After the distant thump and tremor that had filled Asahigaoka village that morning, cell and landline contact with Tokyo had ceased. Every TV showed only static. By sunset, almost everybody had gathered in the musty old village hall. A few women handed out tea and rice balls. Children stared at peeling civic posters and darkened windows. Swung from uncomfortable chairs, and waited.
"Hey, Nattsun? What do Martians look like? Do they have big antennae, like big green shrimps with wings, or…"
"Shh, Renge. They look just like us, you know?"
"Uwah! Then you could be a Martian! Everyone could be Martians! Is there a Renge-Martian who looks like me, and Nattsun-Martian and Hotarun and Koma Martians?"
Nervous laughter drifted around the hall. Natsumi, the easy-going redhead, laughed as well but still hushed Renge. The younger girl was seven, all twintails and wide eyes. Solemn as a monk, irrepressible as a songbird.
A young farmer reminded the company that Mars had spies on Earth–and terrorist agents. His friends reminded him that a rural hamlet wouldn't be one of their primary targets. Like Renge, Natsumi, and her petite elder sister, Komari, most villagers had never lived outside Asahigaoka. Most thought of the Martian soldiery, circling the world in death-machine fortresses since the previous war, as barely less strange, gaudy, and vaguely immoral than dwellers in the Tokyo antheap,
"Don't we know anything about, um, Tokyo, Komari-sempai?" Hotaru asked, pretty almond eyes taunt with worry. Her family had moved from Tokyo, months ago. Many of her old friends were still there, as was her new friend Hikage. Tokyo high-school student, Renge's sister.
"No…but there was definitely no flash, so it wasn't, you know, a bomb." Komari babbled, "I'm sure Hikage-san will be okay…"
"Hika-nee!" Little Renge piped up, "She loved her new cell phone. Why won't she answer it?"
"We don't know..." Komari fidgeted, "But maybe you'll have your sister home early, Renge!"
"When's that? When's Hika-nee coming home?"
The silence was broken when the head of the Village Council rose. The Martian Princess, he informed the silent village, had been assassinated by unknown parties during her goodwill visit to Earth. It had been confirmed, via radio, that the Martians had attacked Tokyo. Every possible measure was doubtless being taken to contain them. Everybody should remain calm, and prepare to do all Japan might ask. They should pray for their sacred nation, and her people. Her fighting men, and world peace.
"They can't know who did it." Natsumi blustered over the hubbub, "It must've been some crazy terrorists. How can they declare war?"
"Poor princess," As Hotaru stared down, Komari patted her hand, "She was hardly older than us."
"Hey. When's Hika-nee coming home? If Toyko's gone, she'll need to come home."
Komari stammered vaguely. All of them had heard the bang, but no one in the room could really imagine Tokyo destroyed. But a single schoolgirl, however excitable and easily led she...had been? No. None the girl had any experience with death, let alone war. Hikari was safe. Somewhere.
"Hey!" Natsumi forced a goofy smile, "If we're at war, will school be cancelled?"
"School will continue, even if we're at war. Your educations are very important after all. Yes, even if there's a war somewhere, we should go on with our days as before, all of us together…" Kazuho-sensei's class watched her promptly fall asleep.
"Huh. Nee-nee should be replaced with a Martian." Renge declared.
Kazumi continued to nod off, having spent the whole night trying to contact Tokyo or Hikage's school in any imaginable way. The class self-studied in unusual silence, only broken by drips from the leaky wooden roof.
After school, something compelled the girls to stay together at each other's houses, even with nothing but static on the TV. None of them wanted life to change, but in their hearts they knew it had to…and felt smothered in forebodings, when so much was the same as yesterday. Every conversation tailed to nothing. Only Renge was still asking when her sister would be back.
When the girls trooped down the road through the fields, to the candy store, Hotaru noticed some bushes near the path had been levelled. The lonely shop would be harder to approach unobserved. Like many grown-ups, Kaede had closed up for a few days to stockpile tinned food. Unlike many grown-ups, she had acquired a hunting rifle.
"Whoa. So this is Candy-store's mail order business."
"Do you think I'd know any arms dealers? I just got this from an old friend of granddad." Kaede didn't mention that the gun was unlicensed; she didn't have time to mess around with that. She'd also recalled a movie where Russians had invaded the US, and used gun license records to round up armed civilians.
"Are you going to shoot the Martians, Candy-store?"
Renge looked quite nervous; she'd yet to stop thinking of Martians as mysterious and cool. Kaede looked down at her tiny face, utterly solemn and earnest.
