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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?"

 

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"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?"

 

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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!"

"Oh, Shino!"

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.

  

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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.

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"Are you a Martian?"

Renge naturally went for the direct approach. Alice met her earnest, demanding gaze, and quailed. Japanese girls really were scary.

"I'm Alice…" 

"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…?"

"SISTER!"

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.

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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..."

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"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.

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"…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.

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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?"

"Now, Renge..."

"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.

Chapter Text

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.  

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!”  

 

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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!’”

 

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“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.”

 

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“…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.

 

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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.