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

〈In a way, the Matriarchies have always been implicit in the magical girl system, held in check only by the once ruthlessly short lifespans of the girls involved. The moment the MSY ensured that life would be both long and secure enough for girls to realistically ponder having children of their own, female‐dominated families began to crop up like mushrooms in MSY‐administered regions.〉①

〈It was eminently natural. Though no one had previously realized it, personality traits and environmental conditions conducive to contracting have a strong tendency to be shared among family members, at least insofar as personality is a product of genetics and family environment. While nearly everyone within the MSY knew anecdotes of sisters or cousins who fought together, no one had any idea how pronounced the phenomenon was until late in the first century of the organization's existence, when members began noticing a startling number of mothers introducing their own daughters to their teams as newly contracted girls.〉①

〈Initially, opinions about the phenomenon varied. Many newly minted mother‐mentors were distressed at their daughter's contract, feeling that they had failed as parents and constantly hovering over their own daughters in combat. Others were welcoming of the prospect, and some had even secretly encouraged it, in various ways.〉①

〈Bemused by the unexpected phenomenon, and well aware that MSY society was entering uncharted territory, the MSY leadership made little initial attempt to interfere with the phenomenon, besides setting rules that the MHD would evaluate all such familial mentorship arrangements, recommending separation if they felt operating on the same team would lead to psychological problems.〉①

〈As the decades and generations stretched on, the most powerful and prolific of these families began to bond into social and political blocs. The unique combination of shared secrecy, esprit de corps, natural familial affection, mutual nepotism, and sense of superiority over the rest of humanity served to bind multiple generations together into long chains of mentorship, usually dominated by the leadership of the Matriarch, the originator of the lineage. This led to a self‐perpetuating process, wherein familial‐political groups feeling threatened by the power of these families organized into further matriarchies, intensifying the phenomenon. Indeed, feeling threatened by the power of other families, groups of powerful siblings or cousins, not directly connected to a single magical girl mother, often unified behind the leadership of the most powerful of the group. There are even a few examples of unrelated girls doing the same.〉①

〈It was generally the most powerful of the families that solidified in this fashion, with members highly motivated to maintain contact for reasons of power or prestige, and accruing further powerful members via marriage with ambitious new girls. These families were usually descended from influential early members, such as the Founders, or had significant structure already, due to significant initial wealth—an important consideration in the early MSY.〉①

〈On the other hand, less influential families tended to fragment early, as descendants followed a natural tendency to move away from their parents.〉①

〈These newly formed Matriarchies soon began to develop practices and customs all their own, most notably the tendency of the Matriarchy family name to override all other considerations, for naming purposes, initially for daughters, but later for all descendants. At first, these Matriarchal names were often kept private, until perhaps after a girl needed to fake a death, but later, as the families got more powerful in the outside world, the practice became open, and was often applied retroactively.〉①

〈While many in the MSY grumbled—and continue to grumble—about the outsized influence of these families in internal politics, the nepotistic benefits afforded to newly contracted members, and the possible patrimonialization of MSY offices, the Matriarchies would end up providing significant institutional support to the burgeoning MSY. Family trusts proved a useful vehicle for hiding and laundering MSY monetary transfers, and handing MSY corporations from mother to daughter provided an easy way to keep property in the system after the original owner's "death", without attracting undue suspicion. Matriarchies also provided a reliable source of experienced and trusted personnel, churning out each generation a new set of contractees and trusted NCs—sons, husbands, and non‐contracted girls—expected to join MSY operations if at all possible.〉①

〈Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the Matriarchies brought political stability to a democratic system that could have easily broken down into factionalist rancor like so many of its contemporaries. Matriarchs, most of whom had known each other for centuries, negotiated compromises and resolved political disputes with much less conflict than might have otherwise been the case. Indeed, with a few major exceptions, the MSY Rules Committee and Leadership Committee have always been remarkable for their collegial and compromising atmospheres, lacking the kind of partisan in‐fighting that might be expected.〉①

〈The flip‐side of this, of course, is that it has led to continuous claims that the system is not as democratic as it claims. It might also be argued that the MSY was merely lucky that no two of its major families have ever gotten into unresolvable feuds…〉①

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


"I can't believe you just let it happen!" Kyouko protested, leaning forward, making an expressive gesture with one hand, the other hand flat on the virtual conference table.

Yuma looked back at her for a moment, taking in Kyouko's outraged demeanor, expression unfazed. She turned her chair to look at Mami, who was watching the two of them thoughtfully, hands folded over her mouth.

"What would you suggest I have done?" Yuma asked, turning back, once she was sure Kyouko had calmed down slightly. "Interrupt them? Summon Darwin for a talk and order him to block access? I'd rather not intervene in something like that. For better or worse, it was his decision to make. That, and the girl's father. Obviously I'm not blowing the whistle on them."

Kyouko fumed, shifting her gaze to Mami, as if to tell her to say something. Mami didn't, however.

She chugged the rest of her cup of juice, then slid back her office chair and got up, pushing herself up with both arms. She walked up to the giant window of their virtual reality conference room, looking at the view for a bit of calm. The room was modeled after the executive meeting room of the D&E Corporation, so it was designed like a typical late 21st century conference room, complete with holoprojector and virtual carafes of strangely satisfying water and juice on the side. On the far end of the table, in front of the giant corporate logo—purple and white, a winged girl carrying a box in outstretched hands—projections of Shizuki Ryouko and Shizuki Kuma were frozen in tableau, Ryouko in the middle of rushing away, her father reaching for her.

As for the view, it was of the skyscrapers of Mitakihara City in the late Information Age, before the many things that would alter the skyline in coming years: the camps of unemployed streaming to the city for refuge, the massive public works projects, the missile defense complexes.

Kyouko turned back towards the table.

"That Shizuki Kuma!" she said, making a fist with one hand. "What was he thinking? This is exactly why I don't like those damn Matriarchies! Even the estranged branches are always trying to cheat!"

"I wouldn't call it cheating, nee‐chan," Yuma said, sipping soda from a can. "And it's not like he was pulling on Shizuki family resources to do it, either. Besides, that has nothing to do with the topic on hand."

Kyouko sat back down, sighing.

"I know," she said, slumping her head down and extending her arms. "I just hope she's all right. Some girls don't take it well. She's more cynical than most girls, but I didn't want her career to start on something like this."

"She'll be fine," Yuma said, pulling at her hair baubles. "That's my read, given that she asks to see her own clone. Arisu‐chan's already been informed, and she says her psychological profile suggests she'll get over it. Really, the bigger problem is her relationship with her parents. There might be some problems there."

"I tend to agree with Chitose‐san here," Mami said, speaking up for the first time in a while. "Obviously, you've spent more time with her than me, but the MHD tends to be accurate about these things. She seemed disgusted, yes, but not overwhelmingly. She kept it pretty together, but I'm not sure she'll trust her parents after this."

"She shouldn't anyway, I guess," Kyouko grumbled. "She'll learn that, eventually."

"So consensus?" Yuma asked. "I'd say we should just watch for now."

"Sure," Mami said.

"It's not like there's any other choice now," Kyouko said, looking briefly at Yuma, then away, with that curious sudden detachment she evinced sometimes.

"In that case, let's move on to the rest of the agenda," Yuma said crisply, leaning forward. "First, some updates on the whole grief cube business, from my end. I thoroughly examined the surveillance records for the area where the modified cubes appeared. There's nothing on the feeds, and no evidence of tampering. I'm sure it's been tampered with, but whoever it was knew what they were doing."

Kyouko snorted, sitting back up.

"Of course," she said dismissively.

"We only have one real lead," Yuma said, "And it's not a particularly good one."

She pushed a button on her remote. It was a bit of theatre, since all she was doing was pushing "play" every time, on material she was sending the VR simulation mentally, but it was a habit born from a lifetime of meetings.

A new projection appeared, replacing the old one of Ryouko and her father, this time of a flat 2D image, very blurry, obviously taken from a great distance. A woman with cropped hair, mid‐walk.

Mami thought to herself that the woman looked vaguely familiar.

Kyouko looked at her expectantly, but Yuma gestured at her, indicating she should talk. They looked at each other for a moment.

A moment later, Kyouko cleared her throat.

"Ryouko‐chan herself took this, on the night of the demon hunt," she said. "Pedestrians are rare in the area, so it's notable, but she didn't think it was important until she met the woman herself, while getting her new TacComp model installed."

