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To the Stars

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Volume Ⅳ: Einstein‐Rosen Bridge

"In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

— Winston Churchill, to Joseph Stalin


〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①

One of the first directives of the newly‐founded Governance was the redirection of resources from its now‐superfluous fighting arms towards humanity's many pressing problems—ecological, economic, social—and towards its inherited megaprojects. The military simply wasn't a priority; the EDC had eliminated all internal threats, and there were no known external ones. Governance projections consistently suggested that aside from some basic precautions, the best form of security was economic and technological growth, to prevent unrest at home and to surpass any potential alien rivals as quickly as possible.

In that light, the newly‐integrated General Staff carried out its duties professionally. Arms factories were kept polished and ready, military research was carried out, and contingency plans were drawn up but, by and large, the world's armed forces faded quietly into the night.

By the eve of the current war, the General Staff was nearly moribund 〈, so far as the public knew〉③. A combination of old veterans from the Unification Wars and〈mostly〉③ untested career officers, it commanded a military composed almost entirely of early‐warning systems, experimental prototype ships, test divisions, and many, many planning documents. The most powerful assets at hand were the constellations of orbital defenses around the Core Worlds, particularly Earth—intended as a deterrent against "cheap shots", these were simply inadequate for the magnitude of the Cephalopodan threat.

〈The military's saving grace, at least in terms of experienced personnel and field testing, was its classified rogue colony task forces, the most prominent of which was Task Force Rhamnusia. Their prewar operations had presented priceless opportunities to iterate on various tactics, equipment, and ship designs, and while the soldiers themselves were hardly trained for fighting aliens, the veterans proved crucial in the desperate battles and mobilization of the early war years.〉③

In the wake of Aurora's destruction, the Staff performed admirably with what little it had. Initially expecting a follow‐up strike on Earth—which was what almost all the plans predicted—they led the breakneck rearming of Earth and its colonies in a masterpiece of AI‐managed bureaucratic skill, retooling entire economies in a matter of weeks. By the time of the Battle of New Athens, the armed services had grown nearly thirty‐fold in size, counting nearly ten million in well‐equipped, if only hastily‐trained, volunteers. Shipyards that had not even existed three weeks prior were mass‐producing starships that had before only been prototypes.

Underlying it all was the terrifying realization that it simply wasn't enough. Every indication suggested that the aliens were capable of an irresistible advance on Earth. Here indeed was the long‐feared hostile superior civilization.

It was immensely confusing, then, that the aliens simply didn't attack, at least not in the way they were supposed to.

They were, of course, to receive an even greater shock, very soon.

— Avnit Hassan, "A History of the General Staff," prologue, excerpt.

"We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means."

— Carl von Clausewitz, "On War."


How had it come to this?

Mami tapped her fingers incessantly against the table of the General Staff's meeting room on board Carthago, combat reports flowing into her mind.

The pulsar fleet was trapped, unable to stabilize the wormhole. Their primary objective had already been abandoned—now the question was not of mission success, but whether the huge investment into Project Armstrong's jumpstrike capability would be completely lost.

What had that accursed Goddess meant when she said she had a "positive feeling" about the pulsar mission?

As bad as that was, Mami had at least prepared for the possibility. The same couldn't be said for the other combat situation. What in the hell were Yuma and Kyouko thinking, gallivanting off in the middle of nowhere, getting attacked by aliens?

Were they going to die, while she just sat in a cushy chair a hundred light‐years away, unable to do anything? Was that going to be the story of her life?

She had to exert magical control over her body to keep her emotions from overwhelming her, to keep the fear for her friends from physically shaking her.

She felt the eyes of the other marshals and admirals on her, Feodorovich and Anand and Sualem, the three she had pulled from their other duties to watch over the pulsar mission with her. Feodorovich and Anand because they were her supporters and had been part of the planning, Sualem because he had been putting real effort into making his criticism more constructive, and including him was a cheap political sop to his faction in the General Staff.

She regretted inviting him now.

"Your distress is understandable," Sualem said, avatar severe in its virtual chair. "But a military setback of this sort is unavoidable sometimes in war. It was a reasonable gambit."

How generous.

"As for this incident near Yenisei," Sualem added. "I can only hope that your colleagues know what they're doing. They're all experienced enough not to be foolhardy."

Mami stopped tapping her fingers for just a moment. Sualem really was being diplomatic, for once, when she knew he was thinking much worse. Did she look that out of sorts?

Whatever, she thought. His opinion didn't matter right now.

Feodorovich let out a breath.

"To move forward," she said, "I understand that MSY prerogatives are in play here, but we must know what it is Chitose Yuma intended to accomplish at Yenisei, and how it was that the aliens knew to attack them in so unusual a location. They may not have accepted military oversight, but I think it's fair to say that now that they've asked for our help, it is our right to know."

Feodorovich looked at her piercingly, and Mami knew she had no choice but to meet her gaze head‐on.

"I don't know what they were up to," she said. "I want to know as much as you do."

"Perhaps—" Anand began.

The avatar of the Carthago Shipyard station AI, Alan Turing, appeared at her side.

"Pardon the interruption," he said.

Mami had a fraction of a second to wonder why the AI would show up in person before new information flooded her mind: a full report from MG, about what Yuma had discovered, and the hostile reaction that had just been triggered.

She immediately began sliding into Command Mode, as Anand's and her bodyguards teleported into the room. They needed to reach interface chairs, now.

But even as Mami arrived in her new room, they were forced into a painful pause. They couldn't be sure the interface chairs were safe until they were verified, no matter what MG's report said. Only Mami and Machina, magically protected, were provably clean now.

Feodorovich's and Sualem's avatars appeared again before her, after a delay due to them also switching locations.

I'm dividing this into four separate assignments, Mami thought. Machina, confirm the validity of MG's report, and begin verification on the others' communication lines, implants, TacComps, and interface chairs, starting with Feodorovich.

Mami‐san, is it wise to wire in right now? Xiao Long, Mami's teleporter, thought at the same time. Yenisei is clearly an assassination attempt on senior MSY leadership. You might need to stay mobile.

Feodorovich, Mami thought, hesitating in front of her chair, once you're cleared, take command of the response to the attacks being reported. Assume they're real.

That risk isn't worth losing the power of direct cluster access, Mami thought, sitting down to prepare for connection. The interface will take time to verify anyway. If there's an attempt on my life too, it should be obvious before then.

Anand, Mami thought, without interruption, begin emergency recomputation of humanity's strategic and diplomatic posture conditional on the most plausible interpretations of the video Yuma extracted. Decide if we should attempt to send a diplomatic message to the Ceph via the Project Armstrong wormhole before it's gone—this may be our best chance to get a message past the front lines.

A preliminary result came from Machina: the TCF breach appeared genuine. One of Anand's bodyguards could perform magical TCF verification—had been secretly reassigned to Anand by Yuma for this purpose, in fact—and claimed to have pre‐verified that Turing and Carthago were clean.

Mami ordered that this Johanna Genoveva be teleported to her, untransformed, so she could begin a telepathic check.

Sualem, Mami thought, identify the most damaging possible misinformation the General Staff could have been fed, working backwards from now, and cross‐check the data we have with verified AIs as Machina confirms them.

