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To the Stars

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To the Stars Volume I: Quantum Entanglement

"God does not play dice with the universe."

— Albert Einstein (as most frequently quoted)

While basic instruction on the consequences and responsibilities of wish‐making is, from an ethical standpoint, mandatory, this requirement must be balanced against the greater good of Human society. Instructors are forbidden from divulging more about the Incubator system than is present in the course curriculum; this restriction lasts until pupils are past recruitment age, typically considered as ending at twenty. While concern for your pupils is laudable, silence is your responsibility as a citizen, and as a member of Human society. Violation of this policy will be met with immediate loss of position followed by possible punitive measures…

"Universal Guidelines for Middle School Instructors (12th revision)," excerpt.

Taking into account the updated military requirements forwarded to me by MAISL, my projections indicate that production will soon be insufficient to meet aggregate demand. Therefore, I recommend immediate cuts to Alloc distribution to all households and civilian organizations, distributed regressively down the volunteer productivity scale, as outlined in the accompanying charts. In addition, Chart Five outlines classes of goods and services that will now require Allocs to purchase. Consultation with CHAI indicates that while morale will suffer, civic unrest will remain nominal. Unfortunately, times have changed.

— Recommendation by the Production and Allocation Machine (PAL), adopted unanimously by the CEC under expedited procedures.

Shizuki Ryouko opened her eyes slowly, the ceiling sharpening into focus above her.

It had been a nice dream, involving cake.

She sat up and stretched, one arm raised high, instinctively querying her chronometer. It was 10:11:23, it seemed, the knowledge injecting itself into her stream of consciousness.

She grunted in annoyance. She had hoped to get up earlier than that. Ah well, it hadn't been worth setting an alarm.

Slipping out of her covers, she slid her feet into her favorite bunny slippers, the ones that squeaked as she walked. They had sentimental value, but she insisted to her friends that they were "just some old slippers that were a gift." Her diminutive stature seemed to cause her friends to think of her as a bit of a child, and she didn't want to do anything to further that impression.

Grabbing a change of clothes off the rack, she started pulling off her nightclothes. It was a little tedious; some people, especially many of her male classmates, were lazy enough to just wear the same self‐cleaning clothes all day, every day. Others, preferring a more personal touch, had robots to do the dressing for them.

Her family was a bit more traditional—and less well‐funded—than that.

Sometimes she envied adults, she thought, not for the first time, pulling up a nice skirt she had picked out the night before. Most adults used the standard sleep‐suppressing regimen of drugs and nanotreatments, and consequently slept anywhere from three hours a day to nothing at all, depending on preference. That same regimen was considered possibly unsafe in 14‐year‐olds like her, and not a good idea anyway; Governance ideology stressed the importance of having each new generation of children experience a little of the human condition, even the outdated parts. That way they wouldn't forget their roots and grow into soulless posthuman monsters, or something like that.

The government always made a big deal about these things. Governance ideology was responsible for the built‐in restrictions on direct mental communication and virtual reality, for instance. They were expected to move their lips to talk, except for deliberately slow long‐range messaging, and time tickets to activate your VR implants were exorbitantly expensive.

Anything else would be inhuman, after all.

Except for occasional moments of weakness, though, she didn't really mind sleeping all those extra hours. She didn't know what people wanted to rush for. Nowadays, there was nothing worth rushing for, and all the time in the world to do what you wanted.

Nothing at all.

She ordered her blinds open with a thought, then leaned onto her windowsill, observing the cityscape from her vantage point on the forty‐second story. Behind her, her long hair silently untangled itself, prehensile strands waking up for the day. That was one convenience that was not restricted—hair that maintained constant length, cleaned itself, and arranged itself was astonishingly useful.

She felt really stupid sometimes, like a square peg in a world of round holes. It had been drilled into their heads in school: the story of human history was all about escape. Escape from hunger, from need, from want. Now, humanity had really reached the end of history, and was finally on its way to building a perfect society.

It didn't feel perfect to her.

She looked out at Mitakihara City. The city hummed with activity, with transportation vehicles constantly on the move on the surface, along the countless elevated roads and tubes, and, she knew, deep underground. Air vehicles had turned out to be impractical and inefficient—the only true solution to congestion was to go 3D.

Pedestrians and bicyclists swarmed the skyways, drones patrolled the skies, and, if you looked hard enough, you could see the edges of the species diversity preserve, the SDP.

But, inevitably, her eyes went to the starport.

A seemingly unassuming structure, flat and squat against the horizon, its name was a bit of a misnomer; the starport didn't send anyone into space, not directly. Instead, it packed passengers into scramjets bound for the true ports, the space elevators ringing the equator. The Mitakihara starport was particularly important, and was thus unusually large and busy, jets going in and out constantly.

She looked at it with longing.

In a world where you could have almost anything, spaceflight was still one of the true scarcities. Heavily restricted and carefully regulated, pleasure flights were deliberately priced to absurd levels, to restrict civilian travel. You could go and be a tourist if you wanted—if you were willing to pay.

It hadn't always been like this. But nowadays, space was reserved for colonists—and the military. Indeed, looking up, Ryouko could even see a glimmer from one of the numerous defense stations orbiting Earth.

She leaned over and peered into the telescope she had mounted next to her window, tossing the dustcover onto her bed. A gift from her grandmother, it was one of those automatic models, requiring only a transmitted instruction from her cortical implants to automatically find and focus on the desired target.

The space station was one of the newer Bucky models, so called for their geodesic, soccer ball‐like shapes. Since the military kept the specifications tightly classified, no one knew why the fundamental shape had been changed, only that it was better somehow. Suffice to say, there were hundreds of them, each almost certainly capable of deflecting major asteroids or wiping out continents on the surface below, and they were constantly being upgraded, added to, or replaced.

Nobody knew if they'd be enough, if they were ever really needed.

Her classmates, her parents, everyone around her, seemed happy with their lives here. Seemingly endless abundance, nothing to really worry about, productive work all voluntary—nowadays, residents of Earth wiled away their time at their hobbies, becoming artists, physicists, athletes, fulfilling the dreams that would have once been stymied by lack of opportunity, burning away the endless years of their clinically immortal lives.

But not her. She wasn't happy here.

She kept telling herself she'd get over it, that she'd find a hobby, maybe get a boyfriend or develop a fixation on Advanced Field Theory, but it never happened. Instead, she kept finding herself looking up, at the universe, where she felt her heart truly lay.

Maybe someday she would get to go.

"Come on, Ryouko‐chan," her father said, appearing behind her in the doorway. "You've already missed breakfast with the rest of us. You know how your mother gets when you do that. Don't make her wait any longer."

He didn't look a day over thirty, despite being well over a hundred years old.

Easy to nag when you don't have to sleep, Ryouko thought, but said out loud:

"Alright, I'm coming."

She lingered a bit longer, looking out at the horizon. Then she tossed the dustcover back onto her telescope and walked out her door, letting her bedsheets make themselves.

"Can you believe this shit?" her grandfather asked, as she entered the main room.

It was a crowded room, designed to serve as living space, entertainment area, and dining area, with modular furniture to suit it. Many things were cheap, but space in a dense urban hub like Mitakihara City was always at a premium. As a consequence, most families in the city rubbed elbows in extremely cramped flats—and no one wanted to live outside a city, because it was both expensive and boring. Not the flats—those were government‐allocated anyway, and much easier to get when away from the city. With the majority of citizens spending government distributed incomes, differences in prices between urban and rural areas reflected mostly the cost of transporting goods—and thus, goods were always more expensive away from the centers of production, in the cities. Governance was disinclined to mitigate the difference, since it preferred denser cities anyway for productivity, efficiency, environmental, and surveillance reasons. It was just one of the many practical compromises to theoretical eudaimonia.

"I told you not to swear in front of Ryouko, Dad," her mother said, frowning, as Ryouko took a seat at the table.

"She hears worse in school all the time, I assure you," the man said stubbornly.

"Besides, have you seen the news?" he demanded, turning to gesture at the words appearing on the wall behind him, which had turned temporarily glass‐like.

"Yes, Dad," her mother said, in her patented long‐suffering tone. "We can all check our news feeds perfectly fine."

"What news?" Ryouko asked. Unlike her parents, she didn't care to have the news delivered to her brain every morning. She found it distracting.

"They're cutting resource allocations again!" the man said. "What a travesty! I thought we lived in the future! That's what they keep telling us, anyway."

"Don't be stubborn. You know what the situation is," her mother said, voice sharp.

She tapped her fingers on the table restlessly. A sour mood seemed to settle on the table.

Something was wrong, Ryouko intuited.

"Besides, if you don't change your mind soon," she added. "I'm sure your extra allocation will easily tide us over."

She sounded sarcastic.

"Look, I know you disapprove," the old man said, immediately following the lines of the old argument. "But my mind is made up."

"I just don't see what appeal it has to you."

"Look," Ryouko's father interrupted, sticking his hand forward, as if to physically separate the two of them. "Let's not rehash this argument again. He's an adult. He can make his own decisions."

"That's right," the old man said, somewhat nonplussed by the unexpected defense.

"I just want him to know we don't need the Allocs," her mother insisted. "We'll be fine without it. I just don't want to see you die, Dad."

The blunt phrasing cast an additional pallor over the table.

"I could easily make it out alive," the old man said, having heard it before.

"Most don't," her mother rebutted.

"Come on, you two," Ryouko's father tried to interject.

"Your mother is still alive, isn't she?" her grandfather pointed out.

In truth, the only reason they knew that was because they had yet to receive an official death notice. Sometime over the past twelve years, the woman had simply stopped writing.

"I know you're trying to follow her," Ryouko's mother argued, voice anguished and angry, forcing the words out. "But please. Give it up. She's not coming back. She doesn't love you anymore."

"Dear!" her father said, grabbing her mother's shoulder. That comment had been a step too far.

"I can't be happy here," her grandfather said, head bowed. "I just can't. I've tried. Maybe there's something out there for me."

For those living on Earth who were unhappy with their medically eternal lives, there was a ready solution. Those with ennui, those unable to fit into society, those who had divorced after sixty years of happy matrimony—they all joined the military, who welcomed them with open arms. It was the natural destination of those seeking to change their lives—or seeking an end.

And, if by some stroke of luck you survived, a new life waited for you in the colonies, should you desire it. The only requirement was that you be over a hundred, and could thus reasonably attest that you had seen much of what Earth life had to offer.

That was where her grandmother had gone, and where the old man was going now.

"Please, can we not have this argument again in front of Ryouko?" her father pleaded. "She's already heard entirely too much of this."

The old man—who didn't look old at all, in fact—hung his head.

Ryouko knew he felt guilty about leaving, and that she was the only reason he had managed to force himself to stay all these years.

She swallowed.

"Enjoy your time in space, granddad," Ryouko said, giving him a hug. "Do what you want to do. Don't feel guilty."

She buried her face in his shoulder, not wanting to look at her mother. She meant what she said, but she didn't want to see the look on her mother's face.

The man smiled back at her weakly.

He was going next week. Monday, as a matter of fact.

That's right, Ryouko thought. In a hundred years, I might follow you.

Her mother cleared her throat, grabbing Ryouko's breakfast for her off a nearby counter.

"Well, speaking of resource cuts," she said, changing topics with disturbing efficiency. "The food synthesizer is on the fritz again. Nothing came out this morning but inedible mush."

"Yes, I did notice the dry cereal for breakfast," her father said dryly.

"We'll get right on it," the old man promised, referring to him and his son‐in‐law, as Ryouko looked without much interest at her bowl of corn flakes.

"If it doesn't work right this time, I'm having a technician come repair it," her mother said. "I don't care how expensive it is. Consider this warning."

Ryouko's father grunted.

"I'll get food at school, then," Ryouko said, getting up. "I wanted to have some crêpes, anyway."

"Alright, have fun," her mother said, reclaiming the bowl of cereal and pouring it right back in its container.

She wasn't happy with her daughter.

Ryouko waved goodbye to all of them, and headed out the door.

In the hallway, she stepped into an elevator already waiting for her. It zipped down to the fortieth floor, where she got off, walked four feet, and exited onto the departure terminal. Her ride, a personal auto‐transport, was already waiting.

She stepped in, the doors closed, and the vehicle sped off, down the on‐ramp onto the tube‐like skyway, where it would switch from self‐driven propulsion to drawing power from the oscillating magnetic fields around it.

Ryouko ordered the seat to recline, laying back. She looked at the sun through the many layers of distorting transparency above her, traffic tubes crisscrossing the sky above like the output of an enormous, transit‐optimizing spider.

The vehicle sped its way along at a dizzying speed, in perfect synchronized order with those around it.

Far too quickly, she was able to step off at the thirtieth‐floor entrance to her school. She often wished the ride would take longer, so she would have time to watch the sky and think to herself.

Truth be told, in these days of consciousness feeds and universal knowledge access, there were more efficient ways of learning a skill than going to school. Even irreplaceable personal learning interactions could be achieved by simply finding someone who lived nearby willing to teach you in person—and for every imaginable topic, there were plenty. People simply had a lot of time.

No, it wasn't about the learning, at least not directly. It was about socializing with your peers and, more importantly, figuring out what you wanted to learn about. Once you did that, things flowed easily, and they left you more or less on your own.

It was incredibly important, and she had yet to achieve it.

She was early, so she stopped by the school cafeteria, as promised. In the age of 3D printed food, school food was indistinguishable from what your mother made—unless your mother, or someone in your family at least, had traditional cooking as a hobby.

Well, synthesized food was quite good, so it wasn't that big a deal.

"Ryouko!" her friends called to her, as she stepped into the room.

She looked around, tracing the source, a table about halfway across the room.

She squeezed her way past other tables, seating herself firmly next to Simona, a foreign exchange student who had joined her little group of friends. Across from her sat her two other friends, the long‐haired Chiaki and the pig‐tailed Ruiko.

Her tray of crepes was already there, waiting, deposited by the robotic server.

"Ah, what a surprise it is to see you here," the girl said, accented syntax clearly stabilized by an internal language feedback module, as you could tell from the subtle lag time on some of the words. Eventually, she wouldn't need it, but she had only been here two months, and even enhanced learning wasn't that fast.

Ryouko nodded. She didn't usually like to socialize in the morning.

"The synthesizer was out," she said, making a "You can't help it" expression.

Simona, and the others across from her, made noises of sympathy.

In truth, they and Simona could communicate perfectly fine using Human Standard—internationalized and mutated English—but learning the native language was, after all, part of the reason she was here. And they understood each other fine, with all that technology in the middle.

"Well, this girl here," Chiaki began, gesturing at Ruiko, "was just telling us about how she wants to be a nanoengineer."

"Ooo," Ryouko said politely. "That's prestigious. But what happened to theoretical physics?"

"It turns out," Ruiko said. "Advanced Field Theory bores me to tears. So I dropped that."

"You don't have to do Field Theory to be a physicist," Simona pointed out.

"Yeah, but you do for all the cool kinds of physics."

Ryouko kept any further opinions to herself, stabbing quietly at her strawberry and chocolate crepe with a fork. This "nanoengineer" in training was one of the flightiest girls she knew, switching from preference to preference almost without pause. Nanoengineering was one of the hardest topics to study, and Ryouko was sure that before the end of the month, the girl would be moving on to study chemistry or who knows, maybe contemporary art. You couldn't really tell with her.

"What about you, Ryouko?" Chiaki asked.

"Huh? Oh, uh—" she began, startled out of her thoughts.

"She wants to be a space traveler," Simona said.

Ryouko gave her a warning look, but the damage was done.

"Yeah, but that's not something you can really do," Chiaki said. "Unfortunately. What with the age requirement, and the need to enter combat—you can't really want to do that?"

"Well, train to be a spaceflight engineer or something," Ruiko said, chewing her food, assuming Ryouko's response was a no. "Or I don't know, something to do with space elevators. I haven't really looked into it myself. Actually, it doesn't sound half‐bad."

"I might do something like that," Ryouko said gamely, just trying to end the topic.

"I tell you—" Chiaki began, waving her chopsticks.

Ryouko lucked out. The girl stopped midsentence, as they all simultaneously received internal reminders that Mandatory Session was beginning very soon, and it would be impolite to be late.

"Ugh," Chiaki finished, as they got up to leave. "Mandatory Session is so boring."

"It is your civic duty," Simona said to the aspiring violinist. "Every citizen is required to understand the sciences at a basic level, and to know basic manufacturing techniques, just in case it's needed."

The other girl rolled her eyes.

Ryouko sympathized. Simona sounded like some sort of government pamphlet. She thought, however, that she detected a hint of irony in the girl's voice.

Mandatory Session did indeed serve a good purpose, though. Instituted at the start of the current war, it was intended for the eventuality that the war got so serious that the government was obliged to switch the economy from what they called "eudaimonic" back into a scarcity mode. If that ever happened, family Allocs would start being tied to productivity, essentially making productive activity nonvoluntary. And if things truly got bad, they might even have to go back to something capitalistic.

It was starting to happen a little already. Citizens had always gotten extra Allocs for certain types of work, but these extra payments were getting more substantial every month, as did the intricacy of the payment tier system. Combined with the continuous basic allocation cuts, it created an environment where many of those with useful skills sought paying work, and many others were having a change of heart about being an archaeologist, or a specialist in tea ceremonies.

It was even reaching the point where many popular musicians, formerly happy to distribute their productions for free, were starting to ask their fans for nominal donations. Similar things were happening everywhere—many things which had once been free were starting to once again be priced.

"Thinking about something?" Simona asked, solicitous as always.

"Economics," Ryouko said.

The girl laughed, rich and vibrant.

"Primary School Civics must have really gotten to you," she said, teasing. "I never would have taken you for an aspiring central planner."

"You never know," Ryouko said, smiling.

Mandatory Session was interrupted by a rather interesting event.

They had been discussing the finer points of light railgun construction. In the era of direct‐to‐memory brain feeds, everyone could remember and regurgitate the information with ease—the real question was whether you could apply it, and that was what they were practicing. In the rather cold terms of the government: teaching was about replicating valuable neural circuits.

"Whoa!" said a boy near the window, looking out.

The instructor broke off his dictation of the necessary specs to look at the boy skeptically, clearly about to launch into a rebuke about politeness.

Before he could, the boy turned and pointed dramatically at the far wall, calling up an image of what he was seeing, a clear violation of in‐class technology‐usage policies.

The larger‐than‐life image had all the absurd clarity of direct retinal output, displaying the image in massively greater detail than any human brain would have actually received. In the center, the subject of the excitement was outlined in bright red, walking along the pedestrian skyway adjacent to their classroom. It was, to put it shortly, a celebrity sighting.

All of the students immediately rushed to that side of the room.

The instructor shrugged, then walked over to claim a view for himself. It was a pretty big deal, and some leniency was acceptable.

"Tomoe Mami!" a girl said, unnecessarily.

"What is she doing here?"



"We're her home city, guys. Of course she would show up once in a while. Come on!"

"Stop trying to act cool. Mami's a big deal. You're trying to look, too."

The girl—or rather, woman—in question was wearing casual clothing, rather than either of the two uniforms familiar from holograms of her in newsfeeds. Yet despite what everyone knew to be her great age, she looked nineteen, twenty at most, far younger than the optimal age nanotechnology froze most adults at.

An appearance choice that was only possible for a magical girl.

As they watched, the girl stopped midwalk and turned her face up to look at them, smiling. She waved charismatically, her characteristic hairstyle bobbing.

"Yeah! Mami!" several of the students said, while as many as who thought they could be seen waved back excitedly. The windows on this floor wouldn't open, for safety reasons, but they shouted anyway.

Ryouko looked out the window quietly, unlike the others, though she had fought her way in for a good spot.

She wondered what it would be like to be someone like her.

I wonder whether this is really worth it, Mami thought to Kyubey, who hung by his arms from Mami's right shoulder. This excursion is blowing my cover.

I thought you liked children, the alien Incubator replied.

Of course I do, Mami thought. But you know very well the problems with me being here.

She waved up at the classroom, smiling kindly at the teenagers waving back.

Well, I found what we came here to seek, the creature said.

So there is a prospect here after all?

Yes, and quite powerful.

Should we go recruit?

No, I do not think that will be necessary. She needs little persuasion. I can have another Incubator do the job, if necessary.

Mami stopped waving and continued onward, trying to ignore the gawking pedestrians, many of whom had stopped to take pictures with their optical implants.

Despite the situation, I can't help but feel a little relieved. I never like recruiting.

That is a feeling I cannot understand. However, you should be satisfied that there are others doing the work for you.

It's silly, isn't it? Feeling better about it just because I'm not doing it personally. And yet I enjoy the mentoring.

It is not something I can comment on. In this case, however, you will be blameless. This girl will contract quite happily without your intervention.

I don't feel any better—and no, don't say it. I know you don't understand.

They held this entire conversation with faces as motionless as if they were carved of alabaster. For Kyubey, this was typical, but for Mami, it was something she had learned painstakingly over the years.

Reaching a narrow, one‐vehicle‐wide private tube, she passed through a doorway sized for one person, which closed behind her.

She then stepped into her personal vehicle, and in her case, it really was personal, intended for only her use at all times, and rather larger than the typical model. Then, in a maneuver that dated back into the mists of human history, she got out the other side into the backside of the tube, relying on the bulk of the vehicle to block her from view. Its size really helped in situations like this.

She transformed, ribbons of light enveloping her, hoping the brightness of the event wasn't obvious from the other side.

With a thought, she accessed authorization routines that were keyed to respond only to those with the proper permissions—magical girls with codes issued by the government.

In front of her, a small, opening iris formed in the tube, letting in the sound of roaring wind. It was intended as a fast passageway for magical girls going demon hunting, but she was using it for something else entirely.

She took a breath, and jumped out into the empty air.

After Mandatory Session, Ryouko headed to a room where, according to the schedule, a specialist would be introducing students to the fundamentals of Spaceflight Engineering. Despite the aspersions she had privately cast on the suggestion earlier, it was probably her only realistic option, and she had been going to this class for over a week, though her friends didn't know it.

But despite all the interest she should have had for it, she just couldn't get herself interested in the material. It was fun talking about fusion thrusters and elevator ascension in terms of actually doing it, but the details of the operating principles, the equations and materials used, just didn't excite her.

She wanted to be out there exploring, like the European explorers of old, not the carpenter in the dock putting together the ship.

Try as she might, she didn't manage to involve herself more than cursorily in the discussion. Instead, she mused on other topics.

Being a magical girl…

Many girls dreamed of it, despite all their parents' illegal discouragement. After all, you could have one wish for whatever you wanted, and the certainty of being lauded as a hero besides. In exchange for that, many, viewing the sterile desert of their current lives, would gladly pay the price.

More importantly for her, magical girls were not bound by any of the travel restrictions that encumbered mere normal folk, though whether this was a blessing or a curse depended on your perspective.

By the special conscription acts enacted nearly twenty years ago, all new girls owed the Human military thirty years of service, immediately, and the minimum age for combat involvement was dropped drastically, to thirteen.

In the service, they were sent all across the local region of space, to planets and stations that no mere civilian could see. Outside of it, on leave or after—hypothetical—honorable discharge, they received the same bonuses accorded to all military veterans, which included unlimited travel wherever you wanted on Earth or its colonies, and the right to settle anywhere.

Once you accepted the forced entry into the military, Earth treated its saviors quite well. They entered not as privates, but as second lieutenants, with associated training, pay, and benefits, and could easily climb upward with good performance. They received special living quarters, special mentoring, and the best damn psychiatric care and monitoring possible.

Nor were you cut off from family, like the more human soldiers. Your parents could be flown in as often as once every two weeks, depending on location, or never, depending on which the doctors decided was better for your mental state.

And on leave, you were treated as a hero by your community. The media wrote laudatory life stories and children adored you. Humanity felt guilty about its demands, and did everything it could to make it up to you. It was only your family, and the families of other magical girls, who dared watch you with sad eyes.

Strictly speaking, this was all Ryouko was supposed to know. However, the Information Restriction Acts were impossible to enforce, and with the most cursory of internet searches, one could easily obtain myriad other, forbidden facts and figures.

And Ryouko had done far more than a cursory search.

For instance, no one was supposed to know about the soul extraction process, or about the terrible tie between one's emotional state and the corruption of one's gem. No one was supposed to know how many died in their first combat assignment, or before their first leave. No one was supposed to notice that first leave was often extraordinarily long, the haunted looks in the eyes of some returning for the first time, or the way these some were fed grief cubes as if their lives depended on it—as of course they did.

Ryouko swallowed. Despite everything, though, she envied them.

She didn't even need the inducements or the mind‐blowing powers, though they certainly sweetened the pot. Such a life sounded so much more like a life she could enjoy living, rather than the sterile, prosaic life she had here. There, perhaps, she could feel that she was doing something with her life, rather than sitting around uselessly.

But it was a dream she refused to indulge, even if she had spent the time to learn everything she could about the system, even if she fantasized about it occasionally.

Incubator selection was extremely rare, and there was nothing you could do to lure them to you. No amount of private wishing or public pleading would help. You needed "potential", and the Incubators were famously reticent about what exactly produced potential. They chose the gifted and the ordinary, the orphaned and those with happy families, and—in the colonies—the rich and the poor. Without potential, they would never come.

But if you had potential, then one day, even if you didn't have a wish ready, even if you didn't want to contract, an Incubator would appear, often with a magical girl recruiter to help convince you.

All anyone could figure out was that all of those chosen would, at the time of their wish, have a deep, intense, and personal desire, something they thought truly worthy of their soul—but plenty who shared that yearning went unchosen, even if their wishes seemed perfectly in accordance with the Incubators' desires. No one understood it.

It was something one could neither cultivate nor strive for. You didn't call for the Incubators. The Incubators came for you.

So she didn't dream.

Mami dropped to the ground in a descent that could best be described as controlled falling. She leveraged herself repeatedly off of the many tubes and structures in her path, interspersed with ribbon grabs and swings to control her speed and trajectory, moving steadily downward and forward.

She was in one of the inner rings of the city, near the hubs of production and research that undergirded its planned economy, and near the starport that she had arrived from. As she descended, she passed Shizuki Consumer Goods, Hephaestus Nanotechnology, Chronos Biologics, and, finally, the renowned Zeus and Prometheus Research Centers, unique to Mitakihara City.

All the newer buildings shared an obvious naming theme, and, seen from below, every single one dominated the sky.

The two research centers faced each other, brooding over the narrow causeway between them, strangely devoid of structures. At the bottom of this chasm, right in the middle, was her goal.

Latching herself to part of the Prometheus building's superstructure, she began her final descent, reaching the ground at a bone‐rattling speed that was reasonable only because of her enhanced body.

She abolished the ribbon, then the rest of her costume, and turned to face what she sought: the rear entrance of an old‐fashioned Catholic‐style church, anomalous in the middle of the towering urban superstructures. Recently reconstructed and modernized, it looked far newer than most buildings of its type. The regenerative architecture and glass certainly helped in this.

Mami had landed in the garden in the back, among the carefully maintained flowers and vines. Behind her, the whisper of surface traffic in the distance was nearly constant.

She sighed, remembering when the heart of Mitakihara had been far away indeed, and this church had been in a mere suburb.

Well, things change.

Was it really necessary to do all that? Kyubey asked, clinging to her shoulder, almost sounding worried. You nearly lost me on the third swing.

"A little exercise is good for you," she said, out loud this time. "And it is not as if you can be killed."

Bodies do not come cheap, Kyubey said.

"You know why it was necessary," Mami said. "So stop complaining. And I would appreciate some privacy."

Alright, alright, the Incubator thought, jumping off her shoulder onto the cobblestoned ground. I understand.

Until later, Kyubey thought, trotting off.

"Goodbye," Mami said politely, before focusing her attention back on the task at hand.

She had left the public transport channels because she wanted to get off the surveillance grids.

There were sentries monitoring the airspace outside of the tubes, of course, but they studiously ignored magical girls, who constantly prowled the intertubular spaces, hunting for prey. They knew there was no need to save them from falls, or anything of that sort.

Most importantly, the passage of these girls was not even recorded, carefully scrubbed from the daily records. It was not considered necessary for the public to be able to deduce the details of demon activity near their residences, for fear of panic or, just as likely, attempted spectating.

Traveling by air was thus considerably more private than using her government‐assigned private transport or walking along the pedestrian skyways.

And she had her reasons for maintaining secrecy of passage.

Striding forward, she reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out an old‐fashioned metal key. This was an unnecessary complication—the electronic monitors of the building were watching, and could easily open the door—but the rebuilder had been remarkably insistent on things like having old‐fashioned keys and locks.

Mami slipped into the hallway, carefully closing the wooden door behind her.

She took a moment to breathe in the scent of the wood. It was so rare to find wood anywhere nowadays, except in the form of trees.

Then she walked down the hallway, the distant voice of a sermon echoing through. A girl stepped to the side to let her pass, her eyes widening with recognition. Another watched her from the corner, eyes strangely passive.

Mami didn't worry about that. Everyone here could be trusted.

She opened the door to a small room deep inside the church, a bedroom for one. It was so cramped it was almost claustrophobic, but that was how its occupant preferred it. The girl could certainly have gotten a much larger room, with a lot more amenities, but she chose not to, for reasons she kept to herself.

The girl in question, with the appearance of only a teenager, sat on the small bed, seemingly lost in thought. She was biting into an apple, long ponytail bobbing slightly. On the table, a teapot cooled silently.

Mami reflected briefly on how young Kyouko looked to her now. Things had been different, back when they had both been young, but now Mami looked clearly the elder. That was of course only a choice—Mami had allowed herself to age to a reasonable nineteen or so, while Kyouko had chosen to remain perpetually fourteen.

That was something Mami never asked about.

Mami opened her mouth to break the girl's reverie, but Kyouko surprised her by speaking first.

"Good afternoon, Marshal," the girl greeted, without so much as a glance back.

Mami frowned.

"Don't tease me, Sakura‐san," she said.

The girl smiled mischievously, tilting her head back.

"Close the door."

Mami did so, and when she turned back, she found Kyouko sitting on the bed facing her.

"Well, no need to be shy," Kyouko said, patting a spot next to her on the bed.

Mami sat. There wasn't really anywhere else to sit, except an uncomfortable‐looking wooden chair.

"So how are things?" she asked.

"Not bad," Kyouko said, chewing her apple enthusiastically. "The more mainstream religions are kicking up a fuss again, but it won't amount to anything. Those bastards can't touch me, and they know it."

Mami frowned at the language.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Kyouko said insincerely. "I'll work on it."

Four hundred years of "working on it" had so far amounted to nothing.

She handed Mami an apple, which she took politely. Mami wondered idly if it were a naturally‐grown apple, or synthesized.

"What about you?" Kyouko asked.

"Same as always," Mami said, pouring herself a cup of tea. "Meetings, speeches, publicity events, the occasional campaign—you have no idea how hard it was to pull leave time and come here."

Kyouko snorted.

"Well, it's not as if I'm any less busy."

Mami smiled, biting her apple. She didn't fully approve of Kyouko's newfound direction in life, but she wasn't going to say anything, not about something the girl clearly had a passion for.

And if she was truly bringing peace to people's lives, then why not? That, too, was one fulfillment of the ideals they both strove for.

"Any news about Homura?" Kyouko asked, looking at her apple core.

Mami shook her head.

"Of course not," she said, sipping her tea.

"Just checking," Kyouko said.

"You check every time," Mami said, without reproach.

Kyouko sighed, looking up at the ceiling.

"Sometimes I miss the old days," Kyouko said. "Just the four of us, alone in the world, fighting demons. None of this complication with the MSY, and the government, and the military, and the aliens."

Mami looked up too, allowing herself to be drawn into the reminiscence.

"I understand," she said. "Even though it hurt being so alone, thinking back, we really had something special."

In truth, she felt the nostalgia more acutely than Kyouko ever seemed to, but that was one of the things she never spoke about.

"I wonder where she is," Kyouko said wistfully. "I want to know why she left."

"Searching for her Goddess," Mami said. "You of all people should know that."

Kyouko gave her an annoyed glance.

"Of course I know that," she said bitterly. "But was it really worth leaving us? Where is she, Mami? What is she doing?"

"If she doesn't want to be found, then no one is going to find her, it's as simple as that," Mami said, shrugging and sipping her tea.

Kyouko stayed silent, toying with the soul gem ring on her hand as Mami watched her, wondering what the girl was thinking about.

She probably knew.

That day twenty years ago had changed Kyouko's life.

Neither of them had ever put any stock before in Homura's crazy babblings about a Goddess of Hope waiting for them at the end of the Law of Cycles, or her dark mutterings about the state of the world.

How had she put it…

"Come on!" Homura had been fond of saying, usually flipping her long hair in the process. "Stop whining! I'm appalled she sacrificed herself for magical girls as slow as you two! Can't you keep up?"

Oh, yeah, it was easy to complain about others being slow when you had magical wings and could fly.

But after what Homura did that day, Kyouko believed. Mami had seen it in her eyes.

Despite all that had happened in her life, Kyouko had never truly given up the religion of her family. She had always wanted to believe, always wanted to see hope at the end of the tunnel, but the events of her life had destroyed her ability to do so.

Until that day.

That day Mami had seen that tiny flame in her eyes grow back into a fiery roar she hadn't seen in centuries.

It wasn't something Mami could agree with. What Homura had done was awe‐inspiring, of course, but it was nothing but an expression of the power of her soul, something they all had. There was no need to invoke a Goddess to explain it.

But Kyouko…

She had thrown herself full‐heartedly into her new passion, turning on a level of charisma Mami never knew she had. She had leveraged their new public spotlight to its absolute hilt, going out constantly to talk to other magical girls about what she had seen and what she now believed.

Like her father before her, too practical to be bound by dogma, she reinterpreted and refreshed everything her religion said and, in a development that stunned everyone, actually attracted followers, at first a trickle, and then a flood.

Naturally, the Cult of Hope had a limited audience, but it was essentially the only living religion managing to gain members, an accomplishment astonishing enough that it had earned a back‐handed acknowledgment by such entities as the Anglican Church itself. Kyouko and her followers, they said, were as lost sheep—full of heretical ideas but easily capable of redemption, with a little guidance. Critically, this carefully‐crafted formulation allowed the Church to count her membership numbers into their own, badly deteriorating numbers, even if the Cult itself disagreed.

Not that Kyouko cared. She didn't want their attention, nor did she need it—not that they ever stopped trying to convince her she did. Despite all their attempts, she had no intention of being a shill for the Church that had killed her father, and she had more than enough donations to keep herself afloat. After all, it had been with that money that she had rebuilt this church, the church where her family had once lived, so long ago.

And it was with that money that hundreds of her followers spent their leave time searching records and combing Human space for their apostle: one Akemi Homura, who one week after helping save the Human colony at Epsilon Eridani and breaking Kyouko's conception of the world, bid her friends adieu—and vanished.

This was all rather off‐topic.

"I miss her too, Sakura‐san, but why did you call me here?" Mami asked, interrupting the girl's reverie again. "It can't have just been to reminisce. Not if you asked me to visit off‐the‐record. That means it's MSY business."

Kyouko shook herself out of her reverie, and looked at Mami from the corner of the eye.

"You mean the Union?" she teased, tossing her nearly completely consumed apple core in the garbage.

Mami narrowed her eyes. That particular nickname for the MSY irked Mami to no end, suggesting as it did that being a magical girl was just a job, and that the Incubators were their bosses. The usage of the word was finally dying out with the war, though, now that the roles and responsibilities of magical girls had been made truly clear. Kyouko was just being mischievious by teasing her about it.

"Alright, alright," Kyouko said, looking away.

She cleared her throat.

"It's possible I'm being overly paranoid," Kyouko said, voice taking on a detached quality, "but as you know, we have several ongoing research projects dedicated to improving the lives of our members."

"Yes, of course," Mami said. "I helped establish most of them."

She suppressed a smirk. Once, long ago, she would have scoffed at the idea of Kyouko saying anything with the word "research" built in.

She took a bite of her own apple.

"Remember the grief cube audit?" Kyouko asked, querying Mami with her eyes.

Mami thought carefully, chewing fruit in her mouth, putting her finger to her cheek.

"No, I can't say I do, sorry," after she had finished swallowing. "Not offhand, anyway."

It was unfamiliar territory for both of them. A very long time ago, back when the once‐secret Mahou Shoujo Youkai had still been in its formative stages, it had been Homura who had spearheaded the data collection initiatives, insisting that everyone take great care to report in exacting detail on each and every battle they fought, how many grief cubes they had received, how many they had used, and so forth. No one else really had the appetite for that sort of thing, especially not after she took to trapping them all in long presentations on statistics. Most found these stupefyingly boring, and Mami could still remember Kyouko falling asleep in her chair every single time, drool dripping from her mouth unbecomingly.

It had also been extremely divisive. Many of the early members were instinctively secretive, and while everyone agreed on the importance of working together, they resented Homura insisting forcefully at every meeting on territory adjustments, team reorganizations, strategy changes, and whatever else she thought was a good idea. It also certainly didn't help that Homura's rather eccentric beliefs were widely known. Mami, Kyouko, and Yuma had spent literally years calming ruffled feathers, Mami's apartment playing host to tea party after tea party.

She had backed Homura, but would have had to confess that she was never sure it wasn't another one of Homura's crazed obsessions, like that Goddess of hers, even if Kyubey agreed that each and every change was "probably a good idea."

After a few years she stopped questioning, and so did everyone else. Death rates to demons had dropped precipitously, and the shared grief cube pool had started accumulating absurd surpluses, surpluses so large that the Incubators were actively consuming even those that had gone unused.

It really wasn't the statistics that convinced the members. It was the realization that, whenever they met another team and chatted, talk of so‐and‐so's death or disappearance had become practically unheard of, rather than the previous near‐certainty.

Nowadays, while Kyouko and Mami were still respected executive heads of the "Union", they delegated all the boring stuff to members who enjoyed things like that.

Yuma, however, was still quite involved.

"Well, that's understandable," Kyouko said. "I was only recently reminded of it myself. You remember though? It was that meeting where that French girl kept banging the table about how we couldn't trust the government and got everyone worked up. She had that ridiculous hairstyle?"

A lightbulb went on in Mami's head.

"Oh, right, her, with the hairpins," she said, not at all cognizant of the irony of remembering someone for their "ridiculous" hairstyle.

"I remember now," Mami said, leaning forward, signature hair bobbing. "She had a point, too. The government has different interests from us, and not everyone is happy that we've turned over part of grief cube logistics to them, even if it was an emergency measure."

"Right, right," Kyouko said, not wanting to go through the reasons again. "Well, anyway, so I volunteered to use Church resources to help do the data collection, since we already have the infrastructure in place."

Members always referred to the Cult as the Church, even when no one outside of it called it that.

"Right," Mami agreed.

In truth, the Cult "volunteered" to handle nearly all the data collection nowadays. It was just efficient use of resources, given how deeply they had penetrated the ranks of magical girls.

Mami wasn't sure how to feel about that. In some ways, the Cult was starting to take on official religion status for the MSY, and that was not something the organization had ever had to deal with.

"The results are in," Kyouko said, watching Mami's expression. "It's not what we expected, I'll say that."

Mami tilted her head.

"Hmm?" she asked, tossing her apple core off‐hand into the trash. "So they really are trying to play favorites?"

"More confusing than that," Kyouko said. "It's—"

She paused, deciding how to explain it.

"It's almost as if there's something wrong with the supply computers. It's very rare, but on a seemingly random basis, squads on the front line will find themselves with far too few grief cubes, usually when there's not even time to do anything about it. The occurrence seems random, and no one has been hit twice, but it's getting girls killed."

"Hmm," Mami said, frowning. "Sounds like a computer problem. So all those people complaining have a point after all. This has to be fixed immediately."

"Only computers don't make mistakes like that," Kyouko said. "Not anymore. And just to be sure, I had some girls examine the computer systems—secretly, of course. As far as they can tell, everything should be working perfectly fine."

"Could still be a mistake," Mami said.

"There's more," Kyouko said.

She waited a moment to see if Mami was listening.

"When we began asking, we started getting a lot of the same kind of story. Girls who seem like they should make it are sent behind the lines and never come back. Girls who suffer emotional breakdowns are sent home and also never come back. It's a disturbing trend."

Mami thought about it.

"I'm sorry about those girls," she said, "but these things happen. It just sounds like things didn't work out."

"Maybe, but everyone we talk to swears they should have made it," Kyouko said, sounding annoyed. "And our statisticians tell us the numbers look weird."

She leaned forward, looking suddenly pensive.

"While I was visiting Wolf 359, I had half a platoon of infantry practically breaking down my door, demanding that I help them find 'little Saya‐chan.' Apparently they risked everything to drag her body and soul gem back to safety, and barely managed to stabilize her, and then they never saw her again. I looked into it, but I wasn't able to track where she went, which is already pretty weird. Mami, I had two‐hundred‐year‐old men crying in my office!"

She turned and leaned on her small wooden desk, surprised by her own outburst.

Mami cringed, both at the story and at the unfortunate name. It can't have been a good reminder for Kyouko.

This was also not quite the right time to point out that, in an age competition between those two‐hundred‐year‐olds and Kyouko, Kyouko won easily. Or lost, rather.

"So you say the math people think the numbers don't look right," she said, trying to draw the conversation back on topic.

"That's right," Kyouko said, growling. "If those guys are fucking up wound treatment somehow, or they're trying to practice 'efficient resource allocation', I'll wring their necks! This was not in the agreement."

"I'll look into it," Mami said, trying to raise a calming hand. "I can't promise too much though. Even after all these years, I'm still an outsider to the officer corps."

"You're our main representative inside the military," Kyouko said, watching her with fiery eyes. "You have access permissions that none of us have. Geez, you even participate in campaign planning and crisis response, Field Marshal. They even let you lead, sometimes."

"I know," Mami said, voice low. "I know. I feel the responsibility, trust me. But I'm only there because we demanded representation. I didn't climb the ranks. They don't see me as one of them, and I'm not. They don't trust me. I have to tread carefully."

Kyouko leaned back, giving her a skeptical expression.

"Kyouko, I promise I'll do my best," Mami said. "I'm not saying I'm not going to try. I just don't have direct authority over supply chains and logistics, so I can't just look into it myself. I have to ask people, and root around in computer records. It will take a while."

Kyouko took a breath, and rubbed the back of her head.

"Alright," she said. "I'm sorry for going off like that. I trust you, Mami. But some of the stories I've read are absolutely terrible. Look into it, and I'll see what the Church can do."

"Have you told anyone else about this?" Mami asked.

Kyouko shook her head.

"I've told people to stay quiet."

She looked at Mami.

"I'm going to call a meeting of the Leadership Committee to discuss this before we spread it around," Kyouko said. "We need to decide what to do."

"Bring it up with Yuma‐chan too, okay?" Mami said, finally daring to drink more of the tea. "I might be Military, but she's Government. Who knows? The politicians might be useful."

"Yeah, of course."

Kyouko cleared her throat.

"I'm sorry to cut our reunion short," she said. "But my chronometer is telling me I'm expected for a sermon. Actually, I'm already ten minutes late."

"Oh no, that's alright," Mami said. "I'm behind schedule too."

"Oh, too bad," Kyouko said. "I was going to ask you to attend."

"I wish I could," Mami said, smiling and thinking that she really didn't want to.

"You know the way out?"

"I'll go back the way I came."

Kyouko nodded.

"So would you like to go to see a movie with me?" the boy asked.

"What?" Ryouko asked, turning to look at the boy, confused. She had just been about to leave with her friends, and his comment had come out of nowhere.

"The holotheatre, on the twelfth floor," he said, eyes darting back and forth. "I'm thinking we could go this weekend. That new movie is out, you know, uh, Akemi, and I was thinking we could see it. Or whatever you want, it doesn't have to be that one."

Ryouko blinked rapidly, then glanced around, feeling the quiet stares of Simona and the other girls.

She suppressed whatever facial expressions she may have had. She had literally no idea how to respond.

"It's alright if you don't want to," the boy retreated, panicked by her hesitation.

"No, no," she hastened to say, head spinning, not wanting to appear cold—

Guitarist, mediocre grades, considered quite attractive, a little short, her mind spat out.

"—it's, uh, sure, why not, I guess?" she said, not believing the words that were coming out of her mouth.

No, no, why did I say that!? I should have said I needed to think!

"Oh, cool!" the kid said, looking pathetically relieved. "So, uh, noon?"

"Okay, noon, sure," Ryouko agreed, face red, wishing the conversation over.

She turned to leave with undue haste, stumbling and almost dropping her bag. Her friends at least had the decency to leave her alone until they were almost out of the building.

"So," Simona said, as they stepped out to the main exit. "We're all thinking it so I'll just ask. Care to comment on that earlier incident?"

"I have no idea why I said yes," Ryouko said, looking away. "I think I panicked."

The other two girls looked at her as if she were crazy, but Simona chuckled.

"I thought so," she said.

She grabbed Ryouko by the shoulder.

"It's alright though," she said reassuringly, looking her in the eye. "It won't be that bad. And if you change your mind, invite me along. That should send the message clearly enough. I've been wanting to see that movie, anyway. I hear it has quite nice effects."

Ryouko nodded, swallowing. Why was she so flustered?

"Thanks, but that probably won't be necessary."

Simona smiled amiably.

Ryouko stepped into their group vehicle, and the others followed suit.

They chatted as their transport headed for the newly opened park, at the other edge of the city, near the species diversity preserve. It was another unacknowledged sign of the times, that the city could finally squeeze out new open space. It meant the population was down, just a little. People said it might be a sign that birth permits might be easier to get in the future. It didn't matter to her; her parents were firmly uninterested in having any more kids—for now anyway.

In the end, the park was nothing overwhelmingly special, especially not compared to the municipal green spaces that already existed. Still, though, it was something. Besides, it had only been an excuse to go out and have fun. They had walked on the field of carefully tended grass, marveling at the birds and—most excitingly—unimpeded sunlight. The traffic tubes in the area had been deliberately rerouted around the airspace of the park. In terms of three‐dimensional space the park was laying claim to, it was a real luxury.

The others looked up in surprise when, on the way back, the transport asked them to confirm a new, unfamiliar destination.

"Ah," Ryouko said, apologizing. "Sorry, I asked it to switch dropoff points. There's a famous physicist who lives here, and I promised to meet him. I'll go home myself later."

When she got to the designated location, the door open, and she stepped out, waving goodbye.

"Ah, mind if I go with you?" Simona asked, catching the door before it could close. "I have nothing better to do today. And I might be interested to hear what he has to say as well. Unless he would mind?"

Ryouko looked at her carefully, then shook her head.

"No, it's fine. He even said I could bring friends if I wanted to."

She held a smile, hoping fervently neither of the other two would take her up on the implied offer.

The other two glanced curiously at them, but smiled and said additional goodbyes.

Ryouko watched the transport speed off.

"So where does this guy live?" Simona asked, a moment later.

"Nowhere," Ryouko said. "I made him up."

"I thought so," the other girl said.

Somehow she always knows, Ryouko thought.

Ryouko stayed silent, though, turning and walking toward their left. The other girl followed.

They walked that way, in silence, until they reached a riverbank flanked by grassy ridges on both sides.

It was a quiet area, flanked by industrial buildings. Behind them, a solar collector field quietly absorbed the light of the sun, interrupted by the occasional wind turbine, protruding outward like a tree among bushes. The river was a natural channel for wind, and even if there was grass for aesthetic reasons, why waste energy where you could get it?

She lay down on the grass, looking across the water. They were directly across from the starport.

"Why did you follow me?" Ryouko asked. "Actually, before you answer that, how did you even know to follow me?"

The tanned Simona sat down, then lay down, emulating her position.

"It was obvious," she said. "Why else would you be here?"

"Was it really?"

Simona made a noncommittal gesture with her hand, shifting the grass.

Ryouko didn't press the topic.

Simona raised her hand, looking through the gaps between her fingers at the sky.

"You know," she said. "I'm somewhat interested in languages but, really, not that much. Honestly, I'd much rather be somewhere else entirely."

Ryouko turned her head, giving her a questioning expression. It was a strange thing for a foreign exchange student to say, especially one that was supposedly visiting precisely for the chance to learn a language.

"The truth is," Simona said, switching unexpectedly from Japanese into Human Standard. "I'm only doing it to get away from my family. My parents argue all the time. It's terrible. I think they would have divorced a long time ago, if it weren't for me."

Ryouko watched the other girl, leaning sideways on the grass. What was going on? Why was this conversation happening?

"That's why I'm here," Simona said, with a strange smile. "That, and maybe, with me gone, they'll finally go ahead and do it. Or maybe they argue less with me gone. I don't know. Either way I don't have to see it. I wish I knew how to make it all work."

The girl smiled awkwardly.

"Is that how it is for you, Ryouko‐san? Is that why you want to leave so badly?"

Ryouko's eyes widened, surprised by the question.

She sat up, shaking her head.

"No. My family is wonderful," following the other girl into Standard.

"Then why?"

Ryouko looked back at the starport, across the river, in the distance. As she watched, a scramjet lifted into the air, using an antigrav assist, eerily silent. It was the best view you could get without actually going inside the facility.

"I don't know," she said, honestly, picking at the grass with one hand. "I've just never felt at home here, somehow. But maybe…"

She curled her knees under her arms, as her hair danced in the sudden strong breeze, seeming to enjoy the cooling.

"I can't explain it to you, at your age," her grandmother had said, in explanation of why she was leaving. "I want to see something better than this static Earth. I want a new life. But…"

The woman had paused.

"It's all excuses, really. That's all true, but it's also true that I have something I lost, and I want to find it again. I hope you never lose something like that."

That conversation had been on this very riverbank, a much younger Ryouko clutching her grandmother's fingers, but Ryouko wasn't in the mood to share that.

That wasn't the only reason, though.

"I can't really explain it," she said. "Nothing here excites me. Nothing I could do seems worth it. The humans on Earth don't do anything anymore, except at best sit home and think. I feel useless, being here."

"It used to be you could escape by going somewhere else on the planet," Simona added. "But not anymore. Of all people, I should know. Earth is the same now anywhere you go. Zaire, Persia, America—it doesn't matter. The people speak different languages, and they make a painful show of keeping their cultures intact, but it's really the same people everywhere, now. The same people, the same cities, the same ideas—the monoculture. If you can't fit in, you have nowhere to go but up."

The words resonated with Ryouko in a disturbing manner. Somehow, she knew exactly what followed.

"At least out there," she said, finishing the monologue, gesturing with her hand at the sky. "At least out there, things still change. Humans fight for their place in the universe, and the rules aren't set. Maybe there, there's a place to be different."

Simona closed her eyes.

"I knew you understood," she said. "That's the only reason I opted to stay an extra year. I didn't have to, you know. I was going to stay in Argentina next. The year isn't even close to up, but I already know I want another."

She sat up, and looked at Ryouko.

"That's not the only reason though, is it?" she said, leaning forward. "Just like what I said about my parents. It's the truth, but not the whole truth, is it?"

Ryouko looked back into the girl's eyes.

"Get out of my head," she ordered.

Simona leaned back, laughing.

"Well," she said, a moment later. "I hope it's worth it, what I'm about to do."

"What?" Ryouko asked, confused.

"Actually," Simona said. "I have something else to say."

"So what do you think happened to Akemi‐san?" Mami asked, launching herself up to a higher platform.

This is now the twelfth time you have asked me this, Tomoe Mami, the Incubator thought, clinging firmly to her shoulder.

"Humor me," Mami said. "You might have new information this time."

Kyubey transmitted a mental sigh, in one of those misleadingly human mannerisms it had. It sounded almost exasperated.

No, Mami, we do not, it thought, as she used a ribbon to grab hold of a nearby building. Things are just as before. As far as we know, she disappeared as completely as one of you girls do when your soul gems exhausts, except you insist she did not disappear.

Mami opened her mouth to speak, but Kyubey surprised her by continuing.

She truly is an enigma. She accomplished feats that should have been far beyond her power, then disappeared in an unprecedented manner. Her delusions—

It's rude to call them those, Mami interrupted, thinking it instead of saying it.

She was not sure why she suddenly felt so annoyed by Kyubey calling Homura's delusions what they were.

As I was saying, Kyubey continued a moment later. A delusion is, among other things, a belief not shared by any other sentient being. But even a belief held in the mind of only one person can still be true.

Mami vaulted upward another two levels, somersaulting as she did so.

"Are you saying you think Kyouko and Homura might be right?" Mami asked, astonished, though it was difficult to show in the midst of mid‐air acrobatics.

It is extremely improbable, Kyubey said, clinging on for dear life by its front paws. But I believe one of your popular fictional characters has a saying about the impossible and the improbable. And we are dealing with you magical girls, after all.

Mami stopped abruptly, using a ribbon to lurch herself forward onto a piece of fourteenth story skyway tubing, on a service platform intended for patrolling drones. It was so abrupt Kyubey almost lost hold, and was forced to grab onto her back.

"Kyubey," she said, peering forward and downward into the near distance. "I'm sorry to interrupt this conversation, but do you sense that?"

The furry critter reappeared on her shoulder, pulling itself up.

It's unmistakable, isn't it? Kyubey thought. A miasma.

And it's close, Mami thought.

She pointed at the location.

"Where's the team in charge of that region?" Mami demanded, eyes fierce, turning her head to look at Kyubey even though there was no expression to see.

Unfortunately, harvesting resources have been stretched rather thin recently. Given the lack of human presence in that area, it is not covered well. The regular daytime patrol is currently at a considerable distance. Even if you contacted them, they would not arrive for quite some time.

It paused.

However, we have contingency plans for this.

"The rapid response team," Mami ordered. "Get them mobilized. The local base must be right there in the church. It shouldn't take them too long."

Message relayed, Kyubey thought.

Mami started to run forward.

What is your intention? the Incubator thought, its voice carrying a trace of urgency.

I can't take the risk that someone is under attack, Mami thought.

Operating alone is a violation of regulations, especially for someone of your rank. This is an industrial area, where humans rarely go. It—

I wrote those regulations! Mami thought, gathering herself for a jump. Now get off my shoulder!

Kyubey complied, landing onto the platform, and Mami dove back down among the tubing.

Besides, she thought back to Kyubey, feeling a little guilty, as she allowed herself to fall through the air, I'll have backup soon. I'll focus on rescuing any civilians and keeping myself safe. That should be enough, right? I can even count this as my regular obligation!

Kyubey didn't respond.

Ryouko tilted her head questioningly.

"Well, out with it," she said, wondering what was taking the other girl so long.

"The truth is…" Simona began, hesitantly, switching back to Japanese.

Ryouko opened her mouth to hurry her some more, but was distracted by a sudden shadow appearing over them.

Her eyes widened.

"I—" Simona began.

She was cut off with an "Oomph!" as Ryouko dove forward to shove the girl out of the way.

"What the hell—" Simona began, shocked—and then she saw it too.

A white‐robed figure loomed over them, tall as three men. Strangely insubstantial, its body was passing right through several solar collectors, like a shallow mockery of a ghost. Its apogee was crowned by a pale head that resembled a monk's, save for its sightless face, shrouded in a pixelated fog.

And where they had been sitting, the steaming mist of the demon's debilitating attack.

Ryouko pulled the other girl up, beginning a panicked run forward, the two of them supporting each other through the initial stumbles.

Demon attack! I need help! Ryouko thought, relaying the message through emergency channels, just as they had been trained over and over since childhood. On her left, Simona was almost certainly doing the same thing.

There was no guarantee the signals could even make it out from within the miasma, but if they were lucky they weren't in that deep.

"I can't see a goddamn thing!" Simona said. "This damn miasma—"

"Over here!" Ryouko said, dashing to the left and pulling the two of them behind the cover of a turbine column. They felt it heat up from another attack, glowing fragments of the column spinning off behind them in all directions.

"We have to keep moving!" Ryouko said. "Remember the training simulations!"

"How?" Simona cried. "I couldn't see in those things, and I can't see now! It's just mist and sand and—"

Ryouko ignored her, jerking her forward into another run.

"Follow me!" she ordered, dragging the other girl by the hand.

Adrenaline levels beyond threshold,〉 a mechanical voice prompted in her head. 〈Activate Emergency Mode?

A sense of expectation spread in her mind, making it clear that it was waiting for her response.

Yes! Do it! Yes!

Facts and figures flooded the lower levels of her consciousness—heart rate, glucose reserves, blood oxygenation—and, far more importantly, she suddenly found her legs a lot more powerful, and her lungs a lot more capacious.

Symbols flashed across her vision, and Ryouko had never been as grateful for modern technology as she was then. Frankly, she had forgotten she even had this subsystem.

They ran, not daring to look back. Ryouko pulled them behind another turbine, followed by another short run, then crouching down behind a railing; Ryouko was practically dragging the other girl by this point.

Ryouko dared a glance over the railing, and found the area swarming with the massive demons, several floating in their direction. It would have been laughable to suggest that the short railing could provide sufficient cover.

"How do you even know where you're going?" Simona asked, panting. "Keep moving, yes, but we're also supposed to stay in the same area!"

"Not now, Simona!" Ryouko said, even though she knew Simona was quoting the formal procedure. "Turn on your enhancements!"

"I can't!" Simona said. "It's not working! Miasma interference or something!"

Run!〉 the mechanical voice ordered, the optimal path across the deserted street overlaid on her vision.

Ryouko was already moving, dragging Simona up.

"You're going to get us killed!" Simona said, looking around in a panic, clearly blind.

"We'll be decimated if we stay back there!" Ryouko said, as they ran. "I can see, okay? I don't know how, but it all looks normal—"

A searing pain burnt itself into her back.

She wasn't even aware of herself screaming.

"Ryouko!" Simona yelled.

Ryouko lay on the floor, but somehow—somehow she was fine. That was what her monitors told her, and also how she felt.

"Shit, shit—" Simona repeated, trying to pull her up, glancing back with fear at the demon that was behind them, gathering itself for another attack.

With a burst of strength, Ryouko launched herself up, pulling a surprised Simona with her.

She didn't stop until they were behind the wall of a building across the street, giving Simona a few seconds to breathe. Behind them, the demons finished lashing the spot they had been with beams of intense otherworldly light.

"I–I don't—" Simona began, barely getting the words through her labored breathing.

"Don't talk," Ryouko said, voice weirdly detached. "You don't have the air for it. Not with your enhancements disabled. I don't know why mine are working, but it's the only thing keeping us alive. Just follow me. I can see."

Simona nodded, biting her lip.

Ryouko pulled them forward, to the first‐floor entrance of the building, which opened before she even got there.

"There's a transport waiting for us at the third‐floor skyway," Ryouko said, as they ran past rows of robotic manufacturing equipment. "If we can get to it by elevator, we should make it."

She was trying to be reassuring, but Simona probably hadn't even known they were in a building until she mentioned it. Such was the miasma.

It's a good thing there's no one else here, she thought. It'd be a disaster.

But that's probably why the magical girls haven't already taken care of it, another part of her remarked.

A smile quirked across her lips. So this was what Emergency Mode was like. She should've been absolutely terrified, but instead, here she was, rationalizing her situation.

Of course, her monitors were telling her that her brain was currently flooded with mood‐altering drugs, and that her neuroelectrode arrays were firing at full processing capacity, but that was a philosophical issue she could worry about later.

They were almost there.

"Alright, Simona—" she began.

A millisecond before it would have been too late, she screeched to a halt, wrenched Simona back, and sent them both diving to the floor.

Even so, the mind‐searing beams of light barely missed them, their radiant heat scorching the skin on her back. The damage reports began pouring into her consciousness. 〈Second degree… Third degree… Healing to superficial damage deferred until Emergency Mode condition is cancelled—〉

She threw herself back up nonetheless, pulling Simona up bodily along with her, the pain suppressed.

My emergency energy reserves are depleting. Ryouko thought. This isn't—

She stopped.

Simona let out a terrified noise.

They were surrounded on all sides. The elevator, enticingly open just meters ahead, was useless to them now.

The demons reared, charging for an attack.

I am sorry to conclude that your survival can no longer be ensured.

The Civilian‐Issue Emergency Safety Package in her head had the speed, and the subtlety, of lightning.

However, given their geometry and orientation, the demons appear to have prioritized targeting you. With the sacrifice of your life, it is possible for you to get Simona to the elevator, and she may even survive.

She made her decision.

Drugged as she was, she wasn't even scared. She turned, preparing to grab the girl and rush forward to the elevator using her own body as a shield. Her cortex began flooding with endorphins to dull the expected pain.

Simona looked up at her with wide eyes, comprehension dawning.

Then, faster than thought, the wall to Ryouko's left exploded open with searing light, blasting the demon in front of her with rubble. The two on her right shattered, and the demon to her left lurched backwards, dragged by a ribbon tied around its body. It fired wildly, beam hitting the ceiling uselessly. Its skull blew open, shards dissipating into nothingness even as they scattered.

All of this took place faster than even Ryouko's accelerated nervous system could process, and she found herself judging the results post‐event.

A single figure clad in yellow dove through the chasm in the wall, landing elegantly next to them.

This surreal apparition of a girl was resplendent, wearing long stockings and a ruffled yellow dress. On her head perched a beret with a jeweled hairpin. She carried a single ornately‐decorated musket, one hand on the stock, the barrel resting casually on her shoulder.

The girl smiled at them, then turned and fired a shot, eviscerating a demon that had been creeping up on the opening in the wall. The musket vanished into thin air.

It was a figure familiar to them from a dozen movies, a hundred propaganda events, and a thousand government news flashes.

"Mami‐sama!" Ryouko exclaimed, while Simona merely gaped.

"Now that was a close call," the field marshal said, turning back to talk to them. "It's not safe to wander this far into the industrial districts, girls. But now's not the time. Let's see about getting you to safety."

Emergency Mode off.

Ryouko staggered on her feet, keeling over, not from pain—the damage had healed during the trip up here—but from the delayed mental impact of recent events. The drugs were being rapidly purged from her system. She suppressed the sudden urge to vomit.

"Ryouko!" Simona exclaimed, grabbing her arm.

"Easy," Mami said, grabbing her other arm. "It's always like that, the first time. Easy."

They helped her stand back up.

It felt as if she was experiencing it all at once: fear, pain, exhaustion, all stacked on top of one another, almost unbearably.

Thankfully, it was receding—albeit very, very slowly.

They were standing on the twentieth‐floor observation deck of a building near where they had been, looking down on the landscape. On the ground, Mami's soul gem was discharging its corruption into four adjacent grief cubes.

"It's recoil," the magical girl said, now back in normal clothing, by way of explanation. "Your brain is trying to return to normal. Trust me; I had to learn all about it when I became an officer. You'll be fine, just give it some time."

Mami continued to bend over slightly, watching over Ryouko with a worried face. It was one thing to hear about it, and another entirely to experience it.

Simona bowed shakily.

"T–Thank you for saving our lives, fi‐field—" she said.

"No problem, obviously," Mami said, smiling. "And you can call me Mami‐san. Please. That title embarrasses me."


"Mami‐san," the general insisted.

"Mami‐san," the girl echoed.

"You did quite well, Shizuki‐san," Mami said, helping Ryouko to stand back up. "I saw you, through the crowd of demons. You were quite brave. Without your actions, I wouldn't have made it on time."

Ryouko nodded unsteadily.

"That's right, Ryouko," Simona said, voice shaky, eyes downcast. "That was amazing. And I saw—you should have tried to make it to the elevator alone! I was just a burden. You should have—"

"It wasn't possible," Ryouko said, swallowing. "And I didn't do anything special; it was just the enhancements. Please. It's okay."

She didn't want to be reminded of what she had almost done. It was brave, yes, but she had no idea if the Ryouko she was now would have been capable of the same thing. That fear of death—she had only felt it just now, and it still cast on a pallor on her mood.

"Is that what it's like for them, Mami‐san?" Ryouko asked turning looking at Mami.

"Hmm?" Mami asked, having been lost in thought. "What it's like for whom?"

"The infantry," Ryouko explained. "Out there in the war."

Mami watched her for a moment, then looked up at the darkening sky.

"Far worse, actually," she said. "The civilian‐issue emergency packages are very basic. The military is different. Sometimes, soldiers operate for weeks without turning them off. Depending on what they've gone through, recoil might even require the services of a medical ward or healer. It's very traumatic, but it keeps them alive."

"And what about you?" Ryouko asked. "Magical girls, I mean. Do you have the same thing?"

Mami looked at her, expression strangely neutral.

"Our bodies are better than anything that the military has ever managed," she said flatly. "And the mental enhancements damage our combat performance; we need our emotions, for obvious reasons. Not to mention that the recoil could easily be a fatal disaster if it happened in a magical girl."

She stopped suddenly, looking to her right.

A flying drone, resembling a shoebox with small conical boosters on the bottom, had appeared, beeping insistently. Mami casually tossed her spare grief cubes into the drone, which then flew off the way it had come.

"No," Mami continued, as if nothing had happened. "For better or worse, we fight mostly as we are."

Ryouko nodded silently.

Mami looked down over the edge of the platform, and for a long moment, Ryouko thought she wouldn't say any more.

"Would you like to be a magical girl, Shizuki‐san?" the field marshal asked, refusing eye contact. "It's not an easy life, not at all. Honestly, it's a terrible one. Your only consolation is the protection you give Humanity; that, and the wish you make."

Her voice sounded so sad, so different from her public speeches, that Simona and Ryouko blinked in surprise, before realizing just what she had said.

"What–what are you saying?" Ryouko asked, stepping forward. "I don't think I can, can I?"

The general didn't respond, bending down to pick up her soul gem and saturated grief cubes.

Ryouko swallowed, trying to remember what she had thought earlier.

"I–I mean, I've definitely thought about it," she said, stammering. "I won't lie; I've always admired you, but are you sure? And shouldn't I talk to—uh—my family first? And—why would I be able to? Doesn't it take an Incubator?"

Her questions were rather incoherent.

"What are you saying?" Simona said, aghast, looking back and forth between the two of them.

"Standard recruitment policy is to minimize familial involvement," Mami said, voice empty of emotion. "It risks tainting the purity of the wish. I won't stop you from talking to them, but there's a strong chance that this is a one‐time offer."

Mami turned suddenly to face her, and the magical girl's face looked almost angry, but not at her.

"It's not a coincidence I brought you up here," she said, pointing forward with her hand. "Look."

Ryouko looked, at the hordes of demons dispersing through the streets and up buildings. They were plain as day. In the far distance, a single woman strolled the streets, thankfully greatly out of range and headed the other way.

"You can see them, can't you?" Mami said. "Simona can't."

It wasn't a question, even though Simona immediately squinted her eyes and tried.

"I've taken us far outside the miasma," Mami explained. "No ordinary human should still be able to see the demons."

Ryouko's eyes widened.

"I saw you earlier," Mami said. "You should have been running blind, like your friend. None of your enhancements should have even been functioning. Instead, you ran exactly where you needed to."

She looked at the two of them.

"And you were hit by a demon attack," Mami said. "It should have sapped your will to live. Instead, you were fine, and the demons started using their fatal laser attacks instead of their standard attacks. Don't you wonder why they did that?"

Ryouko looked down. Yes, she too had realized that things had been strange, though she hadn't quite put the pieces together.

She was beginning to understand, now.

"What are you saying?" Simona demanded. "Is she—"

She has potential, Kyubey thought, appearing from behind them.

Mami spun around, while Ryouko jumped at the unexpected voice in her head. Simona, of course, hadn't stopped talking until they reacted.

It walked up to them. Ryouko looked at it with wide eyes, Mami watched it with a conflicted expression, and Simona looked at the empty space where they were staring with confusion.

It looks like I was wrong to criticize you, Mami, it thought. I apologize. If you had listened to me, Ryouko here would be dead.

Simona looked back and forth between the two of them.

"It's an Incubator," Ryouko explained wondrously. "I can see it."

Mami tossed Kyubey her spent grief cubes, and the Incubator gracefully caught the entire assortment in its paws, before tossing them into the hole on its back.

The rapid response team is here, the Incubator thought, a moment later. You should take a look.

They turned to watch, Simona again a step behind.

In the distance, a tiny spark of light appeared and grew, expanding into what appeared to be a purple bubble the size of several vehicles. When it popped, five tiny figures appeared in the air, dropping down.

"Teleportation," Mami said, by way of explanation. She leaned forward, appearing to be looking carefully at something.

Simona squinted her eyes, seeing nothing.

The demons in their vicinity turned to attack, but their numbers melted rapidly, torn down by a flood of projectiles, sword slashes, and spear thrusts.

That could be you, Kyubey thought, walking up next to her.

Ryouko and Mami looked at it.

Your soul rebels at the karma of your life, the creature thought, looking up at Ryouko. You have reached the threshold for becoming a magical girl. You may make any wish, so long as your soul truly desires it.

"I need to—" Ryouko began.

I should inform you, the Incubator continued. Mami was correct. In your case, breaking the secrecy of your situation by speaking to your family would almost certainly taint the resolution of your soul. Even your friend's presence here has already risked the viability of the contract. This is, indeed, a one‐time offer.

Mami turned away, choosing to watch the battle unfolding behind her instead.

"Ryouko, what's going on?" Simona asked, the outsider in everything.

Do you have a wish prepared? Kyubey asked. With what wish will your soul gem shine?

Ryouko looked down and closed her eyes, trying to think.

It was one thing to think to yourself that you envied the magical girls, that you envied the centenarians and would leave Earth if you were allowed to. It was another to face, all at once, the prospect of leaving everything you had ever known behind.

But what was I here for? My friends don't understand me. Nothing in school interests me. I don't fit in!

And her parents… well, they could visit often. She knew that.

I'm sorry.

No, her decision had been made the moment the Incubator had appeared.

Mami averted her eyes even further.

"I wish I could leave Earth," Ryouko said, looking down, "and explore this world. I want to go where no one else has gone before and find my place in this universe."

"Ryouko!" Simona said, finally catching up to everything. "What are you doing?"

Despite everything they had said earlier, Simona's voice sounded betrayed.

Wish granted, the Incubator thought. Your soul has successfully reduced entropy.

Immeasurable pain coursed through every fiber of Ryouko's being, as if her entire body, every cell, every neuron and hepatocyte, were screaming in protest. It was terrible, worse than anything she could imagine.

And then it was over, and there was only the bright light rising in front of her eyes.

Take it, Kyubey ordered. It is your destiny.

Ryouko did so, stretching out her hands.

Behind her, unseen, a girl appeared on the platform, jumping up from below. She was clad entirely in red, hair tied in a ponytail with a ribbon, mouth chewing on a chocolate‐covered bread stick, and hand carrying an enormous spear.

"I miss anything?" she asked casually.

Mami glared at her.

"Oh," the new girl said, spotting the girl in front of her.

That girl stared at the luminescent green soul gem in her hands wondrously, head swimming, trying to get a grasp on her new life.

The spear‐wielding girl closed her eyes and clasped her hands in benediction.

"May your soul gem burn bright and long," Sakura Kyouko said, "and the Goddess save you from despair."

Chapter Text

Among the astounding powers, seemingly immortal bodies, and sheer, absurd firepower, it is easy to forget that magical girls come with another, much subtler advantage. Nearly every girl is born into their contract with an instinct to combat, and an excellent understanding of their own skills and how to use them. Coupled with superhuman—no, supermachine—reflexes, even the greenest of rookies can be terrifying on the battlefield.

However, this must not be misconstrued. There is always much to learn, and experience is geometrically enhancing, as it is for all types of combat. Indeed, there is no need to pity those rare girls who find themselves with no instinct for battle—experience shows that these are often the most dangerous of all.

Daughters of the Contract: A Documentary

The mentorship system began as a quite natural response to the isolation prevalent throughout the magical girl community. Few elder girls were heartless enough to allow new girls to flail about aimlessly, and new girls were always desperate for someone to cling to.

As populations grew, and societies contracted into urban centers, the number of girls finding themselves rubbing elbows with other magical girls increased dramatically. And while hostilities were common, the rewards of cooperation proved too dramatic to ignore. Pairs of magical girls became trios, then full‐fledged teams, rapidly accruing new contractees as members. The only restraints on their size were the shocking attrition rates, and local grief cube supply, which prevented multiple teams from settling in one area.

For a while, then, the ideal of mentorship was replaced by a new ideal—that of cohesion and teamwork. It was only with the rise of the MSY, and the placement of certain girls into specific, highly specialized roles, that it again became common to see pairs of girls operating as teacher‐student. Afterwards came formalization, and with that, certain benefits—death notices, most morbidly. This led, seemingly paradoxically, to a certain relaxation of formality. Mentors became more comfortable sending students farther away, and some girls began "mentoring" others hardly even in the same department.

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

Mami hated recruiting.

She hated how innocent the girls were, with their sweet, naïve smiles and their touching belief in Mami‐sama. She hated that her face and her voice were being used to sell so many on a choice that would likely mean their death. She hated everything about it.

Above all, she hated that terrible contradiction between her love for the girls and her embedded sense of duty.

Mami didn't have to take Ryouko and Simona up to the observation deck that day, after all. She could have sent them home, and let Ryouko's recruiting be someone else's business.

She couldn't let herself do that, though. She didn't want to dodge the guilt and shirk the responsibility. Let this girl, at least, hear it from her. Plus—and this was where duty kicked in—immediately after a demon attack, in the throes of emotion, was an excellent time to recruit, one she couldn't legitimately pass up.

Mami felt dirty, like one of those used car salesmen that had existed so long ago.

It was all a bunch of gamesmanship. The principal complication nowadays was the lack of secrecy around the contract system. Experience had taught both Incubator and Magical Girl that allowing potential contractees to talk about it with their more mundane friends and family members was a sure‐fire way to damage the purity of their wish and destroy whatever it was that gave a girl potential. Telling the girls to keep it secret, even giving them the reasons why it had to be secret, was less effective than had been desired.

Girls just couldn't resist. There was no longer the risk that they would be labeled delusional for talking, and the Incubators could no longer use whatever unsavory methods they had previously used to stop them.

Alright, so that last part was only speculation among magical girls, but fairly well‐founded speculation, at that.

Thus, nowadays, despite the impression given to the public that the contract decision was deliberate and carefully thought out, potential recruits were rushed through their contracts like so many sheep, with phrases like "one‐time offer" and "limited‐time only". This was done even if it risked alienating the girls.

It was, indeed, exactly like selling a used car.

Thankfully, in this post‐capitalist era, no one tried that hard to sell anything anymore, so the girls had never seen such techniques in their lives—on Earth, anyway.

Letting Simona stick around, instead of telling her to go home and talking to Ryouko privately, was a judgment call. Letting her stay risked the contract, but it also allowed Mami to truthfully say that the offer would probably be lost very soon, a very important sales point.

And Mami hated lying, too.

The guilt, like always, would stick with her for a long time.

Still, though, her job wasn't finished. Indeed, it was only just beginning—she would make sure of it.

"I can't believe you!" Simona was saying, emotional. "You became a magical girl, just like that? You're just going to leave?"

"What are you talking about?" Ryouko asked, overwhelmed, glancing back and forth between Simona and the soul gem in her hand. "Weren't you the one who understood why I wanted to get out? What happened to that?"

Mami had to intervene. The last thing she wanted was for the girl to have doubts injected into her so soon after making the contract.

In short, she needed to get Simona out of the way.

Mami cleared her throat, solely for the purpose of interrupting them.

"Let's discuss what to do now," she said, giving them a meaningful look.

She turned to Kyouko dramatically.

"You have free time?"

"I cut my sermon short to see what Mami‐senpai was up to," the girl said, placing a teasing lilt on "senpai". "So yeah, I got some time."

"Alright, do you mind escorting the civilian here home?" Mami asked. "I'll show the new girl the ropes."

Kyouko frowned.

"You've already been in combat, Mami," she said. "Let me take care of it."

Privately, Kyouko thought:

Those are my subordinates fighting down there, you know. Give me a chance to look cool once in a while! Don't steal all the fun.

Mami thought about it. She really wanted to be the one to show Ryouko around, but there were advantages to letting Kyouko do it. If she went with Simona, she could take the opportunity to program her into not discouraging Ryouko, and to indoctrinate her in a few other things. That would help.

She nodded.

"Alright," she said. "I'll take her home then. Don't teach Shizuki‐san anything funny, okay? I don't want to have to clean up your mess."

"Of course not, senpai," Kyouko said, winking.

"Come on, let's go," Mami said, gesturing at Simona, her expression making it clear she wasn't to be argued with.

Simona looked at Ryouko, clearly not wanting to be cooperative. Ryouko stared back.

"Come on," Mami repeated, tugging at Simona's arm and, this time, the girl acquiesced.

"Shizuki Ryouko, eh?" Kyouko said, as Mami and Simona walked off. "Interesting name."

Indeed it is, Mami thought, walking off.

As a matter of course, she had mentally looked up the names of both girls on the way up, so she wouldn't have to ask.

Kyubey jumped onto her shoulder as she stepped into the elevator with Simona.

Ryouko stared at the new girl, who was twirling her spear about in an impressive fashion.

"Interesting name," the girl had said, and Ryouko now found herself absolutely tongue‐tied.

Sakura Kyouko, her facial recognition service—her nomenclator—informed her when she queried.

"Sakura, Kyouko"
  • Age: undisclosed
  • Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)
  • Rank: Lieutenant General
  • Special Comments:
    Founder, Cult of Hope

A quiet sense of expectation registered in her mind, an implied recommendation that she read up on the "Cult of Hope". She dismissed it.

I guess I'm meeting everyone today, she thought.

Nowhere near as famous as Mami or Homura or Yuma, Kyouko was still a celebrity in her own right. She was one of the Mitakihara Four, after all, the nucleus around which the famous magical girl union, the MSY, grew.

Founding the Cult was nothing to sniff at, but it paled in comparison to the kind of legends Mami and Homura had carved out for themselves, or to Yuma's constant appearances within the Directorate.

In fact, to be perfectly honest, Ryouko didn't know much about the Cult at all. She thought of them as part of the persistent religious subculture that was still present everywhere. Put another way, the Cult was to magical girls as door‐to‐door Christian evangelists were to most of the world—or even all of Human space.

She hadn't recognized the girl at first, but it made sense that she would be here. She had just met Mami, after all.

With that thought, reality once more crashed in on her.

What have I gotten myself into? she thought.

She could feel the steady pulse of her soul gem, which had obligingly formed itself into a ring on her hand.

No, she would have to remember now. The soul gem was her.

She held her hand up, looking at it, noticing finally the green five‐pointed star that had appeared on her fingernail. She blinked.

"Is that—" she began.

Yes, it's normal, a voice responded in her head.

She jumped, then looked again at the girl in front of her. That girl was watching her with amused eyes.

"I thought for sure Mami had introduced you to the telepathy," Kyouko said, watching her. "I guess not. Maybe she didn't want to overwhelm you. And yes, the fingernail mark is normal. It's one of the lesser‐known signs of being a magical girl."

With that, Kyouko stepped forward and grabbed her hand, ignoring her slight recoil.

"Oh, a green star," Kyouko said, inspecting the nail. "How cute."

Ryouko couldn't read Kyouko's tone of voice.

Then, Kyouko dropped her hand.

"Summon your soul gem," Kyouko ordered.

"What?" Ryouko asked, blinking.

"Turn it back into its gem form," Kyouko repeated, tapping her foot. "Come on. You know how to do it."

Ryouko complied.

She was surprised she knew how, actually. But she didn't have to think about it any harder than she thought about turning her lights off at night. It responded to her will even more fluidly than those lights did and, what's more, she seemed to know exactly what to do with it.

She swallowed, looking at her soul, glowing bright green in her hands, crested by the five‐pointed star that was apparently her insignia.

"Alright, good," Kyouko said. "I'm sorry to rush you so much, but if we don't hurry, the battle will be over. I intend for you to participate."

Ryouko blinked.

"What? Already?"

"You're a magical girl," Kyouko said. "You should have basic competence, even without training. It comes with the contract."

She rested her chin on the back of her hand, which held the shaft of her spear.

Kyouko sighed.

"I wonder what she would think of me doing this," she mused out loud, reaching into her dress and pulling out another of her strange chocolate sticks. "She'd probably be mad that I didn't treat her so nicely."

"Who?" Ryouko asked, tilting her head.

"No one," Kyouko said, looking back towards her. "I'm just an old lady talking too much."

Now, Kyouko thought. Transform. I shouldn't have to explain.

Indeed she didn't. Hardly had the intention to try formed in Ryouko's mind that the gem shot out bright streamers of green light, seeking to grasp her in their embrace. The light was momentarily blinding, seeming to ensheath her eyes—and then it was over.

Instinctively, she looked down.

She found herself wearing a bright green dress, a lacy affair running all the way from her chest to her calves, where it flared out and ruffled. The sleeves were similar, and the chest was ornately decorated with various green buttons, the centerpiece of which was the shining green star soul gem attached to the base of her neck, seemingly stuck there.

Conscious of a slight pressure on her left hand, she raised it—and found herself looking at a crossbow nearly the length of her entire arm. But yet, despite its size and obvious weight, it was hardly any effort at all to manage. It seemed almost like an extension of herself.

Specifically, it was an arbalest, and she would never have to load or prime it manually. Somehow she knew that.

Frilly, the other girl thought. Not many girls go for that nowadays.

"Sakura‐san," Ryouko began.

Kyouko, the response came. And use your telepathy. Just so you know how.

Kyo–Kyouko, Ryouko thought, finding once again that she knew instinctually how to do it.

Kyouko, she repeated, trying to look the other girl in the eye. I'm sorry. I only just contracted. I'm feeling a bit shaky. I want to talk to my parents—

Suddenly, Kyouko's face was bearing down on hers, outlined against the late afternoon sky.

"What kind of resolution is that?" the girl asked. "I thought you had a wish. You knew what you were getting into. You're getting a chance to train with the great Sakura Kyouko, and you want to bail out?"

The girls eyes drilled into hers until Ryouko, finally, shook her head, swallowing covertly.

Kyouko pulled back.

"Listen, rookie," she said, her voice serious. "You'll get your chance to say goodbye, but I'm not cutting you any slack while you're here. If there's anything I've learned in all my years, it's that it's better to toughen up early. Capisce?"

Ryouko nodded hastily, even before her brain registered her language module's translation of the Italian.

"I'm sorry," Ryouko said, bowing. "I'm just—"

"Don't apologize!" Kyouko asserted, and Ryouko flinched at the spearpoint suddenly at her neck.

"Now, rookie," Kyouko said. "What's your primary power? Demonstrate it to me, if you can."

Ryouko hadn't even thought to check, but the moment she thought about it, she knew.

The world shifted five feet to her right, leaving her briefly disoriented.

"I said demonstrate!" Kyouko snarled, seemingly not at all perturbed by her blink to the left. "You have combat reflexes, use them!"

With that, the girl moved her spear to stab Ryouko, with seemingly complete sincerity.

Before she knew it, she was looking at the back of Kyouko's head, raising her arbalest—and then she was on her knees, grabbing her stomach, feeling fit to vomit.

Physical injury detected, a machine voice thought. Emergency—

No, Ryouko thought.

"Sorry about that," the red‐clothed girl apologized, looming over her. "It was the only way to make sure you didn't actually shoot me."

The girl had slammed the blunt end of her spear backward into Ryouko's abdomen at almost the exact moment she had appeared.

"Don't feel bad," Kyouko said. "Every teleporter's instinct is to blink behind the opponent. It's a good instinct; I've just had experience fighting."

She offered Ryouko a hand up.

Feeling the pain recede slightly, Ryouko forced herself up without help, hand on knee.

Kyouko smiled mischievously.

"So you've got spirit. I like that."

"Who would want to accept help from a bully like you?" Ryouko asked, staggering a little.

She was angry. That blow had hurt, and she was pretty certain some of her organs had taken damage from it.

Come to think of it, why was she so blasé about that?

Kyouko laughed, and turned away from her, spear behind her back.

"You don't know the half of it, but don't take it personally, kid," she said. "By the way, did you happen to activate your emergency mode?"

No, Ryouko thought, since the girl wasn't looking at her and she didn't feel like speaking.

"Good," Kyouko said, chewing on her chocolate stick. "You would have discovered that most of the functions are broken or useless. They still haven't found a way for the magic and science to work together. They're working on it, though."

The girl turned, displaying a small, black cube. Trying to focus her eyes on it, Ryouko found she had difficulty doing so. It was fuzzy somehow. There was something… disturbing about looking at it. Somehow, it seemed blacker than black.

"Know how these work?" Kyouko asked. Ryouko nodded.

She tossed the cube over, then watched Ryouko hold it up to her soul gem to drain the—frankly minor—traces of corruption that had arisen.

It felt… strangely relaxing, Ryouko decided, as if a great weight were coming off her shoulders. And perhaps it was just her imagination, but she was pretty sure her abdomen was feeling better.

Also, she didn't feel that angry anymore.

The grief cube felt strangely slippery in her hands, like it was trying to escape.

"Now, teleporter," Kyouko addressed, holding her spear at her side. "Tell me some things for the record. What is your mass carrying capacity?"

"Two thousand kilograms," she said, knowing somehow. "Maybe more if I push it."

"Can you move objects you are not touching?"


"Can you teleport objects without teleporting yourself?"


"What is your maximal range?"

"Two hundred kilometers."

"Good. Then let's—"

Kyouko stopped midsentence.

"Is something wrong?" Ryouko asked, after a moment of hesitation.

"You're not lying, are you?" Kyouko asked, giving her a severe look, head tilted. "Two hundred? Seriously?"

"Y–Yes," Ryouko said, sure that was the correct number. Could she be wrong somehow?

"But I'd need grief cubes immediately," she added, not sure why the girl was looking at her like she was crazy. "So I couldn't do it more than once an hour or so, even with cubes. And I'd have to focus for a long time. In terms of jumps I could do consistently, I'm probably limited to about a quarter‐kilometer—"

"The standing record is sixty‐three kilometers," Kyouko said flatly.

Ryouko blinked.


Kyouko banged her spear on the floor, ignoring the cracks that appeared underneath.

"It looks like Mami found a gem after all," she commented. "She sure has a knack."

Kyouko leaned on her spear.

"Anyway, how does your teleportation operate? Do you know? It affects whether or not you can do anything else."

Ryouko thought about that.

"I'm not sure. I have this vague sense it's related to… manipulating space? I knew everything else, but I don't know this. I don't know why."

She knew, somehow, that she was moving space around her somehow, or maybe even punching a hole, but it was frustratingly unspecific.

"That's okay," Kyouko said. "It's like that sometimes. Just work on figuring it out. If you're lucky, you can get some secondary skills relating to it. If you're unlucky, you can even forget how to do it. Take it from me."

Ryouko nodded, absorbing the lesson.

"Can you do anything else right now? Do you know?"

Ryouko shook her head.

"Not in terms of skills," she said. "But in terms of weapons…"

She began lifting her arbalest.

"No it's okay," Kyouko said, waving her hand. "I don't have much patience for this kind of debriefing. Just make sure to show me everything you can later, okay?"

Ryouko blinked, then nodded. Frankly, that seemed a little irresponsible of Kyouko, but who was she to question?

"Let's just go ahead and register you," Kyouko said, looking upward.

Ryouko watched the girl's eyes unfocus slightly, a sure sign that she had switched attention to some internal menu. Ryouko relaxed slightly, turning to watch the fight still unfolding in the distance. It was starting to get dark; her parents would wonder where she was.

Suddenly, Kyouko chuckled to herself.

"Well, that's smart of her," Kyouko said. "Take the good ones for herself."

"What?" Ryouko asked, unsure if the girl intended for her to respond or not.

"Mami just registered you," Kyouko said, still looking off into space. "All I could do was input the additional information. That means that in about five minutes, you're going to be flooded with messages from the military. Welcome messages and stupid things like that. Read it later when you have time. Not now. For now, I'm going to mark you 'occupied'."

"You can do that?" Ryouko asked, confused.

It was her personal status. No one else could touch it.

"I can now," Kyouko said. "I'm your new commanding officer. Temporarily."

"Oh," Ryouko said.

Kyouko looked at her expectantly, eyebrow raised.

"Commanding officer," Kyouko repeated.

Realizing what was going on, Ryouko stiffened her back and raised her hand awkwardly to salute.

"Uh, I mean, yes, ma'—"

"None of that," Kyouko said, waving her hand. "I was just messing with you. We don't observe the formalities. Not among our own kind. But it's a good reflex to have."

"Oh, okay," she said, relaxing.

Kyouko leaned forward.

"And just so you know, you are now fully emancipated. Welcome to adulthood."

Ryouko looked back at the girl's amused eyes, wonder what she was supposed to say to that.

"I don't feel like one," she settled on, only half‐joking.

Kyouko smiled.

"Take a look at your personnel file," she recommended.

For a moment, Ryouko was lost. What personnel file?

Here, Kyouko thought, and the file manifested in Ryouko's consciousness.

That alone was interesting. Mind‐to‐mind communication of that sort was strictly restricted by the government.

Now was not the time to think about it.

"Shizuki, Ryouko"
  • Occupation: Magical Girl
  • Rank: Second Lieutenant
  • MG Classification: Teleporter
  • Immediate Commanding Officer: Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General
  • Primary Mentor (optional): Tomoe Mami, Field Marshal

Her expression must have given it away, because Kyouko smiled and said:

"It's a rare honor."

Ryouko nodded, even though she wasn't sure what exactly it meant.

"I guess you'll be the envy of everyone you meet, then," Kyouko said. "Since I ain't gonna let this one just float by."

And then, suddenly, a new entry appeared:

  • Additional Mentors (not recommended): Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General

"Well, then," Kyouko said, turning to face the scenery, not giving her time to respond. "Looks like they've almost got it over with. There should be a couple left for you to hunt, though."

"Kyouko, it's an honor—" she began, though honestly, she was confused why she was being singled out.

"Here," Kyouko interrupted.

Kyouko stuck out her hand. Ryouko looked at the strangely shaped metal object with confusion.

"It's a soul gem cover," Kyouko said. "It has all sorts of fancy technology to protect your—well, you. It's my spare. You can use it until you get something more formal."

Ryouko took it, wondering how it would fit. It didn't look—

Kyouko grabbed it back, then leaned forward, pressing it to the star soul gem below her throat. The device came suddenly alive, liquefying and flowing to shape itself around the gem, and then turning transparent.

"You'll learn the details later," Kyouko said, nodding in satisfaction.

Then Kyouko turned once again to face the battle scene.

"Are you ready?" Kyouko asked.

"Not really," she said. "I still think it's too fast. But if you say so, I'll—"

"I said, are you ready?" Kyouko insisted.

"Y–Yes?" Ryouko said, not quite managing the tone she felt was being demanded.

Kyouko glanced at her, but didn't seem angry.

She sniffed arrogantly.

"Of course you're not. But—"

As she spoke, she reached into a hidden pocket on her dress, pulling out a small plastic box. Inside was a whole assortment of the chocolate sticks Kyouko had been chewing on.

"—I'll be there to save you in case anything happens. Trust me."

Ryouko looked between the box and the girl's face, wondering if she was supposed to take one or what.

Finally, she did so.

Kyouko withdrew the box, smiling.

"Can you believe it?" Kyouko said. "I have to insert my own custom design into every synthesizer I use. No pre‐existing models. What is this world coming to?"

Ryouko didn't know what to say to that, so she didn't say anything.

"Now then, ready or not—" Kyouko began, grabbing her by the hand.

Ryouko looked up in surprise.

Kyouko pointed with her spear at a small unattended cluster of demons.

"—take us there, teleporter!"

Ryouko nodded, swallowing.

If that's how it's going to be, then I'll make sure to impress her!

"I'll drop us in the middle of them, okay?" Ryouko asked, steeling her resolve.

"That's how I prefer it," Kyouko said.

"Simona," Mami addressed severely, as the elevator was mid‐ascent to the nearest skyway exit. She had just finished inputting Ryouko's registration, and it was time to get down to business.

The girl looked up at her, awoken from whatever miserable line of thought she had been engaged in. Mami did not look her in the eye.

"I would thank you not to undermine your friend at a time like this," she said. "Put your feelings aside. Her decision is made, and giving her doubts could only hurt her. I trust you understand what I'm saying."

Mami didn't look, and the girl didn't respond.

Kyubey, perched in its customary spot on Mami's shoulder, chose not to comment, especially since Simona couldn't hear him anyway.

Their elevator reached the designated floor, and they stepped out, Mami first. They approached Mami's personal vehicle, politely waiting at the correct spot. She let Simona get in first.

The girl's face was blank.

Mami sighed.

Kyubey, I'd appreciate it if you left.

She does not even know I am here, Mami.

It would make me feel better, okay?

Kyubey jumped off her shoulder.

Alright then, it said. I will see you at the spaceport. I have recruits to attend to, after all.

It almost sounded peeved.

Mami let herself smile slightly. Sometimes she swore the Incubator missed her. It could be relied upon to show up to greet her the moment she stepped foot in Mitakihara City, and also to say farewell whenever she left.

That was a foolish thing to think, of course.

And then she got in the vehicle too. It was time to change tacks.

She lifted a small door and reached into the synthesizer in front of her, pulling out two tea cups on a plate, setting it on the flat surface in front of them. They were already full and piping hot, and there were scones piled next to them.

Well, it was her vehicle, after all, and being a Field Marshal had its perks.

She gestured at the plate, offering. Simona shook her head.

"Look, I understand how you feel," Mami said, blowing on her cup as the vehicle gained speed. "But you have to think about how she feels. Even if you hurt, you have to see her off with a smile. It's the right thing to do."

Mami leaned over, giving her best "motherly Mami" smile.

For a moment, she thought she wasn't going to get through, but then Simona shifted her head downward, just a little.

"I feel like such a hypocrite," the girl said, tugging at her jeans. Her voice was hoarse.

"Why?" Mami asked.

The girl shook her head.

Mami waited, sipping her tea.

"We were supposed to go together," Simona began again, voice shaky. "Somehow…"

She understood, then.

"I'm sorry," Mami said, setting her cup down. "But it can't be helped. Does she know? Have you confessed?"

She felt Simona glance at her with shock.

"What do you mean?" the girl insisted. "I only meant—"

"Oh, come on," Mami interrupted, smiling cynically. "I've been alive for over four hundred years, and I spent a lot of it surrounded by girls who didn't have any male choice of partners. You wanted to stay together with her? In this context, what else could that possibly mean?"

Simona looked away.

"So I take it you haven't said anything, then?" Mami asked. "Ryouko clearly treats you as a friend."

"I was going to," Simona said bitterly. "And then those damn demons showed up."

The girl hugged herself.

"I want to blame you," she said. "For recruiting her. But how can I? We were just talking about how badly we want to leave. How can I blame her for following through, just because I wanted it to happen a different way? Just because she didn't see me as anyone special?"

Mami looked down at her hands. She had seen this particular tragedy played out at least a dozen times in her life. The details differed, the genders differed, but the feelings were always the same. Humans… were like that.

"I should have seen it coming," Simona said, shaking her head. "I fell right into it. All the signs were there."

Mami frowned, a little perplexed by the statement.

"Well, nothing can be done about it," she said, returning to what she needed to say. "And if you truly love her, you'll keep quiet now. Like I said, show her off with a smile, and let her leave nothing behind."

This time, Mami watched Simona carefully, but the girl kept her head down in silence.

Finally, she nodded, slowly.

With suspiciously good timing—Mami had ordered to transport to slow down to give them time—they were at Simona's home.

"You live alone, right?" Mami asked rhetorically.

Simona nodded, stepping outside.

"Then I won't intrude on your hospitality," Mami said.

But the girl was already walking away.

Mami smiled thinly. She remembered living alone.

The capsule door closed, but Mami let her transport stay idle, thinking.

She was glad she had come. Left alone, Simona could have become a major blight on Ryouko's happiness, coming at a time like this. She had headed it off at the pass, like a good mentor should. She didn't have to do Ryouko's initial training herself; Kyouko was an excellent trainer, despite whatever jokes Mami made about it. Still, it was reasonable to do something like this. A relationship would be more acceptable later, after the girl was more settled.

Reviewing the events of the day, Mami frowned. This new grief cube issue was troubling. Grief cube distribution was the lifeblood of all magical girls, and even the slightest hint of irregularity would be enough to sow discord throughout their ranks. Besides that, there were genuinely troubling aspects to the whole issue. A computer problem would have almost been preferable, since it would be easy to understand and address. A system that appeared to be functioning perfectly, but produced imperfect results—that had disturbing implications.

