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 spinal column—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, high infodensity, reduced detail.

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 Chair 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, and 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 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, most 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 plushie 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 dryly. 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.