"I won't shoot unless you're in danger, Renge-chan. Alright, I'll protect the rest of you squirts as well."
Apart from a few more rifles and shotguns in evidence, and the absence of both TV and relatives from Tokyo, very little did change in Asahigaoka. Natsumi passed on rumours that the Martians were preparing to blow up Earth, as they had destroyed the Moon; that the UFE were about to nuke Tokyo. That the Martians were using mind control on the UFE; that a hero had emerged and thrown them out of Japan. Komori asked pointedly how anyone in the village could know such things, but listened as avidly as anyone.
When another world-filling thump and flash passed through from the direction of Shinawara, Renge stopped asking about her big sister. She asked again when the Martians broadcast the ceasefire, but lapsed back into silence when it was cancelled hours later. Komari claimed brightly that if the war had only just started, surely nothing could've happened yet?
Asahigaoka remained silenced by war, but untouched, until the girls went to the bus stop one morning and met the first Tokyo evacuees. There were two redheaded twins around Renge's age, but her gaze was arrested by their blonde and blue-eyed chaperones.
"Uwah! Foreigners! Or are you Martians?"
Alice Cartalet and her homestay host, Omiya Shinobu, lived in a suburb of Tokyo. Outward enough that when Castle Cruhteo came down like a wolf on the fold, damage was fairly light. For a fortnight before, Shinobu had been gushing about the beautiful, gold-haired Princess of Mars, and mourning that her welcome parade in Shinawara clashed with school.
"But not to worry! I'm going to make a dress for Alice, to celebrate. Just like Princess Asseylum's dress in the photos. Then Alice can be my Princess!"
The tiny blonde clasped her dear friend's hands. Though her smile quickly turned to a pout, when Kujo Karen asserted that she looked more like the Princess, with her long hair. The spat ended with Shino promising to make three Princess dresses for all of them, in different colours. Karen's friend Honoka, who loved blonde hair nearly as much as Shino, looked like Christmas had come early when she heard.
Weeks later, they had sat down before the TV, in those dresses. Watched Princess Asseylum's welcoming parade.
"…they were…bombs? Rockets?" Karen looked utterly stupefied, "Was the Princess okay?"
"Who would do...this?" Honoka was on the verge of tears.
"It's okay, Alice." Shino turned from the chaos on the screen, to Alice's whitened face, "It's so lucky that we couldn't go. You're safe."
The girls left for their homes in silence. Of course, none of them felt like listening to the news. It was Shino's mother who heard the evacuation warning, but they hadn't finished packing overnight bags when the world blew up. Every window for miles had been shattered; every young girl flung to the ground.
The Tokyo evacuation had been bedlam. Walking wounded streaming from the inner suburbs, disaster relief and military rushing inwards, screaming prophecies of doom on every block. There was a dark cloud in the sky; the air tasted of steel and brick.
Shino, Alice, Isami and their mother had finally reached a pick-up point. The Inokumas and Aya's mother were there too, as well as Honoka's family. Yoko had just pushed her siblings and parents onto an over-packed military transport and shouted that she'd be on the next one.
"We'll both be on it!" The redhead grinned at her friend Aya, squeezing her hand, "Sorry."
"I'm okay, Yoko…you're here." And even with the Tokyo tower in ruins, she was still the same. Aya squeezed back, and hid her smile.
As the next transport roared up, people in the crowd had started yelling about Martian Kataphrakts getting closer. A heaving riot had broken out. Shino had barely kept hold of Alice's hand–and Honoka had stumbled. Fallen under the mass of feet and faces.
Her parents had forced a path through the crowd to her, and so had Yoko, hitting out with fists and elbows to reach her classmate. Aya's mother had forced her onto the transport, with Shino, her family, and Alice. Which had lurched away while Yoko was still hidden in the mob. Aya called the redhead baka, baka, baka, and and beat her fists on the window.
"Aya! She's with Honoka's parents," Shino consoled her, "She's strong, she'll be on the next bus. We'll see they're both okay, soon…" Aya would've been more reassured if Shino's big sister Isami hadn't been quite silent, "Alice, are you sure you're okay?"
Alice was still wearing her Princess costume. She looked up as Shino spoke, and tried to smile.
"I'll be fine, Shino. I expect they'll sort things out a bit soon."
"Alice, your family will be fine, I'm sure of it! They're in a little country village, and they've got the British army and the Royal navy, I'm sure England will be okay…Britons will never be slaves, you know?"