She would have to tread carefully. A combination of covert investigation and private inquiries would be required.

Mentally, she started to issue a classified order—then paused. She reworded the message to ask for a personal meeting. A better idea than putting it in writing.

And yes, Yuma should be talked to, but Kyouko could take care of that.

She leaned back, relaxing.

Then, with nothing better to do, she checked her messages.

The set of messages that asserted themselves at the edge of her consciousness was merely the small subset of her messages that her personal AI, Machina, rated important. In truth, there were probably many more important messages than just that, but her assistant provided her with only what she could realistically read in one sitting.

She grabbed a scone and began munching at it, reading the ones that most interested her first, letting them dump their contents into her memory.

She raised an eyebrow. Really? Kyouko was going to jump in on this? What kind of game was she playing?

Well, it can't hurt, I suppose.

Then she read the next one and really raised her eyebrow.

Two hundred kilometers? Now that's impressive. It might be useful.

She reached for her tea, sipping. It was still hot. Thermoceramic was amazing stuff.

Her next message was a voice message from Admiral Xing. He was very annoyed at General Blackwell, and wished to express his feeling that Blackwell's lack of cooperation—Mami grunted in annoyance. The two men's feud was growing tiresome.

She made a note to Machina to schedule a meeting with the both of them. It was time to sort this out.

What am I doing? she thought. I still have six hours of vacation left, and here I am doing work.

Well, what am I supposed to do? she thought. It'd be impolite to show up and interrupt Kyouko now, and I have nowhere to go.

She sighed. She really should have made some friends.

She returned to her messages.

So, the production committee of Akemi and related propaganda committees wanted her to schedule an appearance at a screening for recruitment purposes—she felt her desire to keep reading draining away by the second.

I really should schedule something though, she thought. She had already gone to the trouble of allowing them to interview her, and had even done a little publicity…

But, she thought. Maybe a movie was just the thing. Not a public appearance, which she was certainly not in the mood for, and for which it was too late anyway, but if she could sneak herself into a holotheater, she could check out just what kind of terrible historical inaccuracies about her Hollywood was peddling now.

Of all the cities to stay the same over the centuries, of course that city would.

She hoped it wouldn't be too bad, given how interminably long the interview had been, answering questions about Homura's hairstyle and personality and history and so forth.

At the very least, it would be an amusing way to spend a couple of hours. She was genuinely curious.

She told her personal transport to get moving, finishing her scone. She could feel her mood improving already.

The trick, of course, was to get into the theater incognito.

There was a brief period, just a few seconds, where Ryouko had to focus, and she could feel something shifting around her—

And then they were there, in mid‐air, already falling into the middle of the cross formed by a major, deserted intersection. There, the crowd of demons was already starting to shift, sensing something above them. She had no time to even regret dropping them hundreds of feet above the ground. Why had she done that?

"Do your best!" Kyouko exhorted, and the girl propelled herself forward despite the lack of anything to push on.

Ryouko shook her head. It was time to focus.

Below her, the demons were starting to look up, at her and the darkening sky. There wasn't much time left before they would start attacking her.

She spun in the air, pointing her arm downward. Summoning an explosive crossbow bolt, its tip an angry green pulsating mass, she fired, glancing to make sure wasn't about hit Kyouko.

I'm fine! Kyouko thought to her. I can take care of myself, rookie! Just warn me next time! And don't worry about property damage!

The street below her erupted, ejecting fire and debris high into the air, brilliant against the twilight. She understood, then, why she had placed herself so into the air. It gave her the high ground.

And then she blinked to ten feet to her left, allowing the beams from the demons which she had missed to strike her previous position.

It really does come naturally, she thought.

She twirled in the air, extending her left arm downward, arbalest bolts deploying and firing at an absurd rate, the string of the bow humming with speed. Her spin spread the bolts outward in a wide arc, spearing demons in a wide circle below her.

Between her arbalest and the stationary green bolts were the narrowest of strings, barely visible. But they were enough to connect her to them through the gaseous air.

With a thought, she blinked again, only a few feet—and took with her the strings, and the bolts, and a good large chunk of every demon she had speared.

These demons, now missing large chunks of their bodies, or their heads, or even their entire lower halves, disintegrated, unable to maintain themselves.

And once again, searing beams crisscrossed the spot where she had been.

As she readied her next salvo, she realized that, somehow, a smile had crept onto her face.

I'm enjoying this? she thought, with a start.

A demon just below her caught her eye—and she blinked to her side, as a beam tore through her former position.

One beam? she thought—and then she blinked again, dodging another shot.

What is—and then she was forced to blink again.

—going on?


—it. They've chang—

—ed strategies!

They were trying to wear her out. She couldn't keep up constant blinking forever, and they weren't letting her gather energy to fire, or giving her the time to teleport farther. She was already being forced to jump upward slightly each time to maintain altitude. She was surprised she could still even think.

Rooftop? No I'll—

—lose momentum! I—

—but what can I—

The ground erupted just below her and to her right, taking with it a small set of demons.

She spotted Kyouko jump out of the explosion, clearly having driven downward into the ground with her spear.

A group of demons in the vicinity turned to focus on the new threat.

The rest continued to try and keep Ryouko in the air, but their rate of fire slowed. It was the opening she needed.

Now's your chance! Kyouko's voice called out in her head.

She blinked straight down to the ground, pressing her hand to the pavement, even though she didn't really need to. She was right in the middle of a dense pack of demons, who hadn't even yet realized she was there.

Again, a small smile snuck onto her face.

And then she was on the other side of the street, hand still pressed to a thin layer of the same pavement, surrounded by the bottom halves of over a dozen demons, which quickly vanished.

The street was clear. They had almost gotten her. She couldn't maintain constant blinking like that. She was nearly out—

She heard something behind her.

She blinked back to the other side of the street, the beam again nearly hitting her.

Scowling, she blasted the demon responsible with a barrage of green bolts. She needed time. She simply couldn't keep teleporting so rapidly. She didn't know why, but she couldn't.

She spun around, slashing outward with her left arm, sending the next barrage of bolts out in a wide arc, trying to ward off the unexpected crowd of demons that had appeared behind her.

She jumped to her left, dodging several beams that had come her way anyway—and barely turned herself in time to avoid the beam that had targeted her new position. The radiant heat was hot against her face.

Running backwards while firing, she dug deep within herself, trying to gather another blink, perhaps up to the rooftop—and she couldn't. She was out, for now.

I have to get out of here. I'm not built for this kind of combat!

She looked at the mob of the demons advancing on her. Where had they come from?

I didn't think I'd die so quickly, she thought morbidly.

She raised her arbalest, gathering the energy for an explosive bolt, hoping desperately that none of them would fire on her in the seconds that would take.

The red apparition that was Kyouko shot out of a side street, slashing.

And then another. And another.

Even with her superhuman reflexes, Ryouko boggled at the multiple Kyoukos, despite appreciating the distraction they had provided. The explosive bolt lay in her bow, ready to fire.

Fire, fire! Kyouko exhorted. They're decoys!

Ryouko fired at the ground under the demons, shattering a large part of the crowd, and the illusory Kyoukos, who dissolved like the mirages they were.

Another Kyouko—and this time, Ryouko was pretty sure this was the real one—appeared above them, descending from one of the rooftops.

Prepare another! Kyouko thought. Ryouko nodded and complied, swallowing even as she watched Kyouko dodge and weave among the remaining demons, neatly compacting them into a smaller mass with some sort of red chain‐linked wall, even as their beams failed to strike home. She even speared a couple while she was at it.

Finally Kyouko leapt away from the pack, leveraging herself high into the air with her spear. Ryouko didn't have to be told. She fired into the mass.

Breathing heavily, she squinted. They were gone.

"That's why I do this," Kyouko said, diving down to land in front of her. "Nothing teaches like experience, and you won't find anyone better at keeping you alive than me. Today was my best chance."

The girl said it proudly, even as Ryouko looked down.

"Three lessons here, rookie," Kyouko said, pointing at her with a finger. "One, don't get overconfident."

Ryouko nodded, head bowed.

"Two, don't rely solely on your eyes."

Kyouko banged the side of a building with the blunt end of her spear.

"You're a magical girl. You can sense demons. I know you know that. So why did you assume you were clear if the street was empty? The demons can walk through walls, if they choose."

Ryouko gritted her teeth. So that was it.

Stupid. So stupid.

"Though that's unfair," Kyouko said. "I didn't warn you about that. Still, it's a lesson worth learning through fear, and that is why I didn't tell you."

"No," Ryouko said. "I should have known."

Kyouko looked at her, arching an eyebrow.

"I saw them do it, when I was attacked earlier," she explained. "I don't know why I forgot."

Kyouko gave her a strange look.

"Don't be too hard on yourself," Kyouko said, frowning slightly. "It's excusable. Anyway, point three. Always leave something in reserve, even if you have to back off to do it. I knew you were in trouble the moment you started dancing around like a pinball. Why didn't you escape to a rooftop?"

Ryouko bit her lip.

"It's okay to retreat, if you have to," Kyouko said. "The moment you knew you were being drained, you should have regrouped. The only exception is if you're trying to save someone, or you can't back out without leaving someone's back open."

Kyouko paused.

"Finally," she said. "Communication. Always let your teammates know what's going on. I was keeping an eye on you, but when you finish training, people will be relying on you to tell them what's going on. You didn't say a single thing to me the whole time."

Ryouko nodded once more.

"Let me make it up to you," she said quietly.

Kyouko tilted her head, hair curling around the spear she was leaning on her shoulder.

"There's nothing to make up," Kyouko said. "Don't sweat it."

Ryouko looked up.

She could feel it. Another concentration of demons nearby. Not close enough to threaten them, but…

"Let me try something, then," she said. "I think my teleportation is partly recharged. I'm going to go on the rooftop."

Kyouko rubbed her chin thoughtfully, then looked in the direction of the demons they both sensed.

"Alright," she said. "But long‐range only. And teleport back here immediately when you're done. That's an order."

Ryouko nodded, then took a breath.

Then, she was on the rooftop, Kyouko in the street directly below her, looking up at her.

Ryouko took a moment to admire the twilight view, then faced the crowd of demons, allowing her standard‐issue ocular implants to bring them into sharper focus.

They were far enough away that they didn't even notice her presence.

She deployed one of her stringed bolts, breathing as she aimed the shot.

She had thought about this during her fall through the sky earlier, before she had been interrupted. From her position, she wouldn't be forced to teleport the string into solid matter—something she was essentially incapable of—nor would she have to do the same for anything on the other end. The positioning was perfect.

Exhaling, she fired.

The bolt shot through the air, leaving a green trail behind it. It soared over the rooftops, turned downward, and landed in the ground in the middle of the mass of demons, just as she had planned.

She teleported onto the building across the street, taking the string with her.

Then she abolished her string and, taking a few seconds, teleported high up into the air above the designated spot, looking down.

On the ground where she had left it was a small chunk of pavement—only a tiny chunk and it looked like it had snapped somehow.

She was disappointed. She probably didn't get a single demon.

"Well, what was that about?" Kyouko asked, when she returned.

"Didn't work," Ryouko said sullenly. "I guess it was too far. I wanted to see if I could teleport them from here."

But it would have worked if I had been closer, she thought. I can shoot the ground and tear the demons apart that way with less fuss.

But why hadn't it worked? She had been well under her mass limit, and she couldn't think of any other restrictions that would have applied.

"Well, then, rookie," Kyouko said, dropping her spear into the ready position. "Ready for another round? First, let's grab up the grief cubes we left behind and then, if we finish off that cluster you were trying to snipe, I think we'll be done for the day. And probably just in time for your bedtime."

Ryouko nodded, and grabbed Kyouko by the upper arm, preparing for the teleport.

"By the way," Kyouko commented. "You should enjoy it. It's probably the last time you'll ever sleep a full night. Now let's go."

They went.

Midnight found them both relaxing on a third‐floor skyway bench, tired from the day. Kyouko had been wrong. There was no way Ryouko would even come close to making curfew.

Surreptitiously, she had sent a terse message home, solely so the three wouldn't panic and start looking for her.

The message had said only: "Be home really late. I'll explain when I get back. It's pretty important." Probably the understatement of her life.

"No, don't worry about it," Kyouko had told her, spinning her spear again for no reason. "For as long as I keep you in active combat status, your parents are unable to track your location. Plus, you're emancipated, so you could shut them out if you want to. Public Services won't reveal anything to them, if they try to ask for help. Trust me, they'll never find you."

That's not why I'm worried! she had thought.

As for why they were relaxing here in normal clothes, instead of meeting the rest of the girls, Kyouko had explained that it wasn't her style to micromanage, and that they could surely both use a break. Ryouko wasn't sure she agreed with the reasoning, but Kyouko was the senpai here. Not to mention commanding officer.

It had been a little strange when the other girl chose to use her shoulder as a pillow, but she bore with it. Maybe it was what they did to rookies.

Kyouko had said something else interesting too.

You know, once upon a time, people had to worry about temperature, she had said. Not like your generation, which doesn't even know what it means to be cold or hot. It's freezing, but you don't even see anything unusual about neither of us wearing a jacket. It's damn amazing is what it is. I'm getting old…

Suddenly, Ryouko had a strange feeling, like someone was approaching. Not a demon, but a—

"Patricia has found something interesting, Kyouko," the approaching girl said, jumping out of the nighttime sky, clouds brightened by the city below.

Ryouko looked up, then at Kyouko, then back at the girl. Then, she couldn't help but stare.

The girl wore an armored breastplate and skirt, and had two scabbards for dual swords.

Kyouko lifted her head off of Ryouko's shoulder, blinking, then raised her arms and yawned expressively.

"Couldn't it wait, Maki?" Kyouko asked. "I told you I was training a rookie."

"Patricia thinks you need to see it personally," the girl said.

Kyouko shrugged.

"If she says so."

Goddess forbid she send a message or use telepathy, Kyouko thought.

Like that ever wakes you up, the other girl thought back. So this the new girl?

The girl nodded in Ryouko's direction.

Yes, that's me, Ryouko thought. It's nice to meet you.

They didn't ask names. There was no need to.

A teleporter, Kyouko thought. A damn good one, it seems.

We saw, the other girl thought.

Kyouko got up, and Ryouko moved to follow.

"I can teleport us there, if you give me an idea of where I'm going," Ryouko offered, donning her costume with a burst of light.

"Don't waste your magic," Kyouko said, transforming in turn. "I'm not that lazy. We'll go the old‐fashioned way."

The other two launched themselves into the air, jumping off the sides of the buildings. After a moment, Ryouko followed, just a little unsteady. She may have had an instinct for it, but that didn't mean she was used to it. There was just something wrong about jumping out into empty air.

Which was just weird, considering that earlier she had gleefully teleported herself throughout the air without feeling a thing.

Now that she thought about it… it had been exhilarating.

There's something weird about this one, Kyouko thought to Maki, privately.

Oh, how so? the other girl thought, stepping off the glass ceiling of a skyway.

I've never seen a rookie with battlelust, Kyouko thought. But she was smiling like an idiot half the time.

That why you chose to mentor her? the other girl thought. I'm jealous. I've finally lost my place as the youngest.

Don't sweat it, Kyouko thought. Mami's going to be taking on most of the duty, if I know her. But I just know she's someone to keep an eye on.

If you say so, the other girl thought, pouting slightly.

She started dropping straight to the ground, and Kyouko followed.

Ryouko stalled on an upper platform, looking down at the three girls at the bottom. It was nearly pitch‐black, looking down at the lightless street, but she could see them.

Don't worry, someone at the bottom thought. The fall won't hurt you.

Ryouko could deduce that, given that Kyouko and Maki had both hit the ground and stood back up without any apparent scratches. Still, though, it was far. Maybe she should just teleport—

No, what the hell is wrong with me? I was doing fine earlier! I'm not going to waste power being stupid!

She swallowed, and jumped, forcing herself to keep her eyes open.

After what seemed like a small eternity, she hit the ground, bending down to absorb some of the force—and she was fine, as expected. Her bones didn't even seem to mind.

The sound of clapping drew her attention.

"Don't patronize her," Maki said, glaring at the source.

"But I'm being serious," the source, a girl with a long ponytail, said.

It wasn't the ponytail that caught Ryouko's eyes though, or the dual daggers planted in the belt of her dress. Nor was it the way her silhouette defined itself against the darkness.

It was the EM assault rifle she carried casually in her arm.

She turned to address Ryouko, Kyouko watching in amusement.

"I thought for sure you'd panic," she said. "I know I did, the first time I had to make a jump like that."

Ryouko's eyes widened.

"But it doesn't make sense!" Ryouko said, stepping forward. "I just got out of a fight, and I don't remember panicking at anything back then!"

"Battles are different," the girl—Shirou Asaka, according to her nomenclator—said. "Your instincts take over, and we all have good instincts. Outside of battle, it's hard to remember that you're not Human. Not anymore."

"It's one of the first things they teach you," Maki said, injecting herself into the conversation. "Vacuum chambers, being underwater, jumps from heights. It's not fun, but it gets the point drilled into your head."

Kyouko nodded sagely, giving implicit approval to what was being said.

Somewhere nearby, a girl cleared her throat.

Ryouko turned to look, and saw a girl, in costume, yes, but with no obvious weapons. She was obviously European and…

"von Rohr, Patricia"

Curious, Ryouko queried further.

  • Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)
  • Rank: Colonel
  • MG Classification: Miscellaneous, Technological Specialist
  • MG Weapon: Drone Swarms
  • Immediate Commanding Officer: Sakura Kyouko, Lieutenant General
  • Primary Mentor (optional): None

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Rohr said. "But it's not safe to just leave them there. You should look sooner rather than later.

"Leave what?" Kyouko asked, but the girl had already turned away. Kyouko shrugged and followed. So did the others.

They walked around the corner of a building, heading down a narrow alleyway. Now there was no light at all except the tiny amount coming from the clouds above. It was enough, though, even for normal humans with their enhancements.

Looking forward while walking, Ryouko started slightly, recognizing where she was.

"What is it?" Kyouko asked, looking at her out of the corner of her eyes, spear braced casually on her shoulder, nearly taking up the entire causeway.

"This is near where we—I was attacked," Ryouko said.

She pointed straight forward, at the windmills visible at the end of the alleyway, spinning silently.

"We were sitting over in that direction."

"Interesting," Patricia commented. "This grows more disturbing."

Just before reaching the end of the alleyway, passing a side entrance into one of the buildings, she turned ninety degrees to the right, so abruptly she seemed to just vanish from in front of them.

But of course it was another passageway, wider this time.

"Here," Patricia said, pointing down, then moving aside so the others could have a look.

On the ground, inside a small concavity in the building, was a small pile of grief cubes.

They were almost entirely filled, Ryouko could sense. The malaise exuding from them was almost palpable.

"Leaving grief cubes lying around like this breaks Goddess knows how many regulations," Patricia said.

"Not to mention it's incredibly dangerous," Kyouko said, bending down to get a closer look. "A tiny bit of grief, from anywhere, and these could spawn demons. No magical girl is stupid enough to leave these lying around."

"And it can't have been an accident with the logistics drones," Asaka said, thoughtfully. "Saturated cubes like these are never transported around civilian areas. They go straight to the Incubators."

Ryouko looked down at the pile of cubes, a dark cloud settling in the pit of her stomach. She was new here, so maybe she was wrong, but something seemed—

"It's fishy," Kyouko said. "There's no reason these would ever be here."

She looked at Ryouko.

"Where exactly were you when you were attacked?" Kyouko asked.

Ryouko blinked.

"We were lying on the riverbank somewhere. I don't recognize this building, so probably not near this one, but…"

She stopped, noticing that the others weren't paying attention anymore. They wore dark, suspicious looks. She saw Kyouko exchange a glance with Patricia.

"You see why I was disturbed," Patricia said. "I didn't know that this was where those girls had been, or I would have been even more worried."

Ryouko looked around.

No girl would accidentally leave these cubes lying around, knowing how dangerous they were. Those flying robots wouldn't carry them around. That seemed to imply that…

"Kyouko," Ryouko addressed. "I'm sorry to ask, but this does this mean—"

"Someone left them here deliberately," Kyouko said. "And I'd bet a week's worth of meals that the pile was much larger than this when they did."

She crouched down.

"Whoever it was must have screwed up, for these to still be here," she said, turning one over in her fingers. "They were probably intended to all become demons. It would explain what that horde of demons was doing here, with nobody around. There's a reason no one patrols this district."

"Who would?" Maki asked. "There's no reason anyone would do something like this."

"I could have been a gambit by an Incubator to get Ryouko here to contract," Asaka said, looking at Ryouko.

"With no magical girls around?" Kyouko asked. "It was pure coincidence Mami was passing by. Otherwise, they'd be dead. They don't take those kinds of risks. Not unless they think there's a big payoff waiting for them."

You are correct. We did not put those cubes there.

They turned to look at the source of the thought, who had phased into existence behind them.

It looked exactly liked Kyubey, but Ryouko could tell—

"You're not Kyubey," Patricia said, almost accusingly. "I asked for Kyubey."

Kyubey is with Tomoe Mami at the starport, the Incubator thought. I am taking his role here, briefly.

The Incubator walked up to the pile of cubes. As Ryouko watched, disturbingly fascinated, the tear‐shaped insignia on its back lifted open, revealing the black chasm underneath. No—not merely black. It was the same color as the cubes.

It began adroitly tossing the cubes into the hole.

She hadn't been paying attention the last time she had seen this, when Kyubey was around, but now that she looked carefully, trying to see inside the Incubator's back, there was something… terrifying about it. Ineffably creepy.

She hadn't been aware this was how they processed the cubes. She had always assumed they just took them and stuck them in a machine somewhere.

"What do you think this means, Incubator?" Kyouko asked.

It is definitely very strange, the Incubator thought. It would have been a shame to lose a potential contractee to something silly like this.

Finished, it began to walk off.

My job is done here.

"Hey, wait—" Kyouko began, raising her arm.

But it was gone.

"Kyubey is nicer," Patricia commented.

"Patricia," Kyouko said, expression shaded. "Keep this matter within the Church for now. See if you can find out what's going on. If you can't, call in the MSY. Don't bring in Governance unless you have to."

Patricia nodded.

Ryouko stayed silent. What did this mean? Was someone trying to kill her? It was the only explanation she could think of.

But that didn't make any sense.

She was still thinking about it by the time she finally started heading home.

Kyouko sat across from her in the vehicle, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of jerky.

"We'll get to the bottom of this," she said, looking up at the transparent roof of the vehicle, through which the lights of the city punctuated the night.

"I hope so," Ryouko replied, elbows on her knees.

"Hey, don't be so gloomy," Kyouko said. "We need you smiling, when we meet your parents."

Ryouko cringed. She had almost managed to forget.

"I prefer thinking about how I almost died," she said drily.

Kyouko laughed, spreading her arms out over her seat.

"It won't be that bad," she said.

"I hope not," Ryouko said.

"Well anyway," Kyouko said. "Before I forget, I told Asaka you were going to meet with her tomorrow at one. She'll get you your basic equipment, take you to have your internal grid reprogrammed, things like that."

Ryouko nodded.

"Okay," Kyouko said. "Two bits of wisdom I want to impart right now, so listen up."

Ryouko looked up, listening.

"One, what your wish was is your own private business," Kyouko said. "Mami heard it, and she entered it into the database, but other than that no one except the computers gets to see it. Maybe you don't care if everyone knows, but don't go around telling everyone. It's not how the culture works. You only tell your best friends. People like Mami and me, we're all exceptions to the rule."

Ryouko nodded.

"Second, do you have any climactic attacks? Anything loud and flashy? Some sort of finisher?" Kyouko asked.

Ryouko blinked. She thought about it.

"I do," she said. "But I have no idea what kind of situation would call for it. It doesn't seem to fit in with anything."

"Whatever you do," Kyouko said. "Don't let Mami give it a name. Just don't."

Ryouko tilted her head quizzically.

"But everyone loves Tiro Finale," she said. "And Rosso Fantasma is pretty popular too."

"Now imagine everyone expecting you to yell it enthusiastically every time you do it," Kyouko said.

"Oh," Ryouko said.

She thought about that.

"It can't be that bad, can it?"

"Just trust me, okay?" Kyouko said.

Ryouko smiled.

Still though, she couldn't shake the weird foreboding that had settled over her.

Nor could she forget the woman she had seen in the distance, just before she had made her contract.

She had recalled the memory, but it was too faded, and she had been too far, even with ocular implants, for the facial recognition algorithms to obtain a lock. And probably, she had had a good reason to be there, walking away from the area, right after the demon attack. It wouldn't do to suspect random pedestrians.

Still, it bothered her.

Chapter Text

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

〈Officially, the government will hold the stance that:〉②

〈1. Soul gems tap into the power of a girl's soul, without directly being her soul.〉②
〈2. Depletion of a soul gem's energy has no effect on a girl's mental state.〉②
〈3. Any other modifications to the truth that may be required to conform to the above facts.〉②

〈Given the regrettable amount of information that has already been released, it is not anticipated that it will be possible to fully enforce these provisions. Maximal effort towards information control will be exerted towards girls of contracting age and younger. These efforts will be carried out by the appropriate committees, such as the Committee for Truth in Media…〉②

Information Restriction Acts, excerpt.

Despite the intense efforts of numerous investigators, Akemi Homura's early life remains an enigma. It began before the era of ubiquitous record‐keeping, and many of the records that did exist were destroyed in the tumultuous Unification eras of the twenty‐second and twenty‐third centuries, a fact which has long frustrated biographers. With this publication, the author is pleased to announce, based on the recovery of long‐lost records, the definitive identification of her childhood home, long believed to be a Catholic convent within Greater Tokyo. The aim of this paper…

— Ishihara Tomoya, "Definitive Identification of Akemi Homura's Childhood Home," Journal of MG History, abstract.

By the time Mami reached the theatre, she had changed her entire appearance.

Most of the disguise was quite trivial. It was simple to ask her hair to drop down into a relaxed conformation—she was extremely thankful she no longer had to do her hair every morning—simple to transform her soul gem into a less standard bracelet, and also simple to dismiss her personal transport in a secluded area and instead board a civilian‐standard model.

If only she could grab a hooded coat out of a clothing supplier and then be done with it.

Unfortunately, in this age of ubiquitous facial recognition, that simply wouldn't be enough.

Thus, she was obliged to walk into the theatre with a miniature holoemitter stuck to the side of her cheek, one capable of distorting her appearance to that of someone else who lived in the area, someone who vaguely resembled the famous Marshal Mami, but obviously wasn't. Another one stuck to her finger concealed the tell‐tale flower fingernail mark.

It was widely known that the government granted exceptions to the regulations against identity disguise, but that didn't make her disguise any less effective. Sure, she wouldn't fool any of the surveillance monitors, but it was more than sufficient to mislead the casual inspection of passerby. And the monitors knew not to attract anyone's attention to her.

She had considered showing up dressed for the occasion, picturing herself stepping out of the nighttime lights into the brightness of the theatre in a stunning dress, and wearing the face of someone particularly attractive, but in the end had decided against it. Turning heads in her direction would be risky, even if she had an urge to have people do it for reasons other than "It's Mami‐san!"

Besides, other than being puerile by trying to grab attention, what would be the point? She had stayed relationship‐free her entire life—a number of years she didn't like to think about—and didn't see it as a good idea to change that anytime soon.

So she showed up in the theatre dressed in the exact same clothes she had worn before, a stylish but nondescript blouse and skirt. Around her, couples and groups chatted, nearly all dressed better than her. She frowned. Ironically, she might attract attention for being too poorly dressed.

It would be a chilly night, she thought to herself, checking her chronometer. 18:30.

Once, long ago, that would have forced everyone to show up in jackets and heavier clothing. As a magical girl, she had always been carefully aware of things like that. Once you realized the degree to which it was possible to manipulate your own body, it was startlingly easy to forget yourself and just walk everywhere in the same clothing, mindless of the temperature.

Both Kyouko and Homura came to mind there, though Yuma had always held a mindset more similar to Mami's, until the later years.

Nowadays, though, every ordinary human was capable of ignoring the temperature just as stubbornly, so they no longer had to bother. Still, though, Mami remembered.

She stopped to admire the giant posed holostatues in the main atrium.

In the middle stood the star, Homura with a fierce expression, purple flaming bow drawn and arrow pointed, the display contrived so that no matter where you stood, it was pointing at you.

To her right, Kyouko stood, spear drawn and pointed aggressively, crouching in combat posture. In the sort of detail that biographers always missed, Kyouko did not have any food in her mouth or with her.

Behind Kyouko, Yuma stood, blunt mace at her feet, looking up wondrously at an imaginary sky. She was portrayed slightly younger than the others, even though that had stopped being accurate rather early.

Above them all, in a cloud of white mist, you could almost make out the form of a girl, embracing them all. It was a nice touch, and entirely appropriate, Mami thought. It was a movie about Homura's life, after all, and her Goddess had clearly been real to her, if to no one else.

And, of course, to Homura's left stood Mami herself, musket at attention on her shoulder, two more floating in the air pointed at imaginary targets. She looked regal.

Mami couldn't help but smile a little. Nowadays, computers carefully retouched the actors' faces and bodies so that they looked just like the originals, but they could never resist turning up the attractiveness just a little. Personally, Mami couldn't recall either Kyouko or Homura having chests quite that large, but she supposed she shouldn't begrudge a little pandering to the audience.

The movie industry definitely kept up with the latest technology, for what it was worth. For instance, given how much easier it was to do nowadays, it was now considered a point of professionalism for actors to become fluent in the language their characters spoke, and audiences were expected to their use their language enhancements to keep up, if that language wasn't their own—though the lazier ones could activate a voiceover if they really wanted. It was a better experience to do it the harder way, however.

She moved on, avoiding the obvious temptation to just stand and stare, especially at herself. It would have been a little suspicious.

She glided past the entrance to the virtual reality version of the movie, even though, as a serving member of the military, it wouldn't have even cost her anything.

She had gotten more than enough of the real thing.

Instead, she stepped into the area for standard holographic viewing, the entrances to the various different rooms arrayed concentrically around a large, circular middle area with yet another concession stand in the middle.

The food was free, but Mami didn't partake, instead stopping to ponder on whether she should go for a private room or try to have a more proletarian experience, as part of a group.

Suddenly, she realized that she was standing directly across from another customer, a woman with short, cropped hair, civilian‐standard age twenty‐seven or so. She looked similarly indecisive, and they looked at each other. Perhaps Mami would have someone to go with, after all.

Mami opened her mouth to say something—

—when a girl appeared at her side. She appeared nineteen, which meant she really was nineteen, since civilians all froze their apparent ages in their late twenties.

"Hey, want to join us, Chito‐san?" the girl asked, face friendly. "We have a slot empty in our room, and you look a little lonely, so…"

She addressed her by the name attached to her face, as was polite. It wasn't her fault Mami wasn't wearing the right face.

Mami glanced at the group behind her, who waved. Mami waved back, thinking about how strange it was that magical girls had developed the practice of maintaining the appearance of teenagers and, occasionally, children. Nowadays, it helped them stand out on the battlefield—and made them smaller targets—but its main purpose was as a show of solidarity.

No one else could truly understand them. Never forget that.

Mami glanced back, looking for the woman with the cropped hair, but she was gone.

She probably shouldn't have, but Mami nodded. "Sure—"

Nodame Riko, her nomenclator fed her.

"Nodame‐san," she finished.

She walked over to join them.

Privately, she laughed to herself.

I guess I did look a little lonely, didn't I? she thought, mirthful. And here I am trying to pretend to be nineteen. If Kyouko ever finds out…

"So did you go to school here, Chito‐san?" the girl asked, as they stepped into the doorway.

Mami nodded, even though she had no idea if that was true.

"Funny, I've never seen you. But I guess you could have had a different focus."

The door slid shut behind them, the system acknowledging that the room now had a full quota. They headed for their seats.

Chito Hiroko, huh? Mami thought, committing the name of the person she was impersonating to memory. It wouldn't do to slip up, after all.

Modern holotheatres were rather impressive affairs, straining at the utmost limits of what was possible without directly accessing a person's government‐restricted VR implants—which could only be done in the prohibitively‐expensive paid VR sections of the theatre. In an effect similar to that which had been done to the Homura statue at the entrance, every seat was given a view from what the director felt to be the optimal perspective, and, in a slight concession by the government, the theatre owners were allowed to use the VR implants to rotate a person's head for them, and to blink the eyes—this could be refused, but that was only recommended for a second viewing.

Besides that, scents were pumped into the room, sounds were funneled directly into the same intercranial systems used to process voice calls, and the ground itself shook when necessary. Antigravity and gravity generators throughout the walls—a serious luxury, given how rare antigrav was—changed the direction of gravity as needed relative to the viewer's head.

The line was drawn only at directly shaking or otherwise perturbing the viewer's chair—people didn't seem to like it.

All of that resource usage, and they were still free to attend, stubbornly resistant to the economic trends prevailing elsewhere.

The main lights dimmed to darkness—a completely unnecessary effect that was mostly an homage to the past—and the four walls lit up with images that quickly seeped out into the air itself and solidified, until they became literally everything Mami could see, blocking out the people around her, the walls, her body, and even her nose. She granted the machine permission to access her auditory implants, and immediately her head filled with orchestral music. Seven girls clad in stolas danced around her, giggling, before their images dissolved and reformed in front of her to form… the logo of Seven Muses Technologies.

"Damn it, do they have to do that every time?" some boy to her left complained, invisible. Someone hushed him.

He should be grateful he doesn't have to also deal with twenty minutes of ads, Mami thought drily.

In truth, it was easily possible to also block out the voices of the other members of the audience, but it was deliberately not done. What was the point of a group viewing if you were going to be isolated in a bubble the entire time? The whole point was so you could hear the reactions of those around you, in the form of "oohs" and "aahs". Extended commentary was usually not appreciated, however.

Despite the boy's complaints, the movie got to the point refreshingly fast, at least from Mami's antiquated perspective, pausing only to let all of them make their choices about whether to allow the movie to direct what they turned their head to look at. Mami went ahead and agreed. She was content to let the director take her wherever he or she wanted to.

Mami found herself looking at eye‐level down a broken‐down paved street, of the old asphalt style. It was deserted, and the houses looked rundown.

It was raining, and she could hear raindrops hitting an umbrella above her.

She heard the panting breath of a running woman, heard the taps of footfalls on pavement, and her view shook slightly, advancing down the street. Mami realized that she was in the perspective of the running woman.

She looked behind her, seeing only the same road again, then looked down, and saw what the woman was carrying in her arms: a swaddled infant in a basket, sleeping calmly despite the circumstances, thumb in mouth.

The woman looked back up, and seemed to be getting tired—she was definitely slowing down, and the panting was getting heavier—but was approaching her destination, the back door of an impressive‐looking stained glass church, well‐maintained and bright compared to the surroundings. On the sign, partly hidden, the name of the city could be barely read: Tokyo.

The woman placed the infant on the back steps, gingerly and slowly, despite the hurry she seemed to be in. She pulled out a water‐stained piece of paper, and her hands shook as she wrote the name.

Mami had deduced what was coming, and did her best not to roll her eyes.

"Homura," it said.

Then, after what seemed to be hesitation, she added in front:


Slipping the paper into the basket, the woman looked up at the rain—the room kindly gave Mami's face a few raindrops to emphasize the point—then looked back down, setting the umbrella carefully against the wall so that it shielded the infant from the rain.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Finally, the perspective changed, and instead of being the women, she turned her head left to watch the back of the woman as she ran away through the rain, weeping. She had the distinct feeling of lying on her back.

She turned her head to look back up, and saw the umbrella above her, shielding her. Next to her, the wooden door creaked open.

The scene faded to black.

It was a very sentimental scene, Mami decided, but it was almost certainly overly dramatized and definitely fictionalized. Homura had never clearly explained to any of them how her parents had ended up leaving her in the care of a nunnery, and Mami suspected Homura didn't really know anything about it either. Mami had never even been sure if Homura was really an orphan.

The opening sequence that followed was a typical exercise in stretching the special effects as far as the production crew could manage, taking the audience on a flying ride through pitch darkness, past a series of images dissolving into mist: a soul gem, a demon preparing an attack, Homura diving out of the sky on white wings, Kyouko and Mami following, Yuma crying on the floor, Homura giving a speech in front of a podium, and finally, Homura, eyes blazing with rage, stooping like a hawk into a clearly‐panicking alien armor formation, wings tormented and black.

The movie reviewed Homura's childhood in the orphanage, the strict discipline of the nuns, the religious lessons, the little girl quiet, introverted, and studious, playing with the others, making friends, doing everything normally, but still seeming somehow detached from it all.

This part was probably as accurate as it could get, Mami thought, even though it was all guesswork. Homura had never said anything about her childhood, and for all she knew Homura had been a totally different person before her sickness—but somehow she doubted it.

"I can't describe it," one of the nuns said, shaking her head. "There's something strange about her. Sometimes, I get the feeling that she's waiting for something. Ridiculous, I know, but that's what it looks like to me. The way she looks out the window, sometimes…"

She shook her head again.

"And she prays so fervently," she continued. "Ordinarily, I'd welcome that kind of devotion, but it's disturbing, somehow."

"Can you blame her?" her colleague responded. "Is it wrong, to keep your eyes on heaven? Isn't that what we aspire to? She will make an excellent novice."

Then, one day, while playing a game of tag, her head swam, the world spun, and the ground rose up to meet her.

Later that day, in the hospital, the girl sat with her eyes wide, uncomprehending, as the doctor repeated his words and the nun stood by her side in her habit, struggling to maintain her stoic composure.

Then came the hospital stays, the drugs, the surgical procedures, the girl sedated, or else whimpering in pain. The nuns shook their heads at each other and began to openly whisper that, perhaps, she wasn't truly meant for this world after all.

The girl grew older, and lost her faith, hurling away her leather bible when one of the nuns tried to pray with her, weeping so inconsolably in her hospital bed that the nun was asked to leave, and the hospital counselor called in.

Finally, miraculously, one final operation, and the girl was pronounced fit to be discharged, still alive after all. She was old enough now to leave the orphanage, and when her caretakers arrived to beg their former sure recruit to stay and attend the Catholic school, she refused, head bowed but inflexible. They conferred, shook their heads sadly, and told her that they would arrange an apartment for her and bring her the forms for a new school, that she would find money in an account every month, and that they hoped that she would find it in her heart to forgive God.

The day of the discharge approached, and the girl prepared herself solemnly, telling herself that it would be the start of a new life. No more waiting.

Mami sipped at a cup of iced tea she had had surreptitiously delivered. She wondered if the Catholic Church had somehow insinuated itself into the production committee. It was a lovely story, and for all Mami knew, it was even true, but it seemed a little overly friendly to the church. Besides, Mami thought, was that even how Church orphanages had operated? There were a few troubling points.

For what it was worth, though, Homura had never brought up her Catholic upbringing, other than to matter‐of‐factly mention that she used to attend a Catholic school. Only additional questioning had uncovered the orphanage angle, and not even Kyouko had dared to ask what Homura thought about the faith.

Homura entered her new school, and found that her hopes had been too optimistic. After so much time alone, she was too nervous to respond to the friendly advances of her classmates, and the health officer, a cold and arrogant girl, wasn't much help. She couldn't do any of the math problems on the board, couldn't keep up in PE—an anachronism to the viewers of this future age—couldn't do anything right, in short, or so she thought.

Now, finally, the movie reached a timeframe whose accuracy Mami could actually evaluate. Thankfully, they hadn't done much to butcher it—they managed to get Homura's glasses and pigtails exactly right, among other things—except to make things a little more dramatic than they actually had been, and to fill in details Mami hadn't been there to personally see.

And Mami had been there to see, indeed. It was surreal, and slightly disturbing, to view her first appearance in the movie, a memory she had replayed in her own mind countless times, one that had stuck in her mind despite everything that had happened since then.

"So that's her, huh?" the holographic Kyouko said, appearing dramatically out of a shadow, wearing the uniform of the school. The viewer was obliged to watch her back, the shadow of a support column cutting diagonally between her shoulders. The girl looked out of a window overlooking the schoolyard.

"Yes," the virtual Mami said, suddenly appearing in front of the real Mami, having walked through the viewer's point of perspective. She leaned on a railing.

Kyubey says she has unheard of potential, the girl thought, the director focusing on Mami's face to show her unmoving lips, a time‐honored method of implying telepathy.

"She doesn't look like much, honestly," Kyouko said, tossing her hair with a flick of her hand.

"Appearances don't necessarily mean anything, Sakura‐san," the other girl said. "You know that."

"Should we be really letting this happen?" Kyouko said. "I feel sorry for her already."

Maybe we should tell Kyubey to back off.

"He would never listen, Sakura‐san," Mami said, looking at Kyouko with one eye. "As if he would follow our wishes for something like that."

Kyouko leaned back against the support column.

"I know," she said, sounding peeved. "I just wanted to say it."

"Besides," Mami said. "We need a third. It would make our lives easier, and she looks like a nice girl."

It's not just the demons. It would also help convince the Southern Group to stop infringing on our territory.

"How stupid it all is," Kyouko spat. "Why couldn't we just work together? There's nothing stopping us except pettiness."

Watching a movie about herself was proving surprisingly awkward. They had done quite well. The moment was adequately recreated, despite the differing details: the overly‐busty Kyouko, the support column and shadows in a school Mami had told them was all glass and light.

The holographic Mami smiled slightly, and Mami shivered at the memory.

That was eerie. The real Mami had done the exact same thing, and it wasn't a detail she had thought worthy of sharing with the scriptwriters.

At the time, she had been thinking to herself about how glad she was that Kyouko had abandoned the outrageous attitude she had adopted after the "incident" with her family. It had taken her so, so long to coax Kyouko back into working together, and even—after another "incident" with the Southern Group—to move in and join the school. Kyouko was finally started to bury the wound, Mami had realized.

If only she could truly heal it, Mami thought. If only she hadn't aggravated it even more.

"Well, that's just how it is," the holographic Mami said. "Maybe we can change it someday."

Kyouko looked down, and the viewer, looking at the back of her head, could see that she was looking at Homura, panting exhausted in the shade of a tree.

"Maybe," she said.

"Let's go back to class," Mami said. "They'll be wondering where we went."

As a point of fact, Mami had spotted Homura while going to the bathroom, and telepathically called Kyouko out from a different class entirely, but she didn't expect the movie to explain something so minor.

Kyouko nodded, and they walked back into the shadows.

That day, going home alone over a bridge, the fictional Homura fell into a deep depression.

I can't do anything right, she thought, head bowed. I'm useless!

Why? Why did it have to be me? Why did I have to have this heart problem? Why does anyone? What kind of world is this?

"Why am I alive anyway?" she demanded, screaming up at the sky. "If I'm just going to occupy space uselessly, then I might as well just die!"

And then she saw it, silent as a ghost, approaching the edge of the bridge.

"What—who are you?" she asked, quietly this time, the audience now sharing her perspective, looking up at the giant.

The demon said nothing, several companions materializing at its sides.

Homura stood her ground nervously, obviously unsure whether she should be welcoming them or running away.

The audience, of course, knew, and Mami could hear several of her young companions yelling variations of "Run!" and "Get out of there!"

The demons grew closer and Homura began to shake in fear, an event shared by the audience.

Finally, the three of them reared up their heads, light gathering at their apices, and Homura finally lost her nerve, turning to flee.

She recoiled just in time at another demon that had appeared behind her.

And then a beam struck her, and everything turned to white, almost blinding to behold. Her ears rang, and the audience's auditory cortices rang in sympathy.

Mami leaned forward in anticipation, despite the situation. This was the moment where she would show up heroically…

It didn't happen.

Instead, a vaguely‐defined white form, a little girl, appeared in front of her, all mist, embracing her, and therefore Homura. It was strangely beautiful—the special effects people knew how to do their jobs.

The audience perspective returned to third person, in that white world.

Homura stood there, eyes wide.

"I'm sorry I can't protect your world," the girl said, voice airy. "It's not something I can do. But I promise you I'll make it up to you someday. You asked what the purpose of your life is. You are my apostle, here to defend the world in my stead. Please. I sacrificed myself for this world. Protect it. Please."

The mist began to dissipate rapidly, and by the time Homura managed to shout out:

"Wait! Who are you?"

—she was already gone.

Suddenly, the world was thrown into chaos, Homura—and the audience—finding herself on the floor, looking up at an incomprehensible scene.

Explosions, demons falling apart left and right, archaic muskets floating and firing in midair, and in the middle of the chaos, two strange apparitions, clad respectively in red and yellow, moving so fast they were blurs—or they were supposed to be, but Mami's eyes could follow them—dancing through the chaos, tending to it, tearing the demons apart.

It was spectacular, but still not as spectacular as the real thing, to Mami's trained eye.

Still, though, she was enthralled, and when the virtual Mami yelled "Tiro Finale!", summoning her signature giant musket to blast away the last formation of demons, it took a disturbing percentage of Mami's willpower not to shout it too.

Though she probably could have gotten away with it, given how many of the others did exactly that, especially the males.

Magical girl movies were the guilty pleasure of that demographic, since it was almost like an action movie. Almost: you wouldn't catch most of them dead going to one alone.

Finally, the scene nearly over, Mami could think about what she had just seen.

Despite her constant vague allusions and complaints, Homura had always been reticent about giving any details about why she believed in her Goddess. As she had put it:

"If you're not going to believe anything I say, why would I embarrass myself explaining the details?"

Mami didn't mind the writers inventing something plausible for this movie, though. They had to put something, after all.

Oh, but it was just now getting to the good part.

Mami had mentally tuned out the part where she and Kyouko explained the system to Homura, and where Kyubey appeared to explain that Homura, too, had potential. She had heard it too many times before to want to hear it again.

Now that the audience perspective was shifted again, it was clear that, somehow, Homura's hair had unbraided itself during the previous encounter with the "Goddess". In actuality, Homura had never explained why she changed hairstyles, and they had never asked. Kyouko and Mami had both agreed, privately, that it was a great improvement.

The Homura she saw here hadn't even noticed yet.

Do you have a wish prepared, then? Kyubey asked, making his debut appearance.

The girl swallowed, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose nervously.

What am I waiting for? she thought, the audience privy to her thoughts. I had a vision, and if that wasn't a sign, what is? Wasn't I demanding to know what the purpose of my life is? I have it now.

"I wish to defend this world," she said, at first quiet but voice rising. "I wish to protect this world which God has abandoned, and defend it against everything that threatens it!"

Mami started in her chair.

Mami and Kyouko had stubbornly kept Homura's wish secret all these years, and the movie was no exception. They had insisted to the writers that they make up a wish, because they certainly weren't telling.

The writers had guessed essentially right.

It had been an audacious wish, as she had realized when she first heard Homura make it. Homura was the only girl she knew who had made a wish like that.

It was one of the reasons why Mami and Kyouko had never believed that she was truly gone. Her wish wouldn't permit it.

Mami was surprised, even though she shouldn't have been, when a soul gem ring appeared magically on Homura's hand, the audience looking down on it carefully, using Homura's eyes.

"But that's not—" she began, biting her tongue just in time.

Right. The censorship. She had forgotten.

"Is something wrong, Chito‐san?" the girl next to her asked, face invisible. The proximity of her voice implied she had turned her head to look at Mami, even though there was nothing to see. The theatre didn't paralyze your neck muscles—it couldn't, in fact. That would be silly and uncomfortable. It only moved your head when necessary. Audiences nowadays were used to mostly not moving on their own, though.

"No," Mami said, not turning her head. "It's fine. I was just, uh, confused by something."

The ring turned into a glowing gem in the palm of Homura's hand, crested by the four‐pointed star that was Homura's insignia.

"This gem draws on the power of your soul to grant you magical powers," Kyubey said. "I will warn you now, though, you have to be careful not overuse it, or the strain might kill you. I'll let the other two here explain about grief cubes."

Bullshit, Mami thought, then cringed at her own language.

While the Incubators were slippery and masters at being deliberately misleading, they never misled girls on something like that. They were always quite clear: the gem is your soul. And it wasn't "might kill you," it was "would kill you."

Of course, the censorship on the movie would never allow the truth through. Within the movie, this fake Kyubey's explanation of the situation would be entirely true.

Mami really tired of the propaganda sometimes.

Settle down, Tomoe‐san, she thought. It's just entertainment. No need to get worked up.

She had to work hard to keep that in mind over the next few scenes, as the producers recreated Homura's first few demon battles, creating a spectacle that was completely unrecognizable. For instance, Homura hadn't been quite that bad with her powers initially, and she certainly had never gotten airsickness while trying to fly. Also, while the movie made a big deal of Homura discovering her most valuable power, the real Homura had known what hers was right off the bat. Finally, their school had never come under attack, yet here was a scene with the three of them dramatically slaughtering demons while working to make sure the miasma prevented them from being noticed.

It wasn't their fault, she had to remind herself. It wasn't a detail they had gotten much into, so the writers were just creating what they felt was appropriate.

However, this heart‐warming scene with the holographic Mami confessing how lonely she was and how much she missed her family—that was just downright uncomfortable. She was glad no one around her could see her face.

Everyone knew her wish, of course, since it had become common knowledge long before it had become tradition to keep it a secret from everyone but friends, and Mami had never seen a reason to keep it that private.

Mami mused briefly on Homura's aura, the power which they had been constantly grateful to have. Simply put, Homura could grant everyone around her a slower rate of soul gem corruption. It was one of Mami's own traits written large, and the combination of the two had enabled her to gleefully summon muskets with nary a thought to power consumption. It had also been a tremendous help against the Southern Group.

An audacious power in exchange for an audacious wish, she supposed.

Finally, Sayaka appeared, a fourth recruit for the team, and this time the appearance was… quite a bit off. All they had to go off of, after all, was a faded copy of a picture Kyouko still had for some reason, and some fuzzy memory reconstructions. It hadn't quite worked out.

The movie breezed through the story of her life, partly because it wasn't too relevant, partly because neither Mami nor Kyouko had actually known too much of what was going on. She had been in love with a boy, and it was at one of his auditions where her life had ended, overexerting herself against the demons. That was all they really knew, though Kyouko said she could tell something had happened, in those last few weeks.

This version of Kyouko didn't show any unusual interest in the girl, since that was one of those details that there was no need to mention.

At the end of the sequence, Sayaka's body dissolved into thin air.

They're pushing the censorship, Mami thought. But… technically it is fine.

Then "it" happened.

The audience was shifted into Homura's point of view.

She saw Sayaka's soul appearing from where her body had been, smiling back at her. Around her, Mami and Kyouko were frozen, as was the dissolving miasma. The world was fuzzy, as if shrouded.

Homura raised her hand towards Sayaka, and then the white‐misted girl appeared behind Sayaka. Homura gasped.

The girl took Sayaka's hand, they nodded to each other, and their former fourth recruit disappeared into the mist.

"I did as you asked," Homura managed, finally.

The girl turned, and started floating towards Homura.

"You're a goddess, aren't you?" Homura said. "Answer me!"

"I'm glad you did," the apparition said, approaching closer. "I can't make up for your sacrifice today, but I can give you a gift. I can return your memories."

Homura blinked.

"What are you—"

The girl touched her hand to Homura's forehead.

The audience was treated then to an exploding kaleidoscope of scenery, randomly shifting images of Homura running, eating, laughing, clearly from another life, but vague enough so as not to give away what exactly she had been doing—since Homura flatly refused to discuss what she claimed to remember doing in her past life.

And then, they found themselves looking down at Homura's hand, and a red ribbon that had appeared there. Mami was in the middle of talking about the "Law of Cycles".

Homura broke down crying, and the others turned to look at her.

"My goddess," she lamented.

And the screen faded to black.

Of course, once again, the writers were more or less making things up, since Mami and Kyouko, their two primary sources of information, didn't know what exactly had happened to Homura that day, except that that had been the day when her personality had shifted markedly, and she had started talking about a Goddess, and alluding to a previous life and… well, generally acting like she was crazy. But again, the movie was about her, not Mami.

When the next scene began, Mami nodded to herself.

The focus was now on a young teenager, younger than any of the other girls, stepping off a bus in the middle of an empty intersection, looking bewildered and lost. She clutched a slip of paper, on which there appeared to be directions.


The girl swallowed, and walked down the street, approaching a building that was supposed to be Mami's old housing complex—they had actually gotten the look entirely wrong, but nevermind that.

"What are you doing here?" Kyouko's voice demanded, as the girl tried to walk up the stairs.

Yuma recoiled.

Her costume brilliantly red, the spearman flipped in the air and landed in front of the cowering teenager, brandishing her spear in her face.

"You should know better than to intrude on our territory," Mami's voice rang out, the yellow‐costumed girl appearing behind Yuma. "Is this some sort of challenge?"

"I'm tired of the games," Kyouko said, thrusting the spear forward and forcing Yuma down the steps. "Tell your master to stop sending little girls out to mess with us!"

Homura appeared behind Kyouko.

"What's going on?" she asked. "What is she doing here?"

"She's a member of that Southern Group we were telling you about," Kyouko growled. "The ones who attacked us during a demon hunt."

"No, please!" Yuma pleaded, actually falling onto her knees on the steps. "I had nothing to do with that! I was the youngest member! I had no say!"

She placed her hands to her face and began sobbing openly.

"They're all dead!" she said, chest heaving and forcing out sentences between breaths. "I have nowhere to go. I can't survive on my own. You're the only other girls I know! I don't even have anywhere to live anymore!"

Kyouko backed off, moving her spear to her side. Her expression became, suddenly, markedly more sympathetic.

"You have to admit," Mami said, appearing from inside the apartment. "She did always look a little reluctant. And she's so young…"

"You better not be lying," Kyouko said.

"I'm not!" Yuma asserted, tear‐stained face looking up pleadingly.

"I think we should give her a chance," Homura said, tilting her head and letting her long hair fall.

"I'm not sure about this," Kyouko said. "I can't just accept a former enemy so quickly."

"I have a suggestion," Mami said.

They turned to look at her. She was holding out her hand. From the way the camera kept switching between Mami, Kyouko, and Homura, it was clear they were using telepathy, but this time the audience was denied entry into their thoughts.

"What is your name?" Mami asked, finally.

"Chi—Chitose Yuma."

"Chitose‐san, give me your soul gem."

The girl recoiled, instinctively protecting the ring on her hand.

"Why? I'd never give up my magic!"

Mami rolled her eyes. Sure, she would be giving up her magic… and something else that was rather important. Censorship…

"As a guarantee," Mami said. "If what you said is true, then we will probably have to expand our territory to include what is formerly yours. I propose we scout it now, and if you are telling the truth, we won't be attacked. I will hold on to your soul gem as a guarantee, and give it back afterwards."

Yuma shook her head.

Mami's face softened.

"Please," she said. "You want us to trust you, and take you in. Trust me too, then. I don't want to doubt you, but we need proof you aren't lying. Too much has happened in the past."

Yuma looked around, bewildered, but they only met her with determined, if sympathetic faces—mostly sympathetic, in Homura's case.

Finally, the girl nodded, slipping off her ring and offering it to Mami, and they departed.

Mami nodded again—but not in approval at the scene's accuracy. The scene was flagrantly fictional, and had never even come close to happening. This time, it wasn't because the writers didn't know, or because they were dramatizing, or because of censorship—it was because Kyouko, Mami, and Yuma had all lied through their teeth.

She nodded because the lie had been perpetuated.

If anything, what had really happened to Yuma was more dramatic, but the less spoken about that, the better.

A few scenes later, the film performed a timeskip, the words "Ten Years Later" blazing themselves in front of her eyes.

The scene now was Mami's apartment, again, but different. The room obviously belonged to the same owner, but the furniture was in different places, and the location of the doors had changed. It was, Mami knew, the filmmakers' way of hinting what she knew—that a few years after high school graduation, they had all been obliged to move.

It had been a combination of reasons. Partly, it was prompted by the sense that the neighbors were starting to get too suspicious of Mami‐san and her strange friends, who had graduated school but showed no signs of a job, or boyfriends, or college—too suspicious of the girls who came and went at all times of day, and who appeared not to have any family.

The last straw had really been when their next door neighbor, a kind, matronly lady, had emerged onto the balcony late one night and found, on the other balcony, Mami carrying Kyouko in her arms, the girl bleeding heavily out of an abdominal wound, barely staunched by ribbons.

It had been terrible timing—Mami had just landed a jump from the ceiling and Yuma had been with Homura in another part of the city, and had only just then got back—but there was nothing that could be done, and it was more important to get Kyouko healed than to try to talk to the woman next door.

Mami still remembered the wide‐eyed look on the woman's face when Mami told her to "tell no one" as she carried Kyouko in.

But of course, she told someone, even when Mami went next door and implored her to cancel the emergency call, and the paramedics and police arrived just in time to find Kyouko asleep with Yuma fussing over her, but with no obvious wounds, and to find Mami and Homura in the middle of trying to remove blood stains from the floor—because none of them had any magical skills particularly useful for cleaning.

They were able to come up with some terribly implausible explanation for the police inquiry—that actually worked, somehow—but it was obviously time to go.

Posing as her own mother, Homura rented a new room elsewhere in the city, and they spent two weeks carrying all of their possessions to the new location—the furniture flown over in the dead of night by Homura. They kept themselves shut in as much as possible, so that hopefully no one would notice that they seemed to be getting progressively younger.

Finally, one day, they left, suddenly and abruptly, leaving behind as little of a trail as they could manage without outright changing identities or leaving their territory. They arrived at their new location teenagers again, to throw off anyone who might recognize them, and so that they could exploit the sympathies of their neighbors.

There was a lot to be nostalgic about, but Mami didn't miss the way they had to constantly fight to maintain secrecy.

But there was another reason they had needed to move, and this was implied by the threadbare furniture, the somewhat lower‐quality tea being served, and the smaller room they sat in.

Frankly put, it was money. None of them had a source—the Church had stopped supporting Homura at twenty, and Mami's family funds, though substantial, were starting to strain to support all four of them. They took part‐time jobs at grocery stores and the like, but they were becoming deplorably reliant on Kyouko's regular ATM robberies. It simply wasn't possible to take a steadier job—not with the constant need to leave to fight demons, the irregular sleep schedules, the inconsistent ages…

Which, conveniently, was the current topic of conversation.

"To wrap this up," Homura began, addressing the audience of girls. "I'd like to talk about a topic we haven't yet covered, just to introduce the idea. We all see the benefits of cooperation, and we agreed yesterday on the details of how it would work, but there's another enticing possibility we have yet to go over that I want to cover."

It was a special weekend. The Mitakihara Four were hosting representatives from five magical girl groups, representing outlying regions of the city and the suburbs. This planning meeting was the culmination of nearly a decade of conciliatory gestures, tentative friendship meetings, and joint fights against demon concentrations.

Without the Southern Group jamming up the works, the area had become a much friendlier place.

The five girls, a hodgepodge of apparent ages, clothing choices, and hairstyles—one even still wearing glasses—watched with interest, seated with the other three on the cramped floor around a coffee table, looking up at the wall. They held plates with chocolate cake and crackers, as well as cups full of tea. Homura was gesturing at a presentation shone onto the surface by a brand‐new holoprojector. From a perch on a nearby counter, Kyubey watched passively, implicitly blessing the proceedings; he had already done so explicitly earlier.

"Money, that is," Homura said, making a hand gesture. The wall shifted to show a wide variety of denominations of Yen. One of the girls laughed half‐heartedly.

"Money?" another repeated, the one with the long hair to her waist.

Yasuhiro, Mami mentally named.

"Yes," Homura said, pacing, hair undulating back and forth. "If we had more of it, then I wouldn't have had to steal this projector, and we could be dining on tiramisu instead of whatever the heck this is. Let's face it, we're all in pretty dire straits, aren't we?"

She looked around the room, and the new girls all nodded. It was a fact of life, unless you were lucky enough to have an heiress on your team.

Homura changed slides and continued talking. This slide listed the reasons why a magical girl can't get a job, with accompanying humorous illustrations.

"The primary thing stopping us from getting real jobs is the constant emergencies we can't explain to anyone," Homura said, stretching out her hand to point at the slide. "It's one thing ditching school—it's another ditching a job. Even something as stupid as newspaper delivery—miss just one day and they throw you out. I know the University Area Group—"

She nodded at the girl with glasses, Kuroi, who was their representative.

"—runs their own food stand, but don't the customers get tired of the unreliability? You show up wanting food, and one day out of four, no one is even there!"

"Yes, they complain about it all the time," the girl said. "They only show up because it's so cheap we hardly make any money out of it."

"You have the right idea," Homura said, leaning forward. "With no boss, you can run to your own schedule, but the customers still expect you to be there when needed. With just three girls and demons to fight, it's just not possible to keep it up."

"But with the new cooperation plan, we can, is that where you're going with this?" said the girl with spiked hair, Tanaka.

"Exactly," Homura said, pointing. "With the efficiencies we could extract, it should always be possible to have at least one girl minding the counter, so to speak. And I have a better idea than a snack stand, one that takes advantage of our unique skills."

She changed slides, and the new slide said "Mitakihara Delivery Service" at the top.

"In the course of our patrols, we're constantly running around the city anyway," Homura said. "We can get around the city faster than anyone, and we know all the nooks and crannies. It should be more than possible to set up a phone number hotline and make money delivering packages. We could do it faster than anyone. We might even throw in errand‐running while we're at it."

The girls looked at her dubiously, including her three comrades, who hadn't heard this particular scheme before.

Hastily, Homura waved and changed slides. This time it was a slide with financial figures.

"Anyway," she said. "I ran some numbers—"

"Akemi‐san, is this really the time to bring this up?" Mami said. "I mean, these girls traveled all this way to discuss an alliance, and you're talking about founding a business."

It was true. The slide even mentioned tax benefits.

That always was one of Homura's cute points, the real Mami thought. Her strange obsession with things like this. They've captured it well.

"Look, I know it's a bit far‐fetched," Homura said, pouting slightly. "But I really think it could work."

She toyed with the ribbon on her head, a nervous habit of hers.

"Well, I think it's a good idea," Kuroi said brashly. "And let's face it. We could all use money."

They turned to look at her. A few nodded thoughtfully.

"And just look what kind of money we're talking about!" another girl, also with long hair, ventured. "If those numbers are right, I could finally buy myself that purse I've always wanted."

It is a logically sound idea, Kyubey thought, standing up, asserting its presence for the first time, causing some of those present to startle slightly. Though success would depend on the implementation. We are intrigued at the concept.

They stared at it for a moment, before Homura cleared her throat to regain their attention.

"Anyway," Homura said, changing slides, looking both vindicated and embarrassed. "It's just a suggestion to illustrate the point. The point is, by working together, we can start thinking of ways to do things like this, and stop having to steal just to feed ourselves. If we can put together a working money‐making scheme, we can get ourselves metaphorically off the streets."

"It doesn't have to be this idea," she said, leaning forward again. "It can be anything. Think about it. We have all sorts of new possibilities. Anything, so we can stop robbing ATMs. Thank you."

Homura waved her hand, and the slideshow ended in a black screen.

She moved to sit down.

Kyouko got up to her feet and took her spot, looking at the others.

"Look, I'm tired of having to work alone, quibbling with everyone about territory and stupid things like that," Kyouko said. "It's high time we worked together for a change. Maybe then we can have some free time, or buy ourselves some damn purses if we want! Nevermind Homura's crazy schemes; we've blown two days talking about this! It's almost time for you to be heading home, so this is it: Are you in or are you out?"

The girls looked at each other.

"I'm in," Kuroi said. "Was there any doubt? I'm amazed how well we got it to work. I'll sign, and I think my group would agree."

"I second that," Yasuhiro said.

"If we weren't interested, I wouldn't have come," Tanaka said.

The remaining two also chimed their agreement.

"In that case," Homura began, grabbing several sheets of paper from on top of the TV, "let's get this done. We agreed we wanted everything signed and in writing, so I went ahead and printed out everything from yesterday."

She placed them on the coffee table in front of them.

"I still say this isn't necessary," Tanaka commented, elbow on knee. "Why are we insisting on this silly formality?"

"Look," Kuroi said. "This way, no one can pretend they didn't know any of the details. We've been over this. And besides, Kyubey thinks it's a good idea."

"What a bland name," the girl with cropped hair, Takara, said, thumbing through the documents. "Mahou Shoujo Youkai. I still can't believe we didn't think of anything cooler."

"It's functional," Homura said, shrugging.

She pointed down at one of the pages.

"Anyway, sign here, and I'll go make copies for all of us. Then we can exchange contact information. We can meet next weekend to plan patrol schedules and decide how to exchange grief cubes."

"I'll go get us all some more tea," Mami offered, lifting the teapot from the table.

The girls grabbed pens and signed on the indicated line.

It's amazing every time I think about it, Mami thought. We really didn't have a clue what we were doing.

That stack of papers, with signatures at the end, now had its own airtight display case in the MSY main administration building, located in—where else?—Mitakihara City.

And the Mitakihara Delivery Service? Renamed the D&E Corporation, it would become among the most valuable of the MSY corporations, before the economic restructuring dissolved it. It was hard to compete with a company that secretly used teleporters to expedite their deliveries.

Mami leaned back, chewing on some chocolates she had had delivered, watching the montage being displayed. It highlighted the growth of the MSY from a simple cooperation agreement in Mitakihara City, to a formal organization spanning the entire prefecture, to an umbrella organization spanning all of Japan, to one with branches extending through both sides of the Pacific, to, finally, one that encompassed nearly every magical girl alive.

There, at every step of the way, was the now First Executive Homura, shaking hands, giving speeches, chairing meetings, providing the ideas and organizational brilliance necessary to raise the MSY out of the mud. And next to her, nearly all the time, were the strangely charismatic Kyouko, the diplomatic Mami, and the—as it turned out—scheming and manipulative Yuma.

It was a shame that the writers had chosen to skim over this part of history. They were skipping over some of the most interesting stories—not to mention hundreds of years of time.

Mami understood why they did, though. Firstly, it would be an extended exercise in politics and conspiracy, extending the running time of the movie by hours, and their target audience was here to see drama and explosions. Secondly, a good deal, maybe most, of the best material was sensitive, and all three of them—Mami, Kyouko, and Yuma—had essentially refused to say anything about their more interesting exploits. They had given them nothing to work with.

So it was pretty much their fault. It was still a shame, though. Maybe someday it would be safe to talk about.

The climax of the movie was approaching.

It began with stock footage familiar to every currently living human. Footage from twenty years ago, Aurora colony, the first Human world to be attacked.

The confused first reports appearing on the interstellar internet: ships in orbit, shooting stars in the sky, no response to transmissions.

The breathless reporters, addressing viewers at home.

The first explosions, the panic, the screams of civilians whose Emergency Packages had not at the time included combat routines.

The surveillance camera footage of an endless sky of alien drones, and of the horrible cephalopodan aliens, wielding laser weapons with the four prehensile upper limbs of their armored suits, like something out of a distorted Lovecraftian nightmare.

And all of them firing indiscriminately, destroying everything in sight, killing everything in sight, in an ostentatious, genocidal display of power that was all the more horrifying in the knowledge that they didn't have to. They could have just wiped the surface from orbit. It would have been easy too, with a brand‐new colony like Aurora.

Iconic images, all of it, gathered from chaotic transmissions and charred ruins left behind by the aliens.

A child, crying in front of her robotic teddy bear, the kind with a built‐in camera, next to the bodies of her parents, before an alien drone appeared to end her life.

The students of the local college, recording last messages for whatever relatives they had off‐world before charging to their deaths, wielding nothing but reprogrammed vehicles and drones, hastily manufactured small arms, the emptied contents of research labs, and the courage of the dead.

The moribund military ships, arriving in orbit, trying to organize an evacuation—and every single one of them blown into a thousand, orbiting fragments.

In the end, there were no survivors, not one, not even among the resident magical girls.

The second time was not too much better.

When the aliens arrived around the brand‐new colony world of Atlas, they found that the Human worlds had started to rouse their economies for war. They found orbital defense platforms, city defense systems, merchant ships sporting antimatter weapons, a small infantry garrison, and a civilian population with newly installed combat routines and synthesizers reprogrammed to produce weaponry if necessary.

All of it in only a week, possible with the miracle of modern nanoassembly and direct‐to‐cortex learning routines.

It didn't really matter.

The platforms and ships dented the arriving fleet only slightly, and while the infantry and population fought valiantly this time, it took only days to overrun the colony, and the aliens still refrained from any orbital bombardments.

This time though, they seemed to choose their targets more carefully—but their logic still defied understanding. They would expend surprising effort to eliminate an infant, then ignore the adults in the vicinity. Or they would kill three people in a group of four, and ignore the fourth even if the fourth happened to be firing in their direction. It followed no pattern anyone could discern.

There were many survivors this time, and, strangely, evacuation ships were simply allowed through.

That proved to be a mistake.

Finally leaving the realm of stock footage, the movie focused on a single girl, packed in the cargo hold of a refugee ship, literally knocking elbows with five other people. The refugees were desperate and frightened, many clutching crying children, some in prayer, despondent at the seemingly inevitable prospect of being eviscerated by alien spacecraft.

That girl clutched a ring on one of her fingers.

A soul gem.

Mami leaned forward as the scene transitioned, the words "Mahou Shoujo Youkai: Emergency Full Session" appearing and disappearing in front of her.

Then she let out a groan.

Of course they would skip it, she thought.

The holography now seated her in the middle of a vast, virtual amphitheatre, packed to the brim with the avatars of magical girls.

It was one of those technology tricks, since actually all of them had, in their own view, the best possible seat, and the theatre in reality couldn't possibly have fit all of them. It was virtual reality, MSY technicians having long‐since circumvented that particular restriction for its members.

In front of them, on the stage, standing at the podium, emblazoned with the logo of the MSY—a shooting star, rising up into the sky—Akemi Homura was preparing to address them.

It was perfectly dramatic, and skipped nearly everything that was important. What had happened first was that the Leadership Committee had debated the issues around a virtual table, with the membership in quiet observation, and anyone wishing to speak materializing in front of them. Then the Committee had voted to submit the extraordinary measure for general approval, and it had passed with ninety‐six percent approval. Then Homura had given a speech.

That kind of democratic system was a pride of the MSY, and Mami, along with the others, had repeated numerous times to the writers that, this once, the politics should be shown. They had even handed over an exact transcript of the meeting!

And the screenwriters had skipped to the end anyway.

Mami sat back into her chair. Well, at least it was a good speech.

"Fellow magical girls!" the girl on stage began, arm raised.

"I don't need to explain why we are all here. We have all read reports, seen the videos, heard the sorrow. I don't need to tell you about the five million who died on Aurora, or the six million who died on Atlas. Some of us—"

She nodded at a girl in the audience and, briefly, everyone had a focused view of who she was nodding at, a teary‐eyed girl from Zambia.

"Some of us had family on those planets. Some of us had friends. Five hundred of us personally died on those worlds. These aliens—"

Here she banged the podium with her fist.

"These aliens think they can show up and massacre innocents, and laugh and taunt us while they do it! They think they can kill us with impunity, for the Goddess only knows whatever sick reasons they have."

Here she paused, head bowed briefly.

"And why not? You've seen the intelligence reports. Earth's military is a laughingstock, compared to them. We use railguns and use lasers only when we can spare the power, while they fire freely. Their armor has personal force fields, which we don't even understand. Their drones are smarter than ours, their stealth better, their armor stronger, their ships faster. And on top of all of that, we can't mobilize soldiers fast enough to match their numbers. If we let our pathetic military defend us, how long until the aliens come to your world? How long until they come to Earth?"

She stopped, allowing the audience to roar its disapproval. The oratory was enchanting and, Mami noted, this was not an exaggeration. Sometime over the centuries Homura had gotten exceptionally good at her speeches.

Homura spread out her arms in an embracing gesture.

"We have voted," she said. "And the Incubators have approved it. We will not stand for this, even if it means sacrificing the comfortable lives we have known for so long, and the secrecy which has been our shield. We will defend ourselves, and the innocents we devote our lives to protect, and we know where to do it."

She paused again.

"Epsilon Eridani," she said. "In one week."

She nodded at the audience, and this time the focus was on the girl who had been on the refugee ship.

Amelia Giovanni, Mami noted silently.

"We were lucky that one of our mind‐readers was able to discern this information," Homura continued. "We know Epsilon Eridani is the next system being targeted, that New Athens is the next world targeted. And now the military knows too; our spies have planted it in their simulations. Perhaps the aliens wish to intimidate us, by attacking so close to Earth. Well, it won't work!"

She flung her arm out dramatically, the anger showing on her face.

"We will go to New Athens, and we will paralyze this invasion of theirs in its track. We will swarm them on the ground, in the skies, and in space. They think they know war—but they don't know war like we do! We will seek vengeance until the blood of their soldiers stains the stars themselves!"

This time, the roar of the crowd was overpowering, washing over Mami like a tidal wave. She wasn't sure, but she thought she could hear some of her companion audience members cheering along as well.

When it finally died down, Homura continued.

"New Athens has a population of one hundred million. It is the largest world they have yet dared attack. Our projections based on past behavior indicate that the invasion force will number about one million ground troops and about two hundred of their ships. We won't rely on the Human military to provide anything too meaningful."

"As mentioned, I will go there personally, along with anyone who wishes to go. The MSY will charter every ship possible, secrecy be damned, and carry as many volunteers there as possible. Girls from the orbital colonies and space stations, those with space combat experience, will be prioritized, due to their rarity. If you still have close family, you will not be allowed to go."

Her voice grew somber.

"Our projections indicate we will end up being able to send about one hundred thousand. That's a ten to one ratio. I know we fight the demons twenty‐five‐to‐one, but this will be different. I wish we could send more. We are taking a risk. One hundred thousand is roughly six percent of our member count. I don't want anyone going who doesn't understand the risks involved."

"You can count on us!" someone in the audience shouted.

"Definitely!" someone else repeated.

The affirmations grew slowly in volume, until they grew nearly as loud as the cheering before.

"Of course I can," Homura said, looking up.

She nodded.

"Then let's do this," she said.

The world faded to black in a wave of applause.

Chapter Text

They came down from the sky onto an unsuspecting humanity, no longer used to war.

They massacred millions for incomprehensible goals, cthuloid monstrosities striking fear and panic throughout the colony worlds, and even on Earth itself.

Aurora Colony, Atlas Colony, wiped off the face of the map, and the human military seemed helpless to stop them. Even fully mobilized, the technological disparity would have been too great.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Earth Governance had begun implementing procedures it had hoped never to invoke, hastily and secretly preparing long‐range colony ships to—hopefully—seed humanity on distant planets beyond the reach of the aliens.

New Athens changed everything. It was like a Hollywood movie, a band of hard‐bitten, world‐weary veterans, banding together to do what the military could not.

Only, these veterans were a little different from the stereotype…

— Emilio Gonzales, online article.

The MSY, in its vast entangled bureaucracy, had been preparing its entire existence for all sorts of absurd contingencies. Its agents watched the military, even though the military hadn't been relevant for centuries. It owned its own fleet of disguised and stealth ships, one that was consistently labeled a boondoggle by internal politicians, but persisted nonetheless. It had contingency plans for fighting the military, overthrowing governments, all sorts of ridiculous scenarios, just in case.

And even though they somehow never thought to prepare for an alien invasion, all these plans, all these ships and preparations, would prove their worth in one giant spasm of glory.

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.


The ground shook underneath them.

A drop‐pod has landed in our sector, a girl thought from somewhere. The military has opened fire, but their shield is holding. Alien drones are deploying.

A pause.

Also, I believe I sense air superiority platforms and fighters.

The message relayed its way into Homura's—well, the audience's—mind, bouncing its way from the clairvoyant through what was probably hundreds of girls to the improvised command post.

Thank you, Homura thought back. Remember the plan, everyone. We're not going to be able to deny low orbit for a while, so we want them to commit themselves into their demonstration attack before we surprise them. We don't want them to change their minds and vaporize us all from orbit.

Her voice registered in Mami's mind, the actor's cadences modified to sound just like the actual girl, the words just as Mami had recalled to the writers. It was quiet, yet commanding, and the only thing ruining the effect was that the implant‐mediated sound just wasn't the same as true magical girl telepathy. You could tell, somehow.

In the background was the—faked—endless murmur of telepathy, team captains and scouts and local directors communicating.

With two decades of experience, Mami idly analyzed the attack, knowing that the virtual Mami standing next to Homura was doing nothing of the sort.

The MSY's—and the military's—assessment of the situation at the time, after over three weeks of complete panic, was that the aliens were, for lack of a better word, showboating. A demonstration attack, as Homura had said.

Looking at it now, Mami could see that they had been completely correct.

It was stupid, she thought. The militarily correct thing to do would be to try and obliterate the surface from orbit. New Athens didn't even have any heavy fortifications ready.

Nowadays, colony worlds all had extensive lower orbit defenses designed to delay such a genocidal attack long enough for the human fleets to, hopefully, stop the attempt. Back then, not even Earth had had anything like that.

Neither was it particularly smart to simply land in circles around the densely packed urban centers and expect to march their way in—not even bothering to claim the high points, or establish air support, or protect their flanks, or guard against the possibility of being surrounded in turn.

We don't need to be strategic, the aliens had been saying. We can steamroll you in the stupidest way possible, and you can't touch us.

Well, they got the surprise they were asking for, Mami thought, rather vindictively.

She knew the details behind what was happening in front of her.

They had arrived in chartered spaceships, and as passengers on commercial liners, by the tens of thousands, in a phenomenon so marked it had even attracted the attention of the media. Why were so many apparently school‐age girls heading for Epsilon Eridani? Why did none of them appear to have living parents? Why weren't any of them enrolled in school? How had so many of them slipped under society's radar? Who were the mysteriously named social organizations chartering all these ships and paying for the tickets? What was their goal? It would definitely have been the story of the year, if it weren't for the ongoing alien invasion occupying everyone's full attention.

The government, Yuma reported, was conducting a quiet investigation into the anomaly, but hadn't stopped any of the travelers, partly due to the efforts of embedded MSY representatives. And, not surprisingly, the invasion occupied all its time.

Now, the girls, for the most part posing as groups of tourists, had slipped away from the evacuation queues—this time, everything was organized, and it had already been decided who would stay and who would leave immediately—to head to predetermined spots throughout the region. They ignored the warnings and drones and MPs warning them to go back, using their powers when necessary to proceed, and when they reached where they were going, they settled down and waited. The most vulnerable teams, near the expected landing points, or within close proximity of military units, were accompanied by those rare girls that had cloaking powers.

Above them, orbiting near the battle in space, helpless refugee ships struggled with supposed engine problems, and weapons platforms with military grade cloaking waited silently, the cargo holds of both packed with girls in space combat suits, with as high a ratio of girls from the space stations as possible.

They didn't need the suits, since they didn't need to breathe, but it was a lot less taxing on the soul gem to have the suit. In the same way, they could all fly their way through a vacuum competently, but the maneuvering jets used less magic.

Like those on the ground, the girls in space had spent a week in a crash course on military combat. They watched videos of alien operations on Atlas, absorbed pilfered military training manuals directly into their minds, and rehearsed an entirely new set of tactics, planning how to respond to an entirely new set of weapons. Not giant demons with laser beams, but cephalopods with laser cannons, and shields, and rapid‐fire laser rifles, and drones with explosives, and smart missiles, and other exotic weapons.

Like those on the ground, they waited for the signal to swarm the alien cruisers and troop transports.

Not yet, Homura thought.

She and the facsimile Mami were seated inside an agricultural silo, on a now‐abandoned farm. They wore signal amplifiers attached to the back of their necks, to reinforce their ability to view the situation at hand.

This Mami still maintained a teenage appearance, in solidarity with the strange preferences of her friends. It was only later that Mami had chosen to age herself slightly, since it was a bit difficult to project command authority as a teenage girl.

Nearby, a teleporter and shield generator stood nervously, acting as a bodyguard, along with several other girls working pieces of equipment. Outside, a sizable concentration of girls occupied the farm grounds and arborage, part of the mobile reserve. Several of them maintained a shroud over the area.

All were members of the Soul Guard, the enforcement division of the MSY, in ordinary times tasked with taking down the abhorrent and the insane.

Farther up the hill, a contingent of artillery produced an endless succession of zapping noises, as their railguns provided fire at some distant target. They were accompanied by a nervous group of volunteer militia and air defense drones, waiting for combat to activate their enhancements.

None of them noticed the startling number of teenage girls lurking just two hundred meters downhill.

You heard her! Kyouko thought, somewhere distant. We want surprise! Don't break discipline!

Mami enjoyed the experience of being, for once, in the movie Mami's point of view. Inside her eyes, in an interface freshly hacked by MSY technicians, she watched as magical girl teams silently withdrew in the face of alien advances, holding back, waiting for the signal.

Looking at it, the deployment depicted in front of her was inaccurate. The actual deployment they had used was a lot more flawed with, in retrospect, numerous deficiencies. The aliens might not have been trying, but the magical girls were going solely by books and electronic guides.

It didn't matter that they had all taken the time to cram military manuals into their brains, or that the telepathy surrounding them was full of freshly‐learned military jargon, thought with the tones of those unused to the words. They had had no idea what they were doing.

Not to mention this was by far the largest organized attack they had ever planned. Organizing raids on demon hordes was, at the very most, a thirty girl affair, covering perhaps twenty city blocks. Even the most complicated of MSY operations only involved perhaps one hundred girls covering a single city. Not one hundred thousand girls covering an area the size of central Europe.

They hadn't been holding a battlefront—it had just been teams of girls doing what they had done for centuries, with a sprinkling of fresh military training in the mix.

There hadn't been time to organize any better.

The military is losing ground! one of the team captains relayed. Just to the drones! And their fliers are getting massacred! They're going to lose air control! Let us intervene!

No, not yet! both Mami and Homura relayed, Mami having, once again, the surreal expression of having her own voice blare through her head.

Any moment now…

Dropships are arriving, someone thought.

Follow the plan. Homura thought. We want to catch them mid‐deployment. Let them get troops on the ground so they can't plaster the area.

Mami remembered how painful those few minutes had been, waiting and waiting, knowing that somewhere, Earth's military and militia were getting slaughtered by the newly arriving infantry. The movie chose to accentuate it by showing montages of the aliens deploying, laser weapons shattering the foliage, human infantry cowering behind cover despite their armored suits, some of them getting shattered by the high‐energy beams anyway. Alien drones and air platforms rained fire from the air, now virtually unopposed, shattering the hulls of human armored vehicles attempting to maneuver and fire, melting incoming artillery shells out of the air, while the shields of the marching monsters and the larger drones deflected bullets and laser cannon fire like it was a bad joke.

On the ground, even the human drone swarms were being overwhelmed, and the infantry and militia found themselves swarmed by microdrones, who tore at their suits or, in the case of the often unarmored militia, skipped the formalities and began injecting powerful toxins. It was a terrible way to die, and the directors clearly wanted the audience to never forget it.

It was an absolute miracle no one attacked early.

Then, finally:

Now! Homura and Mami thought simultaneously.

A moment of anticlimax, aliens in suits languidly falling out of dropships, almost peacefully, drones buzzing.

Then, chaos.

The signature of the Mahou Shoujo.

Great shockwaves traversed the ground, shining purple and bright, blowing back and dismembering the plethora of advancing drones and alien infantry, releasing gushes of bright‐green blood. Drones, air platforms, and fighters exploded and fell out of the sky under an onslaught of unrecognizable projectiles—bright bolts of light of every color and description, entangling webs trapping them, bullets somehow powerful enough to break shields, an eclectic assortment of firepower that was nonetheless deadly.

And the dropships—the dropships were the primary target. The one closest to the audience sheared in half, as if sliced by an invisible blade. Half of the one behind it vanished, the audience catching just the tiniest of glimpses of a girl appearing on the hull. Another unceremoniously developed a giant hole in its hull. Another one crashed itself into the ground. Another one seemed to explode for no reason at all.

And they all shattered, or fell, or detonated, with their crews and any unfortunate infantry on board dying gruesomely.

Those dropships still arriving, witnessing the massacre on the ground suddenly reversing itself against them, turned to flee. Some fell out of the sky, but many were able to return to orbit—where they found no solace.

The alien cruisers, troop transports, and fighters found themselves with a new, almost ridiculous phenomenon—ten of thousands of humans in breathing suits, floating in orbit, lunging at them. It was absurd. Their shipboard AIs leveled weapons, and fighters changed vectors, firing and expecting slaughter.

Instead, they got a fight, and cruisers and interceptors and troop transports began breaking into fragments, their debris littering orbit, the troop transports losing great masses of troops and equipment out of hull breaches, escape pods launching and exploding en route.

And like their brethren in outer space, the surviving human infantry regiments and armor on the ground could only watch, open‐mouthed, as an equally ridiculous tableau played out before them. Groups of what appeared to be teenage girls appeared and disappeared in thin air, wearing ridiculous costumes, laying devastation on the enemy, dealing absurd damage with weapons as ridiculous as bows and muskets and Springfield rifles. On the ground, girls with archaic swords and spears and axes and needles and daggers danced through alien fire, dodging with absurd speed and slicing apart the aliens in their suits as if the shielding and armor meant nothing at all, shrugging off alien drones with great bursts of light.

Then, as a group, the infantry and militia rallied, began firing their weapons again, and began retaking ground from the invaders, in attempted coordination with the newcomers. Their commanding AIs and officers reasoned that, all things considered, they knew the aliens would kill them, while the others, who at least appeared human, showed no signs of wanting to kill them. There was no need to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"You do not have to know who we are, or what we are," Homura's voice said over their internal intercoms, her transmission accepted by their AIs. "Just know that we are human, and we are here to help. Assist if you can, and obey any orders they give you. What else can you do?"

It was compelling logic, and most listened. The Human commanders began repositioning their forces, and even the militia corps up the hill moved out farther forward, now that a shattering penetration was no longer expected.

In the silo command post, the mood was euphoric. Both the ground and space battles were going better than expected. The aliens had been completely unprepared. The rings around the urban centers were broken in multiple places, the flanks being rolled up. At this rate, it would turn into a rout.

Mami and Homura shared a look, and smiled.

Then, in a certain sector of the perimeter, near the largest of the cities, the triangles representing magical girl teams began disappearing rapidly off the displays. Circles representing alien forces appeared and disappeared rapidly. Others began carrying special flags marking them as "Armor".

Chilling screams and curses began streaming in telepathically, rapidly shattering the mood.

That's Kyouko's sector! Mami thought.

What the hell is going on? Homura thought, tense.

They're firing on us from orbit, Kyouko thought. They're vaporizing teams all around the city! And some sort of alien tank, and some of them have stealth. The empaths and mind‐readers are picking them up, but they're tearing us apart!

Homura and Mami glanced at the reports from orbit, preempting the real Mami, who was about to turn her head to do the same. The girls in space were trying to reach the ships firing downward, but it would be tough going, and they were unlikely to get there fast enough. On the ground, the entire sector was beginning to fall apart, despite the magical teams and militia and infantry units streaming in to try and fill the gap. Grief cube shortages were beginning to proliferate.

And it was clear why the strike was there, too. Capturing the associated city would open the metaphoric gates into the wide plains behind, allowing them to drive further into the other sectors.

So many dead, Mami thought, shaken.

Yes, Homura agreed. It's clearly time for reinforcements. Should we send the whole reserve?

How can you stay so calm? Mami thought.

What would panic do? Homura thought. We knew this could happen. Every one of us is a volunteer. Now, what is your opinion?

The Mami commanding the forces took a deep breath, and the Mami sitting in her audience's seat did so as well. She could still remember the feel of Homura's mind at that moment, hard as steel and cold as ice, a side of her she had only rarely experienced. It had been deeply unsettling.

What do you think are the chances the aliens have any more such surprises in store? Mami thought, a moment later.

Not high, Homura thought. If I were them, I'd launch everything at once, after a surprise like this. And we have the mobility to redeploy, if we have to.

Even so, we should leave some here, Mami thought. We shouldn't overcommit.

Yes, Homura agreed.

I will warn the others of what to watch for, Mami thought.

Homura got up, nodding at the technology staff around her, and went outside, to personally lead the counter‐attack.

As she emerged, she nodded to the girls around her, most of whom were already on the move, twenty thousand strong. They traveled by every improvisation imaginable, some by ground vehicle, others wielding their powers to give themselves and the others around them a speed boost.

Besides the girls in the command post, however, a small group remained, consisting of some of the most powerful girls who had come to the planet.

One of them tossed her a small handful of grief cubes, which she used to charge her soul gem just a little more before tossing them back.

Let's go, Homura thought. You've received your instructions. Stick close to the empaths.

And then, en masse, the teleporters there activated their powers.

It was a relay, one teleporter stretching her range to the utmost of her ability, then taking a break, recharging with grief cubes, while another prepared her own teleport. The scenery changed repeatedly—the bank of a river, the side of a mountain, a wide plain, the middle of a city, the militia garrison blinking at them in surprise.

And finally, the wasteland that was their destination.

It used to be farmland. Now it was scorched everywhere with wide swaths of uptorn earth. The alien armor that they had been hearing about tore across the landscape, sloped devices with bulbous guns, scurrying along on roach‐like legs.

They could hear telepathic screams.

"What have they done here?" one of the girls next to her said, appalled.

They're not invincible, Kyouko thought, from somewhere. I smashed a few myself. But they surprised us, and they're moving too fast for us to rally. And we have to watch our backs too much with all that stealth around.

Pull the melee girls out, anywhere there's stealth, Mami thought, distant. Assemble kill teams, ranged and empaths. It seems their stealthed vehicles are easier to destroy.

Homura turned to face the others.

We're at the edge of their spearhead, she thought. They're getting greedy. They haven't covered their flanks. They don't think we have this kind of mobility. We're cutting them off.

She relayed this not only telepathically, but electronically, to the commander of an armored division she knew was nearby, hastily trying to retreat and regroup.

"Give us whatever support you can," she thought, to them only this time, relaying their positions. "You know who I am. Get whatever approval you need to. This could decide everything."

Then, without waiting, she gave the order to attack, transforming and launching herself up into the air, white‐feathered wings spreading outward.

"Yes, sir!" the commander finally responded, forgetting that she wasn't in the military hierarchy.

Two empaths detached and headed for the Humans, to give them guidance. The long‐range girls hung back, finding a point of high ground.

A purple aura spread out from Homura, the ability that made her one of the most valuable magical girls alive, the one that slowed soul gem corruption.

They descended on the armored columns, the faster girls and Homura traversing the distance at maximum speed, the rest teleporting their way along, all dodging the arriving firepower and ignoring the scurrying drones trying to stop them.

The vehicles shattered, their shielding and armor breaking apart, not effortlessly as it had been with the infantry, but under the overwhelming weight of concerted attack. Three were lifted magically into the air and hurled forward, as both projectiles and metal shields, by Nadya Antipova, the strongest telekinetic alive. Other vehicles disappeared in large chunks. Homura soared into the air, spun to smash approaching drones with her wings, and unleashed a downward volley.

They're calling in an orbital strike! a mind‐reader mentally shouted. I can hear them!

Another confirmed.

They scattered, getting out of the area, trying to find cover that wasn't there in the open landscape. There was barely time to protest But they're firing on themselves!

The explosion that followed was eardrum‐shattering—or would have been, were anyone in the audience actually using their eardrums.

They re‐engaged, Homura diving to the ground to scoop up the surviving soul gem of a girl whose body had been caught in the blast, her upper body gone. Better to remove it, rather than have it burn itself out trying to regenerate this one.

The movie lingered for a moment on that, Homura forming the soul gem into another ring to wear, so she could carry it easily, looking at the body.

Then she launched herself back up.

Stealth units! someone thought.

Everything after that was pyrotechnic chaos.

A girl in orange slicing thin air with katana, the explosion revealing that it hadn't been thin air at all, but a stealth vehicle—

An empath losing a leg, screaming—

A healer, working on a girl with a hole in her stomach, the two of them hiding behind a giant chunk of metal, still shimmering with partial stealth—

Homura running forward, wings folded in front of her, deflecting lasers, drones, explosives, shielding several girls carrying melee weapons—

An enormous volley of projectiles from the long‐range specialists, breaking the back of an attempted counter‐attack—

Specialist teleporters arriving with grief cubes, blinking the cubes in to the hands of everyone with enough time to cleanse themselves—

Homura picking up another soul gem—

Nadya screaming in fury, arm missing, freezing and redirecting an artillery volley with pure force, soul gem darkening, a healer rushing forward with grief cubes—

Another orbital strike, and in the confusion, only a few scattered in time—

The alien infantry finally arriving, adding their firepower to the mess—

The Human armored column arriving in turn, treaded monstrosities moving and firing their heavy railguns, and exploding as well—

The arrival of a heavy alien counterattack, waves of vehicles and drones appearing on the horizon—

Alien fighters falling out of the sky—

An alien and Human armored infantry member in direct melee, the alien heavily damaged and missing two tentacles, for the moment as evenly matched as two wrestlers, until the cephalopod's head exploded, the victim of a distant magical girl sniper—

The arrival of the rest of the magical girls, Kyouko among them, a giant spear rising from the ground to impale an alien tank, spear slicing off one of the legs of another—

An orbital strike—

Another orbital strike—

Another orbital strike—

And Homura herself falling out of the sky, wings finally broken.

She landed with a cringe‐inducing snap!

The audience, from Homura's perspective, saw her raise her hand to her eyes, her diamond soul gem nearly entirely black.

"No, NO!" Kyouko yelled, appearing out of nowhere to drag her body to cover and cradle Homura's head in her hands.

"Not like this," she said.

Does anyone have a grief cube? she thought, desperately.

I'm sorry.

I used mine.

If only I hadn't—

I didn't think—

I'm on my way!

But the last one was too far away, and would never get there in time, even with teleportation.

"No, not like this," Kyouko repeated, tears falling.

Ake–Homura! Hang in there! Please! Mami begged, distantly.

A chorus of other thoughts followed.

Homura grabbed Kyouko's hand in hers.

Finish what we started here, she thought, relaying the thought outward to everyone, starting to cry.

Mami, in the audience, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. She remembered what it had been like, helpless in her command post, listening to her friend dying, hearing Homura cry for the first time ever.

It was the moment everyone who was there remembered, from the sobbing technicians in the command post, to the girls in active combat fighting tears of rage.

Don't let me down. I gave my soul to defend this world! Homura exhorted.

Then, smiling slightly:

I'm just happy I can finally see her again.

"How can you be happy, you idiot?" Kyouko demanded. "Don't just give up!"

Homura just shook her head and reached up, pulling the ribbon out of her hair. The ribbon which had survived centuries. She held it, clutching it to her heart.

I–I only want— Homura began.

She stopped.

She was looking with incredulity at her soul gem, which was now entirely black, except for a single point of light at the bottom, radiantly bright, that wasn't going away.

I can't die, she thought.

"Yes, of course you can't, that's better," Kyouko said, not understanding, bowing her head, refusing to look. "Don't die."

"No!" Homura said, sitting up suddenly, broken back somehow healed. "I can't. Not as long as I remember her!"

"What are you—" Kyouko began, blindingly happy at the recovery, crying from the situation, confused at what was going on.

She was interrupted by Homura's heart‐rending scream.

"What's happening?" Kyouko demanded. "Homura, answer me!"

Homura was sitting, nearly catatonic, shaking and sweating, staring at her soul gem and ribbon, now together in her hand.

She was repeating to herself: "How long? How long? Can I ever see you again?"

Kyouko followed her gaze—and recoiled, witnessing the cloud of corruption forming around her gem.

"Homura!" Kyouko repeated, swallowing and shaking the girl, trying to ignore the phenomenon. "Are you alright?"

"But why?" Homura demanded. "What must I do?"

Damn it, hurry up with those grief cubes! Kyouko thought, lashing out through the telepathy network.

"I'm fine, Kyouko," Homura said suddenly, voice lacking affect.

"No, you're no—" Kyouko began, then stared as Homura stood up, retying her ribbon.

Homura's face was smooth, clearly in command again, but something was ineffably wrong, as if it hurt her to stay that way.

The corruption was forming a cloud around her hand.

She extended her wings, and they were not the pure, white wings which had earned her the secretly whispered nickname "The Angel". Instead, they were black and coiling, seeming to be made of the same corruption that had blackened her soul.