Without bothering with the fake remote, she waved her hand, and a second projection appeared next to the first one, this time of the face of Joanne Valentin, director of the Prometheus Research Institute.

Something clicked in Mami's mind, and even if it hadn't, her TacComp flagged it for her.

"Oh!" she said loudly, while Kyouko was in the middle of saying that her database search suggested that the two women were almost certainly the same person, and if Ryouko had sent it to her earlier they wouldn't have needed to rely on coincidence.

Yuma and Kyouko looked at her.

"What is it?" Yuma asked.

"It's, uh, well I've met her before," Mami said, a little embarrassed. "Nowhere important, I'm sorry to say. It's just—I was at the movie theatre, and I saw her there too, without her glasses. Didn't talk to her, though."

They blinked at her.

"Movie theatre?" Kyouko asked, a moment later.

"Yeah, right after Shizuki‐san contracted," Mami said. "A few hours later. It's quite a coincidence… maybe…"

Her voice trailed off as she realized that, perhaps, the coincidence was rather unusual. It was strange enough that she didn't even remember to fear Kyouko asking why she would go to the movies.

They shared a long moment of silence. Something about it seemed just seemed strange to them.

"Well, that's another coincidence then," Yuma said. "Even if it seems meaningless."

She paused for a moment.

"I met her once too," she said, "when the institute was being dedicated. I couldn't put my finger on it, but she seemed really strange. Very focused, I guess. I talked to her, but she seemed nervous. Something about her bothered me."

They watched her. Nowadays, it wasn't common for Yuma to speak so vaguely.

"Anyway," Yuma said, shaking her head. "I have no idea what any of it means. Sorry to interrupt, nee‐chan"—she meant Kyouko—"but can I finish this?"

Kyouko nodded, and Yuma leaned forward again, gesturing at the screen with remote in hand.

"I looked into Joanne Valentin, naturally," Yuma said. "I can summarize. She was born in Germany, to a minor branch of the Valentin family—one of those small families that have always been trying to climb up in the MSY, but she wasn't in a branch in on the secret. She graduated from school as a chemist and worked in a couple of labs for a century or so, without much to distinguish her."

A series of holograms flashed by on the projector to illustrate. Graduation, a few lab group photos, things of that sort.

"Then, a few years after the war started, she switched fields and became a physicist. She started doing much better, earned her DS, and was part of the team that designed the first starship forcefields. That got a Nobel Prize, you'll remember, but she wasn't one of the principal researchers. Still, very prestigious."

"Afterwards, she started writing manuscripts about entropy, the heat death, and magical girls. The entropy gap, basically. She was the first outsider to realize the implications, since the MSY doesn't really talk about it. That caught Science Division's eye, she got friendly with some of the professors, and they interviewed her for Prometheus Director after the last one retired. She's done an excellent job, by all accounts."

"Sounds like she's had quite the career since the war started," Mami said.

"Yes," Yuma said. "The thing is, as part of the background check, I dug a little deeper. Apparently, right before she changed fields, she started seeing a psychiatrist. The doctor's notes say that she was feeling disaffected: her career was a dead end, she wasn't married, she didn't have any friends. She was thinking about joining the military."

She stopped, to make sure the others got it. They nodded.

"And then everything changed," Yuma said. "One day, she canceled her counseling sessions and said that she was feeling better, without any other explanation. Obviously the psychiatrist didn't believe her, but when he went to check up on her, she really was better. She had a new passion, and didn't show any of the signs of apathy he had noticed before. He said even her personality had changed. She told him she had had a religious experience and, since he couldn't find anything wrong, that was the end of that."

She stopped again, and looked around.

"I have no idea what it means," she said. "I met her. I can't picture someone like her 'having a religious experience.'"

There it was again—that vague feeling that there was more going on here than it seemed. The others looked troubled too.

"You know," Kyouko said. "It almost sounds like a Reformat."

Mami shuddered. She did not like hearing that word.

Yuma glanced at Mami, then said:

"Maybe, but if so, it was an unusual one. Reformatting can delete memories, yes, and even replace them with new ones, but that's a far cry from changing personality. We're not sure why it can't be done—we think personality is closer to the core of the 'soul', whatever the hell it is."

Mami summoned a teapot, then poured herself some tea to drink. Reformatting was one of the aspects of the MSY she really did not like. It bothered her tremendously.

"In any case," Yuma said, eyeing her with concern, "I checked the records of the Black Operations Subcommittee. No reformat was ever approved for Valentin. Of course, that doesn't mean it didn't happen."

"How could we tell?" Kyouko asked.

"I'll send a trained telepath her way," Yuma said. "It's the most reliable way. But…"

She paused briefly.

"We have to remember," she said. "This could all just be a wild goose chase. Like Ryouko‐chan told you, she could have just been out for a walk. She seems like the kind of person who might."

Kyouko nodded, then looked at Mami.

Why do they keep looking at me? Mami thought. I can't look that bothered, can I?

"Seems reasonable enough," Kyouko said.

Mami took a breath, then poured herself more tea.

"It doesn't really seem to lead anywhere," she said, trying to involve herself. "It's interesting and all, digging up all this dirt on someone's life, but it leads absolutely nowhere in explaining why she would be trying to kill Ryouko with grief cubes. Assuming she has anything to do with it."

"Yes," Yuma said simply.

She waited a moment, took a drink of her soda, then said:

"I also looked further into the past of Ryouko's friend, this Simona Del Mago. Del Mago is a funny name; it almost sounds like it'd come from one of the Matriarchies, but there's none I found that make sense. It was sort of a weird thought anyway."

"'Of the Mage,'" Mami said. "It really does sound like one."

"It's also a perfectly legitimate Spanish name," Yuma said. "So it doesn't have to mean anything. I looked into Simona's parents, including the ones she listed the two times she listed the wrong parents. I can't spot anything too strange, except everyone involved is a retired scientist."

Their faces came up on the projection.

"Scientists everywhere," Kyouko said. "Everywhere you look, it's more damn scientists."

"Yes," Yuma said. "I'm doing what I can to look into their backgrounds to see if there's a connection, but that's all I have for now.

"Can we just talk to the girl?" Mami asked.

"I was hoping to wait until after Ryouko has left," Kyouko interjected. "Who knows what repercussions it might have?"

"I'm inclined to agree," Yuma said.

Mami nodded, and there was a moment of quiet.

Yuma cleared her throat.

"So, do either of you have any updates to give?" she asked.

"I haven't really been connected to this," Mami said, holding up her hands in apology.

"Not really," Kyouko said. "I have Risa Flores tailing her, but she says she hasn't seen anything unusual. No one else is following Ryouko, as far as she can tell."

"We have to keep in mind: there are other possibilities besides assassination," Yuma said. "It could have been an attempt to get her to contract, a test‐run in preparation for an attack on someone else, or an attempt to earn some sort of reaction from someone. It may be the case that now that it's over, there's no reason to try again."

Mami shook her head, hair fluttering around her ears.

"No way it's an attempt to get her to contract," Mami said. "It was too risky. They had no way of knowing I would happen to be there. It was far more likely to get her killed. It almost did."

"I agree," Yuma said. "Barring something really esoteric, like another cloaked magical girl nearby. But that seems like a lot of trouble to contract a girl Kyubey said had a high chance of contracting anyway."

"How did you know it said that?" Mami asked, frowning.

"I asked it," Yuma said. "I put in the word that I wanted to talk to it. It didn't have any other insights."

"It could have been an attempt to get a reaction out of one of the Matriarchies," Kyouko said, "except that I couldn't get that to make sense, when I was thinking about it. If you want to annoy the Kurois or Shizukis, there are much better targets than a new contractee in an estranged branch of the family. And what kind of reaction would even be worth it?"

"Plus, none of the other families would be stupid enough to use forbidden grief cubes," Yuma said. "At least I hope not."

"Hmm," Mami repeated.

They sat there in silence for a long moment, the clock on the wall ticking quietly.

Mami cleared her throat.

"Well, I guess I can say a little about my investigation into the grief cube shortages," she said. "My agent hasn't finished her report yet, but I've been looking into what I can myself. There's… a discrepancy, I guess, between what the records say and what our grief cube audit says about cube supplies. At the time points with shortages, the squads report receiving far less than what the reports say was delivered. I don't know what's going on."

"I want to confirm delivery with the upstream distribution AIs, and check some of the combat logistics records, but I can't do that without revealing what I'm asking. It might be okay, but the risk is that word leaks out somehow, and then we'll have a firestorm on our hands. I want to avoid that until we have to report the results."