Mami herself attempted to get a grasp on the bigger picture. The vision of Homura she had seen in the séance on New California, the fact that a TCF breach meant they had a magical enemy—

We're getting conflicting reports of rogue activity on Armstrong Defense Station from Luna Command Node,〉 Machina thought, on an emergency interrupt level. 〈Unauthorized launches and kinetic firing. We—

A few milliseconds of silence.

Carthago is under attack from lunar and orbital weaponry. Much of our orbital defensive systems are offline. Forcefields will be down to 47% in thirty seconds.

The calculations ran through her head in an instant.

Then we need to get out there, she thought to her bodyguards. There wasn't much in the way of manned, magical girl defense in Earth orbit, for obvious reasons. It would take only a short while for Earth OrbCom to reassert control, but that "short while" was plenty of time to die in.

You're sure Turing is clean? she asked Johanna, who had just arrived.

Yes, the girl said, balking slightly under Mami's harsh and hasty telepathic scrutiny.

Then we'll have to trust in that. Let's go.

As the rainbow tunnel of Xiao Long's teleport swirled around her, she reflected that nothing on board Carthago was truly irreplaceable. Not even herself or Anand. But the potential loss in prestige alone…

A nervewracking ten seconds were spent slapping on a vacuum suit, magical girl speed barely giving time for the suit segments to assemble.

Then they were out in space, for the first time since her orbital training early in the war. Earth loomed below her, Asia and the Pacific Ocean in view.

Mami absorbed what information she could about the incoming threats.

Johanna, work on reversing the corruption in the local defense network, and see if you can deactivate some of the missiles. Karina and I will focus on the kinetic projectiles.

Carthago wasn't the only target at risk, but it was the only one Mami was capable of personally defending. She had to hope that Earth OrbCom was not too compromised—it had some of the heaviest orbital weapon systems Humanity could deploy, some designed to counter alien battlecruisers. These naturally tended to be pointed outward, but there was no telling what a malicious adversary could achieve.

For now, their adversaries seemed to be doing whatever they could to cause chaos, targeting both kinetic and missile weapons at Carthago, and even aiming satellites directly at them.

Mami took a breath underneath her helmet, spreading her hands out in front of her.

A wall of ribbons appeared before her, a few square meters in size, woven into a meshwork with no gaps. It looked like it couldn't stop a simple bullet, but the looks were deceiving—the wall would be just as effective as Kyouko's chains, which it was an imitation of.

Mami frowned at the thought of Kyouko, who was in far graver danger than she, but shook it off quickly. Now—especially now—she couldn't let herself despair. Not when she had expensive magic to perform.

She pumped magic into her ribbons, her soul gem rotating through the supply of grief cubes in her suit. First, the ribbons turned translucent, so her team could see what was happening. Then the wall spun outward, doubling in size, then redoubling, until it stretched kilometers and curved inward, shielding a significant fraction of the station.

A drone from the station delivered more grief cubes, and Mami accepted them gladly as her barrier shuddered under a series of blows, ribbons flashing bright yellow under kinetic impact.

Mami, Machina thought.

Mami was already looking to the sky, away from Earth, the signal entering her brain.

The Super Heavy Elliptical Lunar Array, SHELA, was an experimental array of defense cannons in lunar orbit, designed to help turn Earth's natural satellite into a fortified planetary body in its own right, denying access to lunar orbit while simultaneously supporting Earth orbit with long‐range strike power, some of it at relativistic velocities.

And elements of SHELA that happened to be pointed in the general direction of Earth had started turning and firing. It had just taken a while for them to notice with so many things going offline.

Not all of it was directed at Carthago, Mami realized. Some of it was towards other assets in orbit, including the space elevators near India and Southeast Asia, whose OrbCom defenses were not yet back online.

I can't do anything about that, she thought. For all her years, fleets, and powers, it was entirely out of her hands.

With no one around, she screamed in rage. For her friends, for all her frustration, for all the disasters, she launched herself away from Carthago at the main projectile incoming.

She could at least do something about this one.

Directly stopping a relativistic projectile with megatons of relative kinetic energy was a difficult task, especially when she had less than a minute to do it. But deflection… that was possible, provided she did it far enough out.

Machina had already run the numbers. Ideally, she could fire a Tiro Finale from the side—that would be relatively cheap, well within her firing capacity. There was the targeting challenge of hitting a bullet with a bullet, but she had the intuition to manage it.

A part of her longed for this solution, to just rocket outward at maximum speed and deal with the problem nearly head‐on. But, angry or not, there was no way her shot could reach the impacter at enough distance—ideally almost a quarter of the way to the Moon—much less hit it from the required angle.

Instead, she'd have to do something a bit less kinetic.

She reached the position Machina suggested, giving her a clean shot past the maze of satellite and other trajectories above her. Settling into place, she readied her stash of grief cubes, listening to her own breathing to center herself, and be ready for what she had to do.

She was a master of crafting with her ribbons, and while one of her first achievements was fashioning muskets, she had never stopped tinkering, growing proficient at summoning other objects, while reading about machines and weaponry to expand her knowledge of mechanism.

Once, early in the Unification Wars, Yuma had suggested it would behoove her to learn to perform laser ablation interception. She was one of the few magical girls qualified, and it might be useful someday.

She had been right, of course.

Mami gritted her teeth and reached forward with one hand, summoning the requisite parts ex nihilo. She wasn't as practiced with this as with her usual cannon, so it took a bit of doing: stabilization brace, followed by resonance chamber, followed by focusing lens.

When you could afford the energy, doing things this way made things a lot simpler. If you could afford the energy.

You'll be running up against the line, Mami, Machina thought. I'm estimating two million kilojoules. That's a lot, even for you.

It won't be all at once, Mami thought. And Xiao Long can deliver emergency grief cubes if I miscalculated. I'm in no mood to sit back and let things happen.

She narrowed her eyes, peering out into the void where the impacter would be. Naturally, she would be leaning on Machina's calculations, but she had always found that a magical girl could get unexpected value from a direct look.

Mami tried to clear her mind, emptying herself of everything but the task at hand: the thrum of magic in her veins, the targeting solutions in her mind's eye, the slight actuation of the weapon in front of her, now easily three times her size.

Then she performed a trick she didn't like very much—she pointed her magic at herself, letting it focus her mind on only the most optimistic scenarios. She let it wash over her, imagining all that might happen, the way she would scold Yuma when she returned, a smile hidden in her heart. She let her heart swell with hope.

Luce Solare! she and Machina thought together, in resonant chorus.

The magical beam streaked outward, painfully‐bright yellow with photons that only magic could afford to waste. A quarter‐second later it slammed into the left half of the impacter's face, vaporizing the metal composite and ejecting it as gas. There were no efficiency losses—the intent of her magic ensured it all ejected in just the right direction and velocity.

She turned ever so slightly, tracking the projectile for over a second, gritting her teeth against the pain of the grief filling her soul.

Then she was done: the impacter was off course, due to hurl harmlessly past Earth into deep space.

Only then did she realize that it had been too easy.

A feat like that should have drained her to the limit, even with all her extra grief cubes, just as Machina had warned. Instead, she had never felt threatened, and still had most of her supply—at this rate she could have repeated the feat twice over, and comfortably at that.

There was only one thing—one person—she knew which could cause an effect like that. It had been hidden well, but now that Mami knew to look for it, she could sense her.

Akemi‐san, Homura, is that you? she thought desperately, on broad channel telepathy. Answer me!

There was no response, and however much her heart demanded she try to track Homura down, she suddenly had much bigger problems.