They couldn't quite capture the effect here, Mami mused. The descriptions of those who had seen it had made clear that it was deeply disturbing. The best description had come from one of the teleporters in the area:

"Looking at those wings… was like looking into a nightmare. And not just your nightmare. The nightmares of every human who has ever lived, ever since the Incubators raised us out of animals."

Overblown, perhaps, but everyone who was there agreed to something of that effect. Mami, who hadn't been there, wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or very, very glad.

Well, it wasn't the filmmakers' fault they couldn't duplicate it.

Kyouko stepped back involuntarily from this version of Homura.

"Ho–Homura?" she asked.

"We have a battle to win," Homura said, looking back.

She pointed at the horizon, at the edge of the devastation zone, where the aliens were now cautiously moving forward to probe the gap opened by the orbital bombardments, hoping they could reestablish contact with their broken spearhead on the other end.

She launched herself into the air on those wings, soaring forward, ignoring the clear disparity in numbers.

"Damn it!" Kyouko said, running forward to follow her.

I don't know what the hell she's doing! Kyouko thought to the others. The rest of you get the wounded and their soul gems out of here, and fall back—

Belay that, Homura said. Get the wounded out of here, yes, but we are attacking.

Are you crazy? Kyouko demanded. That attack decimated—

I know what I'm doing, Homura thought.

Suddenly, she dove forward, adding on an absurd amount of speed, almost instantly covering the remaining distance, becoming a speck high in the air.

You idiot—

The aliens opened fire, hundreds of heavy laser cannons opening fire on the exposed girl foolishly flying into range, drones swarming and firing their own weapons—

And as Kyouko, the other magical girls, and the surviving human soldiers watched, mouths agape, the laser beams bent around her, refusing to strike her, and instead turned back towards their sources, bombarding the alien position with their own firepower.

Homura then stooped downward, the aliens holding fire in confusion as to what to do, and then—

It was too far to see exactly what was happening, except that there was a great number of explosions, the alien vehicles seemed to be decreasing in number, and the alien drones kept trying to swarm, and kept failing.


"They're retreating!" one of the Human tank commanders reported, broadcasting a mental image of his sensor screen, showing the alien units pulling back in headlong flight.

Any other questions? Homura demanded.

Kyouko swallowed, still gaping.

You heard her! she thought, swallowing her misgivings. Let's drive those bastards back to whatever planet they come from!

By rights, the battle shouldn't have been over, but that didn't take into account Homura.

Gone was the bow, the careful positioning, the teamwork. This version of Homura didn't care, and didn't need it.

She attacked like a banshee, rising and swooping out of the air, heedless of personal injury, none of the incoming attacks coming close to striking her.

Those that came close to her died.

Those who dared fire on her died.

Those who tried to use stealth found that she could see them perfectly fine.

She gestured with her hand, and vehicles shattered and armored suits exploded.

She gestured with her other hand, and corruption oozed out of the ground, slaughtering the aliens who happened to be in the area.

The orbital strikes, so feared, kept landing—and at the end of each, it would be the alien positions that were devastated, until finally the strikes stopped, their controllers realizing something was wrong.

The aliens began to flee at the sight of her, abandoning their invasion, withdrawing, calling for dropships.

The humans just stayed out of the way.

It seemed as if it were time to cheer, but then:

Get out of there! Mami exhorted. Everyone! Get out! They're preparing some kind of orbital superweapon!

What the hell are the space forces doing? Kyouko demanded, looking into her own interface.

The aliens had got them good, the movie‐watching Mami thought, drinking her tea. The space forces were desperately trying to press forward and eliminate the device, but the aliens were throwing in their last‐ditch forces to protect it, and the device would fire within minutes. They hadn't been looking for it, because none of them had expected that the aliens would fire on their own forces like this.

Stupid. It had been stupid.

The movie accentuated the point by showing a shot of space, of magical girls trying desperately to take it down.

Here it is, Mami thought, and she could hear the others around her sucking in their breaths.

The movie returned to the ground, where, as the humans tried to flee, Kyouko instead stood still and watched, aghast, as Homura instead flew straight up, hand reaching for the sky.

The massive particle beam coming downward turned the sky white with light, bearing down upon them, and Kyouko knew that none of them would escape, that it didn't make sense to run, that the only hope was that Homura was not absolutely insane to fly straight up into it. She watched, dropping her spear.

It was a moment that would become legendary, searing itself into the collective Human memory, recorded on a thousand holocams, and the eyes of everyone who dared to look up.

Homura's wings expanded to enormous size, turning the entire sky into a chiaroscuro between the brilliant white light and her nightmarishly‐black wings.

And then—

—the light disappeared, and alien and human alike blinked in confusion.

It returned, bright and scorching, and for a moment Kyouko thought all was lost—and then she realized, somehow, that it was now headed the other way.

In what was undoubtedly the cinematic climax of the movie, the audience watched from space as the alien cruiser bearing the weapon received the full force of its own shot, detonating cataclysmically, destroying everything around it, its own defenses, the other alien cruisers, troop transports, everything, until the only aliens left in space were the thin outer shell of fighters who, realizing they had nothing left to defend, tried desperately to escape, charging their faster‐than‐light engines.

Then Kyouko dropped to her knees, like so many others that day, unsure whether she was looking at the Akemi Homura she knew—or a god.

Then the black wings disappeared, and there were only the two small white wings, which disappeared in turn, and all that was left then was a human girl, dressed in ordinary clothing, falling through the air, the only sign of anything unusual the ribbon in her hair glowing white.

Kyouko ran forward to catch her.

The scene ended with a voiceover of Kyouko's thoughts.

Is it true? she thought. Is everything she said true? Then, what have I been doing with my life?

There was only one scene left.

There was a brief shot of the sign of the Acropolis Hotel, to help establish location, and a glimpse of the reporters camped outside, to help establish the situation.

Kyouko and Mami around a mahogany and glass table piled high with plates of delicate hors d'oeuvres. The room was palatial, huge even by the standards of the uncramped colonies. Every possible luxury was thought of, from the decorations on the wall, to the enormous bed, to the wine cooler and gold trimmings.

It was one of those rooms that would have actually cost Allocs back on Earth, and was positively exorbitant here in New Athens.

It was Mami's room, as she recalled, and it was all compliments of the local colonial government. The hors d'oeuvres were compliment of hotel management.

The curtains were closed.

"I still don't think that's good enough evidence," Mami was insisting.

"What are you talking about, evidence?" Kyouko demanded, banging the table with a fist. "Look, I know you weren't there, but didn't you at least look up?"

"I was in the command post, trying to direct an evacuation," Mami said, a slight edge to her voice. "I'm sorry, but I didn't see anything."

That too, was a memory. Those terrifying minutes when Mami had thought she was going to die, and had resolved to spend those minutes getting as many girls out of the area as possible.

Mami cringed, knowing what was coming. She and Kyouko had been honest to the scriptwriters—perhaps too honest. This was not going to be a pleasant conversation.

"Still, though," Kyouko said. "She redirected a particle beam capable of wiping out half of Europe!"

"Which is amazing, I know," Mami said. "But think about what she claims. Some magical girl she knew sacrificed herself to become a Goddess and recreate the universe to bring hope to us all. Hope? What does that even mean? She's never even explained."

"How stubborn do you have to be to deny the evidence?" Kyouko demanded, banging the table again.

"Why do you want to believe so badly?" Mami responded in counterpoint. "I know you, Sakura‐san. I know you've always wanted to believe in something like this. I know you still visit the spot where Miki‐san died, but just because—"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Kyouko snapped, far too quickly.

"Everything!" Mami shot back. "I've tried so hard to keep you grounded. I don't want you losing yourself—"

"And I thought I was a cynic," Kyouko said, standing up. "Do you really like it so much, watching me drift my way through life, like you? It's boring! What about your faith, Mami? What do you fight for?"

Mami stayed silent, head bowed.

"You don't know, do you?" Kyouko said. "Neither do I. We've been alive so long we can't even remember what's so good about living."

"I live for the sake of the others," Mami said quietly. "So that they can enjoy life. What's so bad about that? How can you say we don't live for anything? We just saved this planet. Didn't you want to be a hero when you contracted? We're heroes now."

Kyouko thought for a moment.

"Yes, we are, and yes I did," she said. "But you can't live life for the sake of others. I've definitely learned that over the years. I want to know that I fight for something. Maybe, finally, I've found it."

She peered down at Mami, who sat quietly.

"Let's talk about something else," Mami said, voice subdued.

Kyouko watched for a few moments longer, then sat back down.

"Okay," she agreed finally, grabbing food off of one of the plates.

Mami sighed, collapsing down onto the table.

"You know, we talk about being heroes and such, but I had no idea it was so tiring," she said, looking up at Kyouko, who was industriously polishing away several quiches.

"It has its benefits," Kyouko mumbled, mouth full of food.

She then gestured at the food and at the room, unnecessarily.

"Yes," Mami agreed. "And I know we had no choice, since secrecy was impossible, but everything is moving too fast. My inbox is jammed full of interview requests, those people are camped outside with drones, and the news shows talk about nothing but us. I had no idea press conferences were so exhausting."

"It's not much better for the other girls, either, you know," Kyouko said. "Sure, they focus the most on us, but anyone will do for an interview."

"Which there are plenty of girls willing to do," Mami said. "I mean, we had a media strategy, but that's gone to hell now. Everyone is just saying whatever they want."

"They're probably scouring Earth too, you know," Kyouko said, grabbing a plate with a small stack of meat pastries. "And everywhere else. I bet you, every girl who looks even a little like one of us is probably getting weird looks from everyone."

"I feel sorry for the girls who still have family and things like that," Mami said. "I have no idea how I'd explain something like that."

"We knew it'd be like this," Kyouko said, looking at her out of the corner of her eye. "We voted for this anyway."

"I know we did," Mami said, sitting up, and grabbing one of the pastries before they all disappeared. "But, knowing about it and actually doing it—those are two different things."

Kyouko stayed silent, eating her pastry.

"And that's just the easy part," Mami said. "I'm sure you've seen it too. It's not just the media. Everything is going crazy, and everyone wants to talk to us. Governance wants all of us to testify in front of the Directorate, starting with Yuma. The Military wants to talk about future operations. The Colonial Council wants us for photo ops, so they can declare a new yearly holiday and put up some statues. The Commanding General wants to meet us. We're getting letters from girls wanting to join. I don't think I've gotten as many messages in my life as I've gotten these past few days."

"Field Marshal Mengale," Kyouko said, holding up her hand as if to read from an invisible list. "General Sullivan. General Abdulla. Fleet Admiral O'Hara."

"Science and Technology," Mami said, picking up the cue. "Military Affairs. Manufacturing and Distribution. Health and Happiness. Colonial Affairs and Colonization. Law and Order. Artificial Intelligence. Public Opinion. And those are only the government representatives who happen to also sit on the Directorate."

"I can start on major media personas," Kyouko suggested facetiously.

Mami snorted.

"Yes, we clearly both understand that approximately five hundred people want to meet us in the next week," Mami said. "What are we going to do about it? We're not ready for any of this!"

"Yes," Kyouko said. "But that doesn't mean we can't do it."

She put her hand on Mami's shoulder.

"Come on," she said, smiling. "We can take it. As long as we stick together."

"Yes," Mami said, smiling back.

The double doors to the room opened. There was only one other person the in‐room AI was instructed to allow in so easily.

"Homura," Kyouko said, looking up at the long‐haired girl walking over to the table, wearing long pants and a blouse.

Just a week ago, Kyouko would have made a rude comment about how late she was, probably something along the lines of "Took you long enough."

Not today, though.

Uncharacteristically, Homura looked hesitant and unsure too—and just a little unsteady. It was reminiscent of what Mami had come to think of as the "other" Homura, from so long ago, before Sayaka's demise. It was things like this that helped remind Mami that, other things aside, they were indeed the same person.

Homura carried a medium‐size travel bag, which she set down next to her chair when she sat down.

"Preparation materials for all those interviews?" Mami asked, trying to lighten the mood, which was stagnating under the combined influence of Homura's strange behavior and Kyouko's seeming unwillingness to talk.

Homura didn't respond, looking down at the table.

Mami watched her carefully.

In the time between the "incident" and the time of this conversation, Homura had been unusually taciturn, Mami—both Mamis—mused. Not just taciturn, but constantly brooding, mumbling to herself more than usual, as if thinking about something. She just hadn't seemed the same person, and while she went about her tasks as efficiently as usual, something was off. She lacked dynamism, and came off as cold when the deliriously grateful soldiers, militia, and, eventually, colonists and reporters tried to talk to her. The light in her eyes was gone.

She had spent those days alone and cooped up in her room, even when the situation demanded she come out and talk. Sometimes, she and Kyouko spent long hours talking, and Mami wondered if that was really a good idea.

Mami had worried, of course, but she had never anticipated what was about to happen.

"Is something wrong?" the holographic Mami asked. "You've been acting strange for days, Akemi‐san."

Homura remained silent, but her face seemed to tighten slightly, her eyes growing pained.

"We can't help if you won't even properly explain what happened," Mami ventured.

"I'm sorry," Homura said, in a choked voice Mami had never heard before.

"What? Sorry for what?" Kyouko asked, coming alive at the strangest of moments.

"I can't do it anymore," Homura said, voice broken. "Ever since I ended up in this world, I've looked forward to only one thing."

She sucked in a breath.

"I always knew that, someday, I would fall in battle and could reunite with her," she said, head hanging over the table.

Neither Kyouko nor Mami needed clarification on who "her" was.

"As long as I knew that," Homura said. "I was willing to keep doing this. But she won't let me die!"

With this, she thrust out her hand to display the soul gem on her palm.

Mami and Kyouko gasped simultaneously.

It was pitch‐black, just as it had been on that fateful day—except, again, for a single point of purple light.

"What the hell have you been doing?" Kyouko snapped, grabbing Homura's wrist with one hand, reaching for the gem with the other—but it was already back as a ring.

"I've been testing her resolve," Homura said, "but I understand. My job isn't done here."

She jerked her hand away.

"Wishes are inviolate," Homura said, standing up shakily. "And my wish isn't over yet. But I didn't make that wish. Do you understand now?"

Homura looked down, at the ring on her finger.

"It's interesting to operate from the pits of despair," she said, voice clinical, not taking her eyes off the ring. "It's so easy to lose focus. I'd use a grief cube, but I don't want to forget. I want to remember, how much it hurts."

Wait, they actually managed to sneak that by the censors? Mami the viewer thought.

"What on Earth is going on?" Mami the hologram demanded.

She's acting crazy, Mami thought, in such a way that only Kyouko would hear. She avoided giving any outward sign of the telepathy.

Kyouko looked up at Homura, gritting her teeth.

It's so distressing for her, to be separated from the Goddess, Kyouko thought back.

No, Sakura‐san. Don't talk as if her insanity is true, Mami thought. We've ignored it all these years, and it's finally coming back to haunt us.

Homura shook her head rapidly, as if to clear it.

"I'm sorry," she said again.

She bent down, reaching into the bag she had carried in, and pulled out two sheets of paper—not virtual documents, but actual fabricated paper, complete with all the necessary electronic encryption seals to verify its legitimacy.

She placed them on the table.

"It's my resignation and withdrawal from the organization," Homura explained quietly. "I'm sorry to do this to you. I thought about just going, but it wouldn't be right not to say goodbye."

They stared at her for a long moment. Outside, holocam drones could be heard buzzing around the window, trying to sneak a view in somehow. The joke was on them—the room was infrared‐shielded.

"What?" Mami said, jumping out of her chair. "What the hell are you talking about? You're not thinking clearly, Akemi‐san."

"I agree," Kyouko said, standing up shakily. "What the hell, Homura? What are you doing? Look, I know you're torn up, but—"

"My mind is made up," Homura said, averting her eyes.

She clenched her eyes briefly, then pulled a ribbon out of her pocket.

It was a twin to the one she wore on her head, one they had never seen before.

"I'll leave this with you," she said, placing it on the table. "It was hers."

Mami stepped forward and grabbed Homura by the shoulders.

"No, Akemi‐san," Mami said, trying to project authority with her voice. "I won't let you. I don't know what's going on with you. But I won't let you make a decision like—"

And suddenly, she found herself grabbing thin air. Did Homura just—

"I'll be going now," Homura said, standing to her left, grabbing her bag.

She bowed to them.

"Where do you think you're going?" Kyouko demanded, stepping in front of Homura.

"I'm going to go look for her," Homura said, suddenly on the other side of Kyouko, still walking for the door. "I will protect the world another way."

"I told you," Mami insisted, growling.

She strode forward, body glowing, transforming.

"I won't let you—" she began, raising her hand, summoning the ribbons necessary to bind Homura.

But Homura was gone, bags and all.

Goodbye, Homura thought, somewhere.

And just like that, the screen faded to black. The audience didn't need to be told the rest, how Kyouko and Mami had practically torn apart the building looking for her, and how the MSY, thrown into disarray, had mounted an interstellar search that turned up nothing.

The Leadership Committee refused the resignation, on the observation that they had never considered magical girls with depleted soul gems capable of rational decision‐making.

But Homura never reappeared.

Mami sat, as the credits rolled by in a montage of Homura's life, all the happy scenes, playing with the other kids as a child, drinking tea with the others…

The other around her began chatting, but Mami stayed quiet, thinking.

It had taken a long time for them to understand, but Homura had run away. Run away from everything in search of what she really wanted, in her heart.

What had happened to her that day on New Athens had destroyed something within her.

Kyouko, and by extension the Cult, viewed Homura as a lost, fallen angel, wandering the world in search of her love, straying from the path. They saw it as their duty to get her back.

Mami viewed Homura as a girl they had failed. They hadn't been there when she needed them, and she had collapsed.

Still, though, she remembered all they had to go through after her disappearance. Her departure had broken them. Kyouko left to found her silly Cult. Yuma, already distant, buried herself in her work even deeper. And Mami…

Mami became a Field Marshal.

It wasn't the job. The jobs were all the same, to her. It was the fracturing of the group.

She hated what Homura had done, and hated herself for allowing it, and hated herself for hating Homura.

She wished she would come back.

Mami fondled the soul gem bracelet around her wrist, hidden by the holography of the movie.

Honestly, she didn't know what to think anymore. Maybe Homura really had been an insane genius, a genius with astounding magical powers. That was the only reasonable explanation.

But every time she thought that, every time she rehashed the arguments Kyouko and her no longer openly had, she always remembered Homura's soul gem.

Pitch black, with a single point of light, inextinguishable.

As the credits ended with a shot of Homura's second ribbon, now firmly enshrined in Kyouko's church, Mami thought about something else entirely.

She remembered Homura's last words to them, the words they had never revealed to anyone, the ones they didn't know if they had even been intended to hear, the ones full of despair, and determination:

If it is your will that I suffer so, if this is what you truly want, then I will continue to protect this world. I swear it.

"Would you like to join us next time?" Nodame Riko asked Mami, as they exited the theatre.

Mami looked up, startled from her reverie. She had followed them out of the building mindlessly.

"I'm serious," the girl said, smiling at her. "You seem like a nice girl."

Internally, Mami cringed. She had been afraid of this.

"Sure, why not?" she said, feeling bad about lying, but knowing it wouldn't matter soon enough. "But I'm sorry. I have to go. I promised my brother I'd go somewhere with him."

Does Chito even have a brother? Mami thought. Damn it. Well, they're not going to check a detail like that.

"Alright," Riko said, looking disappointed. "We were going to go bar‐hopping. See you next time then. I'll give you a call."

"Goodbye," Mami said, bowing.

The other girl turned, waving goodbye as the group headed down the skyway.

Waiting for her transport, Mami heard them speaking in the distance. They didn't think she could hear them, but she could. It was one of those things about not having a human body.

"Damn, Riko, you're such a predator!" one of the boys was saying to her.

"Shut it, Shino," Riko said. "She was looking lonely. I was cheering her up."

A smile crept up Mami's face, and she suppressed the urge to laugh.

She looked up, trying to find some stars. Instead she found clouds.

Ah, that's right, she thought. It's scheduled to rain tomorrow.

She checked her chronometer. It was nearly midnight.

Mami looked back down and there, just down the street, was the girl with the short hair again, about to step into a transport. Mami smiled at her, and she smiled back. Then, the girl stepped into her vehicle.

Mami's own vehicle arrived, and this time she hadn't bothered to pursue stealth. This was her vehicle. Let the pedestrians puzzle over that.

She took off her holoemitters, tossing them in a bin by the synthesizer.

It was time to stop pretending. Her vacation time was up.

Machina, attend, she thought, stepping into her vehicle.

"Machina" was the name she had assigned to her tactical AI. All members of the military had one installed. Most of those, however, were relatively primitive devices whom no one bothered to name.

A few years ago, a directive had gone out instructing General Staff members that they would be upgraded to a new, vastly improved version. She had gone through with it rather skeptically. Unlike most of her peers, she wasn't a fan of burying yourself among the machines, an attitude that, among other things, motivated Yuma to make fun of her for being old‐fashioned.

To her surprise, though, she had rather liked the new version. It was a lot more personable and intelligent than the older model. One no longer had the feeling of talking to a machine, and it could even hold good conversations. It was like talking with a True Sentient. The only strange thing was the fact that it took weeks to reach full functionality, when the older model could be up and running within the hour.

It was only later, when looking at the technical specs, that she realized why.

Designing a processing system with power and space efficiency comparable to organic systems had vexed both Human and AI designers ever since the first computer was ever built. Yes, AIs existed, and there was a plethora of smarter‐than‐human machines around, but in terms of building one both small enough and energy‐efficient enough to compete with humans on the battlefield—that had never been solved. Not even the aliens seemed to have solved this problem.

The designers had cheated. It wasn't merely a powerful nanoelectrode array, or merely a self‐assembled implant. An implant it was, yes, but this one wasn't content to sit quietly on the spinal column with its mesh array. This one actively recruited stem cells out of the bloodstream and manipulated them into growing around the device, intricately and carefully rebuilding the entire area. Nearly ten years of research and development, it was one of the most advanced pieces of technology humanity had.

One that behaved so human, she had felt obligated to give it a name—and she later found out that pretty much everyone who got one eventually did. It wasn't so much a tactical AI as a personal assistant AI.

It also meant Mami had a giant neural cluster sitting somewhere in her abdomen, constructed out of her own neurons.

It was a little disturbing, and she tried not to think about it.

Well, in any case, Machina had been there the whole time, but Mami preferred to have her head to herself when she was on vacation. Sometimes, she wondered if the device was offended by that, or whether it even could be offended. No one was sure how sentient they were.

It never showed offense, for what it was worth.

Good evening, Mami‐san, the device thought, in the same Japanese that Mami tended to think in. It had her voice. How was your vacation?

Excellent, thank you, Mami thought, even though they both knew that the device knew exactly how her vacation had been, down to the last detail.

Mami was glad that MSY technicians inspected every last such device, ensuring that they had loyalty only to their owner and not to, for example, the government.

Write up an article for the Akemi Production Committee, would you? Mami thought. Mention how I watched it in secret, I liked it, and so forth; it's for public consumption. Also, tell them I'm sorry, but I can't make any publicity events, but that they can use the article however they like.

Done, Machina thought.

Truth be told, there was no need for Mami to think everything out so elaborately, in words. She could just as easily let Machina read her mind and take care of it, like they did in combat. But she liked the conversational interaction. That way, it felt like talking to a personal assistant.

Mami thought briefly.

Also, type out some personal messages to those people I was just with, and apologize for misleading them.

I will take care of it, Machina thought.

After a moment, it continued.

Your bodyguards will be waiting at the starport, it thought. As will François‐san, as you requested.

Excellent, Mami thought. That will be all.

The device went dormant again, the sensation of its presence disappearing from Mami's awareness. It had returned to its normal activities—the endless process of sorting messages, planning schedules, issuing replies to messages that didn't warrant Mami's direct attention, and so forth. No modern general could function without her AI. The only difference was, messages that Mami didn't directly approve carried a little tag at the bottom indicating their machine‐origin. No one was even offended by it anymore.

"Alright, time to go through the rest of these messages," Mami said to herself.

The work never ended.

Chapter Text

Beginning with wary gratitude, and transitioning through a sort of vague perplexity, public opinion of magical girls has now stabilized at patriotic adulation, a state constantly reinforced by government media efforts. For all their flaws, magical girls are collectively seen as humanity's heroes and saviors.

Parental opinion of magical girls has followed a very different trajectory. While the parents of teenage daughters genuinely admire and applaud the efforts of the magical girls in the field, privately, the consensus is clear: Not my girl. With the usual exceptions, parents worldwide quietly hint, imply, or outright say to their daughters not to contract, ever. Ham‐handed government regulations aimed at prohibiting the practice has only made parents more suspicious. Having your daughter become a magical girl is treated in the same way joining the military once was.

But getting your teenage daughter to follow your proscriptions is a challenge at the best of times. What do you do if they go ahead and contract anyway?

For this special edition, we have conducted extensive interviews with parents, prominent psychiatrists, military officials, and even magical girls themselves. Our staff writers have collated the best advice they could gather into informative articles aimed at easing the transition, beginning with the realization that it is not the end of the world.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" introduction, excerpt.

First out of the vehicle, Ryouko was surprised by a burst of light behind her. The bright red radiance, against the backdrop of the dead of night, cast the doorway in front of her in an eerie scarlet pallor, causing her to turn in surprise.

She found Kyouko transformed and clad in red, holding her spear at arm‐length, considering it.

Finally, Kyouko grunted in annoyance and abolished the spear entirely. There was no dignified way to carry it inside.

"Should I transform too?" Ryouko asked.

"No," Kyouko said, grabbing her shoulder briefly as she passed Ryouko. "We don't want to overwhelm them all in one go. I only changed because it makes things easier to explain. You should know how these things go."

Ah, that's right, Ryouko thought, following Kyouko into the building.

The Visit had a legendary aura of its own, popularized by rumors, internet articles, and the popular media. It haunted the nightmares of less patriotic parents, and it was always the same. Your daughter appeared at the door, tailed by a magical girl in full costume, carrying her weapon. It was well‐known that the military and the MSY preferred that it always be the same. It got the point across faster.

They ascended the elevator in silence, Ryouko feeling a sudden profound reluctance to keep going.

When they reached the forty‐second floor, the doors slid open, and Kyouko nudged her to go first.

Ryouko approached the doorway of her family's flat, her pace slowing. It wouldn't help, really—she had already asked the door to open in anticipation of their arrival, which would be a sure signal to her family that she was back. Still, she couldn't help but—

"Aah!" she vocalized as Kyouko shoved her again, causing her to stumble into her own doorway.

Resting her arm on the doorjamb, she turned her head to look inside, where her family was watching her with a combination of worry and reproach. Her mother was in the middle of getting up from the sofa where her father was sitting, and her grandfather was seated at the kitchen table. They were all clearly waiting. It was 1:30 AM, which meant they'd normally be out of the house.

"Just what were you doing, young lady?" her mother demanded, stalking over. "You know you're forbidden to stay out this late."

"I'm sure she had a good reason," her grandfather said, also getting up. "If she said it was important, then it was important."

"Well, you could have at least explained better," her mother said, grabbing Ryouko by the shoulders and looking her up and down. "Do you know how worried we were? And the location tracking service was on the fritz, so we couldn't even track you."

"Ah, well, about that…" Ryouko began, avoiding eye contact.

"I believe I can explain that, ma'am," Kyouko said, stepping through the door, awkwardly maneuvering her spear through the doorway. For some reason, she had resummoned it, despite the obvious hazard it posed indoors. Ryouko moved aside, partly to get out of the way of the spear.

"What are you…" her mother began, glaring at the newcomer.

The words died stillborn.

The three of them, now all standing, stared at Kyouko, and it didn't take a mind‐reader to know that they were all calling up their facial recognition routines to confirm what they were seeing.

"Sakura Kyouko, at your service," Kyouko said, bowing formally, face solemn.

She looked around the room.

"I believe we have a lot to discuss," she said.

She faced an extended silence.

Ryouko's mother was the first to respond, leaning onto the half‐wall next to the door with a sudden defeated expression.

"No, after all we've—" she began, eyes darting around manically.

She stepped back, looking at her daughter as if she were an alien beast.

"Tell me you didn't," her father said, walking over, obviously gritting his teeth to suppress a stronger reaction. "Tell me this isn't what it looks like."

He grabbed Ryouko by the shoulders.

"You know our opinion of the contracting system," he said, eyes intense. "We've warned you, numerous times, what it's like. Even knowing all that, you'd contract?

Ryouko avoided his gaze.

"It's a life of misery, Ryouko," her mother said, and Ryouko felt that, strangely, the woman wasn't quite looking at her.

"That is not true, Kuroi‐san," Kyouko interjected, abolishing her spear now that it had served its purpose. "Combat may be a trial, but most magical girls live perfectly happy lives."

"Ryouko, how could you?" her mother asked desperately, making a beseeching gesture in her direction. "After everything I said—"

"I assure you," Kyouko interjected again, watching the woman carefully. "She has excellent mentors. She is likely to ascend the ranks quite handily, and that improves both survival and quality of life."

Her statement didn't quite address the central point, but it was doubtful that anything would.

Ryouko's mother looked down at her hands with a shell‐shocked expression. She seemed almost frozen.

"Mama?" Ryouko asked experimentally, but the woman didn't respond.

"May I sit?" Kyouko asked, gesturing towards the dining table, trying to break the current flow of events.

No one said anything, so she walked over and sat down in the nearest available chair, drawing a bag of chocolates out and dropping it on the table, making sure the top was open enticingly.

"I thought it would be polite to bring food," she said.

A moment later, her grandfather sat back down at the table, resting his elbows on the table and his head on his folded hands, watching Kyouko.

"Please, mama," Ryouko pleaded, reaching over and shaking her mother by the shoulder. "We have a guest."

"She's earned this, Ryouko," her father said sharply, giving her a withering look. "You lied to us. You don't know how important this is to her. At least give her a moment."

Grimacing, Ryouko stepped carefully around her parents, heading over to the table. In response to her order, one of the sidetables next to the sofa reformed itself into a fifth chair, tiny electronic modules scurrying over each other and reconnecting in their new positions. She grabbed it brusquely, moved it next to the table, and sat down.

"Tell me at least this has nothing to do with me leaving," her grandfather said, watching her out of the corner of her eye. "If you were really that concerned, you could have just asked—"

Ryouko shook her head sharply.

"No, granddad," she said. "This has nothing to do with you."

Kyouko gave the man a strange look.

The old man closed his eyes, seeming to gather his composure.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Sakura‐san," he said, addressing Kyouko. "And I am afraid we have been rather rude to such a famous guest, but I had hoped that, if I were ever to meet someone like you, it would be under more pleasant circumstances."

"This doesn't have to be a negative conversation," Kyouko insisted, sounding professional. "Think of it as a new beginning. There are many possibilities as a magical girl. Surely I myself am proof of that."

Ryouko couldn't help thinking that Kyouko sounded like she was quoting a promotional brochure. Her manner of speech seemed to have lost its customary casualness. Something was off about her.

Ryouko's father, having finally walked over, shook his head sadly.

"I don't know what to say, Ryouko," her father said, looking at her with solemn eyes. "Whatever you wished for, it can't have been worth it. We told you. Your life is worth more than this. If it was that important to you, we could have helped you achieve it."

"What was it, Ryouko?" her mother asked, watching her with a penetrating gaze. "What did you wish for? What could be worth a terrible life like that? Tell me it at least wasn't trivial."

Ryouko's insides twisted. It was painful, being here.

"I—" she began.

"Her wish is her own business," Kyouko interrupted quietly but firmly. "It is not for you to judge. She doesn't have to tell you."

"I couldn't be happy here," Ryouko said, looking down at the table. "I don't expect you to understand, but I don't think this life is for me. I feel so useless here."

"At your age?" her grandfather said, looking at her with that disturbingly appraising look he had. "I might sound hypocritical, but you should have at least given it a chance."

"We talked about this!" her mother pointed out with sudden loudness, ignoring the fact that she was admitting to illegal activity. "You agreed that you never would!"

"You would have found something, Ryouko," her father said. "We knew you weren't doing well in school, but you would have found something. Everyone does."

"And so she did," Kyouko pointed out, levelly. "There is no reason to condemn her choice. It was hers to make. She'll be in good hands."

"I can't understand it," Ryouko's father said, shaking his head at her. "It's a terrible decision, becoming a girl like that. It was very immature of you."

If Ryouko hadn't happened to be looking in Kyouko's direction, she would have missed it, but Kyouko's right eye twitched, ever‐so‐slightly, and her face seemed to tighten.

"Whose hands?" her mother demanded. "The same military that treats you girls like nothing but weapons?"

"The military that is keeping us all alive," Kyouko said, voice frozen cool anger. "Do not degrade her like this. I'll have you know that's prosecutable."

Ryouko eyes widened, staring at Kyouko.

"Kyouko, please!" Ryouko pleaded.

Kyouko glanced at her and took a deep breath.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, bowing her head slightly. "You all know my history, probably. I still do not take reminders of it well."

"It's alright," Ryouko's grandfather absolved.

I could have sent someone else, Kyouko thought to Ryouko. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea, coming here. I'd forgotten how much I hate meeting the parents.

It's okay, Ryouko thought.

"It's the same military you elected to join," Kyouko commented, turning to look at Ryouko's grandfather. "It seems rather strange to disapprove from your position."

"I am two hundred and twenty‐four years old," the old man said. "I can make my decisions in that regard. She is far too young."

"I agree," Kyouko said. "But there is no choice in the matter. For what it's worth, girls in my generation contracted under far less favorable circumstances."

Something clicked in Ryouko's head, and she realized what was off about Kyouko.

She sounded old.

Before, she had spoken with a delinquent's accent and vocabulary, of the sort you only saw in movies nowadays. She had slept on Ryouko's shoulder, cracked jokes, and in general had defied what might be expected from a girl that nearly doubled her grandfather in age. Now, she sat with straight back, speaking formally, giving the impression that she and Ryouko's grandfather were peers. There was steel underlying her voice, as if to remind listeners that she was more than four centuries old, and could tear you to pieces if she wished.

It was discordant and unnerving, and the situation was getting out of hand.

"Please, mama, papa," she pleaded, meeting their eyes. "It's over. It was my choice. I want you to support me. Please? Don't let it be like this."

The moment stretched out.

"She is right," Kyouko said, when no one responded immediately. "Please, let's put this all aside for now."

Ryouko kept her head down, but Kyouko looked among the three adults, watching as their faces registered that, no, they really didn't have a choice anymore. Any arguing or pontification about the military, or about the ethics of contracting girls barely out of infancy, was now a moot point. Empty words, as meaningful as static.

Her father took a deep, measured breath.

"Alright, Ryouko," her father said, grabbing her hand and looking her in the eye. "Like you said, what is done is done. You are an adult now. I hope you're ready."

Her mother merely nodded.

"Alright," she said quietly.

"Yes," her grandfather said, reaching forward to grab one of the chocolates and toss it in his mouth thoughtfully. "There is indeed no choice."

Kyouko tilted her head at the gesture. Her parents followed suit, grabbing the chocolates and eating them politely.

"Maybe we'll even get to see each other," her grandfather said, chewing the candy. "Don't you, uh, magical girls get to have family visits and such?"

"That is correct," Kyouko interjected. "And that brings us to the real reason I'm here. If you don't mind, I'd like to brief you all on having a magical girl as a daughter. There's certain things you must know."

Her eyes unfocused for a brief moment.

Every other person in the room felt the internal ping! of an arriving message, the kind of signal that everyone was well‐used to ignoring during conversation.

"Read it later when you have time," Kyouko said. "But I'll walk you through it while I'm here. First off, yes, it is correct that you will be allowed to visit, although this will be restricted during initial training, and you—"

She indicated Ryouko's grandfather.

"—will only get one extra week of leave a year, and will still have to arrange visits for leave. Now, unfortunately, given how tight things are on the front, she will have to depart rather quickly, but she'll be able to stay around for about a week. Other than basic equipment provision and internal mesh reconfiguration, there won't be any other requirements during the time. We will arrange grief cube delivery at necessary intervals, but you're generally free to do as you wish. The message you've received contains details on where and when to show up."

They watched her as she took a breath to say more, eyes unfocused, clearly starting to recite an official speech.

"She has been automatically disenrolled from school, so you don't have to worry about that. Since your family now contains a standing member of the military, you're all entitled to benefits, including enhanced Alloc distribution, that you can read about later. As you may be aware, Ryouko is now officially emancipated, which entails a dissolution of much of your legal parental rights and responsibilities."

She reached into one of the recesses of her magical girl dress and pulled out a set of holographic brochures.

"In case you prefer physical media," she explained, sliding the brochures forward onto the table. "You are also advised that members of the local media may attempt to come interview you. Whether you accept is up to you. Governance, the Armed Forces, and the MSY would like to emphasize their gratitude, and the gratitude of humanity, for the sacrifice your family has made and will make."

Kyouko's eyes focused again.

"And now I imagine you have questions you may want to ask."

"You're damn right we do," Ryouko's grandfather said, leaning forward. "First, who the hell recruited her? Was it you?"

"No," Kyouko said, looking glad to be able to say so. "Tomoe Mami couldn't make it today."

"It was Tomoe Mami?" Ryouko's father spat out involuntarily.

"She saved my life," Ryouko commented. "Simona and I were the victims of a demon attack."

"You were attacked?" her mother asked incredulously. "And you didn't even tell us?"

"I was busy," Ryouko explained lamely.

"I am told she performed quite well, for a civilian," Kyouko commented.

Her mother and father glanced at each other.

"So what's your power?" her mother asked. "That's not verboten, is it?"

"She's a teleporter," Kyouko said, electing to answer the question for Ryouko. "And she carries a ranged weapon. She won't be engaging in any close combat if we can help it."

Ryouko's father glowered, clearly realizing that Kyouko was trying to perform a sell job.

"You mentioned mentors," he commented. "Shouldn't she only have one? Who are they?"

"Oh, yes," Ryouko answered, figuring that if she had to have this conversation, she might as well try to impress. "Mami and Kyouko here are going to be my mentors. It's definitely an honor."

"Mostly Mami," Kyouko demurred. "But knowing Mami, that means Ryouko here is destined for a role on her command staff. You have little to worry about."

Not that being on her command staff makes you that much safer, Kyouko commented to her, privately. But nothing wrong with lying a little to make everyone feel better.

Wait, command staff? Ryouko asked. Is that really true?

Yes, Kyouko said. But like I said, don't expect to be sitting behind a desk vegetating. Mami doesn't do things like that.

Meanwhile, Ryouko's father made a noncommittal noise.

"Well, now that there's no choice in the matter, it's good to hear she'll have opportunities," her father said. "I expect you to try your best to advance ranks, Ryouko."

"Of course," she said, and meant it, too.

Your parents seem surprisingly knowledgeable, Kyouko thought. They haven't even asked about the grief cubes and the soul gem. That's usually the first thing to come up.

They were researchers, Ryouko thought, mentally shrugging.

So the files say, Kyouko commented.

Her mother was giving her father a strange look.

"Well, Sakura‐san, I appreciate you coming out here," she said, voice carrying a clear undertone of dismissal. "But I think it's time Ryouko went to bed. Also, we need time to discuss things among ourselves. I hope you understand. Do either of you still have questions?"

She glanced around at her husband and father.

"I do," Ryouko's grandfather's said. "But I agree. It's time for her to go bed."

Ryouko glanced at Kyouko.

Go ahead, Kyouko thought. If he has questions, he has questions. I'm sure you're tired.

Ryouko nodded—even though she shouldn't have—and got up.

"We can speak separately," Kyouko agreed amenably, speaking to the old man.

In the end, it was well past two by the time Ryouko got ready for bed.

Finally changed, Ryouko staggered towards her bed, narrowly avoiding tripping over her telescope.

Read it later when you have time, Kyouko's voice mocked in her memory.

Not today, that's for certain, she thought, collapsing onto her bed.

She was supposed to meet Asaka tomorrow at one. She never slept this late; she would feel terrible in the morning.

She wondered what it would be like, not having to sleep.


She looked over to find her mother in the doorway.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," the woman said. "But I thought we should talk."

"No problem," Ryouko lied, forcing herself to sit up on her pillows. The woman walked over, sitting in the chair next to Ryouko's desk.

"I'm sorry, mama," Ryouko said. "But I've thought this through. Trust me. I know you'll be worried for me, but I guarantee you I'll survive."

I can't die before my wish is fulfilled, after all.

Her mother sat down on her bed.

"I won't lie, Ryouko," she said. "You've made a terrible decision. It's not about the survival. It's about the lifestyle."

Ryouko looked at her mother carefully.

"I disagree," she said. "That's all I can say."

The corner of her mother's mouth twitched upward.

"Well, I suppose you are my daughter after all," the woman said. "I just hope…"

Her voice trailed off.

"Hope what?" Ryouko prodded.

Her mother shook her head.

"You know what kind of work your father and I used to do," her mother said.

"Yes, mama," Ryouko said.

They had been staff scientists at the Prometheus Research Institute. Volunteers, like all researchers. They had essentially quit to raise a daughter, though they still showed up at the lab most nights.

"There's a reason we don't talk about it," her mother said. "It's not a pretty world out there. I meant it when I said that the military treats… magical girls such as you as nothing but weapons."

"I know," Ryouko said, bowing her head. "I did my research."

"Of course you did," her mother said, sounded a tad skeptical. "Just remember who you are. That's all I ask."

Ryouko looked up at her mother, wondering what she was trying to say.

The woman sighed.

"We talked about this, Ryouko," she said. "We told you about this. You agreed with us. What could have motivated you—"

"It's not up for discussion!" Ryouko insisted sharply.

She looked back down.

"So I lied, okay?" she said. "I didn't think it would ever matter, since I wasn't expecting to really ever get a chance at a contract. I don't want to live my life on Earth like a nobody! What help am I to anyone here? The world is bigger than this!"

Her mother closed her eyes.

"I wonder what it is about our family?" she asked. "None of us can sit still. I just wanted us all to live together happily. Was it that much to ask?"

"There's no reason we can't be happy separately," Ryouko pointed out.

Her mother looked at her.

"You're very cruel for a girl your age," she said.

Ryouko blinked.

"Wait, let me reword that—" she began.

"No, it's okay," her mother said. "But I have a bit of a request."

"Request?" Ryouko asked.

"Let me see you transform," her mother said, smiling just a little, and Ryouko thought she could almost catch a twinkle in the woman's eyes.

"What? Why?" Ryouko asked.

"Why not?" her mother asked. "Indulge an old woman."

Put that bluntly, her mother was right. There was no real reason not to. Except, well, the embarrassment.

Ryouko summoned her soul gem into its gem form.

She stood up. She swallowed her embarrassment…

And then, with a flash, she was done.

She exhaled slightly. She felt strangely nervous, and it didn't help that her mother, rather than being dazzled or shocked, was instead scrutinizing her carefully.

"Lacey," her mother commented. "And green. That's not what I would have predicted out of you."

"Alright, so it's lacey," Ryouko said, more annoyed than she should have been. "It's not like I got to choose."

"I guess it makes sense," her mother said. "And an arbalest. That's appropriate."

"How so?" Ryouko asked, confused.

The woman shrugged.

"Matches the costume," her mother said.

"And you know what an arbalest is?" Ryouko asked. "I didn't. Until I got this."

She gestured with her crossbow‐laden left arm, carefully avoiding hitting her telescope.

"Your old mom is quite the history buff, I'll have you know," her mother said. "Or used to be."

"I know, mama," Ryouko acknowledged, shaking her head in amusement. "I just didn't think it extended to things like this."

"It started on things like this," her mother commented.

Then, looking down, the woman nodded to herself.

"Alright, I'll let you sleep," she said, getting up. "You and your grandfather have been scheduled to leave on the same day, so I'm going to try and have a little party before you all go. I have to plan. Invite your friends."

Ryouko changed back as her mother headed for the door.

"You know, Ryouko," her mother said, stopping at the door. "Your father and I haven't lived alone together since before you were born. It might be hard to get used to."

"I'm sure you'll be fine, mama," Ryouko said.

The woman shrugged, then walked away, the door closing behind her.

Ryouko lay back down. Finally, she could—

The door slid open.

"Yes?" she asked, exasperated.

"I forgot to say," her mother said. "If you ever manage to meet your grandmother, tell her we're sorry."

"Okay," Ryouko agreed, just trying to get rid of her.

The door closed.

Wait, why? she thought.

And she would have thought about it some more, but her eyes felt so heavy, and her blankets were so warm…

"With all due respect, Kuroi‐san," Kyouko said, twirling the wine glass in her fingers. "I'm a busy girl. I can't sit here forever answering questions, especially if you're just going to ask about the military. They have brochures for that. I'm here to answer questions about magical girls."

She kept her intoxication controls on, which meant that the helpful little nanites in her bloodstream stayed busy breaking the alcohol down. It was polite to accept offers of drinks, but she didn't want to lose her focus.

At the other side of the table, the old man harrumphed, holding his own glass.

"'Girl', you say. Everyone knows how old you are. You're nearly twice my age. I don't know why you all like to pretend to be so young."

Kyouko raised an eyebrow. What a cheeky old man.

"Don't dodge the point," Kyouko said, looking at him. "I'm saying I have work to do. If you're going to sit here and ask me about weaponry, I could easily be doing something else."

Kuroi Abe swirled his glass, looking down into what remained of the authentic French Merlot.

"Yes," he said. "But you won't. In fact, I'm willing to bet you've cleared your schedule for the rest of the night."

Kyouko kept her face passive, even though he was spot‐on. She had indeed cleared her schedule, handing off her prepared sermons to one of the other priestesses. As Mami's message had said, if she wanted to be a mentor, she should be prepared to take some responsibility.

Not that Mami didn't owe her for this. Even if Mami had military duties, she would have to pay back in other ways.

"You're treading dangerous ground, boy," Kyouko said.

"I asked around, in the past," the old man said, shrugging and ignoring her threat. "The first thing you girls do after the family visit is to try and hang around as long as possible, seeing what things are like, how the family is reacting. Gathering information, to relay to your MSY Mental Health Division later. I don't mind. Ryouko is going to need all the support she can get."

"So you kept me here," Kyouko said.

"Yes," the old man said. "I figured you'd appreciate the help."

She hadn't needed the "help". She could easily have monitored the household from the outside. But no matter how canny the old man was, he had no way of knowing that.

"Well, if you don't mind me asking," Kyouko said, leaning forward. "Why exactly were you asking about something like that? It's not exactly common conversation material."

"On this planet, Ryouko is practically all I still care about," the old man said. "That, and my daughter, but she can take care of herself. Ryouko, I'm not so sure about."

He set the glass down and leaned forward as well.

"Let's just say I've had reason to suspect that this might happen, someday," he said.

"The incidence rate of magical girl potential is only about one in ten thousand," Kyouko commented. "That's a rather specific thing to worry about."

"I don't have much else to do with my free time," the old man said. "I might as well scout out all the possible angles. And her personality seemed about right. I don't really approve of her decision but, unlike my daughter, I am willing to accept that it is her decision, my previous criticism aside. If I didn't understand her urge to leave, I wouldn't be leaving myself."

"So you kept me here to talk," Kyouko said drily.

"That's right," the old man said. "I thought I could fill you in on our family. Maybe save you some work."

In truth, Kyouko didn't enjoy doing these at all. Navigating family dynamics was tricky work, and magical girls tended to be more likely to come from dysfunctional families. It was made worse by the way the hysterical reactions of some parents grated her. She hated being reminded of her own past, no matter how indirectly, and the damn "Visits" were always awkward.

Nor did she particularly enjoy conversations with nosy two‐hundred‐year‐olds. It was made worse by the fact that she was always forced to adopt a more adult persona to reassure parents. The older folk that saw that then became convinced that just because she could act Ancient if she wanted to, it made her one of them, despite her teenage appearance.

She didn't like being one of them.

As if on cue, one of her internal monitors asked for attention.

She listened to what it was relaying to her.

"—and that stunt where you encouraged her to advance the ranks, as if it were perfectly natural!" Ryouko's mother was saying. "You sounded like you were proud!"

"No I didn't," the father asserted back. "You're putting words in my mouth again! I was just being reasonable. What would it help, if I acted all hysterical, like you? I'm only giving her the best advice I can. Telling her to try and get promoted is only logical."

"That's just like you," the woman responded. "You don't even think this is a big deal, do you?"

"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not happy, you idiot!"

Kyouko gritted her teeth despite herself. Parents.

The old man looked at her curiously.

"We wouldn't even be in this situation if it weren't for you!" Ryouko's mother said.

"Oh, not this again. You have no proof—"

"You're the one who thought it would be a good idea!"

"And you agreed with me! Enthusiastically, if I recall right."

"Now who's making things up?"


"You know what—"

"What is it?" the old man asked.

"Her parents are arguing," Kyouko said, still listening, head tilted.

Something about the conversation didn't make sense…

"How do you know?" the old man, unable to hear it through the soundproofing.

Kyouko sighed internally. Those chocolates had contained stealthed surveillance bugs, designed to last about a week or so. It was standard procedure, but she could hardly admit that.

She pointed at her ear instead.

"Magical girl, remember?" she said. "We have better hearing than the rest of you."

The comment was even technically true.

The old man grimaced.

"You want to talk so bad," Kyouko said. "Explain to me what's going on."

She shot him an audio transcript, and suppressed a smile as he grunted in surprise at the military‐level direct message protocol.

"Their marriage has been on the rocks for years," the old man said, sighing, a while later. "To be honest, before Ryouko was born, they almost divorced. The child license arrived at just the right time for them to agree to give it another shot. They thought it might bind them together, somehow."

The old man smiled vaguely.

"Honestly, my wife and I didn't really think so, but we wanted a grandchild and we thought, 'Hey, why not? It might work.' It wasn't a great decision."

The smile faded.

"Well, anyway, it didn't work," he said. "They keep up appearances, though, for Ryouko's sake. That girl may be smart, but she's terrible at noticing certain things."

Kyouko nodded.

"Okay, but what's all this about it being her father's 'fault'? That doesn't make sense. How could it be his fault she contracted? Your daughter almost makes it sound like he did something."

Abe looked down at the table, and Kyouko could tell he was deciding whether to reveal something.

"Okay," he said. "So you know they used to be researchers, right?"

"Of course," Kyouko said. "But the files didn't mention what."

"They worked for the military," the old man said. "Working with magical girls, as a matter of fact. Developing weapons, data‐mining, things like that. Kuma thought it would be a good idea to inform Ryouko of some of the more unsavory details about you girls, to dissuade her from wanting to be one. Nakase agreed, at the time."

"Later, we found out that all we did was make her more curious. She tried to hide it, but we knew she was active on the forums, things like that. It was one of the reasons why I was paranoid about her contracting. To be frank, Naka‐chan is really being unfair here, but their marriage is at the point where they both find the silliest reasons to get angry at each other."

Kyouko nodded.

The old man shook his head in exasperation.

"All the women in this family are stubborn like that. Get it from my wife, I suppose."

"Was Ryouko close with her grandmother?" Kyouko asked.

"Very," the old man said. "The woman doted on her, even if she's too young to remember it much anymore. That's why I don't understand…"

He shook his head.

"Forgive me, it's a personal topic."

"I understand," Kyouko said. "Now, you two had two daughters?"

"Yes," the old man said, knowing what she was driving at. "Ryouko doesn't know about her aunt, though. Personally, I haven't seen her in over a century. We stay in touch though. I'm sure you understand."

"I see," Kyouko said, making a mental note of the matter. This would have to be addressed.

"Your family is pretty complicated," she commented, finally.

"Yes," the old man agreed.

"Hey Ryouko‐chan," the voice behind her said.

Ryouko turned and looked up at the stranger.

"Who are you?" she asked, drawing out the word "you" childishly.

"A friend of your parents," the girl said.

She was a teenager, wearing a long ponytail. She looked familiar somehow…

Ryouko stared up at the girl, waiting to know who it was.

"Oh, I wouldn't trust the face thing if I were you," the girl said. "That's not my real name. Don't bother."

Ryouko wrinkled her nose.

"That sounds suspicious," she said.

In a world where violent crime was virtually nonexistent, and your personal enhancement locked up your muscles if you ever tried, children were still taught to be suspicious of strangers. Not every possible crime was violent, after all.

The girl laughed.

"I guess it does," she said. "Your mother taught you well."

"Hey, hey!" a woman nearby yelled.

The primary school teacher pushed her way forward through the gaggle of children piling onto the group of waiting transports.

She confronted the teenager.

"The school surveillance doesn't list you as authorized to pick her up," the teacher said, pushing her face in front of that of the girl's.

"Take a look at my face," the girl said, pointing at said face.

The teacher frowned and did so. Her stern expression relaxed a little, but she shook her head.

"You're still not authorized," the teacher said. "I'm going to have to ask her parents about this."

"Listen," the teenager said, leaning forward. "Can I have a word with you in private?"

The teacher frowned, but acquiesced, gesturing at Ryouko to stay still.

"Wait here," she said.

Ryouko watched curiously as the two of them retreated to a corner to talk privately.

A long while later, so long that all the other children had boarded their vehicles, and Ryouko had gotten bored and was spinning pointlessly in circles, the two of them came back.

"You better not be lying," the teacher warned. "I'm more than willing to call the authorities if necessary."

"I'm not," the teenager reassured. "I just want to spend some time with her. That's all."

She held her hands up in a gesture of harmlessness.

"I'll be watching," the teacher warned.

"Come on Ryouko‐chan," the girl said, offering her hand.

"Who are you?" Ryouko asked.

"I told you; I'm a friend of your parents," the girl said. "I just want to be friends."

Ryouko considered for a moment, then grabbed the girl's hand. What was the worst that could happen?

"Thanks, Ryouko!" the girl said cheerily. "Now come on, let's sit on the bench over there!"

When they got there, the girl offered her a chocolate chip cookie to placate her. Ryouko bit into it silently as the girl talked.

"You're a pretty cute little girl," the teenager said. "You look just like Naka‐chan."

"Uh‐huh," Ryouko said, focusing on her cookie.

"Listen, Ryouko," the girl said. "Have you ever seen one of these?"

Ryouko looked at the girl's hand—and dropped her cookie straight down onto the floor.

"A soul gem!" she said. "You're a magical girl!"

"Yup!" the girl said.

"Wow!" Ryouko said, suddenly enthused. For a girl of her age, meeting a magical girl was like meeting a princess and a superhero at the same time—except that you had a distant chance of actually being one, someday.

"Can I touch it?" she asked.

The girl shook her head.

"Sorry," she said. "A magical girl's soul gem is too precious to be touched."

Ryouko nodded seriously. That made sense.

"Can you show me some magic?" Ryouko asked.

The girl put a finger to her cheek, thinking.

"I don't see why not," she said, finally.

Ryouko leaned forward as the girl got up. Her friends would be so jealous of her when she told them about this!

The girl was briefly ensheathed by spectacular purple flash, and then her clothes were replaced by the elaborate purple costume of a magical girl.

It was lacey, with buttons, and the girl's soul gem formed a bright six‐pointed star at the base of her neck.

Ryouko just stared. The girl was the same color as Akemi Homura—but her costume was a lot cooler.

The girl carried a large wooden bow.

"It's a composite bow," the girl explained, aiming for the sky, summoning a bolt out of thin air.

She fired, and the bolt soared into the sky, past transparent tubing and buildings, before detonating in a radiant purple burst, resembling fireworks.

"Ryouko," it spelled in the sky.

Ryouko, who had jumped off of the bench to look, clapped ebulliently.

"Wow!" she repeated. "I can't wait to be old enough to be like you!"

Instead of being pleased at the compliment, the teenager frowned sharply, then returned to normal, her bow and costume dissolving near‐instantly.

The girl shook her head, voice suddenly getting that "seriousness" that adults had sometimes.

"I know it's cool," she said. "But you should listen to your parents before you make any contracts, okay? I'm serious."

Ryouko frowned, peeved. That was what everyone said.

"I guess I couldn't resist showing off," the girl said, smiling to herself.

Then she bent down, reaching eye‐level with Ryouko. Ryouko looked into the girl's eyes, and she looked back.

"I got you a gift," the girl said, holding up something in her hand.

Ryouko took it without hesitation, by this point thoroughly won over.

"Ooh," she mouthed, holding the bracelet in two hands.

"Listen, Ryouko," she said, patting the girl on the head. "It's very important that you keep all of this a secret, including the bracelet. Especially from your parents."

"Why?" Ryouko asked, sliding the oversize bracelet onto her wrist.

"It's very important…" the girl said, her voice dissolving as the world shifted…

"—that she not learn any of it!" her grandmother exclaimed loudly, causing Ryouko to startle, at her vantage point behind the door.

Ryouko looked up, marveling at how enormous the door appeared.

"But why?" Ryouko's father said. "Why shouldn't she know?"

"This family has lost enough to those damn Incubators already," the older woman said. "The last thing we need is for her to see a damn role model. No. She can't disappear a hundred years like that and just expect to come back home like it's no big deal!"

"You're being unfair," Ryouko's father said. "She had obvious reasons."

"The both of you quiet down," Ryouko's grandfather said. "We have a little visitor."

The sound of footsteps, then the door swinging wide open, causing an eavesdropping Ryouko to stumble and fall—

Ryouko startled awake, gasping.

What the hell was that? she thought, a few moments later.

She felt her forehead. She was sweating.

10:30:16, her internal chronometer told her.

She lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, nursing the headache and exhausting tiredness that came with sleeping off‐cycle.

Ryouko hadn't thought about that purple magical girl in a long, long time, even though that girl had helped start her quiet fascination with the topic. It was a childhood memory, one she had, indeed, never told her parents.

But the other part of the dream—she didn't remember that at all. What the hell did it mean?

Ryouko sighed. She wasn't going to fall back asleep without strenuous effort, even if she had yet to slept a full night by her standards.

Struggling off her bed, she slid her feet into her favorite bunny slippers. She should bring them with her, she thought. They must allow a few personal effects in your luggage.

She stopped in front of her desk. At her thought, the topmost drawer slid open, the desk's internal organizers presenting her with exactly what she was looking for.

She picked up the bracelet, regarding it in the light. It was a fairly simple bracelet, but one designed to please a child. It still glowed softly after all these years, a mundane application of fantastic technology. A bit of artwork decorated the outer surface: a stylized shooting star, encircling the edge.

The emblem of the MSY, Ryouko thought, startled. She had never realized that before.

A moment later, she slipped it on. It fit perfectly, now.

As she dug through her closet for clothes, she chewed over her memories. Her memory of the purple magical girl had been just like a child's. She remembered the flashy bits, the name "Ryouko" written in bright sparkles in the sky, but the other details that had come up in her dream—she hadn't been able to recall any of that before.

Who the hell was she? Ryouko thought. What kind of person can walk around with the wrong name attached to her face?

And the part of the dream after that. Was that real? She hardly had any memories of her grandmother. She had been too young…

Her memories of her grandmother tended to be very specific, and this wasn't one she had ever recalled before.

Ryouko scowled, putting on a pair of pants. If she ever met the woman again, she was going to ask a few questions. Maybe she would actually answer them, unlike her parents.

Well, in any case, she had voicemail.

She listened to it as she shrugged on a shirt.

"I'm really sorry about yesterday," Simona's voice sounded in her head. "I was just a little surprised, is all."

Surprised, Ryouko thought drily. Well, that's one way to put it.

"I want to make it up to you," the girl continued. "So I was thinking the four of us could do something, maybe go watch that movie you were supposed to go watch."

Oh wow, that, Ryouko thought. She had forgotten completely about that. Well, at least she had gotten out of that date in probably the most decisive way possible.

"I don't know, though," Simona demurred. "I think you might want to tell the others yourself. So I'll leave it to you to do that before I do anything."

Right, Ryouko thought.

She thought out an affirmative reply message, then an additional message to her other friends, kept very vague. She wasn't feeling ready for any phone conversations, so she left it at strictly text.

"Good morning, Ryouko," her grandfather greeted as she stepped out into the main room.

"Good morning," she responded, yawning, glancing around.

Her father was apparently out, but her mother had gotten up from her early morning nap and was ready at the counter.

"I had the technician stop by while you were asleep, so you can have a proper breakfast," her mother said, setting out a bowl of rice, pickled vegetables, and a bowl of miso. "It's not like we're going to be short on Allocs anymore. Not with two family members in the military."

Not knowing what the proper response to that was, Ryouko settled for smiling sheepishly and taking her seat.

As she chewed through her food, her mother and grandfather sat and watched her with disturbing intensity, as if she might stab herself with the chopsticks if they didn't both stare at her hard enough.

"I was wondering," Ryouko said, looking around at the both of them carefully. "Now that all this has happened, is there, uh—"

She paused, thinking over how to word it. The fact of the matter was, she had always sensed that her family kept certain things from her. Now that she was technically an adult, maybe they'd be looser‐lipped.

"Is there anything you're keeping from me?" she settled on. "Things from your work, maybe? Anything that might be relevant? I know there's laws about telling things to girls of my age."

She doubted that, if there was, it had anything to do with laws, but it was a way for them to save face.

Her mother and grandfather glanced at each other.

"I won't say there's nothing," her grandfather said. "But you'll probably find out soon enough anyway. It's not something that's best explained right now."

"That's right," her mother agreed.

"I can't be satisfied with something like that," Ryouko said, making her gaze harsh.

Her grandfather shrugged, completely ignoring her attempt to convey an anger she didn't feel.

Ryouko sighed. It was always like this. She couldn't get worked up about it anymore.

Glowering, she settled into reading through her messages—specifically, the metric ton of military messages that had settled into her inbox the night before. Looking into the middle distance, she let the words insert themselves into her memory.

First, she read the one labeled as highly important.

Okay, she had a scheduled appointment for initial orientation and outfitting at the local MSY branch office at 13:00. She knew that already.

The next message was a quick primer on grief cube usage, indicating that she would receive a set of three in her family's delivery slot exactly three and six days after first contract. It went on to state that standard basal usage was actually about one every three days, but, as a new recruit, she was receiving extra, as a countermeasure against probable emotional turmoil. Recruits were instructed to try to stay as calm as possible, and to ask their nearest mentor, recruiting officer, or magical girl, for an explanation of why.

It also told her not to hesitate to request more, that allowing more than minor corruption was highly dangerous, and that there would be packaging so she could deposit grief cubes, either excess or used, back in the same delivery slot. It was highly important that she handle the cubes herself, and not allow any civilians to touch it, so if she wouldn't be home to receive the delivery, please issue instructions…

Ryouko moved on to the next message.

This one was the official welcome message from the military, full of patriotic indoctrination and other things like that. It admonished her to read all her messages carefully, and to ask her mentor or local liaison officer for more information, if necessary. That liaison was Patricia, she noted, though she didn't expect it to matter. The message also made sure to inform her of all the fantastic privileges and benefits she could expect as a member of the military.

After that, somewhat more interestingly, was the welcome message from the MSY. It informed her of the privileges she could expect from membership, including a very cushy additional Alloc stipend, as well as her responsibilities—the expectation that she vote in elections, serve as either juror or tribunal member in the Soul Crimes court if requested, and so forth. It listed and linked a dizzying list of additional resources to peruse, regarding standing for election, cultural traditions, internal days of observations and so on and so forth.

The message after that asked her if she felt she had sufficient meaning in her life, and invited her to attend a sermon at the local Church of Hope which, as luck would have it, was also the headquarters church, where you could often see the inspirational Sakura Kyouko herself speaking— She trashed it. No offense to Kyouko, but she wasn't interested.

Though now that she thought about it, neither Kyouko nor any of the girls with her had said a word on the subject, even though they were almost certainly all affiliated.

That was interesting.

And they just kept on coming. There was a primer on military protocol. There was an informational guide on Alloc distribution, conversion to local colonial currency, and the investment opportunities she might pursue in the colonies, if desired. There was an interesting guide on security clearances, from which she learned that she now had security clearance level one. There was a listing of local magical girls and other recent recruits, should she wish to socialize or ask questions—it contained an invitation to some sort of get together later. There was an informative outline of the legal and practical implications of emancipation.

Perhaps the most amusing message was the one labeled "Important Health Message". It asserted that "Contrary to common belief, being a magical girl has no effect on one's ability to get pregnant, and continued functioning of one's contraceptive implants is expected and normal. No attempts should be made to disable the implants." This message was paired with the admonition that "While we are aware that it will be difficult being away from home for months, frivolous use of magic is, as always, highly discouraged."

Ryouko had had to struggle to keep a straight face on that one.

And on and on the messages continued, until Ryouko felt numb trying to continue to process them all. Apologizing to her family, she never budged from her seat, and even had lunch sitting at that table, blindly transferring food into her mouth with her chopsticks. Her family watched her with concealed expressions as she did so.

Finally, she stopped, just before getting to a message detailing the mesh reconfigurations and enhancement modifications that she would have to undergo. It was getting late, and this message was long.

She figured she would find out soon enough anyway.

She got up, bade them farewell, and left for her appointment.

Chapter Text

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

As the early MSY began absorbing magical girl teams at a growing pace, stretching its borders beyond the local prefecture and gaining branches in regional cities, its leadership faced a new dilemma.

Rampaging magical girls, 〈either〉① amoral villains drunk on the dregs of power 〈or girls gone insane under the stresses and horrors of their new lives〉①, had been a plague on the system from the very beginning, terrorizing weaker girls, unconcerned with the Human population, and generally out for only themselves. 〈Their psychological makeup rendered them immune to the despair‐induced deaths that, for better or worse, otherwise cleansed the system, forcing their elimination to be based solely on the consumption of power.〉①

Traditionally, such abhorrents were only eliminated after strenuous effort by other girls and teams or, in the cases of the most powerful, by ad‐hoc alliances devoted to the task. In the emerging new order, it was natural to turn to the MSY instead, which clearly had the necessary manpower. While the original charter called for informal cooperation between teams in an afflicted area, in numerous cases it had proven impossible to collect the necessary manpower before significant damage was done.

After extensive debate, several of the most powerful and willing girls were collected and placed into a new team dedicated to this task, initially headed by the legendary Tomoe Mami herself. They took to calling themselves the Guardia di Anima, the Soul Guard, and though the Italian version of the name never quite caught on, this name would eventually accrue to the organization that grew from them. They would become the police force of the MSY, the enforcers of the new order, and the nucleus of the elite military branch familiar to readers today.

〈It was also from this organization that the secretive Black Heart would eventually emerge, when necessity called. This organization, the intelligence division, black‐ops force, and secret police of the MSY, would similarly form the core of the Black Heart known today. A history of this organization is available in a separate report to readers of security clearance four or above.〉③

But as the newly formed Soul Guard proved itself capable of not merely killing, but also capturing these abhorrents, the leadership was faced with yet another dilemma, one that would help spur the MSY on the road to becoming something not seen before in the history of the world: a secret government.

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

Look at the General Staff today, and one will find a membership much changed from before the war, when the institution was a council of Unification Era Veterans and careerist bureaucrats. Today, not one member of the General Staff has failed to prove their mettle in combat, and if there are holdouts from the prewar days, they are all holdouts who have proven their worth.

No one exemplifies this influx of new blood more than the current Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Erwynmark, Hero of Aurelia and Sahara, whose current position caps a meteoric, decade‐long rise from Brigadier General of Volunteers.

There is, however, one glaring exception to this general meritocracy. Despite a tremendous influx of magical girls into the officer corps, and a proliferation of magical girl lieutenant generals and generals, except for the politically appointed Tomoe Mami, not one has attained the rank of Field Marshal, or attained a seat on the General Staff.

This is reflective of two factors. Firstly, it reflects an institutional reluctance to hand magical girls any more power than they already have. It is widely felt in the military that, between the MSY, the Black Heart's subsumption of the intelligence services, and overwhelming magical girl control of the elite Soul Guard, there is no need for any more magical girl control in the military.

The second factor is more unfortunate, and is a result of prejudice among elements of the military against handing over power to what, after all, appear to be teenage girls. Despite widespread disapproval of such sentiments within both the government and the general public, such feelings have proven stubbornly difficult to stamp out.

In this case, it is telling that among the newer members of the upper echelons of the officer corps, those who have risen through the ranks through prowess in field combat, such opinions are unheard of. Such prejudices appear to be solely the domain of those officers who have never personally seen combat.

Despite this, however, the combination of institutional inertia and ingrained beliefs have made the highest tiers of the military an unexpectedly hostile place for magical girls. Antipathy for the General Staff is thus widespread among magical girls in the field.

Over the years, this poisonous state of affairs has begun more and more to concern the government. Under the combination of government pressure—via Governance: Military Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls—and continued political maneuvering by Marshal Tomoe and the more enlightened elements of the officer corps, most military observers expect that the day will soon come when a second magical girl will ascend to the General Staff.

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

Twenty‐one years ago


Mami turned at the familiar voice.

"Oh, hello, Sakura‐san," she said, smiling at the familiar face standing at the other side of the kitchen counter.

"I brought snacks," Kyouko said, using both hands to hold up a box full of assorted pastries. "From that bake shop you like. Expensive, but damned if it isn't better than the synthesized stuff."

"Of course," Mami said, leaning forward over the counter so that her apron strained over her chest. "And you didn't have to."

Kyouko made an elaborate shrugging gesture, as if to say "you know how it is." It shifted the straps of the tanktop she wore, which was noticeably different from the outfit she normally wore, day in and day out. Not big on fashion, that girl. It may have stemmed from the year or so she spent on the "street".

"Well, anyway, there's more snacks on the table," Mami said, turning back to her cooking. "I'm not quite done with the food yet, so feel free to help yourself."

As she returned to chopping her—very rare and expensive—fresh vegetables, she couldn't help but hum a little tune to herself. Her passion for cooking was one of the reasons she had paid to even have a kitchen, when most people had none.

Sometimes she thought back to her life alone, all those centuries ago. If someone had told her then that she would still be alive four hundred years later, cooking for friends, she would have laughed and thanked whoever it was for trying to cheer her up. If that same person had told her she'd be an important politician on some sort of legislature for magical girls, she would have suggested—kindly, of course—that whoever it was quickly purify their soul gem, lest they lose even more of their sanity.

But all of that had turned out to be true, and here she was, watching pots boil on a stove—thermoceramic and powered by who‐knows‐what, mind you—while waiting for friends to arrive for a party.

She spared a moment to look out the window to her right, at the futuristic metropolis of Mitakihara City, with its skyways and bustling starport, glistening in the sunlight.

Mitakihara City, de facto capital of the MSY.

Unlike some of the parties she held, though, this would be an intimate affair. Today there would be only the four of them.

The legendary Mitakihara Four, together and alone. It didn't happen often.

"Chocolate croissants!" Kyouko commented from behind her. "Well, I don't mind if I do."

"So you're here," Yuma said, sticking her head into the room and rubbing her eyes. She had been napping, a very rare occurrence for her, and it showed in her frazzled hair.

Mami paused her chopping to turn and look, at Yuma sticking her head from Mami's bedroom, at Kyouko seated on the rightward sofa leaning greedily over a coffee table of stacked pastries, at the large picture window in the back, providing another view out over the city. Many families had robotic modular furniture nowadays, but Mami could afford—and had the space for—better.

Yuma's presence was just the slightest bit awkward, since of the four of them Yuma maintained the oldest chronological age, at twenty‐seven or so. It was necessary to blend in properly with the government bureaucrats she spent so much time around. It was a little strange, though, considering the rest of them stayed fourteen or so.

"Onee‐chan!" Yuma followed up, diving down and hugging the much shorter Kyouko enthusiastically, causing Kyouko to almost drop her food. Yuma had her hair down, not having had time to tie it into the ponytail she wore nowadays.

Correction: It was really awkward. Especially since, normally, Yuma maintained a composure that was very adult and seemed… faintly seductive. There was no other way to put it.

Which was not something Mami approved of, but she generally held her silence. Yuma was more than old enough to be her own girl. Obviously. Those few years of age difference between them were meaningless in comparison to the four centuries of lives they had led.

Or should have been, at least. Somehow, in private, Yuma had held onto her status as little sister of the group. So maybe they overacted it just a little, for nostalgia's sake. That didn't change how much it meant.

Yuma smiled infectiously, and both Mami and Kyouko found themselves smiling goofily in return.

"I brought those custard pastries you like, Yuma‐chan," Kyouko said teasingly.

"Awesome!" Yuma said, getting up and heading for the table where Kyouko had dropped them.

Mami hid another smile. Once, long ago, Yuma would have said "Yay!" but that probably seemed a bit much for a "twenty‐seven"‐year‐old.

"Good afternoon," said a voice in the doorway.

"Homura‐nee‐chan!" Yuma responded, dashing over to give her a hug too, a tiny bit of custard stuck to her cheek. Homura hugged back, and smiled too, which was heart‐warming in its own way. Mami remembered a time when Homura wouldn't have responded that way.

To this day, Mami still didn't understand what had happened to her, to cause her to change personalities overnight and start spouting insane nonsense.

Enough of that, Mami thought. Not today.

"So the girl of the hour is finally here," Mami said, stepping around the counter to greet Homura. Homura, too, had taken the time to dress up a little today, she noted.

"I still say it's silly," Homura said, reaching up to pat Yuma on the head. "It's wasteful."

"You're the one who's being silly," Mami said. "How could we not celebrate your birthday?"

"Technically," Homura said, "it's not my birthday. It is merely the day I arrived at the orphanage."

"Technicalities," Mami said disparagingly.

A brief strange look passed over Homura's eyes, but she quickly followed with a "What can you do?" gesture with her hands, shrugging and smiling lightly.

"I brought fruit," she said, dropping a synthetic paper bag of the stuff on the counter.

In all honesty, Mami doubted Homura was seriously bothered by it anymore. Having the same mini‐argument year after year for centuries on end leaked any actual meaning out of the words, until you found yourself saying the same things just for nostalgia's sake. It was tradition.

Though it had been strange how much it used to bother Homura who, the first time, had mumbled something about not having had one in a long time.

"Are you going to throw the October Third party again this year, nee‐chan?" Yuma asked, knowing full well what the answer was.

"Of course," Homura answered levelly. "That party isn't for me, so I have no right to say it's wasteful."

Mami shared a glance with Kyouko.

A very long time ago, Kyouko had made the mistake of comparing Homura's criticism of her birthday party with October Third, the mysterious day where Homura would buy a cake, seal herself in a room, and sing Happy Birthday quietly to herself—as if she didn't already seem crazy enough.

Homura didn't speak to Kyouko for three days.

They were over that now, though, and the end result of the whole incident was that they somehow ended up throwing a whole party every year on October Third—for the birthday of the goddess Homura insisted existed.

Speaking of strange and awkward parties…

Though it wasn't really that bad, to be honest. It was actually good fun, and it was easy to think of it as politely attending a religious celebration for a devout friend. Only in this case the religion was rather eccentric, and the friend insisted on keeping her apartment decorated with a giant holographic pendulum and a rather… eccentric design scheme.

It was also the only party she insisted on overseeing herself, even though it was typical for Mami to always do it, though Mami had to admit Homura wasn't too bad at it.

In a strange way, all of it seemed to make Homura happier. She said her goddess would have wanted it to be lively and happy, with all of them, so she insisted they have a good time.

Those parties were some of the few times Mami felt that Homura was emotionally vulnerable. It was clear that Homura thought of her goddess as a friend, rather than as someone to be truly worshipped.

She was fond of making offhand comments that implied as much. Things like "Oh, She would have loved this dress." or "Your cakes are wonderful, Mami; She thought so too." always spoken so that, somehow, you could hear the capital S in "She".

Even so, their attempts to drill her for further information always came up empty.

Homura was always on her guard, afraid of something, and they had never gotten her to speak about what kind of girl she imagined her goddess to be, or why she thought she had ever tasted Mami's cakes.

For heaven's sake, after Sayaka's demise, they'd never even managed to get the name of the girl out of Homura again, and neither she nor Kyouko remembered it anymore.

Maybe if they could, it would be a clue, something they could look up. One of Mami's theories was that Homura's "Goddess" was actually just a dead friend of hers, someone she had worshipped and later obtained insane delusions about.

It was possible—just look at the fixation Kyouko still had on Sayaka. Maybe, if you were just a bit more obsessive…

Among other things, that was why she and, to a lesser degree, Kyouko and Yuma had spent the past few centuries hinting, cajoling, scheming, and even outright suggesting that Homura visit one of the MSY's friendly psychiatrists, someone discreet and reliable.

Mami had even gone so far as to trick Homura into meeting privately with one, which had been…

Well, the therapist—one of the best, a hybrid clairvoyant‐telepath—had fled crying from the room, and when Mami confronted Homura about her rudeness, Homura explained blandly that she had merely fed the girl a few of her more bleak memories, the ones that weren't "cosmically censored."

Message taken; Mami never tried tricking her again.

She would have had a bit more success if Yuma and Kyouko would just support her a little, but the two of them just didn't seem to care that much, and Kyouko had even gone so far as to suggest that Mami was getting a little obsessed herself.

One of these days she was going to figure out that Akemi Ho—

"Uh, Mami," Kyouko interrupted, pulling at her shirt and gesturing at the pot boiling on the stove, which was threatening to overflow.

"Oh dear, ah, I'll be right back," Mami managed politely, rushing back over. She wasn't big on thought‐controlled stoves, either.

"So how much of your primary consciousness is with us today?" Homura asked of Yuma, as Mami pulled the lid off the pot and starting hastily dropping in the soup ingredients.

"Seventy‐three percent!" Yuma announced proudly. "It's a special occasion."

"Seventy‐three, huh?" Kyouko repeated, sounding bored. "And what's the other twenty‐seven doing at a time like this, oh Public Order Representative?"

"Among other things, installing selective attention deficit scripts into the new generation of surveillance drones," Yuma said. "So they don't report seeing girls like you jumping around the tubes. Not that you'd care."

It was a gross misuse of her power, Mami mused, reaching for a pan from the cabinet.

Some people had robotic assistants for minor things like that, and Mami could have afforded one, but that just seemed like cheating.

Though speaking of robots and Yuma, Mami had always wondered how Yuma evaded the AI watchdogs, and how she subverted her own second half. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, though, honestly.

Mami turned her head, keeping an eye on the conversation behind her. They were all seated now.

"That can't possibly be healthy," Kyouko said, continuing the topic.

She leaned forward.

"Listen," she added, eyes serious. "If the computer networks went down tomorrow, are you sure you wouldn't go into some kind of coma?"

"That'd never happen. I run regular checks to make sure I still fulfill the Volokhov Criterion," Yuma said, pursing her lip. "It's a requirement."

She was peeved, as you could tell from the emergence of a slight, annoyed lisp, pronouncing "Volokhov" as "Vo‐yo‐khov".

"Well, I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I were splitting my attention like that all the time," Kyouko said, leaning back in the sofa.

Mami turned back to her cooking, reaching onto a shelf for some seasoning.

"Oh, I know what you'd do," Yuma said. "It's obvious. All those girls you know—"

"Don't make lewd faces, Yuma‐chan," Homura chastised. "It doesn't become you."

Mami started heating the pan, pouring in some oil to start the cooking process.

"Besides," Homura deadpanned. "Do it too much, and Kyouko here might start getting some ideas. We're trying to preserve your innocence here."

Mami choked back a laugh, managing not to drop her spoonful of chili sauce.

Homura and Yuma started laughing outright, both at the mockery of Kyouko and the suggestion that Yuma was "innocent" in any way.

"I hate you guys," Kyouko said. "Those are just rumors! Unfounded, baseless slander and lies!"

"You see?" Yuma said, mirthfully. "When she starts feeling guilty, she starts using bigger words."

"I see what you mean," Homura agreed mercilessly.

"Oh, come on!" Kyouko said.

"Lay off her, girls," Mami intervened, not looking away from the vegetables she had thrown in the pan. "Let's save it for after I bring out the alcohol. We can discuss Kyouko's transgressions then. It'll be more fun."

"Yeah, that's righ—Wait, what?" Kyouko began. "Not you too!"

Mami ignored her, smiling as she stirred the food below her.

"So how's your new pupil holding up, Homura?" Yuma asked, after she had finally caught her breath again, abruptly changing the topic.

"Fine, thank you very much," Homura said, rather briskly.

"You know, we have an entire structure set up for that sort of thing," Yuma commented, speaking to the girl of the hour. "Formal procedures and such. You should use it."

"Except then it wouldn't be secret," Kyouko said. "And what that's about, I'll never get."

"I don't want people treating her specially just because she's my pupil," Homura explained, a slight edge to her voice.

"We both know that's not true," Kyouko insisted. "At the very least, you could tell us who she is. But nooo, it's a secret. You know, we could find out with just a little effort. All we'd have to do is ask around. It's not possible for no one to have seen you two."

"That'd be rude, nee‐chan," Yuma said.

"See, this is way more suspicious than anything I've ever done," Kyouko complained. "But I'm the only one that ever gets made fun of."

"Oh, so that's what you're mad about," Homura said, in the tone of one who's solved a puzzle.

"Come on, you know this ain't fair," Kyouko said. "Back me up on this, Mami."

There was a pause.


But Mami was no longer listening. Instead, she was staring down into her cooking, thinking.

"Innocence," they had mentioned. Well, it had been a long time since they had possessed any of that.

They had sacrificed it all.

But it was all worth it in the end, wasn't it? This idyllic world, free of strife, endlessly prosperous.

Especially for magical girls. Truth be told, Mami could afford to hold a subdued party like this every day, if she wanted. If she had the time. If she had friends to join her.

She watched the chopped shiitake mushrooms and bamboo sizzle in the pan, but saw instead the past, everything that had happened.

This was the world they had fought for, she thought. The world they had given everyone. What did it matter how much blood stained their hands? What did it matter what they had seen and done? What did it matter if the Yuma‐chan they had once known was now nothing more than a pleasing veneer?

Wasn't it time to enjoy the fruits of their labors?

Later that night, they ate their way through the cake Mami had made for the occasion. In the corner of another table, the gifts to Homura were carefully piled, a box of chocolates from Kyouko, and—embarrassingly for the two girls who had obtained them—a pair of absolutely identical next‐generation handguns, extracted nefariously from military prototype storehouses. It was made even worse by Homura admitting that she had already acquired her own, a while back.

"Aren't you getting tired of it all?" Mami asked, finally daring to push the question, tongue loosened by just a bit of alcohol.

"Eh?" Kyouko asked, mouth full of cake.

"All this work, all this politicking, the MSY," Mami said, gesturing expansively with her arm. "Part of me just wants to stay home and have my cake, so to speak."

The other three inspected her with suddenly serious eyes, everyone except Kyouko putting their forks back down.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to bring it up now, Mami thought.

"To be honest, I get what you mean," Kyouko said, gesturing at Mami with a fork that still had a tiny piece of cake speared on it. "It'd be nice to just lie back and relax, have some fun, and throw some parties for a while. It wouldn't even have to be permanent. You could always just go back to work in a few years if you wanted."

Kyouko took a moment to eat the cake, which was layered strawberry, with lemon filling.

"Or a few decades," Mami said, eyes casting downward for a moment. "But I wouldn't want to do something like that without someone to spend the time with."

She looked up, to read their expressions. They looked sympathetic, but…

"I couldn't forgive myself," Homura said. "Or, rather, I'd want something else to do, at the very least. I made a promise, you know. I'm not sure what else I could do, but maybe I'll think about it."

"I'm sorry, Mami," Yuma said, abandoning all pretense that this was a conversation about hypotheticals. "I can't imagine leaving my work behind. Not now. Not this century, honestly."

The slight bounce that was usually in her voice was absent.

Yuma looked down into her cup of flavored sake.

"And frankly, I'd try to talk you out of it," Yuma said. "You might not think so, but the organization needs you. It needs all of us. We can't really just leave."

"It's okay," Mami said, tracing a path through the rug with her finger. "I didn't really expect otherwise."

She said that, even though she had been hoping for a slightly more receptive response.

"If you want to take some time off, I'm sure none of us will have any objections," Kyouko ameliorated. "I'll probably even go with you. Maybe just have a vacation. Certainly we could do that."

"Maybe we could take a tour of the colonies," Mami said, looking up at the ceiling, thinking out loud. "I don't think we've done enough in terms of getting to know the girls out there. So, you know, we could frame it as like work. Sort of."

"Sounds reasonable," Homura said, sipping some of her drink. "I'll see what I can do about joining you."

Yuma shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Mami," Yuma said. "I couldn't. Not unless it were a long time from now. The MSY relies on me to keep our cover from being blown, and as long as I have to be connected, I can't really leave Earth. Plus, I'd have to spend a good deal of time, um, well, making sure of things."

"Told you it wasn't healthy," Kyouko mumbled under her breath.

"Well, we'll see," Mami said, smiling amiably. She couldn't have really hoped for better, and maybe a vacation in the colonies was just what the doctor ordered…

Present Day, Present Time

Mami opened her eyes.

She been reclining in her seat, not exactly sleeping, but dozing and thinking. Now, she stared upward, watching the stars through the multiple layers of transparent material between her and sky, as her vehicle drove her to the starport. Next to her lay the last few of the scones, uneaten. She had gotten tired of reading her messages, so she had taken a nap, or as much of one as she could.

That vacation had never happened. Events had intervened: the war, and all of its ramifications. Yuma had even less time now, Kyouko had her cult, and Homura… was missing.

She sighed, looking at the nearly full moon, with the familiar, pearly‐white face she remembered from her past. At the bottom one could see a bright patch of blue and green, the beginning of an ambitious plan to terraform the poles, now mostly suspended with the war. Clinging to the edge of this was the near side Armstrong Military Defense Station—formerly a scientific station—which could be discerned by the smoothly metallic sheen it gave to that region of the moon. On the invisible far side, Mami knew, was the much larger Aitken Defense Station, with its missile batteries, forcefields, heavily fortified bunkers, mining facilities, and so forth.

Who would have thought, all those years ago? Mami mused.

The forest of tubes above her was starting to grow denser and denser. Mami knew that this signaled that she was descending. Soon she would be in the subterranean networks near the starport, where the aboveground networks abruptly disappeared.

The moment she finished thinking that, it happened, the sky disappearing and Mami plunging into darkness for the briefest of moments. Then, the inner surface of the bubble around her lost its transparency, displaying Mami's preferred imagery, which was only a little brighter: a replica of the night sky, no tubes and full of stars. It brought to mind all those demon hunts in the dead of night, all those years ago.

Though Mami was aware she was romanticizing it, just a tad. After all, given the lights of the city, even back then, there was no way they could have seen the stars clearly.

Well, whatever.

And then she was there, the screen returning to transparency, showing her the brightly lit interior of an underground receiving station for the starport, one of those designated for high‐ranking military and government officials, rather than the larger, more standard public stations.

Above her, the curved ceiling was decorated with an enormous stylized representation of Human space, complete with a color‐coded network of lines indicating the standard shipping and travel routes. Out of necessity, it was holographic, so that one was looking up into the galactic plane, with various systems at slightly closer or greater distances, scale exaggerated for effect.

Like all such receiving stations, it served two purposes: to enable newly arriving passengers to meet friends, other officials, and others before departing, and to enable those fresh off the scramjet to meet their receiving party. There was a deliberate gap between the receiving station and the intra‐starport shuttles, to fulfill aesthetic considerations, and also to allow passengers to sort themselves into the right shuttles.

Her vehicle slid to a smooth stop at one of the berths, directly under the representation of Earth, rotating image of the planet overlaid by the austere symbol of the state: two white block arrows, pointing in opposite directions.

She disposed of the scones into a discreet disposal slot, and stepped out of the vehicle.

There were a few good points to being back.

"Good evening, ladies," she greeted, smiling in the direction of the two girls who had walked up to the vehicle as it approached.

"Welcome back, Mami," they chimed in unison.

Dressed in casual clothing as they were, they would have blended in with the crowds on the streets outside—well, except for their obvious non‐Japanese ethnicities. Strictly speaking, they should have been in uniform, but, as a rule, magical girls dodged wearing their formal uniforms when they could, a practice the military mostly turned a blind eye to.

Mami needed no facial recognition technology to identify her two bodyguards.

On the left, Karina Schei, the Norwegian shield generator with the green costume and battle‐axe.

On the right, Shen Xiao Long, the Chinese teleporter, with an unusual pitch‐black costume and jian sword.

The shield and the teleporter. That was the standard bodyguard that had been designed for the highest‐ranked officers, including all full generals and, naturally, field marshals. Initially, Mami had felt guilty being required to make use of so much manpower just to protect herself, a sentiment shared by the other high officers.

After the first few months of the war, they stopped feeling guilty.

The three of them started to walk into the terminal, heading for the shuttles, Mami flanked on both sides by her bodyguards in a small triangle.

As they walked, they drew looks from those around them. The crowd here, mostly military personnel and magical girls, was a lot savvier, and didn't come crowding to look. Still, though, there were a few cries of "Mami‐san!" and "Field Marshal!" and quite a few salutes, even though, since she was not in uniform, they were not required to.

Mami smiled and returned the salute of a young second lieutenant, one standing stock‐still next to her as she passed by. The records listed him as one hundred sixty‐three, but he blushed like a schoolboy as they walked by. So did a telekinetic magical girl a few steps back.

Mami knew it wasn't just her. Put simply, she and her two bodyguards shared certain characteristics that ensured they made an impact on every room they walked into. It would have been enough to make her suspect whoever assigned them to her, except that the "who" doing the assigning was an AI who couldn't care less.

Had she really been desirous of companionship, she could have managed it easily, Mami thought. But unlike certain others—she suspected Kyouko—she wasn't willing to exploit her commander's position for things of that sort.

Mami slowed her pace, glancing around. She had a meeting scheduled here, and she didn't see the person she was supposed to meet. Until she saw her, it wasn't a good idea to hop on the shuttles.

Lithe as a cat—which it almost was—the Incubator Kyubey appeared at Karina's feet, walking through her legs and like always, seeming to come out of nowhere.

Good evening, Mami, Kyubey thought.

"Good evening, Kyubey," Mami said, stopping and bending down to offer her arms. Kyubey obligingly jumped into them, then clambered into a perch on her shoulder.

Her two bodyguards smiled at each other, as if sharing a joke.

"Kyubey likes you the best, Mami," Xiao Long said.

"Nonsense," Mami replied. "He doesn't have any emotions. Isn't that right, Kyubey?"

That is correct, Mami, Kyubey thought. I do not understand this constant fascination some of you have in claiming I have emotions I do not have.

"Aw, don't be like that, Kyubey," Karina said, leaning forward and tapping the Incubator on the nose. "You can admit it. We'll keep your madness a secret."

I am not insane, Kyubey thought.

Mami smiled slightly at the exchange. The newer generation just didn't understand how ruthless the Incubators could be if they wanted to be.

But, it was probably harmless.

In any case, Kyubey thought, turning its head to look at Mami. I am here to give you my regards as you leave. We Incubators would like to remind you that you are a valued contributor to preventing the heat death of the universe.

Totally insane, Xiao Long thought, shaking her head.

I am not, Kyubey insisted. However, before the three of you continue onward, I would also like to inform you that Marianne is waiting to speak to you.

Where is she then? Mami asked. I've been looking for her.

Kyubey turned its head meaningfully to their right, and they followed its eyes.

Mami searched with her eyes for the girl, the magical girl from France with the mind‐reading powers, entangling strings, and smoothly professional demeanor, but saw no one she recognized.

Over here, someone thought, and Mami turned her attention to a nondescript female private resting on a bench. Japanese, or so she appeared.

I'll leave you to it, then, Kyubey thought, jumping off Mami's shoulder.

Mami nodded to her bodyguards, who nodded back with understanding.

Mami stopped, and walked over to a nearby bench, deliberately not looking at the girl. Just taking a break.

A few of the passerby looked over, curious, but most didn't see anything untoward.

Marianne François was Mami's Intelligence officer, and a Lieutenant General in the Black Heart, the secretive Special Operations branch of the military and government. It was also the Black Ops branch of the MSY, having in fact been founded for that purpose. It had been natural for the Black Heart to take over those operations, since they had experience and qualifications that no existing government department could match. It did, however, make the government just a little nervous.

The Black Heart was Yuma's former division. In conspiracy theory and legend, it was a secret police, an assassins' guild, a destroyer of governments, an instigator of revolutions, everything all rolled up in one.

And it was loyal to the MSY.

Mami knew about it better than most. The Black Heart was nominally a branch of the Soul Guard, after all.

Isn't this a bit much, Marianne? Mami thought, leaving her bodyguards out of it.

You wanted a private meeting, Mami‐san, the girl thought back. And you hinted it was Black. So, I treated it as such.

Black. Meaning: MSY business.

Fair enough, Mami thought, thinking that these spies enjoyed their games a bit too much. Let me tell you what I want then.

I want you to perform a thorough investigation of the grief cube supply and logistics chain, Mami thought. Report back to me about any irregularities you find, and look into the causes. Anything beyond that that you may wish to follow up, I leave to your discretion.

For your reference, I know of at least one probable irregularity. There appear to be occasional stoppages in the supply chain to some units, and I have it on good authority that it does not appear to be a technical fault. There are also allegations of damaged girls returning from the battlefield disappearing, but this is less certain, so it may also be fruitful to examine the medical departments.

There was a long pause.

That is quite a tall order, Mami‐san, Marianne thought. The entire supply chain?

Feel free to focus on what you think are the relevant aspects, but yes, the entire thing. Also, just to be clear, what I just told you should not be further relayed. Any agents you want to use should not be informed of what our suspicions are.

My agents will perform better if they are informed of what they are looking for, Mami‐san. Grief cubes are important, yes, and what you say is disturbing, but this seems a bit paranoid, especially for you. And that's coming from me.

I have a bad feeling about this one, Mami thought, thinking about the fact that Kyouko also seemed to have a bad feeling about it. I will also do my best to probe around at the upper levels, but that is not usually productive, as you know.

Understood, Mami‐san, Marianne thought. Because of how in depth this is, I might not be able to deliver full results for weeks, though I will certainly keep you informed of anything interesting I find.

That will be fine, François‐san, Mami thought.

You can call me Marianne, Mami‐san. I've said that before.

Mami got up from the bench, stretching her arms casually.

"Well, let's go, girls," she said to her bodyguards. "I'm done resting."

They got up smoothly, as if nothing had happened.

They quickly routed themselves to the proper shuttle and, as they stepped through the double doors and found a seat, the others glanced at her but politely avoided staring. Due to space and efficiency considerations—primarily because there were only a fixed number of possible ending destinations—they were obliged to ride the shuttles with others scheduled for the same flight. To Mami, it brought back memories of public transportation.

Her bodyguards scanned the crowd around her idly, even though there was no need to. It fit their training.

The ideal personal protection complement would also include a mind‐reader and a clairvoyant, but such magical girls were too rare to be expended on escorting generals back and forth among safe locations on Earth. There was a certain limit to it.

The shuttle departed, taking them for a brief ride through the building, then stopped at the civilian receiving station. It was, of course, entirely possible to take the scramjets without a final destination in space, and earthbound travel was not under military control. As a field marshal, Mami could have requested a more private flight, but there were reasons not to be that extravagant.

"Oh wow, it's Mami‐san," the murmurs began, the moment the doors opened, and people waved at her and said her name as they stepped through the doors and saw her. Some stopped and stared intently at her, trying to fix the image to send to friends.

"No need to stare people, don't block the door," Karina intoned ritualistically, getting up, and gently pushing any of them that were standing still. Of course, this was mostly just an excuse for Mami's sake.

Soon the doors closed, indicating that the shuttle was at capacity.

Mami bore their looks stoically as the shuttle again departed. After all, the looks were awestruck rather than unfriendly.

From there it was only a short ride to the scramjet itself, where they stepped into narrow moving walkways flanking both sides of the plane, directing themselves into regularly‐spaced openings leading into the plane itself. Fancy structural engineering for a fancy futuristic age.

Having timed her arrival quite well, Mami endured only a short wait inside the scramjet before it was announced that all planned passengers had arrived, except for those the system had determined were too far away to possibly make it on time. Given the to‐the‐second reliable city transportation systems, the extremely fast speed of the vehicles, and the numerous systems in‐place to yell at you in your head to get moving, it baffled Mami how you could still manage to miss a flight, especially given that it still cost a small—admittedly nominal—sum of Allocs to book a new one.

