aware that there were currently gynoids on the island, but she wasted no time following them.
I’m an idiot, she admonished herself as she ran. Max always says hesitation could cost you your life, but this time, it could have cost the entire island.
By the time she entered the building, the gynoids were a good minute ahead of her. She’d run as fast as she could, but the gynoids were still faster. More bodies slumped against the wall, and as she drew close to the control room, she recognized her father, lying face down in a pool of blood. Likely, he had been shot in the back while running towards the controls. Sachiko glanced quickly behind her to make sure she wouldn’t suffer the same fate, then hurried forward, not pausing to mourn.
The door to the control room was open, but guarded by two gynoids, They aimed their pistols at Sachiko as she approached.
“Don’t shoot,” Sachiko shouted. “I’m here to shut down the generator.” She was taking a chance that the gynoids were on her side. She didn’t know much about them at this point in her life, but she knew that she couldn’t hope to take both of them down before getting shot herself. If this didn’t work, she was doomed.
Luckily, the gynoids retracted their arms, aiming the pistols at the ceiling.
“You’re just a child,” one of the gynoids commented.
“My parents taught me how,” Sachiko explained. “Please, there’s no time.”
“We have it under control,” the other gynoid assured her.
“No,” Sachiko said, walking past them. Inside, gynoids were spread throughout the room, with one at the control panel. “There are no sensors that can accurately measure the reactor’s magical pressure. That’s why it has to be done manually.”
“Too risky,” a gynoid said, but Sachiko didn’t stop walking towards the control panel.
“She doesn’t talk like a child,” another gynoid countered. “Perhaps she’s a mahou shoujo, or her exposure to magical energy has given her a greater understanding of magic.” In reality, Sachiko had no talent for magic. She was merely imitating the way her parents spoke. With no other children on the island, there were only adults to influence her behavior, and lots of time to study the learning materials her parents gave her.
“No one understands magic,” Sachiko scoffed. “If we did, it would be science.”
“Regardless,” a gynoid said, grabbing Sachiko’s shoulder from behind, “we can’t let you near the controls while you’re hallucinating.”
“I can see fine,” Sachiko said, turning to look up at the gynoid. She lost her focus for a second, and her eyes were drawn to the illusion of a large, slobbering wolf towering over her, but then she regained control of her senses.
“Unlocked,” the gynoid at the control panel reported, pressing the last button in the sequence. “I’m shutting it down.” Grabbing the control rod, the gynoid turned it counterclockwise three times. Magical pressure surged through the room, so strong that Sachiko had trouble breathing, but then quickly dissipated.
“Now,” Sachiko yelled.
“Too early,” the gynoid said, but no sooner had the words left her mouth than the control panel lit up with warning lights, and magical pressure began to build up again.
“I told you,” Sachiko said, elbowing the gynoid out of the way and taking hold of the control rod with her left hand. With her right, she began punching the reset sequence into the control panel, all while turning the control rod so as to keep the fissile material pointed away from the highest concentrations of magical energy as it swirled throughout the chamber.
Her hand flew over the controls automatically. It was something that she had seen her parents practice hundreds of times on a replica control panel at home, and they had even taught her how to do it, but she wasn’t confident without their supervision. Still, she knew she had no time to hesitate. The gynoids could only watch, realizing they would only slow her down if they tried to help.
“Locked,” Sachiko announced. She immediately began punching in the unlock sequence, waiting until the magical pressure stabilized before flipping the last switch. “Unlocked.” She twisted the rod three times counterclockwise, waited a second for the magical pressure to drop, and then pulled hard, only to find that she wasn’t strong enough to remove the rod. “Help,” she said, as calmly as she could. The closest gynoid grabbed her arm, causing her hair to stand on end, and pulled the rod free.
All eyes were now on the control panel, checking to see if they had made it on time. They watched as the fissile material fell past a gap in the magical energy and safely into a pool of water far below. The reactor began to slowly vent the magical energy into the atmosphere. Only once she was convinced the immediate danger had passed did the gynoid release Sachiko’s arm.
“I’m sorry,” the gynoid apologized. “You were right.”
“Save it,” Sachiko said, “we need to evacuate.” Without another word, they all filed out of the room as quickly as they could. Once again, Sachiko fell behind, but a gynoid turned around and scooped Sachiko up in her arms. “I can walk on my own,” Sachiko protested.
“You are too important to leave behind,” the gynoid told her.
Sachiko didn’t complain after that, not even about how uncomfortable it felt to be touched by the gynoid. When they passed the car, Max was nowhere to be seen, and although Sachiko wanted to believe that he had survived, she knew he was inflexible in his thinking, and thus probably fell victim to the hallucinations.
It took them half an hour to reach the gynoids’ airship, the Odake Maru. The vessel was ready to be underway, but they waited another ten minutes—as long as they could—in case any other survivors showed up.
Three weeks after the pajama party, Sachiko was in the cupola, looking down at Earth. The conflict had not erupted into all-out war, but it was heating up. There was talk of needing to evacuate Neo Tanegashima, so JAXA was preparing to launch two Progresses to keep the ISS supplied for an additional year. With any luck, they wouldn’t need the extra supplies, but it was better to have them than to not.
“I thought you agreed to sleep at night,” Maeko said, floating down to the cupola to join Sachiko.
“I’ll go to bed in a bit,” Sachiko promised her. “I enjoy watching the launches from up here.”
“Do you also enjoy looking down at your island?” Maeko asked.
“GE26 isn’t my island,” Sachiko snorted.
“I meant Neo Tanegashima,” Maeko clarified.
“Neo Tanegashima belongs to all humanity,” Sachiko said, “assuming they don’t destroy it.”
There was nothing for Maeko to argue with in that statement, so the two of them waited in silence.
“There it is,” Maeko said, pointing at a little white dot a few seconds before Sachiko could see it.
As they watched it ascend above the Earth, they noticed a smaller, faster dot rise from over Eastern Europe. Sachiko’s voice caught in her throat, but she didn’t close her eyes or turn away. There was nothing to be gained by ignoring reality.
The Soviet missile collided with the Progress, taking it out in a bright explosion, high above the Earth.