Author's note: I thought I was done with this story, but Ghost-itS really wanted that date scene and I still had unused ideas which didn't fit into the upcoming prequels. This was originally meant to function as a second epilogue, but then it grew so much that I had to split it into five parts. Stay tuned for further updates.
The Persistence of Memory
Extra Story: Notes from the Silver Garden
Act I – Errand of Mercy
There's a storm raging over the North Atlantic today, some irate sea god whipping up green waves under a gray sky. Sayaka is beginning to think she'd rather brave the tumult above than stay in the abyss below. Thirty-eight hundred meters down, there's no light save what she brings. The temperature is just above freezing, the pressure nearly four hundred kilograms per square centimeter.
Homura's voice comes in through her telepathic link. "You're approaching the stern section. How is the signature?"
Sayaka pulls herself hand over hand across the back of Oktavia's outstretched gauntlet and looks down at the seabed. Shoes, bottles, lumps of coal and porcelain articles parade beneath her, detritus of another era strewn in the muck without rhyme or reason. "Still weak," she answers. "It's there, but I can't get a fix yet."
The witch body's size and speed make it useful as a submarine carrier, both for Sayaka herself and for the entourage of dolls clinging to the leviathan's armor. Homura's minions come dressed for the occasion, sporting wetsuits and fins and carrying powerful lanterns. They're not what Sayaka would call good company, though she can't say she doesn't appreciate the help. This would take far longer if she had to search the whole site on her own.
Very few have witnessed what she's seeing now. For humans, the deep sea environment is almost as alien and inhospitable as outer space. Bathynauts venture forth much like their rocket-riding kin, surrounded by mechanisms to protect their delicate bodies. Sealed inside cramped capsules, they peer through tiny windows at a realm just beyond reach... But harsh as it is, the benthic frontier is no desert: now and then the lamps catch a crab or a rat-tailed fish flitting among the debris. Homura said there's an entire ecosystem down here, a cycle of life playing out in pitch black and numbing cold.
Oktavia senses an obstacle straight ahead. The lesser mermaid brings the greater to a near stop and pushes herself up for a better view, watching as a mammoth shape drifts into the light. "We've got something," she announces. "It's huge... There's a couple of towers inside, they're round on top. Big bolts along the edges."
"Engines," says Homura. "You're facing the break in the hull. Keep your distance, the structure is fragile."
"Got it." The real work starts now. Sayaka lets go of Oktavia's hand and swims forward on her own. The dolls fan out, spreading their light over the submerged ruin. Gradually an eerie picture takes shape.
Time has not been kind to the ship of dreams. The upper decks have collapsed into the hull, where some immense force peeled great sheets of plating off the inner frame. Sayaka makes her way up over the top of the wreck, trying to pick out recognizable features. It's like someone dropped a massive lasagna and left it to go moldy. "There's reddish stuff growing all over the place," the visitor notes quizzically. "What is that?"
"Bacterial colonies. They feed on the hull's iron."
"They eat metal!?"
"Correct," the devil affirms. "Remember this day, Miki Sayaka. What you see won't be there forever."
Sayaka swims further, tracking her progress with Oktavia's eyes. She looks pitifully tiny, a blue speck above the broken, twisted bones of a vessel made to carry thousands. Reaching the halfway point, the mermaid realizes the entire stern section is bent in the middle, as if kicked in the side by an angry giant. There should be a mast here, but all the explorer finds are fragments of corroded pipe that might have belonged to it.
The devastation doesn't stop there. The after deck has been torn up and folded back on itself, its former leading edge hanging over the end of the hull. Sayaka goes over the precipice and glides down past the rudder. "The signal isn't changing," she reports. "Are you sure we're looking in the right place?"
"It was the most likely starting point. As third class passengers, the Short family would have been quartered in the stern... For now, return to your previous course. We'll try the rest of the debris field and then the bow section."
"Okay." Sayaka hovers next to a half buried propeller and waits for Oktavia and the dolls to regroup. The screw's bronze blades alone are bigger than she is. "Have you found out anything else about the girl?"
"I was able to verify parts of the Incubator's story using old records," Homura replies. "No useful details."
The divers gather. This time the little mermaid takes point, swimming closer to the bottom than Oktavia can handle. "I'm surprised Kyuubey was so... helpful."