Admittedly, it was a lot more pleasant than it used to be, but it was still enough incentive for most people to try to arrive as close to the last moment as possible. That was mostly intentional, and the practice of using multiple doors at once kept lines at a minimum. It helped that carry‐on baggage was nonexistent, on the principle that flights were very short and the plane could provide everything you needed.

Overall, though, air travel was a lot more comfortable than it used to be. Synthesizers in every seat provided refreshments, snacks, and meals on‐demand, and the entertainment was, relatively speaking, top‐notch, or as top‐notch as it could possibly be given that most travelers were still obliged to sit in chairs arranged in rows. The holography was impressive, but without access to the restricted VR implants, it couldn't quite make you forget where you were.

At least there was a lot more leg room.

Beyond that, Mami was an exceptional case. Traveling in the highest‐class cabin, she and her bodyguards had a room to themselves, with beds, should they desire. Personally, they had no luggage, even of the non‐carry‐on type. They had nothing to bring in either direction.

Mami was used to traveling high‐class compared to others. She had been on many planes in her lifetime, and after the first couple of trips, the MSY was more than wealthy enough to send one of its "executives" around first class. Even if said executive looked like a teenage girl, and didn't have any official titles to speak of…

She spent the time chatting with her bodyguards, reviewing messages, issuing orders, and planning her future itinerary, more or less all at once.

One of the reasons she had been able to take leave and travel to Earth was the fact that she wasn't currently active in the field. She was "field marshal" of the Yangtze sector which, while in the danger zone for alien attack, had yet to suffer more than the occasional long‐distance raid. Inspecting defenses, dealing with bickering subordinates, and coordinating with colonial governments wasn't the most exciting job in the world, but it did provide a relatively high measure of free time.

The flight to the equatorial space elevator, anchored on a permanent adjustable platform in the ocean just southeast of Singapore, lasted a short twenty‐five minutes.

They landed at the outer edge of the city, where most of the civilian passengers navigated their way to the waiting shuttles back into the starport, while the military passengers got on a separate tram, heading for the elevator terminus, which was temporarily connected to the land.

Following the general "just‐in‐time" policy of nearly all travel, arriving scramjets were scheduled to arrive as tightly packed as possible. Thus, when Mami and her bodyguards emerged from the terminus tunnel onto the freshly‐assembled elevator platform, they found it already packed full of military personnel, with more arriving by the minute.

All things considered, it was a fairly luxurious form of travel. The platform had floor space equivalent to the average school gymnasium—or rather, the gymnasiums Mami remembered from the past. In the center was a small food stand, already doing excellent business—or it would be if the food weren't free.

Scattered around the platform were a large assortment of benches, chairs, relaxation areas, and holography displays, for entertainment. There were even a substantial number of VR booths, free for the military and their active VR implants, exorbitant for those very rare civilian travelers—who generally could afford it anyway, given that they were already paying for space travel.

The outer edges appeared to be transparent, and in a certain sense this was true, though it was really a carefully managed view of the outside relayed through the wall with fiber optics. It was a far cry from the days of the first elevators, which involved claustrophobic metal discs hardly bigger than a large room in which, for various reasons, not more than a couple of people could be placed at once.

Mami wasn't hungry, nor was she in the mood for more attention, so she maneuvered her way around several groups of people, finding a private nook near the edge to look out at the ocean and city. As she did so, there was a palpable shift in attention towards her, the standard array of murmurs and salutes and stares, but nothing overwhelming. Everyone was military.

Earlier, she had taken the time to ask about her guard's vacations, which naturally coincided with hers. Shen had taken the time for a very quick visit to family back in Nanjing. Her family was one of those which had numerous girls scattered throughout the MSY, and consequently had managed to stay cohesive and supportive despite the secrecy that had once predominated.

Such families were surprisingly common, given the tendency of family members to have similar psychological makeups, and thus similar tendencies to contract. In fact, in the relative serenity of the MSY order, there were many which considered being a Mahou Shoujo a family occupation of sorts. This raised the hackles of some of the older girls, who felt the consequent nepotism to be unfair. Others—primarily those with multiple contracted descendants—felt it to be no problem.

Theoretically, Mami did feel arrangements like that to be unfair, but had to concede that life was unfair sometimes. For one thing, all her pupils—like the newly‐contracted Ryouko—got a rather sweet deal compared to most, though she tried to make sure they earned it.

Speaking of which, she had been obliged to send a message to Kyouko apologizing and asking her to take care of things, though she assumed the girl had figured that out on her own. Mami just couldn't realistically take care of her pupils' early development nowadays.

Her other bodyguard, Schei, was, however, unique in her family, except for a distant cousin somewhere. She was a recent recruit, part of the initial boom in contracting that followed the onset of the war. Unfortunately, her family lived on Nova Roma, so it wasn't realistic for her to visit.

Schei had used the time off to play tourist—for the third time—around Mitakihara, taking in such sights as the University and nearby Science Division HQ, inside the complex near Chronos Biologics. This was part of the cluster that also contained the MSY Leadership and Rules Committee Offices, within the former corporate heart of the city. There was also the recently erected official museum, and, somewhat further away, the hybrid HQ of MSY Governmental Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls. The whole area was getting to be known as the Magi district.

Needless to say, they had all once been disguised as something else. Science Division had been the offices of Fiat Lux, a prestigious scientific organization known for supporting a variety of famous labs. The two Primary Committees had been part of the administrative offices of Hephaestus Nanotechnologies, which was thoroughly infested with MSY representatives, given that several of the companies that had been merged into Hephaestus were once MSY companies. Governmental Affairs had once been Privacy Now!, an organization of legal scholars and activists dedicated to reducing government surveillance, conveniently located next to what had once been Governance: Public Order.

Now, though, Mami leaned back against the padded seating, looking out at the city and the ocean that now intervened between them and it. Singapore, with its MSY branch offices and corporate offices, some even visible on the skyline, had once been, in what felt like ancient times, a Mahou Shoujo neutral ground, a place for nomadic poorer girls to sell grief cubes and mercenary services, and for richer girls to buy. It had been lucrative for the girls who oversaw the territory, and had been one of the natural first targets for MSY international expansion. Mami would know; she had certainly seen the city more than enough in the past.

She didn't really see any of that now, though, nor did she try to talk to her bodyguards. They understood. She was busy.

All designated passengers have now boarded the elevator platform, and the terminal has finished shifting to launch position. Elevator ascent will begin shortly,〉 the terminal warned, both in standard audio and, for the military personnel, which was nearly everyone, straight into their auditory cortices. Its voice carried a slight mechanical tinge, purely for effect; it could have been made to sound human if that were desired, but it was considered a good idea to keep machine voices distinct from human voices.

It also spoke in Human Standard, rather than Japanese. That, and the more mixed ethnicities of those around her, was a psychological signal that she wasn't in Mitakihara anymore.

Suddenly, the room darkened, the artificial lighting shutting off. There was a hush, everyone anticipating what was going to happen.

With only the briefest of shimmers, the domed ceiling lost its decorative artwork, becoming as apparently transparent as the sides around them had been. A moment later, the internal walls and partitions shimmered similarly, until they too became as transparent as air, with the exception that if you looked into a wall, you saw the world around you as if the people behind it were not there. To everyone inside, it appeared now as if they were standing under the naked early morning sky, with its stars and moon, on a metal platform. To Mami and her bodyguards, inside their niche, it appeared as they were alone there, on a ship permanently floating in the ocean.

Of course, the walls were still perfectly solid, and it was practicable only because anyone trying to move around could call up a retinal display putting the walls right back in place. The idea was generally that you would sit there and watch, however.

And then, with another shimmer, the ground disappeared, leaving them with the impression that they were reclining on couches floating twenty feet in the air, above an artificial island at night. Behind Mami, there could be seen only one object, the enormously long cable running straight into the sky, nearly invisible against its background.

Around them, there were appreciative murmurs, and some nervous laughter from the newer military personnel and magical girls. Mami and her bodyguards, well‐accustomed to the experience, didn't even stop sipping their tea.

One in every four ascents was done with the floor opaque, to accommodate those who didn't enjoy the view. Physically, the enhancement implants prevented vertigo and, among military personnel, also dampened excessive fear. Still, possessing an actual fear of heights was widely derided in the military, and for fairly good reason, considering the sort of operational environments that were prevalent on the front lines. Indeed, basic training stamped that sort of thing out, so it only occurred among recruits on their first ascent. It was a sort of benign hazing.

As an aside, the incidence of acrophobia among magical girls was precisely zero. Contracting appeared to remove such things.

With a barely‐detectable rumble, they began their laser‐launched, antigrav‐assisted ascent to the stars. Mami, like everyone, looked down at the rapidly receding ocean, the seaborne base of the elevator shrinking steadily. The intent was to give an impression of floating into the sky. In that, it succeeded. Below them, a small fleet of ships hurried in, carrying the pieces necessary to assemble the next platform, recently returned from space.

This was, in fact, the longest stretch of the trip. The four‐hour ascent time to orbit was a tremendous improvement over the three‐day transit time of the earliest‐built elevator, but it was still rather slow compared to the free‐flight rocket‐and‐antigrav ascents Mami was used to out in the non‐core worlds, where it didn't yet make economic sense to assemble a megastructure as grandiose as a space elevator. But it was undeniably resource‐efficient, and definitely preferable to the seven‐hour ascent destined for those with interplanetary or interstellar destinations.

The military was careful to include the transit time in your leave time.

Mami leaned back in her chair, looking up at the sky, eyes unfocusing, entering the tactical‐AI‐mediated dissociated state so typical of generals and government officials…

MagOps "Theban" Division, identifier 2A7DC, reports ready for redeployment, Machina's slightly machine‐tinged thoughts now nearly indistinguishable from her own. Preparing for departure to Naval Base 4E15, Neo Venezia, scheduled UT0400, final approval—

Given, Mami thought.

Settling into the flow of things, Mami's field of vision was replaced by a starmap of the Yangtze sector, with current, future, and past troop movements fully visible. In her mind, she no longer saw the world around her, or the sun that would eventually appear on the horizon as they soared ever higher, filtered so as not to blind.

Instead she saw the Yangtze Sector splayed around her, as if she were unthinkably enormous, floating among the stars. Around her, planets, bases, and ships demanded attention, glowing different colors, trailing text, prying at Machina and the doors of her consciousness. The higher priority ones did a better job of it.

Twenty‐sixth Fleet, Admiral Farrat requests approval—

Whose authority? Mami asked, reactions accelerated by the integration. Twenty‐sixth Fleet wanted to shift away from its reserve position facing the buffer zone to the boundary with the Euphratic sector, merging itself with the Fifteenth and Seventeenth fleets there. Its current and potential future positions appeared in front of her, the world shifting, bright line highlighting the best path.

Fleet Admiral Feodorovich. She—

—is anticipating alien attempts to straighten the salient at the edge and wants reinforcements to meet the anticipated action, Mami already knew.

Approved. Ask Twenty‐first Fleet to stretch its positions and double patrols. Request Huanghe sector increase warning sensor production.

At this point, Mami dispensed with the audio input, issuing orders in rapid fire, pointing and gesturing with her illusory fingers for emphasis.

Seventh Army Group redeploy to Avalon at reasonable speed. Elevate defenses of Charise System to Level Three. Request increase in MilProd factor in Sector to Four. Tell Shu Han government that their petition is denied. Tell Meiguang government to stop wasting my time with requests that will never go through. Tell New Athens I will be sure to make the battle anniversary. Tell Port Royal to increase civic defense level by two; clearly those bombers don't intend to leave them alone. Twelfth Army Group…

She continued in that vein, and it was an hour before she heard the message she was waiting for, by which point they were already well above the atmosphere, looking down at the massive orb of Earth below them and the bright light of Sol in the distance.

Field Marshal Erwynmark has announced the agenda of the next biweekly general staff meeting, Machina thought. As expected, it focuses on the Euphratic Sector Incursion.

It took that boy long enough, Mami thought. Meeting is in six hours.

He has his own way of doing things, Machina thought. Remember that he is very skilled.

Yes, yes, I know, Mami thought. Still, it won't please the others. This kind of last minute business has gotten him into trouble before.

But he made it, didn't he? And it got results.

Rushing three fleets to a position where I had to commit everything I had in the area to get in there and save him from being cut off was rather imprudent, wouldn't you say? I might not have been able to pull it off.

Yes, but you did, and because you did, he was able to trash the Saharan shipyards. I'd speculate that he expected you to be able to. He told you he had faith in you, didn't he?

If you say so, Machina, Mami thought. Sometimes she thought Machina rather liked the Field Marshal, which had some possibly disturbing implications.

It was another three hours before they reached the orbital drop‐off point, defined as the level where the Coriolis Effect gave them enough horizontal velocity to stay in orbit. They left behind those who were continuing upward for another three hours where, with enough velocity to escape the planet, they would detach in short‐hop Navigators to an awaiting starship somewhere farther out, or to distant space colonies.

Mami and her two bodyguards departed here, however, filing with a small crowd of personnel down a staircase that had opened in the floor, the walls and floor briefly opaque again. As they boarded their own Navigator, Mami's rank finally began to tell significantly, as the others carefully left the coveted spots near the forward viewports for her use, locating and relocating themselves to the back of the ship.

You don't have to, Mami thought, to a young telekinetic magical girl, the only other magical girl there, besides her bodyguards.

It would be rude, the girl thought, looking at her, then glancing away. Besides, what would the Humans back there think?

"Human." A succinct way of saying "Non‐Contractee."

Mami nodded and said nothing more. She had a point. No need to show obvious favoritism.

Besides, I can tell my friends I met Field Marshal Mami‐san! the girl thought, as she stepped away.

Make sure to tell them all how wonderful she is! Karina relayed back jokingly, before Mami's other bodyguard elbowed her in the ribs.

"Mami‐san" was what she was called, even by those who were not from Japan.

ETA ten minutes,〉 the robotic piloting system relayed, not even bothering with audio now that they were all guaranteed to be military.

Mami settled back into her seat, looking at the viewing port in front of them. Made from good old‐fashioned transparent material, it showed the vast black expanse of space, and the blue‐green orb of Earth below.

With a brief shudder, the Navigator detached itself from the elevator platform.

Prepare yourselves,〉 the pilot relayed over their internal intercoms. 〈We'll be losing gravity soon.

Navigators were simple, cheap ships. Carrying very little fuel and minimal engine power, they were designed solely to operate in orbit, borrowing their momentum from larger vessels and stations or, in this case, a space elevator. Eschewing even the expense of a human pilot, they had just enough power to shift between orbits and perform simple maneuvers.

Away from the front worlds and the worlds immediately behind them, it was considered poor form for even Field Marshals to pull rank and request more luxurious transportation than elevator‐boosted Navigators.

Though it suited her, Mami wondered who had started that particular custom.

Departing the platform and its expensive artificial gravity field, they lost gravity with a lurch. Mami's stomach shifted its contents, getting used to the new reality that the only force tugging on it now was the slight acceleration bursts of the spacecraft.

Behind her, Mami heard the other personnel pushing themselves off their seats into the air, bumping into each other and shoving each other playfully. Given the enhancements they all had, it was good, harmless fun, and the zero percent accident rate of Navigators gave the military confidence enough not to mandate using the seat buckles on routine trips.

In the viewscreen, Mami could just make out a point of light in the distance growing rapidly larger, knowing that soon she would see its expansive solar panels, enormous central reactor core, vast communications arrays, giant central living areas and command centers, and other features that were also very large.

Carthago Shipyard, the gigantic Headquarters of Orbital Space Command, physical home of the General Staff; and her destination.

Arriving in her living quarters on board the station, with its expansive windowed view of Earth, luxurious bed, and other amenities, Mami could only muse on what a shame it was that she was rarely here. Every member of the General Staff had a place to stay on Carthago, but it was very rare that more than a handful were physically on‐station.

Standing in front of her floor‐length mirror, she regarded herself in the dress uniform she hardly ever wore.

Military uniforms—the non‐combat kind—had changed very little over the centuries. This particular iteration of it was dark green, with the buttons, colored decorations, collar tabs, shirt design, and pants that would have been recognizable as distinguishing an officer centuries ago. There was even the perfectly meaningless field marshal's baton strapped to the waist.

The symbology was a bit different, of course. The shoulder straps she wore bore a set of crossed batons, yes, but these were flanked on two sides by reciprocal arrows. An unusual symbol of government, but that was what had been chosen. Next to that was another symbol: two block arrows pushing up against an envelope. The symbol of the armed forces.

Next to this was one that would have been utterly baffling in an earlier age. It depicted a stylized human head looking to the side. From the back of the head ran a large assortment of wires. A concession to the wishes of Governance: Artificial Intelligence, it was a reminder of what—or rather, who—made so much of this possible.

Mami then added the last part of her uniform. Standard dress uniform called for a hat decorated with the same insignia as her shoulder strap, but she had early on taken to wearing a beret instead, following the example of some of the other generals. It just felt more natural, given the beret she had worn for centuries as part of her magical girl costume.

She took a moment to regard the framed medals on her wall. Unlike so many of the others on the General Staff, she hadn't earned her rank through accomplishment on the battlefield, so her collection was sparse compared to those of the others. She had only two.

The first was the Defender's Star, First Class, for her role in the Saharan Raid, to date the largest and most successful Human incursion into alien space. It was the medal given for "Performance greatly exceeding the expectations of AI battle analysts."

The second was the Directorate Citation, for "Contributing to an exceptional degree to the wellbeing of Humanity." That one was for New Athens, of course, and had been distributed widely at the start of the war, including to Sakura Kyouko and Akemi Homura, the latter one presumed posthumously.

Then she turned and headed out her door.

For a location of such seeming importance, the meeting room of the General Staff was rather unassuming. Located deep within the military sector of the shipyard, without even windows, from the outside it was remarkable only for the concentration of bodyguards lounging around the doorway and chatting.

From the inside, it was remarkable for its old‐fashioned styling. With its real wooden table, framed portraits, and a small chandelier, it seemed to suit someone's idea of what a military strategy room should look like. It seated twenty in comfort, though that was not particularly impressive on a station such as this. Neither were the hidden holographic generators or VR relays, which were practically all over the place in the command centers of the station.

What was impressive was the prodigious quantity and quality of the security systems surrounding the room, with no less than three separate dedicated AIs designated to watching the area. So too were the dedicated communication systems, which would have been astoundingly powerful for civilian usage.

By the time she stepped in, she had already reviewed the list of active participants. Of the twenty members of the General Staff, six had excused themselves, citing critical combat duty. Of the remaining fourteen, only four were in physical attendance: herself, the young Field Marshal Erwynmark, looking spry at one hundred twenty‐two, General de Chatillon, the hard‐looking commander of the relatively serene Nile Sector, and the sharp‐nosed Fleet Admiral Karishma Anand.

There were some among the Staff who felt that these meetings were inefficient, and pressed to have meetings in a newer style, in pure virtuality and with mediating AIs, similar to what was done within Governance. Most, however, were not yet ready to take that step.

She looked around the room at the others in attendance. The members not in physical attendance were present as holographic simulacrums, and nearly everyone was already there, since it was easy to attend virtually—one didn't even, strictly, have to be seated. The only one missing was—

Hardly had she thought that when General Alexander, perpetually tardy, materialized in his seat two seats down the table from her.

Not wasting a moment, Erwynmark, who had been fiddling impatiently with one of his collar tabs at the head of the table, jumped up and cleared his throat.

"Now that we are all here," he said. "Let's begin."

An enormous holographic starmap materialized immediately above the table, then zoomed in to display a particular region of Human space. Occupied star systems, military bases, and so forth were exaggerated in scale. Here it displayed a disc of soothing blue Human space nearly bisected by an intruding dagger of angry red. Locations of recent conflict were indicated on the map, and systems and bases which had undergone heavy attack were highlighted in green. Triangles and squares indicated fleet and troop concentrations for both sides.

The Euphratic Incursion, as it was known, was now well into its third year. The alien's first major offensive since the Samsara Offensive eight years ago, it showed marked differences from the ones that had proceeded it. Gone was the strange hesitancy and showmanship of the war's earlier years—this offensive was pushed ruthlessly and efficiently.

But gone, too, were the grandiose war‐winning maneuvers that had followed, such as the enormously ambitious attack on Samsara, which had sought to cut off and capture a Core World and with it, a quarter of Human space and probably the ability to defend Earth. That one had been a debacle for the aliens, and had weakened their defenses enough to allow a major follow‐on raid, as Erwynmark had cannily realized.

This one was different. Breaking with their previous pattern of trying to keep the Human military off‐balance with constant attacks, the Euphratic Incursion was the product of years of preparation, with an investment of massive resources, the kind necessary to sustain a relentless assault lasting years. It also had relatively limited goals: the intention was apparently to cut a wide swath through the Euphratic sector all the way to the other end, forcing the elimination of a large portion of forward‐facing military outposts by helping to surround the entire region of space—alien outposts now surrounded Human space—and incidentally passing through and destroying the enormously productive Gemini shipyards. Not war‐winning, but dangerously compromising.

Human strategic doctrine had done what it was supposed to. After the rout of the initial blitz, the offensive had ground to a snail's pace on a series of carefully‐defended, heavily garrisoned colony worlds, each system designed to stand as a fortress, with heavy planetary fortifications, Oort Clouds and asteroid belts thoroughly stocked with drones capable of weaponizing the debris, countless slow‐but‐durable Guardian‐class starships, and—most importantly—the manufacturing capacity of their populations, who did their utmost to replace matériel that was often destroyed as quickly as it was deployed.

It was to buy time, time to allow the Human fleet to gather and to strike a counterblow, just as the doctrine for the whole war was to buy time, to enable mobilization and technological advance—and the remote hope for unforeseen strategic opportunities. That whole worlds had inexorably fallen, their populations resisting to the bitter end, was… acceptable. There was no other way, and the colonists knew their lot.

Defying the predictions of human analysts, who had anticipated a quick withdrawal and renewed advance somewhere else, the aliens had pushed on, turning the entire sector into a giant exercise in grinding attrition.

Now, after so long, the attack had finally reached the two‐colony system containing the Gemini Shipyards.

"We all know the situation," Erwynmark said. "The current focal point of the incursion is here"—with a gesture, the holographic display zoomed in on the relevant system—"where the system is under heavy siege, though the shipyards remain intact and functional. Currently, all production is directed right back into the battle, of course. The system is holding firm with fleet support. Given our interdicting raids and fleet action at the flanks, the enemy is having significant difficulty shifting enough resources forward to break the system."

He paused, making sure he had all their attention.

"However, I have a bit of bad news," he continued.

The display zoomed in further, on the largest of the gas giants in the system, far away from the main action, but still the site of several minor skirmishes.

"Our intersystem stealth drones detected unusual concentrations of alien ships traveling in and out of orbit around the largest moon of this gas giant. It wasn't possible to obtain better information with the drones, so General Zheng sent in a MagOps team."

The display changed entirely, from a hologram of a planet to one of an enormous enigmatic cylinder resting on its side on the surface of the moon. It appeared to be only partially complete, with a large, obvious gap on its side. Internally, they all received a set of documents detailing what could be deduced about the structure.

"This was the best the clairvoyants could do safely," Erwynmark said. "The structure is heavily stealthed, and there is only so much that can be done with visual inspection, but, as you can see, the description almost exactly matches that of the Wormhole Stabilizer we found and destroyed in the Saharan Shipyards. Given how fast construction is proceeding, it will be complete in one and a half months. That is, of course, mostly a guess."

He stopped, looking around to gauge their stunned looks.

"So this was their goddamned game!" Anand said, slamming the table with the palm of her hand. "And to think we thought they were trying to attrit us."

"Assuming what we know about the device is correct," Fleet Admiral Chang noted, pointing out explicitly what they had all deduced. "Then they could use it to pour in reinforcements from their core worlds. It wouldn't matter how tenuous their supply lines are; they could easily overwhelm the system. Of course that's not even the main point."

"The system is within blink distance of Optatum," Erwynmark said. "As of course we all know. And for all we know, with a functioning wormhole, they wouldn't even need supply lines."

The blink drive was, of course, the enigmatic device the aliens used to help run circles around the Human fleet. While it consumed enough power to require hours of charge, it also enabled them to seemingly teleport from one position to another, with the only limitation being what appeared to be a strict range limit. Captured engines had made so little sense to human scientists that they had taken to calling them "Paradox Engines".

The name had stuck.

"You still want to withdraw the frontal positions and shorten the front?" General De Chatillon sneered, looking at Alexander. "Oh, that would have been fantastic, giving away territory so they can build a wormhole right in the face of a Core World."

"The idea was that we would watch for things like this," General Alexander snarled back. "With a shorter front, we could more easily neutralize an attempt like this. And I don't recall advocating abandoning Gemini."

"Gentlemen," Erwynmark warned. "You can continue your petty disputes in private. I want plans."

"A MagOps raid," Chang suggested, without missing a beat. "We cannot shift fleet operations towards that moon without being noticed, but a stealth operation has a chance of getting through. Clearly the aliens are trying not to draw attention to it, so their defenses are not as elaborate as they might be."

"It'd be a suicide mission," Field Marshal Sualem commented. "We could never extract the teams back out safely. That's assuming they actually manage to get into the compound, which is dubious at best. And if they fail on the first try, the aliens will know we know and fortify the place."

"The nearest suspected wormhole opening is outside the sector," Mami said, folding her hands under her chin. "I would guess they intend this to be a surprise. If so, we can expect a massive flood of reinforcements the moment it is operational. They must be gathering an attack force outside the sector, near the other end. If so, they might have to strip some of their sector defenses to manage it. They may be vulnerable to being enveloped from the rear. Perhaps, with their supplies cut, they will be unable to complete construction."

Some of those at the table, including Sualem and a certain Fleet Admiral Miller, gave her a slight stare for speaking. Well, screw them too.

"That is highly speculative, Tomoe," Alexander commented, looking at her, honorific‐free, since this wasn't in Japanese. "We don't even know what the thing is made of."

"I like it," De Chatillon said. "It's always been silly having Feodorovich keep her forces in a defensive posture when the aliens have a nice big salient begging to have its throat cut."

Feodorovich had been one of those unable to attend.

"We've been over this, Chatil," Anand said. "We've tested those defenses. They are too hard for such an operation to succeed."

"Perhaps," Erwynmark said, glancing between the three of them. "But as Tomoe here suggested, that may have changed. We lose little by testing the waters. There is no reason not to ask the Black Heart to look into it."

Mami felt a few concealed glances in her direction, both from her supporters and her detractors. By rights, the current head of the Black Heart, General Kuroi—an MSY founder—should have been on the General Staff. But that would have introduced a second magical girl onto the General Staff, and that was still a little problematic.

Speaking of which, she would have to remember to speak to Kuroi‐san.

"How long would it take to properly test the question, prepare an operation, and launch, assuming Tomoe is right?" Erwynmark asked.

"Perhaps three weeks," Anand said, "Maybe four."

The other admirals nodded agreement.

"I have input the scenario into MilAdvise," General Chang commented. "Further analysis will be required, but, preliminarily, the AI advisors estimate a 57% probability that there has indeed been a major withdrawal of forces from the salient, and a 72% probability that, given there really has been such a withdrawal, an attempted envelopment would succeed."

"What is the opinion of this Staff, then?" Erwynmark asked, signaling an informal vote. Theoretically, he outranked all of them, but he rarely overruled the Staff. In fact, it had never happened. It tended to attract the attention of Military Affairs.

There were various murmurs of assent. Just the act of checking if something was true was too minor to really quibble with.

"Very well," Erwynmark said. "I will forward the instructions to Feodorovich. I doubt she will see any reason to object."

"I wish to point out, though," Chang said, "that while I see no reason not to try, MilAdvise points out that even success may be moot if the Wormhole Stabilizer goes online, even if they have to hold out for weeks with their supply lines cut. With so many unknowns in the equation, the analysts predict an 84% chance that that is indeed the case and that they can also hold out, simply given the fact that the aliens are trying this in the first place. They are not stupid."

There was sighing around the table. They had realized that, of course.

"So we are back to the wormhole again," Sualem said, leaning forward. "We still need a plan for it."

"MilAdvise predicts only a 23% chance that a MagOps operation would succeed," Alexander said. "And only an 11% chance that the involved girls will suffer less than 100% casualties. Failure also reduces the chances of success for later fleet action."

It was not good odds.

Mami could see people around the table cringing, even Sualem, who was the one who had said it was a bad idea in the first place. Whatever issues she had with him, he was competent at his job, and ferocious in his defense of Humanity.

"However," Alexander said, "they add that of the various possible fleet actions, the one with the highest probability that does not also severely compromise the defenses of Apollo and Artemis has only a 13% chance of success, with a higher absolute number of fatalities. Given that, and the fact that they cannot imagine any better plans, they recommend the MagOps operation first, as having the highest cumulative success rate."

If they lost the system, it was mostly moot as well.

"This is still a preliminary analysis," Mami suggested. "Perhaps with more time, they might come up with something more. I propose we schedule both the MagOps operation and an attack on the flanks for three weeks from now, four if it needs it, so that we can do both at once. We can cancel the latter if the signs are bad and move the first forward. Meanwhile, we try to collect more information. It's risky to wait, but hopefully we will notice if their construction accelerates notably. Of course we will monitor the situation."

"Anyone with a better idea?" Erwynmark asked, looking around. No one said anything.

"Alright," he said, leaning on the table and sighing. "I will issue the instructions. Now, before I move on to the next topic, does anyone have anything they want to ask the Staff?"

Mami looked around the table to see if anyone else had anything before standing up.

"Actually, I have a request," she said, addressing the table.

She waited a moment to make sure they all looked at her.

"I wish to request access to the grief cube supply records of all active divisions, for my personal inspection only," she said, "And I also wish to speak to MAISL. I understand that this is an unusual request, but I have received significant numbers of complaints from magical girls in the services about problems with their supply. It would aid morale significantly if I could produce a report addressing their concerns, and could possibly be used to address any real problems that exist. I don't need to remind you all how valuable our morale is to the war effort."

She left out anything about injuries and health care for now. That could wait for next time.

She held her breath.

"I don't see why not," De Chatillon said.

"If you really want to," Anand said, leaning on her elbow and peering at her. "I'd get an AI to help you. I mean, besides your TacComp. It's a lot of material."

Mami waited for one of the others to disapprove, particularly Sualem or Miller, but they remained silent. They had lost a lot of support ever since some of their compatriots had been assigned away from the Staff or retired.

"I'll send the formal requests then," Mami said, as somewhere in her subconscious, Machina did exactly that.

She had a feeling she'd have to pressure some of them a bit for the information, though.

"Is there anything else?" Erwynmark asked.

"Ah, Tomoe, you should remain standing," he added, as she moved to sit down.

They looked at him curiously, Mami especially.

"Nothing else?" Erwynmark asked, receiving a general consensus of "no."

"Alright," he said. "Then I will make my announcement."

He stood up from the table, cleared his throat, then leaned forward onto the table.

"Over the past few months, I have grown increasingly concerned with the lack of coordination among the various departments in the Euphratic Sector. While the greatly increased number of divisions and fleets, as well as the number of operational contingencies, has necessitated a greater number of commanders to manage it all, what we have gained in operational efficiency we have lost in tactical and strategic coordination. There have been numerous instances where attempted coordination has been bungled due to the differing opinions and goals of various commanders. This is not an indictment of the commanders involved; it is simply a fact of military reality."

He looked around the table to make sure they all got the gist of what he was saying.

"Therefore, after consultation with MAICC and Military Affairs, I have decided to name a new commander for the entire sector, with authority over Fleet Admiral Anand"—he nodded in Anand's direction—"Fleet Admiral Feodorovich, General Zheng, General Gatier, and Field Marshal Tsvangirai. Our meeting today has only served to reinforce my confidence in my choice. I am proud to appoint Tomoe Mami in the position. General Gong will take command of the Yangtze Sector. Relevant orders and dates are being forwarded."

Mami just stared at Erwynmark's boyish face, managing to avoid looking absolutely befuddled.

"It's an honor," she said, finally, glancing around the room.

"I protest!" Miller said, from the back of the room, finally snapping. They turned to look.

"I mean no offense to Tomoe here," he said. "But this is a poor decision. The troops will not respect a girl as their commander. Every one of us is more distinguished—"

Bullshit, Mami thought. You totally mean offense.

She grit her teeth, too angry to notice her language.

"With all due respect," Alexander said, managing to make sound "respect" sound positively disrespectful, "that is bollocks. We all know who the troops respect."

"Don't be stupid, Miller," De Chatillon advised.

"Mami will be an excellent commander," Anand said, seemingly harboring no resentment for having a new commanding officer. She had always been a reliable ally.

"You all are not thinking through the relevant issues," Sualem said, leaning forward. "They have enough power already—"

"Enough of this!" Erwynmark interjected coldly and sharply. "We are not rehashing this argument again. This is my decision. It is already done. Or would you prefer we hold a formal vote?"

There was a brief silence. They all knew which way the votes would go.

"I register my objection," Miller said angrily.

"Noted," Erwynmark responded, looking at Sualem, who deferred.

He looked around the table.

"Then this meeting is dismissed," he said.

One‐by‐one, virtual simulacra dissolved around the table, until it was only the four of them on the station.

"Don't let them get to you, Mami," Anand said, grabbing her shoulder on the way out.

"I won't," Mami reassured, heading for the door herself.

"Can you hold on a second, Mami?" Erwynmark relayed privately.

Mami stopped, letting the door close in front her. She turned around.

"Yes?" she asked.

"I have a lot riding on this, Mami," Erwynmark said. "We all do, obviously. Giving someone command authority over other Field Marshals and Fleet Admirals is unprecedented, which is why I felt I had to ask the government. I'm counting on you, just like I did last time."

"I won't disappoint," Mami said firmly, even though she had to admit to a tiny worm of doubt in her stomach.

"The commands change hands two days from now, at midnight," Erwynmark said. "Before then, do you think we could meet in the command center on station? We have a lot to discuss."

Mami tilted her head slightly.

"I'll have Machina arrange it with Rommel," she said, smiling.

Rommel was the name of his tactical AI. There were less controversial names to pick, but no one really wanted to bring it up to him.

"Alright," Erwynmark said.

Mami looked at him questioningly.

"Oh don't mind me," Erwynmark said. "I'll be here for a while longer."

Mami nodded and headed out the door, which slid closed behind her. She reunited with her bodyguards, nodding at Erwynmark's bodyguards, also in the area.

"You know, I've always thought you were Erwynmark's favorite commander," Xiao Long said, as the three of them walked down the hallway.

"Not now, Shen," Mami said, rubbing her head to nurse a sudden headache.

Chapter Text

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

In the most widely‐trumpeted version of events, the role of the "Southern Group" has always been clear. They were the band of villains to match the Mitakihara Four's heroes, and Mikuni Oriko was the James Moriarity to match Akemi Homura's Sherlock Holmes.

In reality, of course, the picture has always been much more clouded. Oriko and her companions were indeed murderers and havoc‐wreakers, terrorizing the other teams in their vicinity and displaying an appalling lack of regard for human life. However, many troublesome details of their actions remain, and invite speculation to this day.

Why, for instance, did such a group adopt Chitose Yuma as a fifth member? Her inclusion went wildly against the grain of the group's previous activities and avowed beliefs, and they invested significant resources including and training a girl who, by all accounts, was not unusually powerful.

Secondly, the life stories of a majority of the group's members share a certain eerie resonance. According to the accounts of other magical girls, Mikuni Oriko, Hinata Aina, and Miroko Mikuru all started their magical careers as vigilantes, with life stories to match. Mikuni was the daughter of a ruined, corrupt politician, and she spent much of her early months tracking down and exposing her father's associates. Hinata was the survivor of a murder‐arson, and Miroko the victim of a rape, and they both achieved vengeance on the perpetrators before embarking on a brief period of targeting other criminals. All three of them eventually became erratic, starting to kill people for the most minor of crimes, with only Oriko appearing to have maintained any semblance of a grip.

Still, despite all their unstable behavior, they all had at least slight justification for their murders. Things changed with the formation of the Southern Group, with a sudden radical shift of focus: the group began to focus primarily on other magical girls, and to kill those who in many cases appeared to be innocent. In other words, they became fully "evil", a change of behavior which to this day has little explanation.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there is a distinct pattern to be found in these later killings. The magical girls who were their victims were almost always the most erratic, asocial, or aggressive members of their teams, assuming they were even part of a team. That is, those that were killed were often the most obvious recruits for their own group, though it must be stressed that in a slight minority of cases no such connection could be found.

〈Overshadowing it all is the specter of Oriko's precognition, as by all accounts she was one of the most powerful of her generation, before the unexplained extinction of her magic class. It is baffling to many observers that she would die to a simple demon attack, no matter how massive, or that anyone with knowledge of the future would act as randomly as she seemed to. Many have suggested instead that it was her view of the future that led the Southern Group to undertake the actions that it did, and that it was she who insisted on Yuma's preservation.〉③

〈Viewed in this light, then, Yuma's survival becomes singularly intriguing. So too is the observation that in the official account, the Southern Group was integral in shaping the Mitakihara Four, compelling Kyouko and Mami to put aside their differences and reunite, and forcing them and several other teams in the area to cooperate on a limited scale. The specter of the group's depredations would figure large in the initial Charter of the MSY and, of course, Yuma would be an integral member of both the Mitakihara Four and the MSY.〉③

— Clarisse van Rossum, MG, "Ruminations on the Mitakihara Four," online essay.

Kyouko opened her eyes, staring up at the wooden ceiling of the cramped alcove where she slept. What had she been dreaming about?

…Submarines? A mermaid?

Ugh, my dreams never make any sense, she thought.

Her bed creaked as she sat up, steadying herself using the nearby desk.

She reached for the switch to the nearby lamp. She would never admit it to anyone, but the reason she liked her room cramped and old‐fashioned wasn't from stubbornness or being old, as she liked to imply to anyone who inquired, but simply because it reminded her of the room she had slept in as a child.

They had lived simple lives, even more so when her father had been excommunicated. Goddess only knew how he had held onto the church building, but he had, somehow, and all she and her sister had been told was that it had taken a great deal of money. Money they didn't really have.

It wasn't as unlikely as it sounded. They had been anomalous already, her father an outpost in an isolated parish, one who had already done much to antagonize the Church, though that had been with his zeal rather than his heresy. Perhaps they had been so glad to wash their hands of him they were willing to give him a parting gift.


She remembered how happy she and her sister had been, when her parents had hauled in a new bunk bed for them to share. Before, they had simply shared the same cramped mattress, which she had secretly found comforting, but was also very annoying.

Her father had smiled at them then, a little sweaty from assembling the thing himself, an ecclesial man unused to that kind of work.

That was the other reason she stayed in this room. It reminded her of what it had been like to have nothing, why she had made a wish in the first place. It was stabilizing. Humbling, when it was so easy to lose herself in all the baser pleasures of life.

"Five more minutes," the girl who had been sleeping next to her mumbled sleepily, flailing at her with one arm. The way she did it, grasping and flinging blindly, it wasn't clear if she was trying to pull her back or push her away.

It was Maki, the youngest of her pupils.

Honestly, Kyouko wasn't sure why she still felt the need to do this. Did she miss her childhood, the comfort of having someone sleep next to her? Was she dissatisfied with something?

She shook her head. She didn't know.

Like so many others her age, she had been through a hedonist stage. It had been roughly two centuries ago, right after Unification, when all the hard tasks of the Union had been finished. Then, like all those others, she had let loose, immersing herself in a daily cycle of drink, partying, and secret liaisons with girls a fraction of her age. Seduction had been simple—there was something about being so old that made it easy to do.

Eventually, it lost its appeal, but not before soiling her reputation species‐wide. Mami was nicer about it, but Kyouko had been forced to endure endless smirks and jokes from Homura and Yuma. You'd think Yuma, at least, would lay back about it, but no, it was always Kyouko who had to be the butt of jokes. Yuma was untouchable.

Not that Kyouko didn't help to perpetrate that. Yuma was the imouto. You didn't mess with that.

Outwardly, she called their teasing slander, but inwardly she knew all those rumors had a certain basis in fact.

Regardless, all of that was ancient history now. She had a new purpose in life, even if she occasionally returned to old habits.

It wasn't too bad. She was careful about consent.

"You don't even need to sleep anymore, Maki," Kyouko said, standing up, turning around and nudging the girl with her knee. "It was a one‐hour nap. Theoretically, that should last you the month. Suck it up, flip the switch, and get up. You have patrol duty."

She looked at the girl, who was still stubbornly keeping her eyes closed. The position of the bedsheet on her body revealed a lot more than was proper.

Kyouko swallowed. Why did this one have to look so much like Sa—

"Ugh, have it your way," Kyouko said abruptly, grabbing her clothes off her chair and thrusting them on efficiently. She projected annoyance and impatience, but really she was just trying to get out of there as fast as possible.

She shut the door behind her on her way out and headed for the front of the building.

As she walked, she bridged the transition from the dark, old‐fashioned, and modest rear of the building to the bright, modern, and cheerful front. Architecturally, the whole building was about such contrasts, between light and dark, hope and despair. It befit the main church of the Cult. Or the Church, rather.

She headed down a hallway, greeting members of the Cult she passed. The wall to her right was full stained glass, a luxury her father's original church could never have afforded. The blossoming sunrise poured in, illuminating the hallway and its pedestrians in shades of red, green, blue, and yellow.

It seemed a little dimmer than usual, though.

"Good morning, Kyouko," Patricia said, as they passed each other in the hallway. The girl signaled that she wanted to talk.

"Good morning," Kyouko returned, stopping to face her. What did she want?

"Who was it today?" Patricia asked, smiling vaguely, face illuminated by the sunlight.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kyouko responded automatically, annoyed. "But if she doesn't come out in the next fifteen minutes, go in there and kick her awake."

"Sure," Patricia said, tilting her head and shrugging her shoulders. They both knew that, in practice, nothing of the sort would happen. Instead, Maki was guaranteed to be up within the next ten minutes, attitude notwithstanding. Anything later, and she would miss patrol duty, and despite the unique location where her particular patrol group was situated, military regulations still applied. No pupil of Kyouko would be so stupid.

"Anyway, I'm going to be meeting Ryouko‐chan at one with Asaka," Patricia said, putting her finger to her cheek. "Since I'm an enhancement specialist and all of that. Thought you'd want to know. And uh, Sister Clarisse wants to know if you'll be doing morning sermon today. Since you missed last night."

The higher tiers of the Cult hierarchy were addressed "Sister". Kyouko had started the practice, way back when she had been organizing the Cult. It made sense, after all. At first it had seemed cheesy, even to her, but eventually they had all gotten used to it.

However, Kyouko skipped using the title. She was Kyouko. Everyone knew her. And she absolutely refused to be called "Mother" by anyone.

"Tell her I'll be doing afternoon instead," Kyouko said. "I've got places to go."

"The visitors will be disappointed," Patricia chastened, voice carrying a slight hint of reprove. "Some of them came just to see you, and will have to go back before the afternoon."

"I know," Kyouko said, bowing and conveying sincere regret. "But it's important. Convey my apologies."

Patricia nodded, then turned to continue heading down the hallway. The whole thing could have been handled by electronic message or telepathy, but the Cult liked to be old‐fashioned in certain ways.

She continued on her way out of the building. It was actually faster to head out the secret back entrance, the way Mami had entered yesterday, but she needed to be seen. She greeted Sisters, Acolytes, worshippers, clasping hands, nodding politely, and pronouncing benedictions.

She even stopped outside the grand double door of the Hall of the Ribbon to say nice things about a baby some girl had brought in, since it never hurt to say nice things.

It did bother her just a little, though. Yes, girls with service waivers or restricted service, usually government officials or Union administrators, could nowadays much more easily do something crazy like raise a family, but that didn't make it a good idea. It made those on active duty jealous.

This war was already damaging the egalitarianism atmosphere of the organization enough. There was no need to aggravate it further.


Flag that topic for review later. I might want to bring it up at the next Leadership Council Meeting. Also, remind me to think about it and maybe talk about it in the afternoon sermon. And start stressing the magical girl solidarity harder.

Acknowledged, her tactical computer—her TacComp—thought, its thoughts mechanical and unemotional. Sometimes Kyouko wondered if she should apply to get one of those new fancy models, like the one Mami had.

She kept putting it off, though, and in the end, what did it matter anyway? Innovations like always got spread methodically down the ranks, and a Lieutenant General like her would probably get called in for an upgrade in two years or so. She would get it then no matter what.

Kyouko eschewed the large main entrance, though. She needed to be seen, yes, but this particular day, she'd rather it not be widely known where she was going.

Thus, she skirted around the edge of the main assembly hall, smiling and waving as she passed the side door—then ducked into an elevator recessed behind the back wall.

Aboveground, this building was the main church of the Cult of Hope, from the rear defined by the same ancient architectural style that had once defined her father's church, and from the front defined by the glassy and metallic architecture typical of newly constructed buildings.

Belowground, it was a fully‐stocked MSY Military Armory, complete with weapons, hospital wards, living areas, and production facilities. Even farther belowground, it connected with the Mitakihara region's last "Redoubt", built in case of the unthinkable: a siege of Earth itself.

Her elevator was one of many scattered throughout the building, and she was thus obliged to share it with only one other girl, a member of the same patrol group as Maki, heading down to join the others. They chatted, and the girl mentioned that she was concerned Maki hadn't shown up for breakfast with the others.

Kyouko kept a straight face.

Thankfully, Kyouko's destination was only the first floor, counting downward.

A quick turn to the right, about ten feet of walking, then another turn right through a waiting door, and she was where she wanted to be: a narrow platform carved out of the edge of an underground tunnel, walls plastered from floor to ceiling by a mosaic of paper, each individual sheet decorated with amateur artwork. It had been one of the social activities of the Armory's residents—all magical girls, naturally.

This tunnel was one of many leading into and out of the building. The underground entrances were only available to residents, and those magical girls and officials who had business to be there. All others used the main entrance to the church aboveground. Indeed, unless you expressly specified which entrance you wanted, the transports would always take you to the main entrance. These underground entrances weren't very well‐known.

She inspected the artwork on the wall, hand on chin. It was "amateur", but that did not mean the art was bad. Some of it was amazingly good. It had to do with how old the girl in question was, and how much they had practiced. Scattered among the drawings one could see many excellent drawings: Incubators, soul gems, magical girls in battle, Field Marshal Mami smiling and looking out over the bridge of her flagship—the HSS Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov—and Kyouko standing in front of a congregation giving one of her sermons, with a lot more light and halos than she thought she had.

Kyouko focused her attention on one in particular. In well‐rendered watercolor, it depicted Homura with her white angel wings furled around her, trying to kneel, but being refused.

The one doing the refusing was the Goddess, of course, in all the vague detail that they knew about her. As was traditional, the face was frustratingly blank. In twenty years of ribbon‐induced visions, no one had ever managed to see her face. The only one who could fill in the blank was Homura, the one whose return they awaited.

Whoever the artist was, she definitely kept up with the latest visions. There was the long‐flowing hair, the white robes, the slight hint of wings—

Kyouko frowned. It was traditional to depict the Goddess in all white because, well, that was she looked like, to most who saw her. Vague, mist‐like, white—Kyouko had seen it herself.

With finesse and care, the hair was tinged just a hint of otherworldly pink.

That wasn't in any of the official descriptions. And Kyouko, of all people, would definitely know. And was her hair ever depicted as that long?

She squinted, looking for an artist name—and started.

"Kishida Maki," it said.

Goddess, she thought. I didn't know she was this good. I just thought—

She interrupted herself, then continued on a different train of thought.

But she's never had a vision…

Kyouko considered what to do.

Kyouko fired off a quick message to Maki, text‐only, inquiring about the long and pink hair.

No response. Was the girl still sleeping?

A while later, she let out a breath. Well, it was nice to see the girls were having fun.

Kyouko turned to face her vehicle, which had been waiting for her the whole time, of course.

"You want to talk, Onee‐chan?" Yuma had said, when Kyouko had called her earlier that morning. "How convenient! I happen to be in Mitakihara today, and—well, nevermind all that other stuff, I can carve some time out. How does two hours sound? At MSY: GA, of course."

It had been convenient, since Kyouko hadn't even had to explain that she wanted a physical meeting, for security purposes.

Kyouko stepped into the metal, cone‐shaped transport.

Strictly, it was probably a better idea to travel by foot off‐grid, as Mami had done, but she could probably rely on Yuma to wipe the records of her travel if she asked.

"Just a reminder," her vehicle intoned as she stepped into it, in the sort of pleasantly female mechanical voice that all transportation agencies loved. "Scheduled rain begins in five minutes. Ensure that you are prepared."

Aw hell, Kyouko thought. It was sunny just a moment ago!

Well, it wouldn't matter. She wasn't taking any walks anywhere.

With a thought, she signaled the vehicle to get on its way.

Kyouko slid her chair downward so she could stare up at the simulated blue sky on the interior of her vehicle cover. Bright and sunny, with birds and things like that.

When Yuma had turned fifteen, they had taken a three‐day trip to the countryside. It had been a complicated endeavor. Extremely complicated, given that they'd had to stockpile grief cubes for weeks, then blow it all compensating the University Group to cover their territory for three days, and they also had been obliged to contact every team whose territory they would pass through to telegraph their benign intentions ahead of time.

Without the Southern Group, things were much easier, though. With them still present, such a trip would have been unthinkable.

They had stayed with a local mage they had gotten in touch with, the one overseeing the sparsely populated area. She had been glad for the company, and the small gift of grief cubes hadn't hurt either.

It had been worth it, though. Every one of them was city‐born and bred, and Yuma had looked so happy, running through the grass and hugging annoyed‐looking sheep, that it had made Kyouko's heart ache.

They had kept it a secret from her beforehand, since if she had known she would certainly have told them to call it off. But Yuma had told them once about her childhood, how her only trip out of the city was also one of her only happy memories with her parents.

They could all understand the importance of memories like that, and even Homura had gotten unusually sentimental, wishing out loud that the Goddess could be there with them—which incidentally broke the ban they had placed on her talking about the Goddess in front of their new host, but nevermind.

Kyouko wondered what kind of girl the Goddess had been. She had been Human once, like all of them. That, at least, Homura had made abundantly clear.

Bright, cheerful, selfless, willing to sacrifice herself to save others from pain. That was what Homura had implied, and all she and her theologians had to go by, but it was strangely easy to extrapolate what kind of girl she must have been. Loving and pure, like a Goddess, but human nonetheless…

Kyouko sighed. There had always been something beautiful about the concept, but she had been too cynical to believe, until it was too late.

Homura, where have you gone?

The bright blue sky faded away, replaced by a maze of transparent tunnels networking themselves before a sky gray with storm clouds and distant rain, rain that blurred her view of the world as she emerged onto surface level, where there were no tunnel walls to shield her.

The tunnels swarmed with countless vehicles, carrying the denizens of the city to and fro. From this far down, it was impossible to get a clear view of the sky, no matter how the material engineers fussed about making the tunnel material ever‐more crystal‐clear. The only way they could have possibly de‐obscured the sky was if they had used military‐grade cloaking.

The tunnels were the most visceral reminder that this wasn't truly the city of her childhood.

They had always treasured Yuma, spoiled her, even. They were all young, had all undergone more than their fair share in life, but none had been as young as her.

Kyouko thought about all that had happened.

For Kyouko, the girl had reminded her of her sister, and that had been more than enough.

The first time she spotted Yuma had been shortly after Homura first joined their team, weeks before the girl's mysterious change of personality.

Kyouko had been showing the new girl the ropes, stalking a group of demons near the edge of their territory. Jumping among the rooftops in bright daylight, Kyouko had been instructing Homura on the fine art of demon‐tracking.

Stop, Kyouko instructed, more direct than usual, grinding to a halt on top of a ventilation module. Get down here.

"What is it?" Homura asked, appearing above her, feathery white wings casting a shadow downward. She hovered for a moment before abolishing the wings, dropping down next to Kyouko, pigtails fluttering behind her.

Kyouko pulled out her brand‐new cell phone. Mami was too far to use telepathy, so they'd just have to use something more technological.

"Mami. Sorry to disturb. Southern Group infringing territory. Come at once. Will wait for you. Ask Kyubey for position," Kyouko typed out carefully, still a little unused to the interface.

For all its smug refusal to "take sides", Kyubey had always been helpful against the Southern Group, even volunteering advice occasionally.

It had even explained once, pointing out that the Southern Group killed far more girls than the average group and insisted on taking a territory too large for them to fully cleanse, leading routinely to demon attacks that dissipated uselessly before any girls got there to claim any cubes. It was very inefficient, it had opined, and the Incubators regretted contracting Mikuni Oriko.

"What's going on?" Homura asked, peering into Kyouko's face. They had convinced her to fix her eyes and remove her glasses—such a safety hazard!—but old habits were hard to break.

"Focus," Kyouko said. "You can feel them, can't you? Fighting the demons."

Homura turned to look at the horizon. She furrowed her nose.

"Yes," she said. "Other girls?"

"Not just any girls," Kyouko explained, glancing at her phone and Mami's "I will be there in ten minutes." "The Southern Group. The one we've been telling you about. The ones that don't play by the rules. Keep your magic use down."

"Oh," Homura said, in that meek way she had. "Too bad."

Kyouko closed her eyes, trying to sort out the constantly shifting mess of magic in the distance. Demons, yes, obviously, and there was Kure Kirika, and Mikuni Oriko, and that goddamn psycho Hinata Aina, and—

Kyouko stopped, tilting her head.

A new girl! she thought. Or at least, one I've never seen before. This could be interesting.

"So what now?" Homura asked. "Do we talk to them?"

"From now on, we only use private telepathy," Kyouko instructed. "Unless we have a good reason to let them hear us when we confront them."

"We're con—confronting them?" Homura asked.

Kyouko smiled devilishly.

"They're no need to be scared," she reassured. "Just follow our lead. They don't know about you. With you on our side, I think we'll give them a little roughing up."

Kyouko sensed something approaching to their left. It was Mami.

Kyouko! Homura! I'm in telepathy range, Mami thought, tone demanding. What's the situation?

They're testing our patience again, Kyouko thought. Killing demons on our territory.

The Southern Group had been trouble ever since Mami first encountered them, back during the brief interim when Kyouko had broken their mentor‐student bond. Initially, it hadn't been a group; it had just been Oriko and Kirika, the two seeming to find glee in tormenting Mami by denying her grief cubes and attacking her out of nowhere.

Mami could have taken Kirika, or even maybe Oriko, alone, but the two of them were entirely too much.

The breaking point had come when they had trashed Mami's apartment, seemingly out of the pure joy of vandalism. Mami had cried in the ruins of her life, among her shattered teapots and broken furniture, then done something entirely unwise: she had attacked them.

To perform her attack, Mami had traveled far enough south that Kyouko was able to pick up the signals of her attacks from where she was—which wasn't as impressive as it sounded, considering that Kyouko was fairly well tuned to Mami, and Mami had been practically going nova.

What Kyouko saw personally, when she finally got there, was the look of unvarnished fury on Mami's face as she attacked the other two girls, summoning muskets as if they were candy, pulling Tiro Finale after Tiro Finale, too enraged to even say her trademark catchphrase.

It had been disturbing, because up until that point Kyouko had no idea Mami could even be enraged. It just didn't seem possible.

And of course, Mami was losing anyway, because something like that was just unsustainable.

So, despite all the reasons she had given for leaving Mami behind, she moved in, confident that whatever was going on, it couldn't possibly be Mami that was in the wrong, even if Mami was looking fairly murderous.

In the end, Oriko and Kirika had backed off, and it was left to Kyouko to put Mami back together, help clean up her apartment, and to draw on her own grief cube stocks to make up for some of the power Mami had used.

She knew what it was like, to have one's home destroyed.

After that, Oriko hadn't left her alone either. Kyouko had no home for them to trash, but the constant attacks drained her resolve. Mami kept showing up to "pay back" grief cubes, obviously desperate to patch things back together, and Kyouko had started shifting her territory northward, almost out of necessity.

It was then that the Southern Group had really emerged, Oriko and Kirika appearing one day in her territory with two other girls from who knows where, both of whom managed the prodigious feat of being even more insane than Kirika.

There was Hinata Aina, always laughing and bragging about how she would burn everything, "purify them all of their sins with her cleansing fire." She took glee in killing, and always talked about how much they had all deserved to die.

Miroko Mikuru was a lot quieter, but was hardly any better, muttering to herself telepathically about the serenity of cold, how much better it would be if they could all be like her ice. Or at least Kyouko had wished she would mutter it to herself. It would have been a lot less unnerving.

Kyouko knew when the jig was up. She fled back to Mitakihara and rejoined Mami.

It made sense, too. In the aftermath of her… personal tragedy, she had told Mami that she was better off without her, but that had turned out to be manifestly untrue. Even Kyouko couldn't deny that the both of them would be dead soon if they didn't team up.

And if she was nothing else, she was a survivor. That, at least, she had decided.

But even with the two of them allied, they still couldn't really maintain the integrity of their territory. Four versus two was a bit much, especially when one of those four could foresee the future and relayed combat directives to the others.

All they could afford to do was keep themselves alive, harvest grief cubes, and grit their teeth as the others traipsed the edges of their territory, daring them to attack.

But with Homura, things would change.

Are they are all there? Mami thought back.

No. Miroko Mikuru seems to not be with them, but they have someone new.

Someone new? Mami thought, with a slight tinge of concern. That could be trouble.

Yes, Kyouko thought. But we have to take this chance, with one of them missing. And now that we have three, we have to give them a warning to stay the hell out. If we stay away just because we're not sure what powers this new girl has, we'll look weak and cowardly.

I agree, Mami thought, as Kyouko knew she would. Plus, they might have noticed Homura already, so there's a good chance we're not keeping any secrets anymore.

Not to mention I doubt we're really going to trip up Mikuni Oriko and her annoying precognition, Kyouko added.

Yes, Mami thought.

"Alright, Homura," Kyouko said, looking the girl next to her in the eye. "Remember what we said about them, especially Oriko. We're not springing any surprises on them, so don't take any risks. I know you haven't fought any other girls before, but we might not have to. Hopefully, once Oriko sees what kind of power you have, they'll back off."

"What if they don't?" Homura asked, eyes slightly fearful.

"Just do your best," Kyouko said, smiling reassuringly. "Since you're new, just stay back, make sure to keep us covered with your aura, and fire some arrows when you can. Be careful about your soul gem; demons might not know to target it, but you can bet they do."

"Okay," Homura said, nodding with a determined expression.

Kyouko strategically left out the fact that, if Oriko were intentionally going into a fight, she probably expected to win, and if someone who could see the future expected to win…

Goddamn, what an annoying power! Kyouko thought.

"Good afternoon, Sakura‐san, Akemi‐san," Mami said, dropping down behind them, polite as ever.

"Let's go, then," Kyouko said, propelling herself forward. "Magic usage to a minimum. No wings. Let's at least try to surprise them."

"I'm not used to this running," Homura complained, barely managing to keep up.

In almost no time at all, they were there, inside the miasma, looking down at a horde of demons trying to focus their attacks on a pair of girls in their midst, and failing to hit anything. As they watched, Kirika tore apart a pair with her claws, jumped, twirled elegantly in the air, and landed outside the group, turning to face them. The movement of the lead demons slowed perceptibly, and Kirika easily dodged their beams, aided partly by relayed foresight. The demons in the rear tried to move forward, bunching up behind the lead demons and getting trapped in turn in the slowed time field.

The second girl, dressed in scarlet darker than Kyouko's, darted away from the group she had been distracting, propelling herself next to the slowed demons with shocking speed, riding two jets of flame, exactly as if she were wearing rocket boots. She raised her blood‐red scepter with its ball of fire, and the cluster of demons shot up in towering inferno, the summoner giggling with pleasure.

Hinata the Fire‐mage, the Scarlet, the Insane, who had in her past a long trail of charcoaled bodies, "cleansed" by her fire. Kyouko had no clue how Oriko had managed to convince her to join a team.

Behind Kirika, a safe distance away on the sidewalk, Oriko stood watching silently, like a white phantom. At her side, holding her hand, was the new girl, clad in green.

She's so young! Kyouko thought, aghast. How is she there? A team like this would kill her as soon as look at her.

It could be a deception, Mami thought levelly. She could have manipulated her age downward. It'd fit. Oriko's team is rather eccentric.

I don't think so, Kyouko thought. Look at them! I don't think Kirika would tolerate anyone but a kid holding Oriko's hand like that.

It's not safe to make assumptions like that, Sakura‐san, Mami thought. Anyway, it seems we haven't been noticed. Time to make our entrance. We're landing on that smaller building over there. Long‐range bombardment, girls!

A burst of magic from Homura, and Kyouko felt a sudden rush of power, warm and addictive. Homura's aura.

They jumped into the air. Homura spread her wings and readied a full flight of arrows. Kyouko extended her arm, a blizzard of spears appearing among and around them, ready to dive. Mami extended both her arms, filling in the gaps with her muskets, nearly darkening the sky.

Then she summoned her signature giant musket‐cannon, four times her size and, like everything else, aimed downward.

"Tiro Finale!" she yelled full‐force, and the street around the four girls of the Southern Group bellowed and exploded under a hellfire of musket balls, impossibly fast and sharp spears, and purple arrows. The street repair crew would have had a lot of unexplained work to do tonight, were it not for the miasma and its distorting effects on reality.

Kyouko and Mami landed gracefully on the building below them, followed moments later by Homura, landing softly with her wings.

They dodged, Kyouko telegraphed to Homura, in case she relaxed too much.

"That was pretty impressive," Kirika said, jumping onto the ceiling where they were standing, seven meters in front of them. She licked one of her claws, in that disturbing habit of hers.

Of course they had dodged. It was too much to expect that a team headed by Mikuni Oriko would ever be surprised. She had merely warned them to move at the last moment, when her time‐sense or whatever it was tingled.

No, if they were ever to defeat a team like that, it could only be by attrition.

"You burned a lot of magic on that light show," Hinata Aina said, voice taunting, appearing next to Kirika. "Even Tiro Finale. That was stupid of you. Now you're easier to kill."

"Believe what you want," Mami said, in that chilly aristocratic way she had.

Finally, Oriko herself arrived, along with the mysterious green child. From the way the child stood with her mace‐hammer, nervous and unsteady but trying to hide it, Kyouko was instantly sure she really was as young as she looked.

"Who's the new ward?" Mami asked, sneering. "I wasn't aware you were in the habit of raising fresh meat."

"Fresh Meat" was Mikuru's terminology. In one sentence, Mami was reminding them that they were missing a member, and also pointing out their anomalous behavior. As for the sneer—well, Oriko always did bring out the best in Mami.

"I could say the same to you," Oriko said, matching aristocratic iciness with aristocratic iciness. "But it is the kind of silly thing you would do, isn't it? I'll have you know Yuma‐chan here is quite powerful."

As Mami and Oriko continued their grandstanding, Kyouko listened to it with one ear, but focused her attention on something else entirely.

You, new girl, she thought, sealing the thought into a private channel. Yuma, is it?

It's Chitose‐san to you, the girl thought back, looking Kyouko in the eyes, trying to project hostility but not quite succeeding.

Kyouko was absolutely certain now.

What's a new contractee like you doing with girls like these? Kyouko thought, carefully watching Oriko instead of Yuma. I'll warn you right now: they're all insane. You're not going to live long, sticking with them.

Kyouko noted the girl's angry reaction.

They saved my life! There's no way they're bad people!

Instead of saying anything, Kyouko sent an incredulous laugh.

Did they now? Must have been an accident. You'll see how bad they are soon enough.

I told you—

Listen, you sound like a nice girl, Kyouko interrupted. You probably won't believe me, but we're nice girls too. Nicer than the ones you're with. Mami's not bluffing. We could take the four of you. If you switched sides, it'd be a cakewalk.

From the corner of her eye, Kyouko watched the other girl curl her lip. This wasn't going to work.

Kyouko sighed, internally. Oh well. It had been worth the shot.

"So if you don't leave our territory and never come back," Mami was threatening, "we will not hesitate to kill you."

Better us than that crazy bitch next to you, Kyouko thought.

"You take that back!" Yuma snapped, brandishing her mace. "How dare you insult Onee‐chan!"

Her eyes were fiery and she was clearly doing her best to restrain herself from attacking.

Such a newbie, Kyouko thought. And 'Onee‐chan'? That's… interesting.

Yuma stepped forward, only to find Oriko's hand already blocking her path.

"It's okay, Yuma‐chan," she said, voice reassuring. "We're leaving."

"What?" Aina demanded, turning to face Oriko, face twisted with sudden anger and frustration. "We're going to run? I could take these idiots alone!"

"No you couldn't," Oriko intoned icily. "Or are you questioning me? We won't win this fight. The new girl is too powerful. Better to just leave."

"Are you serious?" the scarlet mage asked. "We outnumber them!"

Oriko made a strange expression, as if to say "Who's the one with the precognition here?"

"Yes," Oriko said, almost sighing. "Let's just go."

She turned and jumped off the building, followed by Yuma, Kirika, and—reluctantly—Hinata Aina, who turned to give them a sneering look before leaving. As she did so, she summoned a fireball in her hand and dramatically extinguished it, as if to say "I could easily do this to you."

"Incidentally, you haven't seen the last of us!" Oriko shouted as they departed.

As if that really made their departure any less embarrassing.

They waited for a long moment as the other four girls' magical signatures faded.

"Well," Mami said, turning to Kyouko. "That went quite well, I daresay. What did you say to, uh, Yuma, though?"

"It's Chitose," Kyouko said nonchalantly. "I just invited her to switch sides. That's all."

Mami gave Kyouko a look.

"It was probably worth it, but you could have at least said something to the rest of us."

"Didn't have any time," Kyouko explained, shrugging. "I was right, though. She is new. They saved her life, for who knows what reason, so she's still in hero‐worship mode. I feel sorry for her."

Mami sighed.

"Well, maybe we'll get another chance," she said, fiddling pointlessly with part of her hair. "Kyubey says our territory could easily support a fourth, if having a fourth let us kill demons more efficiently."

"Those girls are definitely weird," Homura said appraisingly, piping up for the first time in a while. "But I don't get the feeling like Mikuni is a bad person."

"Mikuni destroyed almost everything I own," Mami warned, voice containing more than a hint of a growl. "And she's killed plenty of people. If anyone deserves to die, it's her."

With an angry and brisk turn away, she stepped forward and jumped off the building, down towards the street, leaving them behind.

"I don't get Oriko either," Kyouko said, shrugging and moving to follow. "But like Mami said, she's killed plenty of people, and we aren't here to play psychologist. Don't let your sympathy get in the way of what needs to be done."

Her tactical computer startled her from her reverie.

Maki had finally seen fit to respond.

"The long pink hair?" her youngest pupil asked, seemingly bemused. "That was Asaka‐san's suggestion, when she saw it. She said it was the proper color and length. I thought it was weird, since everyone does it in pure white, but she insisted. It looks nice, don't you think? I think I did a good job."

Kyouko made an exasperated gesture with her left hand.

"Yes, you should have mentioned it!" she relayed back. "Use your head for once! Pink… if we can get her to confirm this, then we'll have our first color! That has theological implications, you know. Pink isn't exactly a normal hair color."

Really, that girl could be aggravating sometimes. She knew that Asaka had a vision in her history, and loved being secretive about it. If that girl was insisting on pink…

And the nerve of that Shirou Asaka! Keeping something like this to herself!

Gritting her teeth slightly, Kyouko tried to get back to what she had been thinking about.

The next time Kyouko saw Yuma up‐close was months later, long after Sayaka's death and Homura's "change".

They had encountered the Southern Group several times, of course, but Yuma was always mysteriously missing.

It had been a complete coincidence, one of life's unaccountable strokes of chance.

She had been walking home—back to Mami's place—with a bag full of food in one hand and a piece of half‐eaten taiyaki in the other, generally feeling good about the world. After all, it was hard to stay depressed about anything with the prospect of a full stomach in front of you.

She still had one more errand, though. Mami's towel rack had buckled and collapsed the day before, the victim of an over‐enthusiastic tug by Kyouko. Left to her own devices, Kyouko would have just left it, but Mami wasn't the kind of person to tolerate something like that.

So here she was, walking into one of those giant hardware stores with a bag of groceries and a slip of paper informing her what kind of replacement rack she needed.

She remembered the first time she had been here, helping Mami finish restoring her apartment after the Oriko incident. Back then, it had been an experience completely alien to her, and even now she had to admit feeling a bit overwhelmed looking at the rows and rows of mysterious‐looking metal objects.

I'm only here for one thing, Kyouko thought, biting off another mouthful of red bean pastry. And worst case scenario, I just ask someone. It can't be that hard.

Something—or someone, rather—ran into her side.

Well, it served her right for standing in the doorway gawking like an idiot.

"Sorry—" she began automatically, looking down.

"No, it's my fault," the child below her interrupted. "I wasn't look—"

Kyouko and Yuma stared straight into each other's eyes for a long moment, Kyouko's mouth still biting into the fish‐pastry.

Yuma's eyes widened, and she began tensing to bolt.

Kyouko reacted faster, grabbing the girl by the hand. Muffling the girl's mouth, she dragged her out of the doorway, picked the girl and her bag up into her arms like a child, and rushed around the corner into an alley with just a hint of unnatural speed.

The most natural thing in the world, picking up a random child and running off with her in an embrace that was actually a subtle form of restraint.

Totally natural.

She really hoped no one had been watching. At the very least, she'd have to go back later and destroy the security feed. Just like the good old days…

Let me go, you bitch! the girl in her arms thought. What the hell are you doing?

Kyouko recoiled at the unexpected language. Well, hanging around the Southern Group must have some side effects, after all.

I could ask you the same thing, Yuma‐chan, Kyouko thought. This is our territory. Usually we ignore girls running errands, but you should know your group is an exception. Your hero Oriko destroyed Mami's apartment, which is definitely off‐limits. We've warned you.

Who said you could call me Yuma‐chan? the girl demanded. Let me go!

Only if you promise not to run or scream, Kyouko thought. I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to talk. Or do you want to waste magic seeing whether you can break my hold?

The girl looked back up at her with a sullen look, but not one filled with unusual anger or hatred. Kyouko had read her character correctly.

Fine, the child thought.

Kyouko let go of the girl's mouth and, when she didn't scream, set her back down to the floor.

For a moment, Kyouko could see the girl consider fleeing.

So like I said, I'm not going to hurt you, Kyouko thought, before the girl could finish thinking about it.

She would have verbalized it, but she figured she probably shouldn't mention anything about threatening little girls out loud.

What do you want? Yuma thought, eyes darting around, still trying to spot an escape route.

"How's life?" Kyouko asked, inspecting the tail of her taiyaki. Fortunately, she hadn't lost any pieces of it in the recent chain of events.

"What?" Yuma said, looking up at her blankly.

"I mean it," Kyouko said, looking at her carefully. "How's life? I imagine it can't be very peachy, having to work with a bunch of crazy girls like that. Tell me you at least don't live with any of them."

Watching her eyes, Kyouko caught the slight glimmer of pain.

"It's fine," Yuma said, voice still wary and hostile. "And if you must know, I live with Oriko. She's very nice."

She didn't dispute Kyouko's "crazy" assertion this time, she noted. Also, despite everything, Yuma wasn't treating her as a complete enemy, or she wouldn't have said so much. How did a girl like this get mixed in with Oriko?

"You're lying," Kyouko said point‐blank.

She scanned Yuma's face for more clues, spotting a slight cringe and again, that glimmer of pain.

Kyouko gritted her teeth slightly.

"Tell me they at least didn't do anything to you," she said, letting a bit of sympathetic anger show. "Girls like that wouldn't tolerate you around, at least not without Oriko holding their reins."

"They didn't!" Yuma said, too fast, looking Kyouko in the eye, eyes wide like a deer caught in the headlights. "Oriko protects me."

"Oriko can't be there all the time," Kyouko said. "She can't foresee everything."

"Of course she can," Yuma said, indignant. "She's Oriko."

Ah, right, touché, Kyouko thought to herself.

She took a moment to swallow the last of her pastry.

"I hear the Financial District girls had a member disappear on them recently," Kyouko said, shifting topics slightly. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

A strong flash of anguish in Yuma's eyes, and Kyouko knew she was right.

Yuma didn't say anything, of course. She just stood there chewing her lip.

"My offer is still good, you know," Kyouko offered, stepping forward slightly. "You could join us anytime. You could do it right now, in fact. You don't have to stay with them."

She watched as Yuma pulled at her skirt.

"I can't," the girl said, looking away. "I can't leave Oriko like that. I—"

The girl shook her head sharply.

After a long moment, Kyouko sighed, leaning back against the wall.

"What does Oriko want with a bunch of wires anyway?" Kyouko asked. She had seen the contents of the bag Yuma was carrying—could still see it, actually.

Yuma stepped backward just a little, looking uneasy.

"It's for my research," Yuma said, looking off to the side. "She's uh, teaching me."

Kyouko blinked.

"Your research?" she said, incredulously. "You mean her research, right?"

"Don't look down on me!" Yuma protested, glaring at Kyouko and standing up on tiptoes to gain greater height. "Oriko says I have potential!"

Yuma lisped the word "potential".

"Right," Kyouko said, trying not to sound skeptical—and failing.

It was weird though. Teaching? What was Oriko playing at?

Kyouko sighed again, then reached into her bag.

"Alright," she said, tossing the girl an apple she hoped Mami wouldn't miss. "You can go."

Yuma caught the projectile on instinct, then blinked, looking startled. She had clearly forgotten she was being held "captive".

"I'll be watching for you next time," she warned unconvincingly, backing away from Kyouko, still carrying the apple. "You won't get me so easily again!"

"Of course I won't," Kyouko patronized.

She watched the girl run off.

I'm such a sucker for cases like this, Kyouko thought, full of regret. Hopefully this turns out better than Sayaka.

In many ways it did, but in others it didn't.

Kyouko didn't see Yuma again for two years, not from close range.

The time after that, they were patrolling the edge of their territory, all three of them this time. It was not particularly lucky that they saw it that day, or that they were all there—the other teams in the area agreed to help cover their flanks and rear during these patrols, and they returned the favor. It was an entente of sorts, just so that they could all afford to patrol the border with the Southern Group particularly carefully.

This time it was at night, in the rain. It wasn't particularly pleasant but, as Homura was fond of pointing out, their bodies didn't mind much anymore, and the clothing was magical, so it didn't matter if it got wet.

One of the benefits of living in a city was that, even without magical girl eyes, it was still possible to see even in such terrible conditions. With their enhanced vision, it wasn't terribly harder than being out in daylight—easier, actually, since they had to rely less on their powers to hide them from normal humans.

The three of them stopped almost simultaneously, Mami and Kyouko on the roof of a department store, Homura hovering overhead.

Do you feel that? Mami thought, and you could hear the frown in her voice.

Yes, Kyouko thought.

A very large demon horde, just over the territory boundary, marked out here by a river, and the Southern Group was fighting them.

It's in their territory, Kyouko thought. It's none of our business.

No, Homura thought, with a slight tone of incredulity. They're losing.

Both Mami and Kyouko paused, assessing her statement.

She's right, Mami thought. Miroko and Kure are running out of power, and I don't know where Hinata is. She should be involved in an attack of this scale.

I sensed her just a moment ago, Homura thought. She's dead. That's why I said they're losing.

There was a long moment of silence, a moment Kyouko spent listening to the rain fall around them.

This doesn't make any sense, Kyouko thought. This is a large demon attack, yes, but they should be able to hold it. They're more than capable.

Apparently not, Mami thought. Should we do something?

Yes, Homura thought. They won't make it, and they're quite far away, so if we don't move now, people might die to the demons while we're trying to get there. There is no guarantee that the girls in any of the other territories will even be in range to notice this.

Miroko flickered out even as she was thinking that.

What the hell is going on in there? Mami thought. The last thing I want to do is help them, but we have to move in. For the civilians if no one else.

I agree, Kyouko thought, though she was thinking about someone else entirely.

Let's go then, Homura thought, taking flight.

They strained to get to the area in time, fighting the wind and rain, but the distance was great, and as they moved, they sensed the remaining girls weakening and flickering, first Oriko weakening, then Kirika dying, then finally Oriko falling as well.

I never thought I'd see the day she would go down, Mami thought.

Kyouko couldn't sense any vindictiveness, and was almost surprised, except that Mami followed up in a disappointed tone with:

I never got to get my revenge.

We're almost there, Homura thought. We might be able to get Yuma out, at least. If any one of them deserved to survive, it was definitely her.

They must have been protecting her, for her to live this long, Mami thought. Who would have thought?

She struggled with the dual realities of Oriko protecting Yuma, and of Oriko sneering and taunting her as Mami tried to make her pay, make her pay for destroying my life

Yuma! Kyouko transmitted, in the telepathic equivalent of a shout. Just hold out a little longer! We're almost there!

Using her spear, she started to pole vault into the air, trying to gain added speed.

No response, and Yuma's signal weakened sharply.

Just a little faster, Kyouko urged herself.

I have an idea, Mami thought. Akemi‐san, can you activate your aura? I'm going to use my ribbons to bind us to you.

I don't see how that'd help, Mami, Homura thought. I can carry you, but it'd just slow us all down.

Not if I Tiro Finale backwards, Mami asserted. I can adjust it to impart momentum.

Kyouko's eyes widened as she grasped the concept.

She slowed, matching pace with Mami as Homura swooped down.

A surge of power from Homura, followed by the confining glowing yellow embrace of Mami's ribbons, pinning her chest to one of Homura's legs. A long moment of soaring into the air, a brief moment of freefall as Homura reshaped her wings for horizontal flight, and then—

"Tiro Finale!" Mami's clarion voice rang out.

The ground below her became an incomprehensible blur, a crushing fist of air and rain slamming it into her chest as they surged forward.

This must have been what it was like to be Hinata, Kyouko thought to herself, apropos of nothing.

I hope that projectile's not going to land anywhere, Mami, Homura thought. They would have been close enough now for easy speech, were it not for the deafening roar of air around them.

Don't worry, Mami thought. I can dispel it.

And then they were there, entering the miasma. Homura strained her wings to brake, and the other two exerted what magical force they could, until they reached a near‐stop. Homura stooped towards the ground, looking for targets.

The ribbons dissolved, and Kyouko dove for the ground between two skyscrapers, eyes scanning. Spotting a cluster of demons headed to her right, she changed her trajectory, sending a battery of spears in their direction.

By the time she and Mami landed, arrows, spears, and bullets had cleared out a wide swath of the street. Kyouko spun around, trying to localize on Yuma's rapidly fading soul gem, flickering with rapid bursts of magic use.

"There!" Mami shouted, pointing down an alleyway.

Kyouko turned to look—and froze.

Chitose Yuma was clearly no longer in the business of trying to stay alive. She flailed wildly within a cluster of demons with her mace, pouring out shockwaves at an irrational pace. The demons died, or were thrown back, but there were too many. Yuma was absorbing beam after beam, taking critical blows, sustainable only because she was expending her magic to keep herself constantly healing.

Her face was lined with tears, her eyes were red and insane, and she was smiling.

And her soul gem was nearly pitch‐black, with only slight hints of green.

Mami sucked in a sharp breath, trying to stay calm.

They had seen this once before, of course.

Sayaka, near the very end of her life, as she had started to exhaust her last reserves and her sanity had started to seriously slip.

Afterwards, the three of them had discussed what to do if that happened to any of them, or anyone they cared about. They had made plans.

"Can you two keep the demons off my back?" Mami asked.

"Yes," Homura and Kyouko answered simultaneously, rushing forward, knowing what the plan was.

A full flight of arrows struck the demons, staggering them.

Kyouko extended her spear into a chain‐whip, spinning and forcing the demons back, away from the girl in green.

There was one moment when Kyouko met Yuma's eyes, and for many years afterwards, Kyouko wished she had never seen the look there.

Then Mami's ribbons whipped out and cocooned the girl, pulling her away.

With an efficient blow to the back of the head, of the kind of strength that would have decapitated a human, Mami knocked Yuma out. She released the ribbons and, before the body even had a chance to fall, wrenched off the soul gem, tossing it high into the air to Homura, who was already soaring upward. She was headed for a hundred meters in the sky, close enough to give fire and aura support, far enough that it would give Yuma a temporary death.

And then they cleared out the rest of the demons, finishing the job.

The weeks afterward had been vaguely surreal.

When Yuma woke back up—came back to life, more precisely—she found herself securely bound to Kyouko's bed, her soul gem out of reach and nestled in a pile of grief cubes. Sitting at her side were the Mitakihara Three, soon to be Four.

It took a while to calm her down.

It was nearly a week before they felt comfortable letting her out of the room, two weeks before they gave her back her soul gem, a full month before they dared take her demon hunting, despite the strain she was on their grief cube resources.

During that period, Yuma was prone to fits of crying and, despite all their soothing and all of Mami's cake and tea, it was months before she was back to a semblance of her former self. It was a tragedy, but she had lived, and Kyouko felt happy that that was the case.

Still, they all sensed that there was something broken about the girl now, and some of the things she said in those first few weeks didn't quite make sense. There was something else going on, implausible as it was. She wasn't crying only because they were all dead.

The official story was wrong. The version in the Homura movie—which Kyouko had troubled to watch in the privacy of one of her offices—was even more wrong. But if what Kyouko had seen were really all that had happened, there would have been no reason to lie. After all, as personal as it was for Yuma, after the founding of the Union, plenty of girls, including many in leading positions, had undergone something very similar at some point in their lives. Protective Confinement—"befriending," in common vernacular—where they woke up to find themselves tied to a bed, their soul gems outside their control, and a pleasant therapist sitting by the bedside. It was too sensitive to talk about in those early years, but later on, Yuma would have had plenty of company.

It was another year before Yuma told them what exactly had happened, what her life had been like, what she had done, and why she wanted no one to hear about it.

That was when they had learned the story that would tarnish the glamour of the founder of the Black Heart, the girl who improbably cradled a reputation of innocence, and whose child's face beamed from news reports into the hearts of the populace.

They had agreed.

Once, in the second week, Kyouko had overheard Homura talking to Yuma in the room she now shared with Kyouko.

"You really think so?" Yuma had asked.

"You don't have to believe me," Homura had said. "But it's true. Personally, I could never forgive Oriko for what she's done, but the Goddess is a better person than I am. There is a place for her to go. For us all to go."

At the time, Kyouko had thought about privately reprimanding Homura for drawing Yuma into her delusions, but she never had. Eventually, she had decided that if Yuma could be convinced to believe a comforting lie like that, it could only be for the better.

Ironic, that all these years later it would be Kyouko preaching from a pulpit and drawing comfort from the prospect of a life after death.

Even though Homura had hinted at it many times, and talked often of her longing to go back to her Goddess, that was the only time Kyouko had heard Homura express her view of their fates so clearly.

Kyouko stepped from her vehicle, looking up at the rain blasting the transparent awning of the fortieth‐floor entrance to the headquarters of Mahou Shoujo Youkai Governmental Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls. From within, its mistress, freshly restored to an unusually young nine years of physical age, oversaw and influenced the Human world.

Others, of the more conspiratorial type, would say instead that she ruled.

Kyouko checked her internal chronometer.

It was time to visit Chitose Yuma.

Chapter Text

Before beginning the exam, pupils are reminded that grading for this exam is based on one's ability to clearly and concisely present and discuss knowledge, not just the knowledge itself. For the duration, internet access is moderately restricted.

What is your name?

〈Withheld for privacy〉

Describe the goal of the Governance's structure, and discuss whether Governance has achieved these goals.

The stated intentions of the structure of the government are three‐fold.

Firstly, it is intended to replicate the benefits of democratic governance without its downsides. That is, it should be sensitive to the welfare of citizens, give citizens a sense of empowerment, and minimize civic unrest. On the other hand, it should avoid the suboptimal signaling mechanism of direct voting, outsized influence by charisma or special interests, and the grindingly slow machinery of democratic governance.

Secondly, it is intended to integrate the interests and power of Artificial Intelligence into Humanity, without creating discord or unduly favoring one or the other. The sentience of AIs is respected, and their enormous power is used to lubricate the wheels of government.

Thirdly, whenever possible, the mechanisms of government are carried out in a human‐interpretable manner, so that interested citizens can always observe a process they understand rather than a set of uninterpretable utility‐optimization problems.

The success of the government in achieving these three goals is mixed…

Advisory prompt: Downward trend in user attention. Advise that contents are rendered superfluous by user's recorded familiarity with Mandatory Civics. Exceptions of special interest have been marked.〉

Content continues:

While the government has been very successful in avoiding civic unrest, operates efficiently, and is generally considered to have promoted the common welfare, the average citizen feels very little affinity with the decisions of Governance, which often seem to be handed down mysteriously from on high.

This lack of empowerment is a combination of two factors. Firstly, the tremendous size of the Human population easily washes away the concerns of any one individual. Secondly, the populace is just not all that interested; even on the local level, civic participation is at a record low. The populace sees little value in political participation, compared to a wide variety of far more interesting activities.

The government has also failed to keep its operations truly human interpretable, though it is an open question whether any organization operating on such a scale could possibly do so. At the crux of this lies the so‐called "Cthulhu Problem", a term coined by renowned political scientist Frederick Ewald. One of the earliest critics of the current governmental system, Ewald notoriously complained that Governance is so incomprehensible and alien that it might as well be a "Lovecraftian Alien God", utterly inscrutable to Human and AI alike.

More concretely, the term refers to the fact that a government that is comprehensible in any one aspect can easily become incomprehensible when all its parts are added together, a problem which is especially applicable to Governance, whose total operations no one understands.

It is worth asking: Can a government which no one understands ever be held accountable? The only reassurance lies in the equations of Volokhov, which guarantee that the system at least attempts to promote the welfare of Humanity.

Only in the second goal, the integration of AI into Human society, can Governance claim near complete success. AI and human exist in near‐total harmony, a far cry from the dystopias imagined by many in the past.

Describe the structure of Governance, with particular focus on its Representatives.

Formally, Governance is an AI‐mediated Human‐interpretable Abstracted Democracy. It was constructed as an alternative to the Utilitarian AI Technocracy advocated by many of the pre‐Unification ideologues. As such, it is designed to generate results as close as mathematically possible to the Technocracy, but with radically different internal mechanics.

The interests of the government's constituents, both Human and True Sentient, are assigned to various Representatives, each of whom is programmed or instructed to advocate as strongly as possible for the interests of its particular topic. Interests may be both concrete and abstract, ranging from the easy to understand "Particle Physicists of Mitakihara City" to the relatively abstract "Science and Technology".

Each Representative can be merged with others—either directly or via advisory AI—to form a super‐Representative with greater generality, which can in turn be merged with others, all the way up to the level of the Directorate. All but the lowest‐level Representatives are composed of many others, and all but the highest form part of several distinct super‐Representatives.

Representatives, assembled into Committees, form the core of nearly all decision‐making. These committees may be permanent, such as the Central Economic Committee, or ad‐hoc, and the assignment of decisions and composition of Committees is handled by special supervisory Committees, under the advisement of specialist advisory AIs. These assignments are made by calculating the marginal utility of a decision inflicted upon the constituents of every given Representative, and the exact process is too involved to discuss here.

At the apex of decision‐making is the Directorate, which is sovereign, and has power limited only by a few Core Rights. The creation—or for Humans, appointment—and retirement of Representatives is handled by the Directorate, advised by MAR, the Machine for Allocation of Representation.

By necessity, VR Committee meetings are held under accelerated time, usually as fast as computational limits permit, and Representatives usually attend more than one at once. This arrangement enables Governance, powered by an estimated thirty‐one percent of Earth's computing power, to decide and act with startling alacrity. Only at the city level or below is decision‐making handed over to a less complex system, the Bureaucracy, handled by low‐level Sentients, semi‐Sentients, and Government Servants.

The overall point of such a convoluted organizational structure is to maintain, at least theoretically, Human‐interpretability. It ensures that for each and every decision made by the government, an interested citizen can look up and review the virtual committee meeting that made the decision. Meetings are carried out in standard human fashion, with presentations, discussion, arguments, and, occasionally, virtual fistfights. Even with the enormous abstraction and time dilation that is required, this fact is considered highly important, and is a matter of ideology to the government.

Explain how Humans are integrated into the structure of Governance.

Advisory prompt: This section marked for attention based on user's stated fields of interest (Sociology: Historical Context; Sociology: Posthumanity; Philosophy: Existentialism)〉

To a past observer, the focus of governmental structure on AI Representatives would seem confusing and even detrimental, considering that nearly 47% are in fact Human. It is a considerable technological challenge to integrate these humans into the day‐to‐day operations of Governance, with its constant overlapping time‐sped committee meetings, requirements for absolute incorruptibility, and need to seamlessly integrate into more general Representatives and subdivide into more specific Representatives.

This challenge has been met and solved, to the degree that the AI‐centric organization of government is no longer considered a problem. Human Representatives are the most heavily enhanced humans alive, with extensive cortical modifications, Permanent Awareness Modules, partial neural backups, and constant connections to the computing grid. Each is paired with an advisory AI in the grid to offload tasks onto, an AI who also monitors the human for signs of corruption or insufficient dedication. Representatives offload memories and secondary cognitive tasks away from their own brains, and can adroitly attend multiple meetings at once while still attending to more human tasks, such as eating.

To address concerns that Human Representatives might become insufficiently Human, each such Representative also undergoes regular checks to ensure fulfillment of the Volokhov Criterion—that is, that they are still functioning, sane humans even without any connections to the network. Representatives that fail this test undergo partial reintegration into their bodies until the Criterion is again met.

Describe the elevated Emergency Modes of Governance and when, if ever, they have been invoked. We refer to the species‐wide Modes, not local Modes.

Advisory prompt: Section superfluous to user.〉

The Emergency Modes of Governance are designed to operate the government, the military, and Human society with progressively greater degrees of efficiency, but at a considerable cost to societal conventions, civil liberties, and government ideology. As such, they are only invoked in the direst of emergencies, and only the lowest level has ever been activated.

Emergency Mode Level One is a full Emergency Session of all existing Governance Representatives, ensuring that every Representative is devoting at least some computational time to the problem at hand. It was last invoked after the attack on Aurora Colony, and was canceled three weeks after New Athens.

Emergency Mode Level Two, called by a majority vote of the Level One Session, causes the merger of all members of the Directorate into the super‐Representative Governance, containing in its consciousness every Human and AI representative, as well as every advisory AI and the majority of military AIs. This merged AI would hold supreme sovereignty, actualizing the AI technocracy that the current government is meant to imitate.

It is presumed that Level Two would only be invoked upon an imminent invasion of Earth. No one is quite sure what it would look like, and philosophers debate whether such an AI would be closer to a Supreme Dictator or a Philosopher‐King.

Emergency Mode Level Three can be called by Governance. Every citizen is mobilized into the military, and a direct two‐way interface is opened between every citizen's brain and the nearest computing network, allowing the transmission of orders and relay of information. It should be emphasized that these orders do not exert any compulsory effects, and are simply orders. At this point, the super‐Representative becomes stylized Humanity. The Core Rights are suspended, and the government recovers its powers of execution, summary imprisonment, and so forth.

Level Three has never been invoked, and it is expected that it would only be invoked upon the actual invasion and imminent loss of Earth. It is speculated, based on scant evidence, that Cephalopod society operates in a form of permanent Level Three.

Emergency Mode Level Four can only be called with the direct approval of ninety percent of Human citizens and AIs. It involves the permanent activation of civilian Emergency Safety Packages and, essentially, the mechanization of all Human interaction. While directives are still non‐compulsory, the obvious and terrifying dystopic implications of Level Four lead to the expectation that it could only happen upon the imminent destruction of Human civilization. It is speculated that Incubator society resembles Level Four.

— Sixth Grade Civics Exam #1, Text Version, Graded "Exceptional"

"It'd be nice if, like Kekulé, I could claim to have some neat story, about a dream and some snake eating itself, but mine was more prosaic than that."

"I had heard about the Pretoria Scandal, of course, on the day the news broke. To me, it was profoundly disturbing, enough that I ended up laying awake the whole night thinking about it."

"It was an embarrassment and a shame that we had been building these intelligences, putting them in control of our machines, with no way to make sure that they would be friendly. It got people killed, and that machine, to its dying day, could never be made to understand what it had done wrong. Oh, it understood that we would disapprove, of course, but it never understood why."

"As roboticists, as computer scientists, we had to do better. They had movies, back then, about an AI going rogue and slaughtering millions, and we couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen. We couldn't. We were just tinkerers, following recipes that had magically worked before, with no understanding of why, or even how to improve the abysmal success rate."

"I called a lab meeting the next day, but of course sitting around talking about it one more time didn't help at all. People had been working on the problem for centuries, and one lab discussion wasn't going to perform miracles."

"That night, I stayed in late, pouring over the datasets with Laplace, [the lab AI,] all those countless AI memory dumps and activity traces, trying to find a pattern: something, anything, so that at least we could understand what made them tick."

"Maybe it was the ten or something cups of coffee; I don't know. It was like out of a fairy tale, you know? The very day after Pretoria, no one else in the lab, just me and Laplace talking, and a giant beaker of coffee, and all at once, I saw it. Laplace thought I was going crazy, I was ranting so much. It was so simple!"¹

"Except it wasn't, of course. It was another year of hard work, slogging through it, trying to explain it properly, make sure we saw all the angles…"

"And I feel I must say here that it is an absolute travesty that the ACM does not recognize sentient machines as possible award recipients.² Laplace deserves that award as much as I do. It was the one that dug through and analyzed everything, and talked me through what I needed to know, did all the hard grunt work, churning away through the night for years and years. I mean, come on, it's the Turing Award!"

  1. The MSY has confirmed that the timing of this insight corresponds strongly with a wish made on the same day. The contractee has requested that she remain anonymous.
  1. The ACM removed this restriction in 2148.

— Interview with Vladimir Volokhov, Turing Award Recipient, 2146.

The fortieth‐floor entrance wasn't, of course, the main entrance. That was much further down, on the first floor, with its robotic tour guides and historical memorabilia and colorful tales of magical girls hiding from the police. It even had a couple of statues thrown in, for color.

No, this was the staff entrance. Top‐level staff, at that.

It was deliberately nondescript, a single pair of polymer‐glass doors set directly into the sheer face of the building, ringed by a line of white to enhance visibility. It came accompanied by a small landing balcony shielded by a transparent awning from the elements, including the current rain. The masonry of the numerous balconies served as counterpoint to the otherwise unrelieved glass and steel. It was a common architectural design these days, and suited the numerous faux‐masonry skyways and transparent transport tunnels that crisscrossed the airspace.

Kyouko stepped forward, the doors sliding open without ceremony. She was aware, of course, that she had just undergone an almost absurd number of security scans, but she had nothing to fear. This was Union territory.

There was none of the human security or receptionists that would have characterized an earlier age. Instead, the door led into a large concentric walkway that partially ringed the outer edge of the building, with a large hallway directly in front of it.

Kyouko advanced straight into this hallway, which was flanked on both sides by a series of doors leading into the private offices of MSY administrators and Governance Representatives. Specifically, these offices, and those on the floors below, belonged to those administrators and Representatives with interstellar or global purview. The local officials for other regions were located, well, locally. That being said, the officials for Japan were several more floors down, those for the prefecture were below that, those for Mitakihara City even further down…

All of them were, of course, subordinates of Yuma, either in her capacity as Director of Governmental Affairs, or in her Representative position as Governance: Magical Girls.

It wasn't, however, exactly correct to call her sub‐Representatives subordinates, since their opinions affected her own "official" opinion, and most helped compose several super‐Representatives other than her, and… well, it was complicated. The MSY administrators were true subordinates, though.

The carpeting, the paintings on the wall, the little alcoves with sculptures, the general style of the hallway—all of these combined to give a subtle impression of real wealth and, beyond that, age. The walls seemed to whisper in your ear that whatever occupied this building had resources transcending mere Allocs, and was certainly much, much older than you.

Or so Kyouko had been told. Personally, she didn't feel any of it. That may have been because she was, in fact, older than this building, older than this organization, and older than Yuma herself, and nearly everyone else in the building.

Many of the offices were empty, their occupants in other regions of the building, or other parts of the planet, or possibly working from home. It wouldn't be the future if you were still trapped in your office, after all.