Sensors indicated no less than six more impacters on approach trajectory, what would have been an impossible defensive task just half a minute earlier. Instead, assuming Homura's magic stuck around, she might just be able to fend it off. Maybe.

Or she could evacuate herself from the area, leaving the station to its fate.

No, she thought. If this was important enough for Homura, of all people, to reappear, then she would stand her ground. Humanity needed a victory today. She needed a victory today.

I'll take your help, Mami thought, again on broadband. We're going to make our stand here. But where have you been all these years? You're not going to run away, are you? Whatever you're doing, whatever you've suffered, we can help you. I can help you. I want to make up for before. You need to talk to us!

She injected the thought with all the emotion she could, and made clear who it was intended for.

Then she threw herself into her task.


Shizuki Kuma was taking a lunch break.

The Prometheus Research Center had the good luck to be located near one of Mitakihara's only open spaces, the swathe of air space claimed by the Cult of Hope just next door. That meant that many of the windows on that side of the building had just a bit more light, and some even had an angle to see the church and its garden below.

He was seated to take advantage of that light, watching a video his ex‐wife had sent him, of a little girl posing proudly next to a model house.

The situation with Sacnite was awkward at best. He had had nothing to do with the adoption, of course, but Ryouko was his daughter too, so he had been willing to be a bit involved. What did that even mean, though?

The video was interrupted by a piercing alarm, sending him jumping instantly out of his seat without even knowing why. It took him a fraction of a second to register that his emergency package had toggled online, and that it was the military emergency alarm, ringing both in the hallways and in his head.

He joined the stream of personnel heading for the evacuation ports, all of them frantically messaging speculation at each other about what was going on. No one knew who had called the emergency, Darwin was unresponsive, and the only information they had was that some kind of attack was imminent. But this was Earth!

The building shook as they spilled onto the local skyway, sending some of them stumbling. A thundering crack then shattered the air, removing any doubts they might have.

There was no screaming, their emergency packages focusing their attention on the bare task of survival. Most of the civilians already outside sprinted forward, trying to get out of the area, but those who were stuck near the doorway, like Kuma, didn't have stable ground to run on. Instead, they toppled sideways, grabbed nearby objects and each other, and braced for a very forceful fall.

Kuma felt like he had been forced into a distant, illogical movie, the world reeling slowly sideways as the building above him tilted at an impossible angle. His fear—and it was tremendous fear—had been locked away in a deep, irrelevant box, and he finally reflected that he was very likely to die.

They began to go into freefall, and Kuma's implants began trying to calculate whether he was better off just letting go of the railing to find something, anything else to land on, for what little difference it would make with the building coming down on him.

The conclusion was yes, and he and several others used what little leverage they had to push away, grab each other, and influence their angle of fall. They succeeded in veering a few degrees, so that the woman next to him slammed into the side of a traffic tube with a sickening crunch—mercifully, she had turned herself off just a moment earlier, and her situation was salvageable, if nothing else happened, which was a laughable notion.

They bounced off, and now they were going to land on a neighboring skyway, about fifteen meters down. A passing small drone gave them the tiniest of assists, grabbing onto Kuma's arm with all the power its engines could muster to slow the fall.

They slammed into the skyway, protecting the already‐injured woman as best they could, pain receptors completely disabled.

Most of them went into unconscious fugue immediately, but Kuma clung on, one of the least injured, now responsible for taking care of the others if at all possible.

Of course, there was nothing he could do, and both he and his emergency package stared emptily at the giant shard of building falling inexorably towards them, before his implants nudged him: something was wrong. Or, perhaps, right. The building wasn't budging.

He scrambled at length onto his knees, gratefully receiving a package of medical nanites that a passing drone had flung onto the floor in front of him. As he started to work on one of the crumpled bodies next to him, one of his own hands hanging broken and limp, he looked up at the looming, impossibly hovering building above him.

There was only one possibility, of course, and he could see the girl holding up a huge chunk of the building personally, hands pressed into the side while she braced against the side of another structure. Someone else walked up the top, seeming to vaporize segments of the building as she passed.

He took a moment to stare, and his nomenclator returned:

Identification unknown: no match with confidence greater than fifteen percent. Submitting for additional processing…

He turned away and returned to his gory task at hand. By the time proper medical drones arrived minutes later the girls and building were gone, leaving him to slip into grateful fugue.


"The disaster in Mitakihara has been accompanied by security incidents throughout Governance space, suggesting an attack of unprecedented scale. Ongoing outages in Governance's network management have allowed multiple multimedia statements by an unknown organization claiming responsibility. These statements have made shocking allegations about Governance and the MSY, which we have not yet been able to verify. Official sources have thus far stated only that the situation is under control and the damage limited, with negligible effect on the war effort. However, a joint press conference by members of the Directorate will begin in just three minutes, promising a full response to the allegations—"

Kuma paused the stream, acknowledging the visitor that had stepped through his doorway. His injuries had been relatively minor—minor enough to allow him to regain consciousness just half an hour later, in an MSY Military Armory hospital bed beneath the Cult of Hope.

"Shirou‐san," he said, nodding politely at Shirou Asaka.

He spoke evenly, but ever since the hospital systems had warned him of her approach, he had been desperate to work out why he would be worth visiting. It couldn't be personal; they barely knew each other. Was it something about all the clones that had just been lost at Prometheus? Or was it—more likely—something about his daughter?

He had given up trying to find the actual allegations the news kept talking about—it seemed the Cult of Hope's systems weren't having outages—but he had a terrible feeling that Ryouko was wrapped up in all this.

"What brings you here, if you don't mind me asking? I don't think I warrant a Major General."

Asaka looked to the side.

"Well, I also have my own business," she said. "I thought it was worth a personal visit."

She sat down and then leaned back in her chair, casting her eyes upward.

"I'm being impolite," she said. "But I'm in a hurry. Still, I will give you the courtesy of a little background. Earlier today, I was at the Church of Hope, and while I was there, everyone—and I mean everyone—in the Ribbon Chamber experienced a vision, myself included, warning us of this attack. I doubt you put any stock in the Goddess, but you owe Her your life—that vision is the reason we were able to order an evacuation."

"What?" Kuma said.

"Was it wrong?" Asaka asked, pinning him with a look. "But enough of that. While Prometheus was collapsing, our rapid response teams detected a number of unknown magical girls in the area. You were in the vicinity of one, and there was an unusual nomenclator request. Can I telepathically examine your memory of the incident?"

The memory flashed through Kuma's mind, of the girl holding up a building on her own, unidentifiable.

"Of course," Kuma said, so relieved that this wasn't about Ryouko he hardly hesitated to grant the favor. "I didn't really question it at the time. I had much bigger problems."

"Understandably."

"But she looked like she was trying to help," Kuma said, bearing the mind‐read uncomfortably. "She honestly saved my life. She's not in any trouble, is she?"

"Well, just between you and me, she's supposed to be dead," Asaka said, smiling slightly. "That's why you couldn't identify her. There's a faction that has been causing all these incidents."

She turned, gesturing at the wall where Kuma's news program was still frozen.

"But it doesn't make sense for her to be a part of that," she finished, as she withdrew from his mind. "And thanks."

"Do you know anything about what's going on?" Kuma asked. "Are you allowed to share anything?"

"Yes," Asaka said, with a brief pause that amplified all his worries.

