The Witch strode through open walkways of the Garden, smiling politely at passerbys as she made her way through the maze of staggered levels and plazas. Outside, the transition between atmosphere and vacuum could be seen clearly, a pinkish sky giving way to the pitch black of low orbit. A soft breeze drifted through the complex nonetheless, no glass panes or reinforced polymers keeping the void at bay. Such things were for metal haulers and military warships; not for the Keepers of Terra.

She spared a moment to look over the railing, down past the other levels, to the sparkling orb below. A world covered in lush greens and vibrant blues, dotted with lights and patches of concrete from the dense metropolises. Ten billion souls lived below, lives in unparalleled luxury, knowing no need that went unfulfilled, no want that was impossible. Most in the galaxy thought it propaganda; no world could be so well managed, so well provided for, not even the homeworld.

“Sister,” a voice broke her thoughts, turning to find a young man behind her. “I thought I might find you here.”

“Brother,” she responded simply, turning back to the planet below. “I hope you didn’t have to search too long for me.”

“I followed a whim.” He smiled slightly, crossing his arms across the railing. “That’s never let me down, not when it comes to you.”

“I can only assume you’re here about the Oversight Committee; they’ll have to try harder than you to get me to accept the position.”

“And they couldn’t pay me enough to convince you.” He laughed quietly, leaning to look at a group of passing Recruits. “No, seeking you out was for… less professional reasons. I know what you’re up to, Sister. You can’t keep making visits to the archives and not expect someone to notice.”

“What’s there to notice? Just an aging witch, reliving her younger years.”

“I’m coming to you as a friend Violet. You’ll get yourself hurt, or worse. The sector is quarantined for a reason; if the Oversight Committee caught wind of this, you’d have to worry about a lot more than piloting a desk for the next century.” He took a breath, visibly concerned. “I don’t want to lose you. We can’t afford to lose you. The Chapter leadership will stop you if they must, for your own good.”

“There’s nothing to worry about Brother.” She kept staring at the planet below, her thoughts drifting to memories of the plains passing by. It seemed like an eternity ago, running through the golden waves, laying on the crests of hills watching shuttles launch into orbit. “Much as I’d prefer otherwise… those days are long behind me.”

“Don’t you dare die on me!”

Pearl bolted up out of her bed, gasping for air as she pulled against the dozen odd cables and tubes connected to her. A nurse rushed in an instant later, soothing her the best he could before another figure approached behind him. It took her a moment after catching her breath to recognize who exactly it was, a reflexive scramble to her feet stopped by the pain throughout her body and the tethers holding her in place.

“Don’t break yourself further Daughter,” the woman murmured, pulling back her hood to reveal an entirely too-young face for the weight in the voice behind it. “I know you don’t mean any disrespect.”

“Mother,” Pearl dipped her head, trying her best to hide the sheer anxiety that came over her. “I didn’t expect to see you-“

“In as many pieces as you came into this hospital in, I don’t think you expected to see anyone again,” the elder Witch replied curtly. “It’s a testament to the entire team of surgeons it took to sew everything back together as well as they did, as well your own defensive wards for keeping you from being vaporized entirely.”

“I-thank you?”

“When will she be on her feet again?” The woman looked at the nurse, who flipped through the chart and whispered a response. “Hmm. Juice her.”

The nurse nodded, Pearl looking concerned as the nurse pulled out a stimulant vial, slotting it onto her IV feed. “Uhm, can I ask why that’s necessary ma’a-fuck!” The combat stimulant hit her like a train, along with the healing magics infused in it.

“Because I need a Witch for a mission and you’re the one I chose.” She gestured for Pearl to follow her as she stepped outside the room, the younger Witch waiting for the nurse to finish disconnecting everything before taking a shaky step off the bed, partially limping her way to the Mother.

The two walked, Pearl not sure how to break the silence as they made their way through the hospital. She didn’t immediately recognize the surroundings -it certainly didn’t look like a territorial outpost-, but she could tell that this was no ordinary facility. Witches and Dolls were present at every corner, some medical staff, others patients, more visitors. There was a sense of alertness here that she hadn’t felt since her days in the Garden… and then she realized, passing by a window that displayed the lush greenery outside. “Mother… are we on Terra?”

“Unfortunately.” The elder Witch sighed, waving them through a door to another ward. “Transporting you and your associate through the Pocket, in the states you were in… well, I wasn’t going let one of my Chapter die like that, hmm?”

She perked up at the mention of an associate, putting questions of how they had traversed the Pocket across multiple sectors to get to Terra in time aside. “Is she safe?”

“For a given definition of the word.” The Mother gave a bemused chuckle. “You’re fortunate I was there when the two of you came in. The seals you put on your companion were… unorthodox. An awful lot of effort for a drop marine, including risking your own expulsion.”

“I-it’s my duty, Mother. To safeguard the lives of my-“

“I was a new Witch once as well, I know full well what this is Daughter. You won that little gamble this… but I wouldn’t put that luck to the test too often. Companions like that come and go far sooner than we’d like.” She stopped at a door, swiping her hand over a reader and waiting for it to hiss open. Inside, there sat a half-broken form on the bed, with what appeared to be a priest of sorts sitting at the bedside, reading off a prayer that Pearl couldn’t quite catch. Upon catching the Mother’s gaze the priest nodded at the two of them, taking their leave while they looked over what was left. “There’s a lot of obfuscation I’m going have to do for you Daughter, a lot of heads I’m going have to make sure look the other way. You meddled with things that few witches can or should. But your Chapter has use for you yet, and more importantly, I have use for you.”