"He knows what will happen to his quota if he isn't cooperative." An unpleasant feeling seeps in with the devil's words. "Contact me when the trace changes."
"Yeah..." Sayaka lets the conversation die out, leaving her alone with the dolls, her other self, and her own thoughts.
Homura's been putting in overtime ever since they found the Belfast anomaly, using both Sayaka and her own servants to track down leads. Initial results weren't promising: according to the Law of the Cycle's collective memory, Muriel Heaney and her antecedents had assumed the curse was born either from the Great War or from the area's ongoing troubles. Kyuubey claimed to have no specific knowledge of it. The docked cruiser, a relic which spent most of its life in training duty, was quickly ruled out as a factor.
Next thing Sayaka knew, she was being summoned to Homura's apartment. As a midnight downpour fell on Mitakihara, the mermaid sat at the nutcracker's table and listened to a story about a girl from Bristol. Then she listened as her host laid out what she wanted to do. The proposed action fell outside the parameters of the Law of the Cycle and Homura could easily handle it on her own. Nevertheless, she asked the Law's messenger to take part... And so Sayaka found herself at the bottom of the sea, combing the dismembered carcass of a fifty-two thousand ton ocean liner for something that fits in the palm of her hand.
An ornate iron frame from a bench catches her eye, its wooden slats all gone. She was told the ship's builders emphasized comfort over speed, and it shows in the artifacts that have spilled out. There are plates of spotless white china, silver platters, pots and pans fit to cook a feast in. Another cache of bottles emerges from the dark, some intact, others with corks displaced by water pressure. She wonders if the sealed ones are still drinkable. Champagne of millionaires, wouldn't Kyouko love that?
As the rarefied vintages fall behind, Sayaka glances back to check on her escorts. Then she looks at the seabed and finds a pale face staring at her.
The mermaid jerks away, instinctively creating a sword to defend herself. Homura senses the disturbance. "Sayaka, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
"I..." Sayaka blinks, regaining control as the minions pin the intruder in their lights. "I'm okay," she finishes. "False alarm. It's just a doll."
Just the head of a doll, at that. The body, clothes and even hair have rotted away, leaving behind only a ceramic core. One of Homura's children darts down and lifts the ghastly memento from its resting place, stirring up a small cloud of silt. Did it belong to some little girl? To a collector? Whatever it was, it's not what they came for. Sayaka motions for the underling to put it back.
Homura reverts to her habitual tone. "I believe I said the likelihood of finding human remains was negligible."
"I remember," the vanguard answers, sheepishly discarding her weapon. "It startled me, that's all."
The devil doesn't bother with a reprimand. "Any difference in the trace?"
"Give me a second... I think it's a little clearer now. Maybe."
Sayaka does, her curiosity blunted by the scare. She swims briskly now, alert for more gruesome surprises, but thankfully none are forthcoming. The whiff of magic grows stronger, a sign she's nearing her goal.
Homura calls again after what feels like an hour. "You're almost abreast of the tear in the bow. Turn left ninety degrees."
"On it." Sayaka executes the maneuver, reorienting herself perpendicular to Oktavia's bearing, then steers the witch onto the new course. The dolls wheel around into a flanking formation.
It takes a few more minutes for their next objective to materialize out of the murk. The front part of the ship is less damaged than the rear, although the topmost decks are collapsing here also. What's left droops and drops down to the broken end. It reminds Sayaka of an unfortunate BLT that Kyouko sawed through using a dull knife, leaving the bread squashed with ragged strips of meat and lettuce hanging out. She ascends, keeping well clear of the torn metal.
The residual magic begins to fluctuate. "We're close now," Sayaka relays mentally. "I can feel it changing."
No more need be said. Sayaka levels off and starts to zigzag across the boat deck, passing over yawning pits where funnels and skylights were once installed. The surviving deckhouse walls carry unbroken windows, and in some places the deck itself almost seems fit to walk on. It's a different story when she gets to the forward end: the bridge has been all but obliterated, reduced to a few mangled bulwarks and the outline of a vanished wall. A bronze pedestal with a geared mechanism lies toppled beside the wall's foundation, behind a row of plaques laid by past visitors. There's also a bundle of plastic flowers and a little American flag.