"I'm supposed to tell you," Asaka continued, "that the cloning program is about to get very public. There have been uncontrollable infodumps online—there's also footage of all the clone bodies in the ruins of the church above us—and Governance has decided it's no longer possible to keep this secret. This is not going to be comfortable for you."

She leaned forward as she spoke, instinctively lowering her voice, even though they both knew the room was secure.

Kuma closed his eyes. Again, he had been spared the worst‐case news. Not that this wasn't disastrous. If it weren't for implant restrictions on violence, he might very well be assaulted on the street for his role in human cloning.

Could he even rely on those restrictions, given what had happened today?

"That's not even the half of it," Asaka said, voice grave, and Kuma felt another ripple of fear.

She clasped her hands in front of her.

"Let's just get it out of the way," she said quickly. "What Joanne Valentin did, the modifications that were made to your daughter, your initial agreement—all of that has been leaked to the public. Now, to be clear, there's a been a lot of false leaks too, and we'll be denying this one—but some people are going to believe it."

Kuma stared blankly for a few seconds, before slowly putting his hands to his head.

"I—I would have you know I consider that one of my greatest mistakes," Kuma said. "She tricked us, you know. And now I have to live wondering just what she was up to."

"You don't have to explain yourself to me," Asaka said.

There was a long pause, enough time for Kuma to stare at his hands and wonder if Governance had some kind of program to train him in how to convincingly lie to his colleagues.

"There is something else," Asaka said. "I've been saving it for last."

Kuma groaned.

"There is a reason I wanted to stress the Church's role in evacuating Prometheus. I want you to know that the Goddess is real. I've even spoken to her, and to the dead. There is an afterlife waiting for us."

There was only one reason Asaka would bring up a topic like that, Kuma knew. After all, why else would Asaka specifically have been sent to him?

But he felt his mind sliding around the edges of the obvious inference, trying to think of some reason, any reason, he was wrong.

He couldn't.

"She's dead, isn't she?" he asked, without looking up.

"Almost certainly," Asaka said. "Technically, she's missing in action, but you shouldn't hold out hope."

He put one hand on the railing of his bed.

"How did it happen?" he asked, voice quiet, staring at that hand.

"About as heroically as one could hope for," Asaka said. "Personally salvaging a huge military operation at great personal risk, just like at Orpheus. The mission used an interstellar wormhole, but it was destroyed while she was using it to return. We looked everywhere around our end, but it was a forlorn hope. It's not possible for her to have survived on the other end."

There was a brief pause, and when he didn't say anything Asaka continued:

"Her sacrifice may have had a decisive effect on the course of the war. She will be honored accordingly—the mission will be public knowledge soon, with the ongoing Directorate press conference. We won't let her name be slandered."

There was much to interrogate about what Asaka had said, starting with the wormhole, but Kuma didn't really care for those details at the moment, and Asaka clearly understood that.

He held himself still for a moment, then lashed his hand outward, slamming it into the vase next to his bed, which flew into the wall and landed with a thud, spilling water onto the floor. Not quite enough to trigger the violence implants, it seemed.

"This is exactly why I agreed to Valentin's offer in the first place," he said, growling into Asaka's face. "So this wouldn't happen! And she betrayed me! If I ever meet her, she better be goddamn careful. Not many people know how to disable their implant restrictions."

It was nonsense, of course. By all indications, Valentin was a magical girl, which meant that he had essentially no chance at hands‐on revenge. Nor was this exactly what he had feared for Ryouko—an infuriatingly rational part of him was proud for all that she had accomplished, in the life she had chosen.

He held his seated position for what seemed like an eternity, arm clenched, then flopped back onto his bed, listless.

"Does Nakase‐chan know yet?" he asked.

"I don't know," Asaka said.

Then, tilting her head: "No, not yet. She's refusing to meet with the person they sent."

"I'll do it now then," Kuma said. "And no offense, get out of my room."

Asaka let out a breath.

"Right. I imagine they'll send the grievance counselor in a bit. But thanks for speaking with me."

Then she left him alone.


Asami hadn't known it was possible to feel so bad. Not under a full blanket of emotional suppression.

She had held out a brief, desperate hope that Ryouko had survived on their end of the wormhole, even after she had lost sight of her within.

But she understood better than anyone how the wormhole collapse had evolved, had used her powers to corral every exit in Human space. Thanks to her efforts, they had located every missing member of their squad within minutes, floating in the void at most a few hundred kilometers away.

All except Ryouko.

Now she found herself staring at her stump of a wrist, sheathed in a metal healing device, awaiting a clonal hand transplant, cheaper than a healer's magic.

She couldn't bring herself to care. The emotional suppression kept the despair, the pain, the regret all at bay, but it couldn't control the apathy, couldn't create a positive motivation for her to do anything.

All she wanted was to sink into Ryouko's arms, to feel her breathe, to tell her she loved her again.

But that wasn't possible now. Not anymore.

"If this is some kind of waiting contest, you're not going to win," Asami said, without looking up at the woman standing in her doorway. "You might as well give up and walk away."

"I got you to say something, didn't I?" Clarisse van Rossum said. "But I'm not here to be your psychiatrist; I'm here with divine guidance."

She didn't care to hear it. The Goddess had asked her to stay with Ryouko, to protect her, and she had failed to do so. What more could be wanted of her now?

Maybe she had doomed humanity, getting Ryouko killed with her ill‐conceived plan. There was an intriguing thought. She could dwell on that for a while.

Well, no, she supposed she couldn't do that, not with Van Rossum probing at her like this.

"Why would I want to hear from her? Neither of us was able to keep Ryouko alive, and that's all there is to it. What, is she going to offer me consolations? I have plenty of those."

"No, it's not just that," Van Rossum said. "Look, I know how you feel, but I think you'll want to hear this regardless. It's about Ryouko, and it's not just platitudes."

Asami lay there for a long moment, wondering what it would be like to tell Van Rossum to leave her alone.

Begrudgingly, Asami sat up, dropping her feet off the side of her bed.

"Well? I'm listening," she said, still hugging Ryouko's pillow.

"It's not something I can just say," Van Rossum said. "It's something I have to show you. Come on, get dressed. I'll wait outside. I promise you it's worth it."

Asami thought about it as she dressed, dialing her emotional suppression down a notch. What could possibly be worth all this? The last thing she wanted to hear right now was some explanation about how Ryouko's death had been very important in the grand scheme of things. But she had to think Van Rossum knew that.

She spotted the pair of CubeBots on her shelf, one of them coming alive to greet her, and felt a well of pain rise up within her. She didn't suppress it, not this time. Instead, she let it wash through her, threatening to pull her down into the abyss.

It felt right, somehow.

The CubeBot chirped, lifting its back to offer an assortment of grief cubes.

"Thanks," she murmured, grabbing a few. Then a few more.

She chose as nondescript an outfit as she could manage, then stepped outside, letting Van Rossum lead her through the station, out of the residential areas, past the labs, into an intra‐station transport, into the medical area—

"Wait, no," Asami said finally, stopping in the hallway. "Why the hell are you taking me here? I am not talking to her. Why would you want me to talk to her? I wouldn't feel safe having the two of us in the same room."

She meant, of course, Simona del Mago, whose soul gem signature she had grown all too familiar with, and which pulsed quite obviously from the holding cell a few slots over. She had not forgotten that if Simona had just cooperated, then it would have been easier for Asami and Ryouko to do their work, and then maybe, just maybe, none of this would have—

"I know," Van Rossum said, grabbing her by the shoulder. "These feelings are natural. On my own judgment, I wouldn't think opposite sides of the station are far enough for you two right now. But I have it on quite good authority that you two should meet, because she has a message for you."

