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Dear Aya, Mum and Dad, Kouta, Mitsuki, Shinobu and everybody.

I hope you get this letter soon. I’m really, really sorry. After I lost her parents in that mob, I had to get Honoka first-aid. I ran all over with her. We found some soldiers, I had to stay with her, and we ended up on an Assault Carrier headed for the continent.

Honoka didn’t make it. I’m really, really sorry. She hit her head in that insane crowd; they say loads of people were hurt, and she was just a girl. I stayed with her all the time. She never woke up. Mr and Mrs Matasuba, I’m so, so sorry. Karen, I’m so, so sorry. I promise to get back at the Martians for Honoka’s sake, whether I have to die, or do anything.

Sorry, I meant to promise I’d come back safe! You’ve probably guessed I was drafted. I can’t say where we’re heading, but I’m going there in an Areion. I have to see you all again and apologise properly, so I promise I won't do anything stupid.

Really sorry to make you worry, Aya. I’ve made wonderful new friends, and it isn’t that cold over here! Please stay safe until I come back. Have you beaten up many Martians yet, Karen? Seriously, don’t you do anything reckless either! Take care of Alice, Shinobu. Aya, please take care of Kouta and Mitsuki. I love you, Mum and Dad. Love you, Kouta and Mitsuki, even if you’re still telling enormous lies. Aya, stay safe and don't cry! I’m going to see you again, and that’s the truth.

Pvt FC Inokuma Yoko,

As Yoko wiped her eye, a hand rested on her shoulder.

“Ahem…send your feelings away in that envelope, soldier. Our hearts must be where our battle is.”

“Hmm? Doesn’t Corporal Rize ever think fondly of the girls she left behind?”

“Don’t invite misunderstanding!” Rize blushed and pouted, “I’d be worried to death, if it would do them any good, but it won’t. So I try not to be.”

“My friend worries a lot. But she’s actually quite sensible,” Yoko felt Rize’s twintail between her fingers, “And she’s silky like you…but I’m actually glad it’s you in a place like this, not her.”

“You’re not worried for me at all?” Rize smiled and hugged her comrade from behind, “Don’t answer that. This is where we’re meant to be, and we can endure it.”

The two soldiers pulled on their coats, and left the barracks side by side. They crunched through snow to send off Yoko’s letter, though it wouldn’t reach her friends for months.  

 

-0-

-0-

 

Pvt Komichi Aya had hoped at least to get on fairly well with her colleagues in the UFE catering corps. She stole a glance at the girl with a soft, monotone voice, glazed eyes and fixed smile.

“I’m so sorry to do this to you, little meats." She crooned to the food they were preparing, "We all have to do our bit for humanity. And yours is to be boiled in this oh so boring soooup…”

"Don’t mind Chiya-san." Whispered the short-haired girl on Aya's other side, Pvt Hoto Cocoa, "Her family own a café, you know? She’s very artistic.”

“I suppose café food is quite different from mass catering." Aya tried to keep her end up, "Though this is what we need to do now, and you can't have so much to learn as me.”

“Some horrors are best unlearned…” Pvt Ujimatsu Chiya smiled at Aya, very much like Isa-nee, “Every dish at Ama Usa would be a beautiful creation, not a…nameless heap. Don’t worry, Komichi-san. I will be better directly. And if any Martians get this far, I feel so aggrieved that I could slice them all to pieces.”

“Yeah, and I’d hit them with a rolling pin! You’ve got a Samurai and a big sister to take care of you, Komichi-san!”

Aya kept peeling potatoes. Her own eyes had probably glazed over when she cut her finger.

"Owie! Leave this to big sister!" Cocoa smothered her finger in bandages. She wasn't any older than Aya, but the twintail girl didn't mind if it was something she needed.  

Time presently finished their work for the day, as it would begin it again tomorrow. Aya and her mother rode a military transport to the camp hospital.

Aya stared fearfully at her father’s bed. Her mother rubbed her back.

“Hello, Papa. I’m doing fine. Shinobu is fine too. I’m sure Alice and Karen are well…and Yoko, that idiot, I’m sure she’s safe.”