Yuma nodded.

"Okay, but we can't let considerations like that stop our investigation. We can't let things stall just because we won't talk to a couple of AIs."

"I know," Mami said. "I want to see what my agent reports first."

"Well, you've done better than I have," Yuma said. "Because I haven't found anything. As far as I can tell, both grief cube shipments and distribution systems are functioning as designed. Of course, it may just be that the systems I'm looking at are too far in the backend. And I still haven't found anything to corroborate the anecdotes of girls who should have survived dying."

"Neither have I," Mami said.

"I need more information," Yuma said. "Who exactly is disappearing? Where? A few anecdotes aren't enough. I need lists, of everyone who's supposedly gone missing. Maybe then we'll see a pattern. I've looked into the records of the few names I have. It looks like they just suffered terminal sanity slippage during transit. Sometimes it just happens so fast that the monitors can't rip the soul gem off fast enough."

Kyouko let out a breath.

"I can ask the Church to seek out names more aggressively. It wasn't really the focus of the first survey."

"That sounds good," Yuma said.

Again, silence prevailed over the table, the three of them briefly lost in their own thoughts.

"Alright," Yuma said. "If there's nothing else, I have some minor things I want to talk about."

They looked at her curiously as she raised her hand dramatically.

An Incubator doll materialized within it, which she slammed down into the table.

"Talking about Kyubey reminded me about this," she said. "This is the next version of the Incubator doll. The one we distribute to children. The Incubators are surprisingly interested in its development, so we talked about it for a while. We're going to give it a range of realistic voice options this time. I want your opinion."

She tapped it on the head.

"Make a contract with me and become a magical girl!" it said loudly.

Mami and Kyouko stared at it, then at Yuma.

"What do you think?" Yuma asked.

"I think it's pretty close to the original, if that's what you're going for," Mami said.

"I agree," Kyouko said.

"Okay," Yuma said, materializing another doll in her other hand.

She tossed one each to Mami and Kyouko.

"Listen to it if you have time," she said. "You know, virtually. It's important. These kinds of things affect recruitment. It has to be cute. Cute!"

She emphasized the last word by leaning forward and stabbing the table with a finger, causing Kyouko and Mami to look at each other with bemusement.

Kyouko seemed to spend a moment in thought.

"In that case, they could just model it on you," she said.

Yuma tilted her head in confusion.

"What? No, I'm not an Incubator! Wha—Hey! Put me down!"

Kyouko had grabbed her across the table, picking her up by the armpits, grinning broadly. Yuma kicked her feet wildly.

"I just thought we all needed some relaxation after so many serious topics in a row," Kyouko said, still carrying her.

"What is that supposed to—No, don't tickle me! I–I can turn off tactile input, you know! Most of my con—my consciousness isn't even here! Don't—gasp—don't make me do it! I—"

Mami got up and watched as Kyouko tormented the child, setting the girl down on the table and saying nonsensical things about cuteness while the girl writhed and pushed at her with her arms.

Finally, they both tired of it, Yuma gasping on the table.

"Do you—gasp—have any idea how—gasp—how hard it was to keep my other avatars functional?" Yuma complained. "There's a—gasp—Directorate meeting at this exact moment! That would have looked good. Spontaneous squirming laughter in the middle of a meeting. I had to cut parts of the connection."

"I've been stressed lately," Kyouko said, making a show of seriousness. "All this crazy conspiracy stuff, and to top it all off, my girlfriend is leaving me to go fight a war. I thought I'd play with my favorite sister."

Yuma pouted, sitting back up.

"Ugh," she vocalized. "Well, anyway, Mami, if you have any chance to attend my birthday party, it's coming up. Even by virtual avatar is fine. I sent the invitation."

"I saw it," Mami said. "I don't know if I'll be able to. We'll see."

Yuma nodded to herself, then disappeared into the ether, vaporizing instantly.

"Was that really necessary, Sakura‐san?" Mami asked, eyeing her.

"Sometimes I think she works too hard," Kyouko said. "It can't be healthy, doing what she does for so long. She needs to relax, maybe take a vacation. And she likes being tickled, even if she won't admit it."

Mami shook her head ruefully.

"We can't take vacations, Sakura‐san," she said. "We don't have it as easy as you."

Then with a slight shimmer, she vanished too, leaving Kyouko there alone in a virtual room that suddenly seemed unbearably empty.

Kyouko closed her eyes and left the simulation.


Ryouko stayed in her room and thought for a long while, gloomy and staring at the wall, with apparently enough seriousness that the robot on her desk—she had nicknamed it CubeBot in her own mind—inquired if she needed any grief cubes. She had accepted one and found to her slight surprise that she did, indeed, need it slightly more than she expected, though perhaps that was just her own imagination.

Her mood was not helped by the muffled spectacle of her parents arguing it out somewhere outside her room. The sound‐proofing should have been enough to suppress the sound, but she still heard it, could even make out some of the words. For once, she was not glad of her enhanced senses.

She thought about her situation, about the cloning vats, about the mass of cells with her genes still growing enthusiastically, without any idea that their potential would be snuffed out later.

She could see the cold logic of it, now that she could think about it calmly, alone in her room. She had always thought of herself as a logical person, but…

She had always thought of herself as unusually cynical, always skeptical of what the government said, but…

She kept seeing Kyouko, and Mami, and Yuma, eyes closed, floating in hyper‐perfused blue fluid, and could see there the ruin of a layer of trust she had never even known she had. Trust that there were some lines the government would never cross, some lies her parents would never tell.

It wasn't logical. She could see that. As she reconciled her childish disgust with the reality in front of her, she knew that they were right. The cloning vats prevented a far greater evil and, in the end, weren't any different from the decorticated chickens her father had talked of. Not any different from her own body without the soul gem she watched greedily restore its purity, expelling shards of darkness into a grief cube already growing turbulent and dark, hungry for the light.

It was childish, wasn't it? That was what the logical Ryouko would say. It was childish to recoil in disgust at bodies in vats, when she could accept with equanimity the knowledge of implants intertwining with every aspect of her nervous system, when she could accept the government abandoning entire colonies to the flame, in the name of the greater good.

It was childish to expect her parents to tell her classified secrets, when it could mean the ruin of their careers and prosecution, just to give her information that might never matter to her.

As she stared at her wall, she understood that she would have to deal with it, accept it all as a new part of her existence. That was the only reasonable thing to do. She didn't have to be happy about it, but the universe wasn't structured around her happiness.

She took a breath.

In that case…

TacComp, she thought. I should have done this ages ago, but multiple people have told me now to read the file on my parents. Do you know which file they were talking about?

Yes, it thought. It's actually your file. To be honest, I had thought about bringing it up myself, but I was waiting for my human behavior models to come fully online before making that decision.

So you know what's in it?

It's my job to read everything I can, with my spare processing capacity.

In the future, I would like you to tell me things like this immediately, she thought, with a trace of anger.

There was an actual pause in the conversation, something that rarely occurred.

Acknowledged, the device thought, voice suddenly empty of tone.

Without further comment, the document readout appeared in front of her eyes, text with accompanying pictures on the side. She thought about asking for an acceleration of input, or audio, or perhaps even VR, but decided against it. She would prefer to take her time with it.

Initially, it was material she already knew. Family details: her mother was the daughter of a physician and a housewife, her father the son of a mathematician and physicist—pictures all included and familiar, of course. They had both become Biologists, her mother more the neuroscientist with a nanotechnology background, her father a more traditional cellular sort. Her grandparents were all retired and living in various places, except for one, who—here was a new fact, information they had never been able to previously find—her maternal grandmother was stationed on the Apollo Shipyard, at the spear tip of the Euphratic Incursion. She was a captain in the station defense forces, recently promoted and transferred.

Ryouko raised her eyebrow at that. She had thought that the woman would be much harder to find, that it wouldn't just be a matter of looking her up once she had military clearance.

You're right, actually, her TacComp thought. I looked at this report the moment it was available. This information wasn't there. Someone must have released it to you sometime recently. I am not informed when that happens unless the change is of at least moderate priority.

Another pause.

I would have eventually noticed, she thought, and she thought she—she was having a hard time thinking of it as it, now that it shared her voice—sounded defensive.

That's alright, Ryouko thought. Do–do you know if she would have been informed of my new status, or her husband's?

You, yes. She would probably have been informed the moment she stopped being in active combat. Your grandfather, no. Not until he officially enlists. He can always change his mind at the last moment, remember.