Asami closed her eyes, then let out a breath, indicating Van Rossum should lead the way.

"Fine. You can probably keep me from killing her. But if I had known this would be so much trouble, I would have stayed in bed," Asami said, and meant it.

They found Simona reclining in a chair, watching a news projection on the wall. She still had her soul gem, which was more trust than Asami would have given her.

They made a decent show of ignoring each other for a few seconds, before Simona turned off the projection.

"I heard about what happened," she began.

"And you're just sitting there like everything is fine," Asami spat. "When this is basically your fault."

"It is my fault," Simona said, fingers digging into her armrests. "I failed to protect her. But she's not dead. My wish is unfulfilled."

"Not dead?" Asami echoed, raising her voice, a point of anger breaking through her weakened suppression. "You weren't there! If she's not dead, then she's lost in space and soon will be!"

"But my wish is unfulfilled," Simona said, as if echoing a mantra, hands still gripping her chair. "I can't tell you how it's possible, but she doesn't understand me—can't understand me, until I get through to her—and until that happens, my wish is unfulfilled."

"Normally, I wouldn't put much stock in it either," Van Rossum said, turning to address Asami. "There's a wide body of literature on allegedly unfulfilled wishes. It's always a misunderstanding. I've seen a few myself."

She shook her head.

"But I got a message just as the wormhole collapsed, from our divine friend. It said to talk to Simona del Mago, and to Nakihara Asami, and to bring them together. So here I am. And Simona is convinced Ryouko is alive."

"I would like a personal word with your Goddess if she isn't," Simona said. Her chair had manifested three additional support struts for each armrest.

"I'm afraid I only ever hear from her just before, or during, historic moments," Van Rossum said. "And that's a secret, by the by."

"Not surprising," Simona said.

Asami stewed silently. She wasn't going to believe that Ryouko was alive. Not for a reason as stupid as this. To start with, she wasn't at all convinced Van Rossum had really heard from the Goddess. More likely, this was some ridiculous attempt at manipulating her—"for her benefit", of course. She couldn't find the energy to figure out the real angle, but there probably was one.

But despite what she told herself, the claim had ignited a glimmer of hope, and she began to fear having that hope dashed.

"That's it then?" Asami said, gesturing at Simona with one hand. "I'm supposed to listen to a crazy girl? Why can't the Goddess just say things?"

"You know the answer to that," Van Rossum said. "I don't think you're supposed to know what to do right now, but I can suggest an option: you can just go ask."

"Go ask," Asami repeated. "You mean on Earth, at the Ribbon."

"Yes."

Asami looked down at the floor. Her feelings on Simona aside, it was a sensible enough idea. She had the opportunity—Project Armstrong would need a long time to regroup without Ryouko. Ryouko's funeral would probably be in Mitakihara, and she'd have bereavement leave, come to think of it. And the Ribbon meant a chance to see Ryouko either way, dead or alive. Maybe even Clarisse.

That was a nice thought, in a way. She supposed she should thank her emotional suppression for letting her make such an objective assessment.

Simona and Van Rossum seemed to be discussing whether it would be possible to visit the Ribbon right now, for some reason, but Asami decided to keep tuning them out.

If Ryouko were alive—no, no, she could not start thinking like that. She was being pushed to visit the Ribbon, thanks to Simona and Van Rossum, but she couldn't set herself up for an entire second round of heartbreak. Not when she didn't even know how she would survive this one.

But she couldn't hide from the Ribbon now, either. Ryouko deserved better. All Asami was in for was a bit of pain. She could suffer that much in payment.

She gritted her teeth.

"Alright," she said. "Fine. But don't expect me to spend any more time with her. I want to spend my time alone."

"Hold on," Simona said, standing up abruptly as Asami turned to leave.

"What?" Asami asked, making sure sufficient venom leaked into her voice.

"She's alive. I don't know if this Ribbon will convince you of that, but if it does, we'll be the only two people willing to risk everything to get her back. We need to work together. We shouldn't let jealousy get in the way of that."

Asami felt the pit of anger in her stomach boil over, searing its way through her restraints.

"Jealousy? Yeah, I'm jealous you got her killed, you bitch! Don't you have a fucking court‐martial to be at?"

Then she stormed out.


Elsewhere, earlier.

A wave of nausea hit Ryouko as the alien ship finished its blink.

She felt her body struggling, kept functioning only by a copious dose of magic. She wanted to drop to her knees and let the fugue take hold, but… not now.

Whatever happens, we'll keep control of our own fate, Clarisse thought, echoing her own sentiment.

Ryouko looked around the room. In most respects, it was like every other alien storage room she had seen that day: rounded corners and entryways, sand‐textured floors, maintenance drones that derived from a different, inhuman aesthetic, wriggling along the floors as they worked.

In other ways, it was different. The walls had the subtle lustre of holographic metamaterial, similar to human ships. A large circle in the center of the ceiling filled the room with a pale light that resembled filtered sunlight.

But what drew her eye, what instantly caught her attention, was the obvious text, the labels affixed to the crates on the floor, the symbols above the doorway, the large blocks displayed on the nearest wall. Unreadable, but unmistakable.

A four‐part symbology, Clarisse thought. With obvious patterns. If fewer of my processing cores were critically damaged, I'd start language analysis.

The wall beside her began to change, the symbols disappearing, replaced by a pair of alien individuals. It took her a moment to realize that it was a video feed.

These Squid looked different, too.

The two peered at her, bodies buried in what looked like layers of robes, sealed at the edges with metallic‐looking rings. The eyes were larger than she was used to, and the necks a bit shorter.

One of them raised an arm, seeming to point at her with one tentacle‐like finger.

A wave of telepathy flowed into her, a stream of concepts and images, and maybe even speech. Calm, beneficence, wanting to meet.

Then the noise seemed to lessen, her mind finally able to grasp at a narrative.

I think I can see some patterns now, Clarisse thought. This is a simpler signal than before, and much of the noise is just too many signals at once. It makes sense—we know they have a less‐centralized nervous system.

Now Ryouko could finally make out some of what was being projected. In her mind's eye she saw images of broken alien limbs, ichor, and what she recognized as alien medical equipment. Then, a diagram of a path through the ship labeled with that equipment.

They're offering medical care, Ryouko thought. Do we dare take it?

In for a penny, in for a pound, Clarisse thought. We're already here.

Ryouko was already moving towards the door, since she could work out the logic too.

Then her legs crumpled beneath her, pain ricocheting through her midbody, and she fell to one knee, using magic to stabilize herself. Perhaps walking was not the best idea.

She sent back a message to the source of telepathy, indicating her intent to teleport, not knowing if they understood.

She waited for a response, any response, and when she got something vaguely affirmative she made the jump.

The medical ward she appeared in looked not radically different from the ones she was familiar with: large machines with mysterious tubes, vial after vial of nanite gels arrayed inside an autodispenser, a small army of support drones pouring out of a port in the wall.

And two reclining medical beds, one somewhat smaller than the other. Were there aliens that small?

"Hello," something said, in the voice of a human female.

The clear, understandable greeting almost made her jump, and she spent a moment looking for its source, before realizing it was coming from an alien standing in one of the doorways; she couldn't tell if it had been one of those in the video earlier.

