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Feb 23, 2020 5:57 PM
Margaret among space debris
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"I am Prince Leon of House O'Cuana. I hope you will protect and cherish this curated selection of art from the Heptarian Royal Archives..."

 

It probably doesn't help that the recurring recordings of the blond haired youth are all addressed directly to the viewer.

 

(A second week passes.)

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Margaret gets much better at the language, and is all alone in outer space. 

She has elaborate three- and four-sided conversations with Prince Leon and several other characters, and is all alone in outer space. 

She fidgets with one of the gems in her arm so much she pulls the attached scale out, which is awful. She heals herself and goes right back to fidgeting, and is all alone in outer space.

She forgets to eat for a while (if she knew how long it was she wouldn't have forgotten, now would she) then remembers and eats twenty bananas in twenty minutes and is violently ill, all alone in outer space.

She dreams that the station has come apart around her, and all that exists is her and the stars and the monsters, maybe alive and maybe dead and maybe drifting toward her, with some incomprehensible awfulness awaiting when they converge on the point where she floats all alone in outer space.

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When she wakes up, Prince Leon has started telling the story (for the umpteenth time) of how his parents' royal astronomers discovered a habitable paradise more than twenty light years from Earth.

 

"--the corporations had all stopped looking to the stars. And so, uncontested, Heptaria cobbled together our space program from the leftovers of an earlier, more curious world..."

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There's something wrong.

 

Everything looks the same as when Margaret fell asleep. The prince speaks familiar words and no worrisome new sounds echo in the distance. The air is still, stale and cold as always. But something's different.

 

As the seconds pass and wakefulness fully returns, the nightmarish sense that everything's falling apart doesn't lift. Danger. It's not a single mote of threat like the beast she fought before, or a heterogeneous smattering like she picks up from the station's less safe environmental features. It's subtle, but it's everywhere. It's everything. Diffuse, imminent peril blankets the entire interior volume of the structure she occupies.

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"...and we explored the night sky in search of something more important than quarterly profit."

 

"Legacy."

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Margaret shuts the laptop and hugs it protectively to her chest, trying to shield her only friend from she knows not what. She pulls the shreds of her brain together and examines the danger sensation--is it the hostile intent of an enemy mind, or the unmalicious peril of an environmental hazard? Is the station disintegrating into the void of its own accord, or is someone out to bring her nightmares to life?

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When she focuses she notices that the haze of danger isn’t quite uniform. It has a center point, like what she’d feel before the imminent breach of an enormous swarm...

 

And then it breaches. It starts near where she first appeared in this place, near the old room with the dummy in the tattered white cube. And it spreads. It spreads quickly, in every possible direction.

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It can't actually be a swarm, swarms have their own unique sensation twice over, but she isn't sure what else it could be. She can't run, she can't fight, maybe she can hide--she makes a titanium sphere around herself, leaves airholes but holds ready to shut them at a moment's notice even though her powers can't clean the air.

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It doesn't have the texture of a swarm, no. The new hazard bears the lifeless taste of environmental peril but it clings and flits and skitters down corridors in the way a swarm would.

Closer.

It's in the hallway where she first saw the alien stars. It's in the room where she found the laptop. And then in that room it blooms again, redoubling its rate of expansion as though a second breach had occurred.

 

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"We found Gliese 581. Just twenty light-years from earth, a red dwarf star system with three visible planets... and two less visible ones, whose attributes our royal astronomers painstakingly determined through chartered use of corporate AI."

Leon's voice continues to play from the closed computer.

"One of those planets, they discovered, was an oasis ripe for human habitation."

"The royal families pooled their resources, and built a vessel that could weather the eons between my birthplace and the ground upon which you now stand."

"The road ahead may challenge us, but it'll be worth it for the splendor you now enjoy. Worth it for the continuation of our line."

"Be brave. Be proud. Vivat Heptaria."

 

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"I'll be brave," she murmurs. "I'll be proud. I'll be brave, I'll be proud." She replaces the metal sphere with a tower shield that wraps most of the way around her and shuffles to the door to look out into the hallway.