Ryouko thought about that. Was this a message, specific to her? Or was something else going on here? All the same…

TacComp, forward this information to my grandfather.

Alright.

He had a right to know, she thought.

She continued to read, about career and relationships. Both her parents had entered an MSY‐affiliated research institute decades before the start of the war—which was information she certainly knew now—and only received significant outside recognition later, after the start of the war. She had always suspected, but never been able to find out for certain, nor had she asked.

They had had their share of failed romances over the past century, information Ryouko had a slight aversion to knowing about, but had met shortly after the start of the war, married, and filed for a child license. It was just as they had told her.

That was all the information mentioned on their careers. Nothing about what projects they had worked on, who they worked with, or even their level of security clearance. She suspected she was running into the wall of invisible redaction, so familiar to anyone who had ever spent time trying to read about sensitive material.

Then she moved to a section she hadn't expected to exist, labeled "MSY ties". That was when her eyebrows really raised.

The section was heavily redacted, and not in the standard way, where information was carefully edited out so that the document still read coherently. Here, it was done sloppily, with text explicitly blocked out.

Most unusual, her TacComp thought. There is no reason to ever do that, with semi‐sentients to handle the document editing. It is only done when the information is meant to be withheld, but it is thought that the reader should know there is something missing. Not a common pattern to see.

At the left side of her vision, a family tree diagram appeared, helping to illustrate the facts that appeared before her. She could see at a glance that female was right, male was left, an arrangement that served to make the maternal side of things more prominent, given that she was used to going right‐to‐left. Still, though, many faces were missing, and entire regions were blotted out, almost as a testament to the secrecy of her family.

Even the parts of her family history that she could read startled her. Her maternal grandmother's mother, a foreigner whom she had always been told died in the Unification Wars, had indeed done so—as part of a Black Heart infiltration squad, only a few years after the birth of Ryouko's grandmother. Her parents—well, here the information blacked out, as did any information on her grandmother's father.

Her maternal grandmother's marriage to Kuroi Abe, the much‐younger grandfather Ryouko lived with, had been a matter of displeasure to his grandfather's family, but there was no elaboration as to why. Indeed, Kuroi Abe's family information was simply blacked out to oblivion.

Ryouko read further to the left. Her paternal grandmother was uncontracted, of course, but had two sisters who were, great‐aunts Ryouko had never met. Beyond that, for once, the family's information was wide open, leading to wide expanses of people and names that meant exactly nothing to her.

I've never met anyone except my parents and grandparents, Ryouko thought.

Her paternal grandfather was an estranged branch of the Shizuki Matriarchy, a term that was unfamiliar to her, until she looked it up and found that it referred to large family groupings of magical girls who tended to wield political power as a bloc. The term had originated from the fact that many such groupings were descended from one powerful girl who, still alive, consequently wielded tremendous power.

She had never heard the term.

Not surprising, her TacComp thought. It is deliberately never discussed below security clearance one. Neither is the fact that the personality traits that cause potential are somewhat heritable, which probably explains your family tree. Actually, yours is unusually dense in that regard.

Ryouko felt stupid. She had thought herself an expert on these things, having spent large amounts of her time prowling the public internet for just such information as this, but here was another major piece of information she had no idea was relevant.

She then hopped onto the public networks, hoping that the information she was missing was accessible in a public database somewhere, but she had no such luck. Her maternal grandmother's mother was listed as "unknown", which she now knew to be a lie. A look into the Kuroi family yielded some cursory details about her grandfather's parents and dead‐ended immediately after that. Here, since it wasn't plausible to say the information was missing, the information was labeled "restricted".

She had never thought to scour her own family tree. She had never even been interested.

I believe I can help, her TacComp thought. There is no listing of Matriarchies available to you at your security clearance, but one of the MSY Founders is named Kuroi Kana. You should recognize her from the movie you watched. Given the level of security blackout occurring here, this may be relevant.

That's right! Ryouko thought, thinking back to the unassuming girl with glasses who had been at the Founder meeting. Could—

I am sorry, but I am unable to retrieve any further information about her. There is nothing available on the public networks except the fact that she exists. I mean it—not even forum rumors, not that I've found. Of course, I've only been looking for less than a minute.

Keep trying, Ryouko thought. There's got to be something!

Perhaps, her device thought. That is, incidentally, the end of the report on your family. The other sections are of less interest, and your psychological profile cannot be accessed.

They kept searching for a while longer, but found essentially nothing. Why was so much of her family blacked out? Why was so much of her life a goddamn secret?


It was a while later before she received a request for entrance, her mother's inquiry pushing itself to attention in her mind. She also heard a knock; some social anachronisms still survived intact.

As an emancipated minor, she can no longer override your lock, her TacComp thought.

The thing was getting gradually more talkative, she noticed, probably because she seemed to be liking it more than she thought she would.

Let her in, she thought. Our relationship is better than that.

The door slid itself open, and her mother walked in, carefully. The woman had always seemed the quiet, feminine type to her, though undeniably competent. Easy to imagine her hard at work in a lab—though Ryouko's image of that was kind of vague, picturing her mother huddled over a machine working at something—harder to imagine her ordering others around, though if Ryouko understood some things correctly, she did at least some of that. But then what did she know, really?

The woman walked up to her and stood in front of where she sat reclined on her bed, stopping short of sitting down, as she would have normally. From Ryouko's seated height, the woman looked strangely towering.

"So, I, uh—it seems you found out, then," her mother said, awkwardly.

"Yeah, if you want to put it that way," Ryouko said airily, looking up at her ceiling. "I—"

She didn't really know what to say in a situation like this, and her mother, despite having initiated this, continued to stand silently, not really giving her anything to latch onto.

Ryouko propped herself up to sit at the side of the bed.

"Is that a new bracelet, Ryouko?" her mother asked blandly, indicating Ryouko's wrist.

"Oh, yes, it is," she said, equally bland, holding her wrist up so her mother could see it. "A gift."

She knew her mother was buying time, starting off with a minor topic.

"I saw you wearing it the other day," her mother began, reaching for her arm. "But I never got a chance to look at it carefully."

She inspected it carefully, turning Ryouko's wrist to get a better look.

"What is it?" Ryouko asked, looking at her mother.

"Who was it a gift from?" her mother asked.

"One of the recruiters," Ryouko said, thinking up a likely lie. "Why?"

"Just curious," her mother said.

They sat in silence for a moment, then her mother took a breath to begin.

"We couldn't tell you, Ryouko," her mother said, still looking down. "How—"

Ryouko waved at the woman, indicating for her to sit too. She did so.

The woman cleared her throat, then continued.

"How were we supposed to?" she asked rhetorically. "We couldn't tell you as a kid and then what were we supposed to do? Give it to you as some sort of special Talk? What would even be the point? And if anyone found out, we could have been sacked."

"That's it?" Ryouko asked bitterly. "Nothing about the morality of what you've done?"

Her mother was taken aback, and the conflict of it tore across her face briefly.

"We thought about it, of course," she said. "But—"

Ryouko waved her hand to silence her.

"Yeah, I've thought about it too," she said, voice much softer. "It's—there's not really any other choice, is there?"

She looked up at her mother while saying it. The woman looked back down, gauging her, realizing she wanted a serious answer.

"There are a few," the woman said. "None of them work quite as well, though. And I've always thought it was elegant, in its own way."

"You didn't want to tell me," Ryouko accused, tiny hands grasping the side of her bed. "I can understand not wanting to tell me earlier. Honestly, it wasn't really my business. But now? I've made a contract. There's no better excuse to say something. Papa did, even though you didn't want to."

Her voice rose in volume as she spoke, but still ended far short of what might be considered a yell, or even loud speech.

"Yes," her mother said, eyes glancing away to hide the firm expression that suggested "he's going to pay for that."

"I—" the woman began, then paused, gathering her thoughts.

Finally, she said:

"There's a reason the information about the clones is security clearance two and up," she said, clearing her throat. "It's not fear of public outcry—that's manageable. It's for psychological reasons. The MHD projected that knowledge about how disposable your bodies are would cause psychological damage in many girls, and would cause others to take unreasonable risks. The problems diminish as the girls get older, but—well, in any case, most aren't told until they first wake up again in a tank. At that point, we could try to claim it's a regeneration tank, if possible. Oftentimes, we do, but usually we feel that, ethically, they have a right to know that they're essentially in a new body. We also restrict them from telling others, and explain why. It's not wholly enforceable, but it's passable."