She realized that the "Hello" was prerecorded, though, and the telepathy that followed was not as clear, but she still understood: she looked seriously injured, and further activity was only causing more damage.

Then it sent an image of just what she looked like.

It was something she had avoided thinking about, and for good reason: open wounds, gaping sores, and peeling skin testified to combat injuries and lethal‐if‐untreated levels of radiation damage. In a way, it was misleading: Clarisse's influence and her own trained instinct had focused magical and mundane healing on core systems, not superficialities. But there was nothing inaccurate about the fact that she looked like death.

Some actual medical care would carry real benefits, like allowing her to save grief cubes until she got back. Even if that seemed a bit ridiculous to plan for.

But it still took a real leap of faith, a swallowing of fear, to put herself on the smaller of the two medical beds, and stare up at the surgical apparatus above.

She watched nervously as the alien stood at the wall, receiving a series of cloudy nanite tubes into its finger‐tentacles.

We're sure that magical girls are immune to nanite hacking? Ryouko thought.

Yes, Clarisse thought, though her tone suggested she was shaky as well. Though I'd have no idea whether they can accurately manipulate human physiology. Either way, you might want to pay close attention to anything that's going on.

There was another pulse of telepathy from the alien, but this time she couldn't parse it. An image of small molecular assemblies—nanites, perhaps?—and some confused imagery that followed.

But the gesture was clear enough, especially when the robotic arms above unwound themselves—smooth‐jointed and multi‐limbed, just like the human equivalent, though the motions were more uncanny, and it was clear just whose limbs they were meant to resemble.

It took a force of will not to jerk backward as the device went to work, applying patches of wound sealant and skin‐replacement, the chemicals alternately warm and clammy where they touched her, the pain fading quickly underneath.

It's just like the last time you took a radiation burst, Clarisse thought, referring to the fight outside HSS Pierre‐Simon Laplace, a lifetime ago. I can't detect anything unusual entering your system. These seem like purely synthetic skin grafts, though.

Then the alien held out one of its tubes, inserting it into a small, ball‐shaped handheld device right in front of her face. It was clearly trying to make sure she saw.

Nanite injector, I assume, Clarisse thought, even as the device came closer to Ryouko's arm.

This time, Ryouko even jerked away slightly, before managing to convince herself by the old trick of simply looking away.

I can't monitor everything being done, Clarisse thought, once the nanite tubes were all expended. But I'm monitoring cellular repair, energy delivery, and nutrient support. No attempts at hacking, and you haven't noticed anything with your magic, right?

No, Ryouko thought.

The robotic arms withdrew, leaving her and the alien… doctor staring at each other. Their eyes met, sending a chill down her spine. Cephalopod eyes were notoriously human‐like, with their visible sclera, even if these eyes weren't quite what she was used to from the battlefield.

∪·Hello|+·More meaningfully this time|∪·Greetings the alien thought.

"What the hell?" Ryouko said, jumping backwards on her bed, repaired skin scraping against the polymer surface.

The thought had been crystal‐clear this time. Or perhaps it was more correct to say thoughts, layered atop one another. Somehow she knew that, and understood it cleanly besides. The first and third thoughts were meant to be understood together, and the second thought as an addition to them.

·We took the opportunity to complete the organ inside your head, enabling communication|+·Your species' biotechnology ≈ an unfinished story|∈·We will not modify you further without informed consent|∈·This act was the output of a binding‐preference‐alteration‐agreement

It shouldn't have been possible, but Ryouko understood instantly—or at least, she understood the component concepts instantly. It was clear that "binding‐preference‐alteration‐agreement" referred to an idea she was unfamiliar with.

Still, that wasn't the first question on her mind.

It was a communications implant this whole time? Ryouko thought, attempting to reply on the same… channel the alien was using. How and why would anyone do that?

μ·Not only a communications organ, but also a preference‐specification organ|ν∈·Akemi‐Homura⊃Divine‐seeking performed prenatal surgery upon you|μ+·The preference‐specification functionality was likewise incomplete until now|ν∈·We did not fully understand, but in part, to enable further Human‐Thinker cooperation|ν+·The binding‐preference‐alteration‐agreement was negotiated with her

Ryouko sank back in her bed, taking in the stream of revelations as best she could. This day, by far the longest day of her life, just simply would not stop. Was she a nervous wreck yet? Hopefully not.

Don't forget to take all of this with a bit of skepticism, Clarisse thought. Though, since Yuma did tell us that Akemi Homura was responsible for your brain modifications, that much is likely true.

And she had edited her brain to… communicate with the Cephalopods? Were there not simpler ways to achieve the same goal, that didn't require fifteen years of waiting? There had to be something else going on.

There was something important she didn't understand.

Preference‐specification? she asked, using not the Standard words but the mental concept she had been sent. What does that mean?

∪·Utility‐preference, perhaps|∪·Fundamental expressions for the prioritization of different imperatives|∪·Morals, values, desires

Ryouko felt abruptly as if someone were watching her. No, that wasn't quite right—she felt no urge to look behind her. It was more like… someone was inspecting her, staring at her.

·Finally, through you, we can empathize‐open the preference‐specification for your species|∈·What I find here is bizarre|∈!·Such flexibility, and indeterminacy, and happenchance

Ryouko did not understand. The telepathic interface was clearly doing a lot to translate unfamiliar concepts back and forth, but the information was compiling in unfamiliar ways within her mind.

She said as much.

μ·Perhaps‒83% it will be instructive for you to empathize‐open my preference‐specification|ν?·Would you like some time alone to learn about our society and technology|ν+·Your specification suggests you would the alien thought.

Ryouko didn't find the simultaneous topics as disorienting as she might have—she had some experience, dealing with older magical girls—but she could tell she was responding unnaturally. The alien's telepathic channel allowed for multiple connection threads; Clarisse suggested that the intent was she respond on each as she generated responses, in a simultaneous, continuous back‐and‐forth, rather than letting the connections lapse and waiting until she could dump her entire response along a new, single thread.

Processing it all was taxing, and she was already spending magic just staving off complete exhaustion. She needed to rest, not learn a new mode of communication.

But she had no choice but to understand more.

I'd love to do some learning later, once I've had a break. But before that, how do I empathize‐open?

+·Go on|∈·It should be natural now|∈·Simply try to make the request of me

To say that the instructions were unclear was underselling it, but Ryouko guessed at what she was supposed to do; perhaps it was like learning to use new thought‐based technology, something everyone had been trained to do as children. All you needed to do was think it hard enough.

And just like that, the problem cracked open, a rivulet of information pouring into the cup of her mind.

She suddenly felt like she understood the alien. That she could profess its beliefs, predict its behavior, understand its values. That understanding seemed to erupt through her consciousness, a flower of knowledge that peaked in revelation.

And the alien's name was 9Qta3Ba⊃Peace‐cultivating.

"Peace‐cultivating" waited a very long moment before explaining:

·This ability is the foundation of our civilization|+∈·One Consensus, many Tentacles; one core preference‐specification, many branching extensions from it|+∈·Empathy‐opening cannot be refused, and is required regularly, so we can model each others' behavior—thus, our Consensus is preserved

Again, a long pause. Clarisse suggested that the alien might be waiting for Ryouko's acknowledgment, unable to read her body language.

It took a moment for Ryouko to give it. Her magic and implants were keeping her awake and aware, but her willpower was eroded. She was tired.