Kyouko kept walking, past closed doors with private meetings inside, open meetings with people gesticulating, and officials reclining in their chairs, either staring off into space or furiously manipulating holographic interfaces with both hand and thought. Perhaps the most notable inhabitants were those Representatives who sat serenely in their chairs, looking for all the world as if they were meditating with eyes open, and who only broke the illusion to politely nod as she passed. These were of course the AIs, who could easily maintain a holographic avatar to man their office and talk with anyone who stopped by, while their primary consciousnesses were who knows where.

Kyouko waved to those who greeted her, or whom she knew. Many of them she honestly didn't remember anything about, but that was okay—she had facial recognition routines for anyone she cared to inspect closely.

The end of the hallway flared out suddenly into a large rotunda at least forty meters in diameter. To her right and left, two other hallways traveled outward at right angles from her. Around her, drawn on the walls and ceiling, the earth was drawn inside‐out, with bright holographic shooting star logos for every MSY Governmental Affairs office. Given that it only showed Earth offices, Kyouko had always thought it rather stiffed the Colonial branches.

Kyouko greeted several Union administrators chatting on the benches around her, two mages and a rare normal male. They nodded back.

In this time of dire need, administrators were uniformly girls raising families of their own, girls with powers that were difficult to use in combat, or those who were considered much more valuable in the rear than in the front. In this last category fell most of the oldest girls, who were prized for their experience. Outwardly, it didn't seem fair to the newer contractees, but it was necessary.

These were of course the same new contractees who had taken to calling older girls like Kyouko "The Ancients" behind their backs, as if they were some gnarled set of millennia‐old trees, rather than girls who look just as young as them.

To show solidarity, many administrators and specialists rotated into light combat, patrol, or garrison duty a few months a year. At the very least, though, one was required to go on a demon hunt at least once a year, the so‐called "obligation". It was a law and custom that dated back to the first specialized businesswomen of the MSY, centuries ago, and it showed no signs of ever being revoked. It even applied to those such as Mami or Kyouko.

Kyouko stepped forward, to the center of the room, and looked up.

The center of the ceiling, and the floor below her, were transparent. This was true for every floor of the building, and the panels were so absurdly transparent that she could see up to the sky and down to the ground floor, in astounding clarity. Below her, she could see all the people below her looking up, but above her she saw nothing but the sky, the others in her way filtered out. Subtle technology.

She looked back down, at the double doors at the other end of the rotunda. She started to walk forward—

—and stopped mid‐step, as the old‐fashioned wooden doors swung outward to meet her.

"Onee‐chan!" a girl's voice trilled, and in a flash the green apparition slammed into her, knocking the breath out of her chest, and promptly threatened to crumple her ribcage with the force of a hug.

As a point of fact, the girl could, like all of them, easily crumple the ribcage of an ordinary human. She wasn't applying nearly that much force, but Kyouko found herself suddenly contemplating the possibility.

"Oh, hi, Yuma," Kyouko managed to say, looking down at the little girl at her waist, hair tied back in pigtails with beads, an exact replica of the style she had worn as an actual child. The girl looked up at her, beaming.

Kyouko patted the girl's head affectionately.

Meeting Yuma nowadays was always a surreal experience. Ever since the advent of the war, Yuma had relentlessly cultivated the perception of her as the younger sister of the Mitakihara Four, playing the role to its absolute hilt. She had slowly and steadily lowered her apparent age over the past two decades, finally settling into her current persona. It could have easily gone faster, but that might have been unsettling to those she worked with.

Most girls avoided dropping their age to before puberty, for a variety of reasons. Yuma didn't care. She didn't have to worry about the slightly weaker combat strength, and her implanted enhancements easily nullified any cognitive deficiencies that might have resulted. Besides, who needed a sex drive anyway?

That was how Yuma explained it, anyway. It certainly didn't stop her from making dirty jokes at Kyouko's expense—in private, of course. It was a little disconcerting.

As for why Yuma did it…

Well, to understand that, one had only to look at the reactions of the administrators in the room, who had stopped what they were doing to watch with smiling, but envious faces. They clearly found it adorable.

Yuma's persona was meant to disarm, to activate protective instincts, and to help her win arguments. Most found it difficult to argue with a child, and even the AIs weren't immune, having nearly all been programmed with some degree of Human instinct. Yuma easily moved public opinion; the media and public adored her, apparently having completely forgotten the adult they had seen twenty years ago. Accusations of manipulation, attacks on her power, and conspiracy theories about the Black Heart all found themselves muted, the public utterly unwilling to believe their claims.

It was pure propaganda, and there was something oddly enthralling about a seeming nine‐year‐old attending meetings of the sovereign Directorate, debating and arguing with the others in a melodious, high‐pitched voice.

Ah, to hell with it, Kyouko thought.

Placing her hands under Yuma's arms, she picked the girl up and swung her in the air like a child, smiling goofily. Yuma wriggled in her grasp, and the female administrators sighed. This despite the fact that they worked with her every day, and should theoretically have been the ones most cynical about "Yuma‐chan".

"Good to see you again, Kyouko‐san," a pleasant voice sounded, its source appearing at Kyouko's right—literally, the petite teenage female frame materializing out of thin air, the voxels taking a moment to align.

"Ah, you too, MG," Kyouko responded politely.

"MG" was an affectionate shorthand for Governance: Magical Girls Advisory AI. Most such AIs, whether advisory or full Representative, took more normal names for everyday conversation, but MG had developed early as a nickname, and the girl was apparently happy with it.

As Advisory AI, MG's role was essentially acting as Yuma's assistant in her government role, as well as her emergency backup, partial memory store, and anti‐corruption watchdog. Like nearly all such Human‐AI pairings, Yuma and MG were practically each other's ghosts, "living" together, substituting for each other at meetings, and electronically attached at a cortical level. It was like being married, in a way.

Having been present at MG's creation, Yuma had had the unique opportunity to guide the initial maturation of a sentient Representative, something that hadn't been true for her previous advisor when she had been Governance: Public Order. That one had vaguely resembled a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and police chief, but was friendlier than you'd expect. Apparently he and Yuma still spoke occasionally.

MG bowed politely, and Kyouko would have returned the favor had her hands not been full. Given whom she represented, MG had chosen the avatar of a magical girl, one who, like many AI avatars, had a frustratingly unplaceable ethnicity. She had a physical age similar to Kyouko's, wore a green dress similar to Yuma's transformed costume, and wore a long ponytail tied at the top by a giant bow—just like Kyouko.

Kyouko was vaguely flattered by that, and wondered sometimes if that had been Yuma's idea.

However much MG appeared human, though, she signaled clearly that she was not. Despite being supposedly transformed, she wore a ring emblazoned with two simple runes—"MG", in one of the variations of magical writing often seen by mages on rings—and retained a fingernail mark, which was simply "1/0". Most disconcertingly, she adopted the practice of most AI avatars, replacing the iris and pupil of her right eye with the black text "I/O".

And of course, she was a hologram, so she couldn't touch anything.

Like the vast majority of AIs, she was quietly proud of what she was, to the point of smugness.

Yuma twisted in Kyouko's grasp, signaling that she wanted to be let down, and Kyouko obliged.

"Anyway, I'm just here to say hi," MG explained. "I take it you two will want your privacy?"

"Yes," Kyouko said.

MG winked in Kyouko's direction, then disappeared in a flash of incoherent light.

"Not like it means anything," Kyouko grumbled, as she and Yuma walked forward, Yuma taking pointlessly large strides.

"Au Contraire, nee‐chan," Yuma said boisterously, as they walked through the doors. "She respects my privacy. She has to. It was part of the deal."

She said "deal" in colloquial English, playing with the word's accent with the fluency of a practiced speaker, emphasizing the pronunciation differences with Human Standard.

The doors slammed shut automatically behind them.

"If only I could believe that," Kyouko said, crossing her arms without realizing it. "She's wired into your brain, you know."

"You're such a technophobe," Yuma chastened.

Kyouko sat in the chair in front of her, waiting for Yuma to circle around the desk and reach the other side.

The desk was enormous, with numerous holographic displays hovering above it in midair. On its surface was printed two shimmering shooting stars, heading parallel and in opposite directions, a merger of the logos of MSY and Governance. To her left was a large assortment of Incubator plushies stacked three high, their beady red eyes and floppy ringed ears the delight of girls everywhere—those whose parents let them have one.

Around the room hung giant paintings of pastoral scenes, full of grass and rice paddies and other such things. Stacked in the various corners were yet more plushies, though in this case of animals more prosaic than Incubators. Some were enormous, dwarfing the others. Others had been carefully repaired, having survived the numerous generations spanning from her childhood until now.

Yuma climbed onto her giant chair, dwarfed by the chair, the desk, and the wide picture window behind her, which currently overlooked a Mitakihara City gray and gloomy with rain. Her head barely reached over the desk surface, and it was intuitively obvious that her legs must be dangling.

"So what percentage of your consciousness is here today, Yuma‐chan?" Kyouko asked.

"Twenty‐one percent," Yuma answered crisply. "Why?"

"Just curious," Kyouko said, shrugging.

Yuma gave her a strange look.

Instead of saying any more, though, Yuma leaned over to her side, eventually resurfacing with a plate of mochi and two glasses of carbonated orange soda precariously balanced on a tray.

"Oh, I'd love to," Kyouko said to the implied question, grabbing for her soda.

"Well, anyway, what is this all about?" Yuma asked, chewing into her snack. "I know it must be important, because you showed up without any food."

"What are you—" Kyouko began, instinctively reaching for her pocket.

She's right, Kyouko realized suddenly, thinking back hastily. She hadn't eaten a thing since she left Maki a while back. She had gotten up and walked straight out the door, leaving her prepared breakfast pastry behind.

She searched her clothes hastily, but there was nothing there either.

Yuma pretended to avert her eyes.

"Oh, my," the child said, hand to cheek. "Has nee‐chan finally grown up? Four hundred years, and you've finally let go of your security blanket! I'm so proud!"

"I've been busy," Kyouko asserted gruffly, grabbing mochi aggressively off the platter. "I must have been distracted."

Yuma twitched a smile, but then leaned forward onto the table seriously—which meant she was practically lying on the table.

"It really is a little weird, though," she said seriously. "Is everything alright?"

"It's fine!" Kyouko insisted, turning her cheek. She knew she sounded suspicious, but she would never admit to Yuma—of all people—that she had been distracted by a girl in her bed.

Yuma sat back down, looking skeptical but not pressing the issue.

"Anyway," she said. "Down to business. Tell me what's going on. This isn't a social visit, right?"

Yuma leaned her cheek on her fist, tilting her head back and forth in rhythm with some internal song. Honestly, Kyouko wasn't sure how Yuma managed the cognitive dissonance between her apparent and actual age without blowing a fuse.

Kyouko opened her mouth, preparing to tell her all about it, then had a different idea.

Instead, she relayed the full grief cube audit report to Yuma, all fifty thousand words of it.

Yuma blinked, then tilted her head slightly, hair baubles vibrating. As expected, it didn't take her very long to grasp at least the executive summary.

Yuma set her mochi down on the table, uneaten.

"That's interesting," she said. "And disturbing. The distribution systems are designed specifically to avoid that kind of supply irregularity. I should know. I helped oversee their installation."

Her voice was still the childish lilt she had been using up until now, but now it carried with it an undercurrent of adult anger.

"I know you did," Kyouko said, looking her in the eye. "That's why it bothers me. Mami had a bad feeling about it too."

Kyouko shifted in her seat as Yuma's eyes flashed at her, the girl settling deeper into her chair to listen.

"It's not our specialty, obviously," Kyouko continued. "But the Church has looked into it. The systems appear to be operating as designed."

"Of course they are," Yuma growled, her voice losing a lot of its youth. "Those are some of the most fail‐safed and secured systems in existence. Or that's what I would say, except clearly it is not operating as designed."

"We haven't been able to inspect any of the semi‐sentients regulating endpoint distribution, nor have we been able to interview any of the sentients," Kyouko said. "Not with our degree of access, and not without giving away that we're looking. But all the automated systems are operating flawlessly."

Colloquially, "Automation" no longer included "AI‐run".

"Yes, the automated systems," Yuma said, eyes narrowed in thought. "Of course, not everything is automated."

"I've asked Mami to look into it from her end," Kyouko said. "But she's not sure how much she'll find. As she explained to me, the officer corps insulates her from the details of operations, and she'll have to fight to get what she needs."

Yuma leaned back in her chair, thoughtful, worlds different from her previous childish demeanor.

"Yes," she said, steepling her hands over her chin. "And only the forward‐facing aspects of the system are military‐run. The more to the rear it is, the more of a Governance operation it is. At a certain point, the systems would no longer fall under her authority. Of course, it depends on where the hypothetical failing is."

Yuma's eyes slid to the side.

"There is another possibility," she said, looking up to make eye contact with Kyouko. "It's possible that someone has manipulated this report, either from within your organization, or by feeding your auditors false information."

"Are you accusing someone in the Church of misleading me?" Kyouko asked, looking at Yuma with a skewed expression, a tad antagonistic.

"Your Cult isn't perfect, nee‐chan," Yuma said, level. "You know that. They're not all happy with you, either. I'm just saying it's a possibility. Plus, if it's a matter of false information, that wouldn't have anything to do with your cult at all."

Kyouko sighed, nodding to concede the point. Among other things, the Church did have Christian origins. It wasn't easy for many to discard some of the doctrines she had written off, and some were definitely not pleased by her lenient stance towards amorous activities, nor with her own badly kept secrets.

"What would even be the goal of something like that?" Kyouko asked, taking a bite of the mochi she suddenly realized she was still holding.

Yuma continued to sit, face still. Kyouko knew without asking that she was "redistributing cognitive resources." Somewhere, in virtual meeting rooms deep within the government, her avatars' eyes glowed with less light and sat more silently, their resources drained to aid in investigation, or to help her thoughts in this conversation.

"I don't know," Yuma said, eyes shaded. "Perhaps to get us to overreact? It's all I can think of. All the more reason to keep it quiet, as you two have."

She sat up a bit more straight.

"But let's not get carried away here," she said. "I was just suggesting a possibility. It's much more likely that the report is real, and that would have implications too."

"Do you think it ties in with the interviews?" Kyouko asked. "About injured girls not returning when they should? It's not the core of the report, but I found it very disturbing."

Yuma looked Kyouko straight in the eye, and Kyouko shivered slightly.

This feeling echoed what she had felt earlier with Ryouko's grandfather, but it was much stronger this time. In fact, that previous experience was only a pale imitation of this one, in comparison.

It was the feeling that she wasn't really speaking to a Human, not as she would have understood it four hundred years ago. It was the feeling that, perhaps, she really wasn't much of one either.

"Anecdotes are notoriously unreliable," Yuma said, leaning back in her chair. "And survival rates for critical soul gem depletion have remained stable. It's not really sufficient evidence."

"But," she continued, holding a finger to forestall Kyouko, who had opened her mouth. "It does make a certain amount of sense."

"Sense?" Kyouko asked, surprised. "What do you mean?"

"Think about it, nee‐chan," Yuma said. "If certain magical girls were being deprived of grief cubes, what would be the result? Lacking grief cubes, if they entered combat, they'd struggle to keep their gems pure, and as a result—"

"More of them would end up going critical, and having to be sent behind the lines," Kyouko finished, eyes widening.

"Where some of them may or may not go missing," Yuma finished.

She paused.

"Of course," she continued, "this kind of thinking is veering into conspiracy theory territory but, frankly, my whole life has been a conspiracy theory, and so has yours."

Kyouko nodded at that. It was a clever way of putting it.

"But why?" Kyouko asked. "Are they trying to decrease our combat performance? Sabotage the war—no, that can't be it. If all this is true, there has to be something important about the girls being sent back. Unless this is just a way of draining our numbers? But no, that would show up elsewhere in the statistics."

"All of those are possibilities," Yuma said. "And I can think of a few others, but there is insufficient evidence to say much. And remember, the disappearing injured girls thing is just anecdotes."

Yuma smiled slightly, the mood of the conversation shifting slightly.

"But I will investigate," she said. "That is why I am here, right? Are you going to finish that or just keeping holding it for the next hour?"

She pointed at the food in Kyouko's hand.

"Ah, right," Kyouko said, making a show of taking another bite.

"Yuma‐chan, that report isn't all of it," Kyouko said, chewing awkwardly. "There's something else I'm here to talk about, something I haven't managed to tell Mami yet. It could be related, it could be something else entirely, but this one we're sure is foul play."

Yuma dipped her head slightly in a vague nod.

"All this seriousness makes me tired," she said, still smiling a half‐smile. "But sure: What is it?"

Again Kyouko opened her mouth to speak, and again she thought better of it.

TacComp, she thought. Collate and transmit the relevant memories.

Acknowledged, she felt rather than heard. It was a sensation of having gotten something done, such as when you finally finished that project you had been putting off forever. It wasn't easy to describe.

Again Yuma tilted her head slightly, taking it in. This time, she spent a long while replaying what Kyouko had sent. Memory traces weren't quite the same as text, after all.

Kyouko spent the time finishing her food and chugging a good portion of her drink.

Finally, Yuma let out a breath.

It wasn't easy to rattle Yuma—or any of them, really—but this time Yuma looked slightly less self‐assured than she had earlier.

"This is extremely disturbing," she said simply. She was looking at Kyouko, but Kyouko had an unsettling feeling Yuma wasn't really seeing her.

"I know, right?" Kyouko said nonetheless. "No one has tried a stunt like that since before we globalized. There's just no reason to."

"That's not true," Yuma said blandly, elbows on the table. "Remember the Henderson murder trials? Sheila Henderson got two other teams killed before the Guard caught on, and ended up getting Reformatted. And then there were the Shimada assassinations. Not to mention that one team in Cairo—"

"Okay, okay," Kyouko said, raising her hands. "Point taken. I don't keep track of this stuff. Still, it's disturbing, like you said."

"Yes," Yuma agreed. "Not to mention the, uh, occasional covert uses grief cubes have."

It was moments like these that Kyouko was reminded how secure Yuma's office was, that she dared mention it out loud.

"Anyway," Yuma continued. "I read the incident report for that demon horde just now. Was it unusually hard to fight?"

Kyouko shrugged.

"They were a lot denser than usual," she said. "But that makes sense now, given where they came from."

"You didn't take any samples," Yuma said. It wasn't a question.

"Of course not," Kyouko scoffed. "You should have felt how saturated they were! It was a major hazard. There's no way a Human could have ever handled them safely."

Yuma let out an exasperated sigh.

"Really, you're such an idiot sometimes, nee‐chan," she said, crossing her arms and frowning. She said baka with a lilt.

"Where does all that pocky go, anyway?" Yuma continued, waving her finger at Kyouko. "Sure, it's a secret, but didn't it seem just a tad familiar to you?"

Kyouko narrowed her eyes, insulted, or pretending to be.

She was trying to hide her chagrin, thinking through what Yuma could possibly mean.

"It's not easy to accumulate grief cubes on the scale necessary to summon a horde like that," Yuma said. "Not with everything tracked like it is nowadays. But as you of all people should know, there is an alternative. I don't blame you for not knowing how to notice something like that, but the thought should have at least crossed your mind. Given all of our history, anyway."

Kyouko continued to peer at Yuma's face. What was she getting at? History—

Kyouko's eyes widened.

"You're not suggesting—" she began.

"Of course I am," Yuma said, crossing her arms. "The difficulty of evading the accounting system is precisely why such attacks have always been so rare. Henderson only managed it by being insane enough to stockpile her excess for a decade, and because the bureaucrats in her area were incompetent. The Shimada terrorists knew the secret, obviously. So did the Cairo team. It's a small sample size, but if you look at the few existing cases, only a small minority actually went to the trouble of doing it the hard way. You got that, idiot?"

She literally climbed onto her desk to stab her finger accusingly in Kyouko's face.

"I didn't know about any of that!" Kyouko defended, though she knew she had screwed up. "Look, I know I should have been aware, but cut me some slack. I wasn't involved in any of that! You're the specialist! That's why they always ask you."

"And that's why you could have brought me a sample," Yuma said, sitting back down and frowning disapprovingly.

She sighed, though, a moment later.

"But it's not really your fault," she said, leaning on one arm petulantly. "The only other experience you've had with grief cube super‐saturation is indirect, and I can see why it's not the first thing you think of."

"I try not to think about it at all," Kyouko said, averting her eyes. "For obvious reasons."

"It's a lost opportunity," Yuma said. "If we knew for certain what was going on, we could greatly narrow the number of suspects. Not many even know it's possible, much less how to do it."

"I'm sorry," Kyouko said, head bowed.

"Don't be," Yuma said. "It really isn't your fault. I was just having some fun with you, and now you're making me feel guilty."

"Everyone always makes fun of Kyouko," Kyouko grumbled.

Yuma took a moment to look at a corner of the room with a bemused look.

"Anyway, I'll look into it too," she said. "Among other things, we should ask them what they think. The response we got from the one you talked to wasn't really satisfying."

While talking, Yuma picking up one of the Incubator plushies on her desk to indicate who she was talking about.

"I'm glad to hear that," Kyouko said, looking up.

"Is that everything?" Yuma asked.

"I think so. Uh, could you erase the records of me coming here?"


Yuma nodded, then started play‐walking her toy across the table, using only the hind legs.

Kyouko looked past her, at the sheets of water finally slowing their descent, and the endless skyscrapers of humanity.

Yuma seemed to think of something.

"Anyway—" she began, pausing with both hands on the Incubator and looking at Kyouko.

"Yuma," Kyouko began.

"What?" the child asked.

Kyouko made an annoyed expression.

"Well, now this is awkward," she said. "But I was thinking about it on the way here. It's something I've wanted to ask for a while."

"Well, okay," Yuma said, slumping down to put her chin on the table. She placed the Incubator on her head.

"I heard Homura talking to you about life after death once, long ago," Kyouko said, carefully. "I've always wondered what you thought about that. Did you believe it?"

Yuma tilted her head on the desk, causing the stuffed doll to slide off onto the table surface.

"Trying to convert me, nee‐chan?" she asked, managing to sound tired. "It took you long enough to try."

Kyouko shook her head.

"I just want to know," she said.

Yuma sat up, pushing herself with her arms. She grabbed her glass of soda and drank half of it in one go.

She looked at Kyouko.

"I asked Oriko‐nee‐san about it once," she said, inspecting the bottom of the glass. "She said that no matter how hard she tried to peer into the future, she could never see anything but darkness after death."

Yuma put the glass down with a thud.

"Though she was a strong believer in fate, definitely," she added. "I suppose that was natural."

The girl thought for a moment.

"Probably, none of it means anything," she shrugged. "Personally, I try not to let it matter to me. Life is about making the best possible world here on Earth. Well, in the physical world, I mean."

"What about back then?" Kyouko asked. "That's what I was really asking."

"No," Yuma said. "Don't get me wrong. I wanted to believe Homura‐nee‐chan, I really did. But not after the life I had."

She turned her chair away, looking out her window, at the gray city weathering the last of the rain.

"Just before Oriko‐nee‐san died," Yuma said softly. "I could see her trying to plot the future one last time. Not just any future. Her future. She burned the last of her power trying to see. I still remember what her eyes looked like, then. I spent a long time trying to figure out if she saw anything. If there's any doubt, it's there."

Kyouko watched the desk, with its two shooting stars pulsing back at her.

"You should visit someday," she said. "The Ribbon Chamber, that is. I can't guarantee anything, but if it's you, I'm sure you'll see something."

There was a pause, and then Yuma turned her chair back to face her.

"Now you are trying to convert me," Yuma said.

"I'm serious," Kyouko said, making eye contact. "I've been trying to convince Mami for years, but she always says she's too busy. But you spend all your time on Earth, and your headquarters is right here in the city."

"Someday," Yuma said, smiling in a way that was terribly discordant with the age of her face. "When I have time."

"Alright," Kyouko nodded, getting up, knowing she would have to do way more convincing before it actually happened.

"Okay!" Yuma said in Human Standard, jumping off of her chair and running around her desk.

Kyouko looked down at her, curious.

"My birthday party is coming up," Yuma said cheerily. "I'm going to send the invitations soon, but since you're here, I might as well remind you myself. I've invited a lot of people; it'll be great!"

"I'll definitely be there," Kyouko responded, having honestly completely forgotten.

She looked at the Incubator plushy in Yuma's right hand. The girl was holding it out for some reason.

"It's a gift," Yuma explained.

"Ah, okay," Kyouko said hesitantly. She took it into her hand, wondering what on Earth she'd do with a stuffed Incubator toy.

She said goodbye and headed for the door.

Kyouko was glad to see the sun on her way out of the building.

She held the Incubator toy up to the sunlight, trying again to see if there was anything special about it—but no, it seemed like just a regular stuffed toy.

When she moved it away from the light, she was surprised to see the bona fide Kyubey right behind it, standing on her waiting vehicle.

"Why are you here?" Kyouko asked.

Just maintaining a relationship with a valuable contractee, Kyubey thought. Do you mind if I ride with you?

Kyouko shrugged, and let the Incubator into the transport with her.

"Kyubey," Kyouko said, during the ride back.

What is it? the Incubator asked, looking at her from the panel in front of her with that endlessly unchanging face it had.

"You know about the incident yesterday, right? After you left to meet Mami," she asked, deliberately being vague.

Of course, Kyouko, the Incubator thought.

Do you know if there was anything unusual about those cubes? Kyouko thought.

Kyubey tilted its head in imitation of the Human mannerism.

I was not there personally, it thought. However, the Incubator that collected those cubes did not examine them carefully before consuming them. Should it have?

"Yes," Kyouko said, sighing. "But it's too late now. If something like that happens again, could you do so?"

Sure, Kyubey thought, jumping up onto Kyouko's shoulder, then using her hair as an insulator for rubbing against the seat. Another imitated mannerism.

Do you have any thoughts about what happened? Kyouko thought.

I substantively agree with my colleague, Kyubey thought. And it is worth noting that we would never intentionally risk a valuable contractee like that, with the lack of assured rescue.

"You worded that last part pretty carefully," Kyouko said dryly. "Still, I believe what you say."

Why wouldn't you? Kyubey asked.

By the time Kyouko got back inside her church, she had mostly dispelled any disappointment she might have felt with herself. As Yuma had said, it wasn't her fault. Yuma was the one who was practically the world expert on the damn things, whereas Kyouko had lost her taste for intrigue a long time ago.

She had spent the time in her vehicle on the way back deciding on a topic for the afternoon sermon. By this point, she was long practiced in the actual meaning of what she was going to say, but she had to constantly keep coming up with new ways to express it, or new topics to talk about. It was a daily challenge whenever she was on Earth. On the colonies, it was easier for her to get away with sermons she'd used before.

Eventually she settled on a topic that happened to be close to her heart that day—the idea of the afterlife and redemption, why they differed from the rest of humanity, and a little about one's conduct in life.

As she stepped out of her vehicle back into the underground tunnel, she felt the internal Ping! that signified that her Tactical Computer had decided something was worth her attention.

Patricia von Rohr messaged at ten that she wanted to speak whenever you got back. You are now back.

Let her know I'm back, then, Kyouko thought. I can head for her room, if she wants. Not too long though. I want to speak with Asaka, and probably my theologians before the post‐lunch sermon.

Done, the machine thought.

She had barely gotten to the elevator when the return message arrived.

Oh, well in that case it definitely helps that Asaka is here with me. We're in my room.

Kyouko nodded even though there was no one to see her, then stepped into the elevator, which already knew where to go.

The fifth floor, counting down, was only one level of the subterranean living areas, cramped and stocked to the brim with magical girls.

Usually, most girls stocking a particular city were local, and generally lived either alone, with their teams, or with whatever family they had. These were those who had the opportunity to stay away from the front, and either had a skill specialization with little comparative advantage in direct combat, or those who had been in combat for long enough that it was felt they deserved a break.

Mitakihara City was different. It had far more than the usual share of girls from outside the city, and this effect was amplified by the Church's careful selection of who got to reside here—Church members, of course, and usually those who caught the eye of someone in the organization. The Church was not shy about using its pull within the military to draw in newer girls who would ordinarily not be exempted.

The military tolerated it because of the Church's track record of training exceptional magical girls, and also because of the intrinsic value the Church provided to the war effort. In a situation where their most powerful weapons were literally powered by morale, anything that boosted morale was highly prized—and the Church was very good at boosting morale.

Once Kyouko had demonstrated this, the military had been very cooperative in providing quiet logistical support, allowing acolytes to enter frontline barracks, allowing combat MGs to hold positions within the Church, and so forth. They weren't openly supportive, which would have been discriminatory, but they worked hard not to be unsupportive. Indeed, the Sisters at the top of the Cult found it very easy to obtain exemptions from heavy combat if desired, often via obtaining symbolic positions as morale officers, psychologists, or chaplains. Indeed, Kyouko herself was the Morale and Welfare Officer for the Anti‐Demon and Home Defense garrison for the Japanese Islands, and a chaplain, to boot.

ADHD was not a military acronym that would have passed muster in the past.

Because of the unusual mixture of personnel, this armory had attached living areas far more substantial than usual, where younger girls from outside the area almost always chose to settle. Even those with family in the area often chose to move in, to mingle with their peers. Then, eventually, those who found partners or simply tired of living there moved on and others moved in.

Kyouko navigated the hallways, with their rows of doors, haphazardly posted religious artwork, and the occasional propaganda poster. She waved through open doorways at groups of girls preparing for patrols, chatting, or watching various forms of holographic or wall surface entertainment. Unlike what would have been seen in earlier ages, the hallways and rooms were all very tolerably clean. This was not because of military discipline—magical girls were tacitly exempted from some aspects of military rigor, and it would have been silly anyway to enforce cleanliness in a half‐civilian living area—but rather from the miracle of robotics and self‐cleaning surfaces.

Around her, she could hear the whisper of private telepathy. A telepath would have been able to eavesdrop, but to her it was completely unintelligible. It was only her age and experience that let her notice it at all. That, and the sheer volume of messages that must have been flying back and forth.

It must be an interesting experience, living here, Kyouko mused.

It wasn't luxurious living—for one thing, space in an underground armory was at a premium—but there was something to be said for living with others who understood what you were going through. Living alone or even with your family was a difficult adjustment for many of the younger girls. No matter how nice everyone was, there was always the persistent sense of otherness, the peers who didn't know how to talk to you, the parents who started spoiling you. Some were happy to be special, but others felt it painful.

There was a reason so many of the demon hunting teams ended up cohabitating and the newer specialists often moved in with their colleagues. The older girls accepted it, because they knew what it was like, and demon hunting teams living together was a strong, strong tradition, broken only if one or more of the girls happened to be married.

Finally, Kyouko reached the door labeled "Patricia von Rohr". It slid open at her approach.

She stepped inside, telling the door to slide closed behind her.

Kyouko peered around the room, taking in Asaka sitting on the bed and Patricia seated at her desk. Patricia's room was a bit of what you'd expect: holographic schematics and science posters on the wall, desk strewn with bits and pieces of equipment, a small antigrav sphere hovering over its display stand on the shelf full of true rarities: paper books.

It was the room of a tinkerer and a nanobiologist, and reflected the field's requirement of some knowledge in physics.

One of the posters shifted coloration, beckoning Kyouko to look in its direction so it could explain the principles of Pauli exclusion‐locking. Kyouko did not oblige it.

"So what did you want to talk about?" Kyouko asked, looking at Patricia.

"What's with the Incubator?" Asaka asked, pointing at the doll hanging from Kyouko's right hand.

Kyouko looked at it in surprise, holding it up. She had honestly forgotten it was there.

"It's a, uh—" Kyouko began.

She thought for a moment, thinking of how to explain.

"A gift!" she finished. "Yeah, I thought Maki might appreciate something like that. It's—"

—a telepathic relay device, magically enhanced, Yuma's voice resonated in her head. Kyouko almost jumped.

One of my telepaths has been experimenting with them, the voice explained. We're not sure how reliable it is yet, or if anyone can eavesdrop, or how long the range is… or anything, really. Still, it might be good to have. Also, this is a recording, set to trigger if you try to get rid of it. Should have mentioned that first, right? Don't give it away.

Kyouko gave the toy a new, scrutinizing look, holding it up.

Or you could have just told me! Kyouko thought.

Then, a moment later, she repeated the thought, attempting to think it to the doll rather than to herself. Disturbingly, she felt a channel actually open.

What fun would that be, nee‐chan? Yuma's voice responded, echoing as if coming from a distance.

"Is everything alright?" Asaka asked, looking at her queerly. Kyouko realized, belatedly, that she was holding the doll up in the air with two hands in a choking motion. Patricia was giving the doll an intense look.

"Uh," Kyouko began.

"Tell me, is the doll magically enhanced?" Patricia asked, serious.

Kyouko looked at the girl, with her long blonde hair. She wondered if she should lie.

"Yes," Kyouko admitted. "How could you tell?"

"I don't have much experience with magically enhanced objects," Patricia said, suddenly modest. "My specialty is drones and technological enhancements. Until now, I wasn't even sure I could detect them."

"So a new skill, then?" Kyouko asked.

As Patricia had said, she was an expert in drone and technological enhancements, and her magical abilities inclined in that direction as well. On the battlefield, she could sense and manipulate them, which was particularly handy when it came to enemy technology, and her deductions about alien technology informed combat doctrine. It also served as an indirect stealth detector, which was nice.

Her personal weapon was magically summoned drones. It was relatively unusual, as powers came.

"Apparently," Patricia agreed. "To be honest, I could barely tell, and I would never have noticed if you weren't trying to choke the life out of it."

"Ah, yes," Kyouko said, looking away. Fortunately, both Asaka and Patricia did the polite thing by not asking.

"In any case," Patricia said, "this makes it a lot more likely that I was right. I shouldn't have been so worried."

"Honestly, you should have just said something," Asaka chastened. "I don't know why you didn't."

"Shizuki‐san was there!" Patricia insisted, rotating her chair to face the other girl. "I didn't want to get her involved."

"You could have used telepathy, or mentioned it later," Asaka said. "Admit it: you were just afraid of being wrong. You didn't want to be embarrassed."

"That is not true!" Patricia said, pointing at the other girl.

Asaka was one of the very few who got under the girl's skin.

"So do either of you mind enlightening me about all this?" Kyouko said. She said it calmly, but dropped most of the usual "delinquent" nuances she placed in her voice.

They got the message, dropping their bickering instantly.

"So you remember how I found those grief cubes yesterday?" Patricia said, looking at Kyouko.

"Yes, I do," Kyouko said, her level of interest rising slightly.

"Well, when I was looking at them, I noticed that they seemed off, somehow, even more than usual," Patricia said. "They felt a little like they'd been manipulated, except there's no known non‐Incubator technology that can do anything to grief cubes. And they seemed different."

"And?" Kyouko asked, suddenly quite interested, though trying not to show it.

"Well, the point is, they felt sort of like that stuffed animal you're holding. It was strange."

Maybe everything worked out after all, Kyouko thought, getting excited despite herself. If she sensed something—

"So I hid a few in one of my drones," Patricia said, seeming to spit out the words. "And sent it to one of the other buildings. That's another reason I didn't want to mention it at the time. I didn't know if the Incubators were listening, or if they'd demand I hand them over since they were full."

"And so what if they were?" Asaka asked.

Patricia made a threatening gesture with her off‐hand.

"Wait, what? You what?" Kyouko asked, reaction delayed. She grabbed Patricia by the shoulders.

Patricia blinked, surprised by the vehemence of her reaction.

"Well, yeah, I–I know it was unsafe, Kyouko," she said. "But I was being careful with them. You see, I theorized that I was sensing some sort of magical manipulation, and I have some friends—"

"What did you do with them?" Kyouko demanded.

Patricia's eyes slid back and forth, almost as if she was looking for a way out.

"L–Like I was saying," she said. "I have friends in Prometheus who study things like this, so I sent them over to them. They say there's something very unusual about the cubes, almost as if there's too much—"

She stopped, interrupted by Kyouko's sudden hug.

"You're amazing, Patricia," Kyouko said.

"Thanks?" Patricia said, making it a question. She looked in Asaka's direction for guidance, but the other girl didn't give her anything useful.

Kyouko stood back up, ignoring the look Asaka was giving her.

"Okay," she said, holding the doll out to Patricia. "Telepath everything you just told me to this doll. Then, you—"

She pointed at Asaka.

"—are coming with me."

Patricia held up the plushy by its long, floppy ear, looking at it with curiosity.

"You're telling her to talk to the doll," Asaka commented drolly.

"The magical doll," Kyouko said, grabbing Asaka by the arm and dragging her out the door.

"Give it back to me later!" she exhorted Patricia, before having the door close behind them.

Kyouko felt only a slight twinge of guilt, knowing that the Prometheus Researchers were about to have their prized specimens confiscated by government agents or, more likely, walk into their labs the next day to find everything relevant missing. Perhaps they would be invited to join a new classified project. Perhaps they would simply be left in the dark.

"So what is this about?" Asaka asked when they got outside, shaking Kyouko's hand off of her arm.

Kyouko turned to face the girl.

"I've called a meeting of the Theological Council," she cooed. "We'll be discussing your observations of the Goddess. In particular, her hair color."

Asaka looked into Kyouko's eyes, then blinked, looking to the side.

"I knew I shouldn't have made that comment to Maki," she said, disgusted with herself. "I was careless."

"Yes, well, you shouldn't have mentioned it to her, of all people," Kyouko said. "That wasn't very smart."

"Our visions are private," Asaka said, glaring.

"Yes," Kyouko agreed toothily, leaning forward. "And I respect that. But there is one exception. Information about the Goddess belongs to all of us. It's the rules. You know that. I can overlook it this time, but I can't let you ignore the rules just because I'm your sponsor."

Despite Asaka's slightly greater height, Kyouko looked down on her, pouring into her body language every ounce of authority her age and position gave her, so that the mental adult in front of her, approaching thirty, bowed her head like a child.

"Alright, fine," Asaka conceded. "I'll go."

"Good," Kyouko said.

She turned and headed for the lift, listening for the other girl following her.

"I'm not going to pry," Kyouko said. "But you wouldn't seem like the kind of girl who would have such a giant secret. Isn't there at least something you can say without giving it away?"

"You've asked before, Kyouko," Asaka said. "I can't. I can't."

"If you insist," Kyouko said, as they stepped into the elevator. "But tell me right now if you're going to stonewall the Council just as hard. They wouldn't like it."

"I can say a little more," Asaka said, as the door closed. "All hair details. And I can honestly say I never saw more than that."

Kyouko nodded.


Stepping up to the pulpit, Kyouko took a moment to survey the crowd. As always, it was uniformly female, dressed in a variety of clothing, ranging from the perpetually popular casual jeans and T‐shirt to more formal dresses. A few stubbornly showed up in costume, despite repeated assurances that it was neither necessary nor suggested.

The crowd was a mixture of regulars, girls from the area who had time off, and a substantial majority of visitors. These hailed from all over Earth and, more rarely, from its colonies. While not all the colonials were obvious, some were easy to spot, wearing fashions substantially different from the uniform monoculture of Earth.

Kyouko preferred cozy sermons, so the room in front of her, while large, was not the stadium or amphitheatre‐style seating seen for some preachers, or that Kyouko herself occasionally addressed on visits to the colonies. Instead, it was a traditional church seating area, with cushioned pews—a bit more comfortable than rare wood—a central aisle, and doors at the side and rear. Kyouko was not a believer in flashy wall graphics, at least not of the electronic sort, which meant that the room, ensconced as it was within the building, had relatively prosaic walls, painted with murals depicting the kind of scenery that dotted the entire building: life and death scenes of magical girls, and girls slaughtering demons, rallying armies, or summoning their powers for one last blast at their foes.

Unlike other parts of the building, there was no explicit dark and light motif here, no miserable death or mutual conflict. It was all light, and the high ceiling, fancier than the walls, deliberately scattered the early afternoon sunlight throughout the area.

The symbolic explanation for the lack of darkness stood behind Kyouko, where a statue of the Goddess twice her size held her hands out. Above the hands hovered a swirling orb of pitch black, drawing in tendrils of darkness from the air around it. It was an excellent piece of holography.

The statue itself was, in fact, merely the vague outline of a woman, roughly and only partly carved out of a much larger piece of marble. Its face was blank, features undefined, and it symbolized how little they knew. It was, however, recognizably a woman, rather than a girl. It was those who were still on Earth who were the girls, and she was the woman; this particular representation was for her divine form, not her human form.

That, too, was a reason no one was allowed to call Kyouko "mother".

Soon enough, however, the statue would be receiving a renovation. The masons would chisel apart the marble and give her the long‐flowing hair Asaka had described. It would be closer to the truth.

The room seated a crowded two hundred or so, but the pews held no hymn books, no Bibles. The Church had no holy documents or solidified means of worship.

Kyouko had changed out of her customary shorts and tanktop into something a bit more formal. It seemed appropriate.

She fiddled nervously with her sleeves. Despite the countless times she had done this, she still got butterflies beforehand, and the outfit didn't help. The persona she had to adopt, that of the serene pastor, was too markedly different from her preferred behavior for complete comfort.

Despite the limited size of the audience, the number of listeners and viewers was in no way restricted to the two hundred in front of her. There would be plenty listening in and watching from elsewhere, and of course everything was recorded. Indeed, the room was large enough that in most civilian settings some sort of sound system would be needed, though one's internal enhancements could serve as the microphone. The Church could cheat a little and use the audience's auditory implants instead.

Similarly, her tactical AI could feed her the prepared words if she forgot midway, though by this point she was well‐practiced to public speaking. Besides, she liked to extemporize.

Kyouko stepped up and gestured for silence. She took a deep breath.

"My sisters," she began, spreading her arms. "Doubtless in your travels, you have encountered those who would ask you why we are so arrogant as to hold ourselves separate from the rest of humanity. How, they ask, can it be consistent to acknowledge a God of humanity while simultaneously focusing our worship elsewhere? Do we not consider ourselves human?"

Kyouko leaned forward over the pulpit, surveying the crowd, eyes peering.

She relaxed slightly.

"The answer, of course, is that we don't consider ourselves human, not exactly. It is not that we consider ourselves better. Only different."

"Is it not evident how we are different?" she asked, raising a hand in a rhetorical gesture. "Humanity struggles under the weight of sin, and of evil. For their transgressions and deviations on Earth, they were once punished mercilessly after death. The darkness of this world must have always have its last shot."

She dropped her head, looking down briefly, before looking back at her audience, which was drinking in her every word.

"That changed, of course," Kyouko said. "It used to be, only the purest of the pure could ascend, which worked out to practically nobody. The rest, guilty of even the most minor of transgressions, found themselves punished eternally. It was unquestionably cruel, to ask perfection of flawed Humanity. Utterly unfair."

Kyouko pulled an apple off the top of the pulpit. It was one of her favorite props, and she stood regarding it, turning it in her hands, as if to say "no apple is perfectly shaped, but most are good." Finally she took a decisive, symbolic bite.

"It is difficult for a God to understand the plight of man. The thinking of an omniscient being must be forever alien to us. Perhaps such a being simply did not understand us. It took an ambassador, one in Human form, to relieve Humanity of its cruel burden and, perhaps, bring the omnipotent to an understanding."

Kyouko smiled to herself, then glanced at the faces of her audience once more.

"But of course I digress," she said, tossing and catching the apple again. "The point is not to illustrate how moving the story is for us, but how little it has to do with us. For you see, our souls were never the same."

She set down her apple, and materialized her soul gem, raising it up high, so that it glowed in the eyes of those in front her.

"This is where we keep our souls," she said. "Not in heaven, but on Earth. We make contracts, pouring our hopes and desires into wishes, wishes that fight back the demons of Humanity and the darkness of entropy. And for daring to challenge the design of the world, Fate itself, we were punished. Instead of enjoying the fruits of Earth and the joys of life, we were condemned to spend eternity fighting."

She turned her gem back into a ring. Looking out once again, she spotted Patricia, Asaka, and that new girl, Ryouko, walking down one of the adjoining hallways. The last of these looked in Kyouko's direction and met her eyes briefly.

Kyouko took a moment to take in the girl's profile, which was short and strangely childish, with a vaguely aristocratic facial bone structure. Then she continued:

"Beyond that, our fate mirrored that of Humanity, but with a critical distinction. While they received the punishment for their desires after death, we received it here on Earth. Every girl here has, or will someday, attend at the death of a friend, watching their soul gems darken and crack despite everything that can be done. Watching their agony, can there be any doubt what fate has in store for them?"

Kyouko could see some in the audience nodding. Well, of course it was working; it was one of her most practiced lines.

She paused rhetorically, for just a moment.

"Once, they would have had that fate," she said. "We would have all had it. This we know, because Homura spoke to me of the terrible destiny of all magical girls. Something dark, painful, eternal, and earthly."

Kyouko let the mood darken slightly before continuing.

"But this is no longer the case," she said. "We end our lives in peace, our soul gems vanishing magically. All the demons, all the despair, all the cost of our contract, vanishing, just like that."

Kyouko snapped her fingers to accentuate the point.

"You see," she said. "It was unfair. It was cruel, to punish us for our wishes. Perhaps, in the mind of God, on the scales of the Incubators, it all balanced out, and it was only natural. Still, it was just as unfair to blame us for our wishes, to tell girls not to hope, as it was to ask Humanity as a whole not to sin. And just as Humanity gained redemption for its sins in the afterlife, we gained redemption for our sins on Earth, so that we, too, could depart."

She stepped back from the pulpit, and gestured at the unfinished statue behind her.

"Amazing, isn't it?" she said, looking upward. "I have gone all this time, without mentioning the Goddess once. But in another way, it is not amazing at all. She changed the rules of this world to grant us this salvation, and she never even told us about it. She has done as much for us as any other god has done for Humanity, but she demands no worship. She didn't even desire to be known. That is precisely why we worship her, because no one else will."

She turned back towards the crowd, still pointing with one arm.

"Were she a perfect God, we would not even know that much. We know of her only because she is imperfect, because she left a Prophet on Earth, someone to carry out what she could not. One to meddle in our affairs, one to try and heal a flawed world, because she can't stand to see us how we are. She is not omnipotent, not perfect, and we flatter her by calling her Goddess, unless perhaps we mean goddess with lower‐case 'g'. The Goddess is human, and that too is why we worship her, even if it is bias."

"We know this by the Prophet's actions, and her hints. We call her Prophet, but she does not prophesize. She says nothing about the Goddess, save that she exists, and the hints she dropped without knowing. Instead, she worked quietly to save us, to lift us out of our terrible lives, without a thought to glory."

She let her arm drop.

"I hope…" she began quietly. "I hope Homura hasn't lost sight of who she is, and that she still works for this world somehow. The last time I saw her, she was in agony. She is human too, and her human heart would prefer she join her Goddess in heaven, rather than toil on Earth in service of Humanity, as a more perfect being would. I do not begrudge her her humanity, but if she suffers, it must be for a reason. Just in case, we strive every day to find her."

Kyouko looked up again, dropping briefly her guise of authoritative preacher.

"It's funny, isn't it?" she asked. "There is so much we don't know, and I have to stand here telling you about it. I wish we knew more, but our Goddess doesn't desire we know. I guess it's only fair, right? We've spent most of our existence hiding ourselves from Humanity, so she spent just as much time hiding herself from us."

She got some light chuckles out of the audience with that, but nothing too strong. Well, that was to be expected.

Kyouko cleared her throat.

"It is also because of this that we do not emphasize holy books, nor hymns, nor dull mantras to be memorized and chanted," she said. "All of those things are the mere trappings of artifice, and unnecessary. We pay for our entrance into Heaven with the lives we lead, not our worship. I say we worship her, but it would aggravate her if we cloistered ourselves in a temple worshipping idols."

She returned to her pulpit.

"We honor her with our lives," she said. "So endeavor to live in her memory. Guard and save Humanity, because that is your duty and her desire. Support each other, treat each other as sisters, because that too is your duty and her desire. Remember that always."

She glanced through the faces of her audience, Terran and Colonial, fashionable and not, one last time, then nodded in satisfaction.

"Alright," she said, as some in the audience began to stand. "I'll be back here in a couple of hours. You can see the schedule. But for now, I have an announcement."

That got most of them to sit back down, but some kept heading for the door, relaying apologies. They had places to go.

"I'm pleased to announce we'll be modifying the statue," she said, turning and gesturing proudly at it with both arms.

That sent a buzz through the crowd, and she waited for it to subside a little.

"It's not her face or anything, I'm afraid," she said. "But we'll be remodeling the hair. Someone finally got a look at it. And…"

Kyouko paused.

"We're going to be trying to chisel it out to be long and flowing," she finished. "And paint it pink. We're not really sure how that's going to work with the whole marble motif, but we'll do our best."

She smiled her most winning smile, and received a wave of applause.

A good while later in the day, as she was trying to relax, her TacComp seized her attention.

"Ah, hold on, sorry," she said, apologizing to the girl in the room with her.

What is it? she demanded, turning away. This isn't a convenient time!

This is higher priority according to your standards, the machine informed her bluntly. There has been another reported vision in the Hall of the Ribbon.

Kyouko straightened, standing up. Yes, this was higher priority.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I have to go."

Appendix: "The Cult"

In the cataclysmic realignment of religious theology of the early war period, there had seemed to be ample opportunity for other outcomes. Nearly every religious organization was forced to reshape its theology to fit the new world, and the time was ripe for change.

Change came, and the first mover was the Catholic Church. The Vatican publicly unlocked a treasure trove of Church records, revealing that the upper hierarchy had been aware of the system since the Middle Ages, and had even maintained relations with the MSY, but had chosen to maintain secrecy.

The only religion in the world with a prepared theology and contingency plan, the Church moved aggressively to bolster its numbers. It widely emphasized the friendliness of its theology to the newfound mages, carefully leaving out that this friendliness was a historically recent development.

Yet despite all its efforts and clever positioning, the campaign was a disappointment, yielding only a trickle of new members. In the end, the Church could not convince most girls that it either empathized or understood.

Into this landscape stepped Sakura Kyouko and her newborn cult. Feeding off its founder's deep understanding of the magical girl psyche, the Cult's willingness to stretch its theology to take all comers, and the founding members' ability to manipulate the MSY and military system, the cult had grown explosively and unexpectedly following a fiery public speech by Sakura on the anniversary of Epsilon Eridani.

Given the situation, the Cult and its founder's roots in Christianity, and the sudden fluidity of previously untouchable religious doctrine, contemporary observers predicted a rapid accommodation between the Cult and either the Anglican or the Catholic Church. The times being what they were, either organization could have easily accommodated a new saint and a new prophet, along with a bit of tacked‐on theology. The Cult would, in return, receive legitimization and access to organizational resources. And indeed, both organizations, as well as several others, covertly sent negotiators to talk with the Cult leadership.

This seemingly compelling analysis displayed the same lack of understanding that had plagued the Church. The Cult proved itself extremely capable of leveraging influence within the MSY into organizational capability. More importantly and more fundamentally, the Cult's core tenets made even a partial reconciliation almost impossible, and analysts simply did not understand the depths of some of the heresies being perpetuated.

As merely one example, one can point out the Cult's implicit sense of betrayal by God. This sense of betrayal and alienation is a theme that pervades much of the Cult's teachings, at least in the main set headlined by the Cult leadership. Never spoken about or acknowledged, it is nonetheless palpable to all those who have investigated its beliefs.

The theology of the Cult directly accuses God of being out of touch with Humanity. God, while benevolent, did not understand human motivation, constructing a system that was decidedly unfair to Humanity, requiring the intervention of agents to correct, first in the form of Christ, and second in the form of their Goddess. In this respect, their conception of God is closer to the Incubators than to the view found in any of the classical monotheist religions.

Fueled by what they see as an easy escape hatch through their Goddess, the Cult feels little need to divert worship in his direction. Instead, they prefer to worship a Goddess they feel is more deserving, and who has earned their affection, even if they acknowledge that this "Goddess" is nowhere near a Goddess in the Western sense.

While this attitude and belief is not universal within the Cult, which contains considerable internal strife and disagreements, it holds considerable sway within the leadership, especially in the person of the founder. From this perspective, it is easy to see why the Cult finds outside control utterly unthinkable, and why mainstream Christianity found it utterly impossible to stomach its heresies. The slight current relationship between the Cult and the church of Sakura's father is merely a fig leaf, giving the former a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of worried parents, and allowing the latter to inflate its membership numbers.

We leave it to you, the reader, to judge what to say to your daughters, but if you are religious, know that the Cult does not match your beliefs.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" article title "Things to Know about the Cult of Hope," excerpt.

Chapter Text

One of the most well‐known aspects of the military enhancement package is the Permanent Awareness Module. Restricted in availability due to both production costs and concerns about its effects on society, the module is essentially what it says on the tin. It obviates the customary regimen of hormonal supplements and nanite boosters used to ward off sleep, replacing it with a self‐contained, self‐sufficient system capable of stabilizing all the necessary circadian rhythms and performing all the necessary neural maintenance tasks.

"Never Sleep Again!"

Despite this popular slogan of its designers, often bandied about in military and magical girl circles, the module does not, in fact, prevent all instances of sleep. While it eliminates the standard day‐night cycle, those with the module installed are perfectly capable of taking naps should they feel tired. Indeed, such naps have several salutary benefits, and it is common to find soldiers on break taking relaxing naps. The difference is that there is no real need to sleep and, with the flip of an internal switch, there is no longer even the desire to.

Research is still ongoing as to the apparent increase in cases of psychosis among module recipients. The effect appears to be psychological in nature; apparently, experiencing too long a single bout of consciousness is destabilizing to some individuals. If subjects awake for more than two continuous months are removed from consideration, the statistical increase in cases of mental instability disappears, at least among the rare civilian module recipients, for whom non‐user comparison groups can easily be found.

Thus, the advice to your daughter in this case is simple, and matches military recommendations: take naps when you can, even if you don't need to.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" article title "Your Post‐human Child," excerpt.

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

The Ribbon, as it is referred to, is the primary, and only, relic of the Cult of Hope. Claimed by Akemi Homura to be a gift from their Goddess herself, it is venerated and kept in a heavily guarded metamaterial case at the main Cult church, in Mitakihara City, with viewing permitted only to magical girls. Cult scientists claim that the Ribbon shows none of the signs of aging that would be expected in a mundane piece of cloth that old, despite the lack of any obvious enchantments. More conventional scientists are skeptical, but are not permitted study.

Within the Cult, the Ribbon is believed to grant visions to a lucky, chosen few of those who visit. Certainly, numerous girls, including Sakura Kyouko herself, can be found claiming to have experienced exactly that, though the number pales in comparison to the total number of visitors the artifact has received. However, internal recordings from girls who have volunteered to be studied, including memory traces from neural implants, have failed to ever uncover anything other than slightly elevated heart and respiratory rates. 〈Nonetheless, these girls insist on their memories, even if the NeverForget modules of their tactical advisors fail to ever record any of it. MSY empaths report that none of them seem to be lying, but also that they are similarly unable to capture even a glimpse of the memory, a very unusual result.〉②

The veracity of these supposed visions is thus highly doubtful.

〈While it is true that there exist instances of girls predicting the future with apparent accuracy, based on these supposed visions, there are equally many instances of these predictions failing to happen. Cult members insist that this is due to purposeful avoidance on their part, but even if this were true, there is another, much simpler explanation that can be proposed: Magical girl legends are littered with examples of girls with precognition, and there are numerous girls still living who remember meeting one. Such visions could simply be tapping into a poorly‐understood power, done in the throes of religious passion.〉①

〈It is, however, strange that after the early parts of the Information Age, pure precognitive magical girls appear to disappear entirely from the record, and none have been contracted since.〉①

— Infopedia article, "The Ribbon," mode: discursive, extended detail, high density.

Instructing the vehicle to take her to the desired location, the local MSY branch office, Ryouko found herself first diving underground, the interior of the vehicle decorating itself with a field of stars. Then she reemerged at ground level, and found herself slowing to a halt in front of what appeared to be an old style Catholic Church. The front façade was lavished with ample stained glass, with imagery that looked decidedly non‐standard.

The hell? she thought.

"Vehicle," she said. "I'm heading for the local MSY branch office. The Research District Armory, MSY Corridor. I forwarded you my movement orders."

For non‐basic commands, civilian machines did not accept direct relay from cortical implants.

"This is the location indicated," the vehicle said, in a pleasant voice. "Mitakihara City District Zero‐Three Home Defense Armory. The aboveground floors also serve as a religious center. Cult of Hope, to be precise."

The machine paused.

"This confusion is common. I can give more information if—"

"No, it's alright," Ryouko said. "My mistake. Let me out."

She stepped onto the curb, shaking her head at missing the obvious symbolism shaped into the glass: the armored girls with swords hacking at invisible enemies, shooting stars in the background. There was even an embedded soul gem, if you looked carefully.

I guess I'm here whether I want to be or not, she grimaced. They're serious about the conversion, then.

She advanced up the steps, briefly meeting the eyes of a pair of girls, children far too young to be contracted. They looked away hastily, embarrassed, then stared at her again once they thought she wasn't looking. Ryouko wondered if their parents knew they were here.

She checked her internal chronometer. One o'clock, right on time.

As she approached the arched doorway, flanked by arriving acolytes, Asaka and Patricia stepped forward from behind a column, appearing to her right. They exchanged greetings.

"With all due respect," Ryouko declared, deciding she might as well be blunt about it. "I'm not interested in joining the Cult."

Patricia and Asaka exchanged glances. Patricia chuckled slightly.

"Well, I won't deny we were considering pitching the idea to you," she said. "But that's not the reason you're here. This is, indeed, a fully‐staffed MSY military branch office and armory. One of the largest, in fact. This Church isn't all that big, so aboveground it doesn't look too big, but there's a large underground component, which incidentally connects to the subterranean city fortifications. Come on, let's go perform those upgrades we've been talking about."

Patricia gestured for her to follow, and she did so, passing by the main assembly area, where Kyouko was pontificating on "mirroring Humanity", or something like that. As she walked by one of the entryways, Kyouko made brief eye contact with her.

And then they stepped into an elevator.

They stepped off at the fourth floor, counting downward.

B4, Medical Center, the elevator thought to her, just as she was starting to wonder where she was. It startled her slightly. She was used to her elevators talking or silent, not talking into her brain.

Ryouko was surprised to find them in what appeared to be an airlock.

The hallway in front of them, beyond the airlock door, had a curious design; the walls of each room were completely transparent, with a transparent door, too. Weren't they concerned about privacy?

Pack drones scurried along the floor, carrying cargo she could sense was grief cubes.

She followed the example of the other two, who had chosen to stand still and stare at the horizon.

She waited.

"Is something supposed to—" she began.

She jumped, an intense burning sensation searing itself into her skin.

"Ow!" she complained. "Ow, ow, ow!"

She did a little hopping dance, vaguely aware that she was sounding way more girlish than she usually endeavored for. She looked at the other two, who continue to hold rigid poses, but who had started smirking.

"The hell—" she began again, but then the heat subsided.

"—is this!" she finished, voice wavering as she realized it was over.

"UV sterilization," Patricia explained pedantically, turning to face her and hiding a smile. "It used to be that such an intense level of radiation would have given you major sunburns, and probably melanoma to every hospital worker, but the Clinical Immortality packages make that much less of an issue. A bacterial infection could easily finish an injured girl on the brink, whereas for the workers it's just a bit of discomfort. The cost‐benefit works out. Also, for your information, standing still makes the process faster."

"Why didn't you warn me?" Ryouko managed to say, shaking her hand spastically. She took the moment to look up what a "sunburn" was, so she wouldn't have to embarrass herself by asking.

"It's tradition," Asaka said, grinning. "Recruits have such difficulty handling a little pain. The holovideos make for excellent humiliation material later. Trust me, you're doing well."

Several of the hospital staff, who had been watching through the transparent airlock, smirked and gave thumbs‐up, before continuing on.

"If I recall correctly," Patricia said. "Didn't you damage the door trying to escape your first time?"

Asaka gave her a dirty look.

"Not everyone happens to have your composure," she grunted. "Anyway, there's another part to this. If we wanted to be cruel, we wouldn't warn you."

"Another part?" Ryouko asked incredulously.

"Don't worry," Patricia said. "It's not so bad. Just some microdrones to scrub down any debris left on your skin. It helps reduce particulate count. It's not that intrusive."

"Microdrones?" Ryouko repeated.

She felt something land on her head. Before she had the chance to ask, she spotted several small, insectoid robots land on Patricia's head. Feeling an itching sensation at her ankles, she looked down and spotted one circling her foot, scraping her skin with its bottom surface.

"This is rather disconcerting," she said through gritted teeth, making the effort to word her thoughts carefully.

"Don't worry," Patricia said soothingly. "They're friendly, and they're not going to go under your clothes or anything like that. The military is a lot heavier on the technology than civilian life. You get used to it. Besides, I like these ones."

Ryouko was pretty sure she was wearing her most strenuous "Are you crazy?" expression.

Asaka caught her eye, then made a gesture with her finger near her head that implied that the answer to her question was "Yes."

"I guess it makes sense, after all," Asaka said, trying to look suave—and failing, due to the insect on her nose. "It's natural to have an affinity for your own primary weapon. For example, I like daggers."

Ryouko caught Patricia rolling her eyes at that.

"Why are we in a hospital anyway?" Ryouko asked, changing the topic slightly. She did her best to ignore the drone trying to crawl onto her cheek.

"We're here to reconfigure your internal mesh," Patricia explained. "And introduce multiple new types of nanites and implant assemblers into your bloodstream. Among other things. It's all part of the process. Didn't you read the welcome messages?"

"There were so many," Ryouko complained.

Her hair waved in strands behind her back like so many tentacles, shifting back and forth to allow drones passage and aid the cleaning process while trying to maintain a semblance of her preferred hairstyle. This applied to the others as well, of course.

"You know, it's always been my opinion that they should do the cortical datadump first," Asaka said. "It's ridiculous to expect teenagers to read all of that. Or adults for that matter."

"Well, the reconfiguration process makes the datadump more efficient," Patricia argued, pursing her lips.

"It works perfectly fine before, too," Asaka said. "Who cares if it's a little slower? It saves confusion."

"You can take that up with the military procedure AIs," Patricia said, shrugging. "It's not my job."

Ryouko noticed that the drones were starting to withdraw rapidly, jumping off her body and to the ground before scurrying away. A moment later, the airlock made a ding! noise, and the door in front of them slid open.

Exactly like a synthesizer finishing a food dish, Ryouko thought, trying to use humor to calm herself.

"Goddamn it, I feel like a dumbass," complained a magical girl appearing around the corner in a drone stretcher, wearing the universal blue patient uniform. Her leg was bent at a hideously unnatural angle, and was covered with nanogel, both secreted and applied. In her hand, she held several grief cubes, into which her soul gem ring was dumping corruption.

Accompanying her was an adult‐looking attendant and two worried looking teenagers. Ryouko quickly appraised their hands for soul gem rings, and found that the teenagers were wearing them and the attendant was not. The two girls also had fingernail marks.

"It happens to everyone," the attendant soothed. "We'll have you up and walking again within the hour."

"Can't I just get a healer?" the girl complained.

"For small things like broken bones, it's more efficient to do it medically rather than magically, if time isn't an issue," the attendant explained patiently. "It saves grief cubes."

They disappeared around the next corner, Ryouko, Asaka, and Patricia standing politely still to let them pass.

They led her to an exam room with a solitary exam chair. The door slid open as they approached, and the walls turned opaque, resolving her previous concern about privacy.

Intuiting what was expected, Ryouko sat down in the chair, placing her head between two head pads that seemed uncomfortably like restraints. She felt slightly vulnerable.

Patricia headed for an alcove in the wall, which was beginning to spit packets of material into a tray on the counter. Next to the tray was a glass canister full of dark red lollipops.

"Try to relax," Asaka said, looming over her. "Patricia is a trained specialist."

"No I'm not," the girl said absently, using a microneedle syringe to transfer the mysterious blue contents of a presealed packet into a tube that led to some sort of hand‐held device. "I have no training at all, not in this. I skipped a lot with my wish."

"I'm trying to relax her," Asaka said.

"It's alright," Ryouko commented. "The fact that she got it by magic is actually sort of reassuring. She can't be wrong. Probably."

Patricia gave the other girl a victorious look, then went back to fussing over some sort of console on the chair.

"Right, so ever get your internal specs reconfigured?" Asaka asked, leaning against the wall.

Ryouko shook her head.

"Not since I was too young to remember," she said.

"You sure?" Patricia asked, looking at her with one eye, manipulating another syringe. "This is pretty important. Even if you got it done illegally, it's best to tell us. We won't tell anyone."

"Why the hell would I?" Ryouko asked.

"Some people get adjustments to support their hobbies," Asaka said, shrugging. "Mountain climbers get gecko skin patches, things like that. The illegal ones are usually to circumvent the virtual reality restrictions. There's a whole subculture of gamers who do this. The government overlooks it as long as they don't cause too much trouble."

"Ah," Ryouko agreed. "I remember reading about that. I wouldn't imagine very many form contracts."

"You're looking at an example right here," Patricia commented, gesturing at Asaka. "I'll leave it to her to tell you if she has any illegal modifications."

Asaka gave her another dirty look.

"She knows very well being in the military makes it a moot point."

"Not for all of the mod types," Patricia persisted. "There are plenty of possibilities in virtual simulation the military doesn't want."

Asaka narrowed her eyes.

"Remind me again why I work with you," Asaka complained.

Patricia smirked.

"Because I'm just so beautiful," she simpered sarcastically, putting her hand to her face. Asaka shook her fist threateningly.

"So you were into games?" Ryouko asked.

"Oh yes," Asaka said. "Still am, actually. It was all my friends and I did, all the time. I thought I knew my direction in life."

Ryouko nodded. It was not considered necessary that everyone do something productive. Just something that they enjoyed. That was enough for you to excuse yourself from school. You tended not to get more than the base minimum Alloc distribution, though, and your parents generally weren't particularly fond of the idea.

"It's not that bad," Asaka said, gleaning her thoughts. "Some are good enough that others will even tune in watch them play. The best get special entertainer dispositions. It's bigger than you think."

"Was your wish—" Ryouko began, before biting her tongue, too late.

"Sorry," she added hastily. "I didn't mean to pry."

Asaka made a dismissive noise.

"Rookie," she commented, not unkindly. "Don't worry, I'm not offended. You're on the right track, though. I won't say more than that."

Ryouko, realizing that Patricia hadn't said anything for quite a while, turned her head to look at the girl—or tried, anyway. She had forgotten her head was restrained, so she ended up just shifting her eyes, while inadvertently pressing her head into the padding.

Following her gaze, Asaka turned to look.

Patricia was staring at the rectangular device in her hand with an abstract frown, seemingly deep in thought.

"Is something wrong?" Asaka asked. "Why is this taking so long?"

"Her genetic profile is outside the five‐sigma safe limit for using the customary procedure," Patricia said airily, clearly not quite focusing on the conversation. "About six, to be more precise. Can't really get greater precision so far out."

"Which means…" Asaka cued, waving her hand.

"I will have to make some adjustments," Patricia said. "Don't worry, it doesn't affect anything. It just takes a little time. I submitted the profile to one of the genetic analysis AIs. Should be getting results anytime now."

Her comments were less reassuring than they were probably intended to be, given the flat monotone in which they were delivered.

"Ah, well," Asaka extemporized, looking back at Ryouko. "Six. I guess that makes you pretty special."

"It's about one in one billion," Ryouko said, consulting an internal calculator, eyes widening just a little.

There was series of "thunk!" sounds, as a series of more mysterious fluid packets arrived in the tray on the table. Patricia grabbed them and started injecting them into her device carefully. Asaka and Ryouko quieted down.

Patricia looked up and nodded at them, indicating she was done. She seemed distracted, though.

"Alright, do you know how this goes?" Asaka asked, leaning over her again, handing her a lollipop.

"No," Ryouko said, after trying and failing to nod her head. "Why the lollipop?"

"Never been to the VR section of the theater, I see," Asaka said. "Trust me. It helps."

Ryouko put the candy in her mouth, then almost pulled it back out in surprise.

Cinnamon, she thought. Pungent too.

Patricia walked over, eyes clear now. Whatever had been distracting her was gone and dealt with.

"There's an interface conduit under your head," Patricia said, connecting the device in her hand to a port on the chair. "It will align with the implants near the rear of your brainstem, for communication purposes. There'll be an authorization request; you have to give permission so the chair can have access."

"Okay," Ryouko said.

"The nanites will go in at various times throughout the procedure," Patricia continued. "Via microneedle to the back of the neck. It won't hurt, but just so you know. Your primary senses will have to reset, and your vision will definitely blackout initially. You won't be aware of the world, and there'll be a period in the middle where you'll be unconscious. Oh, and you haven't ever been to a VR theatre, right?"

"No," Ryouko said. "it's too expensive."

She smiled nervously.

Primary senses reset, she thought. Vision blacked out. Unconscious. It sounds so pleasant…

"It's a bit disorienting, then," Asaka said. "It might be better to put you to sleep, but then the implants can't calibrate properly."

"Uh, so I've been told," she amended hastily when Patricia looked in her direction and smirked.

"I see," Ryouko said.

"Then are you ready?" Patricia asked.

"Probably," she replied noncommittally.

"Then here goes," Patricia said.

A vague feeling of communication, similar to the feeling she got when she gave vehicles instruction, then—

Administrator access request to internal mesh detected,〉 something thought, on a deep, deep level. 〈Security verifiers appear to be valid. Permit request?

Ryouko took a breath.

Yes, she thought.

The world disappeared.

What— Ryouko thought, fighting rising panic. She couldn't see a thing, couldn't hear a thing, couldn't feel a thing.

Then, suddenly, she smelled… cinnamon, and it helped to ground and calm her.

Olfaction is the most primitive of the senses, a female voice in her head explained. And the most deeply engrained. It uses a different neural pathway. Everything is fine.

Suddenly, sensation rushed back into her world. She found herself in a bed, looking at a giant floating graphic, at perfect viewing distance, against a relaxing mountain backdrop. She tried to move, experimentally, and found she couldn't. Strangely, it wasn't panicking, but rather relaxing.

She suspected her brain was being fed a substantial quantity of drugs.

The screen displayed two logos. On the left, the hammer and lightning of Hephaestus Nanotechnology. On the right, the shattered clock of Chronos Biologics.

These receded into the background, replaced on the right by a laundry list of progress bars and a readout of what was happening. At the top of the readout it said: "Minimal‐level Sensory Interface. Apologies for the lack of entertainment! ♡"

At the end, there was a little heart symbol. Whoever designed this had had a strange sense of humor.

"Anyway," the readout continued. "We'll be upgrading your systems now! Isn't it exciting? Go ahead and follow the progress readouts on the right. On the left, we will be showing some graphics detailing your new modifications. Just a few more seconds…"


"Upgrade to military‐grade enhancement package proceeding…"

"Magical Girl Distribution, Version 3.5"

"Processing triggers…"

"Five‐Sigma genetic profile detected, special processing required. Please standby…"



"Processing complete. Proceeding with Stage One."

On the left, a friendly graphic explained that Stage One involved the removal of unnecessary restrictions and implants, particularly those that tended to fail when used by a magical girl. It showed a diagram of her body with a prominent X for whatever was being removed, along with little lines leading to invisibly small description. It was quite an accurate diagram.

They don't need to be that anatomically correct… she thought, focusing on one of the X's. It zoomed in, revealing that the support network around her heart was slated for degradation, since detailed testing had revealed that it did not improve combat performance for magical girls, and wasted energy besides.

"Uninstalling Civilian Emergency Safety Main Control…"

"Uninstalling civilian access restrictions. Please wait for authorization."

"Authorization confirmed."

"Uninstalling virtual reality restrictions…"

"Uninstalling mind‐to‐mind communication restrictions…"

"Uninstalling sensory feed partitioning…"

"Disabling cardiopulmonary support devices…"

"Disabling muscular enhancements…"

"Disabling redundant immune system enhancements…"

"Disabling redundant antitoxin systems…"

"Marking defunct nanospecies for self‐disposal…"

"Marking obsolete implants for degradation…"

"Reconfiguring remaining implants…"

"Stage One complete. Proceeding with Stage Two."

This time, the graphic explained to her that it was installing the low complexity implants, those that reliably worked for magical girls. Instead of giving her the option to review technical specs, it went into a marketing slideshow about "her new body," explaining cheerfully that military skeletal enhancements reduced risk of bone breakage by 30%, even in magical girls, and that Chronos Omnivisual Optical Implants would enable her to see into the low UV and high infrared ranges, granting enhanced perceptivity in combat. She could also switch to seeing in pure infrared, but for technical reasons that meant sacrificing standard vision.

Ryouko had never quite intuitively understood why so many in the media had such a penchant for insisting that humanity was now a race of robots, or cyborgs rather. She certainly understood now.

She could still smell the cinnamon.

"Injecting new nanite species. Please wait for circulatory localization…"

"Preparing skeletal enhancements for upgrade to military‐grade…"

"Preparing nanoelectrode arrays for rapid expansion…"

"Preparing ocular implants for spectrum expansion…"

"Elevating security authorization of primary communication node to Level One…"

"Preparing communications nodes for expansion…"

"Installing command and control protocols…"

"Processing redesign of nasal epithelial…"

"Processing implant placement for auditory enhancements…"

"Processing necessary spinal canal adjustments…"

"Processing brain structure for implant placement. This will take up to two minutes."

Ryouko continued to stare at the virtual screen—not that she had any choice. She considered herself a secure denizen of the future age, but she had to admit the sheer length of the list was growing unsettling. Plus, if she understood things correctly, she wasn't even getting half of what the standard infantry received, primarily because the majority of the improvements didn't work with magical girls.

"Done. Injecting supplemental nutrient serums…"

"Initializing implant assembly. You are advised implant assembly and enhancement will not fully complete for 2 hours‒1 week, depending."

This last line was highlighted brightly, and Ryouko noticed she was being forced to look at it.

"Stage Two is now complete. Beginning Stage Three…"

This stage was for installing her Tactical Advisor which, the graphic noted, would provide her with a personal advisor and assistant both in combat and outside, one capable of sorting her messages, providing useful advice and tactical analysis, and facilitating communication. It also included NeverForget technology, to ensure that she would always have access to all her memories, but without bothering her with pointless constant recollection.

"Installing Spinal Node Tactical Advisor, Version 1.8…"

"Injecting EFA nanite populations…"

"Injecting high‐energy density feed serum…"

"Processing medium‐detail CNS wiring. This takes approximately one hour, for which duration you will be unconscious. Suppressing conscious activity…"

Oh here it is, Ryouko thought. I guess I should—


—get ready.

Wait, what? Done?

"Reconfiguring CNS implants…"

She stared at the screen—again, not that she had any choice. Had that really been an hour? It must have been…

"Stage Three complete. Tactical Advisor will be ready for initial activation in approximately five hours. Beginning Stage Four…"

Stage Four installed the implant that would completely remove her need to sleep.

"Installing Permanent Awareness Module…"

"Injecting nanite populations. Please wait for circulatory localization…"

"Injecting temporary hormonal stabilizers…"

"Processing endocrine modifications…"

"Configuring nanoelectrodes for long‐term modulatory firing…"

"Installing circadian synchronization routines…"

"Stage Four complete. You are advised that you may feel dizziness, tiredness, or other symptoms similar to jet lag for the next couple of days. These will fade with time."

"Installation complete. System resetting. Please prepare for sensory blackout in 5… 4… 3—"

Ryouko gritted her virtual teeth and found, to her surprise, that she actually could.

"—2… 1…"

She gasped when she finally woke back up, lollipop falling out of her mouth, barely more than a stick. She jerked forward out of the chair, then looked rapidly around, finding Patricia and Asaka standing around her, wearing amused looks.

Ryouko took a moment to feel her face with her hands.

"So how long was that?" she asked, looking at Patricia.

"Two hours," the girl said. "Time perception is altered."

"I see," Ryouko said, getting up out of the chair.

"And now it's my show," Asaka said, gesturing. "Follow me. We're heading for the armory."

Ryouko followed readily, but Patricia hung back, doing something with the chair. Ryouko gave her a questioning look.

"Ah, don't mind me," Patricia said. "I've got things to do. Sorry."

Ryouko nodded and followed the other girl out the door, as the walls returned to transparency.

"Don't tell her I told you so, but something's got her seriously spooked," Asaka said, as they headed for the airlock.

"What do you mean?" Ryouko asked.

"She didn't have 'things to do' this morning," Asaka said, giving her a sly look. "In fact, she promised me she'd stick around for the whole thing. Now suddenly it's 'Oh no, I forgot about something vague, and I must take care of it now.' Trust me. I can tell."

Ryouko thought about that.

"Does it have anything to do with me?" she asked, as they stepped into the airlock.

"Maybe," Asaka said. "It's not like anything else happened today."

Ryouko was mildly surprised when the elevator doors opened without forcing her to wait to be burned, then swarmed with drones.

Right, we're going out, not in, she thought.

I wonder what has Patricia worried, she thought, a moment later, as the elevator doors opened on the tenth floor, counting downward.

She held up her arm and looked at it, as if she could really tell anything just by looking at it.

She said everything would be fine if she made some adjustments, Ryouko thought. But damned if this doesn't make me paranoid.

But no enhancement system has malfunctioned in over a century. Surely they must have it perfected by now.

"It's all a bit new," she said, smiling nervously at Asaka as they walked down a long hallway lined with impassive metal doors. "The implants are growing as we speak, right?"

"Yes," Asaka said. "You'll start to notice some differences soon enough."

Ryouko thought about that.

So I should be able to…

And as quick as thought, it was done.

"So did you get that?" Ryouko asked.

"Yes," Asaka said. "A memory snapshot, right?"

"That's right," Ryouko said. "A girl I met once, a long time ago. My memory might be inaccurate, but try your facial recognition on it."

"Why?" Asaka asked. "I mean, it's not as if—"

The girl halted, freezing nearly midstep.

"What is it?" Ryouko asked.

But Asaka stood there, with the strangest of expressions, as if she were shocked and confused at the same time. Ryouko opened her mouth to ask—

"We're here," Asaka said suddenly, striding forward with enormous steps, and a door far in front of them slid open.

Asaka walked into the warehouse‐style room, not slackening her pace. Ryouko, confused, followed—and was briefly flabbergasted, gaping around at the endless racks of military armaments, piled at least fifty feet high. She had to look carefully to see the far wall.

"This isn't a frontline planet," Asaka explained, holding her arms out above her head in an encompassing gesture. "So the armory is pretty sparse. But we've got good stuff."

"Sparse," Ryouko repeated.

"And as a magical girl," Asaka continued, "you're entitled to have whatever you want, whenever you want. Well, except some of the more expensive stuff. And the weapons of mass destruction. But you can have anything found in a standard armory."

She stopped, grabbing a pistol off the rack and holding it out to Ryouko so she could grab it, smiling broadly.

Ryouko took it, feeling its weight—rather nervously, she had to admit. Weapons were not something she had ever handled.

"It's a SW‒155 officer's pistol," Asaka said, smiling in such a way as to give Ryouko the impression she liked talking about weapons. "You're required to keep one with you whenever you're in alien combat. It might not look much compared to some of the other things here, but it's one of the most advanced weapons in existence."

She paused.

"You should take the time to practice with it later at the firing range on the eighth floor," she said. "I'd be glad to show you. But it's got all kinds of features. Like all military weapons, it refuses to respond unless the wielder has a Human DNA trace. More importantly, it doesn't just fire bullets. It uses universal ammunition, and you can use your mental interface or the manual controls to order it to fire all sorts of things, such as concussion grenades, flashbangs, antiarmor missiles, small drones, various modalities of lasers, and so forth. It's the first of its kind."

"The point is that, as an officer and magical girl, it's a last resort weapon. It's supposed to be able to do anything and everything, should the need ever arise. Other weapons aren't like that—it's horribly energy‐inefficient, but it's not meant for sustained use. Hopefully you'll never have to use it."

"Remember, though," she said. "There are limits to what is possible, so if you want to fire something like an antiarmor missile, you're going to have feed it several magazines of ammunition. That's why it's recommended you always carry at least six. Anyway, you can have everything sent home to you. Unless you really want to go home carrying it."

Ryouko nodded, making a mental note to figure out exactly how you had things "sent home to you."

Ryouko sighted down the barrel of her weapon experimentally, just like she had seen in movies. She had no idea what she was doing. Was she going to get training or what?

"Asaka‐san, why did you dodge my question earlier?" she asked, not having entirely forgotten. "About the girl."

She figured bluntness was the only way to go.

Asaka's smile faded, just slightly.

"Transform for me," she said.

"Why?" Ryouko asked.

I have to think about it, Asaka thought. I don't know. But I'm serious about the transformation.

Ryouko did so, the bright green light casting a strange coloring onto the assorted weaponry.

"Asaka‐san," she began, uncertain whether to be annoyed or confused.

Just give me some time, Asaka thought.

"Take off your soul gem cover," Asaka said.

"My what?" Ryouko asked, blinking.

"Your soul gem cover. Kyouko must have given you one. Only you can remove it."

"Oh, that," she said, surprised.

Ryouko had completely forgotten about that. She reached down to the base of her neck, trying to pry at the transparent covering. To her surprise, it came off easily, shaping itself back into a sphere. Had it been with her all this time? Had it covered her ring, somehow?

"Right then," Asaka said. "You can keep that one for yourself as a spare. Kyouko has gotten a replacement by now, I'm sure."

She leaned forward, pulling a large handful of something out of the pocket of her jeans.

"Hold out your hand," she ordered.

Ryouko did so, and Asaka dropped into her palm… what appeared to be several exact replicas of her soul gem. They all glowed with the same pulsing light as her own.

But… they seemed empty, somehow.

"What is this?" Ryouko asked, holding up the gems to look at them carefully.

"Kyouko sent in the specs yesterday," the girl said, handing her another handful, making six in total. "It turns out that, on basically any sensor we can design, soul gems don't look like anything but inexplicably glowing gems. Yeah, we can tell the difference, and if you get up close the sensors can't figure out what mineral they're made of, but for most purposes they serve as perfect decoys. The aliens don't know which one to target."

"Clever," Ryouko commented.

"Try it," Asaka said. "Drop them on your neck. Trust me."

She tried to do as instructed, but it wasn't really possible to "drop" something onto her neck, not when she was standing upright. She leaned back and released them, feeling awkward, convinced most would drop into the V‐shape of the cleavage of her costume, or else miss entirely and drop to the floor—she wasn't the most bosomy of girls, no matter how her friends tried to reassure her. In fact, she had a nagging suspicion her costume was designed in some aspects to hide that fact. It did seem rather assertive…

Instead of falling like rocks, the gems sprouted miniature legs and scrabbled around her body, in an experience reminiscent of the previous airlock microdrones. They settled into various positions—on top of her hands, on her forearms, in the middle of her belly, and in the middle of her back. One nestled in her hair.

They were all plausible soul gem positions, she realized.

"Does everything have to involve bug drones?" she asked. "It's a little unsettling."

Asaka shrugged.

"It's how it is. Anyway, they can't change forms as easily as actual soul gems, so if you untransform, they try to gather in a pocket or your hand or something. They're pretty intelligent. You're only supposed to wear them when fighting aliens, so you can take them off the rest of the time. But anyway…"

She turned to face the rack with the pistols. One of the drawers underneath slid forward automatically. It contained what appeared to be a large set of identically shaped pieces of plastic, except that they contained the barely visible traces of electronics. One was colored slightly red. All were shaped like five‐pointed stars.

Ryouko then realized the drawer had her name displayed on the front, in the little electronic screen. How had she missed that?

"Custom‐made," Asaka explained. "These are too complicated to crawl anywhere, so we'll have to put them on manually, just this once."

Stepping forward, she started picking up the devices and placing them roughly onto the location of the fake soul gems. They flowed slightly, settling onto the gems and sticking to her body and clothing.

Ryouko held up her right hand, the one still grasping the pistol, looking at the false gem pulsating, green light distorted by the electronic traces running over it.

"What are they?" she asked, placing the pistol back on the rack. She had forgotten she was carrying it.

"Personal protection devices," Asaka said. "Really, the goal is to protect the soul gem, but if we're going to be wearing a bunch of fakes, they've at least got to be convincing fakes, so they get some protection too."

Asaka reached for the last piece, the one tinged slightly red.

"And this is the main piece," she said, holding it up. "The one for your actual soul gem. It's not obvious, but it's much more powerful than the other ones. It can withstand most small‐arms fire, and even sacrifice itself to stop the main gun of alien armor from damaging the gem. Which is not to say you should just let them keep shooting it."

"Do we get an explanation of everything later?" Ryouko asked, starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

"Yes," Asaka said, leaning down to apply the main piece. "And you even get a cortex infodump. But I might as well let you hear it now. I'm sorry to talk your ears off, but it really is important for you to know."

Ryouko nodded.

"Anyway," Asaka continued. "It's considered very important to get soul gem protection as soon as possible. The soul gem is you, after all. I assume you know that, by now. Kyouko said you were very knowledgeable."

"Yes," Ryouko agreed.

Asaka stood back up, as the main soul gem piece lost its red color. Then, suddenly, all the gems, authentic soul gem included, disappeared from sight.

"Wow," Ryouko said, startled.

"Okay, so, all these pieces together are actually designed to work together as a personal protective system," Asaka lectured. "They cloak and protect the fake gems to fool the aliens, but if push comes to shove they'll focus on defending the main gem. They deflect projectiles and beam weaponry and have little lasers to try and deflect small projectiles away. They're self‐sufficient as long as there's a little sun, but if you operate in darkness for too long they'll run low on power. We have special chargers for that."

Ryouko stared at her hand, trying to spot the gem somehow. She couldn't. She rubbed it with her other hand and, yes, she could still feel it.

"Cool, right?" Asaka asked rhetorically. "The aliens are pretty good at ignoring stealth, though, so we don't rely on it. The gems also try to mislead them as much as possible. The main one uses a light sensor to keep track of the status of your soul gem. Initially, all the gems will dim together, but if you really start digging deep, the gems will randomize how bright they are, so the aliens can't keep track of how damaged you are. You'll know instinctively, of course, and your teammates and supporting Humans will know the real state of things through the C&C systems. Still, you should probably make a habit of keeping people informed telepathically. The aliens are also damned good at jamming local transmissions."

"They thought this through," Ryouko said, genuinely impressed.

"Yes," Asaka said. "Military Research spent eight years designing the damned things, so they better be pretty impressive. Before, we just wore little hardened covers and fake glowing gems we had to stick on manually every time. It was terrible. But the alternative was getting sniped. The aliens figured out the soul gem thing pretty quickly. Still, they could probably be improved; the whole system seems clunky to me, and I appreciate that it's hard to give your actual soul gems legs to fool anyone, but…"

Her voice trailed off.

"I see," Ryouko reminded, once Asaka had spent too long staring at the middle distance.

"Right, then," Asaka said, shaking her head. "Untransform."

Ryouko did so.

The moment she finished, the fake soul gems distributed around her body uncloaked, lifted themselves back into standing positions, faux‐plastic covers included, and scurried around, stuffing themselves into the pockets of her pants.

"Convenient, huh? If you don't have any pockets they stick to you or clothing," Asaka said. "Patricia thinks they're cute. She thinks they're all cute. That's why she's crazy. Anyway, you're keeping those with you. It shouldn't be too burdensome."

Thinking of something, Ryouko held up her hand to look at the soul gem ring. The main cover was straining itself to form into the right shape. Finally, it succeeded and settled down, and her ring felt just a little bulkier than usual.

"The scientists were really surprised by that, actually," Asaka said. "They thought the cover would stay near where your gem used to be, so originally they designed it to just stick in place near your neck, and you'd have to move it manually. Magic works in strange ways."

Ryouko felt her ring with her fingers, thinking.

Civilians thought they lived in a futuristic world, but the things she was seeing here would have stunned any of her friends, had she shown them. Indeed, she could probably pass it off as magical girl magic easily.

If the military was capable of things like this, and were severely outclassed by the aliens, then what could the aliens do?

"Is there anything else you want to show me here?" Ryouko asked.

"I'd love to spend all day here," Asaka said, looking at her from the side. "But frankly, you get everything you need to know later, so you don't need to hear me go on and on. There's only one other piece of required equipment."

She turned to face another one of the racks and Ryouko realized that the entire time they hadn't walked so much as twenty feet into the warehouse. All the standard equipment was right there in the front. It made sense.

Asaka held up what appeared to be a black backpack, cased with some sort of hard material.

"And that is…" Ryouko asked.

"A backpack," Asaka said. "It holds things. It is technically standard equipment, but most girls don't like wearing it."

"Oh," Ryouko said. "After everything else, that seems rather… prosaic."

"I wasn't finished," Asaka said, amused. "It can hand you things on command. Watch."

She put the pack on her back, then held her hand behind her. A moment later, part of the casing of the bag realigned, opening a small hole. It ejected a round canister, which Asaka caught adroitly, holding it up.

"This is just a demo object," she said, shoving it back behind her and into the bag, which opened a hole automatically to suck it back in. "But you get the point. Normally, it'd be ammo packs or grief cubes. For really critical situations, there's even a little robotic arm that will hold cubes up to your gem for you, but it's sort of unwieldy."

"That's… impressive," Ryouko said.

"It also contains a personal cloaking device," Asaka said.

"Huh," Ryouko said, rather meaninglessly.

"Not that it's all that useful," the other girl said. "It's limited duration, and most alien vehicles and large drones have scanners that can see through it, so you basically never use it. Still, it's worth having. More than the infantry get."

"Anyway, that's just to introduce you to it," she finished, dropping the bag back into a bin. "No reason for you to take that home either."

"Okay," Ryouko repeated.

She thought for a moment, putting her hand to her chin.

"So where to now?" she asked.

"You're done for the day," Asaka said. "Personal recommendation, though. Make an appointment with your personal psychiatrist now, so you can get good times. An introductory appointment is required, though hopefully you'll never have to see her again."

"Psychiatrist?" Ryouko asked. "What? Is it mandatory or something?"

"It was in one of the messages," Asaka said. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to take you on a little tour."

"If it's not too personal a question…" Ryouko began.


The two of them were taking a moment to relax in what was apparently Asaka's room, on the fifth floor, counting down. Asaka lounged on her bed, while Ryouko sat in a metal chair. The room was cramped, even more cramped than she was used to. She supposed it wasn't that easy to make space underground.

"What's the appeal of the Cult anyway?" Ryouko asked, gesturing at religious memorabilia strewn across a desk and stuck to the walls: a little figurine of Akemi Homura, a figurine of a magical girl making a wish, artist renditions of Homura in flight with white wings, of a mist‐white Goddess, of the symbol of the cult, a stylized soul gem depositing corruption into a circle of grief cubes.

"I mean, you don't seem like the type of girl who'd be attracted to that kind of stuff," she elaborated.

Asaka smiled slightly, looking down.

"That's right," she said. "I'm not."

She thought for a moment.

"It's not the easiest thing to explain," she said. "I guess part of it is that I want meaning, you know? I got what I wanted with my wish, but I've come to realize since then that I don't really know what to do with it. I've drifted through life for a long while."

She seemed to think for a moment.

"I had a friend—a fresh recruit, just like you—who lost her soul to despair, without ever understanding. The last thing she asked was 'Why?' I hope now that I would know what to say, if someone else asked me the same question."

"I see," Ryouko said, looking away. She wasn't really expecting a response like that.

"No you don't," Asaka said, looking amused. "But it's okay. It's better if you don't. And in any case, it's not just that. I'm not the type of person to be won over just because I want to feel good about my life."

She looked down.

"You know what, forget the rest of the tour," she said, making a dismissive gesture. "The armory was important, but this is now a waste of time. I have something more important to show you first. You'll understand soon enough."

She paused.

"Have you ever heard of the Ribbon?" she asked.

Seeing the Ribbon of the Goddess involved, as might be expected, waiting in a really, really long line. This was aggravated by the practice of limiting group size to at most three at a time, though the strict five‐minute limit did speed things quite a bit.

It was a novel experience, since generally speaking there were very few things that still involved queuing up. Goods you got at the store were either free, or the Allocs were automatically deducted when you left the building. Security at the starport was handled by ubiquitous drones and scanners, rather than any formalized checkpoint. Primary school classes still did it occasionally, though.

Ryouko spent the time continuing to read her messages—there were so many of them—reading some articles on Infopedia, and listening to the chatter of the girls around her. Eavesdropping on the conversations, the scene didn't convey as much of the air of a religious experience as she expected. By and large, the atmosphere was informal, and, going by the attitudes of the visitors, the scene resembled more schoolgirls on a school trip than pilgrims visiting a sacred artifact.

The location, of course, was something else. The room was cavernous, with a high arching roof and extensive stained glass, clearly designed to try and make the occupants feel small. The side walls were covered with images of magical girls. To her right, they were uniformly triumphant and radiant, destroying everything around them. To her left, they were dying, fading, falling out of the sky.

At the far end of the room were three images, two flanking the artifact they were here to see. The Ribbon itself was barely visible in its glass box on a pedestal, but the enormous images couldn't be missed.

On the right, Homura with white wings, purple aura radiant, eyes serene. On the left, Homura with black wings, black corruption oozing, eyes crazed. In the middle, a white‐misted goddess in an all‐embracing pose.

One thing was for certain—the Cult certainly did not lack resources.

Of course, if you were observant, you could spot other strange details about the crowd of girls. For instance, the sheer ethnic diversity was extremely unusual, even in this age of easy international travel. If you looked more carefully, you would also note the uniformity with which the girls all wore soul gem rings and fingernail marks, of one sort or another.

And even if you were not observant, it would have been difficult not to notice the two girls in full costume, standing at guard at the front of the line, or the strange shimmering that occurred every ten minutes in the gap between them, almost as if the air itself were briefly glowing. Ryouko suspected it was a forcefield.

Except forcefields were expensive, the type of thing you only saw on capital ships.

And you would have had to be blind to miss the flashes of transformation light that repeatedly shone as girls approached the pedestal, which was considered approachable only by magical girls in costume.

There was something about the forcefield shimmer that bothered her, though. It was red, yes, very red, but there was something strange about the color. The flashes were too brief for her to focus, but it nagged at her.

"So you're seeing the forcefield, huh?" Asaka asked, noticing her peering at the now empty‐seeming gap.

"Oh, yes," Ryouko said, surprised. "So it is a forcefield, then?"

"Yes," Asaka said. "And in case you're wondering, that impossibly red color is in the upper infrared. They don't normally shimmer in the visual. Hmm, they must have improved the enhancement process. Those optical implants took fourteen hours to come online for me."

Ryouko took a moment to think that through.

"Nothing else looks different, though," she said, looking around experimentally at the other girls, the statues, the walls—though now that she searched for it, the stained glass looked vaguely strange.

"It's complicated," Asaka said. "You don't really notice unless the infrared or UV is particularly powerful, but it's enough for you to grab a bit more detail from most objects. Very subtle. If the sun is still up when you go outside, that'll be quite an experience. You get used to it, though. No one even notices anymore."

"Is it useful for night vision?" Ryouko said, asking the first thing she thought of.

"Unfortunately, not really," Asaka said. "The spectrum isn't widened enough. You'll have to switch to pure infrared for night vision. That's the point. And actually, as a magical girl, you'll rarely ever want to."

"Why?" Ryouko asked.

"You were with us last night, weren't you?" Asaka said. "Didn't you notice how well you could see in those dark alleys? Being a magical girl comes with a lot of benefits, including absurdly good night vision. Plus, we have—"

She paused, thinking about how to word it.

"An instinct, I guess," she finished. "A sort of sixth sense for the EM spectrum. Patricia could explain better, but it's why you generally pay attention to your battle instincts. It's the sort of thing they teach you in training. The spacers, especially, really know about it."

"Is there a way to check how these implants are coming along?" Ryouko asked, still peering experimentally around her. "Usually I don't think about these things, you know."

"Civilians usually only have diagnostics in Emergency Mode," Asaka explained patiently. "We can check them on demand, but only once the tactical computer comes online. You'll know when it does; it will tell you. Again, Patricia can—"

"Evangelizing, Asaka?" Patricia asked, appearing almost as if summoned. "I'm impressed. I didn't know you had it in you."