"You sound like a machine, mama," Ryouko said, a trace of anger in her voice. "And even if I accept that for all of us, what does it have to do with me? You know I would have wanted to know. Do you really think I'm that fragile? I'm not made of tofu, mama, no matter what you think."

"I just wanted to protect you, Ryouko," her mother said, wringing her hands.

"Protect me?" Ryouko asked, voice again rising slightly, hands again clenching her bed. "Is that why I haven't been told a damn thing about my own damn family?"

Her mother stared at her, briefly not comprehending.

"Oh, yeah, I read my own file," Ryouko explained, looking up at her much taller mother. "The parts that weren't redacted to oblivion, that is. I can't even read my own damn psych profile. Anyway, I know all about the Shizukis and the Kurois. My great‐grandmother died in the service of the Black Heart. Among other things. Didn't it occur to you that I might want to know about this? About my relatives? Bad enough that you never told me anything before, but these are connections I could have used, mama. I–I don't want to make it sound like that's all I care about. Don't you trust me? What am I, a damned bird in a cage?"

"Ryouko—" her mother began, reaching for her shoulder.

In the renewed fire of her anger, she shook the hand off angrily, staring at the opposite wall, shoulders hunched, making her seem smaller than she already was.

"I was going to tell you," the woman said apologetically. "Tomorrow, during the party, I–I invited relatives. They're not on the invitation list, but they're coming. Not too many of them, but a few."

She paused.

"As for telling you earlier, I guess it really was pointless not to, wasn't it? You made this damned contract anyway, didn't you?"

There was a long silence, as Ryouko wondered what it was about her mother's reaction that seemed so incorrect, as if it didn't seem to fit with the rest of her personality, or with the MSY scientist she knew her to be.

Ryouko looked up at her mother again, eyes searching.

"Mama, why?" she asked. "Why are you so against this? I know some parents are, but it doesn't seem like you. It's never made sense to me."

Her mother looked at the floor, eyes unreadable.

She shook her head.

"Tomorrow," she said. "Tomorrow."

She got up, so abruptly that Ryouko was almost too surprised to stop her.

"Mama," Ryouko said. "One more question. Please. I want to know."

In truth, over the past few days, she had developed a question she wanted to ask of her parents. This seemed as good a time as any.

Her mother turned and looked at her.

"I've always wondered," Ryouko said. "If the two of you work as researchers, how is it that we're always short of Allocs? Don't researchers get paid a lot? I know what you've told me, but I don't think I believe it anymore. You and papa still work part of the time, so you should still draw some extra Allocs, and don't you have some left over from before I was born? And what about the share we get for grand‐mama being in the military?"

Her mother watched her, eyes wide.

"We should have plenty," Ryouko said, trying to keep her momentum. "I have friends with fewer sources of income than that, and they don't have problems with synthesizer repair. Where is it all going? What is it being spent on?"

She pinned her mother with a look, and the two of them tried to read each other for a moment.

"Given that the basic Alloc distribution prevents outright poverty, a teenage girl's probability of forming a contract scales positively with household Alloc income," her mother said, sounding again like she was reading from a manual. "The richer the family, the more likely the contract, as long as the family isn't truly poor. It's socioeconomics, and we were trying to exploit it. We were going to give it all to you when you passed contracting age. I suppose… we should give it to you now."

Ryouko wondered what her face looked like then, confused and shocked as she was, but her mother didn't give her a chance to question further, simply turning and bolting from the room.

Tomorrow then, Ryouko thought, too numb to really be angry.

Have they manipulated my whole life like this?


Given the size of the average family's flat, it was no longer customary to hold parties within one's own living area, at least not for parties over a certain size, and certainly not for parties to which one intended to invite people of importance. People did not generally enjoy being packed like sardines in a can, and adding food to the mix was just asking for unpleasantness.

Generally, then, there were multiple restaurants that rented out their floor spaces to families, and could barely be called restaurants anymore, since they were nearly always booked day after day. A substantial fee was charged, since space was one of the few things that couldn't be easily manufactured by a nanoassembler, and there were other onerous restrictions that stymied many the aspiring host.

It was only the morning of the next day, as they sat around waiting for her father's parents—and for Kuroi Abe to finish changing, which was taking forever—that Ryouko looked up where, exactly, the party was being held. She had the uneasy feeling she should have been more involved in the planning, but she had been busy, and it was so easy to let her mother do it…

Ryouko blinked in surprise at the location.

"My school? The sports field?" she asked. "You can do that?"

"Apparently you can," her mother said. "With the approval of the instructors. In special circumstances. Well, only one circumstance. It's free, in that case. Actually, a lot of things were unexpectedly free."

"I see," Ryouko said thoughtfully.

They sat there a while longer, in their various modes of dress. Her mother had opted for a sober, proper white dress, which Ryouko thought was a good choice, and her father wore a relaxed pants‐with‐shirt that stopped just short of being casual. She herself had opted for a long white dress to accompany a carefully chosen green top. Everyone said she looked good in dresses, for some reason.

She squeezed part of her dress between her legs, then looked out the window of their main room briefly, musing on the uninspiring view of tubes and buildings therein.

"Well, I'm done," her grandfather announced.

"Yeah okay," she said, getting up, glancing over briefly, then looking back toward the door, then completing the cycle with a double‐take.

The old man, who didn't, of course, actually look that old, had opted to fully deck himself out in an old‐fashioned tuxedo, black contrasting with white, complete with little ribbon and gloves. She didn't even know he owned one.

"Don't stare at me like fish in a bowl," he said, walking up to them. "I can wear what I want. Besides, it's not like I'm late or anything."

He was right, of course. As mutual family, it was customary to allow access to each other's location information, though it was accessed only occasionally, such as in situations such as this. They could all tell at a glance that Ryouko's paternal grandparents were about four minutes from getting there.

They sat around for the intervening time period, Ryouko feeling a sudden bout of nervousness about her new life. She was not a traveler like Simona was; she had only left her home for family vacations, to Hawaii, to Egypt, to Washington, DC, and a host of other places—but never alone. And this wouldn't be a vacation.

She wondered, at a moment like this, what her parents thought about it. There was no way to ask.

Finally, as the couple they were tracking approached their door, they rose and headed for the door to greet them.

The couple that appeared at their threshold was, at a glance, not substantially different from any other couple one might see on the street—except, of course, to those who recognized them. Shizuki Koto, like everyone else, appeared to be in his late twenties. He sported vaguely aristocratic features, especially in the cheekbones, features which Ryouko thought had imprinted themselves on her. His wife, Kugimiya Hiro, was a head‐turner, uncommonly beautiful, and dressed as if she was well aware of that fact. It would have seemed immensely strange to a citizen of an earlier age that Ryouko had her as a paternal grandmother.

"Grand‐mama!" Ryouko greeted with customary affection.

They hugged briefly, then she repeated the favor to her grandfather.

"Mom, Dad," her father acknowledged.

There was a further round of greetings, then:

"New bracelet, Ryouko‐chan?" her grandmother asked, holding out her hand.

"Ah, yes," Ryouko said, placing her wrist in the outstretched hand for inspection. The woman looked it over critically.

"It was a gift from one of the recruiters," Ryouko explained.

Ryouko spotted a look pass between her two grandparents. Koto cleared his throat and said:

"Well, if it's not inappropriate, we brought a gift too. We couldn't think of anything else appropriate, so…"

He reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew what appeared to be a length of string. Looking more carefully, Ryouko could see that it was actually a necklace, one of those with those near‐indestructible carbon nanotube‐threaded strings forming the chain. At one end was what appeared to be an emblem carved in jade.

Ryouko took it and looked at it. It appeared to be two hands holding up a crown, almost as if presenting it to someone.

"Dad—" her father began. The other man held up his hand to forestall him.

"I'm not on particularly good terms with my family," Shizuki Koto said. "Actually, that's an understatement. Honestly, I'd rather it had never come to this. But now that it has, I went ahead and requested one of these. That emblem is the Shizuki family crest."

"The Shizuki matriarchy?" Ryouko asked, not confrontational, but still asking the question directly.

There was a brief awkward silence.

"Yes," Koto said, not directly acknowledging that she had said anything unusual, expression unchanged. "Don't worry; it doesn't mean anything, other than that you're of the family. You can choose to wear it if you want. Or not. I just thought it could come in handy. Just because I'm not on good terms doesn't mean you shouldn't be."