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A thud, a cry, and then one of the monsters rounds the corner.

It doesn't register to her danger sense. It doesn't even seem to see her. It doesn't even seem to have eyes. It has lots of pieces missing.

It shudders and coughs up a slurry of blood and organ meat.

The bigger hazard she's sensing hasn't reached her yet, but it has reached the monster. And the monster is dying. Not just dying, decomposing right there in front of her.

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Oh no that's disgusting ew ew ew, she should not vomit that will not help anything. She steps well back, opens her mouth to avoid breathing through her nose, and says, "This was not natural; humans did this."

Her mind races at the implications of the prophecy. If humans made the danger swarming through the station, they might be near it themselves. They might have a way to turn it off. She dodges the monster and sets off in the direction it came from, calling "Is anyone there?" in the language of the videos.

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It doesn't feel like anything, at first, when she passes into the space occupied by the invisible hazard.

The halls remain weightless, dark, and quiet apart from the fading sounds of the monster she darted past.

 

Then bits of her start to itch.

Then sting.

Then burn.

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Ow ow crap it must be in the air. It's getting inside her, attacking the flesh under her titanium scales. She seals bejeweled goggles over her eyes and a gorgeously embroidered filter mask over her mouth, replaces her scales with new identical scales everywhere the pain underneath them is especially bad, and breaks into a run. Maybe she can get out the far side of it, maybe she can find something to counter it, maybe she can just drown out the horror with the thudding of her footsteps. None of those seem very likely.

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She rebounds from wall to wall, retracing her steps from who knows how many days before as she seeks to cross the hazard's centerpoint.

She passes the room where she found the laptop. The monstrous corpse she left there has vanished. As has all the blood staining its walls and ceiling. No sign remains of mortal struggle that occurred there, as though time had been rewound and it never happened in the first place.

 

She reaches the hallway with the wide window gazing out into space. There's something new there. Outside. A titanic outline, looming off to one side and eclipsing the pinprick stars that ought to shine there. A persistent hiss breaks the silence of the enclosure, emanating from a fist-sized patch of window that looks to have been broken open and then plugged with rigid foam.

 

The burning sensation persists, though seems not to be radiating to her core. Her wings feel like molten metal courses through their insides. Her vision becomes increasingly blurry.

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On top of everything else, she's losing air now too? She stares at the patch in the window but she can't do anything for it without staying next to it and she sure as hell can't stay here. She deletes her wings and puts them back on, for a minute's relief from the pain, and if she was brave enough she would do the same thing to her eyes but she doesn't know she can put them back right and anyway she can't, she just can't, it's all she can do to keep moving into the next room.

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The next room is the one where she first appeared in this place. The big, damaged cube is still suspended in its center. The passages that were obstructed before remain obstructed, and most of the passages that were dark remain dark.

 

One of the passages, though, shines. Beams of light sweep back and forth against its walls, conical like searchlights.

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A voice carries through the stillness--small, alert, human: "Ma'am, I hear something coming..."

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She can't be sure she's actually hearing a voice and not just imagining things, hope was overtaking reality in her beliefs even before her mind was fogged with pain, but hope is reason enough to shout "Hello? Help!" and stumble half-blindly toward the voice.

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Two armed figures float in the passage, bracing themselves against protrusions on opposite walls. It’s hard to make out their features: they’re backlit by an open airlock and they both have flashlights slung under their rifles.

 

“It’s big!” The nearer of the figures takes aim at Margaret as she tumbles into the open. “Make your shots count!”

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“Wait! That voice..?”

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Margaret puts her hands up. Empty palms don't mean as much from a magical girl as they would from someone else, but it's the clearest gesture she's got, and she means it quite sincerely. "I surrender! Don't shoot!"

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The closer figure hears Margaret clearly this time.

 

She takes her finger off the trigger.

 

“What are you?”

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"Magical girl--is there a doctor, please, it hurts--" she flickers her wings out of existence and back again, temporarily whole. A drop of blood leaks out from under her goggles.

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