Injured in his office block's collapse, Mr Komichi been on practically the last medevac out of Tokyo. Then slipped into a coma within days, as if this world was too changed for him to live in. Aya and her mother had thought that nothing mattered so long as he was alive-not left in the rubble with the hundreds of thousands, in Castle Cruhteo's shadow. The war, however, had not long allowed them that peace.   

“I’m trying my best to work hard, as a catering corps girl. Everyone has to do their bit. We don’t always have enough food, but we make it go as far as possible. I’m more or less friends with the other girls my age…they’re a bit different, but alright. Cocoa and Chiya made all these paper cranes, with prayers for your health. I thought that was really nice.”

Mr Komichi remained silent. Even before the war he had been a distant father, scarcely ever home from the office. The same had gone for Shinobu’s father, who had already got used to his prosthetic leg, and Yoko’s father, growing more morose with every day he could do nothing for his family. He scared Aya, sometimes; everything scared her these days, except cooking. And when would Yoko ever be home to eat it?  

Aya gazed out at the darkened window above them. Longing rose in her like a sob, for a warm, toothy smile and a strong hand in hers.

 

-0-

-0-

 

In Asahigaoka, Alica and Karen were making dinner for the twins, at their grandmother’s neat little cottage. Alice mentioned that Hotaru had invited her over to help with English homework.

“Remember her, Karen? The pretty dark-haired girl? Do you want to come too?”

“Oh, yes! Hey, Kouta and Mitsuki-chan? Are you getting on well with Hotaru, Nattsun and the others, and your new school?”

“Mm!” Kouta nodded, “Natsun Onee-chan knows loads about bugs and animals, and Renge-chan showed us her pet tanuki. She said he does tricks.”

“But that was a lie.” Mitsuki added sourly, “She always says weird things, just to stand out.”

“Eh, she stands out anyway. And her grades are better than yours, nee-chan.”

“Hmph!”

Karen giggled at Mitsuki’s temper, and wouldn’t tell Alice why. But she thought it was nice that the twins were enjoying school, even if she herself wasn't.

While the Inokuma twins had joined the single all-age class of Asahigaoka middle, Alice and Karen attended a highschool in the nearest town. Apart from Konomi, a friendly older girl, all of their classmates were from separate villages. None of them had seen a foreigner before. Many had a vague idea that the Western world had spent the fifteen years since Heaven's Fall huddled in ruined cities, burning rubbish. The Class Rep actually explained to Alice how running water worked.

‘Why did you come here?’ was the ubiquitous question, if only expressed with a brazen stare. Whispers quickly arose that the half-and-half girl was a gaudy show-off. She had actually stood up in homeroom and said she wanted to be friends with everyone, as if she had to be the most popular girl in class!

Konomi’s music club friends were nice enough, but the cliques from other villages gave the English girls the cut direct. Karen found it hard enough. Alice, rejected by her beloved Japan, spent her days wanting to hide in a hole and cry for her darling Shinobu.

When she’d confided her problems to a teacher, the woman had looked very severe. She’d said the girls should work harder to fit in, and be glad of a place of safety, when millions across the world were starving in prison camps, or dead.

 

-0-

-0-

 

The next day the two girls walked to Hotaru’s house, stopping to get some fruit from the honesty stand. Mountains stood in ranks on the horizon, and Alice breathing in the dark scent of rice paddies. Asahigaoka felt more like their hometown in the Cotswold Hills than Tokyo had, despite the lack of hedgerows. And her parents, alive or dead on the far side of the world…and dear Shinobu, the friend she’d missed for weeks, like a lost soul…

“Don’t mind!” Karen slung an arm round Alice's neck, “Even if it’s hard, we have to do our best. For all our friends as well!”

“Mmm. Thanks Karen.”                                

Hotaru brightly welcomed the English girls, introduced Alice to her dog, Pechi, and served them barley tea. Then she told them about the surprising but pleasant experiences she’d had, when first arriving in Asahigaoka. The girls laughed and ‘oh really’d’, and Hotaru glanced away from Alice with a blush. Karen was so surprised when they noticed the time, she dashed up to Hotaru’s room to get some textbooks, without asking permission.

 “Ah…um, Alice-sempai, maybe you shouldn't...!”