·The original, uncommunicative versions of this organ were purely biological|·It is fascinating that, without an equivalent, your society is not tearing itself apart|·You should consider a choice of star‐name for yourself, the process may‒32% help you rationalize your preference‐specification

This is all well and good, and I'm happy to absorb as much enemy intel as I can hold, Clarisse thought. But we really have bigger problems to tackle. Like, why are they attacking us? And where are they taking us?

·With all due respect, why is your species attacking us? What reason do you have to attack us?|·Where are you taking us? Why am I here?

Ryouko, torn between asking the two questions, found herself asking both at once. The process wasn't quite natural—she hadn't reused the existing telepathic threads, but rather created two new ones, and Ryouko felt her head threatening to split besides—but still, it happened.

μν·Those two topics ≈ two views of the same mountain|μ·Attempts at communicating with your civilization reportedly failed, so Consensus allocated resources to Consensus/Thinker‐preserving for the suppression of your reality‐distortion technology|ν∈·Not long after the initial intervention, Akemi Homura⊃Divine‐seeking came in contact with us, Consensus/Ahimsa‐extending—her ability to communicate was limited, but she carried a written document claiming that Consensus/Thinker‐preserving was compromised, and that their violence was founded on false premises|ν∈·Divine‐seeking gave detailed instructions on where and when to wait for you, and requested technology necessary to produce you|ξ?·We were not informed of the entity "Clarisse" we see in your preference‐specification—a symbiotic individual stored on your spine

Ryouko's head throbbed. What she was being told raised more questions than answers, even the parts that verified everything she had ever suspected about her life. And they still hadn't told her where they were taking her.

She strained herself to produce responses on the appropriate connections. She just needed to keep going a little longer.

|μ·What do you mean, reality‐distortion technology? We are researching no such thing. That's not an explanation.|ν·Akemi Homura talked to you? And set up all that? Why? It doesn't make sense.||ξ·Clarisse is a… support AI that was implanted recently in me by Homura. It was part of an experimental program which was not supposed to produce AIs, but it's possible Homura modified it. I do not know.

She was instinctively wary of being so truthful about Clarisse, but decided she shouldn't hold back. Not when she had a chance to get answers.

Besides, if her modeling of the alien's behavior was accurate, it was supposedly very interested in maintaining peace between sentients, and would not lie about the cause of a war… at least not in this situation.

Peace‐cultivating's eyes slid to the side, in a gesture Ryouko was tempted to read as hesitant, and some of its responses were delayed after the others.

|μ·You are a living example of this technology|v·Divine‐seeking pointed out the importance of communication for proving her assertions, and we agreed, but why she chose this method, we do not know—we accepted her offer as a token of good faith||ξ·Concerning, but if Clarisse⊃??? was instantiated accidentally then it is understandable—your species should work on providing them a new platform|μ+∪·A technology which is outside the grasp of our science|μ+∪·A technology too dangerous to use|μ·We attempted to warn your civilization of the risk, and deployed a fleet with combat‐bodies when that failed

Ryouko's headache got worse, but Clarisse provided some neuromodulator support so she could keep thinking.

Living example of… she thought, to herself.

Did they mean magic?

Do not explain that to them, Clarisse thought. Not yet at least. Think about how they might react to learning about the Incubators, or that we don't control our own magic sources. It's a huge strategic insight we shouldn't be giving away.

That's a good point, Ryouko thought, a bit peeved that Clarisse hadn't even given her a chance to think of that on her own.

Though, considering the state she was in…

I did not realize that is what you meant, Ryouko thought, retreating back into single‐threaded thought. The truth is that our government either did not receive or did not understand any such queries before your, uh, combat‐bodies arrived. And by combat‐bodies do you mean your soldiers?

She knew shallowly the video from the asteroid Yuma had visited, since it had been part of the information Yuma had sent her, but she was also pretty sure she shouldn't admit to the alien that their messages probably hadn't been received because Governance had been compromised.

At least not yet, as Clarisse had said.

Similarly, she avoided addressing the other topics. So many threads to pull at, many all‐too‐dangerous.

∪·Combat‐bodies include all the physical forms Thinkers use to exert military force, not only those with shapes approximating evolutionary Baseline|∪·I refer to Thinker consciousnesses inhabiting battleready forms, with full backup|👁+?·Am I to understand that your combat‐bodies are not the same

That question came with a telepathic header that Ryouko was experiencing for the first time, signifying a… high‐priority‐on‐transparency question.

In other words, the alien knew she was hiding information, and very much desired honesty on at least this point.

And no wonder, Ryouko realized, recalling Peace‐cultivating's preference‐specification.

They are not, Ryouko thought. Only our AIs have backups. Our non‐biological forces. They're very different from anyone who shares my body plan. Don't tell me you've been assuming we all have backups?

A pale horror crept into her gut, a dawning realization of just what a cosmic joke that would be. How could they not have realized? That kind of mistake simply wasn't possible, not for two decades—Human behavior and tactics in the war should have made the truth obvious within days.

∈·The Tentacles applying force verified to us that you did, and later presented evidence of combat bodies like yours repeatedly returning to battle with the same unique reality‐distortions|∈·Akemi Homura⊃Divine‐seeking claimed you did not, and that the truth was being hidden from us by reality‐distortion, but provided limited evidence

Peace‐cultivating raised an arm‐tentacle at the wall, which turned black, bathing the world into an eerie darkness, the medical bay seeming to drop out of view, replaced by a breathtaking immersion of stars, a holographic feat humans saved only for movie theatres.

Upon examination, it was clear this was a location still near the pulsar. But then the scene shifted, suddenly jumping, each time closer and closer to the galactic core, the stars growing denser and brighter.

A flash of Sagittarius A☆, the Milky Way's supermassive black hole, then a rapid sequence of extra‐galactic scenes, all centered on the broadening image of a spiral galaxy so big and so close it could only be Andromeda, until abruptly they were inside it, in the core—

—and then they were outside it again, Andromeda's disk retreating, and they rotated so that a new spiral galaxy came marching into view.

Then they stopped, with the stream of its stars enveloping the room.

μ∈·You asked why you are here|ν∈·You asked where we were going|ν∈·Our home systems, in a galaxy separate from yours|μ∈·You must speak to the Consensus Peace‐cultivating thought.

The Triangulum Galaxy, Ryouko thought.


Appendix: "Understanding Thinker‐Human Translations"

[…]

As such, SAH humanization sacrifices a large measure of readability to more accurately convey the parallel, simultaneous nature of Thinker telepathy. Paragraph structures are radically repurposed towards this end: paragraphs are built not from a sequence of complete sentences on a topic, but rather from the set of messages sent concurrently along the threads of a telepathic channel. These messages are separated only by "|" tokens within each paragraph, and only one message per thread is allowed in a single paragraph. Therefore, a paragraph break is made whenever a new message is sent on a previously‐used thread, whether from the original sender or not.

Messages in SAH humanization also differ from sentences in Standard in several respects. Most prominent is the addition of a header, denoted by a trailing "·", which conveys metadata about the information being sent in a given message. Typically, this metadata is represented by a sequence of individual symbols1—for example, lowercase Greek letters are used to identify messages on different threads as pertaining to a particular topic under discussion.2 Less obvious differences include the omission of end punctuation and the tendency toward "run‐on" messages, which reflect the continuous and readily‐interrupted flavor of Thinker telepathy.3 Last is the inclusion of various brachygraphic symbols, which will be discussed in more depth later.