She gestured at the religious artifact in front of them. They were finally approaching the front of the line.

Ryouko watched the situation carefully. She too was curious why she was here, but Asaka had been evasive when questioned, insisting that she had to come. But just what was so important about showing her a religious artifact? It couldn't just be an attempt to convert her… could it?

Asaka made a sour expression.

"She's going to be disappointed, you know," Patricia chastised. "Most of the time—the vast majority of the time—it's just a ribbon."

"Well, you never know," Asaka said flatly.

"I'm just here to accompany them," Patricia explained apologetically to the girl behind them in line, who was clearly about to complain about Patricia's insertion into the queue. "I won't be going up to the pedestal."

"It supposedly gives visions?" Ryouko asked, quoting the informational guide she had read about the Ribbon.

"Rarely," Patricia said. "Just often enough to keep people coming. And they're pretty interesting visions, in the sense that they don't show up on memory traces or in the records of anyone's internal implants. If it weren't for the girls talking about it, they might as well have never happened."

"You sound rather skeptical for a Cult member," Ryouko pointed out.

"I'm just saying how it is," Patricia said, putting up her hands. "Personally, I think they're real, but I want to point out all the dodgy bits."

"I saw my dead friend," Asaka said sharply.

They turned to look at her. She looked back, eyes severe.

"That's all I'm going to say," she finished, obviously making the effort to keep her face passive.

"That's all she ever says," Patricia commented, ignoring Asaka's reproving tone of voice.

She looked at Ryouko.

"I've been in this Cult practically since I contracted, but I never got anything out of visiting the thing," she said. "Chances are good that you won't, either. And then you'll think we're all a bunch of crazy fanatics."

Patricia shrugged.

"We recruit among new girls, that's true," she said. "But we only really try for the ones whose psychological profiles suggest they'd be receptive. For girls like you, who aren't, it's better to wait, until you've seen a bit of what's to come. It raises the chances."

The line shifted forward by about five feet, and they stepped forward. They were now next in line, facing the two silent guards, and the empty space in between them that Ryouko didn't quite dare to step into.

"That's a rather… cold‐blooded conversion strategy," Ryouko commented.

"So it is," Patricia said.

She smiled slightly.

"Though you know. Maybe I'm being pessimistic. A girl like you, maybe you'll see something, like Asaka did."

I don't know why I'm here, Ryouko thought to Patricia, privately. She was in the middle of giving me a tour, I asked a few questions, then suddenly she insisted we come here.

She paused to consider her next thought.

I thought there'd be something to it, but if what you say is true, it's not that important.

Yes, it is strange, Patricia thought. Like I said, active evangelism is not something we do with most recruits, and it's certainly not like her. But we'll find out soon enough. She has her reasons, I'm sure.

Asaka gave them both an annoyed look that said "I know you two are talking behind my back."

Have you known her long? Ryouko asked.

Ever since she contracted, Patricia thought. We were in the same recruit pool. More importantly, we were in the same training squad. Spring 2446, Mars Training Grounds, Lambda‐Delta. You can look us up if you want. There's a fifty‐fifty chance you'll end up in the same place. That, or New Athens.

I see, Ryouko thought, secretly proud that, for once, she already knew that. It had been a lot of reading.

She always made fun of me for joining a crazy cult like this, Patricia thought. Before her vision, anyway. It's always bothered me a little that she won't talk about what she saw. Alice was my friend, too! But I don't push her on it. It's… personal to her.

Ryouko nodded, then realized she was supposed to think the agreement.

Asaka cleared her throat.

"We are next," she said, gesturing at the empty space in front of them, between the two guards.

"I'm just here to accompany them," Patricia said amiably, stepping to one side.

"Wait at the exit," the guard said, pointing at a back corner of the room.

Ryouko couldn't help but think that the guard's ornate, garish golden hat would be a liability in combat, but, then again, none of the costumes any of them had were particularly inconspicuous.

Out of curiosity, she scanned the guard's face.

A mind‐reader.

Ryouko's mouth twitched.

"I happen to like the hat, thank you very much," the guard said, tilting her head and smiling at Ryouko. "Got to be more careful about your thoughts around those like us."

"Ah, sure," Ryouko said, embarrassed.

Next to her, Asaka took a deep breath, then transformed, bands of violet light lacing out of the ring on her finger, crystallizing in a round gem set into her right forearm. A pair of holstered daggers appeared at her waist.

Taking the cue, Ryouko followed suit.

"You may pass," the guard said, formal again.

The air next to her shimmered briefly. Ryouko couldn't help but be a little wary stepping through the barrier, but nothing happened, of course.

It's been a long time since I've been here, Asaka thought, as they stepped forward. After the first time, I kept coming back, but it never happened again. I stopped coming.

What is this about, Asaka‐san? Ryouko thought, trying one last time. Why are you being so mysterious?

Asaka shook her head one more time.

You know what's interesting? Asaka thought, dropping to a prayer pose in front of the pedestal. No one has ever reported seeing the face of the Goddess. In fact, getting contact with her personally is the rarest of all possible visions. Only a few have gotten even a glimpse of her, and never the face. Even Kyouko‐san hasn't gotten to see what she looks like. We've never convinced Mami‐san to come here. Only Homura knows…

Ryouko followed suit, kneeling down, but unlike Asaka, she took a moment to look up at the Ribbon, in its transparent case.

Whoever had designed this part of the building had earned their money. The light through the stained glass wall contrived to create an eerie lighting effect throughout the whole area, which for Ryouko was heightened by a few unfamiliar frequencies, or so she suspected. From where she was, the pedestal in front of her appeared bright on the right and shaded on the left.

But the Ribbon itself, on its little pillow, looked like just a ribbon, laid out straight. Possibly the only unusual thing about it might have been how new it looked, given its age, but that was hardly the kind of thing to inspire awe.

What are you trying to say, Asaka? Ryouko asked, but the girl had her eyes closed, deep in what she assumed to be prayer.

Ryouko closed her own eyes, wondering what this all was, waiting for the five minutes to pass.

And waited.

And waited.

Frowning, she checked her internal chronometer and found… emptiness. She had no idea what time it was.

Her eyes snapped open, and she looked around in panic.

The room was empty.

She tried to stand up.

A red apparition appeared in front of her, among what she realized were old‐fashioned church pews. It was a child, almost transparent, one who looked familiar—

She was hit by a blast of vertigo. The world spun around her and she felt herself falling…

Her eyes snapped open again, even though she hadn't closed them, and she found herself looking at a ribbon in her hand. The Ribbon.

Suddenly she understood.

A vision. It was actually happening.

She looked up.

She was in a secluded alleyway, but not the type she was used to. The ground had debris, and was paved with a black material she was unfamiliar with.

The past? she thought.

Before her, she saw a girl lying on the floor, another girl weeping over the other. They were magical girls, and the one on the floor was clad in heavily‐bloodstained white, a crumpled white hat lying at her side until it wasn't, gone in a flash of light. In her hand were the shattered remains of a soul gem.

Ryouko stepped forward warily, wondering if she should try to get the attention of the girl on top. She looked young—though Ryouko knew that meant nothing for magical girls—and she wore green. At her side, on the ground, lay a giant scepter, very large, almost as it were intended as a hammer—

Ryouko's eyes widened. She knew who she was looking at.

This doesn't make sense! she thought.

She stopped, realizing that she was now standing directly over the two of them. She held her breath, panicked that Yuma would look up and see her.

Yuma looked up, and Ryouko almost tripped over her own feet.

"I'm so sorry," she stammered, stumbling backward. "I–I—"

She stopped. The girl was looking right through her. She couldn't see her.

Ryouko turned and looked behind her.

A demon loomed over the entrance to the alleyway.

"I'm a monster," Yuma said, childish voice cracked, and Ryouko knew, somehow, that this Yuma was showing every year of her age—and there wasn't much to show.

Ryouko turned to look at Yuma again, feeling that she should look despite the imminent demonic threat behind her.

"They were right all along," the girl repeated softly. "I'm just as much a monster as they are. If that's true, then what right do I have to live?"

Ryouko opened her mouth, planning to say something, but froze when the girl looked up again.

Her soul gem swirled dark and black, and the look on her face was one of utter insanity.

Yuma's scepter disappeared and rematerialized in her hand, and, still smiling insanely, the girl lunged straight at Ryouko, so fast that even her hyperfast transformed reflexes didn't respond in time.

Ryouko felt a gust of wind, and realized that Yuma had lunged right through her, at the demon behind her. She wasn't really there. She was only an observer.

And then a movement caught her eye.

Ryouko looked down, at the dead magical girl. Had the corpse… moved?

She couldn't tell, but she had the disturbing feeling that the dead girl was watching her, somehow.

She took a step backward, involuntarily, but found no ground behind her. Instead she was falling into a void—

—and her eyes snapped open, and for some reason, she was screaming, and she was looking up at the impassive eyes of two men, immensely large, wearing the universal blue of hospital staff. They looked distorted, almost as if she were looking at them through glass.

She raised her hand, and it was wet. She was in some sort of fluid, and when she pressed her hand forward, she contacted glass. It really was glass, or perhaps plastic. She was in some sort of tank. And her hand seemed strangely shaped, and difficult to move.

Then she started to sink downward, the fluid draining…

She was briefly disoriented, dazzled by a bright light in her eyes, which she blinked furiously to get rid of.

"—and she's not just any transfer student!" said a voice to her left which she recognized, improbably, as her homeroom teacher. "She's foreign exchange, as you may have guessed. Go ahead, introduce yourself!"

Looking out over the expectant faces of the students in front of her, she felt an embarrassed tightening in her stomach. This was her own homeroom classroom, and she was being introduced as a foreign student? She obviously couldn't say "Shizuki Ryouko." But then—

Her lips moved on her own, and she realized she wasn't in control of her motions.

"I am Simona Del Mago," she said, bowing, hearing herself speak in the slightly accented Japanese that Simona had used on first arrival. "I am pleased to meet you. Ah, well, just to be clear, Simona is my personal name. Del Mago is my surname."

And then she turned her head, and Ryouko found herself looking straight into her own eyes. The eyes of a girl seated in the third row, in front of the empty seat reserved for the new Simona.

If Ryouko could have flinched or gasped, she would have.

As she watched, filled with a queasy sense of surrealism, Shizuki Ryouko shifted nervously in her seat, glancing around behind her to see if, perhaps, the new girl were looking at someone behind her.

But no. Simona was looking directly at her. She stared at the girl's—her own—pointlessly long hair and thought to herself: My friends were right, I really do look like a kid.

This scene was a perfect recreation of Simona's first day at their school. But why was she being shown this?

As the Ryouko in front of her turned her head forward again, tilting it in slight confusion, the world began to fade, the classmates, the walls, everything disappearing in a sea of white…

When she opened her eyes again—again, despite the fact that she had never closed them—she found herself in a white, white world. There was nothing there, except a lone park bench in front of her, and two girls talking.

It took her a moment to recognize that one of them was a younger Asaka, and the other a foreigner, definitely of the type that might be named "Alice".

She tried to lunge forward, and found she couldn't. She was frozen still.

"Alice" pointed suddenly at something, and Asaka looked and then, with wide eyes, fell forward out of the bench, kneeling on the floor.

Her friend urged her to stand back up, and finally, she did so, head still bowed.

Ryouko felt her head turning and saw what had prompted her reaction.

A white apparition, in the form of an adult woman, but still looking childish, somehow. She wore a flowing dress, and her enormously‐long ghostly hair wove behind her, strangely tinted slightly… pink?

Once again, Ryouko realized who she was looking at: the inspiration for the stained glass design in the church, the woman whose face no one had ever seen and, indeed, she couldn't see now.

The apparition spoke to Asaka, who nodded in awe, head still bowed.

The apparition pointed, and Asaka turned to look, and there, in the distance, was an image of a purple magical girl, pointing at the sky with a composite bow. This girl Ryouko knew very well. It was her own memory.

A moment later, the image disappeared, and so did the other two girls, and there was only the apparition, who started to turn—

And looked at her, and suddenly Ryouko could see it all, her shockingly pink hair, the white robes, the gems in her collar, those golden eyes, and achingly familiar face.

I told her to keep silent, and wait for the sign, the voice echoed in her mind, again strangely familiar. She did that very well, and now you are here. Please, tell no one you saw me.

The Goddess put a single gloved finger to her mouth in a gesture of silence, and winked, and Ryouko felt herself falling again…

Damn it, I know you're under attack! Kyouko's voice screamed into Ryouko's head, causing her to startle.

She was prone on the ground in a grove of trees, near the edge of a cliff. Below, an ocean roared. She was surrounded by other magical girls, in similar positions. In the background she could hear explosions, and some sort of strange buzzing noise.

Above her head and on the ground, countless tiny mechanical drones, and a few larger ones, went about their business, flying towards their rear, towards the explosions.

She looked up, and saw a girl next to her struggling with something, others holding grief cubes up to the gem in the girl's hand, and only then did Ryouko notice the constant rain of projectiles and beams heading towards them, all deflecting away at the last minute from some sort of invisible barrier.

The rain grew more intense, and the girl next to her clenched her teeth.

Then, Ryouko turned to look rightward, and saw Kyouko, face tense.

It's nothing compared to this! Everyone is under attack! Kyouko thought, clearly under enough pressure that she was letting the thoughts leak to everyone in the vicinity. Someone told them we were coming, and they have weapons they shouldn't have! I don't care what you're doing, we need the evac! We're losing our drones fast! This landing has gone to hell! Get your asses back here! Haven't you heard of operations under fire?

They're here! someone in the group thought.

As a group, they all looked up, and Ryouko followed their example, even though she had no idea what she was supposed to be looking at.

In the ocean below them, a flotilla of submarines was surfacing. A few of them were firing weapons into the water, at unseen enemies, but most raised gun barrels toward the sky, water droplets bursting away as if repelled.

In unison, they opened fire.

Go! Go! Kyouko ordered, standing and urging the rest forward with her.

All up and down the cliff, girls began diving off into the ocean, using whatever powers they or others had to moderate the landing, heading for the submarines, and what was apparently escape.

The girls around Ryouko lunged forward, and she did so as well, not sure what else she was supposed to do.

She felt a strange compulsion to turn and look, so she did so.

Kyouko was still standing, screaming both in thought and voice to move, move!, urging the others forward.

Then an explosion, and a fireball, where she had been standing.

"Kyouko!" Ryouko screamed, despite realizing on some level that none of this was real, that it was all a vision.

She teleported forward, and crouched by the body, mangled and dead, upper half missing entirely.

And the shield above them was still intact, but the cliffside was broken, which meant she had been blasted apart not by enemy fire, but by a misfiring shell from one of the submarines impacting the cliffside.

Those idiots! Maki yelled, appearing at Ryouko's side. Where's her soul gem? Is it okay? A submarine projectile shouldn't be able to damage the protection—

No sign of it, Ryouko thought. She keeps her soul gem on her chest, so…

"No! No!" the girl screamed, starting to cry on the spot. "I can't feel her gem! She's dead! I can't believe it!"

"Are you sure?" Ryouko shouted, making herself heard. "How—"

A wave of dismay spread outward, as the girls around them realized what had happened, despite their focus on retreat.

"Why the hell did we come here anyway?" the girl yelled. "I'll kill those bastards! They'll die, and whoever tipped them off, I'll hunt them down, and I'll kill them. I, I—"

The girl fell silent, standing up unsteadily, two swords manifesting in her hands.

"I never even got to—" she began, sucking in a sob.

The girl started to walk forward, away from the cliff, towards the enemy. Ryouko finally noted the darkness that had appeared in the girl's gem, its crossed blue shape swirling with growing darkness.

"No you won't," Asaka said, purple bubble appearing next to them and popping open.

Before they had a chance to protest, the bubble reformed around them. Asaka was teleporting them, and several other girls—and the body, gruesome as it was—out of there.

Help me keep her under control, Asaka thought to the rest of them. Take her soul gem if you have to. I'm taking command here.

Maki began pounding the inside of the bubble with her sword, sending ripples through the purple fluid. She sobbed in rage, and struggled half‐heartedly with the girls that had appeared around her to pin her down.

Asaka's eyes were cold, but it was obvious that that was only a front. She was staying calm for their sake.

There'll be time to grieve later, she thought. I'm sorry. I'm… so sorry.

Ryouko started to step forward, when that familiar falling sensation returned and this time she knew, somehow, the vision was over.

She opened her eyes, gasping for breath. Next to her, Asaka turned and looked at her.

Ryouko checked her internal chronometer. Literally no time had passed.

"You saw something, didn't you?" Asaka asked. It wasn't really a question. A murmur was already starting to rise from the line behind them.

Ryouko nodded mutely.

Clarisse van Rossum watched Ryouko get up unsteadily, supported by an arm from Asaka. From her vantage point in the corner of the room, she was relatively inconspicuous, so not many noticed her.

"It actually happened," Patricia said, standing at her side. She had greeted the girl as she walked over. It was a coincidence.

"I'm less surprised than I should be," Patricia said, shaking her head.

"Some reason for that?" Clarisse asked.

Patricia shook her head again, this time as a refusal.

"You might hear about it later," the girl said. "The first thing, I'm not sure I should be talking to you about. The second, I need to think about it myself, and report to Kyouko. Actually, I probably can't talk about that one either."

"If you say so," Clarisse responded.

"There's also the fact that you're here," Patricia said. "Is this…?"

"If I wanted to be melodramatic, I'd say the tides of history are shifting," the woman said, having personally chosen a somewhat older 31‐year‐old body. "Something is up, anyway. I was wondering why my soul gem wanted me back in Mitakihara. I could easily have attended the Theological Council meeting virtually."

She held up her hand, looking at the ring in question, and the cog‐like symbol inscribed on her fingernail.

"I'll be seeing you," Patricia said, walking over towards the pedestal, waving with one hand.

"See you," Clarisse said.

She stood there just long enough to see the Incubator Kyubey materialize briefly on top of the box holding the Ribbon, drawing significant comment. The Incubator ignored questions, curled itself into a sleeping position on top of the box, then vanished again.

Clarisse turned and headed out through the side door. There was no more need to be here.

Her soul gem pulsed on her finger. It was time to head for the Euphratic front.

Chapter Text

Initial departure for basic training is invariably heart‐wrenching. Magical girl recruits are obliged to wrap up their affairs and say farewell to their friends and families in a cruelly short amount of time, often as little as a week. That week is spent in hasty orientation, initial meetings with mentors, and, usually, farewell parties with family. It is a lamentable practice, motivated by the exigencies of war, and asks families to say goodbye to daughters they may never see again, and who will certainly be radically different when they return.


In the desperate early years of the war, the military and MSY deployed every girl they could get their hands on, pulling freshly recruited girls from contract to training in intervals as ridiculously short as two days, desperate to stem territory losses and casualties. The specter of extinction loomed large in the minds of decision‐makers, who were aware that, given the unexplored magnitude of the alien's hastily probed empire, smashing Human defenses should have been a matter of resource deployment and force concentration. It was in this panicked environment that the government broke long‐standing social and ethical norms, authorizing the use of what were essentially child soldiers, and at a breakneck pace. AI personnel projections pleaded for magical girl numbers that were plainly ludicrous given the available supply, and, in response to their demands, they were given all that was available.

Ultimately, the aliens failed to fully capitalize on their initial advantages, and it became clear that while it was their surprise attacks and planetary eradications that had started the war, the aliens were nowhere near fully mobilized, and were perhaps even as insufficiently prepared as Humanity had been. This perception was reinforced by the middle years of the war, during which the aliens made multiple attempts to win the war immediately, in attacks that always seemed to just barely lack sufficient punch.

As the sense of crisis lessened, the government and military retreated from the extreme policy positions of the early war period. While manpower remained extremely tight, contract‐to‐departure time was extended, training periods were lengthened, and a line in the sand was drawn, holding recruits under the age of thirteen back from combat. While this was partly spurred by pressure from the MSY and those elements of government that represented parents and children, a good deal of the reasoning was pragmatic. A softer entrance into combat improved morale, and better‐trained, older girls were provably more effective in combat. Without the threat of imminent disaster, the military could afford to look more to the longer‐term, focusing on building higher‐quality units rather than throwing everyone into the fight immediately.

To many in the MSY and Governance, these minor concessions are not enough. Making arguments drawn from pragmatism, emotion, and ethics, they argue the current training system is inhumane, and that waiting until age twenty, at the very least, would improve survival rates and the quality of deployed units, especially because of the scarcity of magical girls. These arguments are difficult to counter, and it is a testament to the ravenous hunger of the front for more mages that the emergency system survives at all.

Public opinion on the Core and inner developing worlds, now mostly free of the immediate threat of alien warships appearing the sky, is overwhelmingly supportive of more humane practices, and Military Affairs is harangued at virtually every Directorate meeting to speed up the military's policy of gradual relaxation. Already, military sub‐Representatives and senior officers openly discuss acceleration, and it seems clear that if the current Euphratic crisis ends satisfactorily, things will change.

The only reason to think otherwise lies in the General Staff, which has remained resolutely silent on the issue, despite the presence of such powerful MSY supporters as Marshals Erwynmark and Tomoe. Many speculate that this silence indicates that the war is going worse than is otherwise believed.

— Clifton Bailey, online article, "Controversies in War Policy"

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

The MSY Mental Health Division (MHD) has its roots, like so many MSY divisions, in the formalization and bureaucratization of policy that accompanied the early‐middle stages of the organization's formation. Though arguably needed much earlier, the division was formed only briefly after the establishment of the court system, itself a product of the increasing competence of the Soul Guard at capturing rather than killing "criminal" magical girls.

As the court system consigned more and more girls to confinement rather than execution, the costs and difficulties of keeping so many essentially superpowered girls secretly imprisoned or suspended began to strain the resources of the nascent MSY, especially in terms of grief cubes. Suddenly, considerable interest emerged in rehabilitating girls previously deemed impossible to recover. Most of the girls in question had considerable extenuating circumstances 〈and minds broken from severe trauma,〉① and were at least theoretically forgivable for their crimes; the cold‐blooded killers 〈—the serial killers with too much blood on their hands to forgive no matter their insanity—〉① were instead consigned to execution 〈by ceremonial hammer〉①.

〈At the same time, the burden of Protective Confinement—"befriending" —was also beginning to weigh on the resources of the system. While the costs were low compared to the costs of extended imprisonment, and the whole process was a good deal more popular, it indicated an additional need within the system.〉①

Initial efforts at rehabilitation were ad‐hoc, relying on intervention by former team members and friends, telepaths, and outside psychiatric consultants—kept quiet by a combination of convincing, bribery, and threats. It quickly became clear that more was necessary, and it was only a year after the assignment of the first judges that the Leadership Committee voted to create, with typical euphemism, a new division "for the rehabilitation and healing of girls too ill to function, and for the protection of the well‐being of new contractees."

Originally viewed as an annoying bureaucratic intrusion into what should be team business, it was this second function that would eventually become the mainstay of the MHD, as the organization of telepaths, empaths, and psychiatrists proved its worth again and again, successfully predicting breakdowns and forestalling disasters. Eventually, it became custom and law for new girls to report to the MHD for an initial assessment, a practice which persists to this day.

Initially remote and privacy‐respecting, interaction with the Soul Guard 〈, Black Heart,〉③ and numerous traumatized 〈and insane〉① prisoners hardened the organization, changing its internal culture, and it was not long before the MHD learned to use its resources and telepaths to extend surveillance networks throughout the organization 〈, in the name of catching and preventing despair before it occurred〉①. As the years wore on, the organization became progressively more adept at its function, and expanded its roles, becoming, among other things, the de facto provider of medical services. By the time the MSY finished globalizing, the MHD was saving the organization millions of grief cubes and nearly twenty trillion US Dollars per year (in 2100 dollars).

〈It was this surveillance ability, in addition to the psychological talents of its members, that would drive exceptionally close ties with the Soul Guard 〈and later, the Black Heart〉③, a relationship which many consider deleterious to the professionalism of the organization.〉②

Because of its unique role, the MHD has become one of the most powerful of the MSY divisions, exerting its influence through goodwill with influential former patients, and with information collected with its ubiquitous surveillance networks. The MHD prides itself professionally on the confidentiality of patient interaction, however, and assiduously separates sensitive private data from non‐sensitive, but still valuable data. 〈Only a few exceptions to this policy have been made, all in cases of the utmost importance. Several of these had Black Heart involvement. It is also worth noting that the MHD extends its policy of privacy only to MSY members.〉④

〈One of the MHD's lesser‐known roles is as Official Advisor on Human Behavior, formally providing advice as a service to the Incubators, when requested, on the theory that improved Incubator understanding of Humanity is generally a good thing, especially if they have a plan in motion. The MHD does, however, exercise discretion, occasionally refusing to answer questions or deciding that it needs Executive approval to answer.〉③

〈Perhaps the blackest aspect of the MHD is its involvement in Reformatting, the practice whereby a powerful telepath, usually several, can erase memories, traumatic or otherwise, from an individual. Reserved for the most intractable of insane girls or the blackest of Black Heart operations, each use of the procedure requires approval by the Secret Executive Subcommittee on Black Operations. It would not be prudent to discuss non‐therapeutic uses here, but it is worth noting that therapeutic use is what has enabled the MHD to sustain its proud record of rehabilitating—eventually—nearly every girl ever submitted to it.〉④

Despite its significant influence, however, the MHD has become notorious for its policy of noninterference, exerting political power only on issues it believes are vital to the mental health of the mage populace. For other issues, it maintains a firm advisory stance.

Within five years after the advent of the MHD, imprisonment was ended as MSY policy due to the difficulty of containing mages. Mages convicted of crimes are either submitted to the MHD or given a variety of other punishments, including fines, compulsory service in unsavory locations, or, the most serious, restrained withholding of grief cubes. Judicial executions were ended with the advent of the war and the intervention of Governance. 〈In practice, however, the government turns a blind eye to the practice in many cases, if the crime is sufficiently heinous. Fortunately, this is now extremely rare, and has been ever since the end of the Unification Wars.〉③

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

"And you're sure I was dead?" Kyouko asked, in Human Standard. Her voice was unusually pleasant, but subtly commanding.

Ryouko had the distinct feeling then of being examined, of twelve pairs of eyes dissecting her with their gazes.

"It was hard to tell," Ryouko said, looking down at her hands. "I couldn't really feel anything, and I don't think I was in control of what I was doing."

She looked back up, at the row of girls sitting at the opposite side of the semicircular table. To be precise, there were twelve of them seated around the semicircle of the far side, watching her, and she and Asaka sat on the flat side, looking back, but unable to see them all at once. Ryouko had insisted that Asaka be here. She was agreeing to meet the Theological Council because she was curious, but she did not want to get eaten alive by interrogators who, for all she knew, might be skilled Inquisitors.

Nearly all of those attending were present in simulacrum, holographic teenagers and young women sipping from invisible water cups or leaning elbows on invisible tables, arms dipping into the wooden surface with a faint shimmer.

Unlike some of the more ornate areas of the cult center, there was no glass in this room. It was a simple darkly‐lit wooden room, relieved by a set of gems decorating the opposite wall, arranged as an enormous synthetic pink star sapphire surrounded by smaller black ones.

Don't let the atmosphere get to you, Asaka thought, without looking in Ryouko's direction. Remember, you agreed to be here. You're not a member of the Cult. They have no power over you.

"However," Ryouko continued, a moment later. "Asaka seemed very certain in the vision that she was dead. The uh, other girl, Kishida‐san, did too, after a moment. They didn't even seem like they checked."

Speaking in Human Standard was a bit awkward, Ryouko realized. For her, it was a language practiced in the classroom, or encountered in various forms online. She had certainly done far more than her fair share of reading and hearing the language but, as she was realizing now, almost never spoke it. The language module in her brain certainly helped, but there were still irregularities. For example, she was so used to placing honorifics onto the names of those she didn't know, especially in formal environments, that she had stumbled and placed the Japanese version onto "Kishida", when Standard had no honorifics. It hadn't helped that she had been forced to do a snap‐search for Maki's surname, since she had apparently never looked it up or heard it from any of the others.

She began to understand a little of what Simona had gone through, moving to Japan from so far away. She had been thinking about the girl recently, given her position in the middle of her visions, right between the strange tank scene and Ryouko's meeting with, with—

With what? The Goddess? It could be no one else. It staggered her that the crazy cult in front of her seemed to be right about something. She—

No, she couldn't think about it all now. It was too much to process. She had to wait until later. For now, she had to focus on the concrete.

"If the others thought so, then she must truly be dead—in the vision, that is," the twin‐tailed girl to the immediate right of Kyouko said. Ryouko's internal directory tagged her as "Tanaka Yui, MSY Founder".

"It's a weird question to be asking anyway," the girl finished. Unlike most of the others, she was here in person.

"I only wanted to be sure," Kyouko said, turning to look at Yui. "Shizuki here is new; she does not know how to determine true death."

She turned back to look at Ryouko.

"For the record," she said. "You can do it by sensing the soul gem. A heavily injured girl's gem will be outputting tremendous power trying to perform repairs, unless the connection has been severed. It's not foolproof, but it's reasonably reliable."

"A lot of this does not add up," a girl to Ryouko's direct right—Mina Montalcini—said, shaking her head, long hair falling over her eyes. "What is Kyouko doing leading an amphibious assault? What is she doing in combat at all?"

"I do head to the front occasionally," Kyouko said dryly.

"Rarely for something like this," Montalcini said.

"Maybe it's symbolic or something," Ryouko said, thinking about it.

"Unlikely," Kyouko responded, instantly. "There are very few instances of the Goddess ever using symbolism. She doesn't seem to be too fond of it."

"Oh," Ryouko vocalized.

"That being said," Montalcini continued. "Do you think any of it was symbolic? Think back."

Ryouko thought back, as commanded. There were a few parts that seemed like they might be, but the section being discussed, the section she had revealed, seemed very straightforward.

"I don't think so," she said.

"There is another issue," Asaka said, surprising Ryouko by speaking up. "Ryouko here said that Kyouko appeared to be killed by a misfire from a submarine railgun, since the barrier was still up, but an impact such as that shouldn't have been powerful enough to shatter the soul gem. Not with the cover in place. The soul gem cover is designed precisely to shield against damage such as this."

"Maybe it was already damaged," one of the Theologians suggested. "Did she look like she had been in heavy combat?"

Ryouko thought back to the vision again.

"No," she said. "No injuries I could spot, anyway. Her soul gem looked fine. All of the decoys were bright."

"It would have been replaced anyway," Asaka said. "A lieutenant general does not simply walk around the battleground with her soul gem uncovered."

"Actually, I just remembered this," Ryouko interjected. "Kishida, s–she commented in the vision that the submarine shell should not have been enough to break the soul gem. She mentioned something about protection. I thought she might have been in denial, but it seems like she might have been right."

"Strange things happen in combat," Montalcini said. "Which is not to say either of you are wrong. It's worth thinking about."

"All this talk of me being killed is making me uncomfortable," Kyouko said, looking unhappy with the concept. "Though I guess I have to deal with it. How big was the explosion?"

Again, Ryouko thought back, to the explosion tearing apart the cliffside near where Kyouko had been standing, at the fragments of ground flying past her, barely traceable with accelerated senses, at the fragments of body—

"I'm not sure how to describe it," Ryouko said. "She was standing near the edge, and she was the only one killed. But it was powerful, I think. It shattered the cliff right next to her and uh, well—"

She swallowed. She had to say it.

"Well, now that I think about it, it's kind of weird, but it sort of… vaporized the top half of Kyouko's body. I think the ground shielded the bottom half, since I think it was coming in at an angle. Something like that. What's memorable is I don't think I ever spotted any, uh, other pieces."

The Theologians took glances at each other, and at Kyouko, who was looking, rather naturally, disturbed by the idea. Some peered at Ryouko intently.

"A railgun shell couldn't do that," Asaka said, shaking her head, ponytail vibrating. "At least, not without wiping out everyone else in the vicinity, and only if you were using an artillery piece. The energy would discharge on impact with the cliffside. The only way it would sheer like that is if the projectile were traveling faster than the shockwave. The pattern of damage is more like a high‐powered laser than anything."

She looked at Ryouko, question implicit.

"I didn't see anything like that," Ryouko said.

"Lasers aren't necessarily visible," Kyouko explained pedantically, taking the opportunity to instruct a little. "You only see combat lasers because we include a second visible‐spectrum laser just so we can see what we're hitting. It doesn't even work in space, and commandoes tend to have the visible component disabled."

Ryouko thought back carefully.

"Then I don't know," she said, finally. "Maybe."

There was a long silence as the attendees glanced around the room, seeing if there were further questions.

"If there's nothing else," a hologram on Ryouko's left said, "I have one last question."

It was "Clarisse van Rossum, Historian", a fact that sent a brief frisson of surprise over Ryouko's face. Clarisse was famous, in her own way, though perhaps only to Ryouko. Ryouko wondered how she had managed to miss her face at the beginning of the meeting.

Ryouko looked at the freckled, vaguely matronly woman expectantly. Given her posture, it actually looked vaguely as if she was in a vehicle. It was hard to tell.

"Any idea what planet it was?" the woman asked. "Anything notable? Two suns in the sky, purple oceans, anything like that? What about the vegetation? Temperature?"

A moment later, Ryouko shook her head.

"Honestly, it looked quite similar to Earth. I wasn't paying attention to the temperature. The trees looked like Earth trees, the ocean was dark blue, I—"

Ryouko stopped, then thought about it more carefully.

"Actually, I think the sky was a bit darker than here. Maybe?"

"Earth vegetation," another girl, Maria Cortez, said. "But certainly not Earth. Very Earth‐like, though. Sounds like a second‐wave world, since the plant life is imported. I don't think we can say whether it's early or late terraforming, though. We don't know how close to a colony that was."

"It's not enough information to do anything with," Asaka commented.

"Yes," Kyouko said plainly.

She cleared her throat.

"I think the key takeaway from all this is that a certain Sakura Kyouko needs to stay away from amphibious assaults involving submarines," Kyouko said dryly. "Especially if it's on a second‐wave world. In this case, I don't think she will be difficult to convince."

There was light chuckling at the joke.

"Is this normal?" Ryouko asked. "I mean, visions of the future and warning people involved?"

"It's more common than you think," Clarisse said. "But not as common as we'd like."

Ryouko wondered just what that meant.

"The primary goal," Kyouko expounded, managing to sound pedantic, "is to deduce the intention of the vision. Generally, those who have visions can tell if the vision is meant to be shared. Then it's just a matter of figuring out whether we should try to change the future. When it involves someone who isn't a member, it's difficult to convince them to listen to warnings, so we try to manipulate other things. Like I said, in this case, the convincing will be easy."

"Perhaps," Clarisse said enigmatically.

They looked at her, but she didn't say more.

"Is there any more of the vision you'd like to share?" Tanaka Yui asked. "It's your private business, so I'm just asking, but think about it. Anything could be important."

Ryouko shook her head. She had already decided she didn't want to talk about the rest of it.

"Anything involving the Goddess?" Cortez asked. "Naturally, we are rather interested."

"No," Ryouko lied, making certain nothing showed on her face.

"Any interest in joining our Church?" Montalcini asked, leaning forward with surprising eagerness. "Surely the vision has impressed upon you the truth of our claims?"

"Ah, I'll, uh, think about it," Ryouko said, meaning what she said. She was definitely not inclined to do so, but she'd had hardly any time to think about her vision or make any decisions. It had been a bare ten minutes between the vision and being asked to attend a snap meeting of the Theological Council.

"Take your time," Montalcini said, leaning back and looking slightly disappointed.

"She's my pupil," Kyouko said, looking over. "No need to rush. She can decide in her own time. It shouldn't be forced. That being said, I'd be glad to talk to you about the church if you have questions."

This last sentence was addressed to Ryouko.

"I'll, uh, think about it," Ryouko repeated.

Kyouko closed her eyes, seeming to think about it.

"Alright," she said, snapping her eyes open. "The two of you can go. We'll hold private session for a little longer."

Asaka got up and headed for the door in the back, behind where she and Ryouko had been sitting. Ryouko followed a moment later.

"Did you notice that Tanaka‐san is a telepath?" Asaka asked, as soon as the door closed. The girl watched her to gauge her reaction.

Ryouko's eyes widened.

"No," she said. "I hadn't thought to check."

"Any interrogation or questioning with magical girls on the asking end involves telepaths," Asaka said. "No exceptions. In this case, the Theological Council has two of its own, so it usually doesn't have to bring in anyone special. In this case, it's especially pertinent, since they try to bleed vision memories out of you. They never get anything more than vague glimpses, but it's still worth trying."

"Why didn't you warn me?" Ryouko asked, as they strode down the hall for the front door.

"I would have, if I thought it necessary," Asaka said. "As it was, you wouldn't have known how to respond. It would have just made you more nervous and stiff."

"But—" Ryouko began.

"And if you happened to lie about, say, a Goddess or anything like that," Asaka said. "Then don't worry about it. Tanaka Yui is an interesting girl. She always covers for that specific case, since it's usually a matter of the Goddess asking."

Ryouko bit her lip. Clearly Asaka knew what was going on, but technically saying anything to Asaka was still a breach of the white and pink Goddess's request.

Ryouko put her hand to her head. Deities? Visions? The only thing she knew was that whomever she met was benevolent. She felt sure of it somehow. Was it really time to join the Cult?

She startled out of her reverie, realizing Asaka was watching her with amusement.

"I know you're eager to head home," Asaka said, as they headed out the front door into the late twilight. "But let's take a walk. I have some things to say."

Ryouko nodded.

They walked to the far edge of the building, to the roadways that separated it from the two research centers that flanked it, and the narrow pedestrian corridors that lined their sides. Asaka smiled patronizingly as Ryouko spent a good deal of the walk squinting at what remained of sunlight, but Ryouko didn't care. It was disturbingly prosaic; everything looked different, colors sporting new, unrecognizable shades, but nothing looked wrong.

"As a point of fact," Asaka said, when they stopped in the shadow of the building next door, or what counted for a shadow at that time of day. "The receptors might be online, but most of the neural rewiring won't be done for at least a week. The implants are doing some processing to compensate, but for now, you're only seeing the differences that your brain can handle. There are also some intrinsic differences that have more to do with the lens modifications than anything."

Ryouko glanced at the other girl, and apparently didn't conceal her expression well enough, because Asaka added:

"Yes, I know, Patricia is the scientist. I only know this stuff because I had to go through it too, and that's what my orientation person said. Plus, we get guides on what to say."

She leaned back against the faux masonry of the building, folding her arms.

"I wonder how Kitamura‐san is doing nowadays," she said, looking up at the almost unthinkable height of the building, and the sky tunnels and walkways that crisscrossed a sky of fading gold, some intersecting the building at a tangent, others emptying onto balconies, achieving the same purpose, yellow with the sunlight nonetheless.

"I heard she made Colonel," Asaka finished. "It'd be funny, though, since I outrank her now."

Ryouko raised an eyebrow, and Asaka bore the summoned face scan stoically.

"Brigadier general," Asaka said, repeating what she knew Ryouko had just looked up. "I would tell you to get used to performing the full lookup on everyone you meet, but it doesn't matter anymore. Your TacComp will take care of it, whenever it comes online. Shouldn't be long now—it builds itself surprisingly fast, but of course the Safety Package is already there to work off of."

"You're not a teleporter?" Ryouko asked. "Reading through it—barrier?"

"It's complicated," Asaka said. "The teleportation is fairly recent. But…"

Her voice trailed off.

Ryouko stepped over, and joined her leaning on the building. A vehicle zoomed by them.

Kitamura‐san, whoever she was, wasn't Asaka's mentor, as she had thought. Actually, Asaka had none listed. She wondered about that.

"I bet you've wondered," Asaka said, "what exactly it is I'm doing here. I don't have any specialization which would justify me staying back from the front, and I'm not highly ranked in either the Church or the MSY. A minor general like me should probably be off fighting somewhere, right? Like all those others…"

Ryouko shrugged.

"I didn't know half of what you just said," she said, "since I never looked it up. I haven't had the time to be nosy about everyone yet. Too busy learning everything else. I guess I figured you were some sort of… professional new girl trainer?"

Asaka laughed softly.

"Close enough," she said. "It's a lot of what I do nowadays. That, and I actually lead the rapid response team based here, and direct the patrols. I also write some strategy reports on the side. We do our best to let girls on leave relax, but it's not always possible. Some girls rotating back from combat join to keep sharp, though, so that covers most of it, and MHD actually thinks it helps keep some of them stable. The teams are actually mostly back‐line girls or, and—here's a dirty secret—girls pulled from the front line for psychological reasons, but whose therapists believe demon‐fighting would help. You know, an outlet for aggression and anger, but much less danger of anyone dying around them."

She sighed, then unfolded her arms.

"I'm not very good at this, so I'll just say it point‐blank. I stayed here because I was asked to by the Goddess. Same reason I joined this church. By rights, I was ready to go back after the vision, but I managed to pull some strings and stay here. It was hard, convincing them and still keeping it a secret, but I managed it."

"When I showed you the girl from my memory, that was the sign you were waiting for, wasn't it?" Ryouko asked, looking at the other girl's face. Asaka had closed her eyes.

"Yes," Asaka said, opening her eyes and looking at her. "I was told to wait for someone to show me an image of the girl. I never expected it to come from you. Who is she, anyway? Damn face scanner told me the memory was too blurry when I tried to scan it."

"I don't know," Ryouko said. "That's why I asked you. I thought I might be able to ask you how to find her, or at least for advice on what to do."

"Didn't you check?" Asaka asked, wearing a quizzical expression. "Or have you just forgotten?"

"More mysterious than that," Ryouko said. "She told me not to bother, and that it would be wrong. I didn't know these things could be wrong."

"Hmm," Asaka vocalized, then bowed her head to think.

Ryouko waited.

"I've heard of such a thing," Asaka said, finally, taking her hand off her chin. "But only rumors. Certainly haven't experienced it myself. Officially, the systems are foolproof. Unofficially, who knows what the Black Heart is up to? I don't have sufficient clearance to know about it. Very few do."

"I've heard of the Black Heart," Ryouko commented. "Black Ops, Spec Ops, that sort of thing. There are a lot of conspiracy theories about them."

"They're not so bad," Asaka said. "Not anymore, anyway. Word is, they were involved in all kinds of shit back in the day. Assassinations, coups—like you said, conspiracy theory stuff. Not much need for any of that nowadays. This war's a straight‐up fight, and no one's figured the aliens out enough to try anything too fancy—we wouldn't even know who to assassinate. Which isn't to say no one is trying. Commando raids, things like that."

Asaka paused, as if thinking about what to say.

"That being said, I wouldn't know too much about it," she said. "Like I said, no clearance. The government does a lot of domestic surveillance stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Black Heart controls that now. If this girl you met really is one of them…"

She paused again, then finished:

"Well, I'd be a little wary, at least. Could be a lot of dirty things going on there. She could be tracking dissidents, something like that. You might not want to get mixed into that."

Ryouko nodded seriously, thinking that Asaka seemed to know more than she was letting on, then smiled a little.

"Well, I haven't seen her since I was a child," Ryouko said. "Not since that memory. I probably won't ever see her again."

"We'll see," Asaka commented. "And if I should point out that I never said anything about waiting for a sign."

Ryouko flicked her eyes to the side.

"Well—" she began.

"No, don't say anything," Asaka said, waving her hand, almost flippantly. "There's no need to."

Ryouko stopped mid‐sentence, staring at the other girl.

Asaka fingered the collar of her shirt, where the pips of a general would go if she were wearing a uniform.

"Funny thing is, I haven't used my generalship a single time," she said. "I was promoted on my way back to Earth. Goes with the medal I got. The Akemi Homura medal for 'successful resolution of a seemingly hopeless situation.' Can you believe they named a medal after her? I've always found that amusing, myself."

She looked down the roadway, obviously reliving some sort of memory.

Ryouko looked down at the ground. She wanted to ask, but she felt, somehow, that it wasn't the best topic to talk about.

"Do you mind telling me how you got it?" she asked, finally, deciding to ask anyway.

"Honestly, yes," Asaka rebuffed, not looking back at her.

Ryouko thought about what to say to that, but Asaka surprised her by saying:

"Oh, what the hell. You should probably hear it. If I can't trust someone involved in the Goddess's plans, who can I trust?"

"You don't have to—" Ryouko began, but Asaka turned and silenced her with her expression, which implied she wasn't going to run through the social niceties.

"I'll abbreviate, because going through all the details would be pointless," Asaka said, looking away again. "And you could look most of it up later. What you need to know is I won that battle from my command. The local chain of command above me was dead. I saved the colony."

She took a breath.

"And I won it by sending my best friend to die," she said, almost growling. "I never even got to speak to her, or see her, before the end. The last contact we ever had was a virtual command I sent from my head, through the command interface. Not even sound, not even words. I couldn't spare the time."

Ryouko looked away awkwardly, even though Asaka wasn't looking in her direction.

"Alice?" she asked.

"Yes," Asaka responded.

"I'm sorry," Ryouko said.

"I was a mess afterwards," Asaka said, not directly acknowledging the statement. "I barely remember the medal ceremony or the promotion. I—"

She paused.

"I told you I'm a gamer, right? I used to be really serious, back before my contract. I was almost good enough to go pro on one of the games I played, which is saying something, given how old some of those people are. Second‐tier, I just needed to reach a little farther…"

She emphasized the last sentence by gesturing for the sky with her right arm, making a grabbing motion.

Then she turned and faced the other girl, looking her in the eyes.

"But I was never happy outside the games," she said. "Right at the outer edge of acceptable Human mental variation. I wished that I would understand how to advance in the rest of the world as well as I did in games."

She turned away again.

"It's served me well," she said. "You can't tell I used to be a social outcast, can you? But it all seemed so worthless with Alice dead. They never mentioned it in my official medal commendation, or in the battle history, but I broke down the moment I heard she was dead. It—My soul gem—"

Asaka glanced at Ryouko, expression briefly unreadable.

"Well, it was MHD business," she continued. "They have ways of dealing with girls who are losing it."

"They take away the soul gem," Ryouko said, eyes widening with realization. "Of course. It makes sense. I couldn't understand the line you said in the vision, about taking away Maki's soul gem, but now that I think about it—"

"I said that?" Asaka asked.


Asaka smiled slightly.

"Well, it's the right thing to do," she said. "Anyway, I was placed on 'recuperative leave', which of course just means you get sent home to get things sorted out, with MHD psychiatrists breathing down your neck. It was a bad time. I buried myself back in gaming, not even the competitive kind. Stimpacks, things like that. I stopped by one of the colony worlds, got an illegal VR implant. It's like Patricia said; there are things you can do the government just doesn't permit. For example, certain varieties of VR implants let you forget who you are while in the simulation. The simulation becomes reality for you, and you have no past."

She said it matter‐of‐factly, but the content was staggering, enough that Ryouko took an involuntary step backwards, thinking through it, before forcing herself to stand still.

"So I lived with my parents again for a while," Asaka continued. "And it's horrible now, thinking about what I put them through, but at the time…"

She shrugged.

"I was just too numb to care. That's what my shrink would say. Eventually, she recommended that I travel a little, get some fresh air, even recommended where to go. She had talked to Patricia apparently, and said maybe the whole former training squadmates thing would help, especially since I met Alice there too."

"So I came here, and eventually got talked into visiting the Ribbon, had a vision with Alice and the Goddess, and the rest is history."

Ryouko looked down at her hands, then back at Asaka.

"So the Ribbon…" she began.

"Saved me, yes," Asaka finished. "Or close enough to it.

Asaka leaned over to put her hands on the shorter Ryouko's shoulders.

"It feels surprisingly good to talk about it," she said. "I don't know why I feel I should tell you about it. Maybe it's my suspicion that this is what the Goddess meant to happen. I never thought my vision would end in you."

She stood back, then thought.

"I guess my point, if I had one, is that despair happens to everyone eventually. The girls you see around you, the centuries‐old girls who look indestructible, all have things like this in the closet somewhere. Things that could have broken them. But they didn't break, and when your time comes, you shouldn't break either."

Asaka turned away one last time, while Ryouko took stock of all that had been said.

"I guess it'd be pretty cool if you joined the church," Asaka said, almost as if deliberately wrapping up the conversation. "I feel obligated to say that, but it's really not so bad. And I really haven't talked to my mother in a long time. I should probably call…"

"I hope I never have to see any of my friends die," Ryouko said finally. "Or anyone, really."

Asaka looked back at her with one eye.

"Yeah, well, you signed up for this."

"Prometheus and Zeus, huh," Ryouko said, as she walked with Asaka back to the main building.

She referred, of course, to the research centers flanking the cult building, one of which they had just been leaning on.

The darkness was relieved by the occasional street lighting and lights from the buildings above; the stars were nearly invisible from so low, and the moon was probably behind one of the skyscrapers. The endless vehicles overhead traveled with no lights, as it was unnecessary under electronic control. Surface vehicles traveled with lights for the benefit of pedestrians, though in practice they never hit pedestrians.

Surface traffic had ramped sharply upward as they left the roadway they had been on and emerged back in front of the cult building. Most vehicles, it seemed, immediately entered one of the nearby tunnels, either downward into the ground or upward into the air.

"Yes," Asaka said, without further comment.

"My parents work in Prometheus," Ryouko said. "Well, during the night. They spend the day at home."

"They do military research then?" Asaka asked rhetorically, eyeing Ryouko. "Much of the technology for us magical girls comes from these buildings. The soul gem covers were Prometheus. The buildings are specialized for us. But you probably don't need me to tell you that."

"I wonder what exactly my parents do sometimes," Ryouko said, looking up at the looming edifice of the building. "They're very vague about it."

"Sounds about right," Asaka said. "Most of the work is at least partly secret. Information Restriction Acts and all. And then there's the real classified stuff, Black Heart projects, things like that. Stuff you and I would never get to hear about."

Asaka thought for a moment.

"Come to think of it, I've never heard of what exactly it is the Zeus Building does. The same general type of thing, but I haven't heard of anything tangible."

"It must be all classified," Ryouko said, running a quick search on the internet. "I can't find anything online."

Asaka nodded.

"Must be."

A set of lines flashed before Ryouko's eyes, disappearing as rapidly as it appeared. She squinted instinctively.

"What—" she began.

Tactical Advisor has finished setup, a voice announced mechanically into her head, and a corresponding line of text appeared in the lower right corner of her vision, out of the way.

I am now ready to begin activation and initial customization, the voice continued. You may proceed now, or defer until any future time.

Asaka watched her curiously.

"Tactical advisor is online, apparently," Ryouko said, trying to think through what she wanted to do.

Asaka nodded.

"It's about time. The thing itself will walk you through activation."

"Okay," Ryouko said.

"We're almost back," Asaka said, walking off and signaling with a goodbye wave that Ryouko shouldn't follow. "No need to walk me back the rest of the way. Call a transport here and go home. It's late. You can fiddle with it overnight. After all, who needs to sleep?"

That's–that's right, Ryouko thought, realizing that she had been preparing mentally to go home and sleep.

"Couldn't I just stay here then?" Ryouko asked.

Asaka stopped and turned.

"Spend some time with your parents," she admonished, voice filled with something indefinable. "I've read the reports; you have a pretty good relationship with them. Trust me, it's the right thing to do. That's what this week is for, after all."

Ryouko nodded, eyes slightly wide, and watched Asaka walk off towards the steps of the "church".

"Wait!" she said, thinking of something at the last moment.

Asaka stopped and turned to look back at her.

"If you're no longer waiting for anything, what are you going to do now?" Ryouko asked.

Asaka smiled, slowly and broadly.

"The time I spent with the Goddess repaired my mental state," she said. "There is no longer any reason for me to stay. I'm not in the habit of staying back while others fight and die. I'm going to go back, and see if my new rank means anything. I hear I might get new implants."

She paused.

"I'm going to try and pull some favors, talk to Kyouko, get myself in with Mami," Asaka said. "Good for my career, especially with her new position. I might even see you after your training. Now you need to get home. I'll be seeing you."

With that, she turned around again, leaving Ryouko blinking.

"New position?" Ryouko asked.

"Look it up!" Asaka said, waving without looking back or stopping. "Or don't. It doesn't matter. It'll be all over the news soon. Heck, your TacComp will probably tell you after you finish setting it up."

"Uh, goodbye then," Ryouko said hesitantly, waving back despite knowing the other girl wouldn't see it.

Behind Ryouko, a vehicle slid into place, its door opening for her.

"She's doing fine, Mami. Honestly, there'd be nothing to talk about if it weren't for all this grief cube business."

Kyouko's voice rang in Mami's ears—or auditory cortex, rather—as she leaned into the chair in her room, on the cruiser HSS Time to Pay. She had opted to leave sooner rather than later, and had been requisitioning a spot on a transport even as she and Erwynmark were still talking.

Most starships were happy to accept the names recommended to them by the naming committees, usually the name of a city on Earth, or famous scientists, or generals. Others opted to be more creative.

Military AIs were an interesting sort. There were strong ethical issues attendant to the idea of making sentient intelligences that didn't fear death, and enjoyed battle and killing. Not the risk that they would turn on their masters; that was supposed to impossible, and for once Mami believed it, having talked with many herself. The issue was the question: How would you feel, knowing that you had been designed for one purpose, and to derive your satisfaction in life from the accomplishment of that purpose?

Of course, it was far more effective and ethical than requisitioning civilian AIs to take the same role. The issue was actually a broader version of the same question, applied to all AIs designed for special purposes—was it really fair to shackle a sentience to the love of only one thing? But on the other hand, how could it be right to input a design that you knew wouldn't be happy or maximally efficient at the task desired?

Civilian AIs, when no longer needed in their positions, were retired into the pool of independent AIs, and nearly all opted to accept the recommended reprogramming for a general‐purpose life. Still, most reported feeling uneasy with no purpose in life, and many ended up getting hobbies that strongly resembled their previous working positions. The retirement transition was a major psychological watershed for AIs, who had support groups and specialized AI psychiatrists dedicated to the process, which was not a specialization Mami had ever imagined would exist.

She looked out her viewing screen at one of the escorting frigates in the distance, difficult to see without traveling lights or any other source of illumination. Her own flagship, the Zhukov, was on route from the Yangtze sector to meet her at her destination. It made no sense to make it fly to her, then fly there.

"So, what do you think of this grief cube business?" Kyouko continued. "You still haven't answered my question."

"It's disturbing, definitely," Mami thought, pouring herself another cup of tea. "Doctored grief cubes haven't been seen in ages. And I don't know what importance Shizuki‐san has in all this."

"I've been looking into her background a little," Mami thought. "Her family lines are extremely dense with contractees. She's related to Kuroi‐chan, did you know that? And the Shizukis. And the other two families involved aren't slouches, either. I'm amazed she's managed to get this far without being sucked into one of those damn matriarchies."

"Both her parents are MSY scientists," Kyouko thought, "and they didn't seem fond of her contract at all. It's all on file, but there's a lot going on in that family. That probably has something to do with it."

"Hmm," Mami thought, frowning and sipping her tea. "Well, to get back on point, I suppose it's possible one of the Families is involved in this. It doesn't seem right, though. They might be hypercompetitive, but none of them have ever done anything like this."

"Maybe," Kyouko thought. "You know how I feel about them."

"Yes, yes, you've never liked the Shizukis, I get it," Mami thought. "But despite what you think about that, the family has produced a lot of good magical girls, and they provided a lot of money in the beginning."

What a blast from the past, Mami mused to herself.

"This isn't about that!" Kyouko thought. "I'm over that. I just don't like the concept in general."

"Like it or not, it's here to stay," Mami thought. "And it might be useful. I'm not advocating we do this now, but it might be a good idea later to talk to Kuroi‐chan and some of the Shizukis. I'm thinking they won't like assassination attempts on their esteemed descendants."

"Maybe if we're desperate," Kyouko growled.

There was a lull in the conversation.

"Anyway, there are some other things you need to know," Kyouko thought. "Yuma did some looking into her friend, Simona Del Mago. There are some anomalies on her record. She's foreign exchange, travels a lot. Anyway, it seems that she once applied to a school using different names for her parents, entirely different people. Yuma's still looking into it. Could be a weird glitch or something."

"Hmm," Mami thought. "I have no idea what that means."

"Neither do I. The other thing is, Patricia has been talking to me. She says that when she was doing Ryouko's enhancements, there were… well, anomalies, in her genetic structure. She says there were a couple of novel mutations that aren't in any of the registries. Could be chance, though. She seemed bothered by it. I gave the data to Yuma to study, since Patricia won't have time."

"So everything we look at has anomalies," Mami thought. "Maybe. That's exactly as useful as there being no anomalies at all. Just once, I'd like to know something for certain."

"Do you think it might be time to get the Guard in on this?" Kyouko thought.

"Not yet," Mami thought. "Let Yuma get a look at it first. And, uh, I've got my own investigation going."

"My thoughts too," Kyouko thought. "And that vision doesn't exactly boost my confidence."

"We've been over what I think of these 'visions'," Mami thought dryly.

"Yes we have," Kyouko thought. "I still say you should visit someday."

They'd had this argument enough times that they had it distilled down to two sentences.

Kyouko mentally sighed, so that Mami could hear. She could guess why Kyouko was distressed.

"Anyway, speaking of Patricia, there's one last thing today."

"Yes, this transfer request," Mami thought. "Some of your friends want to join my command staff. Asaka‐san has an excellent record, and the MHD says she's fully recovered, but the other two… a scientist and your newest plaything. Look, I can't give these positions away like candy, Sakura‐san. Lives are at stake."

"She's not a plaything," Kyouko growled. "Look, I hate to appeal to team camaraderie, but Asaka, Patricia, and Maki have been part of the same unit for a long time. They shouldn't be broken up. Yes, yes, I know, she's a general, it shouldn't matter, but it does, alright? You think I like this? Asaka has her reasons, but I tried to talk the other two out of it. They want to follow her, and Maki says she wants to go back to doing her part. Patriotic stuff. I won't force them, since it's their right, but that girl…"

"The fact that we're now talking about lovers' spats makes me even less confident about this," Mami thought dryly.

Kyouko sighed again.

"Look, I know I haven't sold this too well, but they're good people. They won't let you down. You can attach them to Asaka. Generals have a right to choose their own help, right?"

"Is that a personal recommendation, Sakura‐san?" Mami thought seriously.

Kyouko sighed one last time.

"Yes, yes it is."

"Alright, then," Mami thought. "Transfer approved. I'll be holding you accountable."

"Being a field marshal has made you such a drag," Kyouko complained.

Mami smirked, knowing Kyouko couldn't see it.

"It's a serious job," she thought, not showing any humor over the internet relay. "Is that it, Sakura‐san? I'd love to talk more, but I've got other things to take care of. Always busy, you know."

"Yeah, I'm done," Kyouko thought. "Talk to you later."

"See you."

Afterward, Mami took a moment to look out her window, at the electronically refiltered stars in front of her. FTL travel was so strange.

On the ride back, Ryouko thought long and carefully about her vision, about what this Goddess could want from her. Her vision of the future seemed rather straightforward: a warning, to keep Kyouko alive. Her vision of Asaka was clear enough as well, to explain what happened.

But what of the rest? Of the red apparition in the Church, and Yuma on the ground? Why had she been shown Simona's first day again? What was the part with the fluid tank? It had been so disorienting.

She did not know.

Chapter Text

The Spinal Node Tactical Advisor, more commonly called the Tactical Computer or TacComp, is a generation three self‐assembling neural‐interfacing implant, designed to act as the primary processing node, personal assistant, and combat advisor for military personnel, both in the field and otherwise. In battle, it participates in the control of combat weapons, armor, vehicles, and drones, assists the maintenance of battlefield awareness, provides combat advice and observations, coordinates internal targeting enhancements, and relays commands. Outside of combat, it provides mental offloading services, providing relevant information when needed or requested and aiding decision‐making. It also performs secretarial tasks, providing scheduling and message sorting, as well as a limited ability to respond to low priority messages. It is rated as a grade three semi‐sentient.

Lodged in the middle abdomen on the ventral spine cord—displacing parts of the interior thoracic and lumbar vertebrae—the Advisor is the primary receiving and transmission node for the recipient's communication relays, neural implant arrays, and electronic interface devices, and is seated at the center of a vast web of optical fibers extending up, down, and outside the spinal canal. It is the most expensive enhancement found in the average infantryman, absorbing a full third of the resources allocated for his or her enhancement.

Unlike much of the other military and civilian enhancements, this piece of valuable equipment neither malfunctions nor is redundant within the magical girl population, and installation is ubiquitous, so much so that possession of such a device is now part of the culture. As part of a deal with the MSY, Governance and the MSY share oversight over development, while the MSY possesses the right to inspect final designs, and control of installation into its members. This is used primarily to enforce the loyalty of the Advisor to their owners, rather than to either the MSY or Governance, as stipulated by the Ethics Committee.

Research and development on the Advisor is a continuous process, resulting in monthly upgrades and constant limited, field test rollouts. Most updates to the current Version 1.8 model are now focused on performance and maintenance, as the armed forces prepare for the full rollout of the much‐anticipated Version 2, which has passed field testing and validation and is already being disbursed among the senior officer corps.

Development History

The motivation for the development of the Advisor arose out of United Front combat experiences early in the Unification Wars. The Front's emphasis on high‐quality, highly‐equipped, and expensive soldiery resulted in an unexpected side effect: combat personnel were proving unable to cope with the resulting deluge of information and processing demands. Statistics pouring in from the battlefield indicated that combat resources were being used increasingly suboptimally, even as raw firepower increased. Despite ongoing improvements in implant efficacy and drone autonomy, it rapidly became clear that a highly compact, optimally powerful processing implant was needed for maximal combat efficacy.

Research and development was assigned to the Yasuhiro Conglomerate—later revealed to be MSY‐owned. Development took over a decade, due to numerous raids on its facilities and several controversial incidents during subject testing that marred the project's reputation. However, anecdotal evidence from special operations squads and statistical evidence from later field tests suggested a radical uptick in combat efficiency, resulting in continued heavy support of the project from the Emergency Defense Council, and the SNTA—as it was called at the time—Version 1 was officially deployed to the field just in time for the El Dorado Campaign. By the end of the Unification Wars, development had reached 1.2, after which research stagnated until the current Contact War.

Safety Package

The Civilian Emergency Safety Package is a lower‐functionality, dormant version of the Advisor, implanted in all citizens, except certain religious objectors, as part of the Standard Package. Considerable spare capacity is maintained in both processing and bandwidth, to facilitate rapid conversation to the full version whenever the necessary resources are provided.

Version Two

Version Two is intended as a fundamental redesign of the processing core, intended to circumvent computing problems that are known to be exceptionally difficult to solve. Much of the inspiration for Version Two has been admitted to come from studies of Cephalopod corpses, though it is unknown if reverse‐engineered technology has been directly used in the design.

The processing core of the Version Two Advisor is the most biologically integrated of any existing computing device, designed to exploit cellular resources existing in the implantee's body and making extensive use of neural coding paradigms. Details remain scarce, but it is believed to be the first device to promote neuronal growth in a non‐natural location, and to direct their growth on an unprecedented scale.

The Version Two Advisor has been the subject of several closed‐door Ethics Committee hearings, raising considerable speculation as to the nature of the device. Members of the General Staff and senior officer corps, who have had the device installed, have refused comment, but secrecy will be impossible to maintain once deployment stretches beyond their ranks.

The sentience rating of the new model is unknown.

— Infopedia article, "Spinal Node Tactical Advisor," mode: discursive, moderate density, high accessibility.

It is necessary to remember that your daughter is now strong. Fiendishly strong. Capable of lifting her bed and hurling it with only reasonable effort strong. She will instinctively do an incredibly good job of hiding it—otherwise it would hardly be possible for secrecy to have been maintained for so many years. But under emotional duress, it is certainly possible for the strength to evoke itself. There have been unfortunate incidents in the past.

On the other hand, the strength can come in handy around the house on those few occasions when she is present.

— Parenting Plexus Online, "Special Edition: So Your Daughter Made a Contract. Now What?" article title "Veritable Superpowers," excerpt.

Despite Asaka's intimation that it might take a long time, setting up her tactical computer was surprisingly quick and painless. It was mostly a matter of choosing personalization settings. Ryouko was not big on the idea of a talking voice in her head, so she set it to communicate with her as "seamlessly as possible", whatever that meant, though she also told it to respond via sound when directly addressed. It also noted that there were a variety of situations where an unobtrusive approach was impossible, and where the use of visual menus might be too distracting. In combat, for example—though it promised things were being worked on for future models.

She left the voice in its default mechanical setting. She had an absurd range of options, ranging from "Russian‐accented female" to "Samsara‐accented gender‐ambiguous", but in the end had decided there was no reason to really favor one over the other, and that the mechanical‐sounding default voice was rather distinctive. Plus, now that she was sharing her head with another voice, the subtle failures of the Human‐sounding voices to show human emotion were off‐putting. Better the artificial‐sounding voice.

Out of curiosity, she asked what percentage of people chose to stick with the default. The answer was ninety‐two percent.

Once she got past the initial jumpy urge to glance around for the source of the voice, having a machine's thoughts ported into her head was surprisingly easy to get used to. She just had to pretend she was on the phone—phones being wired into the auditory cortex nowadays, of course.

She spent a few hours after dinner sitting on her bed going through it all, fiddling with preferred menu graphics, listening to a listing of features, and so forth. Looking at the recommended choices, she initially thought the designers had excellent taste, but after some questioning, was informed that the machine had made the choices based on its initial scans of her personality.

She was intrigued by the machine's claims of perfect recall, so she requested a sample of the machine's perfect recall, and was treated to a disorienting recreation of herself from five minutes ago, visually overlaid over reality. She really should have listened when it recommended closing her eyes.

Her "TacComp", as it introduced itself, then added the detail that it was not generally in the business of storing dreams, though it could if the request was made within a couple of hours.

Ryouko wondered if it had some reason to tell her that superfluous detail, but it didn't enlighten her.

Once she finished initial setup, the machine fulfilled Asaka's promise by immediately informing her that it may be in her interest to know that Field Marshal Tomoe Mami would soon be assigned a newly created position as Special Theatre Commander for the Euphratic Sector, effective midnight that night.

The Euphratic Sector? Ryouko thought. That big offensive that's been grinding for years?

Yes, the device thought. It is the sector with the highest troop deployments at the moment. The kind of authority she is receiving is of the type previously reserved for the Chief of the General Staff.

It's a big responsibility, then? Ryouko thought. It makes her second to Erwynmark, if I understand this correctly.

Definitely a significant responsibility, the device thought. Formally, she has no higher rank than she did before, but her listed authority is now indeed second in the military. I am not equipped to speculate on whether this makes her second in actual power, as that requires analysis of human interaction, or access to files for which you do not have security clearance.

What impact would you say this has on me? Ryouko asked, deciding to test the device's limits.

The authority level of a magical girl recruit's mentor is positively correlated with future combat performance, rate of promotion, and survival. However, causation is difficult to extract, given selection phenomena, and no experimental studies have been performed. Alternative analysis would require more capability than I have, or access to files—

I get it, Ryouko thought. You're not much for small talk, are you?

Regretfully, this model of the Tactical Advisor system is insufficiently powered to provide pleasant discourse in addition to its other functions. However, it may interest you to know that field tests of Version Two have exceeded expectations, and that the upgrade rollout is well ahead of schedule. Version Two will likely be distributed to the lower officer corps within fourteen months.

Alright, fine, Ryouko thought, letting it go. On another note, Asaka‐san mentioned something about it being a good idea to choose a psychiatrist, so, well I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to do here—

A candidate list has been compiled, the machine thought. I requested such a list from the MHD based on my anticipation that you would ask, though I would have suggested it if Asaka‐san hadn't. The list has been chosen to maximize anticipated compatibility, and also to provide specialists in the kind of transition you are undergoing.

I see, Ryouko thought, as the list appeared in her field of vision, complete with miniature bios and faces. She scrolled through the list, the list moving itself so that her center of attention was the center of her view, without moving her eyes. There were seven of them.

Do you have any opinion? she asked, offhand.

No, the device thought. Other than to point out that MHD recommendations have been very successful in the past. I could request that they narrow the list further, if necessary.

No, that's okay, Ryouko thought, scanning the profiles quickly. I'll make my own choice.

She read for a moment, head leaning back on the wall behind her bed, then asked.

So is there a reason these psychiatrists are all specialists in 'family discord' and 'single‐parent households'? Ryouko asked. That doesn't really match me.

The period of initial contracting is considered a sensitive time for families, her TacComp thought. It is often a time of conflict.

Hmm, well I don't think that'll be an issue, Ryouko thought.

So that you do not miss it, the device thought, I would like to point out that Atsuko‐sensei, second on the list, also specializes in the very old, and as such is the designated psychiatrist of Sakura Kyouko, Tomoe Mami, Chitose Yuma, and, theoretically, Akemi Homura. Extremely prestigious patients, and it is surprising that you are being given the option to join them.

I thought you couldn't give a recommendation, Ryouko thought.

It is not a recommendation, it thought. I am merely pointing out relevant facts.

It sounds like a recommendation to me, Ryouko thought. Even if that wasn't your intent. Her credentials look excellent otherwise, so I don't see why not.

She gave the slight burst of intention that signified a mental command.

Very well, the device thought. I suggest four days from now, at four.

Is that available? Ryouko thought.

Yes. I would not suggest it otherwise. I check both their schedule and yours. One of my duties is to monitor your schedule, though currently you do not have many obligations.

Of course, Ryouko thought, feeling a little silly.

Incidentally, you have set me to be silent as much as possible, yet you have spent a considerable amount of time today talking to me, to a degree unusual for most new contractees. Are you sure you wish to leave it like that?

Let's see how it goes, Ryouko thought.

Very well.

She continued to while away her time, choosing to do some investigation into the Euphratic Front, since she had the suspicion it would be important to her in the future. It also concurred well with the kind of browsing she did in her free time normally. This time, with her increased security clearance and military status, she had access to much more authoritative sources than online rumor mills.

The situation was worse than the public was being told, as everyone had suspected.

Of course, when is it ever not? she thought dryly.

She hadn't been aware that the shipyards were under such serious pressure, or that ground fighting had spread into some of the principal urban areas. It had been impossible to hide that there was some ground fighting, but the scale was much heavier than the raid‐scale conflicts that had been implied. Nor was it true that high orbit was fully secure. However, the front had stabilized—that at least was true, even if the front wasn't quite as far forward as generally implied. Starship production was way down, and what remained was focused exclusively on local defense ships, rather understandably. It was a troubling loss of strategic value, or so the internal reports stated.

Planets under serious attack were usually under lockdown conditions and the remaining residents understandably had more pressing concerns than sneaking reports past the government censors at the FTL communication relays. In that respect, it was a lot like the past, and information relied on reporters, Governance, and word‐of‐mouth. Of course, an analogous event on Earth couldn't possibly be concealed from the rest of the planet.

Eventually she checked her chronometer, which now read 23:30, meaning she had lost track of time. Not that it mattered. It startled her to realize that her internal sense of tiredness, that nagging sense of impending sleep she had used her whole life to keep track of time, was gone. She was briefly at a loss, realizing she had so much time.

With exquisite timing, her door slid open just as she was going into existential crisis, and her grandfather walked in.

"Your parents took time off of work," he said. "We were thinking we could take you out for the night since, well, it doesn't make sense to keep a curfew anymore. Celebrate adulthood, something like that. I'm not really sure if your parents are the right people to be doing that with, but…"

"I'd love to," Ryouko said, responding to the implied question.

She jumped off her bed, glad to be given something to do, and followed the old man out the door to where her parents were already waiting in the living room.

Only then did she take the moment to ponder where exactly she would be going. They wouldn't be… taking her to any bars, would they? What exactly did celebrating adulthood mean, anyway?

"Where exactly are we going?" she asked, suddenly nervous.

"Relax," her mother said, reading her mind somehow. "We're just going to that restaurant we always go to."

"Oh," Ryouko said, relieved. The "night life" was not something that sounded all that interesting to her.

These days, restaurant meant "location with cooks specializing in hand‐crafted food."

They sat in their four‐person vehicle, her mother seemingly determined to chat with her, her father quiet, thinking about something. Ryouko realized, sneaking glances past her mother at the midnight lights of the city, that it was the first time in a long time they had all been out together, as a family. How long had it been? Two years? Three?

That bothered her, for some reason she couldn't quite place.

Given the circumstances, Ryouko was given free rein on what to order, so she ordered the cream stew she was inanely fond of, plus some fried foods they normally never got—primarily because her grandfather didn't like fried foods. Only after she ordered did it finally occur to her that, yes, he too would be leaving in six more days, and she was being illogically selfish. She tried to apologize, but he dismissed it, pointing out that she was, after all, the younger.

It was unusual, eating in the middle of the night, but it meant little as long as your stomach could fit it. Any excess energy was mysteriously squirreled away by your implants, or so they were told in school. Plus, Ryouko had a feeling her implants needed more energy than usual.

And yet, after all of that, the cream stew tasted weird, so that she could barely finish it.

"What's wrong, Ryouko?" her mother asked, seeing her struggling to keep from making a face.

"I'm uh—" she began, wondering if she should say nothing.

She grimaced, deciding she would have to go through with it.

"It doesn't taste the same," she said. "It's not their fault. I think it's the implants. I can… taste the cow. I'm not sure how else to explain it. I'm trying to get used to it."

"Dysgeusia," her father commented off‐hand. "It's common early in the implant acclimation process. It will pass with time."

They looked at him, mildly surprised. He had seemed distracted the entire time, as if worried about something. Ryouko knew she had given him plenty to worry about, so she hadn't pressed it.

"That's right," Ryouko said, a little nervously. "Do you want to hear about the implants? I know you know more than most parents, but I figure…"

"Of course," her mother said, sipping some of her soup. "Frankly, I imagine most girls wouldn't come home and then immediately shut themselves in their rooms. I mean, I know we haven't shown the most curiosity about it, but we'd definitely like to hear about our daughter getting her systems rearranged."

"Ah, right," Ryouko said, stopping on the brink of an apology. She was like that sometimes. They knew that.

"It'll be relevant to me, too," her grandfather pointed out, turning slightly to face her. "I've been reading the informational guides, but I think it'd be more meaningful hearing it from you."

Ryouko nodded thoughtfully, as even her father focused in to listen to her.

She summarized as best she could, aided by informational input from the new computer attached to her spine, and ended her description with a mention of that very computer. Running down the list, she emphasized the parts which she suspected were only relevant to her, such as the conspicuous removal of cardiopulmonary support, which would almost certainly be enhanced instead for non‐magical girls.

Throughout, they listened with attentive interest, but only her grandfather asked questions, her parents happy to nod and stay quiet. She had a feeling she knew why.

"I've always wondered what it's like to have one of those tactical computers in your head," her father said at the end of it, tilting his head. "I talk to the AIs at the lab all the time, but that's just not the same. None of them are reading my memories."

"Well, that's what I spent the evening working on," Ryouko said, implicitly explaining what she had been doing in her room. "So far, it hasn't been that bad. It's been helpful, actually."

"Just be glad the MSY and government stalemated each other into actually doing what the Ethics Committee said," her mother said, darkly, folding her hands. "Otherwise, I wouldn't trust one as far as I could throw it."

Ryouko nodded at the sentiment. One of the first things her TacComp had done was to mention that to her, as if reassuring her.

"Well, these taste problems are going to be a problem for today," her mother said, sitting back up. "I ordered drinks."

Ryouko waited several seconds for her mother to explain why it would be a problem, before realizing what was going on.

"You mean you're ordering drinks for me?" she asked.

"Why not?" her father asked, shrugging. "You're an adult; that's what the state tells us now. And it's not like we can watch you anymore."

"In my day," her grandfather said, pointing at the rest of them with his chopsticks, "it was forbidden for minors to drink alcohol. There were none of these fancy intoxication controls and bloodstream catalysts or whatever. You had to watch what you drank and watch your kids, too."

"Yes, we know, Dad," Ryouko's mother said patronizingly, managing not to sound bored.

Alcohol consumption by minors still wasn't approved in the majority of households because of societal expectations, but it was perfectly meaningless either way. While it was legal for them to drink it, it wasn't legal for them to ever turn off their intoxication controls, which meant the alcohol was catalyzed into water and carbon dioxide almost the moment it hit the bloodstream, the energy absorbed for whatever purposes might be necessary.

Their drinks arrived, and Ryouko found herself looking down into a glass of flavored sake. Apple, to be precise.

She started to take an experimental sip, but her father held up a finger.

"Intoxication controls off," he said. "It's your newfound right."

Ryouko looked around for guidance, and found her grandfather looking decidedly skeptical, while her mother looked mildly interested.

In the past, she had always hated the taste of alcohol, despite what everyone said about it.

"It's… not bad," she said, looking at it with surprise.

"Are you sure that's not the, uh, dysgeusia talking?" her grandfather asked.

"I have no idea," she admitted, taking another sip.

At that point, the dessert arrived, and they spent some time quietly eating through an orange liqueur soufflé. While they ate, Ryouko thought about the day. She still felt guilty taking over what should have been by rights a midnight meal for both her and her grandfather. She had to make it up to him somehow, and there was something he had said…

"Want to visit the armory tonight?" she said on impulse, her head starting to throb. "I think I might be able to get you all in and it might be, uh, fun. A sort of family visit."

She was somehow not surprised when her parents glanced at each other, then murmured assent, without even stopping to ask her what she meant by "armory".

"I'd like that," her grandfather agreed, only a few moments later.

Ryouko rubbed her head. Was this headache the result of the alcohol, or something else? It was her first night with no sleep, and jet lag was supposed to be an early side effect of the modifications. It could be that.

She shook her head at herself. She would deal with it, for now.

A while later, they stepped out of the restaurant onto the fiftieth‐floor skyway. Ryouko took a deep breath of the crisp, chilly air, staggered a little, then gave in and turned her intoxication controls back on.

Within seconds, her headache began to recede and she sighed in relief.

Never again.

And then, her thoughts once again clear, she thought:

Wait, the armory, I—how the hell am I supposed to get them in? Can I even do that?

She thought out a quick message to Asaka asking exactly that question.

Asaka responded almost immediately, choosing to use audio instead of more text. Ryouko picked up, musing that the process was so much faster and more automatic now; civilian channels were deliberately designed to constantly remind the user of the technology in the middle, with built‐in delays, a visual interface, and even a ringing noise while you waited to see if the other side would answer. There were only a few concessions to modernity: calls were turned away if the recipient was sleeping, for instance.

There was none of that artifice here, the transaction flowing organically and fully thought‐based, with TacComps to mediate.

They went through the standard greeting rituals.

Anyway, Asaka thought, finally. About what you were asking—it's possible, but honestly there's not much to see. They can't go past the church antechamber, since that's magical girls only. You don't live here, so you don't have access to the living areas—I'm not sure why you'd want to go there anyway. And the hospital is off‐limits. Oh, but um, we have a visitor's area. It has holo‐exhibits and one of those robot guides. That's always a winner.

Exhibits about what? Ryouko thought, waving away her mother and pointing at her ear in the universal "I am on the phone" gesture.

The system. You know, soul gems, grief cubes—what they're allowed to know. Most parents like it, but I don't know about yours. It seems like—

Yeah, they wouldn't, Ryouko thought.

I thought so. Oh, but that's right, they have level two clearance. That might get them into a couple of places.

Level Two? That's higher than me! Ryouko thought incredulously.

You didn't know? Yeah. You've got interesting parents. It's in your file. You should really read it sometime.

Maybe I will.

Look, uh, since they have clearance, I can probably get them into a couple of places. Maybe I can take you to the shooting range. That'd be cool right? See their daughter firing a gun. But they need to be escorted and I'm kind of busy, so it can't be for very long.

Ryouko looked around, at her family looking at her expectantly, and sighed.

Well, anything is good. I sort of promised.

I see.

I might have been drunk. I'm not sure.

There was laughter on the line. Interestingly, laughter was a purely physical reaction, rather than something replicable in the standard thought transmission system, so the system recorded the sound and played it back—conversations were awkward otherwise.

Yeah, yeah, we get that a lot. Everyone thinks it's a good idea for some reason. Anyway, I'll see you in a bit.

See you.

Ryouko stood in the firing posture she had been shown, aiming a SW‒155 pistol at a distant targeting circle.

"So, uh, are you going to guide me or anything?" she asked.

She had expected that Asaka would stand next to her, hold her arm, steady her aim, and other things like that, but the girl instead stood off to the side, watching her with a somewhat detached expression. Her parents stood behind Asaka, looking ill at ease.

"Not really," Asaka said. "It's all up to you and your implants."

Ryouko smiled nervously. The pistol was set to high‐velocity, long‐range, anti‐infantry, and was fully loaded. She had fifty meters of distance between her and the target. There wasn't really anything left but to just do it.

She wasn't really sure what she had been expecting, but the experience was surprisingly smooth. A steady staccato of electric "Snap!" noises, ten in total, the feeling in her arms as she absorbed the recoil in each one, struggling to keep the pistol down. She had been told that infantry in full armor suits had difficulty handling the recoil of weapons capable of damaging alien shielding; the recoil on these, designed to approach the firing velocity of full‐fledged sniper equipment, was brutal.

A forcefield flickered each time a projectile hit the targeting circles, vaporizing the shell. It made sense, she supposed; otherwise the opposite wall would be a disaster zone.

She had been learning a little about infantry weapons, recently. Directed energy weapons, primarily lasers, were constrained heavily by the sheer amount of power and energy necessary to deliver damage over long range, given scattering, but were excellent if they could be fired over time or at targets too fast to hit otherwise. A beam held in place could deliver more energy than any series of projectiles, could deal with the otherwise arduous task of bullet or projectile deflection, and could not itself be deflected. In addition, the closer the range or more stationary the firing platform, the less of a concern power and energy became.

Thus, they were used on less maneuverable but heavy targets, as point‐defenses, as close‐range weapons, or when the shot really needed to hit something.

They formed the primary component of personal and local anti‐projectile defenses, the anti‐heavy component of anti‐missile and anti‐air defenses, the main component of anti‐artillery systems, and the weapons load‐out of medium‐size and smaller drones. They also served as the primary gun of most armor and larger air vehicles, as well as specialized horizontal artillery. Infantry squads carried Breaker anti‐armor laser cannons, their assault rifles carried Falchion laser "bayonets", and snipers carried a secondary laser armament, good for only two or three shots when really needed.

Of course, the constraint on all of this was energy, so that mobile anti‐projectile systems exhausted themselves rapidly, and the heavier or long‐range laser weapons were all limited to a certain number of shots, if they were mobile. Thus, all but the most expendable of small drones carried railgun or missile systems of some sort, whether it be the main gun of a tank, the offensive load‐out of an air vehicle, or the weapon of a medium drone—which typically had melee‐range abilities as well.

For the aliens, everything was different, since whatever energy systems they used were vastly superior. Alien armor never bothered with a secondary main gun, and projectile weapons were saved for when they were most appropriate—suppressing fire, indirect fire and artillery, inertial bombardment from orbit, missile and air defense systems, and the longest‐ranged of snipers.

As for space combat—that was another story entirely.

"Mean error: 5.2 cm" a voice announced when she was finished, mostly for the benefit of her observers. "Mean deflection: 0.27 radians counter‐clockwise from vertical. Standard deviation: 3.6 cm and 0.24 radians, respectively."

The projectiles, extremely advanced, had limited onboard guidance, but couldn't really fix more than slight deviations. She thought she had performed rather impressively, personally, though there was that nagging drift upward and leftward.

Her parents clapped and her grandfather raised an eyebrow, looking impressed, but Asaka's expression was neutral.

"Sorry to tell you," she said, "but that's considered terrible, unfortunately. Most of that accuracy is your enhancements. Let me show you."

At which point Asaka took the gun, adroitly reloaded the ammunition, and notched a humiliating:

"Mean error: 0.6 cm. Mean deflection: 0.02 radians counter‐clockwise from vertical. Standard deviation: 0.2 cm and 0.05 radians, respectively."

"It's really hard to suppress that upward drift," Asaka commented, handing the weapon back to her. "We have enough strength, but the instinct is to not use it. I want you to understand: I'm not even all that good. Our best snipers can hit insects from kilometers away, and the alien snipers are even better. If it weren't for point defenses, being infantry would be terrifying. Fortunately for us, our soul gem covers can tank sniper projectiles and lasers. Never leave home without it."

Ryouko blinked at the usage of the word "tank", but nodded.

"Ah, um, may I?" her grandfather asked awkwardly, holding out his hand. "I want to try it."

Asaka shook her head immediately.

"It will break your arm," she said. "The—um—even the regular Humans have musculoskeletal enhancements. You should wait for those. The city has civilian shooting ranges for hobbyists, if you want."

"Maybe one of the laser modes?" Ryouko suggested hopefully. "Those have a lot less recoil."

"Practically none," Asaka commented. "Alright, I guess. You drive a hard bargain."

Ryouko smiled, and that smiled turned into a frown of slight embarrassment as the few shots the old man had available missed terribly. Said old man chuckled sheepishly at the end to Asaka's patronizing smile.

Asaka offered her parents the same opportunity, but they deferred.

They stayed there a little longer, Ryouko practicing on her own while her grandfather struck up a halting conversation with Asaka about infantry weapons.

He must be nervous as well, Ryouko thought.

Of course, the weapons mattered more to him than to her.

Eventually, with a wary look around, Asaka snuck out with her grandfather to visit weapons storage, while Ryouko, trusted to watch over her own parents, explored with them the other facilities—the virtual combat simulations, the power study areas, and the sparring areas.

It was the last of these they spent the most time on, though Ryouko had wanted to spend some more time examining the concept of "power study". They stayed to watch a single practice round, held inside an enormous practice ring, chatting with an audience member, Risa Flores, who felt like talking.

Apparently, instead of wielding actual weapons, the ring simulated non‐damaging, holographic versions of their weapons and more dangerous powers, though their weaker powers were still free game. That was pretty critical, given the nature of the fights.

The three of them, Ryouko and her parents, watched as a girl wielding a spear and another with two swords went at it. The rules were simple: first injury that would be disabling if they were using real weapons ended the match. No potentially crippling use of powers was permitted. Soul gems were kept outside the sparring grounds, on a table, suitably in range to maintain control.

Even though the grounds were expansive—50 meters square, her implants judged—at first Ryouko wondered how they could possibly keep themselves confined to the area and not destroy everything around them, including the audience. Her question was answered when the match began and the telltale infrared flicker of an activating forcefield ringed the area, as well as the floor and ceiling.

The match was dynamic: the girl with swords was a telekinetic, and the one with the spear could summon chains that lashed out from her spear and stayed in place.

Unfortunately, there was no way to simulate damage. Attempts had been made early on to self‐configure enhancements to simulate damage by disabling muscles after impact by holographic weaponry. It seemed, however, that their bodies ignored the signals, keeping the muscles working through magic somehow.

"It probably interprets it as some sort of damage," Risa said. "All in all, it's probably a good thing, but it makes these matches less realistic."

She looked over Ryouko quickly.

"Teleporter, huh?" the red‐haired girl said. "Empath myself, though I've got a little telekinesis on the side. Unfortunately, these kinds of sparring areas are only useful for girls with certain types of powers. I'm sure you can see why it wouldn't really work for you or me. Still, fun to watch, and useful if it helps you. Some things just aren't the same in simulation. Nice to meet you, Shizuki‐san."

The girl bowed slightly, then stuck out her hand. Ryouko shook it a moment later.

"Nice to meet you, uh, Flores‐san."

Ryouko was never sure how to use the name of a foreigner when speaking Japanese. The girl's given name was Risa.

"Pleased to meet you too," the girl said, bowing to Ryouko's parents and greeting them properly. "I'm impressed she snuck you two in here, but since it seems to be your first time, I feel obligated to warn you that these matches get pretty brutal. We're not Human, at least not when we fight. The forcefields occasionally fail under the force, just to give you an idea."

"We understand," Ryouko's mother said, looking back at the girl and her freckles and curled hair. Ryouko wasn't sure why, but her mother said it rather strangely, almost as if annoyed.

Intellectually, they all understood, and Ryouko had even fought demons before, but that was not sufficient preparation.

Ryouko could barely keep track of the motion, and winced every time one of the girls slammed into a forcefield with bone‐crunching force. The girl with the spear was summoning up a veritable storm of chains, chains lancing constantly across the stage to force the other into a smaller and smaller space. The telekinetic was forced into a constant dance of telekinetic pushes and sword slashes, knocking away chains and sparring thrusts with an array of swords around her, smashing apart chains, trying to close the gap or gain enough time to manage a grab on the other girl's body. The spear‐wielder kept up a non‐stop flurry of spear thrusts and chain lashes, keeping the other girl back and reaching for the successful entanglement.

Ryouko snuck a glance rightward, at her father sitting rigidly grasping the armrests on his chair, clearly suppressing an instinct to call for help. He flinched with every impact that would have killed an unaugmented Human.

Strangely, her mother was calmer.

"It's all a blur to me," her mother said. "But you can follow it, can't you?"

"Of course she can," her father said. "Here."

He pointed at Risa, who was still watching the match. Specifically, he pointed at her eyes, but Ryouko couldn't see anything unusual, just eyes that were darting around extremely fast.

She turned back to look at her parents, confused.

"Her eyes, Ryouko," her mother explained. "To us, they're moving so fast her eyes look like a brown blur. We don't see pupils anymore. Honestly, it's kind of creepy."

"The infantry get some slight enhancements as part of the standard package," her father, shaking his head. "But nothing like that."

"Your file says you're new," Risa said, turning to face them, clearly having heard the conversation. "Why do your parents know so much?"

The girl seemed curious, though it almost seemed as if her question had a deeper meaning.

Ryouko made a half‐embarrassed gesture.

"Scientists," she said.

"I see," Risa responded.

The match ended when the telekinetic managed to blast one of the chains into the arm of the other girl, grabbing the spear‐wielding arm. The spear‐wielder quickly abolished her own chain, but the time wasted was enough for the other girl to gather a massive push, slamming her into the far wall along with a large collection of her own chains and a rather audible crunching sound. Before she could recover, the other girl launched herself through the air and completed a decapitation with both swords. Well, an imaginary double decapitation.

The forcefields shut down, both girls falling to the ground. The swordswoman immediately grabbed one shoulder, while the other forced herself into a sitting position with obvious pain. Others rushed forward to help, and there was a brief moment where the two girls held their newly retrieved soul gems up in a gesture of—respect? Camaraderie?

"They'll be fine in an hour," Risa said reassuringly. Ryouko's parents nodded, obviously convincing themselves to buy it. Ryouko was having difficulty herself.

"I'm not exactly feeling reassured by your choice in careers, Ryouko," her mother said, looking at her.

She learned a lot that night. For example, since their powers violated physical law, there was no way to accurately simulate them using physics. Rather, combat simulations were based on extensive recording of actual power usage. For this reason, it was impossible in simulations to do anything you hadn't done in the past, or things you didn't already know you could do. Because of this, those using the simulations were admonished not to let the simulations limit their imaginations, lest it limit their power development.

They met her grandfather again on the way out, where, her mother, to her chagrin, suggested she transform so they could all see her. She did so in a hidden corner, then returned and hid her expression as her father and grandfather glanced at each other and suppressed complex looks composed of both awe and bemusement, probably at the pointlessly ornate buttons and collar and wrist frills, something males would never understand.

They didn't look like they believed her when she said she claimed to have no influence on costume design. It didn't help when the knowledge spontaneously emerged in her brain that prevailing MSY theory on costume design was that it indeed reflected—and rarely, shifted with—personality, as well as some sort of collective unconscious, and just a trace of genetics. She was briefly confused, then realized her TacComp must have been "seamlessly" slipping the information to her. Then she was bothered: it was not what she wanted to hear.

It was only afterward that it occurred to her that her mother had actually been waiting for them to go outside, away from where there were too many gazing eyes, to spare her the embarrassment. She felt a bit ashamed, then, of blaming her.

It was then that the old man suggested that the two of them visit that spot near the starport again, to watch the sun rise. It was where the demons had attacked her, but she didn't feel compelled to mention that. If it happened again, she could handle it, or at least enable the two of them to escape.

So she hoped. It got her thinking about that pile of grief cubes again, and made her nervous, but she wouldn't stay away in fear of something stupid like that.

"Your friend Shirou‐san is quite knowledgeable about weaponry," the old man said, as the two of them lounged on the grass, watching the early morning sky, and the morning star.

"She seems like she would be," Ryouko said. "But we didn't talk about it much. I gather weapons aren't as important to us as they would be to the, ah, rest of the military."

She had nearly said "Humans." It was standard language when used in context, but she had changed it at the last moment, feeling that it was somehow insulting.

Again, she watched a scramjet begin its acceleration down the runway, antigrav giving it a lift that would have been impossible based on wings alone.

"I hadn't realized before tonight," she said. "But those kinds of things, EM Assault Rifles, Sniper railguns, they'll be important to you, soon, won't they? More important than to me."

"That's why I went to look," the old man said, looking at his hand. "Officially, we have it more relaxed than you. We're told not to worry about anything until we ship off to training. They'll take care of it all there."

"Unofficially, everyone worries, of course," he said. "I've taken them at their word, so I haven't really done more than read, but there are plenty out here who spend their last week in the public shooting ranges, practicing with the recreational firearms the government allows. Playing, more like. I wanted to practice with some serious weapons today, but that obviously wasn't going to work. Shirou‐san even said that the practice is meaningless unless done with the targeting enhancements in place and the full training suite in place. Same goes for you."

"I guess," Ryouko said, looking at her hand, thinking about "targeting enhancements". "I'm getting a pistol delivered home uh, today. I wonder how mom and dad are going to take that."

"Better than you might think," the old man said. "They're more ready for it than you'd expect."

That was a curious statement.

"How so?" Ryouko asked.

"I just mean that they're military researchers," her grandfather said. "They know a little of what to expect."

"That makes sense," Ryouko said.

"I'm not guaranteed to be infantry, you know," the old man said. "I could easily be assigned to something else."

It was a common meme that Earthers and core‐worlders were doomed to a fate of ground‐pounding upon entrance to the military. It was well‐known that the navy tried to recruit its pilots and crew from those with experience, primarily residents and crew of space stations, and of the many commercial liners and trade vessels that plied Human space. It was also well‐known that vehicle crews and atmospheric pilots tended to be pulled from the colonies, where piloting your own vehicles was still common.

It was not a wholly accurate meme. Earth's contribution to the armed forces outclassed the colonies, even combined, enough to earn its own cliché aphorism: "The soldiers of Earth die for the children of space." It was very possible to get other positions with no experience if they decided you had aptitude; there weren't nearly enough colonists or spacers to go around. A few worlds were developed enough to warrant an ocean‐faring navy, so if one had experience with the high seas, one could hope for a position there. And finally—

"I wasn't aware you had specializations," Ryouko continued, realizing the way she worded it sounded slightly insulting, but unsure how to be polite. "I know you used to be a doctor, but that was centuries ago. I thought that was too old to matter."

The old man chuckled to himself, then smiled slightly.

"I can hope, can't I? I've been brushing up on some of the newer material recently. I thought maybe I could get assigned to a field hospital or something, but I'm not really confident it will matter. I just wanted something to say."

He picked up a rock, and swung it towards the river, where it bounced exactly twice before sinking. Ryouko raised her eyebrow.

"Haven't seen that, have you?" the old man said, before she could say anything.

He shook his head.

"Kids these days."

The old man leaned forward, peering at the brightening sky in front of them.

"Your grandmother and I used to come out here, way back when we were first dating," he said. "I was seventy‐four, I think. She said she had memories here, something about a friend who went missing when she was young. I never really asked for too many details. Perhaps I should have."

A memory flashed briefly across the surface of Ryouko's mind.

Something that I lost, her grandmother had said.


They both knew what had turned out to have happened to so many of the girls that had gone missing over the years, despite all the Governance attention and surveillance. In the later years, it was mostly those from bad family situations, but still—

"You think she went looking?" Ryouko asked, eyes widening a little, looking at the old man.

"Maybe," Abe said, staring at the water, and the light reflected there. "Maybe not. It was so long ago. I don't know if she still cared. But it's the only thing that makes sense to me."

"And now you're looking for her," Ryouko said.

"Again, maybe," the old man said. "Or maybe I just want a new life. I just want some closure in this one."