Alice peeked round the door. A blue-eyed plushie with blonde bunches smiled from every shelf. Hotaru looked ready to drop through the floor.

“Hotaru-san? Do you…like me?”

“I’m sorry, Alice-sempai!” Hotaru broke down, “I couldn’t help myself, I got carried away, I was even unfaithful to Koma chan-sempai! I’m the worst…”

Alice noted an even larger number of Koma-plushies around the Alices. Screwing up her courage, she clasped Hotaru’s shaking hands, palm to palm, and smiled up at her.

“Its okay, Hotaru, I like you. You’re a truly polite and earnest Japanese maiden, and your shyness just makes me love you more! So can we be friends, Hotaru? I’ll help you express your feelings to Komari as well, and we can all be special friends.”

“Oh! Sempai!”

“Aren’t you cheating on Shino here, though?” Karen snarked.

“No! Shino’s our friend as well, isn’t she?” Hotaru nodded eagerly, still staring at Alice’s hair.

The next evening, Hotaru, Komari and Alice all met up for English tutoring. Komari had been longing to hear about the city from Alice, and Alice was quite taken by the short girl’s impulsive cuteness. So they laughed together sweetly, and pored over textbooks with their heads touching. While Hotaru watched, adored, and wondered if this would be enough happiness for the rest of her life. She almost forgot to feel sorry about the war that had thrown them together

“Alice-sempai, you make it so easy so understand! We’d do better if you taught English instead of Kazuho-sensei!”

“Oh, um, not at all! Did you see where you went wrong with this problem, Hotaru?”

“Oh, Alice-sempai, I couldn’t possibly touch your lovely…oh, ah, why, yes!”  

 

-0-

-0-

 

After the mysterious destruction of the Tokyo Landing Castle, combat operations in Japan had ceased. The surviving Martians, with some reinforcements, had dug into the ruined metropolis. Neither side proved willing to chance their arm on an offensive.

In Asahigaoka, the village council assembled a local defence force. The Headman drew up a wide range of plan to meet enemy attack, or bombardment, and led several field exercises, though not even a Sky Carrier fly-over had taken place. The girls frequently trooped out to watch the heavyset farmers of all ages jog through various drills, laden with assorted shotguns, hoes and baseball bats.

“Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!” Alice muttered.

“Them Martians, they don’t like it up ‘em!” Karen giggled.

“What’s that?” Nattsun asked, “A magic spell? Oh, Hi there Mum!”

“Nyanpasu, Candy-Store!” Renge called.

Natsu's mother and Kaede were indeed jogging along with the Defence Volunteers. More conservative than the UFE, the Asahigaoka volunteers had not encouraged female enlistment, but Mrs Koshigaya had attended most of the exercises anyway. With hunting rifle slung over her shoulder, Kaede had attended every one. Neither were easy women to tell that they couldn't do a thing they were determined to do.    

Three months into the war, the biggest threat to Japan was famine. Worldwide destruction had almost eliminated food imports; even with the outflow of refugees, Japan couldn’t feed all its people.

Highschool-age reservists, already facing deployment to the front on their graduation, were conscripted into a land clearance and crop planting scheme, replacing most of their classes. Little Alice took to the labour astonishing well, but the mood of the highschool generally was toxic resentment.

Perhaps that frustration was why three farmboys decided to make certain that Alice wasn’t a Martian spy, by following her home. When she saw them, she didn’t dare call out, or even turn round again. She kept walking, until she saw Komori and Yoko ahead. Then she ran t them, with more terror than she imagined her little body could hold.

The next day, Asahigaoka branch school were surprised to Alice Cartelet stood beside a dozing Kazu-nee at the head of their class. She had a headband, a bamboo sword, and a steadfast expression.

 “Is Alice-san the teacher?” 

“Um, Alice, don’t you have school?”

“I dropped out. My parents aren’t around, so they can’t do anything.”

“Uwah! A truant teacher! What a bad example!” Renge called.

"At least you'll be better than Kazu-sensei!”

Kazuho gave an empty smile. She’d stayed in her room even more since Hikari’s disappearance. At school and on the family farm, she went about in a trance that was two parts impotence to one part uncertain grief.