Ryouko gave it a moment of thought, then took apart the magnetic clasp, and placed it around her neck.

"Thank you," she said.

"Now then," the man said. "Will you explain to me why you are dressed like a penguin, Kuroi‐san?"

"Oh, come off it," the other old man said. "Let's just go."


They arrived at the party area well ahead of time, since it was of course customary for hosts to arrive first. Ryouko had been quietly skeptical of the ability of her school's large, well‐manicured mid‐building lawns to produce a decent party area, but was surprised to find the area well‐furnished, with numerous chairs, tables well‐stocked with a wide assortment of appetizers and snacks, and even light protective netting hovering over the area, eliminating what few patches of light there might have been on the ground. There wasn't much sun to worry about, given that they were far from the top levels of the city, but it was still a nice gesture on the part of the caterers.

Perhaps there was something claustrophobic about a small field like that, elevated above the ground and buried among the skyscrapers, but if there was, she didn't feel it.

They were surprised to find that Ryouko's friends had arrived first.

"It's the least we can do," Chiaki explained. "It's not like we have anything else to do today, anyway."

That was unlikely to be really true, even given that it was Sunday, but Ryouko accepted the proffered explanation and broke off from her family.

"I wasn't really sure what I should get you," Ruiko explained embarrassedly, as they gathered around one of the tables, "but here are some earrings. Clip‐on, of course."

It was stock‐standard silver earrings, set with artificial diamonds.

"Thank you," Ryouko said, but deferred clipping them on.

"This is one of those times I wish I were an artist, rather than a musician, so I could give you something tangible," Chiaki said. "It seems weird to just send an audio recording. Anyway, I got you this music box."

She opened a box she had set on the table, and a miniature violinist fluidly pretended to play a violin, producing the sounds of one of Chiaki's violin pieces, one of the few that Ryouko actually somewhat liked, a fast dance piece. Given that Ryouko had never admitted not liking most of her music, she wondered if it was a coincidence, or if Chiaki had realized the truth somehow.

Finally, Simona pushed forward a small box, obviously another piece of jewelry. Ryouko wasn't sure why everyone was giving her jewelry, but it could be worse, she supposed.

Opening the box, she found a ring with a single jewel, what appeared to be a ruby, crimson. Looking at it, one could see some sort of optical effect within, producing white lines that formed…

"A helix?" Ryouko asked.

Almost certainly an artificial effect, her TacComp opined. Color is unusually dark for a ruby, though not unheard of. Very unusual. I can't find any examples online, so it's probably custom‐made.

"Yeah," Simona said, looking strangely nervous. "It's, uh—"

She raised her left hand, and Ryouko could see now that she was wearing a ring she had never seen her wear before, a duplicate of her own.

"Oh, that's nice," Ryouko said, slipping the ring on and looking at her hand, therefore missing the glance that passed between Chiaki and Ruiko.

A while later, the first guests began arriving, a hodgepodge of her father's friends, her mother's friends and her grandparents' friends—no one who she was particularly interested in. Still, she fulfilled what she felt to be her obligation by heading over each time—along with her grandfather—and greeting each of them, enduring the comments about how sad her parents must be and the questions about whether or not she was afraid. A few even said something patriotic, about heroism, and Ryouko found herself unexpectedly nodding more adamantly than she would have usually. The words struck a bit home.

The first unusual guest arrived sixth, after a couple whom her TacComp noted as colleagues of her mother.

Ryouko strode over, gearing up for her standard polite greeting when she stopped, surprised by the fact that the new "guest" was only a single boy, about her age. She glanced at Abe, who looked back, clearly looking at her for answers.

"He's not really on the list," her mother said. "But he's from your class, so I guess I don't see the harm. Is he a friend of yours?"

He asked you out on a date about a week ago, on the day you contracted, her TacComp whispered in her ear.

Now she recognized him. She felt proud that she was able to swallow her dismay enough to maintain a normal‐appearing front. Or so she thought, but somehow her three friends managed to detect it well enough to instantly appear hovering behind her.

The boy smiled nervously at her, and Ryouko noticed for the first time that he was exactly as tall as she was, which made him short indeed.

"I understand why you couldn't meet with me earlier," he said, managing to look surprisingly confident. "But I thought, you know, I'd show up and show my support."

He smiled again nervously, while Ryouko stared. Her friends stared at her, and her parents and grandparents stared at all of them.

He wants you to know he's still interested, her TacComp thought. Not too surprising. A magical girl can be considered quite a catch, even if you don't get to see them very often.

Since when do you talk about things like this?

Since I got new capabilities installed. Came online just minutes ago, actually. Ahead of schedule, which is unusual.

Have any advice?

Only some of my new capabilities are online.

Right.

I wonder how he even knew about this party, she thought, to herself.

Ryouko smiled sweetly, said something nice, then walked off, aggressively grabbing both Chiaki and Simona by the arms. Ruiko followed by pure force of example.

"Alright," Ryouko said in a loud whisper. "Which of you told him about this?"

"Certainly not me," Simona said immediately, looking annoyed.

Ruiko looked at Chiaki, who looked at the sky, and that completed the process of deduction.

"Why?" Ryouko asked, making a gesture of confusion at Chiaki.

"I thought it'd be a good idea," she said, looking also somewhat confused. "He's a nice kid, you seemed interested earlier and I thought—well, you know, the articles say giving someone something to come back to improves survivability."

She said the last part awkwardly, wringing her hands slightly.

Ryouko suppressed a gesture of despair. Chiaki meant well, but sometimes that girl didn't understand her at all. Seemed interested earlier? What on Earth would possess her to think that she would want this at her own farewell party?

Before, she hadn't refused, because she hadn't been able to perform a rejection in front of her friends. Now, she was stuck between kicking the kid out, and tolerating his presence the entire time. But the last thing she wanted—

She thought of something.

"Chiaki," she said, reaching up to grab the girl by the shoulder in a nominally friendly gesture. "Listen, I'm going to be pretty busy, greeting guests and all, so I don't think I can properly talk to him. I've got crazy family and such coming. Why don't you go entertain him?"

She smiled sweetly. Chiaki blinked.

"What?" she asked.

"Come on," she said, turning the girl around with her hands. "We all know what a great host you can be. Keep him busy. You know what to do."

As she spoke, she shoved her hands into the other girl's back, pushing her forward with what was now easily superior strength.

"You're not interested?" Chiaki asked.

"Not really. Now go!"

Finally, she gave Chiaki a shove, sending the girl stumbling forward towards the boy in question, who was looking at them expectantly, and whom Ryouko now saw was carrying some sort of gift. Chiaki looked back uncertainly, and Ryouko smiled and waved, pointing at her to keep walking. The girl looked back a couple more times as she traversed the small distance, but eventually committed to her assigned task, hopefully understanding what this punishment was for.

"That's pretty cruel, Ryouko," Ruiko commented. "It's your last day here, and you send her off alone?"

"I know," Ryouko said, watching the back of the girl in question. "I–I'll think of something else."

"Ryouko," Simona said, gesturing at the entrance point where she was supposed to be greeting guests. Kyouko and Risa had shown up, bearing respective boxes of pastries. Risa was dressed much like everyone else, while Kyouko had opted for basic jeans and a T‐shirt.

They were talking with Kuroi Abe, subdued rather than animated. Her other pair of grandparents were there too, and seemed to be handling themselves well.

Ryouko hurried over.

"So I believe the food is over there," Risa said, pointing.

"I'm not here for just the food, okay?" Kyouko said.

"I'm just telling you where to put the pastries."

Kyouko grunted.

"So how are you holding up, old man?" she asked Abe, a moment later. "I think the pressure is finally getting to you, with that suit."

"I'm fine," the old man said serenely, ignoring the suit comment. "Or as fine as I can be, given the circumstances."

"Hello," Ryouko interjected, inserting herself into the area. "It's good to see you."

"Likewise," Risa said.

"Nothing like a family farewell," Kyouko said, matter‐of‐factly. "For those who can have them. If you'll excuse me—"

She walked off with her box toward the food table for food brought by guests, gesturing for Ryouko to follow. Ryouko scampered after her, leaving her grandfather and Risa to talk about… well, whatever they could possibly talk about.

Kyouko set the box down, set out a self‐unfolding plate, and began arranging pastries.

"Swanky party," Kyouko commented, grabbing a plate for herself even as she was still emptying the box.

"Anyway," she said, a moment later. "It might interest you to know that your grandfather's position as one of your family members means that it is likely that he'll be allocated a less risky position. That's what we were talking about. I understand he had medical training in the past?"