He blinked.

"Which is not to say I want closure on you, or the rest of my family, or anything," her grandfather hastened to say. "But you know what I mean."

"She…" Ryouko began, trying to share her memory.

TacComp, can I send the memory to him?

Yes, but without the VR restrictions lifted, his experience of it will be limited.


Ryouko thought, wrestling with whether to say it or send it.

"She told me she lost something out there," Ryouko managed. "Once, long ago. I don't know if that makes sense."

"Did she now?" the old man asked rhetorically, tilting his head to look at her.

"I see," he finished.

They sat there for several minutes longer, long enough for it to become clear that the sun had risen, even if it was still hidden behind skyscrapers on the far side of the starport. The morning star was still visible, as arrogant as ever in trying to outshine the sun.

She wondered if she could get some kind of telescoping enhancement.

"Let's keep in touch, okay?" the old man said, finally. "Once we deploy, that is. We'll be on entirely different worlds, both metaphorically and literally, unless we're lucky enough to get assigned together, and if we are—"

He paused.

"I don't know if I could watch you taking the kind of injuries you girls take, so it may be best if we're not," he said, gloomily.

Ryouko wanted to contest that, but let it drop.

"Let's go," she said, pushing herself up. She looked at the windmills, remembered the demons that had once lurked there.

The old man nodded.

As promised, the weapon arrived early that day. Ryouko found it on her way up from a nap, the object lying nondescript and silent inside its tube, in the delivery slot by the door.

She picked it up in two hands, feeling its heft as she had the day before, trying to remember what Asaka had said. To her surprise, she found the pose again easily. A small bit of text scrolled in the lower corner of her field of view, explaining her confusion. It seemed her memory augmentations extended to procedural memory as well, though it was nothing as dramatic or as fully implemented as the event memory.

She felt the slight sense of recognition from the weapon, acknowledging its Human military user. Her grandfather had used one yesterday only because Asaka had granted temporary permission. Otherwise, it refused to fire outside of the hands of military personnel or drones. It even had limited intelligence, to prevent misfires. That was why there was no risk in simply routing it through the delivery tubes.

"This picture of you in pajamas, wearing a serious face, and pointing a gun at a vase, is going to make great material to show my friends," her mother said, appearing behind her unexpectedly.

"Ah!" she vocalized, quickly dropping her pose and turning to face her mother. She fiddled with the gun in her hands, not really sure what else to do with it. She wondered if she looked embarrassed.

"Your grandfather would probably say something about how back in his day, you'd shoot yourself doing something like that," the woman said, gesturing at her gun‐fiddling. "And then say something about how kids these days have no concept of why that'd even matter. Of course, he'd be lying, because he's not old enough to remember that far back. That kind of thing hasn't been an issue since before the Unification Wars. He likes pretending to be older than he is."

"I know," Ryouko said, settling on carrying the weapon idly in her right hand.

"Do you know what you're going to be doing this week?" her mother asked.

"I'm seeing a movie with my friends later today," Ryouko said. "To break the news, if they haven't already guessed."

It should be inferable, Ryouko thought. By now, the mandatory section instructor must have already announced her withdrawal from the school. Sudden, inexplicable moves were rare nowadays, and for someone of her age and gender, what other conclusion was there?

"And, uh, I have stuff scheduled for the rest of the week," Ryouko continued. "Mandatory visit to a psychiatrist, some sort of social event. Asaka suggested I go demon hunting again. But I have plenty of time, if that's what you're asking."

Ryouko thought she saw a look pass over her mother's face.

"Well, that's good to hear," Kuroi Nakase said. "I—"

She paused, thinking about what to say.

"I want you to be, uh, well, before you leave," she said, putting her hand to her mouth. "I want you to enjoy yourself. I don't, uh—"

"I'll be fine, mom," Ryouko said. "I promise."

Her mother closed her eyes briefly.

"Well, I've scheduled a party for the day before you and your grandfather leave," she said, folding her hands. "Invited your other grandparents, some family friends. Feel free to invite who you want. I've set up an invitation list. I, uh, invited that girl, Sakura‐san. She said she'd come."

Ryouko thought about that. The head of the Cult, MSY founder…

She supposed it was only fair to pull in Asaka and Patricia.

"Did you invite your friends like I asked you to?" her mother asked.

"Not yet," Ryouko said. "Since I'd have to first explain what the party is for, right?"

"Oh, right, of course," her mother said, still looking vaguely nervous.

"I'll be fine, mama," Ryouko reassured, even though of course she couldn't really know that.

"We'll see," her mother said.

Ryouko decided against bringing her weapon to show to her friends that afternoon, because ultimately she couldn't shake the feeling that it would be a rather strange thing to do.

She found the three of them waiting at the entrance of the theatre as she pulled up. It made sense; for them, it was merely a short elevator ride down to the twelfth floor of the same building from their school, but Ryouko, of course, hadn't attended that day.

It started off awkward, the four of them lingering on the skyway outside the building. They commented on her new bracelet, and Ryouko said something meaningless about how she thought it was nice.

"Ryouko," the long‐haired girl, Chiaki, said, finally. "Before we go in, the, uh—"

The girl made an abortive gesture with her hand.

"The teacher said you were leaving the school permanently," the other girl, Ruiko, finished, leaning forwards so that her pigtails oscillated with the motion.

Ryouko looked up at the taller girl, at her face, and the sunlight glimmering off the building behind her. She wondered what her own face looked like, as she tried to pull together the momentum to say what needs to be said.

"What's going on, Ryouko?" Chiaki asked, a moment later.

Ryouko stepped back and, instead of saying anything, raised her left hand and spread the fingers. The stealth on the cover was off, so the ring was plainly visible in the light.

She could only smile weakly as the realization spread over their faces.

"Ruiko said it might be this," Chiaki said, a moment later, shaking her head and looking bewildered. "But I didn't want to think so. Why, Ryouko? You don't have anything to wish for, you don't have any boyfriends… was it your grandfather?"

"That's too personal, Chiaki," Simona said, blocking the line of questioning. She shifted her position so that her body language spoke of protection. It was very like her.

"You knew?" the long‐haired girl asked, looking at Simona, taken aback.

"You're too sensible to understand," Ruiko said, shaking her head and looking at Chiaki. "Someone like you would never even get an offer. I told you; she hasn't been happy here."

"I—" the other girl began, before cutting herself off and stepping forward to grab Ryouko's shoulder.

"Someone like you—" she began, before shaking her head. "I can't imagine it. Be careful out there. I don't want to have to attend your funeral."

The tall girl, tomboyish despite her long hair and penchant for the violin, had always been vaguely protective of her. In truth, they all were. She was the shortest and most child‐like of the group. She had enough of a personality that the others allowed her to field things like arguments and love confessions on her own, but the slightest hint of a physical threat would always bring Chiaki—and, recently, Simona—out of the woodwork, sharpening imaginary knives.

Though it was all showmanship, since it wasn't as if the implants let civilians go too far with anything.

Simona cleared her throat.

"That's rather morbid of you, Chiaki," Ruiko criticized.

The girl stayed silent, shaking her head to herself. Ryouko hadn't anticipated that the effect would be this pronounced.

"I, uh," Ryouko began awkwardly, "am not sure how to bring this up, but my family is holding a, uh, party in a couple of days. You know, just before I leave. I'm adding you to the invitation list, so I'd like it for you all to attend. It'd be nice."

It was mortifyingly and hilariously off‐topic, but Chiaki stepped back and nodded.

"Yeah, I'll be there," she said. The others nodded.

Before she got a chance to even try to add the invitations herself, her TacComp fed her the knowledge that it was taken care of. It was, actually, pretty convenient.

"Okay, let's go see that movie then," Simona said, heading for the door so that it became essentially a command. They complied.

As they passed the giant holo‐statues of the main characters, Ryouko slowed, glancing over Mami, Kyouko, Yuma, Homura, and the goddess in the back. She was startled to realize she had met three of them, or, if you stretched the definition of "met", even four of them.

"Is something wrong?" Ruiko asked, noticing that she was staring.

"No, nothing," Ryouko said automatically, shaking her head.

She glanced at Simona, who was staring at Mami instead.

Then they headed for the feature presentation. Ryouko was surprised to learn from her TacComp that she could now go wherever she wanted in the theatre, Alloc‐free, but she chose to stay with her friends, of course. They grabbed snacks from the concession stand, then headed for a room. Her TacComp informed her, as a point of fact, that her military status allowed her to requisition a private room for them, though only she personally could receive full VR. She deferred on the VR; she didn't want to be the only one having a different experience.

At least they didn't have to wait to reach quota.

As she watched through the movie, she found it difficult not to constantly reflect on how, just a few weeks ago, it would have been a totally different experience.

Watching about Homura's childhood, she pondered just how different a world the "Ancients" hailed from. No one to rely on but you and your team, always living on the edge of survival, a world where failure didn't mean someone would pick you up so you could try again, but death, plain and simple death. A world where you couldn't even leave your section of the tiny city without risking conflict; a world where you always had enemies, whether you wanted them or not. Even the roads and the city reminded her how different things were: so few skyscrapers, and that asphalt they lined the ground with—now that she wasn't having a vision, she could look it the word up on the spot.

Her class had done an arts survey once, back in primary school, before the divergence of students into separate interests. The establishment of the MSY, with its relative security and prosperity, had prompted an unprecedented flowering of literature, art, music, and even films and video games, nearly all of it sealed into secret MSY channels, but some released into the wider world, as fantasy. Only in recent years had the rest of the world gained full access, and their assignment had been to select a particular topic to report on, subject to approval by the instructor.

She had chosen to discuss the "Nostalgic" period, the century or so after Governmental—as opposed to MSY—Unification, during which MSY culture had experienced a massive upsurge in art celebrating the chaotic past, and the idea of fighting alone or nearly alone for your ideals. Literature nearly deified great heroes or anti‐heroes of the past, fictional or not.

Many in the class had not understood why anyone would want to go back to the world of before, so uncertain, and so removed from the stable, secure lives they currently lived, even with the constantly looming shadow of alien annihilation. Even among the girls, who at that age generally had magical girls as a secret obsession, mostly failed to grasp the idea. Only the dreamers had understood, Ryouko especially, because she had read some of the literature in question, including a certain fictionalized epic from the period.

It had detailed the first century of the life of a certain Clarisse van Rossum—historian, dreamer, and hero of justice—as she wandered the earth, from the killing fields of Europe to the outskirts of Hiroshima, from revolutionary China to the jungles of Vietnam, from Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union to New York City at the beginning of the twenty‐first century. Finally, Japan again, in time to watch the MSY truly test its power for the first time. It was to be contrasted with the rather dry autobiography written by the actual Clarisse, who had supposedly choked on her coffee laughing the first time she tried to read the other version.

Ryouko had felt, then, an urging to travel, to go where things happened. As she grew older, though, she had grown to understand that things no longer happened on Earth. Things only happened at the frontier, in the colonies, or at the war. If you were impossibly lucky, you could specialize yourself enough to request travel to a colony that needed you, where, with enough money—and this time, it really was money—you could purchase your own ship, and visit other colonies, ferry goods, survey the many still‐unexplored systems of Human space…

That had been the dream, and it had been a difficult one, given that travel authorizations to the colonies were either exorbitantly expensive, or required outstanding contributions in your field. Cynics said that, rather than being designed to optimize resource allocation, the policy was really designed to funnel restless surplus population from Earth into the military, thereby killing two birds with one stone. The real cynics said the policy was designed to do both.

Ryouko had needed to find something, anything, that she was passionate enough about to do spectacularly well in.

That, or wait the hundred years to join the infantry.

Or the even more impossible dream: be visited by an Incubator, and make a contract.

She reflected on that, and watched the movie.

Watching a holographic Mami and Kyouko go through the motions in front of her, she found it difficult to square what she saw with what she had seen of them. It was so hard to imagine that they, too, had once been her age, and their personalities on‐screen seemed so different, almost restless and careless somehow, for all the wisdom that this younger Mami seemed to be trying to convey.

Perhaps, though, it was just an artifice of the acting and her own imagination.

She watched Homura be visited by her white Goddess, and began idly criticizing the inaccuracies of the depiction, before realizing the irony of doing so.

She wondered, then, about what was really going on. She had never really delved into the details of the unusual beliefs of the MSY's missing founder, but now she found herself wishing she had. Why did this movie imply that she had a past life? Why did she say the things that would eventually form the underpinnings of Cult theology? Why indeed did she have angel wings?

That was her problem with the Cult, she thought. Perhaps they were right about their answers, but before she would accept their view on things, she had to see the truth for herself, and part of that involved learning what she could about Homura.

She made a note to her TacComp to do that later. It responded with a bit of text reminding her that it could not access any of her supposed memories of her vision, or any of her supposed visualizations of such, and that whenever she focused on it, the device found itself unaccountably losing grasp of her thoughts. Indeed, it would have been enough to demand immediate return for diagnosis and repair, had it occurred for any other reason.

She watched Yuma crying on the stairs and remembered her vision of her crying over her dead comrade. Oriko, if Ryouko remembered her stories correctly—as she did, her TacComp affirmed.

She had thought about her vision of Yuma earlier. She had thought that it was wrong, but on careful consideration, there was nothing technically false about it. Yuma's team had died at the hands of demons, according to the story, and she had left to go seek help in the only place she could. Yuma crying over her dead mentor among a crowd of demons is exactly what would be expected.

Except her first thought during the vision had been that it was wrong, for no reason she could explain. And the look in Yuma's eyes, and the darkness of her soul gem—that didn't match up.

Ryouko brooded over the scenes depicting the foundation of the MSY and its aftermath, especially when it became clear the history would be depicted in montage. A secret international organization of incredibly powerful girls, controlling vast financial resources, presiding over the most tumultuous period of Human history—their impact on history should have been immense, and yet the history books were silent. The Unification Wars and the MSY might as well have been on two different planets, as far as they were concerned. Ryouko sensed it was wrong and, for once, so did many others. But that didn't give her answers.

As the movie entered its next stage, Ryouko remembered the first time she had seen a full, uncensored set of stock footage from Aurora. It had been in sixth level History, and it had been the first time for the majority of them. She and her classmates had sat with expressions alternating between shock and gritted teeth as child and adult alike were gutted with lasers, as even the colony AIs had their computing clusters ruthlessly melted.

She had wanted to make a difference then, to do something where she could feel that she was contributing to something, rather than wasting away on Earth.

Finally, she watched the battle, grimly paying far more attention to the details of survival than she normally would have, keeping an eye on every teleporter that appeared, even though she knew a movie was hardly the place to be gathering battle insight.

And as Homura confronted the planet‐scouring superweapon, and the movie entered its last stages, Ryouko thought once more about the truth.

After the movie, and some degree of subsequent hijinks, they found themselves several floors up from the theatre, seated in an eating area. At this point, Ruiko and Chiaki excused themselves for the bathroom, carbonated drink gluttons that they were.

Ryouko, lost in the trend of her thoughts, mused that some things were forever the same—except when they were not.

It was a common conversational topic—among those who didn't happen to be eating at the same time—that if it were really desired, even that physiological function could be greatly reduced or eliminated, but a combination of practical and philosophical concerns prevented it from being implemented.

Ryouko had read an article about it once. On the one hand, excess electrolytes and water had to be eliminated somewhere if not in urine, and while water could be vaporized, the electrolytes had to be sweated out. Beyond that, while solid food processing could be—and was—elevated to greater levels of efficiency, there was always residual material that could only be processed with artificial oxidation. This also applied to urea, which could be combusted completely. However, these kinds of artificial energy extraction were considered to have deleterious effects on natural element cycles—for instance, urea combustion would essentially reverse nitrogen fixation—would require complex secondary modifications to waste excretion systems, and was generally considered pointlessly manipulative in service of a dubious goal.

Reading about it again, Ryouko was surprised to find that she had a new selection of security‐redacted subtopics to choose from, and delved into them gladly.

Apparently, there was one application in which such modifications had found extensive use. The military found that, in the field, secondary waste processing promoted greater combat efficiency, greater sanitation, and a removal of the need for latrines and so forth, with the only side effect being a much heavier emission of gasses and sweat, which could be dealt with effectively by combat suits and smart clothing. Extracted energy could even be diverted into internal energy sources, in the same manner as extra energy from food, extending combat range and reducing the risk of power shortages. While really only necessary for ground troops in heavy combat or assignment far from supply lines, it was considered valuable enough to deploy as a toggle‐able option into all ground units. Supposedly, the troops themselves approved of it greatly.

This was, of course, the same military that was rumored to be actively working on photosynthetic skin and direct hydrocarbon consumption, so it was clear what angle they were coming from.

Ryouko spent so long on the topic that she almost missed her chance, but she finally remembered that she had been waiting for this opportunity. She and Simona were alone, still waiting for the other two to come back from the bathroom, where they were taking an inordinate amount of time.

She and Simona were seated on opposite sides of a table in front of the synthesized food stand, across the plaza from the bathrooms. It was another one of those scenes that would have set her grandfather's head shaking, this time at the "boring atmosphere" and "lack of diversity", whatever that meant. It never worked to point out that the synthesizer had a nearly unlimited range of selections. He would just shake his head again and say that she wouldn't understand.

"Simona," Ryouko began, to get her attention.

"Hmm?" the girl responded, seeming to wake from something and sitting up. "Oh, uh, yeah."

She had been uncharacteristically silent the whole time, Ryouko realized.

"You don't have to apologize for two days ago," Ryouko said friendlily. "It's totally understandable. But I was wondering…"

She paused to gauge the other girl's reaction. Simona seemed tense, somehow.

"You said you had something to say, just a moment before we were interrupted by the demons," Ryouko said. "We never really got back to that."

Simona started slightly, eyes jumping to Ryouko's face, then away again.

"Ah, well, that," she said, smiling slightly. "It's not really, um, critical."

"Are you sure?" Ryouko asked, countering Simona's flummoxed body language with a serious demeanor of her own. She hadn't expected her question to trigger a reaction like that, especially given Simona's slight loss of Japanese fluency when bothered. Something was up.

"Yes, yeah, I'm certain," Simona responded.

"Are you really sure?" Ryouko repeated.

"Yes," Simona repeated, firmer.

"Simona," Ryouko said seriously. "If it's important, you should really say it now. I'll be gone in a week. You won't get another chance for a long time."

She had almost said "You might not get another chance." but had decided that sounded too fatalistic.

"I'm sure, Ryouko," Simona said, eyes suddenly dark and serious. "Really."

Ryouko thought for a moment, then nodded slowly.

It didn't quite fit with what she wanted to do, but she decided to let it go. She believed in autonomy: Simona could make her own decisions. Besides, Ryouko needed to move on to the other thing she wanted to ask about.

"Alright," she said. "I'll trust your judgment. Ah, this might seem like a weird question, but do you remember the day you transferred into our school? Like a year ago?"

"Yes?" Simona said, this time seeming confused. "What about it?"

"Well, uh," Ryouko began, realizing what a silly question it sounded like now that she was wording it. "When you were introducing yourself, I thought I saw you look at me. It seems silly to say now, but at the time I could have sworn you looked like you knew me. It really bothered me at the time. I guess I was reminded of it recently. What was it about?"

Ryouko was looking to the side, not making eye contact on such a non sequitur of a question, so she was surprised when several moments passed without a response.

"Simona?" she asked, looked at the other girl's face.

"I just thought you looked, uh, unusual, that's all," the response finally came, the other girl now the one avoiding eye contact. "I was, uh—"

Ryouko waited.

"You were the shortest person in the class," Simona said finally. "And you looked so juvenile. That was what I was considering. I never brought it up because I supposed you wouldn't want to hear it from yet another person."

Ryouko closed her eyes and made a pained expression.

"Well, you guessed right," she said, annoyed briefly. "Everyone says that. For once, I'd like—"

She stopped sharply, remembering the reason she had started this conversation.

"Are you sure that's it?" she asked. "I really thought you were looking for some other reason. It was like you looked straight at me."

"No, that was pretty much it," Simona said, shrugging. "You surprised me with a question like that, after all this time."

"Huh," Ryouko said meaninglessly.

"Can I say something?" Simona said, leaning forward onto the table.

"Sure. Fair enough, I suppose," Ryouko responded.

"Chiaki really cares for you," Simona said, inclining her head in the direction of the bathroom. "They both do, in their own way. Why do you think they've taken so long in the bathroom? I bet they're talking about you. I know you've got your eyes set on bigger things, but—"

Ryouko closed her eyes and nodded.

"I know," she said. "I've thought about it, a little. It's always been my nature to look out at the future. Obviously, that was what I was thinking about when I made the contract. But I should have thought about my friends more. It's just… how I am, I guess. I've always been more inclined towards other things."

She smiled slightly.

"My mother says I must have gotten it from my father, because I certainly didn't get it from her."

"You don't need to apologize," Simona said. "As long as you remember. I…"

Her voice trailed off, until she finally shrugged.

Finally, Chiaki and Ruiko appeared again from the bathroom area, without even the shame to appear embarrassed about the time they had spent in there.

In the normal course of things, it would have been time to go home, but Ryouko took the moment to pitch something she had been thinking about. Her TacComp was already sending the messages to her parents.

It was short notice to plan a sleepover, but she figured she could get away with a bit more these days.

Are you sure? Kyouko asked, staring at the Incubator plushy on her tiny wooden desk, even though she was sure that there no actual functional reason to look in its direction.

I think the real question is: Why wouldn't we? the doll—or rather, Yuma—responded. I think it's the natural thing to do.

It just seems rather intrusive, Kyouko thought. I can keep tabs on Ryouko perfectly fine; I'm her commanding officer. If I wanted to, I could keep a constant watch on her location.

Which means exactly squat if some hypothetical assassin has sufficient clearance and good electronic hygiene, Yuma countered. Look, it's for her own protection. I'm not sure why you're so against it.

Kyouko shook her head, even though no one was there to see her.

I'm just not comfortable with you planting a spy bug on her, she thought.

Says the girl who gave Ryouko's parents and grandfather microphone‐embedded chocolates, Yuma thought drily. Seems rather inconsistent of you.

That's–that's different! Kyouko thought, realizing instantly that Yuma was right. That's standard MHD procedure.

Yes, Yuma agreed. And MHD surveillance is also protection, just of a different sort. She'll never have to know.

And why shouldn't she? Kyouko asked, though she had already intuited what Yuma would say.

Because as much as we don't like it, we can't trust her fully either. We can tell her later, if it seems like there's nothing wrong.

Kyouko slumped forward onto her table, cheek against the surface. She sighed.

I'm not talking you out of this, am I?

No. But if it's any consolation, you at least agree with the other half of it, right?

Kyouko sighed again. She looked at her bed, for once well‐made, and completely empty.

Yes, she thought. It's just… everyone I'd rely on to do something like that is leaving very soon. I'm short of manpower, and personally I'm pressed for time.

There was a brief pause.

You have plenty of subordinates, Kyouko‐nee‐chan.

I know, I know, Kyouko thought. It's just inertia. I'll pick someone to try to keep busy and occupied and incidentally watch out for her. It wouldn't even be that hard to explain away.

I'm sure you will. And nee‐chan…

Yes? Kyouko prompted when nothing further was forthcoming.

Watch yourself. I don't want to put any stock in these visions, but if there's any truth in them, staying away from submarines might not be enough.

Kyouko thought about that.

Alright, she thought.

Chapter Text

The single most valuable innovation the MSY brings to the magical girl system is the refinement of the demon hunt. The rationalization the MSY would eventually bring to the process was the single greatest revelation in the magical girl condition ever. The paradigm of the entire system shifted, from a situation where magical girl teams struggled to harvest even a fraction of the grief cubes available in a given city, to one where grief cube harvesting was saturated with relatively little effort. Death rates collapsed, grief cube supply shifted from persistent deficit to persistent surplus, and the vast majority of the MSY ceased being directly involved in grief cube harvesting, choosing instead to earn money, pursue research, or even just lead pleasant lives in relative normalcy.

The MSY approach to demon hunting emphasizes two core principles: efficiency and safety. These ideals are attained and maximized via intense scrutiny and regulation of the entire process of grief cube harvest, with every detail considered and analyzed.

Firstly, miasma patrols are carried out with statistical exactness, the frequency of a patrol passing through an area in direct proportion to the frequency of miasma formation in the historical record. These probabilities are updated constantly, adjusted by such factors as recent miasma occurrences, day of the week, the presence of major dignitaries, and so forth, the influence of each factor empirically deduced from centuries of data.

Secondly, hunting tactics are polished to the point where the demon hunt is neither an art nor a science, but merely a routine. Optimized team compositions are carefully chosen, obsessively characterized and stereotyped battle tactics are used, and division of labor is carefully adhered to. Guiding doctrines are both codified and embedded into the culture, and fire control is practiced.

Finally, though not a direct boon to the MSY, civilian rescue is heavily prioritized, for ethical reasons, though not at the risk of the organization's own members—a rule that is imperfectly adhered to.

MSY harvesting doctrine is nothing less than the rationalization of production of a basic good, in a manner the world had achieved in other basic goods a century earlier. Just as industrial rationalization transformed Human society, grief cube rationalization transformed the underworld of magical girl society. Viewed through this lens, the MSY's success was nothing less than a triumph of capitalist economic thought.

"The MSY as a Triumph of Rationalization," Journal of Economics, Article for the Public, excerpt.

Ryouko's first shipment of grief cubes arrived the next day. Unlike the seemingly more dangerous pistol she had received earlier, these were not entrusted to the standard small item delivery systems. Instead, upon waking from another early morning nap and getting dressed, her TacComp informed her that she had a delivery waiting at the door.

Opening the door remotely, she headed out her door to meet the delivery bot halfway.

This one was different than the usual packbot, but not by much. It was small, a third of a meter in diameter and barely the height of Ryouko's foot off the ground. Rounded at the top, it rather strongly resembled a floor‐cleaning robot, though it was much too large to be one of those.

On her approach, it rolled itself to her feet.

In need of cubes? it inquired of her, in what she was starting to instinctively recognize as implant‐mediated telepathy. Its mental voice was squeaky, even though there was no need for it to be so.

It stared up at her with its single optical sensor.

Not at the moment, she thought. But I'll take them all the same.

No need to place them personally, the robot thought. I will place them where you desire.

On my desk then? she thought inquiringly, wondering how it would ever get the objects up there.

Very well, it thought, wheeling off towards her bedroom, tempting Ryouko to add the adverb merrily, though she knew that the device was too simple to have emotions like that.

Curious, Ryouko followed it back to her room. It stopped in front of her desk, then levitated straight off the floor, startling Ryouko, who had to remind herself that, yes, antigrav did exist—it was just a rare extravagance seen primarily on spacecraft, aircraft, and very expensive toys.

It landed gently on her desk, a large metallic box sliding out of its side and landing next to it with a light thump. The box was 3 inches on each side and about 2 inches high. Ryouko had a feeling she knew what it was.

Very different from the standard packbot, she mentally corrected.

Ryouko didn't need to look at her ring to know that she was still nearly full, metaphorically speaking, but she walked to the box all the same, the box springing open at her command. Inside, three grief cubes nestled on some sort of white material she couldn't identify. Three was overkill, but as they had said, they were careful with new recruits.

She picked one up with her hand, looking at it in the sunlight from her window. Somehow, they didn't seem quite like what she was expecting. The ones they had found next to the building three nights ago had seemed to ooze malevolence. These seemed quiet, almost docile.

The ones from then had been full, though, whereas these were empty. It made sense.

Still, it unsettled her.

Whatever the case, though, these were definitely empty. She could tell.

She placed the one she had been holding on the table, then summoned her soul gem and placed it next to the cube, The gem discharged a burst of darkness, particles of pure black flying toward the cube for maybe ten seconds, then returned to dormancy.

Ryouko sighed, because it seemed like the right thing to do. It was hard to describe—it was almost like her stress level had dropped, ever so slightly.

Then the ring reappeared on her finger, and she placed the cube back in the box.

The packbot watched the process unfold with the unblinking stare of its round optical sensor.

Very good, it thought. Should you fully utilize one, feel free to leave it on the table or in the box, and I will take care of it. Alternatively, if you're not home, you may summon an air drone yourself at any time.

You'll take care of it? Ryouko thought. Does that mean you're not leaving?

That is correct, the drone thought. I will stay here and watch over the cubes. This fulfills multiple purposes. Besides providing convenience, I can also warn civilians not to touch them. The box itself also provides warning in the eventuality of the cubes spawning demons. This is highly unlikely, given their empty state, but a theoretical possibility. I can leave if you wish, but otherwise I have been assigned to this residence until your departure.

Wait, how would the box know? Ryouko asked. Shouldn't the miasma interfere?

If a grief cube disappears it immediately assumes the worst, before the miasma can grow.

Oh, right. Well, uh, don't worry about it. You can stay.

The robot set itself down onto her desk, retracting its wheels back into its body, until it was just a smooth shell on the desk, with its optical sensor facing the box silently.

Ryouko lay back down on her bed, taking the moment to stare at her ceiling. She didn't have anything planned for today.

Maybe I should study, she thought.

Current ground combat doctrine emphasizes mobility, flexibility, and survivability, her TacComp recited to her.

The lesson of the Unification Wars is that, with the technological ability of every individual soldier to achieve unprecedented levels of battlefield awareness, it is impossible to conceal weaknesses from opponents. Truly hardened defenses can be circumvented and rendered pointless, while in every other combat sector, victory goes to whoever can strike the other's weaknesses first. With the propensity of both sides to use orbital firepower to ravage large expanses of land, it is rarely feasible to mount a successful defense in depth. The proper response to an impending enemy offensive is to attack first; the proper response to a surprise attack is to seek counter‐attack. Neutralizing command‐and‐control and destroying communications is disproportionately effective compared to the mere destruction of materiel.

It recited the text to Ryouko at a pace far faster than any Human could speak; faster than she could read, even, taking advantage of her implants to pour the information into her thought processes.

She lay on her bed, looking up, but instead of her ceiling, saw the visual accompaniment to the topic, consisting of diagrams or videos illustrating whatever was being talked about, flashing by at a similarly enormous rate. Usually, the point was clear enough, but occasionally the audio slowed down so that the accompanying video could be taken in; video intake could not be accelerated to anywhere near the rate of audio intake.

As the words flowed by, she could sense the plethora of possible branch‐points, where it was possible to dive into subtopics or related topics, and then into other topics from there, in an unending maze of exploration. It was as if every time she opened a box, she found a hundred others inside.

Just to make it clearer, her mental "screen" also displayed the list of topics, rapidly flowing and shifting, and also displaying prominently the few topics she had flagged for future follow up.

Since the device had stopped and was waiting expectantly, Ryouko thought about it, then chose a topic to continue. She chose combat command.

Compared with past eras, combat command is heavily decentralized. Infantrymen and officers are, compared to the past, extremely autonomous, entrusted to analyze the situation and do the right thing every time, with only vague objectives handed down from above. This serves to improve all three functions of command—mentioned later—improve unit mobility and flexibility, and improve the ability of the command structure to survive decapitation strikes. However, the command structure is still vital to both alien and Human, because of the necessity of the critical currency of information.

Even with ubiquitous Tactical Computers and embedded intelligence in nearly every device, soldiers are inundated with deluges of information vastly in excess of what can be processed. For instance, the average infantryman is required to maintain constant awareness of every other combat unit in the area, every member of the unit, and of every nearby drone semi‐sentient and above, in the last case often issuing combat directives.

Ryouko thought about diving further into either combat drones or infantry combat, especially given the juicy diagrams flying by, showing types of common combat drones and equipment, but decided to let it continue.

In relation to this, the command hierarchy serves three critical functions. The first is to delegate the distribution of information, deciding who receives what information. This task is handled by command AIs, with oversight by senior officers.

The second is the classical provision of command. Individual units and soldiers, focused on survival and the achievement of local tactical objectives, do not have the spare processing capacity to analyze the battlefield as a whole, nor would they be likely to ever prioritize the performance of such an analysis. Higher‐level objectives are given by the top of the command structure, viewing the battlefield from the highest levels, and drawing upon immense computing power, usually the full power of an underground computing cluster or battlecruiser processing core. These objectives are disseminated downward, reprocessed into smaller objectives by subordinate officers, and so forth.

The third is the provision of authority. Often, decisions must be made with insufficient information and insufficient time, with too many variables for the command and control systems to reach an obvious, or even likely, choice. In these situations, something must be decided and agreed upon, for better or worse.

The importance of these three roles is reflected in the design of the command structure, which is built to be robust, with authority and processing resources being redirected automatically to the correct person in every situation, depending both on rank and location. This is true from the Field Marshal all the way down to the sergeant. The command hierarchy is designed to keep operating under nearly every circumstance, and has in several instances survived decimation of upwards of sixty percent.

To truly disorganize the ground forces of either side, it is not sufficient to take out command‐and‐control; one must also destroy effective communication. Combat communications is the lifeblood of military operations. Soldiers rely on it to keep attuned with members of their squads, and with other squads in the area. Brigades and divisions use them to keep an eye on each other, and on the enemy. Commanders rely on it so that they may comprehend the battlefield and issue correct commands. The command structure survives the loss of its members by redistributing itself through its communication networks, and it survives the loss of communication by relying on its local commanders, but it is very hard pressed to survive both. Ground combat doctrines emphasize the elimination of both to ensure victory.

Again, Ryouko was given a wide range of options, including options for reading more detail about communication networks and command provision, about the operations of the chain of command, and so forth. She chose one particularly close to heart.

The MG branch of the military is its own unique element of the officer corps, each member serving as both part of the command structure and a hard‐hitting unit in her own right. Power type and effective firepower vary, but each MG is the equivalent of at least a company, with numerous examples of mages providing combat performance at the battalion or even regimental level, which is particularly impressive given the enormous combined firepower of modern military units.

As the reason the Human military can even compete with the alien military, mage capabilities and performance underlie a significant portion of military doctrine, both on the ground and in space. Combat experience early in the current war revealed that, while formidable opponents, isolated mages can be eliminated with relative ease in detail, the Cephalopods learning quickly that extremely concentrated firepower on one would often provide elimination. On the other hand, the concentration of too many mages in one location allows for the possibility of a superweapon strike, as has been proven with ghastly results several times.

This experience proved that granting mages officer status, as politically motivated as it was, was a wise decision. As a result of these previous experiences, MG combat doctrine states that individual deployment on the battlefield is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. In the field, mages rely on the platoon or company they command for fire support and screening, and cooperate heavily with the other mages in their division. Even at the head of units, mages rarely operate in groups of less than five, averaging around a dozen, and occasionally turning out a whole regiment's worth of fifty or so. It is not an uncommon sight to see a group of MGs leading an assault on a position, each relaying commands to individual units as they go.

Besides merely improving survivability, this concentration of mages dramatically improves combat performance, especially on the offensive. Mages are naturally suited for the offensive and counter‐offensive, outputting far more firepower than they can take in return. They especially demand rapid advances, because of the limitations imposed by grief cube supply. Because of this, ground combat doctrine has molded around them; the hyper‐aggressive nature of ground combat is simply the most effective way to function.

The closest analogy that can be made is to the role of armor in the early stages of Second World War, but even this analogy is not perfect. Still, it is instructive that the experiences of the Nazi blitzkrieg early in the war led to the adoption of armor concentration tactics by all participants, with the use of armor as the spear point of offensives. It is for the same reasons that mages in the field are concentrated into magical divisions, analogous to the armored divisions of the past, though these divisions are, of course, well supplied with armor as well. Indeed, at the very apex of offensive thrusts, it is common to find shock troops of MGs detached from standard units entirely, sacrificing defensive capability for shock and awe.

It is not, however, true that mages are entirely absent from other divisions. Nearly all divisions have a few specialist mages performing roles designed to optimize their contribution to the division. These are usually instructed to shun heavy combat.

At this point, Ryouko's TacComp stopped again, and she again sensed a range of options to continue. She could choose for elaboration on divisional allocation of mages, a description of policies regarding preserving MG lives at the expense of others, or a continuation of the previous topic into space combat and combat doctrine.

I want to come back to space combat later, but for now, what is this MG life policy? she thought, driven by morbid curiosity, among other things.

The plain truth is: the life of the average MG is worth far more than the average infantryman, far more than any armored vehicle or piece of equipment, and more than the average platoon or company. Because of this, one of the harshest points of basic training is for mages to forgo heroism, and to save themselves even at the expense of ordering their own unit into certain death. It is one of the most frequently disobeyed and least‐enforced doctrines on the books, but it does exist, and has a measurably positive effect on MG survival.

This point is also strongly indoctrinated on the other end, with the relevant combat units being constantly reminded that self‐sacrifice for one's MG commander is the moral and war‐winning thing to do. Units are encouraged to treat their commanders as the equivalent of unit flags, and the point is made that it would be shameful for centenarians such as them to allow a teenage girl to die to save their own lives, even if in many cases the girls aren't exactly teenaged. This end of the doctrine, though voluntary, is much more frequently obeyed, with countless instances of individual soldiers or units performing suicidal actions, often disobeying orders, to ensure the survival of the unit commander. Indeed, there are several decorations awarded for just this kind of action, with any insubordination usually glossed over or ignored. It is one of the more interesting aspects of military culture.

Here, her TacComp stopped again, and Ryouko leaned back against her wall to take it in. Yes, it made sense, but… it just seemed so cruel. She wasn't surprised that the doctrine was often disobeyed.

As for the other end, she wasn't sure how she would feel, being idolized as a battle flag.

I guess I'll find out, she thought.

She started to ask for the device to continue, but received the internal ping! of an arriving message, or rather, of an arriving message that she needed to read. She was receiving a lot more messages nowadays, but now also had a much better personal filter for it.

So, she thought. Kyouko wants me to join her on another demon hunt. Why not, I guess. It's not as if I had anything else planned.

She got up and headed out the door, grabbing the box of grief cubes as an afterthought. Unnoticed, a surveillance drone the size of a fly clung to her hair, cloaked.

This time, Ryouko wasn't going with just Kyouko, but was part of a larger group. The message said that they were gathering in the Cult's "rear garden" and that was where she went, mildly surprised to find herself pulling up next to a building that resembled nothing less than a restored European church. The side she was looking at was shaded, facing away from the afternoon sunlight.

It was actually pretty impressive it got sunlight at all, this far down, now that she thought of it.

She was tempted to ask the vehicle if it was sure it was in the right place, but instead she stepped out, having spotted someone familiar. Besides, she knew this was the right place; she certainly recognized most of the route by this point.

Ryouko took a moment to look around at what was apparently a rose garden, sucked in a pungent lungful of rose scent—freshly amplified by nasal implants—then dove among the rows of planted vines to speak to Risa, the girl from yesterday, who was standing in the garden talking to Patricia. Ryouko was surprised to see them there, and said as much.

"I don't spend all day in the lab, you know," Patricia, adjusting her hair, acting affronted. "Occasionally I do other things too."

Risa shrugged.

"I lead this patrol group," she said. "Patricia here is just tagging along. I didn't mention it yesterday?"

Ryouko shook her head no, then focused a look at the other girl. It didn't make sense, but did Risa seem nervous?

The girl turned and began to walk, gesturing at Ryouko to follow.

They maneuvered around the other girls and thorny rose vines that populated the Cult center's rear garden. Ryouko looked around, head tilting. The building looked so different here that it might as well have been a different building, she thought. It didn't help that the scent of roses prickled constantly at her nose. So far, her enhanced smell had been nothing but bothersome, though the manuals swore it would be useful in combat.

She found herself standing next to Kyouko, who was standing with her arms on her hips, looking over the rest of them. She seemed aggrieved at something, even as Ryouko mused that the pose made her look remarkably matronly. Perhaps it was something about her body language.

"Asaka applied to join Mami's command staff," Kyouko explained, gnawing at her—synthesized—beef jerky, without even bothering to wait for a conversation to start. "She'll be leaving soon. She sends her regards, and apologizes that she's leaving you early."

Kyouko looked at her with one eye, judging her reaction, while Risa watched the both of them quietly, eyes darting back and forth. Why was she being so quiet, come to think of it?

"You don't seem exactly shocked," Kyouko commented, seeming almost annoyed.

"Oh, well, she mentioned something about it yesterday," Ryouko said, shifting nervously. "I asked my questions then."


Kyouko seemed distracted too. Ryouko would have left it alone, but Kyouko continued:

"Patricia is a valued scientist, but she's got it in her head that she wants to go, too. She just needs some practice to recover her combat skills; that's what she says. I tried to talk her out of it, but she won't listen. And—"

The girl shook her head, then aggressively tore off another piece of the meat.

"Anyway," Kyouko said. "This time will be a little different. You'll be coordinating with a larger group. It's pretty clear you shouldn't be a face‐to‐face fighter, but given your specific power set, we should have a nice role already laid out for you. You'll see. It's your first time, so don't strain yourself too much. Oh, and improvise. Don't be a machine."

Kyouko said the last sentence with a strange smile that unnerved her, because it didn't seem right coming from her. Other than that, Kyouko seemed to be in a hurry of some sort.

"Anyway, I can't go with you," Kyouko said, tugging absently at the bow in her hair. "So Risa and Patricia will be keeping you company. Patricia is fragile in close‐combat, just like you, so you can be her transportation. Where is that girl anyway? I told her and Risa to follow you!"

Before Ryouko had a chance to say anything, Kyouko spun around, somehow focusing on the exact spot where Patricia was staring at a plant, lost in thought. A moment later, Patricia seemed to startle, then turned and walked towards them.

"Oh, sorry," she apologized. "I've got a lot on my mind."

"Soul gem sensing," Kyouko said, again before Ryouko could think to ask; indeed, before she even changed face expressions. "Useful if you master it, and if you know the people involved, though no one expects someone as new as you to be able to track anyone out of costume. Also, telepathy. Get used it. Take care of her, the two of you. Introduce her to the others. Don't let her be a loner."

With that, Kyouko spun on her heel and stalked back into the building, almost as if she wanted to storm back in but couldn't out of propriety. She really seemed to be in a hurry.

Ryouko glanced at Patricia, who was wearing a bothered expression.

"What's with her?" she asked, figuring she might as well ask.

Patricia glanced downward.

"You've, uh, heard that Asaka and I are leaving, right?" she said, a moment later, fiddling with her ponytail. "But it's not just that. Somehow, us saying that triggered Maki saying she wants to leave, too. Kyouko's not happy."

"Ah, so she's unhappy you're all leaving?" Ryouko asked. "That makes sense, I guess."

She wondered if being unhappy made Kyouko more abrupt, and made her stop giving context to her sentences. Apparently so.

Patricia looked at her with an expression she couldn't decipher.

"Yeah, something like that," Patricia said.

Ryouko wanted to ask more, but the air was so thick with awkwardness that you could cut it with a knife. It hardly seemed an awkward enough topic to cause an atmosphere like this, but somehow it had happened.

She shifted a little, trying to think of what to say, but Risa pulled at her arm and drew her to some of the other girls, so she could introduce herself. Ryouko caught the point, stepping away and leaving Patricia with her thoughts.

This would be easy if the miasma weren't so damned clever, Risa thought to Ryouko, as they lunged and weaved their way through the high‐rises. We could just wait for someone's signal to disappear, then show up and take care of business. But of course the miasma forges the signature somehow. Same with the cameras. We have semi‐sentients watching the signals anyway, since sometimes it's obviously faked. You don't usually see a whole cohort of pedestrians suddenly stop and stand around on the same stretch of skyway for more than ten minutes, but we've gotten false positives before.

I had no idea the miasma was so sophisticated, Ryouko thought.

It's almost a creature on its own, Patricia thought. It has to be, for regular humans to have missed it for so many centuries. There's considerable evidence that demon miasmas change over time, becoming more sophisticated to evade surveillance. It's bothersome, but that's how it always has been, or so we think. In the past there were even differences depending on where you were on the planet, though nowadays most observed diversity is interplanetary.

Patricia was saving herself work by standing on some sort of flying drone, accompanied by a small fleet of others, all angry looking, complete with gun turrets. Ryouko, who was hoofing it to get practice, was mildly envious.

There was one last month where the camera showed a party spilling out of a bar into the street, explaining why all these people were standing around, Risa thought. Of course, we still noticed, because it didn't make sense that a bunch of people who had been walking down the street the moment before were suddenly part of a bar party, but the damn things are getting better. Slowly. Very slowly, which is lucky for us.

The ones we can catch the easy way are only a minority, Patricia thought. Most miasmas are found the old‐fashioned way, with statistical forecasting and carefully plotted patrol routes. It's actually better to find one on patrol, since in that case it's usually a lot smaller when you find it, and probably hasn't ensnared anyone yet. The downside is that when one appears in a very low probability area, it's often missed for quite a while, like what happened to you.

Patricia stopped there, realizing that she had referred to an event that wasn't exactly natural. A look crossed her face, but she didn't say any more.

Ryouko navigated the seemingly endless urban forest, vaulting from tube to platform to balcony, up and down and forward. Most around her did it the old‐fashioned way, jumping and lunging like she did. Others augmented their travel with magic, tempting Ryouko sorely to teleport a little, because it seemed so much easier. As she watched, one girl performed a giant leap towards a platform, except that it was clear she hadn't put enough strength into the jump and was going to fall short—until she shot up and over the edge at the last moment, defying physics to perform an aerial maneuver.

"Showoff," Ryouko heard someone—she didn't catch who—mutter under their breath.

Every one of us is capable of limited aerial maneuvering, Patricia thought, but it usually doesn't look all that impressive. Course corrections while falling, ridiculously high jumps, things like that. Some girls have an affinity, though, or start off with extra skills. With enough practice or the right power set, you can even fly, but it's hard, and it's even harder to learn how to do it so it doesn't blacken your gem in a couple of minutes. Most of the Ancients could do it, if you forced them, since everyone wants to learn how to fly, but it's just not cost‐effective unless you really put a lot of time into it. True fliers are rare.

Of course, Akemi‐san could do it from day one, Risa thought. Just one of those things. And before you get too much of the wrong idea, Rohr‐san is talking about flying outside of the miasma. It's actually a lot easier inside a miasma, for whatever reason, though it still takes some practice. Doesn't help against aliens, though.

Ryouko thought of her earlier hunt with Kyouko, where Kyouko had seemed to fall out of the sky with ridiculous precision, and her mind had rebelled slightly, thinking that there was something wrong with her trajectory—

What is this learning business anyway? she thought. I thought we had specific powers.

We do, Patricia thought. And you'll usually never lose those, but our magic is forged by our imagination. If you focus hard enough, you can learn anything that's possible, or so we think. It's just very, very hard to learn anything that doesn't naturally follow from what you already know, which is why basically everyone stays close to their original skill set. You don't see clairvoyants trying to learn lightning skills, for example.

Mami‐san didn't, though, Risa thought. She taught herself those muskets, did you know that? And a lot of the things Kyouko does weren't part of her original spear skills. And Asaka is just weird.

Weird in what way? Ryouko thought.

Hold on, Risa thought, eyes unfocusing.

In the intervening pause, Ryouko focused back on the rest of the group. While they had talked, she had focused on only the three of them, but in truth there was a constant background group chatter, hovering on the edge of her consciousness, ever‐present. It was a lot less serious than she expected, with plenty of gossiping and laughter, with only the occasional intervention of jargon, usually someone noting a landmark or that they had passed "Point 4B" on the patrol route. It was hardly necessary, since Ryouko had an explicit minimap in the lower corner of her vision that she could stare at if she wanted to.

As Kyouko had said, this time was different. This time, she had a constant vague awareness of soul gems discharging around her. It was difficult to describe: Ryouko could only think of it as the sensation that someone was behind you, except amplified and multiplied, so that there was a constant vague awareness of someone two buildings to your right and one building back, or two floors above you, or three buildings ahead of you. It was eerily precise, and stayed with you, like an itch that couldn't be scratched.

What was it? Patricia thought, as Risa's eyes focused again. Somehow she had kept moving, despite not paying attention.

Nothing important, Risa thought. Anyway, Asaka—

Some internal signal told to Ryouko to Stop! and she did so, mid‐crouch on a small drone landing platform.

Only then did she have time to simultaneously wonder why she was stopping and why everyone else had also done so.

Someone in the group felt a miasma, her TacComp thought. So a signal was generated.

Yes, that was true. The blinking dot was showing up on her minimap, pointing towards the suspected position, but the telepathic chatter was already reorienting in the proper direction. Small, the chatter said. Incomplete.

Suddenly she could feel it too, weak but growing in size and power, forming along a skyway that ran along the edge of several commercial facilities. Subtly, but organically, the group firmed up, idle commentary dying down, trajectory shifting slightly.

Since this is your first time with this device, her TacComp thought, proper protocol is to remind you to pay due attention to your team interface, so as to coordinate with maximal efficiency.

Noted, she thought.

Ryouko assumed it was referring, among other things, to the minimap, which was starting to churn out information about numbers, size, and so forth, presumably "gleaned" from her or any of the others. It was completely unnecessary, since she could sense that information herself on the level of instinct, but she supposed it would be useful for someone coming in from longer range.

Alright, Risa began, her thought resounding throughout the group. Small it might be, but we've already got four civilian transponders localizing to the area. Obviously they're not going to get us any accurate fixes. Hyori, where are they?

Way ahead of you, the clairvoyant Hyori thought, as she marked the locations of the Humans on the map. We're late. They're already enthralled.

Damn. Well, today we have a teleporter, so we'll use standard teleporter extraction procedure. The rest of you, get in position.

Barrier generator escort as you pull them out, Patricia thought before Ryouko could ask. Minimum. Ideally, stealth generator, clairvoyant, and telepath as well. We don't have a stealth generator today—they're kind of rare—but—

She stopped, as the personnel in question began to appear next to Ryouko. First came a girl in blue and silver, dressed for all the world like a medieval European swordsman in plate armor, lacking only the helmet. As Ryouko watched, the girl rubbed the outer side of her enormous kite shield with her sword hand, wielding her enormous Zweihander—taller than the girl herself—as if it weighed nothing. She smiled broadly at Ryouko when she saw her looking, brushing aside the blonde hair in her eyes with her other hand.

The clairvoyant Hyori landed a moment later, dressed more conservatively in patterns of black and white.

Risa, already there with her ax and red costume, stepped towards her.

"Most teleporters are perfectly capable of teleporting to a location without visualizing it," she instructed, "and I know you are too, but it is considered safer to give exact clairvoyant guidance, because of all the demons about, and in case of unexpected movement. Unfortunately, it requires a bit of jury‐rigging. She needs touch for her teleportation: get closer, the two of you."

The last sentence was directed at the others, who dutifully shifted towards her and grabbed her two shoulders.

"Close your eyes," Risa instructed, grabbing one of her hands. "It helps me."

Ryouko did so, not quite sure what was going on.

Then she saw it, the darkness behind her eyes replaced by a startlingly clear image of one of the victims, standing listlessly among a crowd of demons, at the entrance to one of the buildings. She realized, then, somehow, that it was an image captured by the clairvoyant and forwarded by the telepath. Jury‐rigged, indeed.

It is best to do this quickly, Risa thought. Jumping to each one in succession and then back out here, as fast as possible, as soon as you get the image and an idea of where is safest. We'll go as soon as the barrier is up.

"Barrier on," the armored girl said quietly, a moment later.

Ryouko focused, drawing on her power, pulling on something—

And they were there. She opened her eyes, and they were already next to the civilian, a woman dressed for a party, in a flowing black dress. The barrier shimmered translucent blue around them, slicing two demons caught in the wrong position in half.

Their bodies began to vaporize, the other demons started to turn, and Hyori grabbed the woman's arm.

Ryouko closed her eyes, and visualized the next person—

They were done with breathtaking speed, Ryouko reappearing on the platform with the four civilians a scant forty seconds later. The barrier vanished, the others let go of her, and the four humans seemed to come back to life, blinking at the world around them.

Alright, civilians clear, Risa thought. But we've lost our surprise. Melee, pen them in, crowd control. Long‐range, open fire. Chop chop, everyone. Patricia, put those fliers to use and give us some elevated vantage points.

I know, Patricia thought sardonically. It's all anyone ever wants from me.

Ryouko blinked, as she felt the girls around her shifting positions, brightening significantly with the discharge of power.

"I know you've still got the blinks left in you," Risa said to Ryouko, without explaining how she knew that. "So you're going to make a bomb squad. Patricia, go with her. You know what Kyouko said."

With that, Risa stepped straight onto one of Patricia's drones and rode it up into the sky without so much as a farewell.

'Bomb squad', Ryouko's TacComp thought pedantically, but with extreme speed, is the colloquial term for a TAD squad, a collection of mages with area‐of‐effect techniques that wanders a battlefield doing hit‐and‐run damage. Demon hunting guidelines recommend the construction of one whenever Teleporter and Barrier support is available, the teleporter providing mobility and the barrier generator providing defense against coincident incoming fire, both enemy and friendly. Telepath and Clairvoyant support is preferred if possible, but not necessary. Such support may negate the necessity of Barrier support, though this is not recommended.

Targeting is provided by local command and control. Squad is reminded that extraction of other girls in danger takes precedence over TAD Squad activities, except in extraordinary circumstances. Proper protocol in such a case is the immediate return of entire squad to a safe location, followed by extraction.

That thought had barely completed before other team members began arriving at her location. Specifically, there were three: dark yellow, cerulean, and bright green. They knew what to do this time, grabbing at her or each other. Two of them began perceptibly gathering power for something. The girl in blue and silver armor extended her barrier again. The clairvoyant, however, had left.

A targeting beacon appeared on her minimap, marking the desired location, with other possible positions also marked less prominently. A gradient map marked the known distribution of demons, though when Ryouko shifted her attention to it, she got a warning that accuracy was not guaranteed, given the lack of audiovisual feeds. Certain splotches were blacked out entirely—no information.

Go for it, Patricia thought.

Ryouko nodded, then reached for that inner calm, the slight sense of distortion and puncture that she desired—

And then, once again, she was there, standing on the street, her companions powering their attacks, at demons that were still too busy heading for the perimeter to spar with the melee girls, or trying to aim upwards at the girls attacking from the sky. The area around the small miasma was deserted of humans, incoming pedestrians warned away, traffic diverted, and the closest offices emptied out—this was not strictly necessary, since the miasma contained the physical effects of their attacks, but it was definitely good practice, in case the miasma spread, or some demons phased through a wall into a building, as they were wont to do occasionally.

As Ryouko watched, more demons materialized, seemingly out of thin air. The miasma was still incomplete.

Incoming, the armored girl thought.

Something slammed against the top of the barrier, the translucent blue turning opaque and sparking, screaming with sound.

Sorry, someone distant thought. Couldn't cancel it in time.

That's why I'm here, the armored girl thought pleasantly.

Then with an expressive push of her arms, the barrier slammed outward, shoving aside some demons that had been standing too close, vaporizing most of them.

The girl in the yellow costume levitated slightly into the air, forming what appeared to be a ball of lightning around her, which slowly surged outward, enveloping them all. It looked like it would hurt them too, but Ryouko knew somehow not to try to escape. The electricity passed by her without harm, then, suddenly, exploded outward in a snapping shockwave, incinerating more of the crowd of demons around them and seeming to paralyze a few more beyond that.

The one in cerulean stood still with concentration, and it was unclear what she was doing until countless hands in her signature color shot out of the street around them and reached for their targets.

Finally, the other one in green summoned what appeared to be a ring of ancient artillery pieces, and before Ryouko could grow concerned at the prospect of launching artillery shells in a residential area, a shattering boom announced their firing. The buildings survived, completely intact.

Right, the miasma, Ryouko thought.

Then, they headed back for her, reaching towards them as the surviving demons sought them as targets. A horde of freshly summoned drones scrabbled outward from under them, lasers firing, even though Patricia had never let go of Ryouko's hand, and drones shouldn't have been able to function in the miasma, much less target or hurt any demons.

Now! Next target! Patricia thought.

Ryouko swallowed any trepidation, gritted her teeth, and raised her left arm, firing a fusillade of strings imprecisely at a set of targets—and departed.

Improvisation, Kyouko had said, and they arrived at the next target with a set of demon pieces disintegrating into cubes.

Very good! Risa approved, from somewhere distant.

They only needed to perform the feat twice. After the second time, Risa declared that they were mostly done and it was time for clean‐up. That apparently meant the end of heavy fire, the withdrawal of more fragile girls—which included Ryouko—and the breakup of the otherwise careful perimeter, the melee girls now free to choose targets as they saw fit.

Ryouko watched with Patricia as the remains of the miasma disintegrated. Some of the girls were already tracking down grief cubes, relying on a combination of their extra senses and their internal records of where demons had died. Some even pulled in cubes telekinetically. Whatever worked; the period of grand organization was over, though there was still significant local teamwork, melee girls grouping demons for attacks from those with more range.

A spear girl volunteered to stay with the four civilians and take them home. Risa approved it, since they had extra personnel.

That was pretty easy, to be honest, Ryouko thought, as they began the patrol again, sealing this thought into a private channel with Patricia. I barely needed those grief cubes.

The majority of encounters are not like the one that tried to kill you, Patricia thought. Most are like this. You can accomplish a lot in large teams like this, but imagine what it was like back when it was teams of three and more vulnerable girls like clairvoyants and telepaths had to enter combat directly.

Ryouko thought about it, as recommended. She had always known, for example, that girls with more robust combat skills were much more heavily represented in the older cohorts compared to the more fragile types— such as, say, healers—but knowing that was much different from experiencing it, however indirectly.

Well, she was glad she lived now, and not in the past, but there were a lot of reasons to be glad for that.

The next encounter was much larger, the miasma stretching over a much larger area and the number of victims greater. This time, when Ryouko finally pulled out of the area with a small crowd of ten or so victims, she was starting to feel the strain on her teleports, and stood alone on a nearby building, waiting to recover, before she signaled that she was ready to try the "bomb squad again."

Ryouko had multiple opportunities to try the trick she had tried the first time, lodging a string into the ground in the middle of a group of demons, then tearing them in half with a partial teleport, relayed through the ground.

It was effective. She liked it.

They weren't able to maintain a complete surround this time, and Ryouko could feel in the back of her mind the girls on the ground dashing back and forth to reach new positions to head off possible extensions of the miasma. Twice, at the end of a bomb run, Risa told her to shift one of the melee girls to a new location. She complied, and both times she appeared with the barrier generator, made contact with the girl, teleported to the new location, then got out.

It was cold, fast, and efficient, almost to the point of being routine, but it got results. They shredded demons in great numbers and only once did Ryouko see anyone in great personal danger. It got things done, but she didn't feel any of the excitement she had the first time.

The one and only break from routine she experienced that day started with a burst of invective piped into her mind, in the middle of their fifth "bombing run". It was, however, something she would definitely remember.

Son of a—I need extraction! the telepathic voice pleaded. Extraction! Those bastards have spawned right on top of me! I can't hold out! I—

Get over there! Risa ordered, to Ryouko directly.

The command was unnecessary, since the girls with Ryouko were already returning, reestablishing their touch contact with her.

She exited the miasma, and almost jumped straight for the newly marked spot when she felt the large armored hand of Sarah Kaisan, the barrier generator—her barrier generator, she was starting to think of the girl—on her shoulder.

"It's not safe to teleport blindly into any area," the girl said, seriously, Japanese slightly accented. "Not without some sort of protection. You'll learn."

Ryouko nodded, slightly ashamed, then waited for the barrier to appear.

This time, when they appeared, Sarah didn't wait, sending her barrier outward in an immediate blast. Ryouko grabbed the girl they were seeking by a random body part, and had just enough time to see the barrier pass harmlessly through her.

The image stuck in her mind, the girl in efficient, tight‐fitting black, enormous old‐style gunpowder sniper rifle holstered on her back, snarling and firing an assault rifle with her right hand, dodging incoming demon lasers while running. The second gun was modern, and clearly not magically summoned.

But what really caught Ryouko's eye was her left arm, which was missing below the elbow, dripping blood into widely scattered droplets. Then she looked up, and when the sniper turned to look at her, Ryouko could see that she was missing an eye, and a large part of her face there, the exposed white of the shattered socket contrasting with the gory mess that accompanied it.

For an insane moment, Ryouko mused that she had no idea how the girl was even standing.

"My fault," the girl said, when they got back. "They snuck up on me where I was camping. I know they can move up inside buildings, but I wasn't paying attention, I was just so into the killing—oh God, my shrink is going to give me hell for this. I thought I was over doing stuff like that."

The girl was hugging herself, shivering slightly, while the others soothed her and applied grief cubes to her angrily dark gem.

But Ryouko wasn't hearing any of it. Instead she was standing off to the side, staring at a building. She would have been bent over, trying not the vomit, except that now, in the future, that kind of reaction was automatically suppressed. So instead, she stared.

"Get a hold of yourself," Patricia said, appearing next to her.

Ryouko looked up at her, face blanched.

"Better you see this now rather than later," the girl said, gentle but firm, "but we have no time for this. She needs an evac, and you're the teleporter with the two hundred kilometer range. If you can't handle it, have your TacComp suppress your emotions. It diminishes your power, but the capability is meant for situations like this."

Ryouko shook her head, and without a word, walked back shakily, reaching for the other girl's shoulder, her HUD already telling her where exactly she needed to go.

"Will she be alright?" Ryouko asked the staff members who greeted them, back at the armory hospital.

"She'll be fine," the nurse said, smiling back at her. "For someone like you, this is nothing."

It was the same nurse Ryouko had seen that day, so seemingly long ago, where she had received her implant upgrades, and visited a hospital for the first time in her memory.

Ryouko nodded, but only vaguely. She was starting to feel strangely detached from the whole incident, as if it was hardly relevant to her at all. Psychological coping, probably. She could even think that about herself.

She was already being recalled to the hunt.

She followed the girl on the stretcher for a while, mind blank, waiting until she was sure she could make the five kilometers or so back, that she could perform the teleport. She gripped the hand of the girl in the stretcher, who had sedated herself the moment they arrived, and stopped abruptly in the middle of the hallway, ignoring the strange looks she received.

She focused, hard, and returned.

Ryouko saw much that day, clever combinations of powers and skills she hadn't ever considered before. She saw the value of Patricia's drones, which functioned even in the miasma, carrying girls in the sky, from where they could bombard at pleasure. She saw one of the girls jump straight up and perform a flight maneuver, angling around a building to the top of another, all to get a better firing position for the girl she was carrying.

She saw Risa, standing on a drone high in the sky, watching it all with an intense stare, guiding her ax telekinetically at the hordes below, and finally Ryouko realized that she was reading the minds of the demons, reading their intended movements and who they were targeting, directing the hunt. She felt stupid then, because what else would the purpose of a telepath even be?

She saw that while she had been gone, the girl with the lightning, and the girl with the reaching hands, had occupied themselves paralyzing demons, so that a calculated bombardment, or a few easy dashes from a swordsman, could shatter them all. She saw Sarah wield her barrier as a wall, wrapping demons into a tight group, for the same purpose.

She saw the girls on the ground, calling down fire support and air strikes on the desired spots, and a rain of fire, arrows, or purple magic arriving seconds later.

Ryouko understood, finally, how the MSY was so damn efficient.

Still, though, late that night, as she stared at her ceiling yet again, she thought about what the nurse had said.

For someone like you, this is nothing.

Yes, that was true, wasn't it?

Appendix: "Mages First"

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

〈The sense of difference, of uniqueness, and even of superiority that arose during the second century of the MSY's existence was perhaps inevitable. By then, the MSY was well‐versed in the art of business and high finance, capable of providing its members, even in the poorest regions, a living well in line with the middle classes of the richest nations. For many, especially those who actively participated in the upper levels of MSY operations, the organization provided even more than that, granting a lifestyle that was outright luxurious. It was a far cry from the poverty from which so many of its members had to be pulled, and this newfound wealth began to isolate its members from the masses of humans that surrounded them on the street.〉③

〈Similarly, the MSY had become increasingly adept at the manipulation of governments, regularly interfering with its proxies in the results of elections, the construction of legislation, and the provision of law and order, in some regions exercising outright dominance over local police and security forces. What had begun as an effort to provide itself with protection from the police, and to provide its businesses with favorable government policy had, through over a century of mission creep, morphed into something completely unrecognizable. The MSY's tentacles stretched everywhere, from the poorest and most remote regions of the world, to the legislative chambers of the most powerful governments.〉③

〈Over time, the attitude of the MSY had become increasingly more paternalistic, taking into itself more and more responsibility for the state of the world. Beginning with the MSY's crushing of Asia's prostitution and sex trafficking rings—and consequent refashioning of organized crime into yet another MSY proxy—and culminating in the engineered downfall of the North Korean government and founding of the Black Heart, the organization absorbed more and more power and self‐appointed responsibility into itself, until it became customary for Rules Committee politicians to paint the MSY in their rhetoric as guardians of the world, and for the Leadership Committee to consider in secret session the fomenting of revolution.〉③

〈In the war zones of the world, where the organization had once been happy merely to maintain secrecy, MSY front charities provided food and education to the populace, MSY proxies attempted to reform governments, and MSY special forces hunted warlords and terrorists, nominally in the name of protecting its members in the area, but increasingly out of a sense of noblesse oblige at the top, a noble obligation that came at a significant cost, both in resources and in casualties.〉③

〈It was in this environment of isolation, secret power, and immortality that the so‐called Mages First movement developed. It was not a true movement, possessing no leadership or official organization of any kind. Instead, it was a sociological movement, composed of the changing actions and beliefs of the mages of the organization, and would only be named late in its existence, by one of the MSY's own scholars. Nonetheless, the movement's lasting effects would persist in MSY culture for centuries, up to even the present day. It has never really left us.〉③

〈Increasingly, the magical girls of the MSY began to feel themselves superior to the rest of the Humanity. Wasn't it obvious in their power, their immortality, their wealth, their influence over the world, their moral superiority? While governments bickered, they went out of their way to save the poor and downtrodden, who didn't even appreciate their efforts. Why shouldn't they dominate? Why shouldn't they focus more on themselves, on their own membership, instead of wasting resources and risking their lives fighting for people who didn't even know they existed and who, after all, would be dead in a short century or so, while they themselves lived on. Wasn't it time to take a more rational approach? It would be much more resource efficient to withdraw from the more afflicted parts of the world, leaving only the demon hunting teams. Contractees from poor areas could be relocated to richer countries, or could have themselves and their families ensconced into protected mansions, protected from the violence and poverty outside. It wasn't possible to save the whole world, so shouldn't they at least try to save themselves?〉③

〈This kind of viewpoint horrified the eldest girls, most of whom had known early lives of poverty and drudgery, who sympathized with the plight of the poor, and who hadn't spent their whole lives in comfort and power. They remembered what it was like to have friends constantly dying and falling into despair, and knew full well that they were human, not superhuman. From their positions atop the hierarchy they checked the actions of their subordinates, rallying as allies mages recruited from the poor regions of the world, who were mostly not happy to see others arguing for the MSY to abandon their homelands to the four horsemen.〉③

〈Nonetheless, the Mages First viewpoint would have a significant impact on the actions of the MSY over the next century, paralyzing the organization in the face of the greatest cataclysm Humanity had ever experienced. As the employment situation became truly catastrophic and the world began to split in two, the MSY sat and watched, collectively unable to decide between intervention and the inertia of staying in their comfortable, protected, hyperclass mansions. It would take a spark…〉③

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

Chapter Text

Many of the taboos and laws of this new age stem from the psychological scars of the Unification Wars, especially the appalling abuses of the so‐called Freedom Alliance. The insane manipulations the rulers of the FA nations performed on themselves, their children, and their people would eventually lead to the numerous regulations and ethical committees that surround genetic research in our day, and to public skepticism about every genetic engineering project undertaken, even when performed for purposes as positive as the Eden Project. The use by some FA nations of cloned soldiery, programmed with genetics and implants to be unfailingly loyal, has led directly to the universal taboo on Human cloning, though previous public reservations about implants have fallen away in light of their overwhelming utility. Finally, the horrors and visible agony of FA enslaved AIs would lead to universal support for greater AI autonomy.

The undeniable utility of all the technologies involved has made them indispensable to society, but it is vital to understand the origins and purposes of ethical restrictions and public opinion. Without such an understanding, a researcher cannot function successfully, and may find his or her right to operate suspended.

"General Ethical Handbook for Researchers," Introduction, excerpt.

"In this new era of clarity and war, it is my resounding belief that this institution can contribute to the welfare of Humanity, and to the execution of this war. With this newly renovated facility, the untapped potential of magical girls can and will be liberated, to the betterment of all. We seek the fire of Olympus, nothing less, and an end to this tragic war."

— Joanne Valentin, DS Physics, incoming director of the Prometheus Research Institute, speech at rededication of the Institute.

The day after the demon hunt, Ryouko attended that week's social gathering for new recruits, having been reminded to by her TacComp.

Initially, she had mulled over whether she wanted to go. As a rule, she disliked large gatherings of her "peers", having found over the years that while her friends understood her personality well enough to be fun to hang around, she found most other people to be painful, with their endless assumptions that she must have a focus she loved enough to study, and their attempts to draw her out on the topic.

Her own friends were, she reflected, carefully selected to be different. Chiaki was a childhood friend, so the rule didn't apply to her, but Ruiko was endlessly flighty and indecisive, and Simona was on a different system entirely.

She ultimately decided that she should go, on the grounds that everyone there would have entirely different concerns on their minds, being contracted. Plus, it seemed like a good idea to meet some of her possible future colleagues, even if there was no guarantee she would see any of them again.

That was how she found herself seated around a table with four other nervous‐looking new girls, a veteran from the front and, of all people, Risa Flores again.

She was lucky, because she lived in Mitakihara, where the gathering was quite naturally scheduled. The other girls were pulled in from surrounding cities. It simply wasn't possible to find that many contracts in the same city in the same week.

The group of them were having lunch at a "hand‐made" restaurant, one of those foreign fusion types, stationed a respectable sixty floors up in the MSY corridor. From their vantage point, it was easy to spot such buildings as MSY Governmental Affairs—just a couple buildings to the west—MSY Finance—just across the street, actually—and so forth. Looking carefully, it was even possible to spot MSY Science Division, in the same rough area as the Cult headquarters she was getting so familiar with.

It was clearly intended to be impressive, in a "look at the view!" kind of way, and the other girls lingered at the entrance platform for a couple of minutes, taking still images of each other next to the scenery with their optical implants.

Ryouko stayed nearby politely and was a part of the group shot taken by one of their chaperones, but took none herself. She had been here before, multiple times. She also knew there was a more impressive formal facility crowning the building they were standing in, where the sky wouldn't be blocked by dozens of tubes. She said nothing, though.

It was supposed to be an informal gathering, so they showed up in casual wear, though Ryouko was fairly certain the new girls had all put more effort into their outfits than they would normally. One could tell.

The restaurant itself was an impressively windowed affair, dominating the outer ring of the building, with seats at the windows and lightly‐colored artificial wood paneling on the inner side. Ryouko had no idea where the kitchen was, but it didn't matter much, since the food and dishes were all dealt with by robotic carts that roamed the aisles, and the ordering was done off of a menu overlay that appeared before your eyes. Easy.

At the moment, she was focusing herself on industriously cutting her steak into easily consumable pieces. She had been the first to order, since she knew the menu of the place reasonably well, but had received her food at the same time as everyone else, after their initial round of hors d'oeuvres. Robots were good at things like that.

Steak, for lunch, being eaten by a teenage girl, of all things, she mused. Some things just didn't matter in the future. Actually, that was something her grandfather would say. She didn't really have any idea why it would be strange to eat steak for lunch, or what being a teenage girl had to do with anything.

She was just glad the "dysgeusia" finally seemed to be dying down. Yes, she could taste that she was eating dead cow, but it wasn't bothersome anymore.

That was actually one of the reasons this place cost Allocs to eat at, though their hosts weren't mentioning it; she was eating actual meat, rather than the synthesized stuff. Same went for all the food served, including the mysterious fuzzy red leaves that came with her meat. It was apparently a vegetable imported from Nova Terra, which had an ecology and system of life remarkably compatible with Human physiology, though the genetic code, inevitably, differed substantially. Close enough to Earth that some things could be eaten without poisoning yourself, but no bacteria coevolved to be pathogenic to humans, at least not intentionally. Ideal for colonization, which was why it was the first colonized, and a Core World.

Why was she thinking about this? Because she was awkward in social settings like this.

"So, um, what kind of power do you have?" asked a voice to her right, abruptly enough to startle her into almost dropping her fork.

Ryouko looked at the other girl, who was fiddling nervously with her ponytail. The girl was nearly as short as she was, something she had noted when she first saw her. Something about her face seemed to strongly suggest meekness—or perhaps it was the body language.

Nakihara Asami, her TacComp name‐dropped into her mind.

"Teleportation," Ryouko said, even though they both knew that kind of information could easily be researched. That was one of the downsides of everyone having easy access to databases: there was a distinct lack of possible conversation starters.

"You?" Ryouko added, a moment later. She immediately cringed internally. That was a little too casual, she thought.

The other girl looked flustered and Ryouko realized that she was terribly nervous, and must have worked up a lot of courage to talk with Ryouko.

"Well, it's, er, not really easy to explain," Asami said, folding her hands and dodging Ryouko's gaze. "Gravity. It has to do with gravity. I can, uh, force things together and move them. It's a lot like telekinesis, they say, but I'm really good at compressing… things."

The girl smiled sheepishly, looking up again. Ryouko could see that the girl was rubbing her soul gem ring nervously.

"Ah, well, that sounds useful," Ryouko said, trying to be encouraging. "Some of us have skills for blowing things up that would pair well with that. I have one like that, an exploding arrow, though it's not really, um, what I'd call a specialty."

"Really? That sounds great!"

The girl was so desperately eager to please that Ryouko, who wasn't immune to feeling sympathy, turned to give the girl her attention. They made brief eye contact, then the other girl looked down, out the window.

"Have you gotten your upgrades yet?" Ryouko asked pleasantly, thinking of a likely topic.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," the girl said, looking up again. "I thought it was really interesting. A little scary though."

At that moment, Ryouko felt Risa's eye on her. She looked at the girl questioningly, but Risa looked away. However, looking in her direction reminded her of something else.

Ryouko lowered her voice and leaned over.

"Have you noticed that Sanae‐san"—the long‐haired thirty‐five‐year‐old next to Risa—"has had four cups of wine now?"

Sanae was the veteran that had been brought to answer their questions and reassure them that everything would be okay, or so Ryouko was assuming. Ryouko hadn't been able to get anything juicy out of her, but had been watching her from the corner of her eye for most of the meal. While the girl seemed perfectly pleasant and certainly had her intoxication controls activated, the mass alcohol consumption was still rather strange, and served as a contrast to the awkward sips the rest of them were taking.

Asami glanced around to make sure no one else was listening.

"Well, yeah, but she doesn't seem intoxicated," she said. "Maybe–maybe she just likes the taste. I'm not sure why else she'd be doing that."


Ryouko drummed the table with her fingers for a moment.

"I wanted to be a xenobiologist, you know," Asami said, unprompted.

"Really?" Ryouko asked, raising a forkful of disturbingly fuzzy leaves to her mouth.

"Yeah," the girl said. "So you know, um, that plant you're eating is, uh, C1 Aspera Cibum, from Nova Terra. Very expensive. They had to engineer it a little to make it truly edible."

Ryouko knew that already, having looked it up while ordering, but nodded. Impressive to know from memory, which was how she assumed the girl knew. Besides, the girl looked so earnest…

"I mean, I've always liked plants and animals," the girl said, "and I thought I could maybe get off of Earth that way. I've always wanted to visit the colonies. Well, I guess I'm getting to. Hopefully, at least."

That piqued Ryouko's interest, though she tried not to show it too obviously.

"You wanted to visit the colonies?" she asked.

"Well, sure," the girl said, clutching her hands together and giving a little sigh. "It always seemed so romantic to me. Life on the frontier, all those exotic plants and animals. I've always wanted a fresh, unindustrialized planet to explore. Though I suppose these cephalopods are more than we bargained for."

Ryouko was watching the girl carefully now. Such grand dreams, from a shy girl who had probably never seen a forest outside of careful preserves, and who had probably never seen a rain forest, the reviving forests for now mostly off‐limits to all but scientists and a few rare tourist opportunities.

But how was that any different from Ryouko herself? She wanted to explore the universe, and had never even been on a starship. Their situations matched; Ryouko didn't need to ask to know that the girl had probably never lived outside of the skyscrapers that dominated the view outside their window. Few ever did.

Plus, unlike many of the other girls Ryouko had met, this one did not automatically make assumptions about her based on her height and appearance. Couldn't, more like, since the other girl was just as short. And, Ryouko was realizing, she was the first one she had met who wasn't a senpai.

"When are you leaving?" Ryouko asked. The question was a little sudden, and showed perhaps too much interest, but she wasn't sure she cared about that anymore.

The girl tilted her head, then smiled shyly.

"Three days. You?"

"Exactly the same, actually," Ryouko responded. "I'm glad to meet you."

She stuck out her hand, which was awkward in the cramped distance between their two seats.

The other girl looked at it for a moment, slightly confused, then took it and shook it, meekly, her handshake a little limp.

There was a brief moment of quiet, broken only by the clatter of silverware and chopsticks.

"Me too. I–I hope we'll see each other again," the girl said, finally, bowing her head slightly in place of the full gesture.

"Likewise," Ryouko said.

She smiled at the other girl.

Perhaps she could find some new friends in the field. It wasn't something she had previously thought about, but it might be important, for her own health if nothing else.

She looked around at the rest of the table and was surprised to once again find Risa looking right at her. They made eye contact, and Risa must have taken some message from Ryouko's look, because the girl put down her chopsticks and cleared her throat to get their attention.

"I don't want to rush you," Risa addressed, "but I wanted to let you all know we'll be doing a walking tour of the city after this lunch, if you would like to attend. If you have other things to do, that's fine too."

The responses around the table were relatively enthusiastic, and Ryouko nodded along with them.

She didn't really need a walking tour of her own city, but perhaps she could show Asami a few things.

The next day, Ryouko made good on her appointment with the psychiatrist Atsuko, venturing into yet another building in the "MSY Corridor" that straddled the periphery of the city center.

She found the journey by tube strangely void of people, landing at a discreet alcove unusually high in one of the city's ubiquitous skyscrapers. She had risen so high that she was above the vast majority of the pedestrian walkways and tubes. Stepping out of her vehicle, she enjoyed an unobstructed view of the sky for the first time in years, a fact that startled her slightly.

She thought back. The last time she saw the sky clearly had been when she had visited her paternal grandparents, in a town just outside the edge of the endless megalopolis. She had stared up the sky then, just as she had the first time she had visited as a child, and just as she did now. The glare of the unfiltered sun was harsh, and the scattered ultraviolet gave the otherwise familiar blue sky an indescribable tint of… electric purple? There really needed to be words for this.

Dropping her gaze downward, she observed the city sprawled across the earth, skyscrapers jutting upwards in an endless procession, seemingly without limit, so that even at her elevated vantage point she couldn't see an end to the city, or even a relaxation of the density.

Mitakihara City, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto—they were now merely lines in the sand in what was truly one giant city encompassing all of them, stretching along the island. A megalopolis, where the only detectable differences were concentrations of more important economic and governmental buildings toward city centers, and of manufacturing and other buildings toward "edges". From up here, that distinction was invisible.

Placing her gaze back on the open glass door in front of her, she reflected that she seemed to be the only one here, despite her expectation that the place would have plenty of other visitors. Instead, her arrival alcove was deserted and, she reflected, rather small. It made sense given what she had seen, she supposed; there were multiple such alcoves ringing these levels of the building, something she had observed on the way up, watching the strange radial pattern of tubes inclining upward. That seemed strangely inefficient; there was a reason buildings tended to have large public landing ports scattered every few floors.

This particular building was rather wide, so she was surprised when she walked in, entered an empty seating area, and discovered that there was nothing in front of her but a single door with a metallic plaque on the front, some sort of mysterious bulbous metal object attached to its front. On her request, it swung rather than slid open, revealing the room behind it.

Resisting the urge to stop and examine the object, Ryouko took a moment to shake off some standard trepidation, then stepped in, taking in the lack of windows, the couch in the corner, the multiple chairs scattered about, the books on bookshelves in the wall—how rare was that!—the framed certificates on the wall, and, of course, the real wood desk in the middle, and the pleasant‐looking woman seated on the other end.

A clock ticked quietly on one of the bookshelves, another antique oddity.

She looked young, but not magical girl young, in her twenties like the rest of the populace, and only the ring Ryouko immediately sought on her finger confirmed what the file had said. Not a teenager. It was probably the right idea; Ryouko would have felt uncomfortable relying on the authority of someone who looked the same age as her, even though she knew it meant exactly nothing.

Then it occurred to Ryouko that the room had no other exits, and that this whole area—office, seating area, alcove—was its own independent region of the building.

Privately, Ryouko reflected that it might be a good idea to learn how exactly one could detect other magical girls out of costume. If someone were to hide it from her, would she have any idea? Would it be just a weird, nagging feeling on the corner of her mind?

The long‐haired woman watched her for a moment, so that Ryouko could see again the face she had seen on the woman's profile. It was not a memorable face, but pretty.

"Take a seat," the woman said, gesturing at the chair, and Ryouko obliged, looking at her warily.

"I rather like being up here," she said, making a show of reading a tablet in her hand. "It feels like being in my own private tower. And of course that's the point: privacy. Not that it's a particular concern today, I don't think."

She stuck out her hand.

"Atsuko Arisu, telepath," she introduced, as Ryouko accepted the offer and shook.

"Shizuki Ryouko," Ryouko reciprocated, a tiny hesitation later, since it was her suspicion the woman needed no introduction to her.

The woman leaned forward, setting the tablet down. Ryouko suspected that was another bit of theater.

"There's no need to be nervous," she said. "This is just an introduction meeting. Just some simple questions, and you'll be on your way. You can be as detailed as you like."

Ryouko nodded slightly. In truth, she was pretty nervous. It just wasn't comfortable going into an interview about your life with someone who probably had all the official details of your life carefully stored in her memory banks.

She had read about the MHD, of course. They knew a lot of things, apparently.

When she saw that Ryouko wasn't about to say anything, Arisu continued:

"I'm sure you're not surprised that I already know all the obvious stuff," she said. "You're the kind of girl who'd look that up. You also appreciate honesty, so I'll mention that this is all in your preliminary psych profile, as is the fact that you get annoyed by anyone asking about your interests, so I won't do that. And yes, I can read your mind out of costume, but I generally don't do so unless I really think it's necessary. I hope you'll trust me."

"Ah, I–I guess," Ryouko said, hopefully blandly. She was surprised both by the onrush of words, and by the way the woman had just said it like that. She suddenly found herself wondering how much her actions had been tracked online.

"This is more about going into things that aren't obvious," the woman said. "So, before we begin, want a snack?"

Before Ryouko could even react to that, the woman reached down and pulled out a plate of miniature cakes from somewhere invisible under the desk. She set it before them, followed by two glasses of juice.

"Oh, thank you," Ryouko said, slightly thrown off by the abrupt diversion of topic.

"No problem."

Spearing the strawberry off of the cake on top of one of the miniature plates, Ryouko thought about the fact that she had just been presented with her favorite form of snack. Hardly a coincidence, but she would always be glad to eat it, even if she snuck some out of the synthesizer practically every day.

The woman waited a brief, polite interval, then said:

"Alright, if you're comfortable, I'm going to start with something open‐ended."

Ryouko nodded warily.

"What can you tell me about your family?"

Ryouko looked at the other woman, who looked back at her with a curious, but pleasant look. The question seemed abrupt, but she supposed there was no way it wouldn't seem abrupt.

She thought about it a moment, putting together something she could say in one burst.

"I don't think there's too much to tell, honestly," she said. "My parents are scientists in the Prometheus Research Center, so they know more about the whole magical girl thing than usual. I got a lot of my information from them. They're loving, I guess—I mean that, I'm just not sure how to describe it. I suspect they've been trying to keep me from contracting, though I'm not sure why they'd think that'd be a risk."

Did a smile just pass over Arisu's face? But no, Ryouko was looking now, and the psychiatrist's face was impassive.

"I guess the most important thing to talk about is my maternal grandparents," Ryouko said. "My grandmother left us to go join the war when I was a toddler. She didn't exactly divorce my grandfather, but she might as well have. It's—well, we never quite understood why. She had her reasons."

Let's not say any more than that, Ryouko thought.

Then, a moment later:

Damn it. If she is reading my mind, she would have totally caught that.

Ryouko wondered if she seemed nervous.

Arisu nodded slightly, hands clasped.

"I understand your grandfather is leaving soon as well?"

"He never really got over it," Ryouko said. "He says he wants a new life and maybe he wants to find her. It's his right to."

She shrugged, then regretted it, realizing it came off as overly blasé.

"By which I mean, I completely understand why he would," she quickly amended. "And it doesn't have anything to do with my reasons for contracting, or anything like that."

Internally, she winced. Too hasty. The psychiatrist would definitely think that was important.

"So you know, not really a big issue," Ryouko finished defensively, too nervously.

Instead of the further questions she expected, the woman just nodded.

"I believe you," she said.

Then, a moment later:

"Tell me, do you know anything about your family above your grandparents? Know anything about the Shizukis, the Kurois, anything like that?"

Ryouko shook her head.

"It's kind of distant from me, to be honest," she said. "And they must be dead at this point, though I guess that's a bad way to put it."

"Hmm," Arisu vocalized, and Ryouko thought she saw the shadow of a frown glide across her face.

"Should I know something about them?" Ryouko ventured.

Arisu glanced at her.

"You should ask your parents when you have time," the psychiatrist said.

There was a brief pause, then Arisu nodded to herself.

"Alright," she said. "Now, the next question is optional. Well, this is all optional, but I guess this is super‐optional. Do you mind telling me about your wish and the circumstances surrounding it? I won't share it with anyone. I know it's considered a friendship thing to share it, so it's up to you."

Ryouko thought for a moment, then figured the harm couldn't be that bad. She went through what it was, how she really just wanted to get out there, really, how she wasn't happy at school, how she'd been a fan of space travel since she was a child.

She took a breath.

"I wished I could leave Earth," Ryouko said, "and explore this world. I said I wanted to go where no one else has gone before and find my place in this universe. In basically those exact words."

"Hmm," Arisu vocalized, and this time it was an appreciative noise. "Grandiose. Also long‐term. Mind talking about it?"

"I've just always been bored with life on Earth," Ryouko said, after a moment. "I've never really felt like I fit in. I wanted to go out there, accomplish something meaningful, make history, you know? Though most important is just to see it all. I… I guess I just wasn't happy here."

It felt strange, saying it out loud again. She hadn't talked about it with anyone in depth, except Simona, and even that had been strange. And here she was, talking about it to a perfect stranger.

She left out the parts that involved her grandmother, and the girl who had visited her when she was a child, the oppressiveness of being on Earth, and the other reasons. It didn't seem the right thing to talk about, not here.

She also left out what might have been an attempt on her life. It was, perhaps, secret.

With nothing further to talk about, then, the topic dropped. There was a brief silence.

"Tell me about the demon attack that triggered your contract," Arisu asked, a moment later.

Ryouko sucked in a breath. Was that a coincidence, or…?

Ryouko shook her head at herself. It wouldn't do to suspect things like that. Then she realized the woman could see her shaking her head perfectly well.

"Well, you know, it was pretty standard," Ryouko said. "I was sitting around, chatting with my friend Simona, and then suddenly I saw this demon appear behind her, about to attack her. I grabbed her and ran. Eventually Mami‐san saved me. That's–that's when I saw Kyubey."

Arisu nodded sagely and gestured for her to continue.

"There's not really much else to talk about," Ryouko said. "It was kind of funny though. I think Simona was about to tell me something important, but now she won't talk about it at all."

"Yes, things happen like that sometimes," the woman said, smiling. "Murphy's Law. Any idea what it was about?"

Ryouko was slightly surprised. She hadn't expected the woman to actually ask. But damn it, of course she would ask.

"I don't know," Ryouko said, with all honesty.

The woman nodded again.

"I see that Kyouko took you demon hunting right after your contract," she said. "Any thoughts on that?"

Ryouko thought about the question, honestly not having thought about it before.

"It wasn't too bad," she said. "It got pretty scary right there in the middle, when I screwed up, but Kyouko saved me. And I–I guess it was a little exciting. That sounds weird, I think, but it was. I want to do better in the future."

The woman smiled.

"It's not that weird. It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping. Some girls feel that way their first time, though I wouldn't say it's common. I was excited my first time, too."

Ryouko blinked.


"Really," the woman said. "Though it says in the notes that Kyouko thought she saw bloodlust on your face. That is unusual, for a first timer."

Ryouko was again taken aback, and stared back at the woman, surprised. Yes, bloodlust, there had been a little of that, now that she thought about it. But—

"Any thoughts on the second demon hunt?" the woman asked. "The one yesterday, I mean. I understand you saw quite the injury."

Ryouko shook herself out of her previous train of thought. It still shook Ryouko a little to think about it, but she said:

"It was interesting. Not as, um, dangerous, I guess. At least for me. I'm not used to seeing people with bloody eye sockets, but I got over it."

She chuckled nervously. It had come out all wrong, but the woman still sat there, hands clasped, watching her. What did that look mean?

"Alright, let's change topics," the woman said, a moment later. "After meeting her, what do you think of Kyouko?"

Ryouko considered the question.

"Not really what I expected for someone as old as her," she said. "She acts like she's young, but she's obviously experienced. She seems reliable, despite everything. She likes sleeping on you, though, things like that."

She instantly regretted the last sentence, since it had only happened a grand total of once, but the other woman frowned slightly and made a thoughtful noise.

Ryouko thought about Kyouko's strange behavior two days ago, but decided not to mention it, since it was more about Kyouko than it was about her.

"Kyouko…" the woman began, then stopped.

Ryouko saw her hesitate for the first time in this conversation. The woman also frowned, in such a way that it was obvious, rather than just hints of emotion on her face.

"Well, don't let her take advantage of you," Arisu said. "Your profile indicates you're not as aware as you think you are, though in this case I can keep a watch on Kyouko myself. And, of course, there could be nothing there to watch for."

Ryouko narrowed her eyes, a sense of insult penetrating through her nervousness. Not as aware…

"What exactly do you mean by that?" Ryouko asked. "Kyouko seems perfectly nice to me; is there something—"

"No, no, don't worry about it," Arisu said, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. "You'll know what I'm talking about, if it ever matters."

The woman pushed herself back from her desk and seemed to intentionally relax. It was an obvious topic change.

"Alright," she said. "Let's talk about some less formal topics. What do you think about how the war's going?"

This Ryouko had a ready answer for, having posted her opinion online numerous times before.

"It's not going as well as the government says it is," she said. "But I don't know how bad it really is. I guess I'm going to find out. I think we're going to win though, eventually. We just have to hold out until our technology gets better."

"Fair enough," Arisu said. "That last part is prevailing military opinion, actually."

Of course, Ryouko knew that already, but she didn't say that.

"Nervous about what's coming up?" the woman asked, leaning onto her elbow.

Ryouko thought about that.

"Of course I am," she said. "But plenty of other girls have gone through the same thing, and come out fine. I just have to focus on living. I guess it'll be exciting if nothing else. And I'll finally get to see the colonies, and the aliens. That's worth it."

She meant that, and made sure her expression indicated that.

"I think it is," Arisu said. "But I hesitate to say that, since I mourn all those who died and I, personally, haven't seen too much combat. Only New Athens and a little bit after that. We telepaths are good against stealth, you know?"

The woman looked down at her desk, and seemed almost thoughtful for a moment.

"You're training on New Athens," she said, finally. "Just so you know, you're going to be sharing rooms. It's not that we're short on space, but it's good for girls' psyches. Usually. Any preferences on who you want it to be?"

Ryouko thought for a moment, considering the girl she had met yesterday at the lunch, but shook her head. It was probably better to meet more people, if possible.

"Alright," Arisu said, tapping her fingers against each other. "Some basic stuff then. In the field, you'll get your own room, assuming you're in the kind of situation where there is such a thing as a room. Maybe your own tent. Maybe nothing. But if possible. Fraternizing too much with subordinates is frowned upon, though it's obviously better if they like and respect you. Don't get into any relationships with the other officers, magical girl or not. It's not a good idea."

Ryouko looked back at the other woman blankly. She honestly hadn't considered any of that before.

"Anyway," Arisu said, sighing and getting up to walk towards her. "I'm out of time. I've got someone else coming soon. Sorry. And Ryouko‐chan—"

Ryouko looked at the woman, wondering at the informal use of her name.

"Don't die, okay?"

Ryouko blinked, surprised. The woman looked serious, saying that.

"I won't," she said.

They shook hands, and just like that, it was over, Ryouko finding herself back outside the office, in the seating area she suspected was never used. On the way out, she took another look at the view, wondering just how much this Atsuko Arisu knew about her.

That night, pushing forward her agenda to understand combat before she entered it, Ryouko lay in her bed and continued her reading on combat doctrine. She chose to continue on from the previous topic and read about space combat.

Human‐Cephalopod space combat is constrained and defined by the technical limitations of Humanity, the defensive strategic posture adopted by the Human worlds, and the tactical prowess of the Magi Cæli—the MC—the Navy's mage corps.

Ryouko was immediately tempted to divert the topic into a subtopic about the MC, but desisted, deciding she could save it for later.

Firstly, it must be understood that alien shielding, projectile deflection, missile interception, and regenerative armor are vastly superior to their Human equivalents. Because of this, alien spacecraft can be built much lighter and faster, and with much higher levels of energy storage. Human starships are heavily armored, protected by vast amounts of inertial resistance. Alien starships are not, and are consequently much more nimble and field heavier weapons.

Because of this, Cephalopods can and do field interceptors and bombers which have a reasonable expectation of damage and survivability. Ships with a similar speed, range, and firepower, built by humans, would be glass cannons preparing for nothing less than a suicide run, and not even particularly good glass cannons.

Ryouko nodded along with the text. She had heard as much.

Secondly, alien weaponry is superior in all aspects. Despite extensive study of salvaged alien technology, it is not known how they field lasers and particle beams of such immense power and range, or how they manage to prevent scattering over the great distances of space, but it is crucial to understand that the heaviest regularly fielded alien space weapon, termed the Eviscerator, is superior in all aspects to the SHERMAN battlecruiser main gun, the pride of the Human Navy. The alien Blink Bombardment Cannon does not even have a meaningful human analogy.

Ryouko frowned, staring at her ceiling. It was night now, and she was entertaining herself by reading military doctrine, but there was simply so much information to digest. Every term her TacComp read to her, every topic discussed, was worthy of further elaboration. Everything was a Matryoshka doll of information.

Motivated by curiosity, she asked for a brief clarification on the SHERMAN acronym.

The SHERMAN—the Super Heavy Exotic‐shielded Relativistic MAss‐driving Nucleus, also named after a renowned American general of the 19th century—is the primary gun of the battlecruisers of the Human Navy, fulfilling roles as both the largest payload weapon in the Navy, the primary instrument of FTL interdiction, and as a WMD for surface bombardment. Exact weapon specifications are level two classified and vary from ship to ship, but it is known that kinetic energy at firing is roughly 40 petajoules, or 9.6 megatons of TNT.

There was a pause and a quiet sense of expectation: Did she want it to continue? She decided no—she didn't want to get too far off track—and it immediately settled back into its main narrative.

As always, however, the great leveling force on the battlefield in favor of Humanity is its contingent of Magical Girls. For example, despite what might be expected from technology alone, the Cephalopods are inferior in stealth and detection capability. Alien technology is superior, but it has little relevance when there are numerous mages capable of sensing anything approaching—through a variety of methods—and also numerous mages capable of hiding from anything.

Ryouko paused the playback briefly. She had never thought about it that way, but yes, it was true that in specific ways, magical girls could override nearly any level of technological superiority—provided the girls were available.

She told the device to continue.

Of greater overall relevance is the overall tactical prowess of the mage corps in close‐range combat. The efficacy of the Magi Cæli drops off with distance, simply because mages who can attack at distances greater than thousands of kilometers are vanishingly rare, whereas every mage can deal damage at point‐blank range. Further, because of the unique nature of magical girl powers, the larger the alien ships involved, the more damage the Mage Corps is often able to deal. It is often possible for a Sky Team to penetrate to the weak points of a carrier via some well‐placed teleports and other special tactics, then cripple the entire ship; on the other hand, a corresponding mass of interceptors must be whittled down with attrition, usually costing more casualties.