Alice smiled at that. The two of them occupied the rest of the journey singing 'Rule Britannia', then 'They'll always be an England' and so on. Shino, Isami and the rest of the bus 'lalalaed' along. Then they sang the Japanese anthem; Shino, but not Alice, had to 'lalala' to that. Tone-deaf Aya listened, and tried to think of nothing else.
Still more majestic shall you rise,
More dreadful from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!
Britons never, never never will be slaves!
The displaced person station was already filled with circling families, screaming children and mud. Isami had finally spotted Karen, jumping up and waving her hands.
"Ohiyo-gozaimash! I'm so glad you're all safe! Papa's just gone back to shuttle out more people with our mobile home, but he'll be here soon, and Mama too! Where's Yoko? And Honoka, and…?"
Kouta and Mitsuki, Yoko's siblings, stared at Aya blankly. She fell on their little shoulders, and sobbed out that Yoko would be coming soon.
"Yes!" Karen's smile barely wavered, "Yoko and Honoka!"
Honoka's parents turned up that evening, but not their daughter, or Yoko. They heard that central Tokyo had been wiped out. A single Kataphract had defeated the UFE's entire force; there was nothing between the camp and Castle Cruhteo.
Aya and Shino's fathers had worked much nearer ground zero; both were badly hurt, but alive. Britain, not the force it used to be since the flooding of central London in Heaven's Fall, had not been attacked by a Landing Castle. But Alice and Karen had no means of knowing that.
"Are you a Martian?"
Renge naturally went for the direct approach. Alice met her earnest, demanding gaze, and quailed. Japanese girls really were scary.
"No!" Karen declared readily, "We're English!"
"You speak Japanese! Amazing! Do you have superpowers?"
"Renge!" Natsumi forced the little girl's head down, and tried to remember English lessons, "Ah–VELY SOLLY! SHE JUST KID, um, YEAH...!"
"She just said we speak Japanese!" Karen pouted, flicking her hair, "Honestly!"
"Er..."Natsumi awkwardly glanced away, at the twins with red hair like hers. They had been stared directly at her for the whole time. "Um, so, did you travel from somewhere? Is everything okay…?"
The twins silently launched themselves at Natsumi and embraced her. Karen laughed, Alice smiled sweetly, and peace settled over both united parties in a matter of moments.
At the camp, Isami had gone to register for food allocations, and come back Private Omiya, FC, drafted by the UFE. Like Yoko, her pilot scores in school training had been excellent. However, Shinobu rushed to the office-tent to explain that her sister was a model. Surely she should be a publicity figure, not a pilot?
"No need for publicity right now, not with Tokyo and Shinawara destroyed. We're swimming in volunteers, and we'd conscript them otherwise. The enemy really is in the gates, you know." The sergeant smiled kindly, "Your sister mentioned your talent with clothes; I see your piloting skills couldn't be lower, so you'll be assigned as a quartermaster's aide. Komichi-San; we'd like to assign you to the catering corps."
"Sorry? I don't quite understand…"
"The UFE is drafting all persons over fifteen, with any useful experience. They will be non-combatant roles, but your country must call upon your services, young ladies. To repel the monsters from Mars, we must each give our all." Alice, clinging to Shinobu's arm, let out a squeak, "And you could play your part as well, Miss. Wouldn't you like to volunteer with your friends–?"
"You should remind her first that only the British arm of UFE can conscript British citizens, Sergeant." Isami coldly interrupted. "She really does have a choice."
Alice remained silent. They trooped back to their tent, to find their homeroom teacher Kuzehashi, sharp as ever in her military uniform, pleading with a sulking Karen. The blond girl had had a row with her parents about volunteering.
"I've got really good pilot scores. I want to pilot an Aerion, and give the Martians what for, in Yoko's place! And I want to avenge Honoka…but they just say, no, no, no! Why can't I fight? It's for the whole world!"
"Because we will fight to protect you, Kujo-San." Kuzehashi-sensei insisted, "Your parents care about your safety more than anything."
Shinobu and Alice gave Isami admiring glances. She sighed but smiled, and said she'd look out for them.
In the end, Mr Kujo and Honoka's father volunteered for the infantry; they might be sent into battle with a month's training. Mercurial as ever, Karen quickly accepted her parent's feelings and didn't volunteer. She joked that she might not have passed the Physical anyway.
Aya had barely reacted to her conscription. In her heart, it couldn't be be happening; with Yoko gone, she couldn't face it. Yoko was the strong tomboy, always at her side. Yoko who was never on time, but had never made her worry like this...her precious friend had always been there there for her, until now.