"Yes," Ryouko said. "But is that—"

"Standard procedure," Kyouko said, "for non‐contracted family members. We've already moved your grandmother from the front lines to a more quiet position at the shipyard. We don't move them out of the front entirely, but we shift them a little."

"Why don't you move them out of danger entirely?" Ryouko asked.

"I'm just asking, I'm not pressing for anything," she amended a moment later.

"Generally speaking, people are insulted if we do it too brazenly," Kyouko said. "And it shows too much favoritism. Bad for morale. Mostly, though, like I said, people don't like being pulled back. Patriotism, unit cohesion, esprit de corps, something like that. And we can't give special jobs to those without special skills."

There was a pause in the conversation as Kyouko began stocking up with what was at the table.

"Kyouko‐san…" Ryouko began, then paused.

"What is it?" the girl asked.

"Can I ask a favor?"

Ryouko explained about her situation, with Chiaki and the male classmate, while Kyouko listened with a slight smile of amusement that grew wider as the story progressed.

"And anyway," Ryouko finished. "I was thinking that someone as, um, old as you would be experienced in doing this kind of thing."

She clasped her hands behind her back, then hastily unclasped them, suddenly aware of the picture she presented. It didn't help that Kyouko was tall enough to have to look down at her.

"You want me to get rid of him," Kyouko said bluntly.

"Something like that," Ryouko agreed, glancing over her shoulder awkwardly.

Kyouko smiled and shook her head.

"Teenagers," she said in light reproach. "You know you can do it yourself, right?"

Ryouko cringed.

"Well, I know," she said. "But—"

"Whatever, I'll be glad to," Kyouko said, grabbing her food and walking off. "Never received a request quite like this one. Guess I'm not quite that old yet."

"Wait!" Ryouko said, feeling a last pang of guilt.

Kyouko turned to look at her, waiting.

"Try not to be too cruel, okay?" Ryouko asked, realizing she sounded stupid saying it.

Kyouko blinked, then laughed, making Ryouko look away.

"Sure, if that's what you want," she said patronizingly.


After that, Chiaki was free of her duties and rejoined the rest of them, looking sheepish and confused at Ryouko's behavior. Good old airy Chiaki.

Shortly afterward, Risa joined them. It was strange, dealing with someone three times their age trying to blend in with them, but Risa did a surprisingly good job of it.

It was another fifteen minutes before the first of the mysterious family members Ryouko was waiting for arrived.

Somehow she knew who it was before she even talked to her. Perhaps it was the fact that she didn't recognize her at all. Perhaps it was the self‐assured way the apparent teenager carried herself, the same way Ryouko was beginning to realize could only be expressed by the truly old. Or, perhaps, Ryouko's fuzzy memory of the Akemi movie had been enough for her to recognize her face, even without the glasses and short hair. Maybe it was even soul gem detection, on a deep subconscious level.

Whatever the case, when the girl appeared at the entrance point, wearing a sleeveless long black dress, Ryouko needed no prompting to immediately get up and head in her direction. As she walked, her facial recognition algorithms calibrated and performed their database searches, looking for that exact combination of features: vaguely detached, scholarly eyes and soft, pleasant face that nonetheless seemed to hint at inner resolution.

The algorithms no longer displayed text to her, instead dumping knowledge straight into her cortex.

"Kuroi, Kana"

Age: undisclosed

Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)

Special Comments:
MSY founder

The woman looked straight at Ryouko, making eye contact, and with it came the sensation of new knowledge, leaving Ryouko no doubt that somewhere deep within the computing systems that permeated their lives, security barriers were being lifted.

"Kuroi, Kana"

Age: 462

Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)

Rank: General; Commanding General/Director, Black Heart Special Operations Division, joint MSY/Military Affairs

Special Comments:
MSY founder
MSY Rules Committee: Representative, Mitakihara Special District
MSY Leadership Committee: Basic Member
Former Director, MSY Science Division
Considered Matriarch of Kuroi Family Matriarchy
Direct eight‐generation ancestor of Shizuki Ryouko

And then Ryouko found herself at the end of her short walk, standing in front of the girl, who was smiling back at her. They bowed politely at each other, while Ryouko digested the implications of what she now knew. She was not as shocked as she might have been, given what her TacComp had told her the night before, but it was still quite a revelation. It was one thing to know that one was descended from a Founder, another when the Founder was standing directly in front of you, carrying all her titles, including Commanding General of the Black Heart.

"I happened to be on Earth," the girl explained to her other family members. "So I thought I'd come by."

Ryouko looked around, noting that both her parents and grandparents were looking nervous, all five of them.

"Nice suit, by the way," the girl said to Kuroi Abe. The old man shifted awkwardly and pulled at his ribbon, acknowledging the comment. Ryouko realized, suddenly, that the girl was just as much his ancestor as hers.

Estranged branch, the description had said yesterday. And his family had disapproved of his marriage. And the head of that family was…

The teenager in front of her, smiling pleasantly at her grandfather, whom Ryouko had long ago internalized as an "old man", despite his appearance. Said old man was making quite clear from his behavior that he knew he was by far the younger of the two, which made for a somewhat surreal experience, from Ryouko's perspective.

Her mother swallowed.

"Ryouko," she said. "Say hi to your ancestor. This is, uh—"

"She knows," Kana explained. "I gave her the information. Technically, I'm her grandfather's grandmother—oh, it's not worth going into. I certainly don't look like it, don't you think?"

Ryouko's family nodded, but Ryouko herself looked back blankly.

"Sorry," the matriarch said. "My humor is lost on the young. I've been regretfully out‐of‐touch with this branch of the family in recent years. Come on, Ryouko‐chan, let's walk together a little. I want to catch up."

The woman gestured, and Ryouko obliged, following the founder out to the food tables, just as she had to Kyouko earlier. She wondered what this conversation would turn into.

"I hear you're quite the teleporter," Kuroi Kana said after she grabbed a plate, eyeing a plate of quiches. Not exactly classical Japanese food, but no one particularly cared about that.

"That's what I'm told," Ryouko said, wondering how respectful she should try to sound. "I honestly haven't seen many others to compare with. Personally, I feel I have quite a few onerous restrictions on my power."

"We all do," Kana said, deciding to skip the quiches. "With time and effort, you might be able to work around those."

Ryouko blinked and tilted her head.

"Really?" she asked.

Kana nodded.

"It's magic," she said. "There are rules, but the rules are much more flexible than they seem. Of course it helps to understand how your particular power actually works."

Ryouko realized that the girl was looking at her, or more precisely peering, as if she were looking over glasses she wasn't actually wearing.

Before she could think to respond, the girl went back to looking at food, and she realized that the Kuroi Matriarch knew very well that Ryouko had no idea how her power worked. It had been a suggestion to figure it out.

"Test that two hundred kilometer range yet?" Kana asked.

Ryouko shook her head no.

"No one has asked me to."

"Don't worry about it," the matriarch said, trying out some flavored seaweed. "If you know you can do it, then you can do it. Simple as that."

Ryouko nodded politely. It all seemed like good advice.

"Anyway," Kana said, piling the seaweed onto her plate. "I know that you're working for Mami right now, but eventually you'll have to think about your future on your own. When that day comes, the Black Heart could use a long‐range teleporter. Our Magical Operations units are the best of the best. I want you to think about it."

The girl looked down at her meaningfully, and it took a moment for Ryouko to realize just what the comment had been: a job offer.

"I'll, uh, think about it," Ryouko said, thinking that this was a safe response. Black Heart? Spec Ops? Did she really want to do that? She really couldn't think about that now.

Kana nodded in satisfaction, then lifted her hand so Ryouko could see the bracelet on it.

Ryouko looked carefully at it for the first time, then gasped, reaching automatically for the one on her arm. She stopped, raised her own arm, and made the comparison. The two bracelets were identical, with a glowing comet insignia of the MSY circling the exterior on the band.

Kana nodded in affirmation, eyes twinkling as if sharing a private joke. Ryouko opened her mouth to say something—

And another girl appeared next to her, shoving her way in so that the three of them formed a reluctant circle.

Acting on some strange instinct, Ryouko immediately checked the neck of the new arrival—and found there the necklace she expected, the twin of her own, bearing the crest of the Shizuki family.

The girl had what Ryouko now realized were the family's emblematic cheekbones, which she herself shared, but had a somehow… harder look than she herself did. She also wore a similar dress to Kuroi, but more elaborate, with frills.

