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 shear 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."
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…"
"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.
"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 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—"
"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…"
"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."
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.
"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."
"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."
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.