“Hmph, show a little respect for your sister, Natsumi-san!” Alice coughed, and smiled like a cherub; even Kazuho looked up, “The truth is, when I was tutoring Hotaru-san and Komori-san, I had such a peaceful glow in my chest. I really think this is what I’m meant to do! My friends Shinobu, Aya and Isa-nee are all working hard for the good of Japan. I want to work as well, for the people of this country I love!” Ooo’s and applause. “Now everyone define a hundred English phrases! Today we’re going ‘bishy-bash, bishy-bash!’”

 

-0-

-0-

 

“Alice-san! Nyanpasu!”

“Good Meowning, Renge-chan!”

Wearing overalls, and a straw hat, Alice strapped a huge pack of seedlings to her back. Then she waded out with Renge to a freshly dug rice paddy. Nattsun, Koma, Karen and Hotaru were already stumping backward through the mud, dropping rice shoots. Her brother and some older men were using spades and chainsaws to clear an ancient forest for yet another new field.

As the children worked their way over the field, Renge began to sing a little song;

 

We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we can feel sad ‘cause we’re alive.

When we hold our hands up to the sun
and peek through our fingers
we can see the deep red blood flowing inside!

Even earthworms, even crickets, and even water striders
We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we’re all friends.

We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we can laugh ‘cause we’re alive...

 

“Hey! You were right to teach us farmwork in school hours, Kazumi-sensei!” Nattsun grinned.

“Yeah. It wasn’t because I couldn’t be bothered to work...” Kazumi smiled, and turned back to her tractor. She’d never liked farmwork before, but these days anything she could do made her feel a little better.   

As well as shaking up the school like a thunderclap with maracas, Alice had chosen to help expand the Miyaguchi farm, as part of the national food production scheme. Kazu-nee had warned her to rest up from work several times, but Alice had politely ignored her. She slept soundly every night, and visibly shone with satisfaction.

Though physically stronger than Alice, Karen got on less well. She didn’t like the mud, or the boundless days of unvarying labour. When she started stepping back from the farm work no one criticised–she was the kind of person who could get away with such things–except for Alice.

“Really, Karen, we’re guests here! We should show our gratitude, by working hard and doing our bit for the war.”

“Hmph! We’re not going to kick the Martians out by growing rice.”

Six months after their arrival in the village, Yoko’s letter finally reached them. That night, Alice heard something clatter, and stumbled from her bed; Karen was stuffing clothes into a bag.

“I’m going to get the early morning bus into town, and volunteer. They’ll take me; I got the highest pilot scores of our year.”

“Karen, no.” In her nightdress, Alice clung to Karen’s hands, “Your Mum and Dad didn’t want you to fight.”

“Well, they’re not here! I can’t stay cooped up in this village anymore! I need to avenge Honoka, quickly.” Tears stood out in her eyes, “I’ve got to do something!”

“You’re doing something here, so that everyone has something to eat! I know you want to fight, but there are different ways to fight. So many terrible things have happened…we have to shoulder the burden we’re given, and work hard as we can, like grown-ups!”

All through the night, they talked about the war, their frustrations and fears–and their friend, Honoka. Karen finally traipsed back to her futon at 3am, still sobbing. Alice felt miserable, exhausted–and in a few hours Koma-chan and Hotaru would call on her, for another day of work. If only Shino were there, she could have done anything!

Alice had hardly ever prayed before the war. But she found her little hands scrunching together as her eyes closed.

“Dear God. Please keep Shinobu safe. And Yoko. And Aya. Please…be very close to Karen. May Shinobu not miss me too much, or maybe only a little, and may she make new friends, just not another blonde girl…thank you for keeping everyone in Japan safe. Amen.”

 

-0-

-0-

 

“…Ooo, Syaro-chan, your hair is so golden, and shiny! Can I stroke it? Do that thing when you brush it away from your ear, just once more! What kind of hair-dye do you use? It looks so golden shiny and real! Maybe I’ll dye my hair blonde, no, Alice wouldn’t want me to do that! Did I tell you about Alice? She’s my angel princess, and you’ll have to meet her when this is all over–”

“Um, before the war is over, we need to sew these clothes!”