A lot of refugees needed clothes mending or handed out, so Private Omiya Shinobu found her new work quite satisfying. The uniform could just have been a bit nicer. Private Aya Komichi didn't get on so well distributing soup and water rations to refugees. There were thousands of them, stressed and demanding. Often she was distracted, overwhelmed, or simply sat down and cried. Alice and Karen made it their work to support her, but she still grew more silent every day. When she lay awake through the night in their tent, she was alone. Whoever stayed with her through the day, she was still deeply alone without her Yoko.
The twin grew more quiet and grim as well, among the mud, frustration and fear. Every time a Sky Carrier overflew the camp, they ran to their mother.
"–they said the Martians will make Japan sink–!"
"–they attacked another camp, somewhere–"
"–want to go home! What if Yoko-nee's waiting for us at home? That'd be just like her!"
Even before the meteor attack on Shinawara, the cancellation of the ceasefire–and the news that another refugee camp had been wiped out by a Martian Kat–it was clear that the twins couldn't remain in the refugee camp; nor should the English girls. Mr Kujo's contacts among UFE contractors had told him that sea-travel was highly risky; China and Russia were filling up with Versian conquests in any case.
It was decided that Mr and Mrs Inokuma would wait at the camp for news of their daughter. Aya and Karen's mothers, Alice and Karen, and the twins, would go to stay with the Inokumas' grandmother in a rural village. It was miles from anywhere; probably the last place in Japan the Versians would trouble to conquer.
"The only trouble is Alice," Karen muttered, "She was in a state of shock when Shino just got put in another class..."
"NOO! Shino, I can't leave you now! I want to stay with you."
"Dear Alice, at least you can go. Even if I must stay here, I want you to be safe."
"You're not safe, staying here? Oh, then please come with me, Shinobu! Or let me stay, I could stand any danger if you were there…"
"And I could stand anything if I knew you were safe, Alice."
Alice was going to scream again; but Aya was sitting near them in silence. She had been parted without a choice from her loved one. As Karen had been cut off from from her Honoka, not knowing if she was hurt or worse, but still acting cheerful for them all. Karen and Aya had to bear it, and so did she.
"Okay, Shino!" Alice clung to her waist, weeping into her tunic, "Be brave! Be strong! If the Martians come, stab them with sewing needles! My hero!"
" My Princess..."
They could say nothing else but with embraces and tears, and barely noticed Aya dash out. If she had watched them any longer, she would have started to feel sick.
"…so, we're going to be staying with Yoko's grandmother, until everything settles down. Thank you for having us."
Story finished, Alice breathed out. Nothing could seem more settled than the quiet roads of this village, raised between the flat rice paddies and cowfields. But at the thought of Shino, she could barely hide the chaos in her heart.
"No, the pleasure is all ours, Miss Alice" Hotaru flushed and bowed deeply, "We can't offer you much, but I hope we can be friends." Alice went pink with happiness at being called 'Miss', which looked so cute that Hotaru very nearly swoon; Alice's petite and fair appearance had manifestly bowled her over.
"Yeah, nice to meet you." Natsumi added, "Do I really look like these kids' sister?"
"Yes! You're probably our long-lost other sister!" Kouta and Mitsuki nodded wildly.
Alice smiled. Even without her dear Shino, even in war, they could find little joys each day, and their lives could have peace...
"You're not Martians. You're from Tokyo!" Renge piped up, "Do you know when my sister's coming home?"
"No we don't!" Karen snapped. Alice squeezed her hand. Even with Honoka lost, Karen had kept smiling through...she had never seen before how hard it was.
Natsumi broke the silence, and lamely mentioned that the twins had better let go of her soon.
"Um," Hotaru spoke up shly, "I made plushies of our class once, and Natsumi-sempai too…I could give the Natsumi-plushie to Kouta and Mitsuki-chan, until they can see their sister again! I could even make some more…"
"Nice idea!" Karen said, "And we could send one to Ayaya as well!"
And so within a month, Aya got a red-haired, smiling plushie in the mail, though Alice had worried she was too old for such things. Aya tearfully snuggled up to Yoko every night.
In the end, Kazuhi explained to Renge that there was no way of knowing when Hikage would be back. Renge stared at her for a long time.
"Really no way? Or are you just being lazy, Nee-nee?"
"Just tell me the truth!"
Sniffing, Renge dashed away to her room. Kazuhi leant against the wall, still wearing her empty smile, and bearing a weight like Castle Cruhteo itself upon her chest. Hikari, her little sister was dead. The world was wrong, but there was nothing she could imagine she could do about it.