Consider the following text, which is adapted from a Thinker telepathic multithreaded stream using SAH humanization:4

μ·The Thinkers' ancestral phenotype, the Baseline, originally used its wide swathes of chromatophore‐bearing skin for camouflage, but slowly came to repurpose them for communication|ν·The history of Thinker communication is normally divided into five eras: pre‐linguistics, display‐and‐gesture languages, written scripts, electronic transmissions, and telepathic channels

This represents a two‐thread communication along a single telepathic channel, where the first thread's message begins with the header "μ·" and where the second thread's message begins with the header "ν·". These headers indicate that there are two separate topics being discussed simultaneously.

In displayed format, a code‐like typeface (such as Type‐Standard Molluscan) is used to distinguish standard Thinker telepathy, representing the lack of emotional affect. It is natural for Human readers to interpret emotional undertones into any written text, even those from Thinkers. It is hoped that an alternate typeface emphasizes what any Human receiving Thinker telepathy feels instinctively: that such undertones are not at all present.

The italic styling is merely standard for representing any type of telepathic communication.

Now, consider this expanded snippet of the same material, again adapted via SAH humanization:

μ·The Thinkers' ancestral phenotype, the Baseline, originally used its wide swathes of chromatophore‐bearing skin for camouflage, but slowly came to repurpose them for communication|ν·The history of Thinker communication is traditionally divided into five eras: pre‐linguistics, display‐and‐touch languages, written scripts, electronic transmissions, and telepathic channels

μ·However, the bandwidth of body display signaling was limited by the Baseline's binocular vision, which could only fully focus on one area of the body at a time—parallelization was usually achieved via a combination of chromatophore display and tentacle gesture|ν·Recently, several prominent study‐of‐Baseline‐experts have argued that the display‐and‐touch era should be further divided, but this is still debated, with one faction arguing for a pure display languages era followed by a display‐and‐touch languages era, on the basis of historical‐preference‐specification‐reconstruction, and with another arguing for the reverse ordering, based on evolutionary considerations|μ+·It is hypothesized that the white sclera of the Baseline's eyes evolved in order to better convey what visual display was being received, among other information

In this second paragraph, the multithreaded telepathy switches from using two threads to three. The first two threads in this example continue on their original "μ" and "ν" topics, but this is not a certainty—sometimes topics will shift threads. The third thread's message begins with the header "μ+·". The first symbol in the header establishes the topic, and the second symbol means that, for full understanding, a message on another thread with the same topic must also be understood—in this case, the "μ·" message on the first thread, though a "+" symbol can be used without a topic symbol like "μ" if there is only a single topic under discussion.

It is important to understand here that paragraph groupings do not indicate exact simultaneity of messages. Typically, messages with a "+" symbol in their header begin sending somewhat later than others, though much of their transmission duration will still be in parallel with the message or messages on which they depend.

For this next snippet, in which we have skipped ahead a bit in the source material, watch for a new symbol in the headers:

·The development of written scripts, necessary for primitive information transmission and storage, required compromises on parallelization similar to those involved in pure display communication|+∈·Early scripts often simply adapted local ideographic displays, but by the age of machines, most proto‐Tentacles had standardized to logographic scripts, some descendants of which are still in use today|+∈·One common script, used where parallelization was strongly preferred, involved a linear sequence of four‐part circular glyphs, each quarter of the circle containing logograms which continued from the same quarter of the previous glyph, rather than from the rest of the current glyph

Here, the header symbol "∈" indicates messages on different threads that provide parallel, but different information about the same subject.5 Greek letters are not used in the headers, meaning there is only one topic under discussion.6 However, this does not mean the messages are sequential.

Continuing:

·The dawn of electronic communication prompted heavy experimentation with metadata, multithreading, and script‐interpretation‐tools in a bid to increase parallelization||+·Elaborate electronic communication schemes proliferated ≈ villosin spawning 7

·While scripts remained in use throughout the electronic transmissions era, haptic script‐interpretation‐tools which derived from non‐parallel scripts eventually became dominant, as the physical feedback to tendrils allowed for practical parallelization, especially when combined with visual displays|·Display‐and‐touch gradually fell out of use, as it required physical proximity, and in time was used only with juveniles who had not yet mastered electronic systems|

In the source stream for the first paragraph above, no message was sent on the channel's second thread, but the thread was kept active. To represent this, the "|" thread divider token is used with a null message, resulting in two "|" tokens in a row. In the source for the second paragraph, no message was sent on the third thread, as indicated by the trailing "|".

The first paragraph also demonstrates a distinctive feature of SAH humanization: the use of brachygraphic, or shorthand, symbols. "≈" is shorthand for "is comparable to" and indicates a simile—commonly used in Thinker communication—while conveying the efficient and distinctive essence of the original telepathic content.

Now, try reviewing the previous three paragraphs of source material, following each of the three active threads one at a time.

Consider that the second messages sent on the second and third threads did not follow from the first messages on each thread. This is not uncommon, as topics shift, especially outside of back‐and‐forth conversation. It is important to remember that while Thinker telepathy is much more parallel than standard Human modes of communication, it is not fully parallel, and neither are the Thinkers themselves. Each thread is not meant to be consumed in complete isolation from the others, but in gestalt.

Before moving on from the current source and delving into more brachygraphy, we will present one of its last passages, without further comment, except to note the interesting assumptions of Thinker culture.

μ·The development of neural implants and, in time, neural telepathy allowed for the final, perfected form of Thinker communication, tailored directly to cognition|μ+·Free from the limitations of electromagnetic transmissions like no previous mode of communication was, and completely natural to use, the telepathic channel rapidly displaced its predecessors across the entire population|ν·The currents Thinkers rode through communications development are idiosyncratic, the byproducts of evolution both biological and cultural, but the destination arrived at is one that all sapient species are likely to eventually choose

1 Metadata not pertaining to the meaning of the message body, such as user signatures and initial cryptographic handshakes, are usually omitted for compactness. When included, they are of course longer than a single symbol.

2 SAH humanization pointedly avoids using numbers or the beginning of an alphabetic sequence to label topics, to avoid giving the mistaken impression that these headers indicate priority or any sequential ordering. However, by convention and for clarity, the first topic header in a translated paragraph will always use "μ", and the second "ν", and the third "ξ", and so forth.

3 Human messages translated in Thinker format are conventionally labeled with end punctuation, reflecting the comparatively halting and turn‐taking nature of Human thoughts.

4 This source was chosen for its unusual similarity to Infopedia's style, with an eye toward reader comprehension.

5 A related symbol, "∪", indicates when multiple messages are attempting to convey the same information, in order to increase the likelihood that the information is fully understood.

6 Of course, what defines a "topic" is decided by whoever creates the message. In other words, the header symbols themselves are how a Thinker expresses what is or isn't a separate topic, or what is or isn't closely related information, etc.

7 Villosin (Sapidum pisk, tasty‐spawning‐garnet‐bellied‐picotee‐finned‐rough‐fish) are an aquatic species from the Thinker homeworld which reproduce similarly to capelin on Earth. The Standard name is arbitrary; because the Baseline lacked vocal organs, the Thinkers have no spoken languages, so concepts without pre‐existing Human equivalents cannot be translated phonetically. Instead, they are given new, pronounceable labels, or explained via component concepts.