Ryouko grimaced. It was good to hear that teleporters were valuable, but her vaunted two hundred kilometer range didn't seem that impressive anymore. Nonetheless, she listened on.

Because of this, battles where Human fleets have been able to close to "close combat" range—defined as within the effective range of a frigate's laser weapons—have nearly always ended in at least a tactical Human victory.

It is this fact which dictates the tactical makeup of every major fleet engagement. Cephalopod fleets invest heavily in carriers, which can be considered capital ships, and attempt to hang back and engage from great range, with fighters and bombers and, often, a heavily defended siege‐range blink cannon. Human fleets eschew all but light carriers, unable to manufacture sufficiently powerful bombers to penetrate alien defenses, and consider the massive, nearly indestructible battlecruiser their capital ship. Shrouded in constant patrols of Sky Teams, robotic MedEvac, and support interceptors, every crewed Human vessel contains medical support, living quarters, grief cubes, and weapons, acting as mobile supply bases for the Mage Corps. In addition, Human fleets contain a significant complement of extremely stealthy light frigates, crewed by MagOps teams. It is these that register the major "kills" in most space battles.

Both fleets are also constantly attended by a large amount of drones of every size and description, ranging from mini‐drones that attempt to latch onto forcefields and weaken them, to repair drones, to drones that attempt to drill into exposed hull, to frigate‐size gun platforms.

At this point, Ryouko again paused the information dump. She knew about Magi Cæli, of course—everyone did—but she had never really thought about the possibility of being one. Indeed, in her mind, it didn't really matter, even though it was possible for any girl with the right powers and psych profile to be inducted into the service.

What if that were her? What would it be like, wearing suits, maneuvering in the vacuum of space, with no gravity? On the one hand, it would be very different, on the other—she just didn't know. Again, she thought about reading more about the MC, but sighed, deciding she might as well finish the current topic.

She asked for the device to continue:

Given the way the two opposing fleets operate, most fleet engagements consist of the Human fleet trying to close to close combat range, using SHERMAN guns to attempt to interdict alien maneuverability and ability to retreat. Alien carriers attempt to disable battlecruisers, while stealth frigates carrying magical operations teams constantly attempt to penetrate alien defenses and take down carriers. Engagements away from critical points, such as planetary bodies, shipyards, or major economic resources, are rarely decisive, with both sides usually opting to withdraw after receiving significant damage to capital ships or if MC attrition becomes unacceptable.

Engagements fought near critical points are, on the other hand, often fought "to the death" by the defending side. Here, the relative reliance on both sides on capital ships is asymmetric. The loss of capital ships is crippling to the attacker for both sides, usually prompting a withdrawal, though this can be difficult in the face of FTL interdiction by either side. However, Human fleets can continue to defend extensively without battlecruisers, whereas Cephalopod fleet resistance is usually dead in the water after the loss of carriers and orbiting fighter/bomber bays.

It should be noted that "to the death" is usually metaphorical, with most significant fleet assets, especially the MC, withdrawn from a losing battle before retreat becomes impossible.

The superiority of Human fleets in close combat due to the Mage Corps is an enormous tactical and strategic asset. Human worlds above a certain level of development and fortification are irreducible from long range, given the population's ability to rapidly replenish bombardment defenses, forcing close engagement by the heavy firepower of alien battlecruisers, bringing them to where they are most vulnerable. This, coupled with the fact that most planetary combat has occurred on Human worlds, has turned battles on well‐developed worlds into grueling affairs, carried out as sieges, with constant battles in high orbit, low orbit, and on the ground.

Ryouko grimaced again. That, everyone certainly heard about. Unusually, Governance rarely censored what happened in planetary sieges, which were grim battles for survival that, in terms of sheer scale, made even the battles of the Unification Wars look small by comparison. Victory meant a long, painful rebuilding process. Defeat meant death, simple as that, or whatever it was the aliens did with human prisoners.

No one really wanted to find out.

Certainly, there were no records of anyone ever being taken prisoner and, on the other hand, alien units, including infantry, had a disturbing tendency to self‐destruct to prevent capture. No alien had ever been captured alive.

Ryouko shook her head at herself, her attention having lagged. However, she discovered that her TacComp had waited for her the whole time. Technology.

Military tacticians have also pointed out that superiority in close combat is, theoretically, a significant advantage on the offensive, where alien fleets pinned against critical points cannot retreat and must fight on terms favorable to the Human fleet. Given the lack of Human offensives so far in the war, this has not been reliably demonstrated, though the success of the Saharan Raid has been pointed to as evidence.

Her TacComp stopped—it turned out that was the last paragraph. Ryouko noted the recommendations given to her. She could either choose to learn about Human military doctrine for the war as a whole, receive a short primer on the major ship classes of both fleets, or learn additional details about space combat at a smaller level, the level of the average magical girl in the Magi Cæli.

She was about to select the last option when, with excellent timing, her father requested entry.

He didn't have to—the door was unlocked—but it was the polite thing to do.

"I'm going down to the lab soon," he said. "Are you up for a midnight trip? I've got something to show you."

She looked back at the strangely serious look he wore and wondered what this was about.

"Sure," she agreed, shrugging. "Actually, I've always wanted to visit."

She smiled on the last line, which was absolutely true, but the smile concealed surprise at the unusual situation.

The man smiled back, slightly.

"Well, it's a special occasion. And I also feel as if we don't talk enough recently. You know."

He made an awkward gesture, then said:

"Well, I'll be waiting out in the living room. Don't take too long."

Ryouko, in fact, didn't leave him waiting at all, getting up right after the door slid closed. She patted the robot on her desk, which looked up at her with its optical sensor, thought for a moment to make sure she had nothing else to do, then went outside.

As they headed for the exit platform, she mused on the fact that, of the three members of her family, her father was the one she had seen the least this week. Not that he wasn't there; far from it, actually. It was just that, where her mother seemed to have taken most of the week off to stay home at nights, her father had adhered to his normal schedule without change.

Well, except for today.

Relative to the rest of her family, he had never been particularly good at communicating with his daughter. It was hard to describe—it was as if he didn't really know how to talk to a child. He had always spoken to her as an adult, expecting her to react as an adult would, even when she was manifestly not.

Ryouko supposed that as she got older, it would be less and less of an issue. Indeed, nowadays, she often found herself appreciating his frank and thoughtful style, even if it was occasionally awkward.

They rode in silence, along a route that was rapidly growing familiar to her. The Prometheus Research Institute, where her parents worked, was, of course, immediately next door to the Cult of Hope headquarters.

As the vehicle glided to a stop near one of the middle levels, Ryouko reflected that not once had her parents ever brought her with them to work. The reason given had always been "security", but she wondered sometimes.

She looked at the door they were about to enter, glass inside the faux masonry that ringed the door and formed the platform they were standing on, in turn attached to the glass, metal, and faux stone of the building. It was indistinguishable from a thousand other such entrances throughout the city. The motif was very common.

"Papa," she began, as they headed for the door which was, of course, already open.

The man gave her a slight glance of acknowledgment.

"Why isn't mama with us?" she asked.

"She—" her father began, before pausing.

"She wouldn't agree with what I'm doing right now," he said.

"What are we doing right now?" Ryouko asked.

She didn't receive a response.

They walked through the subdued glass doors, passing several people heading the other way. Her father exchanged greetings with them. They glanced at her with vaguely meaningful looks, but didn't comment.

"They know about you, of course," her father said. "I had to set this all up. Otherwise, I could never get you past security at the door. Speaking of which…"

They stepped up to a transparent structure that divided the entrance from the rest of the building. It was designed like an airlock, and on the other side she could see a variety of drones moving back and forth, though she couldn't see what they were carrying.

Suddenly, it occurred to her what this must be.

"You're going to feel a strong burning sensation after we step in," her father began. "It's—"

"UV sterilization, right?" she asked. "And then some drones."

"Yes," her father said, looking at her with a faint trace of surprise.

"I had to enter a facility like this for my upgrades," she explained.

"Ah, yes, of course," he said, stepping in. "How silly of me."

They endured the heat and drones, and when they exited out the other side, a drone, literally a rolling clothesrack, rolled up with two lab coats. They put them on, but she found hers rather large, with sleeves that she was tempted to roll up.

"It's only a loaner," her father said. "If you worked here you'd have your own, but as it is, it's a waste of resources to synthesize a new coat for one visit. Your size is rather too small for the standard sets. It's considered standard attire, even if you don't need it at all. Sort of like a uniform. Helps the atmosphere."

That didn't sound like any labs Ryouko knew about, but then again, it wasn't as if she had visited many labs.

They walked in silence for a few moments. Ryouko tried to call up an internal map of the facility to navigate with, a customary task when entering somewhere new. Instead of getting a map, her TacComp told her she did not have the clearance to see the map. Fair enough, she supposed.

"So this is the Bio section of the labs," her father narrated, as they stalked down the hallway. "Well, the non‐classified Bio section, anyway. It deals with more pure biology than the other areas. Weapons Tech is on the lower floors, Combat Analysis above that, and Simulation and Training Equipment above that, just below us. Above us is Drones and Military AI, followed by Mind‐Machine Integration, and MMI is big. They've got nearly a third of the building to themselves. Which isn't to say we're small, mind you. We've got about ten floors. They're just bigger."

"Anyway, above them is Magical Studies, which tends to deal more with demon statistics, grief cube distributions, things like that. Statisticians, mainly, or so I've heard. At the top of the building are the administrative offices and Special Studies, which is the section I don't have access to."

He said it all in a whirlwind of information, so that Ryouko struggled to keep up. As he spoke, they made turn after turn, passing equipment storage rooms, rooms full of researchers supervising automated equipment and talking with AI avatars, rooms full of said automated equipment performing tasks, numerous drones, other hallways…

"But this is all related to magical girls, right?" Ryouko asked. "That's what this facility is for."

"Yes," her father said. "And as you might expect, we're pretty heavily wrapped up with the MSY. It's a joint facility, and there are plenty of you girls among the staff here. We bring in subjects occasionally."

Finally, they entered an area whose rooms looked decidedly familiar to her. Here again were the transparent walls, the dispensing slots, the chairs in the middle of the room that looked like examination chairs. Some rooms were occupied, though this time she passed several girls going the other way in a group of lab coats. They looked to be her age, and looked back at her curiously as she passed. She didn't bother trying to check for rings. What else could they be?

"I pulled some strings and got you into the next batch of field tests for Version Two of your tactical computer," her father finally explained. "Rather under the table, but it should be acceptable. They're not fully optimized for the magical girl class yet—that's what the field tests are about—but they're fully functional and perfectly safe. You're only really getting it a year or two early, to be honest. Nothing but the best for my daughter, after all."

He smiled on that last line, looking at her so that she knew it was only a joke, but only partly. There was more warmth there than she was used to; she felt faintly embarrassed.

"Why couldn't you just tell me before we left?" she asked. "There was no reason to keep it a secret. I'm pleased, actually."

She meant that genuinely, though she was quite surprised—with just a trace of trepidation about using experimental equipment, quickly swallowed.

But why had he kept it secret? Had he just not wanted to say?

The man looked away, seeming discomfited. It could have been embarrassment, but something—well, it had to be embarrassment, she decided.

Then they arrived in front of a room where the chair was unoccupied, but where there were technicians standing around performing mysterious tasks, obviously busy. A woman stood facing away from her, looking like some sort of supervisor. The door was open.

Honestly, Ryouko would have kept right on walking anyway, not thinking about it carefully, had her TacComp not pinged her to stop.

She did so, and realized that her father had already stopped, frowning and looking somewhat confused.

He shook it off quickly, though, waving her through the door and following just a second later. The walls and door turned opaque behind them.

"Director Valentin—Joanne‐san," he addressed, bowing. "It's, uh, an honor."

The supervisor turned to face them, and Ryouko almost recoiled a step.

TacComp, she thought immediately. Who is this? She—

She stopped as the information flooded her brain. It didn't come up as the readable menu she was used to, but as chunks of sudden knowledge.

"Valentin, Joanne"
  • Age: undisclosed
  • Ethnicity: German
  • Occupation: Civilian; Managing Director, Prometheus Research Institute
  • Special Comments:
    Recipient, Oppenheimer Award for Management of a Scientific Facility Exceeding Upper‐end Performance Estimates (very prestigious)

Ryouko hoped she didn't actually looked shocked as she studied the woman's face, her cropped hair, those cosmetic glasses—

It bore a striking resemblance to the pedestrian she had seen walking the streets, after her first demon hunt, though that woman hadn't worn glasses.

Unfortunately, the image in your memory is too distant and blurry to properly compare, her TacComp commented, responding to her next thought before she even had time to formulate it. Based on what is available, the prior probability of this being her is only 10%. However, the fact that she resides in Mitakihara City and works here greatly increases the overall probability, to about 62%. I cannot perform further analysis, but I would predict that the actual probability is even higher, given other factors about the situation.

Ryouko blinked at the blistering speed of auditory input, at a speed the device had never before used. Somehow, though, she understood it perfectly, though there was the briefest of pauses as she processed the thought.

Could you—

do a database search of everyone who might be her in this city, is what she had wanted to ask, but again the device read her thought first, interrupting with:

No. You do not have sufficient clearance. But I can forward this information to Sakura Kyouko, who does.

Let me think about it first.

Because of the TacComp's efforts to maximize the speed of the exchange, it all went by so fast that only at the end did her father finally ask:

"Is something wrong, Ryouko?"

"No," she said, shaking her head, even as her head was spinning. "I was just, uh, surprised to meet someone so distinguished."

She bowed.

It was a flat out lie, but the woman looked pleased to be recognized.

"Dir–Joanne‐san here is the one I asked for this favor," her father said, slightly nervous. "Actually, it was something she suggested. I was just asking advice."

"You are too kind," the woman said. "It was admirable of you to be so concerned for your daughter. I am just here to give you my well‐wishes."

"Thank you," Ryouko said politely.

"I understand you contracted only recently," the woman said, "and your mentor is Field Marshal Tomoe and Kyouko. Is that right?"

The question startled her, but Ryouko couldn't see any guile on the woman's face. The woman surely knew already that the answer was yes, but that didn't mean anything. She was certainly just making conversation.

"Ah, yes," Ryouko said. It occurred to her that the woman had referred to Kyouko without any honorifics. Did they know each other?

"Very prestigious," the woman commented. "Well, I'll get out of your way for now."

By "get out of the way", Joanne did not mean she was leaving, as Ryouko had thought. Rather, the woman simply stepped to the side to let Ryouko sit down in the chair clearly intended for her, then moved to stand in a corner and watch. Ryouko had been wrong; she wasn't supervising—she was only visiting and watching.

"I am Doctor Kobayashi," one of the technicians said, introducing himself to her. More precisely, he said Kobayashi‐sensei, the language being Japanese. "Physician, nanobiologist, shiny certifications, everything. Don't be alarmed by the number of personnel. It's not fully a standard product yet, so we're more careful than we usually are, but there have never been any severe problems with the upgrade process. I couldn't help overhearing the conversation just now, so it might be reassuring to know that your mentor Mami‐san has one installed as well."

Mami‐san, the name so entrenched in the public consciousness that perfectly random people felt free to use it instead of the proper "Tomoe‐san".

Ryouko nodded assent.

The doctor waited for the rest of his team to finish introductions before saying:

"Of course you've done this kind of thing before, so I won't bore you by talking too much. However, we are taking extra precautions, so we're unfortunately going to have to put you out for the whole procedure. It will also take longer than it usually would, but nothing compared to the full initial installation. Maybe half an hour."

"I see," Ryouko said, feeling the slight trepidation that naturally came with knowledge of one's impending unconsciousness.

She waited only a few minutes longer for the preparations to complete. Her father smiled nervously at her; she smiled nervously back.

"Unusual genetics in her file," one of the technicians commented, shaking a vial. "Your daughter is unique, Kuma‐san. It just means more work for us."

It was said in the vein of a joke, and her father, who apparently knew the man, smiled and nodded, catching the intended humor.

Not getting the reaction he had been expecting—namely, a question about the unusual genetics—the technician was briefly awkward, then turned back to his work.

Ryouko watched the exchange, a little puzzled.

Then the two flaps that prevented her turning her head shifted into position—the flaps weren't movable in the other place, Ryouko noted—and they began.

When she awoke again, Joanne was gone.

She stood back up experimentally.

"Does anything seem out of the ordinary?" Kobayashi asked. "At the moment, you shouldn't feel anything different from before."

She shook her head no.

The physician nodded, then said:

"This version has significantly improved core processing power, and is much more adept at giving advice about human interaction and predicting human behavior. It can also answer a much larger variety of messages automatically. Improvements all across the board. The only problem is that it will take a while for it all to get into place. You should start seeing differences soon, but it won't be completely in place for two weeks or so."

"Two weeks," Ryouko repeated, slightly disappointed.

"It was the best we could do," the man said, shrugging. "Though we're always working to improve it."

TacComp, Ryouko thought, trying it out. Anything I should know right now?

I am of course pleased to be upgraded, it thought. Well, in a manner of speaking. But I'm sure you've already noticed the most important first change.

Indeed she had, since she had almost jumped upon receiving the first response. It had used her voice, rather than the robotic‐sounding voice she had chosen for it. It still sounded flat, which was the reason she had avoided the human‐sounding options in the first place.

"Why is the voice different?" Ryouko asked. "Or do I need to reset it or something?"

"No, that's intentional," the physician said. "I know it's disconcerting right now, but eventually the voice will pick up emotional nuances. Trust me; it works out. People like it. Maximal integration and all that."

"So I don't have a choice?" she asked, displeased.

The doctor made a face that seemed to say "This same question every time!"

"No," he said. "It boosts combat performance, once you get used to it. Plus, almost everyone ends up loving it. Really."

"You said emotional nuances," Ryouko said. "Only simulated, right?"

"Of course," the physician said.

Her father, who had got up out of his chair when she woke but had otherwise remained silent, cleared his throat.

"Kito‐san," he said. "It's fine. Tell her."

The technicians glanced at each other nervously. The doctor sighed.

"Okay," he admitted. "So the real answer is that we designed the devices not to have any, but there seems to be some evidence that they might have some anyway. We're not really sure; it could be an illusion. We're looking into it. But if they do, we'll have to do all sorts of ethical consultations, maybe even talk to the committee. But we want to be sure first."

Ryouko took that in, not really sure what to make of it. Did she want a tactical computer with emotions? What was she supposed to think about that?

"I see," she settled on.

"Ryouko," her father said. "I'm sorry to rush you, but we're slightly behind schedule. I want to take you somewhere else."

He looked around, and since none of the technicians seemed to have any objections, they said their farewells and headed back out the door.

"So where to now?" Ryouko asked. "Don't tell me more upgrades."

Her father shook her head.

"No," he said. "But I can't really talk about it. Not until we get there."

They navigated the maze of the building, Ryouko following him on blind faith without a map to guide her.

As they walked, she pondered the woman they had just met. It was still very likely that everything was a coincidence, that the pedestrian had been walking in the area for unrelated reasons, and that if the woman were her, she was only walking outside her office for a bit of fresh air, or something like that. Besides, even if Ryouko wanted to ascribe a malicious intent to her, it was difficult to reconcile that with the fact that the woman had apparently just helped her.


No, that was too paranoid to think about.

There was one thing, though. The woman had hinted at knowing Kyouko. She hadn't thought through that aspect earlier, but now that she realized…

TacComp, send a message about Joanne Valentin to Kyouko‐san, she thought. Tell her what I saw the other day, say that there's a strong resemblance, and ask if she knows her.

Done, the device responded.

It would have been a good idea anyway.

She jerked herself to a stop, almost running into her father's back. She found herself at the end of a long, narrow hallway, in front of an imposing metal door. He started to talk, but not on a topic that seemed relevant.

"You might wonder what it means to say we're the Biology section of the labs," her father said, eyes strangely detached. "We advise the other sections and conduct whatever studies seem appropriate for our section. That's one thing. But the truth is, there are two things we do that are majorly important. I'm not going to talk about the other one, but…"

His voice trailed off.

"Well, your mother and I disagree on a few things," her father said, looking off into the middle distance. "Unlike her, I'm willing to let you exert yourself, even risk your life, in search of your dreams. She would rather you be safe at home. She doesn't say it, but she doesn't really trust you to handle yourself. I—"

Another pause.

"Well, I don't really trust you either, honestly," he said. "But I'm willing to let you try, and fail, even, though hopefully it doesn't kill you. She was the one who wanted us to work so hard to keep you from contracting. She, and her mother. I've always been more ambivalent. Darwin."

Ryouko blinked at the last phrase. What did Darwin have to do with anything?

"Good evening," a voice said, and then a human figure materialized immediately in front of them, startling Ryouko into stumbling backwards.

Unlike the replica of Charles Darwin that might have been expected, the hologram looked merely like a nondescript male Japanese scientist in a lab coat, looking at her curiously. She was taken aback, however, by the blank "I/O" symbol he had in place of one eyeball, having to remind herself that AIs did that sort of thing.

"Can I help you, Shizuki‐sensei?" the figure asked.

Her father swallowed visibly.

"Darwin," he said. "Is there anyone inside at the moment?"

"No," the figure said, tilting its head in slight confusion. "Why? No one is scheduled to be inside. You know that. You cleared the schedule."

"I was just checking. I…"

Here, her father hesitated significantly, before taking another steadying breath.

"I'd like you to grant my daughter here entrance to the incubation area," he said. "I'd like you to help me get her in and out undetected. And then I'd like you to delete all records of this."

Ryouko sucked in a breath through her teeth. This was not what she expected.

"Papa—" she began.

"That is a serious request," Darwin said, showing only a moment of human surprise. "And one that goes beyond your level of authorization. I could easily report you just for asking. It would be severe misconduct for me to approve it. Why should I?"

"Darwin," her father said, voice deliberately firm. "We've worked together for how many years now? I helped create you. I know you'd never turn me in. I'm asking a big favor, I know. But my daughter contracted, and I think she has a right to know."

The AI turned to look at Ryouko, sharply, and she shifted nervously under the gaze, wondering if they were about to be thrown out by security, and what could possibly have motivated her father to risk his career like this.

TacComp— she began to think.

Don't worry, the machine thought, anticipating. I'm loyal only to you. One of the MSY restrictions on my design.

It sounded almost dry. The upgrades couldn't be taking effect already, could they?

"I'm asking you to trust me," her father said, starting to look worried. "Please. For my sake."

It wasn't impossible for AIs to ignore the rules. One of the things Humanity had discovered as government became more and more mechanized was just how much efficiency depended on lower‐level agents being able to bend, or even break, the rules, as long as they did it with good cause. The rules were necessary to function smoothly, but too much rigidity and things stagnated. The problem of intention, though, was crucial, which was part of why Volokhov was considered such a genius.

The AI dipped its head slightly, as if in thought. The pose lasted only a moment.

"Very well," it said. "I will grant you access, and I will keep anyone from disturbing you. Don't take too long. I wouldn't want to have to explain this one. I do hope your daughter takes after you in calmness."

"Thank you," her father said, as the door slid open, slow with weight.

"Why didn't you ask the AI before we got here?" Ryouko whispered.

"To make him more likely to agree," her father whispered back. "If something were to happen, Darwin could erase his memories and forge new ones. It would help everyone, but AIs really don't like doing that. If I asked him beforehand, and had him help us with scheduling and such, then there would be a lot more to erase. Plus, it helps to make him answer me in front of you. Subtle psychology, and, yes, he can hear me say that."

Her father gestured at the door.

"Let's go in," he said.

They stepped inside, the door sealing shut behind them with a slight sucking noise. The air smelled… perfectly odorless, a difference Ryouko would never have noticed before the modifications.

It was also immediately apparent that, rather than the room Ryouko had been expecting, they were actually inside an elevator, the opposite wall of the tube impassively white.

With only the faintest of shudders, they began to move downward.

"Papa—" she began, but he made a gesture of quiet.

He placed his hand on the wall of the tube, palm pressing the wall. She was at a loss as to what he was doing, until the walls began to fade in color, the white growing less intense, so that she could start to see that there was something on the other side.

It was just like the room walls in the hospital, she realized.

Then the walls became clear enough for her to see through, and she forgot all about hospitals and what kinds of walls they have.

"What is this?" she asked automatically, taking an involuntary step backward.

She wouldn't have imagined that the building would contain a section as large as this. It was clear that the tube they were riding in was on the edge of an immense… it didn't even seem appropriate to call it a room. It was more like a cylindrical cavern, one occupying the entire central core of the building. Immense concentric cylinders occupied the interior, each lined from top to bottom with rows and rows of blue and white tanks, internal lighting eerie in the general darkness of the cavern. As she watched, mysterious robotic devices slid up and down the walls on rails, shining their optical sensors at the tanks. One was open, the drones reaching into the blue liquid to perform some mysterious manipulation.

That wasn't the point. The point was what was in the tanks, the countless teenage girls with eyes closed, floating serenely in the blue liquid, naked except for the twin metal rings that preserved dignity, and the myriad wires and tubes she could see lodged into the backs of the ones who were closer. They all had very long hair, growth unchecked by scissors, winding its way around the wires, but other than that, there was great variety in faces, shapes, even ethnicities, though the majority appeared to be Japanese. Every single one was in their teens.

"Exactly what it looks like," her father said, turning to gauge her reaction, eyes again detached. "You've seen enough Unification War films to know what these are. These are cloning vats. I didn't have to enter from the top floor, but I thought it would be easier to explain from in here."

Ryouko averted her gaze. Her head swam.

"Human cloning is a violation of regulations," she said lamely, trying to process the betrayal in her mind. "It's terribly illegal. It's an atrocity. Everything they told us in school—"

"We have special dispensation from the government. Ryouko, listen," her father said. "You've always been a level‐headed girl. I need you to listen. Can you do that? That was why I brought you here. I'm asking you to trust me."

His voice briefly lost the matter‐of‐factly—almost chilly—quality that usually characterized it. Instead it became briefly pleading, an emotional nuance she had never heard from him. He wanted her to listen.

Swallowing whatever needed to be swallowed, Ryouko forced herself to nod. She would listen, hear the facts. That was what she did in every situation, even this.

But if I don't like the facts, then what?

Her eyes darted around the cavern, at the vats, at the immense tubes leading into and out of the cylinders, at the gaps inside the cylinder nearest to her, through which she could see the rest of the arrangement. Looking more carefully, she could see that there were walkways leading from the outer edge inward, and platforms clearly meant for transportation of personnel.

Her father nodded, satisfied, even though he looked nervous again.

He turned his back to her, and stared out their transparent wall. Ryouko looked too, and as they watched, one of the tanks detached from the wall, mechanical apparatus pushing it outward and into a waiting cradle on one of the drones. The drone raced away downward, to some unknown destination.

"I felt we owed it to you," he said, "to tell you just what it is your parents volunteer for every night."

"This better be good," Ryouko said, managing to rebuild some conviction.

"This used to be one of the MSY's blackest projects," her father said. "Now it is merely classified. Not even that high, only level two, but high enough that the public, most of the military, and the majority of magical girls never find out. The thing is—"

There was a pause.

"Well," he continued. "Have you ever thought about the implications of having your soul in a gem?"

He turned to face her, and she could see in his eyes that he was struggling with this, that he had forced himself to do this. It won some of her trust back.

He surprised her by grabbing her hand and raising it up.

"'Your gem your cockpit, your body your wings,'" he said, gesturing at her ring. "Have you ever heard that? No, of course not;"—he shook his head at himself—"it's censored from the public. But it's the motto of the Magi Cæli, the Space Corps. They, more than anyone, learn just how inhuman they are, and they suffer some the highest rates of body loss of any of the branches. They are the only ones told the truth in training; the rest of you are told only to save the gems of your comrades, that the MSY has ways to save them."

He dropped her hand and, with a slight lurch, they stopped. Ryouko was surprised; she had somehow missed the fact that they were approaching a walkway.

The doors opened, and they walked forward, agonizingly slowly, passing walls of tanks that Ryouko was carefully not looking at.

"How useless a cockpit is without a plane or spacecraft underneath it, and how useless a soul gem is without a body," he said, voice shifting into a pedantic mode. "A soul gem torn from its host seeks desperately to find it again and, failing that, goes dormant, eventually burning out. With certain kinds of stimulation, provided by other mages, it can be induced to try to grow a new body, based on the original, but the number of gems who can complete the feat on their own is vanishingly small. It can be done with a prodigious number of grief cubes, but either way, the process can be incredibly traumatizing, so much so that it was never tried again, after the first few attempts."

Ryouko looked at her ring, her soul gem. Yes, that was her, and the eyes she was looking out of only a drone. Still, the concept of regrowing a body—she shuddered.

"There are other ways," her father said. "With a fresh cadaver, a gem can be induced, with difficulty, to take it as a new host. It's better, since it costs much less energy to reform an existing body than to try to reform air and mud and vacuum into a body de novo. But the process is imperfect, cube‐costly, and has a high failure rate. It was done fairly often, in the early days, after it was realized it was possible, but it was never a good solution."

They stopped, her father seeming to think about something, before continuing:

"One thing that was never tried was the sharing of bodies. The MSY has always had considerable evidence of the downsides from historical sources. Every known example of body‐sharing has resulted in instability, insanity, and diminished cognitive function. The cadaver solution works considerably better, but there were still quite a few losses, where the MHD was forced in to Reformat what had previously been a perfectly sound mind. Oh, that's right, you don't know about Reformatting."

They stopped in front of another door, in the exact middle of the concentric cylinders. Ryouko looked up, then down, at the rings of tanks that seemed to stretch all the way through the building, though she could, if she tried, spot both the ceiling they had left from and the floor below her.

They stepped into the second elevator, and started going down again, as she wondered how far down this rabbit hole went.

This time, her father didn't bother with the show of putting his hand to the wall. The wall lost its opaqueness, following some invisible command.

"Still," the man continued. "The body‐sharing case was a tantalizing hint. The diminished cognitive function, the fact that there are no known examples of anyone ever possessing an inanimate object or an animal…"

Her father turned to face her, meeting her gaze with a surprising amount of strength in his eyes.

"The theory we have now is that the soul in the gem contains information, some indefinable essence," he said, "but that it needs a manifestation to function. We studied some of those brought back using cadavers. Over time, their bodies changed, became more like their old ones, even at the genetic level. Their brains did too. It was the beginning of an idea."

He paused, realizing he had missed a detail.

"Anyway," he said. "We were assigned to this project from the start. Trusted NCs—non‐contractees—back when things were still secret. Though I didn't actually get to know your mother until much later—no, that's another story. The MSY wanted a better way, a way where they didn't have to give up on so many gems, a better way to bring back those who should be dead."

He watched her, and saw that she was starting to understand. To her, it made sense, almost too much sense, and her expression was conflicted, no longer sure of her world.

"I see that you're getting it," he said. "Yes, one of the first things we did was to perform formal studies of the cadaver hosting process. It's all very well and good to speculate, but seeing the girls ten, twenty years later is meaningless. They've had all the time in the world to change themselves deliberately, consciously or subconsciously. It pollutes the results. We watched the process as it happened, studied the corpses inside and out as it happened. The very first thing a gem does in a new host is rewire the brain. It has to, and the girl doesn't wake until after the process is done. The soul gem cannot function without a physical manifestation, and not just that, a physical manifestation with enough processing power. In that way it's amazing those historical instances of body‐splitting ever worked at all."

He paused, gathering his thoughts again.

"But the process is expensive, and the gem must change everything, right down to the genetic level. The brain is intricate, and even slight genetic variations affect its processing. And there were the failures, the insanity, the girls who needed specialized neural implants to function, the other, worse cases. We speculated that with the proper substrate, a body more like the original, the process would be much smoother."

"Hence the clones?" Ryouko said, gesturing at the tanks that surrounded their descending elevator, already knowing the answer.

"Yes," her father said. "But it was not as simple as cloning the bodies and slapping the gem on top. First, we had to find a way to grow bodies quickly and properly, all the way to the correct age, or at least late childhood. And secondly, there were the ethical issues."

It was Ryouko's opinion that there were ethical issues everywhere here, but she nodded, seeing the logic of it all, feeling an irrational anger growing inside her. Why hadn't they ever told her?

"The thing is," her father said, "any body you grow to viability has the potential for sentience. In fact, it will be sentient, if you just wake it up. What does it mean to put a soul gem on such a body? Would it be body‐splitting? Would the gem eliminate whatever is there? Is that murder?"

Her father looked to the side, dropping his gaze.

"We never found out. We wouldn't try something like that, no matter what you think of us. We sought other ways. But no matter what you do, there are philosophical issues. Even if we had the technology to recreate the consciousness state of the gem down to the atomic level, is it the same person? Is it someone else? We asked the Incubators, but they wouldn't tell us. We're not even sure if they know."

In the brief silence that followed, Ryouko looked around her, trying to reconcile it all with her previous understanding of her parents, one warm and loving, the other distant and cool—but still loving. They had never told her what they did for a living, had never said anything to remotely suggest that there might be a few nuances to ponder in the condemnations of Freedom Alliance atrocities that littered her history courses.

She had never really thought about it, had always taken the illegality of Human cloning for granted. It made sense, given the abuses that been committed in the past. But—

"There's so much we still don't understand," her father mused out loud. "If the gem is shattered, the body remains, but if the gem is corrupted, the body disappears. Why? It bothers me, but it doesn't matter for this. We—"

He paused, then smiled slightly, almost ironically.

"It was your mother's idea," he said. "She was always the most dedicated to the project, the one most devoted to finding a way to bring them back. She suggested—"

"Why?" Ryouko interjected sharply, catching him before he could continue.

He looked up, confused briefly.

"Why?" Ryouko repeated. "I'm tired of all the family secrets! Why was she so dedicated?"

Her father closed her eyes briefly.

"I could just deny knowing," he said, "but the truth is I don't think I have the right to tell you. Ask her yourself, but I think she might be getting ready to do it herself anyway, if you just wait. Please, let me continue."

Ryouko gritted her teeth, but nodded. That was fair. But she was angry. It wasn't quite rational, but she was angry.

He watched her, again judging her reaction. The cool appraisal of that look made her angrier somehow, but he judged that he should continue.

"Anyway," he said, "it was her idea, though we weren't sure if it would work. What if we could keep the clones subsentient, keep the brains from forming the connections necessary for consciousness? All the neurons, all the cells, but nothing awake in there. The gem would have everything it needed, but all the philosophical issues, all the questions about clones and identity, would be gone."

"That became the project. We worked for forty years, but we finally succeeded. That was about sixty years ago. The first successful revival didn't even realize that she had lost her body."

He gestured at the tanks around them.

"If you tried to wake these clones, you would fail. We intercepted neural development at an early stage, made subtle tweaks, kept the higher functions from emerging. We don't even have to keep them asleep. They're comatose. They have working brainstems, hypothalamic function, all of that, but no light. And it works, better than we had dared hope for. The gems are placed on the bodies, and the process works nearly flawlessly. It still takes quite a good number of cubes, but the only cost now is for the rewiring of the cortex. No insanity, no side effects, as good as new. Well, it is new, in a way."

That last was intended as a slight joke, but it didn't work. Her face expression must have been a sight to behold, fully mirroring the instinctive disgust and grudging understanding she felt, because her father visibly turned away from it.

A moment later, the lift shuddered to another stop, and the doors slide open. They were at the bottom.

"I see the look of disgust on your face," her father said, as they walked out of the elevator. "Human morality is an interesting thing, isn't it? We recoil and balk at something like this, even though it's logically the best solution. The Incubators approved, though I suppose you wouldn't see the humor in that."

He paused.

"Take your synthesized meat. Centuries ago, people tried to do something similar. Decorticated chickens and cows, engineered to have no higher brain structures at all. Without them, they couldn't suffer, couldn't feel pain, couldn't peck and bite each other, and the animals could be raised industrially at greater densities than ever. With the food crises of the time, it was a great solution, even ingenious, but people rejected it. They just wouldn't accept it, not until it was just cells in a vat, meat grown that had no resemblance to the animal at all, even more industrial. But what was the difference? There was none, not really."

They turned, and her father looked down at her. She tried to understand his expression. It was a man explaining his life's work to his daughter, a member of the public, the public that would never understand.

"I don't expect you to really understand," he said, "but what we do now is mostly refine the process—add improvements, try to reduce the number of tubes, things like that. That, and revive girls who lose their bodies on the front. The ones we bring back to life don't care how we did it, even though we tell them. They're so happy, to live again. Their faces are what keep your mother and me coming back every night."

He put his hand on a tank directly next to them, and Ryouko finally looked up, then recoiled in surprise.

"Kyouko!" she exclaimed in surprise.

Her father looked up.

"Yes," he said. "There are facilities like this throughout Earth and the colony worlds, in discreet locations. It used to be that only girls in risky occupations had clones—the rest just kept genetic information on file—but nowadays, all of you do. This is the storage facility for this sector of Japan. We try to keep the clones near wherever the girls are at any given moment, but of course moving them around is difficult, so it takes some planning. Only the most important get an extra copy kept on Earth, though Kyouko here only needs this one. I don't suppose you've looked around?"

She hadn't, not until she saw Kyouko, but now she did, and saw Mami floating in the tank to her right, the child that was Yuma beyond that, another, older copy of Yuma, followed by Tanaka Yui and all the other faces familiar from Akemi. And on Mami's left—

She walked rapidly over, to make sure she was seeing properly.

"Ah, yes, Akemi Homura," her father said. "We still keep it alive, in case she ever comes back. The girls who lived here are kept here, if they warrant a second backup clone."

But Ryouko had tuned him out, looking down at the floor, face haunted. All of this: clones, endless soulless bodies in tanks, Akemi Homura and Chitose Yuma and Sakura Kyouko—

Over the past few days, the impact of her vision in the Ribbon Chamber had begun to diminish. It had been so confusing, and with nothing to follow up on, no explanations to clarify what had happened, she had stopped thinking about it.

But hadn't she been inside a tank, beating on the glass with her hands, as the fluid drained?

What did it mean? That had looked like the inside of a lab, not this giant blue cavern, but surely they didn't decant anyone here. Still, something about it—it didn't seem right. Those weren't her hands. They were too large.

A thought occurred to her.

"When do you start growing these clones?" she asked, still looking down.

"What?" her father asked, surprised.

She looked up and made eye contact.

"After a girl makes a contract, how soon is a clone grown?" she asked. "Why did we travel all the way down here anyway? Was it just to show me the tanks?"

Her father looked back at her, and in his eyes passed a glimmer of something she couldn't identify.

He cleared his throat.

"Yes, well," he said. "It actually begins the moment the contract is made, if there is genetic material available on file. In your case, I submitted some myself as soon as I could, so it's had nearly a week to gestate. There's not much to see; the first stages are the most delicate, so we don't dare accelerate the growth much. It's just a mass of cells."

"But you brought me here to see it?" she asked. "Or am I wrong?"

Her father grimaced.

"If I thought you were okay with it," he said.

"Show me," she demanded.

Her father closed his eyes and took a breath.

"Very well," he said, and gestured for her to follow.

They walked along the floor of the facility in silence, with none of the long explanations that had characterized the rest of this trip. Eventually, they exited through a side door, and Ryouko found herself passing through a much smaller room, about the size of several classrooms put together, and only as high as a normal room, with tanks arranged in rows. Here the ages were much more varied, and she found children and infants of every size, lower necks just as full of wires and tubes as the ones she had passed earlier.

She stopped, swallowing hard to overcome the wave of visceral revulsion. Her father watched her.

"Ryouko, are you sure—" he began.

"I'm fine," she growled.

They kept walking, and entered yet another room, even smaller. This one had no giant tanks, only a row of cylinders lining both walls. These cylinders were white, and Ryouko recognized it as the same glass‐like material that had lined the elevator tube, opaque or transparent on demand.

They stopped, and her father touched one of them, thoughtfully.

"Your mother and I had mixed feelings about this one, as you might imagine," he said. "Well, go ahead, take a look on the monitor. It's a microscope camera."

He gestured at a monitor underneath the tube, and she looked, at the transparent mass of cells on the screen, a slight density at one end where the inner cell mass was. Some statistics on the side proclaimed cell number, showed alternate views of the hollow inside, or of associated chemical gradients, and proclaimed that the initial nanite population was functioning smoothly, and had as of yet had no need to correct any genetic abnormalities.

It was nothing different than what she had learned about in school.

She looked downward, searching for name and ID number she had observed on all the others.

And there it was, in bright electronic lettering:

Shizuki Ryouko.

She felt something rise in her throat, and barely managed to shove it back down. Another wave of revulsion passed over her.

Why does it matter to me so much? she thought. Why does it bother me? It's just a mass of cells with my genes. It's just–just—

She held up her own hand, and looked at it.

If I lose my body, she thought, then…

She stared at the mass of cells again.

"Ryouko?" her father asked, quietly.

"Why the hell didn't you ever tell me any of this?" she demanded, barely managing to keep from yelling, surprising herself with the vehemence of her reaction, enough to cause her father to recoil slightly.

"I–I'm telling you now, aren't I?" he managed. "I couldn't possibly have said anything earlier. Do you know how many regulations I'm breaking even doing this now?"

"You–you—" she began accusingly, not even really having a coherent thought ready, just knowing she had to say something.

But the thought was incomplete, because she couldn't come up with the logic to finish it.

"Would it have really mattered?" her father argued, watching her. "Would you have really wanted to know?"

"Yes! I mean, I don't know, I—"

"Would it have affected your decision?"

The question shocked Ryouko out of her confusion, and she clasped and unclasped her fists, forcing herself to think.

"I—" she began. "No. It wouldn't have mattered. But it could have."

Her father closed his eyes, took a breath, then opened them again.

"Your mother says it was a mistake not saying anything earlier," he said. "But that now that it's happened, we should keep quiet. I don't know who's right. I just thought you needed to know. I want you to understand. I brought you here because I thought you deserved to know. I didn't want you to go in blind. Not my daughter."

Ryouko gritted her teeth, hard, clenching her eyes shut. There it was again, the irrational anger, which she couldn't justify to herself.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I need to go. I–I need to think."

Without waiting, she turned away from the tanks, heading for the far door, and what she hoped was the exit.

Her father started to reach for her, then thought better of it, and jogged forward, pointing her towards another door.

They didn't say another word the whole trip home, as Ryouko's mind swirled with confusion, anger, and betrayal, and she kept her thoughts firmly to herself, moving one foot in front of the other.

She could understand the logic of it all. They had done nothing wrong, from their view. She understood that.

But if they could hide this from her, if they could lie to her like this, then what else were they lying about?

She thought about the family finances that had never made sense to her, her parents' quiet constant paranoia about where she was and what she had been doing, Atsuko telling her to ask about her relatives, and her father listening to a technician talk about her unusual genetics without any sign of surprise.

"Ryouko," her father said, finally, as they approached their flat.

She turned and looked at him.

"Whatever happens," he said, eyes deeply conflicted. "I want you to remember that I love you. That's all I ask."

It seemed like such an off‐topic thing to say that Ryouko could only shake her head and walk away, sealing the door to her room firmly shut as she went.

Appendix: "Fleet roles"

What follows is a brief description of major military starship classifications, both alien and Human. A more verbose description can be called up at any time by selecting the relevant subtopic:

  • Blink Cannon: Capital ship. Brittle, rare, and seemingly very costly ship, specializes in teleporting heavy—often nuclear and antimatter—explosives, hard radiation bombs, suicide drones, and FTL missiles into the gut of the Human fleet. Fortunately, there is a brief phase‐in period for these devices on the other side, and objects can only appear in hard vacuum. Possible alien advances in Blink technology are a constant source of worry for Naval Command.
  • Heavy Carrier: Capital ship. Launch site and rapid‐repair facilities for alien interceptor and bomber fleets.
  • Interceptor: Engages closely with Human MC, interceptors, and frigates. Fleet defense against possible stealth attacks by Human MagOps teams. Cover for bombers attempting attacks on cruisers and battlecruisers. No FTL engine.
  • Bomber: Heavy fire platform, intended for use against heavier Human ships such as cruisers, battlecruisers, and light carriers. No FTL engine.
  • Battlecruiser: Heavy fire support, planetary bombardment, WMD deployment. Often used to delay Human fleets which are too close, to allow time for withdrawal.
  • Cruiser: Heavy anti‐personnel platform. Deploys hard radiation bombs and EMP pulses, effective against unshielded targets.
  • Frigate: Light anti‐personnel and patrol platform. Deploys shrapnel flak and minefields.

In addition, Cephalopods deploy a significant contingent of strategic fighters and bombers, which usually operate independent of fleets and are capable of FTL and Blink transit.

  • Battlecruiser: Heavy fire support, anti‐cruiser and anti‐capital ship. SHERMAN gun is slow‐firing, but projectile produces anomalous gravitational fields that interfere with both FTL and sublight propulsion. Planetary Bombardment and WMD.
  • Light Carrier: Provides interceptor and MedEvac support to fleet.
  • Cruiser: Fleet defense and Magi Cæli support. Attempts to destroy or deflect Blink Cannon projectiles, bomber armaments, etc. Provides extensive medical facilities and armory. Anti‐frigate if the opportunity arises.
  • Frigate: Fleet defense. Deploys smart flak, mine‐fields, and other anti‐fighter/bomber countermeasures.
  • Interceptor: Fleet defense. Provides support to Mage Corps against interceptor/bomber squads.
  • MedEvac: Magi Cæli support. Drone ships that retrieve incapacitated mages and provide medical/grief cube support. If necessary, will abandon all but soul gem.
  • Stealth Frigate: Anti‐capital ship, long‐range. Agile insertion ship for MagOps teams. Stealth usually assisted by mage. FTL capable.
  • Magi Cæli Corps: Anti‐capital ship and fleet defense, especially in close combat situations.

Chapter Text

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

〈In a way, the Matriarchies have always been implicit in the magical girl system, held in check only by the once ruthlessly short lifespans of the girls involved. The moment the MSY ensured that life would be both long and secure enough for girls to realistically ponder having children of their own, female‐dominated families began to crop up like mushrooms in MSY‐administered regions.〉①

〈It was eminently natural. Though no one had previously realized it, personality traits and environmental conditions conducive to contracting have a strong tendency to be shared among family members, at least insofar as personality is a product of genetics and family environment. While nearly everyone within the MSY knew anecdotes of sisters or cousins who fought together, no one had any idea how pronounced the phenomenon was until late in the first century of the organization's existence, when members began noticing a startling number of mothers introducing their own daughters to their teams as newly contracted girls.〉①

〈Initially, opinions about the phenomenon varied. Many newly minted mother‐mentors were distressed at their daughter's contract, feeling that they had failed as parents and constantly hovering over their own daughters in combat. Others were welcoming of the prospect, and some had even secretly encouraged it, in various ways.〉①

〈Bemused by the unexpected phenomenon, and well aware that MSY society was entering uncharted territory, the MSY leadership made little initial attempt to interfere with the phenomenon, besides setting rules that the MHD would evaluate all such familial mentorship arrangements, recommending separation if they felt operating on the same team would lead to psychological problems.〉①

〈As the decades and generations stretched on, the most powerful and prolific of these families began to bond into social and political blocs. The unique combination of shared secrecy, esprit de corps, natural familial affection, mutual nepotism, and sense of superiority over the rest of humanity served to bind multiple generations together into long chains of mentorship, usually dominated by the leadership of the Matriarch, the originator of the lineage. This led to a self‐perpetuating process, wherein familial‐political groups feeling threatened by the power of these families organized into further matriarchies, intensifying the phenomenon. Indeed, feeling threatened by the power of other families, groups of powerful siblings or cousins, not directly connected to a single magical girl mother, often unified behind the leadership of the most powerful of the group. There are even a few examples of unrelated girls doing the same.〉①

〈It was generally the most powerful of the families that solidified in this fashion, with members highly motivated to maintain contact for reasons of power or prestige, and accruing further powerful members via marriage with ambitious new girls. These families were usually descended from influential early members, such as the Founders, or had significant structure already, due to significant initial wealth—an important consideration in the early MSY.〉①

〈On the other hand, less influential families tended to fragment early, as descendants followed a natural tendency to move away from their parents.〉①

〈These newly formed Matriarchies soon began to develop practices and customs all their own, most notably the tendency of the Matriarchy family name to override all other considerations, for naming purposes, initially for daughters, but later for all descendants. At first, these Matriarchal names were often kept private, until perhaps after a girl needed to fake a death, but later, as the families got more powerful in the outside world, the practice became open, and was often applied retroactively.〉①

〈While many in the MSY grumbled—and continue to grumble—about the outsized influence of these families in internal politics, the nepotistic benefits afforded to newly contracted members, and the possible patrimonialization of MSY offices, the Matriarchies would end up providing significant institutional support to the burgeoning MSY. Family trusts proved a useful vehicle for hiding and laundering MSY monetary transfers, and handing MSY corporations from mother to daughter provided an easy way to keep property in the system after the original owner's "death", without attracting undue suspicion. Matriarchies also provided a reliable source of experienced and trusted personnel, churning out each generation a new set of contractees and trusted NCs—sons, husbands, and non‐contracted girls—expected to join MSY operations if at all possible.〉①

〈Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the Matriarchies brought political stability to a democratic system that could have easily broken down into factionalist rancor like so many of its contemporaries. Matriarchs, most of whom had known each other for centuries, negotiated compromises and resolved political disputes with much less conflict than might have otherwise been the case. Indeed, with a few major exceptions, the MSY Rules Committee and Leadership Committee have always been remarkable for their collegial and compromising atmospheres, lacking the kind of partisan in‐fighting that might be expected.〉①

〈The flip‐side of this, of course, is that it has led to continuous claims that the system is not as democratic as it claims. It might also be argued that the MSY was merely lucky that no two of its major families have ever gotten into unresolvable feuds…〉①

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.

"I can't believe you just let it happen!" Kyouko protested, leaning forward, making an expressive gesture with one hand, the other hand flat on the virtual conference table.

Yuma looked back at her for a moment, taking in Kyouko's outraged demeanor, expression unfazed. She turned her chair to look at Mami, who was watching the two of them thoughtfully, hands folded over her mouth.

"What would you suggest I have done?" Yuma asked, turning back, once she was sure Kyouko had calmed down slightly. "Interrupt them? Summon Darwin for a talk and order him to block access? I'd rather not intervene in something like that. For better or worse, it was his decision to make. That, and the girl's father. Obviously I'm not blowing the whistle on them."

Kyouko fumed, shifting her gaze to Mami, as if to tell her to say something. Mami didn't, however.

She chugged the rest of her cup of juice, then slid back her office chair and got up, pushing herself up with both arms. She walked up to the giant window of their virtual reality conference room, looking at the view for a bit of calm. The room was modeled after the executive meeting room of the D&E Corporation, so it was designed like a typical late 21st century conference room, complete with holoprojector and virtual carafes of strangely satisfying water and juice on the side. On the far end of the table, in front of the giant corporate logo—purple and white, a winged girl carrying a box in outstretched hands—projections of Shizuki Ryouko and Shizuki Kuma were frozen in tableau, Ryouko in the middle of rushing away, her father reaching for her.

As for the view, it was of the skyscrapers of Mitakihara City in the late Information Age, before the many things that would alter the skyline in coming years: the camps of unemployed streaming to the city for refuge, the massive public works projects, the missile defense complexes.

Kyouko turned back towards the table.

"That Shizuki Kuma!" she said, making a fist with one hand. "What was he thinking? This is exactly why I don't like those damn Matriarchies! Even the estranged branches are always trying to cheat!"

"I wouldn't call it cheating, nee‐chan," Yuma said, sipping soda from a can. "And it's not like he was pulling on Shizuki family resources to do it, either. Besides, that has nothing to do with the topic on hand."

Kyouko sat back down, sighing.

"I know," she said, slumping her head down and extending her arms. "I just hope she's all right. Some girls don't take it well. She's more cynical than most girls, but I didn't want her career to start on something like this."

"She'll be fine," Yuma said, pulling at her hair baubles. "That's my read, given that she asks to see her own clone. Arisu‐chan's already been informed, and she says her psychological profile suggests she'll get over it. Really, the bigger problem is her relationship with her parents. There might be some problems there."

"I tend to agree with Chitose‐san here," Mami said, speaking up for the first time in a while. "Obviously, you've spent more time with her than me, but the MHD tends to be accurate about these things. She seemed disgusted, yes, but not overwhelmingly. She kept it pretty together, but I'm not sure she'll trust her parents after this."

"She shouldn't anyway, I guess," Kyouko grumbled. "She'll learn that, eventually."

"So consensus?" Yuma asked. "I'd say we should just watch for now."

"Sure," Mami said.

"It's not like there's any other choice now," Kyouko said, looking briefly at Yuma, then away, with that curious sudden detachment she evinced sometimes.

"In that case, let's move on to the rest of the agenda," Yuma said crisply, leaning forward. "First, some updates on the whole grief cube business, from my end. I thoroughly examined the surveillance records for the area where the modified cubes appeared. There's nothing on the feeds, and no evidence of tampering. I'm sure it's been tampered with, but whoever it was knew what they were doing."

Kyouko snorted, sitting back up.

"Of course," she said dismissively.

"We only have one real lead," Yuma said, "And it's not a particularly good one."

She pushed a button on her remote. It was a bit of theatre, since all she was doing was pushing "play" every time, on material she was sending the VR simulation mentally, but it was a habit born from a lifetime of meetings.

A new projection appeared, replacing the old one of Ryouko and her father, this time of a flat 2D image, very blurry, obviously taken from a great distance. A woman with cropped hair, mid‐walk.

Mami thought to herself that the woman looked vaguely familiar.

Kyouko looked at her expectantly, but Yuma gestured at her, indicating she should talk. They looked at each other for a moment.

A moment later, Kyouko cleared her throat.

"Ryouko‐chan herself took this, on the night of the demon hunt," she said. "Pedestrians are rare in the area, so it's notable, but she didn't think it was important until she met the woman herself, while getting her new TacComp model installed."

Without bothering with the fake remote, she waved her hand, and a second projection appeared next to the first one, this time of the face of Joanne Valentin, director of the Prometheus Research Institute.

Something clicked in Mami's mind, and even if it hadn't, her TacComp flagged it for her.

"Oh!" she said loudly, while Kyouko was in the middle of saying that her database search suggested that the two women were almost certainly the same person, and if Ryouko had sent it to her earlier they wouldn't have needed to rely on coincidence.

Yuma and Kyouko looked at her.

"What is it?" Yuma asked.

"It's, uh, well I've met her before," Mami said, a little embarrassed. "Nowhere important, I'm sorry to say. It's just—I was at the movie theatre, and I saw her there too, without her glasses. Didn't talk to her, though."

They blinked at her.

"Movie theatre?" Kyouko asked, a moment later.

"Yeah, right after Shizuki‐san contracted," Mami said. "A few hours later. It's quite a coincidence… maybe…"

Her voice trailed off as she realized that, perhaps, the coincidence was rather unusual. It was strange enough that she didn't even remember to fear Kyouko asking why she would go to the movies.

They shared a long moment of silence. Something about it seemed just seemed strange to them.

"Well, that's another coincidence then," Yuma said. "Even if it seems meaningless."

She paused for a moment.

"I met her once too," she said, "when the institute was being dedicated. I couldn't put my finger on it, but she seemed really strange. Very focused, I guess. I talked to her, but she seemed nervous. Something about her bothered me."

They watched her. Nowadays, it wasn't common for Yuma to speak so vaguely.

"Anyway," Yuma said, shaking her head. "I have no idea what any of it means. Sorry to interrupt, nee‐chan"—she meant Kyouko—"but can I finish this?"

Kyouko nodded, and Yuma leaned forward again, gesturing at the screen with remote in hand.

"I looked into Joanne Valentin, naturally," Yuma said. "I can summarize. She was born in Germany, to a minor branch of the Valentin family—one of those small families that have always been trying to climb up in the MSY, but she wasn't in a branch in on the secret. She graduated from school as a chemist and worked in a couple of labs for a century or so, without much to distinguish her."

A series of holograms flashed by on the projector to illustrate. Graduation, a few lab group photos, things of that sort.

"Then, a few years after the war started, she switched fields and became a physicist. She started doing much better, earned her DS, and was part of the team that designed the first starship forcefields. That got a Nobel Prize, you'll remember, but she wasn't one of the principal researchers. Still, very prestigious."

"Afterwards, she started writing manuscripts about entropy, the heat death, and magical girls. The entropy gap, basically. She was the first outsider to realize the implications, since the MSY doesn't really talk about it. That caught Science Division's eye, she got friendly with some of the professors, and they interviewed her for Prometheus Director after the last one retired. She's done an excellent job, by all accounts."

"Sounds like she's had quite the career since the war started," Mami said.

"Yes," Yuma said. "The thing is, as part of the background check, I dug a little deeper. Apparently, right before she changed fields, she started seeing a psychiatrist. The doctor's notes say that she was feeling disaffected: her career was a dead end, she wasn't married, she didn't have any friends. She was thinking about joining the military."

She stopped, to make sure the others got it. They nodded.

"And then everything changed," Yuma said. "One day, she canceled her counseling sessions and said that she was feeling better, without any other explanation. Obviously the psychiatrist didn't believe her, but when he went to check up on her, she really was better. She had a new passion, and didn't show any of the signs of apathy he had noticed before. He said even her personality had changed. She told him she had had a religious experience and, since he couldn't find anything wrong, that was the end of that."

She stopped again, and looked around.

"I have no idea what it means," she said. "I met her. I can't picture someone like her 'having a religious experience.'"

There it was again—that vague feeling that there was more going on here than it seemed. The others looked troubled too.

"You know," Kyouko said. "It almost sounds like a Reformat."

Mami shuddered. She did not like hearing that word.

Yuma glanced at Mami, then said:

"Maybe, but if so, it was an unusual one. Reformatting can delete memories, yes, and even replace them with new ones, but that's a far cry from changing personality. We're not sure why it can't be done—we think personality is closer to the core of the 'soul', whatever the hell it is."

Mami summoned a teapot, then poured herself some tea to drink. Reformatting was one of the aspects of the MSY she really did not like. It bothered her tremendously.

"In any case," Yuma said, eyeing her with concern, "I checked the records of the Black Operations Subcommittee. No reformat was ever approved for Valentin. Of course, that doesn't mean it didn't happen."

"How could we tell?" Kyouko asked.

"I'll send a trained telepath her way," Yuma said. "It's the most reliable way. But…"

She paused briefly.

"We have to remember," she said. "This could all just be a wild goose chase. Like Ryouko‐chan told you, she could have just been out for a walk. She seems like the kind of person who might."

Kyouko nodded, then looked at Mami.

Why do they keep looking at me? Mami thought. I can't look that bothered, can I?

"Seems reasonable enough," Kyouko said.

Mami took a breath, then poured herself more tea.

"It doesn't really seem to lead anywhere," she said, trying to involve herself. "It's interesting and all, digging up all this dirt on someone's life, but it leads absolutely nowhere in explaining why she would be trying to kill Ryouko with grief cubes. Assuming she has anything to do with it."

"Yes," Yuma said simply.

She waited a moment, took a drink of her soda, then said:

"I also looked further into the past of Ryouko's friend, this Simona Del Mago. Del Mago is a funny name; it almost sounds like it'd come from one of the Matriarchies, but there's none I found that make sense. It was sort of a weird thought anyway."

"'Of the Mage,'" Mami said. "It really does sound like one."

"It's also a perfectly legitimate Spanish name," Yuma said. "So it doesn't have to mean anything. I looked into Simona's parents, including the ones she listed the two times she listed the wrong parents. I can't spot anything too strange, except everyone involved is a retired scientist."

Their faces came up on the projection.

"Scientists everywhere," Kyouko said. "Everywhere you look, it's more damn scientists."

"Yes," Yuma said. "I'm doing what I can to look into their backgrounds to see if there's a connection, but that's all I have for now.

"Can we just talk to the girl?" Mami asked.

"I was hoping to wait until after Ryouko has left," Kyouko interjected. "Who knows what repercussions it might have?"

"I'm inclined to agree," Yuma said.

Mami nodded, and there was a moment of quiet.

Yuma cleared her throat.

"So, do either of you have any updates to give?" she asked.

"I haven't really been connected to this," Mami said, holding up her hands in apology.

"Not really," Kyouko said. "I have Risa Flores tailing her, but she says she hasn't seen anything unusual. No one else is following Ryouko, as far as she can tell."

"We have to keep in mind: there are other possibilities besides assassination," Yuma said. "It could have been an attempt to get her to contract, a test‐run in preparation for an attack on someone else, or an attempt to earn some sort of reaction from someone. It may be the case that now that it's over, there's no reason to try again."

Mami shook her head, hair fluttering around her ears.

"No way it's an attempt to get her to contract," Mami said. "It was too risky. They had no way of knowing I would happen to be there. It was far more likely to get her killed. It almost did."

"I agree," Yuma said. "Barring something really esoteric, like another cloaked magical girl nearby. But that seems like a lot of trouble to contract a girl Kyubey said had a high chance of contracting anyway."

"How did you know it said that?" Mami asked, frowning.

"I asked it," Yuma said. "I put in the word that I wanted to talk to it. It didn't have any other insights."

"It could have been an attempt to get a reaction out of one of the Matriarchies," Kyouko said, "except that I couldn't get that to make sense, when I was thinking about it. If you want to annoy the Kurois or Shizukis, there are much better targets than a new contractee in an estranged branch of the family. And what kind of reaction would even be worth it?"

"Plus, none of the other families would be stupid enough to use forbidden grief cubes," Yuma said. "At least I hope not."

"Hmm," Mami repeated.

They sat there in silence for a long moment, the clock on the wall ticking quietly.

Mami cleared her throat.

"Well, I guess I can say a little about my investigation into the grief cube shortages," she said. "My agent hasn't finished her report yet, but I've been looking into what I can myself. There's… a discrepancy, I guess, between what the records say and what our grief cube audit says about cube supplies. At the time points with shortages, the squads report receiving far less than what the reports say was delivered. I don't know what's going on."

"I want to confirm delivery with the upstream distribution AIs, and check some of the combat logistics records, but I can't do that without revealing what I'm asking. It might be okay, but the risk is that word leaks out somehow, and then we'll have a firestorm on our hands. I want to avoid that until we have to report the results."

Yuma nodded.

"Okay, but we can't let considerations like that stop our investigation. We can't let things stall just because we won't talk to a couple of AIs."

"I know," Mami said. "I want to see what my agent reports first."

"Well, you've done better than I have," Yuma said. "Because I haven't found anything. As far as I can tell, both grief cube shipments and distribution systems are functioning as designed. Of course, it may just be that the systems I'm looking at are too far in the backend. And I still haven't found anything to corroborate the anecdotes of girls who should have survived dying."

"Neither have I," Mami said.

"I need more information," Yuma said. "Who exactly is disappearing? Where? A few anecdotes aren't enough. I need lists, of everyone who's supposedly gone missing. Maybe then we'll see a pattern. I've looked into the records of the few names I have. It looks like they just suffered terminal sanity slippage during transit. Sometimes it just happens so fast that the monitors can't rip the soul gem off fast enough."

Kyouko let out a breath.

"I can ask the Church to seek out names more aggressively. It wasn't really the focus of the first survey."

"That sounds good," Yuma said.

Again, silence prevailed over the table, the three of them briefly lost in their own thoughts.

"Alright," Yuma said. "If there's nothing else, I have some minor things I want to talk about."

They looked at her curiously as she raised her hand dramatically.

An Incubator doll materialized within it, which she slammed down into the table.

"Talking about Kyubey reminded me about this," she said. "This is the next version of the Incubator doll. The one we distribute to children. The Incubators are surprisingly interested in its development, so we talked about it for a while. We're going to give it a range of realistic voice options this time. I want your opinion."

She tapped it on the head.

"Make a contract with me and become a magical girl!" it said loudly.

Mami and Kyouko stared at it, then at Yuma.

"What do you think?" Yuma asked.

"I think it's pretty close to the original, if that's what you're going for," Mami said.

"I agree," Kyouko said.

"Okay," Yuma said, materializing another doll in her other hand.

She tossed one each to Mami and Kyouko.

"Listen to it if you have time," she said. "You know, virtually. It's important. These kinds of things affect recruitment. It has to be cute. Cute!"

She emphasized the last word by leaning forward and stabbing the table with a finger, causing Kyouko and Mami to look at each other with bemusement.

Kyouko seemed to spend a moment in thought.

"In that case, they could just model it on you," she said.

Yuma tilted her head in confusion.

"What? No, I'm not an Incubator! Wha—Hey! Put me down!"

Kyouko had grabbed her across the table, picking her up by the armpits, grinning broadly. Yuma kicked her feet wildly.

"I just thought we all needed some relaxation after so many serious topics in a row," Kyouko said, still carrying her.

"What is that supposed to—No, don't tickle me! I–I can turn off tactile input, you know! Most of my con—my consciousness isn't even here! Don't—gasp—don't make me do it! I—"

Mami got up and watched as Kyouko tormented the child, setting the girl down on the table and saying nonsensical things about cuteness while the girl writhed and pushed at her with her arms.

Finally, they both tired of it, Yuma gasping on the table.

"Do you—gasp—have any idea how—gasp—how hard it was to keep my other avatars functional?" Yuma complained. "There's a—gasp—Directorate meeting at this exact moment! That would have looked good. Spontaneous squirming laughter in the middle of a meeting. I had to cut parts of the connection."

"I've been stressed lately," Kyouko said, making a show of seriousness. "All this crazy conspiracy stuff, and to top it all off, my girlfriend is leaving me to go fight a war. I thought I'd play with my favorite sister."

Yuma pouted, sitting back up.

"Ugh," she vocalized. "Well, anyway, Mami, if you have any chance to attend my birthday party, it's coming up. Even by virtual avatar is fine. I sent the invitation."

"I saw it," Mami said. "I don't know if I'll be able to. We'll see."

Yuma nodded to herself, then disappeared into the ether, vaporizing instantly.

"Was that really necessary, Sakura‐san?" Mami asked, eyeing her.

"Sometimes I think she works too hard," Kyouko said. "It can't be healthy, doing what she does for so long. She needs to relax, maybe take a vacation. And she likes being tickled, even if she won't admit it."

Mami shook her head ruefully.

"We can't take vacations, Sakura‐san," she said. "We don't have it as easy as you."

Then with a slight shimmer, she vanished too, leaving Kyouko there alone in a virtual room that suddenly seemed unbearably empty.

Kyouko closed her eyes and left the simulation.

Ryouko stayed in her room and thought for a long while, gloomy and staring at the wall, with apparently enough seriousness that the robot on her desk—she had nicknamed it CubeBot in her own mind—inquired if she needed any grief cubes. She had accepted one and found to her slight surprise that she did, indeed, need it slightly more than she expected, though perhaps that was just her own imagination.

Her mood was not helped by the muffled spectacle of her parents arguing it out somewhere outside her room. The sound‐proofing should have been enough to suppress the sound, but she still heard it, could even make out some of the words. For once, she was not glad of her enhanced senses.

She thought about her situation, about the cloning vats, about the mass of cells with her genes still growing enthusiastically, without any idea that their potential would be snuffed out later.

She could see the cold logic of it, now that she could think about it calmly, alone in her room. She had always thought of herself as a logical person, but…

She had always thought of herself as unusually cynical, always skeptical of what the government said, but…

She kept seeing Kyouko, and Mami, and Yuma, eyes closed, floating in hyper‐perfused blue fluid, and could see there the ruin of a layer of trust she had never even known she had. Trust that there were some lines the government would never cross, some lies her parents would never tell.

It wasn't logical. She could see that. As she reconciled her childish disgust with the reality in front of her, she knew that they were right. The cloning vats prevented a far greater evil and, in the end, weren't any different from the decorticated chickens her father had talked of. Not any different from her own body without the soul gem she watched greedily restore its purity, expelling shards of darkness into a grief cube already growing turbulent and dark, hungry for the light.

It was childish, wasn't it? That was what the logical Ryouko would say. It was childish to recoil in disgust at bodies in vats, when she could accept with equanimity the knowledge of implants intertwining with every aspect of her nervous system, when she could accept the government abandoning entire colonies to the flame, in the name of the greater good.

It was childish to expect her parents to tell her classified secrets, when it could mean the ruin of their careers and prosecution, just to give her information that might never matter to her.

As she stared at her wall, she understood that she would have to deal with it, accept it all as a new part of her existence. That was the only reasonable thing to do. She didn't have to be happy about it, but the universe wasn't structured around her happiness.

She took a breath.

In that case…

TacComp, she thought. I should have done this ages ago, but multiple people have told me now to read the file on my parents. Do you know which file they were talking about?

Yes, it thought. It's actually your file. To be honest, I had thought about bringing it up myself, but I was waiting for my human behavior models to come fully online before making that decision.

So you know what's in it?

It's my job to read everything I can, with my spare processing capacity.

In the future, I would like you to tell me things like this immediately, she thought, with a trace of anger.

There was an actual pause in the conversation, something that rarely occurred.

Acknowledged, the device thought, voice suddenly empty of tone.

Without further comment, the document readout appeared in front of her eyes, text with accompanying pictures on the side. She thought about asking for an acceleration of input, or audio, or perhaps even VR, but decided against it. She would prefer to take her time with it.

Initially, it was material she already knew. Family details: her mother was the daughter of a physician and a housewife, her father the son of a mathematician and physicist—pictures all included and familiar, of course. They had both become Biologists, her mother more the neuroscientist with a nanotechnology background, her father a more traditional cellular sort. Her grandparents were all retired and living in various places, except for one, who—here was a new fact, information they had never been able to previously find—her maternal grandmother was stationed on the Apollo Shipyard, at the spear tip of the Euphratic Incursion. She was a captain in the station defense forces, recently promoted and transferred.

Ryouko raised her eyebrow at that. She had thought that the woman would be much harder to find, that it wouldn't just be a matter of looking her up once she had military clearance.

You're right, actually, her TacComp thought. I looked at this report the moment it was available. This information wasn't there. Someone must have released it to you sometime recently. I am not informed when that happens unless the change is of at least moderate priority.

Another pause.

I would have eventually noticed, she thought, and she thought she—she was having a hard time thinking of it as it, now that it shared her voice—sounded defensive.

That's alright, Ryouko thought. Do–do you know if she would have been informed of my new status, or her husband's?

You, yes. She would probably have been informed the moment she stopped being in active combat. Your grandfather, no. Not until he officially enlists. He can always change his mind at the last moment, remember.

Ryouko thought about that. Was this a message, specific to her? Or was something else going on here? All the same…

TacComp, forward this information to my grandfather.


He had a right to know, she thought.

She continued to read, about career and relationships. Both her parents had entered an MSY‐affiliated research institute decades before the start of the war—which was information she certainly knew now—and only received significant outside recognition later, after the start of the war. She had always suspected, but never been able to find out for certain, nor had she asked.

They had had their share of failed romances over the past century, information Ryouko had a slight aversion to knowing about, but had met shortly after the start of the war, married, and filed for a child license. It was just as they had told her.

That was all the information mentioned on their careers. Nothing about what projects they had worked on, who they worked with, or even their level of security clearance. She suspected she was running into the wall of invisible redaction, so familiar to anyone who had ever spent time trying to read about sensitive material.

Then she moved to a section she hadn't expected to exist, labeled "MSY ties". That was when her eyebrows really raised.

The section was heavily redacted, and not in the standard way, where information was carefully edited out so that the document still read coherently. Here, it was done sloppily, with text explicitly blocked out.

Most unusual, her TacComp thought. There is no reason to ever do that, with semi‐sentients to handle the document editing. It is only done when the information is meant to be withheld, but it is thought that the reader should know there is something missing. Not a common pattern to see.

At the left side of her vision, a family tree diagram appeared, helping to illustrate the facts that appeared before her. She could see at a glance that female was right, male was left, an arrangement that served to make the maternal side of things more prominent, given that she was used to going right‐to‐left. Still, though, many faces were missing, and entire regions were blotted out, almost as a testament to the secrecy of her family.

Even the parts of her family history that she could read startled her. Her maternal grandmother's mother, a foreigner whom she had always been told died in the Unification Wars, had indeed done so—as part of a Black Heart infiltration squad, only a few years after the birth of Ryouko's grandmother. Her parents—well, here the information blacked out, as did any information on her grandmother's father.

Her maternal grandmother's marriage to Kuroi Abe, the much‐younger grandfather Ryouko lived with, had been a matter of displeasure to his grandfather's family, but there was no elaboration as to why. Indeed, Kuroi Abe's family information was simply blacked out to oblivion.

Ryouko read further to the left. Her paternal grandmother was uncontracted, of course, but had two sisters who were, great‐aunts Ryouko had never met. Beyond that, for once, the family's information was wide open, leading to wide expanses of people and names that meant exactly nothing to her.

I've never met anyone except my parents and grandparents, Ryouko thought.

Her paternal grandfather was an estranged branch of the Shizuki Matriarchy, a term that was unfamiliar to her, until she looked it up and found that it referred to large family groupings of magical girls who tended to wield political power as a bloc. The term had originated from the fact that many such groupings were descended from one powerful girl who, still alive, consequently wielded tremendous power.

She had never heard the term.

Not surprising, her TacComp thought. It is deliberately never discussed below security clearance one. Neither is the fact that the personality traits that cause potential are somewhat heritable, which probably explains your family tree. Actually, yours is unusually dense in that regard.

Ryouko felt stupid. She had thought herself an expert on these things, having spent large amounts of her time prowling the public internet for just such information as this, but here was another major piece of information she had no idea was relevant.

She then hopped onto the public networks, hoping that the information she was missing was accessible in a public database somewhere, but she had no such luck. Her maternal grandmother's mother was listed as "unknown", which she now knew to be a lie. A look into the Kuroi family yielded some cursory details about her grandfather's parents and dead‐ended immediately after that. Here, since it wasn't plausible to say the information was missing, the information was labeled "restricted".

She had never thought to scour her own family tree. She had never even been interested.

I believe I can help, her TacComp thought. There is no listing of Matriarchies available to you at your security clearance, but one of the MSY Founders is named Kuroi Kana. You should recognize her from the movie you watched. Given the level of security blackout occurring here, this may be relevant.

That's right! Ryouko thought, thinking back to the unassuming girl with glasses who had been at the Founder meeting. Could—

I am sorry, but I am unable to retrieve any further information about her. There is nothing available on the public networks except the fact that she exists. I mean it—not even forum rumors, not that I've found. Of course, I've only been looking for less than a minute.

Keep trying, Ryouko thought. There's got to be something!

Perhaps, her device thought. That is, incidentally, the end of the report on your family. The other sections are of less interest, and your psychological profile cannot be accessed.

They kept searching for a while longer, but found essentially nothing. Why was so much of her family blacked out? Why was so much of her life a goddamn secret?

It was a while later before she received a request for entrance, her mother's inquiry pushing itself to attention in her mind. She also heard a knock; some social anachronisms still survived intact.

As an emancipated minor, she can no longer override your lock, her TacComp thought.

The thing was getting gradually more talkative, she noticed, probably because she seemed to be liking it more than she thought she would.

Let her in, she thought. Our relationship is better than that.

The door slid itself open, and her mother walked in, carefully. The woman had always seemed the quiet, feminine type to her, though undeniably competent. Easy to imagine her hard at work in a lab—though Ryouko's image of that was kind of vague, picturing her mother huddled over a machine working at something—harder to imagine her ordering others around, though if Ryouko understood some things correctly, she did at least some of that. But then what did she know, really?

The woman walked up to her and stood in front of where she sat reclined on her bed, stopping short of sitting down, as she would have normally. From Ryouko's seated height, the woman looked strangely towering.

"So, I, uh—it seems you found out, then," her mother said, awkwardly.

"Yeah, if you want to put it that way," Ryouko said airily, looking up at her ceiling. "I—"

She didn't really know what to say in a situation like this, and her mother, despite having initiated this, continued to stand silently, not really giving her anything to latch onto.

Ryouko propped herself up to sit at the side of the bed.

"Is that a new bracelet, Ryouko?" her mother asked blandly, indicating Ryouko's wrist.

"Oh, yes, it is," she said, equally bland, holding her wrist up so her mother could see it. "A gift."

She knew her mother was buying time, starting off with a minor topic.

"I saw you wearing it the other day," her mother began, reaching for her arm. "But I never got a chance to look at it carefully."

She inspected it carefully, turning Ryouko's wrist to get a better look.

"What is it?" Ryouko asked, looking at her mother.

"Who was it a gift from?" her mother asked.

"One of the recruiters," Ryouko said, thinking up a likely lie. "Why?"

"Just curious," her mother said.

They sat in silence for a moment, then her mother took a breath to begin.

"We couldn't tell you, Ryouko," her mother said, still looking down. "How—"

Ryouko waved at the woman, indicating for her to sit too. She did so.

The woman cleared her throat, then continued.

"How were we supposed to?" she asked rhetorically. "We couldn't tell you as a kid and then what were we supposed to do? Give it to you as some sort of special Talk? What would even be the point? And if anyone found out, we could have been sacked."

"That's it?" Ryouko asked bitterly. "Nothing about the morality of what you've done?"

Her mother was taken aback, and the conflict of it tore across her face briefly.

"We thought about it, of course," she said. "But—"

Ryouko waved her hand to silence her.

"Yeah, I've thought about it too," she said, voice much softer. "It's—there's not really any other choice, is there?"

She looked up at her mother while saying it. The woman looked back down, gauging her, realizing she wanted a serious answer.

"There are a few," the woman said. "None of them work quite as well, though. And I've always thought it was elegant, in its own way."

"You didn't want to tell me," Ryouko accused, tiny hands grasping the side of her bed. "I can understand not wanting to tell me earlier. Honestly, it wasn't really my business. But now? I've made a contract. There's no better excuse to say something. Papa did, even though you didn't want to."

Her voice rose in volume as she spoke, but still ended far short of what might be considered a yell, or even loud speech.

"Yes," her mother said, eyes glancing away to hide the firm expression that suggested "he's going to pay for that."

"I—" the woman began, then paused, gathering her thoughts.

Finally, she said:

"There's a reason the information about the clones is security clearance two and up," she said, clearing her throat. "It's not fear of public outcry—that's manageable. It's for psychological reasons. The MHD projected that knowledge about how disposable your bodies are would cause psychological damage in many girls, and would cause others to take unreasonable risks. The problems diminish as the girls get older, but—well, in any case, most aren't told until they first wake up again in a tank. At that point, we could try to claim it's a regeneration tank, if possible. Oftentimes, we do, but usually we feel that, ethically, they have a right to know that they're essentially in a new body. We also restrict them from telling others, and explain why. It's not wholly enforceable, but it's passable."

"You sound like a machine, mama," Ryouko said, a trace of anger in her voice. "And even if I accept that for all of us, what does it have to do with me? You know I would have wanted to know. Do you really think I'm that fragile? I'm not made of tofu, mama, no matter what you think."

"I just wanted to protect you, Ryouko," her mother said, wringing her hands.

"Protect me?" Ryouko asked, voice again rising slightly, hands again clenching her bed. "Is that why I haven't been told a damn thing about my own damn family?"

Her mother stared at her, briefly not comprehending.

"Oh, yeah, I read my own file," Ryouko explained, looking up at her much taller mother. "The parts that weren't redacted to oblivion, that is. I can't even read my own damn psych profile. Anyway, I know all about the Shizukis and the Kurois. My great‐grandmother died in the service of the Black Heart. Among other things. Didn't it occur to you that I might want to know about this? About my relatives? Bad enough that you never told me anything before, but these are connections I could have used, mama. I–I don't want to make it sound like that's all I care about. Don't you trust me? What am I, a damned bird in a cage?"

"Ryouko—" her mother began, reaching for her shoulder.

In the renewed fire of her anger, she shook the hand off angrily, staring at the opposite wall, shoulders hunched, making her seem smaller than she already was.

"I was going to tell you," the woman said apologetically. "Tomorrow, during the party, I–I invited relatives. They're not on the invitation list, but they're coming. Not too many of them, but a few."

She paused.

"As for telling you earlier, I guess it really was pointless not to, wasn't it? You made this damned contract anyway, didn't you?"

There was a long silence, as Ryouko wondered what it was about her mother's reaction that seemed so incorrect, as if it didn't seem to fit with the rest of her personality, or with the MSY scientist she knew her to be.

Ryouko looked up at her mother again, eyes searching.

"Mama, why?" she asked. "Why are you so against this? I know some parents are, but it doesn't seem like you. It's never made sense to me."

Her mother looked at the floor, eyes unreadable.

She shook her head.

"Tomorrow," she said. "Tomorrow."

She got up, so abruptly that Ryouko was almost too surprised to stop her.

"Mama," Ryouko said. "One more question. Please. I want to know."

In truth, over the past few days, she had developed a question she wanted to ask of her parents. This seemed as good a time as any.

Her mother turned and looked at her.

"I've always wondered," Ryouko said. "If the two of you work as researchers, how is it that we're always short of Allocs? Don't researchers get paid a lot? I know what you've told me, but I don't think I believe it anymore. You and papa still work part of the time, so you should still draw some extra Allocs, and don't you have some left over from before I was born? And what about the share we get for grand‐mama being in the military?"

Her mother watched her, eyes wide.

"We should have plenty," Ryouko said, trying to keep her momentum. "I have friends with fewer sources of income than that, and they don't have problems with synthesizer repair. Where is it all going? What is it being spent on?"

She pinned her mother with a look, and the two of them tried to read each other for a moment.

"Given that the basic Alloc distribution prevents outright poverty, a teenage girl's probability of forming a contract scales positively with household Alloc income," her mother said, sounding again like she was reading from a manual. "The richer the family, the more likely the contract, as long as the family isn't truly poor. It's socioeconomics, and we were trying to exploit it. We were going to give it all to you when you passed contracting age. I suppose… we should give it to you now."

Ryouko wondered what her face looked like then, confused and shocked as she was, but her mother didn't give her a chance to question further, simply turning and bolting from the room.

Tomorrow then, Ryouko thought, too numb to really be angry.

Have they manipulated my whole life like this?

Given the size of the average family's flat, it was no longer customary to hold parties within one's own living area, at least not for parties over a certain size, and certainly not for parties to which one intended to invite people of importance. People did not generally enjoy being packed like sardines in a can, and adding food to the mix was just asking for unpleasantness.

Generally, then, there were multiple restaurants that rented out their floor spaces to families, and could barely be called restaurants anymore, since they were nearly always booked day after day. A substantial fee was charged, since space was one of the few things that couldn't be easily manufactured by a nanoassembler, and there were other onerous restrictions that stymied many the aspiring host.

It was only the morning of the next day, as they sat around waiting for her father's parents—and for Kuroi Abe to finish changing, which was taking forever—that Ryouko looked up where, exactly, the party was being held. She had the uneasy feeling she should have been more involved in the planning, but she had been busy, and it was so easy to let her mother do it…

Ryouko blinked in surprise at the location.

"My school? The sports field?" she asked. "You can do that?"

"Apparently you can," her mother said. "With the approval of the instructors. In special circumstances. Well, only one circumstance. It's free, in that case. Actually, a lot of things were unexpectedly free."

"I see," Ryouko said thoughtfully.

They sat there a while longer, in their various modes of dress. Her mother had opted for a sober, proper white dress, which Ryouko thought was a good choice, and her father wore a relaxed pants‐with‐shirt that stopped just short of being casual. She herself had opted for a long white dress to accompany a carefully chosen green top. Everyone said she looked good in dresses, for some reason.

She squeezed part of her dress between her legs, then looked out the window of their main room briefly, musing on the uninspiring view of tubes and buildings therein.

"Well, I'm done," her grandfather announced.

"Yeah okay," she said, getting up, glancing over briefly, then looking back toward the door, then completing the cycle with a double‐take.

The old man, who didn't, of course, actually look that old, had opted to fully deck himself out in an old‐fashioned tuxedo, black contrasting with white, complete with little ribbon and gloves. She didn't even know he owned one.

"Don't stare at me like fish in a bowl," he said, walking up to them. "I can wear what I want. Besides, it's not like I'm late or anything."

He was right, of course. As mutual family, it was customary to allow access to each other's location information, though it was accessed only occasionally, such as in situations such as this. They could all tell at a glance that Ryouko's paternal grandparents were about four minutes from getting there.

They sat around for the intervening time period, Ryouko feeling a sudden bout of nervousness about her new life. She was not a traveler like Simona was; she had only left her home for family vacations, to Hawaii, to Egypt, to Washington, DC, and a host of other places—but never alone. And this wouldn't be a vacation.

She wondered, at a moment like this, what her parents thought about it. There was no way to ask.

Finally, as the couple they were tracking approached their door, they rose and headed for the door to greet them.

The couple that appeared at their threshold was, at a glance, not substantially different from any other couple one might see on the street—except, of course, to those who recognized them. Shizuki Koto, like everyone else, appeared to be in his late twenties. He sported vaguely aristocratic features, especially in the cheekbones, features which Ryouko thought had imprinted themselves on her. His wife, Kugimiya Hiro, was a head‐turner, uncommonly beautiful, and dressed as if she was well aware of that fact. It would have seemed immensely strange to a citizen of an earlier age that Ryouko had her as a paternal grandmother.

"Grand‐mama!" Ryouko greeted with customary affection.

They hugged briefly, then she repeated the favor to her grandfather.

"Mom, Dad," her father acknowledged.

There was a further round of greetings, then:

"New bracelet, Ryouko‐chan?" her grandmother asked, holding out her hand.

"Ah, yes," Ryouko said, placing her wrist in the outstretched hand for inspection. The woman looked it over critically.

"It was a gift from one of the recruiters," Ryouko explained.

Ryouko spotted a look pass between her two grandparents. Koto cleared his throat and said:

"Well, if it's not inappropriate, we brought a gift too. We couldn't think of anything else appropriate, so…"

He reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew what appeared to be a length of string. Looking more carefully, Ryouko could see that it was actually a necklace, one of those with those near‐indestructible carbon nanotube‐threaded strings forming the chain. At one end was what appeared to be an emblem carved in jade.

Ryouko took it and looked at it. It appeared to be two hands holding up a crown, almost as if presenting it to someone.

"Dad—" her father began. The other man held up his hand to forestall him.

"I'm not on particularly good terms with my family," Shizuki Koto said. "Actually, that's an understatement. Honestly, I'd rather it had never come to this. But now that it has, I went ahead and requested one of these. That emblem is the Shizuki family crest."

"The Shizuki matriarchy?" Ryouko asked, not confrontational, but still asking the question directly.

There was a brief awkward silence.

"Yes," Koto said, not directly acknowledging that she had said anything unusual, expression unchanged. "Don't worry; it doesn't mean anything, other than that you're of the family. You can choose to wear it if you want. Or not. I just thought it could come in handy. Just because I'm not on good terms doesn't mean you shouldn't be."

Ryouko gave it a moment of thought, then took apart the magnetic clasp, and placed it around her neck.

"Thank you," she said.

"Now then," the man said. "Will you explain to me why you are dressed like a penguin, Kuroi‐san?"

"Oh, come off it," the other old man said. "Let's just go."

They arrived at the party area well ahead of time, since it was of course customary for hosts to arrive first. Ryouko had been quietly skeptical of the ability of her school's large, well‐manicured mid‐building lawns to produce a decent party area, but was surprised to find the area well‐furnished, with numerous chairs, tables well‐stocked with a wide assortment of appetizers and snacks, and even light protective netting hovering over the area, eliminating what few patches of light there might have been on the ground. There wasn't much sun to worry about, given that they were far from the top levels of the city, but it was still a nice gesture on the part of the caterers.

Perhaps there was something claustrophobic about a small field like that, elevated above the ground and buried among the skyscrapers, but if there was, she didn't feel it.

They were surprised to find that Ryouko's friends had arrived first.

"It's the least we can do," Chiaki explained. "It's not like we have anything else to do today, anyway."

That was unlikely to be really true, even given that it was Sunday, but Ryouko accepted the proffered explanation and broke off from her family.

"I wasn't really sure what I should get you," Ruiko explained embarrassedly, as they gathered around one of the tables, "but here are some earrings. Clip‐on, of course."

It was stock‐standard silver earrings, set with artificial diamonds.

"Thank you," Ryouko said, but deferred clipping them on.

"This is one of those times I wish I were an artist, rather than a musician, so I could give you something tangible," Chiaki said. "It seems weird to just send an audio recording. Anyway, I got you this music box."

She opened a box she had set on the table, and a miniature violinist fluidly pretended to play a violin, producing the sounds of one of Chiaki's violin pieces, one of the few that Ryouko actually somewhat liked, a fast dance piece. Given that Ryouko had never admitted not liking most of her music, she wondered if it was a coincidence, or if Chiaki had realized the truth somehow.

Finally, Simona pushed forward a small box, obviously another piece of jewelry. Ryouko wasn't sure why everyone was giving her jewelry, but it could be worse, she supposed.

Opening the box, she found a ring with a single jewel, what appeared to be a ruby, crimson. Looking at it, one could see some sort of optical effect within, producing white lines that formed…

"A helix?" Ryouko asked.

Almost certainly an artificial effect, her TacComp opined. Color is unusually dark for a ruby, though not unheard of. Very unusual. I can't find any examples online, so it's probably custom‐made.

"Yeah," Simona said, looking strangely nervous. "It's, uh—"

She raised her left hand, and Ryouko could see now that she was wearing a ring she had never seen her wear before, a duplicate of her own.

"Oh, that's nice," Ryouko said, slipping the ring on and looking at her hand, therefore missing the glance that passed between Chiaki and Ruiko.

A while later, the first guests began arriving, a hodgepodge of her father's friends, her mother's friends and her grandparents' friends—no one who she was particularly interested in. Still, she fulfilled what she felt to be her obligation by heading over each time—along with her grandfather—and greeting each of them, enduring the comments about how sad her parents must be and the questions about whether or not she was afraid. A few even said something patriotic, about heroism, and Ryouko found herself unexpectedly nodding more adamantly than she would have usually. The words struck a bit home.

The first unusual guest arrived sixth, after a couple whom her TacComp noted as colleagues of her mother.

Ryouko strode over, gearing up for her standard polite greeting when she stopped, surprised by the fact that the new "guest" was only a single boy, about her age. She glanced at Abe, who looked back, clearly looking at her for answers.

"He's not really on the list," her mother said. "But he's from your class, so I guess I don't see the harm. Is he a friend of yours?"

He asked you out on a date about a week ago, on the day you contracted, her TacComp whispered in her ear.

Now she recognized him. She felt proud that she was able to swallow her dismay enough to maintain a normal‐appearing front. Or so she thought, but somehow her three friends managed to detect it well enough to instantly appear hovering behind her.

The boy smiled nervously at her, and Ryouko noticed for the first time that he was exactly as tall as she was, which made him short indeed.

"I understand why you couldn't meet with me earlier," he said, managing to look surprisingly confident. "But I thought, you know, I'd show up and show my support."

He smiled again nervously, while Ryouko stared. Her friends stared at her, and her parents and grandparents stared at all of them.

He wants you to know he's still interested, her TacComp thought. Not too surprising. A magical girl can be considered quite a catch, even if you don't get to see them very often.

Since when do you talk about things like this?

Since I got new capabilities installed. Came online just minutes ago, actually. Ahead of schedule, which is unusual.

Have any advice?

Only some of my new capabilities are online.


I wonder how he even knew about this party, she thought, to herself.

Ryouko smiled sweetly, said something nice, then walked off, aggressively grabbing both Chiaki and Simona by the arms. Ruiko followed by pure force of example.

"Alright," Ryouko said in a loud whisper. "Which of you told him about this?"

"Certainly not me," Simona said immediately, looking annoyed.

Ruiko looked at Chiaki, who looked at the sky, and that completed the process of deduction.

"Why?" Ryouko asked, making a gesture of confusion at Chiaki.

"I thought it'd be a good idea," she said, looking also somewhat confused. "He's a nice kid, you seemed interested earlier and I thought—well, you know, the articles say giving someone something to come back to improves survivability."

She said the last part awkwardly, wringing her hands slightly.

Ryouko suppressed a gesture of despair. Chiaki meant well, but sometimes that girl didn't understand her at all. Seemed interested earlier? What on Earth would possess her to think that she would want this at her own farewell party?

Before, she hadn't refused, because she hadn't been able to perform a rejection in front of her friends. Now, she was stuck between kicking the kid out, and tolerating his presence the entire time. But the last thing she wanted—

She thought of something.

"Chiaki," she said, reaching up to grab the girl by the shoulder in a nominally friendly gesture. "Listen, I'm going to be pretty busy, greeting guests and all, so I don't think I can properly talk to him. I've got crazy family and such coming. Why don't you go entertain him?"

She smiled sweetly. Chiaki blinked.

"What?" she asked.

"Come on," she said, turning the girl around with her hands. "We all know what a great host you can be. Keep him busy. You know what to do."

As she spoke, she shoved her hands into the other girl's back, pushing her forward with what was now easily superior strength.

"You're not interested?" Chiaki asked.

"Not really. Now go!"

Finally, she gave Chiaki a shove, sending the girl stumbling forward towards the boy in question, who was looking at them expectantly, and whom Ryouko now saw was carrying some sort of gift. Chiaki looked back uncertainly, and Ryouko smiled and waved, pointing at her to keep walking. The girl looked back a couple more times as she traversed the small distance, but eventually committed to her assigned task, hopefully understanding what this punishment was for.

"That's pretty cruel, Ryouko," Ruiko commented. "It's your last day here, and you send her off alone?"

"I know," Ryouko said, watching the back of the girl in question. "I–I'll think of something else."

"Ryouko," Simona said, gesturing at the entrance point where she was supposed to be greeting guests. Kyouko and Risa had shown up, bearing respective boxes of pastries. Risa was dressed much like everyone else, while Kyouko had opted for basic jeans and a T‐shirt.

They were talking with Kuroi Abe, subdued rather than animated. Her other pair of grandparents were there too, and seemed to be handling themselves well.

Ryouko hurried over.

"So I believe the food is over there," Risa said, pointing.

"I'm not here for just the food, okay?" Kyouko said.

"I'm just telling you where to put the pastries."

Kyouko grunted.

"So how are you holding up, old man?" she asked Abe, a moment later. "I think the pressure is finally getting to you, with that suit."

"I'm fine," the old man said serenely, ignoring the suit comment. "Or as fine as I can be, given the circumstances."

"Hello," Ryouko interjected, inserting herself into the area. "It's good to see you."

"Likewise," Risa said.

"Nothing like a family farewell," Kyouko said, matter‐of‐factly. "For those who can have them. If you'll excuse me—"

She walked off with her box toward the food table for food brought by guests, gesturing for Ryouko to follow. Ryouko scampered after her, leaving her grandfather and Risa to talk about… well, whatever they could possibly talk about.

Kyouko set the box down, set out a self‐unfolding plate, and began arranging pastries.

"Swanky party," Kyouko commented, grabbing a plate for herself even as she was still emptying the box.

"Anyway," she said, a moment later. "It might interest you to know that your grandfather's position as one of your family members means that it is likely that he'll be allocated a less risky position. That's what we were talking about. I understand he had medical training in the past?"

"Yes," Ryouko said. "But is that—"

"Standard procedure," Kyouko said, "for non‐contracted family members. We've already moved your grandmother from the front lines to a more quiet position at the shipyard. We don't move them out of the front entirely, but we shift them a little."

"Why don't you move them out of danger entirely?" Ryouko asked.

"I'm just asking, I'm not pressing for anything," she amended a moment later.

"Generally speaking, people are insulted if we do it too brazenly," Kyouko said. "And it shows too much favoritism. Bad for morale. Mostly, though, like I said, people don't like being pulled back. Patriotism, unit cohesion, esprit de corps, something like that. And we can't give special jobs to those without special skills."

There was a pause in the conversation as Kyouko began stocking up with what was at the table.

"Kyouko‐san…" Ryouko began, then paused.

"What is it?" the girl asked.

"Can I ask a favor?"

Ryouko explained about her situation, with Chiaki and the male classmate, while Kyouko listened with a slight smile of amusement that grew wider as the story progressed.

"And anyway," Ryouko finished. "I was thinking that someone as, um, old as you would be