The mermaid ends her scan. "Got a rough fix. I'm pretty sure it's inside, around the expansion joint."
"I see." Homura pauses to consult her research archive. "I suggest entering through the first class stairway, if you think you're up to it."
"Of course I'm up to it," Sayaka insists. "The big hole behind the joint, right?"
"Correct. The stairwell should give you access down to F Deck, though I can't guarantee it. No expeditions have gone into the hull for several years."
In other words, the devil's data may not match what lies ahead. "Okay," says Sayaka. "I'll be careful."
Oktavia won't fit inside the wreck, so the messenger puts her second self into a holding pattern and doubles back to the staircase. The dolls shine their lights into the chasm, confirming her initial impression: there are no stairs. No steps, no banisters, just a shaft full of rust and rubbish. Ceiling lights, hemispheres of glittering crystal in gleaming mounts, dangle from dislodged wiring among ruddy stalactites. Hard to believe this used to be one of the most famous parts of a most famous vessel.
Sayaka descends with caution, slowly rotating to keep track of her surroundings. The elusive trace peaks and diminishes as she nears the bottom of the void, a pattern that repeats when she goes up again. The change tells her exactly what she wants to know. "It's on C Deck. I need a light."
"Understood. Noroma, give her yours."
A doll swims to the center of the stairwell and releases her lantern. Sayaka catches it, giving a thumbs up and receiving a salute in return. "What should I expect in there?"
"First class cabins, with corridors extending forward on either side. Limited maneuvering room."
"All right, I'll give it a try."
Those forces of tide and time which laid waste to the rest of the ship have had their way here as well. The ceiling sags toward the floor, which is blanketed by a thick tangle of indeterminate clutter. Much of the decor has been ripped out or rotted out. Not everything was destroyed, however: sweeping past cabins one by one, Sayaka's light falls on bathtubs, bed frames and dressers. Once more, a drop in the signal indicates she overshot the mark. Gingerly the mermaid turns herself around, retracing her path just far enough to get a second fix. If her goal lies in this part of the wreck, it's got to be in one of the rooms immediately to her left or right.
Intuition nudges her towards a smaller cabin on the inboard side of the corridor. Shimmying under the curtain of rust fingers in the buckled doorway, she encounters a wardrobe and a bed with part of a chair lying beside it. Some of the ceiling has fallen in, leaving a gap big enough to swim into the deck above. As she surveys the silt-smothered furniture, a golden glint in a nook of the chair draws her attention. She edges closer, expecting to find an errant brass fixture. It's not going to be that easy, right?
The visitor reaches out with gloved hands. She can't avoid disturbing the dust of ages, but the swirling flecks that arise at her touch aren't enough to conceal the treasure. "...Bingo! Homura, I found it!"
"What's the condition?"
Sayaka holds the soul gem up to her lantern. Corrosion has not blemished its surface, yet the core's proper hue of pastel orange is only faintly visible at the edges of the churning maelstrom within. "Pretty badly contaminated," the diver answers. "I'm bringing it out."
"I'll meet you at the stairs."
With a firm grip on her prize, Sayaka ducks through the doorway and back into the corridor. She can't afford to be careless, even for an instant: this jewel in her hand is the sole remnant of missing magical girl Agnes Short.
It's a rare aberration, a phenomenon Madoka didn't know about when she made her wish to change the world. A body without a soul gem decays naturally, but a gem without a body may linger until despair or madness consumes it. In most cases, the orphaned ghost reaches its limit in weeks or months. Under exceptional circumstances, it can take much longer. Agnes has lain here over a hundred years and might have lain for decades more, deprived of sense and movement, forgotten by history and lost to the Law of the Cycle.
Homura is floating in the stairwell when Sayaka reenters, clad in a wetsuit that matches her children's apparel. No words are exchanged as Sayaka lays down her lamp and the pair come together to complete their task. The mermaid holds out the gem and the devil lays her hands over it. Sayaka feels a ripple in the magic which permeates the shattered ship, a disturbance of a sinister equilibrium. The gem's heart darkens to inky black. Madoka bursts into being above devil and angel, flooding the abyss with a light that touches every crevice.