From day one, the quartermaster section had been providing warm and mended clothes to displaced people. Rize-sempai might have persuaded her UFE-Colonel father to let her fight, but Sharo felt glad she could be useful away from the battlefield. If only she could stop worrying. Rize-sempai was strong and brave, she would come back from the war and sweep her up like that photo from VJ day... maybe. And if only her her sewing machine partner was a bit less clingy. She would give Chiya and Cocoa a real earful about this, when their shifts were ended, over some strong coffee!

“Oh, yes!” Shinobu chattered on, “My friend Aya was really grateful to your two friends for making her so welcome! They’re such good friends, they’re all going to Tokyo today, together!”

“Tokyo? Why are the catering corps heading into enemy territory?”

“Eh? Why would they…indeed?” Shino’s round eyes and smile were suddenly wooden. She confessed she hadn't thought to ask.

“Eh? EH? What are they doing…?!”

 

-0-

-0-

 

Chiya, Cocoa and Aya were indeed strapping into a transport plane, heading for the centre of Tokyo. It was the least popular job in the catering corps, but everyone had to do it at some point.

 Cocoa was writing a letter to her friend Chino, Chiya was inscrutable, and Aya was fidgeting. She had got Yoko’s letter, before passing it on to Asahigoaka; apart from the imminent danger of death her friend was walking in, what did she mean by ‘wonderful friends’? The escort of soldiers with the catering girls were silent; there was no sound but the roar of the plane.

Finally, they touched down among the ruins of the capital. All of them shuddered, as they stepped out behind the armed soldiers. The shell of Castle Cruhteo loomed above, surrounded by makeshift emplacements. More UFE planes were around them. Ahead was a Vers transport, and Martian blue-jackets, regarding them as if they were diseased insects. Like serial killer mugshots, it was surprisingly easy to remember what they’d done to Japan, along with the rest of the world.

“You’re late, Terrans. Load the tribute onto the vehicle quickly.”

“Tribute, indeed!” Cocoa whispered, as the girls loaded sacks of rice, “They should be grateful we give them food they need to survive!”

“Oh?" The Martian officer evidently had good hearing, "We’d only take it if you didn’t, along with your lives.”

Cocoa shrieked like a mouse, but Chiya stepped in front of her. So did Aya.

“My friend Yoko–our friends, our comrades!–are fighting your people, on the continent. And…they won’t stop fighting!”

“Why, you little–!”

“Hey! You want a fight, start it with men, not kids!” A UFE soldier moved to defend the girls.

"If they wear uniforms, they are soldiers." The Versian's response was a spear of ice, "Childhood itself is nothing but Terran decadence. To survive on Mars, to advance the human race; these girls would be fighting, working and bearing Versian children the minute they were able. We are the new humanity. All the people for sacred Vers! All we have, for her victory!"

Aya, who'd always got good grades in history, shivered. After some more bluster, the catering team got onto the Martian transport, as planned. They rode with more supplies to one of the half-ruined, half-fortified stadiums where the Martians kept their Terran prisoners.

With her unit, Aya served out rice, bread and soup to the Tokyo survivors held by Cruhteo’s forces. Men, women, children of every age; all with the same dazed look. With an armed Martian present at all times, Aya didn’t dare to ask how they were being treated. But all of them bowed to her and smiled, as she passed out the food they needed to live.

It all felt like a dream. Since she'd shouted at a Martian with a gun, she'd barely felt real. But she knew otherwise; nothing was more real than this.

 

-0-

-0-

 

A year before, Miaguchi Renge had drawn a picture of Hikari, surrounded by dark monsters and shadows, entitled ‘distress’. Her sister had quipped that she shouldn't have put her in a drawing like that. Every day Renge worked quite hard, planting rice in new fields. Every evening she got out the picture, and gazed at the shadowed, half-smothered figure in the darkness.

They never had a call or letter to say what had happened to Hikari Miyaguchi. Of the hundreds of thousands buried under Tokyo seven months ago, most would never be brought to light.

When Renge walked in on Kazu-nee crying over the kitchen table, she shoved the picture away. Trotted up to her sister, and held onto her shirt.

"You're a good teacher really, nee-nee. You're the best big sister..." 

She had cried through the night for Hikage, but Renge didn't cry now. The world was at war. Even she had to do her bit, and be strong.