“Is… she going to make it?” Pearl cautiously put out a hand, feeling a bit of cheek left exposed.

“Not as she is now, no. The damage is too extensive, and the magic coursing in her veins -your magic- is the only thing holding her life in. Her mind is fragmented, lost somewhere in those last few moments before the blast. She is irrevocably tied to you; nothing that we do can change that. Her purpose is far from over, though.”

“Ma’am?” Pearl’s confusion was clear; she’d only met this Mother once or twice, during her Chapter initiation and graduation. Yet the woman seemed to know everything about her.

“You were never assigned a Doll; it was never necessary with the deployments you were given. This situation has given me a unique opportunity to change that. You and your doll to be will be in my care and personal supervision; you will go where I tell you to go, do what I tell you to do, kill who I need you to kill. In exchange, you won’t end up before a panel of Inquisitors asking exactly how much of the Pocket you pulled into this world to save your friend. Is that agreeable?”

A moment of hesitation. “Of… of course Mother.”

Pearl growled under her breath as she reached across the table, grabbing the trader by the collar and pulling him towards her. “I’m feeding you to my Doll if you keep lying to me. One last time, what were you doing in quarantined space?”

The man stammered a response, grasping at Pearl’s arms but finding no hold. “I told you the truth you fucking witch! It was a shortcut, nothing more!”

“A shortcut you only use once a month?”

“It helps me keep ahead of the competition! I’m not stupid enough to do it every time! Shit that’s out there notices you if you do it too often.”

Another hand pulled the trader away from the Witch and tossed him onto the ground, the imposing frame of a Doll following it up with a boot to the man’s chest. “Please do not leave anything out when Miss asks you a question,” it spoke in a stern but joyful tone, grinning. “This one will have to harm you further.”

“Look! I’m telling the truth! But if it’ll get your dog off me… I dropped off a guy, a few months back. Paid me a year’s worth of profit to get him past the distortion barrier and jettison him in an escape pod towards one of the moons in that region. Fucker had a death wish, there’s no way he could have survived until now.” He wheezed, trying to wrest the Doll’s leg off of him to no avail. “That’s all I know!”

“Let him go,” Pearl sighed, glancing at the closed door behind them to make sure no one was coming to inspect the racket. “I could haul you to an Inquisitor for this, you know.”

“We’re in the backwoods madam witch. There isn’t an inquisitor for five hundred light years.” He pushed himself up, dusting off his shirt and scowling. “Fucking Terrans…”

The Doll gave him a glare, making it clear he was no longer welcome. The trader scurried off out the door quickly enough, leaving the two of them in the room by themselves.

“So we finally know where he went…” Pearl murmured, pulling up a dossier on her datapad. “We’re going have to follow him into the quarantine zone.”

“Is it not just as likely he’s dead by now, Miss?” Her Doll peered out the room window, taking stock of the town outside. “Even for a Witch of his abilities, it is very unlikely that he could survive prolonged exposure to the Pocket.”

“The esteemed Mother won’t be satisfied until I bring her back a head. Head back to the ship, be ready to launch in thirty minutes. I’m going to cover up our tracks here.”

Do you ever think about what you did to me, Miss? The voice rang out across her dreams, an question that she could never escape. Pocket sleep had always troubled her after that battle, listening to the cries of her companions, the pleading to not die… You didn’t give me a choice, did you?

She opened her eyes, popping the hatch on her pod and pulling herself out of it. Slipping into a nearby robe, she opened a compartment bulkhead, warning messages displayed on the ship’s infoscreens reminding her that it was still in the Pocket. Gently she made her way to the front of the vessel, opening the door to reveal her Doll, standing in front of the open viewports, taking in the strange colors of the Pocket.

“It’s so beautiful, Miss,” it said, a listful smile on its face. “This one always wondered what it was like, to just… bask in it.”

She put a hand on its shoulder, keeping her gaze averted from the maddening swirls. “Dolls shouldn’t stare into the light, not for this long.”

“Did Miss know there’s a pattern to it? It’s almost like… words. The universe, talking.”

“Don’t… don’t think about that. That’s an order, Doll.” She pulled the stuck Doll from its spot, breaking its gaze and redirecting it to her. “We’re nearly there, yes?”

“A minute to drop, Miss.” The Doll tapped a nearby screen, tilting its head as it tried to make sense of the readings. “The ship should come out in orbit of the target moon. Real space distortion is intense in the area, however. It will be a very rough transition.”

“Better buckle up, then.” She grimaced, sitting down on a nearby chair and beginning to clip herself into the vest. “Remember: no matter what happens down there, we come back together.”

“Of course Miss; this one won’t leave you behind.”

Dropping into Real space. The ship chirped off an alert, klaxons sounding as the ship tore out of the eldritch colors of the Pocket and into the cold void of the Real.






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