Sayaka rises to meet her best friend as the goddess descends headfirst. The messenger arches onto her back, forming a bodily symmetry with the Law's avatar. Shrouded by their fingers, Agnes Short's ordeal comes to its overdue conclusion. Her soul gem implodes into a puff of tiny orange bubbles, shimmering for a moment and then gone. The curse she raised, a final retaliation against the birthplace of her tomb, will not endure.
Sorrow clouds Madoka's face. "She lost hope," she confides. "She thought I abandoned her." The goddess twists until she can see both of her companions. "Thank you so much for doing this."
The heartfelt gratitude which shines through her sadness is all Sayaka needs. "We'll find the others," the blue-haired girl promises. "We'll find them and bring them home."
Madoka dissolves into luminous particles, her smile the last to go as darkness reclaims the cavern. Now that it's over, Sayaka feels more relief than elation. She hopes this success will be only the first of many, and that she and Homura will continue to bring Madoka's promise to the unfortunates marooned in faraway places.
The devil hasn't spoken since before the rendezvous. A beam from a doll's lamp falls on her from above, highlighting a dour expression that Sayaka knows too well. "We are going to keep looking," the second girl prompts. "Right?"
Homura doesn't meet her eyes. "Madoka... was happy, wasn't she?"
Sayaka hears the unspoken plea behind the question. "Yeah," she replies softly. "She really was."
"Then we'll proceed." The water enveloping Homura twists into a silent vortex as she departs the scene. "The next case is closer to home," her disembodied voice adds. "Your instructions will be ready soon."
"Okay." The mermaid heads for open water at the top of the shaft. "Mind if I finish looking around? You did say this place isn't going to last."
"If you must, be quick about it."
Sayaka will. There's something she wants to do, although she doesn't yet know whether she can make it work. Clearing the boat deck, she reunites with Oktavia and sets a course back to the bridge. The dolls keep pace, focusing their lights on the disintegrating structure below. They cross the expansion joint, straight as a knife cut across the hull, and the jagged mouth of the foremost funnel uptake. The deckhouse roof around it is eaten away at the edges like burnt paper.
The memorial plaques make for somber reading. Fifteen hundred lives were cut short here, young and old alike consigned to the icy deep for want of a few rowboats. These tokens of remembrance, placed at no small expense, offer mute testimony to the legacy they left behind. Even without magic, humans have their own ways of bestowing a kind of immortality. Now Sayaka wishes to offer a small contribution of her own.
Materials enchantment is not her strong suit, and she lacks the chemical or metallurgical background to start from scratch. Fortunately there's a suitable template at hand, in the form of the steering pedestal. Sayaka doesn't need to know the exact composition of the hardware's alloy, just that it endures in these conditions. She reaches out to the overturned instrument, not quite touching, and concentrates on the shape she desires. Her sapphire earring glows as she draws upon it, a fragment of a vanquished devil's power.
The end result is pretty good, she thinks. Bronze can't capture the original color, but its shape perfectly duplicates the form of a soul gem tipped with a tiny crucifix. Sayaka turns it over, inspecting for flaws and finding none. It needs an inscription, she thinks, a little something to make it more than an anonymous trinket. She's not much of a poet, though, so she keeps the embellishment simple. Then she carefully sets her replica among the larger plaques, its engraved front facing forward:
1897 – 1912
Her work complete, it's time to move on. Sayaka swims towards the bow, over the splintered remains of the foremast and the paired cargo cranes in the well deck at the foot of the bridge. This seems to be the best preserved part of the ship, with broad bollards, anchor chains and lengths of handrail standing intact on the forecastle. A few more plaques lie atop the bollards, though she doesn't stop to read them. Finally she reaches the prow, where a small crane forlornly points into the dark. Turning back, the mermaid allows herself one last look at this monument to man's ingenuity and hubris before she ascends.
"I'm done," she tells Homura. "Need anything else?"
"No. You can return to the Law of the Cycle."
"All right." The lights wink out one by one as the dolls take their leave. "...Hey, transfer student?"
"What is it?"
"Thanks for worrying about me."
"Don't get the wrong idea," the devil retorts. "Madoka would be upset if I let anything happen to you."
Sayaka smiles. She knows better.