"Hey, hey," the girl protested as she stepped in, making a chopping motion with her hand. "Enough of this."

For a moment, the three of them looked at each other. Ryouko was not surprised at all to find that she was looking at the Shizuki Matriarch. Not quite a founder, but an early member, who had joined only thirteen years in, and had later provided a good deal of the financial seed capital of the MSY. She was also Director of MSY Finance and Resource Allocation and… nine generations up. Unlike Kuroi's history and role, hers appeared to be mostly unclassified.

"I should have known you'd be here," Shizuki Sayaka accused, pointing at Kuroi Kana. "As if you would ever miss a chance to con a young girl into your clutches."

"Come off of it," the Kuroi matriarch retorted, glaring. "Firstly, unlike some spoiled Ancients I could name, I don't park myself on Earth 24/7. I had to travel to get here. Secondly, I would ask what you are doing here. I seem to recall that you are quite the charmer yourself."

"Financial directors get around quite a bit, thank you very much," the Shizuki matriarch said. "I'll thank you not to flatter yourself. And for your information, I was only here to inform Ryouko‐chan that MSY Finance has plenty of roles for a powerful teleporter out in the colonies. With your skills, you could provide a disproportionate boost to transportation efficiency. Given what you're capable of, the increased economic production could easily offset any loss to the army in the field. All without firing a bullet, and plenty of travel."

The last few sentences were obviously directed at Ryouko, and were an even more obvious sell job than Kuroi had done earlier. The Shizuki matriarch smiled at Ryouko, who smiled back nervously and politely. Honestly, the whole thing was starting to bother her. But, travel…

"And make us a tidy colonial profit, I'm sure," Kana said drily. "And I think your money‐grubbing is selling Ryouko‐chan a little short. In the special forces, she could easily make a much bigger difference than she'd ever make in boosting "aggregate production". And I'll bet you finance directors really do get around."

Sayaka blinked, before catching it.

"Oh, real mature," she said. "And you military types never get the importance of economics and manufacturing. A bit too complicated, I'm afraid."

She made a show of sighing.

"Well, I'd venture to say," Kana responded, "that Ryouko is decidedly uninterested in doing anything as unpatriotic as cowering in the rear. In fact—"

"Hey, what's going on here?" Kyouko interjected, appearing and shoving her way into the circle as well.

She made an exaggeratedly dejected face.

"Oh, look, it's my two favorite people in the world. I should have known you blood‐suckers couldn't let an opportunity like this pass. Listen up, she's my student, and she's Mami's student. Off‐limits. Capisce?"

"I was only suggesting possibilities to her for advancement once she leaves Mami's tutelage," Kuroi said coolly, sipping on a drink she had pulled out of nowhere. Ryouko noticed she didn't mention Kyouko's tutelage.

"Don't you think it's time to let it go, Kyouko‐chan?" Shizuki Sayaka purred, emphasizing the diminutive ‐chan. "It's certainly puerile of you. What exactly did my mother do to you? Call you fat?"

Ryouko looked back and forth between the three of them, astonished by the way in which these Ancients, all past the four‐century mark, were acting—like vindictive schoolgirls, essentially, an impression which was particularly hard to shake given they all looked about the right age. There was also the way in which they were talking over her head, as if she weren't there at all…

Kyouko bared a visibly fanged smile.

"Well, it certainly stands to reason that she'd have a daughter like you, Sayaka‐chan," Kyouko said.

Ryouko thought Kyouko hesitated on the name Sayaka, after the first syllable. But perhaps it was only her imagination.

"After all," Kyouko finished, still smiling. "Like mother, like daughter, and you're certainly just as much of an overblown, back‐stabbing—"

"Kyouko!" a new voice exclaimed, and Ryouko was surprised to see her psychiatrist aggressively grabbing Kyouko with one elbow—which was a little awkward, given that Atsuko was by far the oldest‐looking and had to bend over to do it.

Kyouko looked immediately disgruntled to have her there.

Oh that's right, Ryouko thought vaguely. She's Kyouko's psychiatrist too.

"And now the party is complete," Kana commented drily.

"Don't you three think it's a bad idea to be squabbling in front of Ryouko‐chan here?" Atsuko said, as if berating children. "Be better‐behaved."

"Look, I was invited to be here," Kyouko said, pointing at herself. "I'm not here—"

"I know," Atsuko said, letting her go and standing straight. "So was I. Come on, let's all try to be a bit more civil."

As a point of fact, Ryouko's TacComp thought, surprising her with the interruption. She is not on the invitation list. I'm not sure why she would lie about that.

I don't think she's lying, Ryouko thought.

But then why would—

The device stopped abruptly.

TacComp? Ryouko thought.

Well, technically, the invitation list also contains an open‐ended invitation to family members.

Ryouko blinked, trying to keep one eye and one ear on the conversation around her.

What? she thought. Do you really think—

"Ryouko!" her father's voice rang out.

Ryouko startled at the summons, looked behind her, then took her leave of the other four.

She headed for the entranceway where her parents and grandfather stood, beginning a fast walk. Then she slowed down, squinting, and finally brought herself to a stop, abruptly.

The girl standing with her parents, with her smiling face and long hair, was unmistakable, even if the white sundress was new. Ryouko had a brief flashback of the same girl standing before her in purple costume, composite bow raised towards the sky. The girl from her dream—from her memory.

As she watched, the girl raised her hand and waved towards her, almost sheepishly.

I didn't want to interrupt you earlier, her TacComp thought, fast as lightning, since there wasn't any information you would want, not initially. But there's been another security release and, this time, a personal privacy request release. It's—

Her TacComp stopped mid‐sentence, and it took her a moment to realize the machine was actually pausing again, rather than continuing in the confident, absurdly rapid diction she was used to.

Are you hesitating? she asked, surprised.

I am… processing, the device thought.

Ryouko stood there for a long moment, watching her family from a distance in mutual awkwardness. Her mother reached down and hugged the girl, who had apparently just arrived. Her mother picked up her up off the floor briefly and Ryouko felt a moment of surreality which she had difficulty understanding. It seemed achingly familiar.

"You came," she said. "I thought you wouldn't make it."

"I barely made it in time," the girl said. "I almost missed the ship."

Her father and Abe shared a brief look of confusion, but then her grandfather leaned over and said something into her mother's ear, intended to be secret, but Ryouko, focusing on them, heard it anyway.

"We always knew this day would come," he said.

"Yes, but I hoped it wouldn't be so early," her mother whispered back.

Her paternal grandparents, for their part, looked tense.

Of all people, Risa appeared from the background, walking over to the mystery girl.

"The hens have come home to roost, it seems," Risa said.

"She can hear you, Risa," the girl said.

"I know," Risa said. "I guess I can leave her to you, then."

With that, she turned and left just as abruptly as she had arrived.

Done, her device thought. Forgive me. I was testing out my new human interaction capabilities. They're very sluggish at the moment. But—

Another pause.

Well, I shouldn't talk so much, it thought. The point is, I considered distracting you and letting you hear it from your family, but the release on the security implies that she probably wants you to be using your nomenclator. So…

Ryouko didn't have any time to brace for the flood of information that she was expecting to receive, but instead it was just the standard few comments—not that it was any less staggering.

"Kuroi, Nana"

Age: 127

Occupation: Magical Girl (active service)

Rank: Colonel

Special Comments:
Older sister of Kuroi Nakase (maternal aunt to Shizuki Ryouko)

Ryouko's eyes instantly widened, and she looked at the girl, at her mother, at her father, at her mother's father, then back at the girl. Their faces looked guilty and nervous.

Yes, she could see it now that she knew what to look for. No wonder the teenager had looked familiar. Of course she had, since now that she stood next to Ryouko's mother and her grandfather, the resemblance was striking, even despite the apparent difference in age. The bracelet, the visit—it all made sudden, terrifying sense.

She took a breath.

"What the hell is this?" she yelled, stalking up towards her family. "What? I couldn't know about my own aunt? Does everything have to be a goddamn secret? How could it possibly have hurt to know my own mother has a sister?"

She thrust her face forward and up to drill a glare into her mother's face, aware that she was making a spectacle at her own party. She didn't quite care.

"R–Ryouko," her mother said, leaning back to avoid the two of them colliding. "It's hard to explain, but if you'll calm down—"

"I'm not going to calm down! You're telling me everything! Right now! Don't I have a right to know?"

"Ryouko, please—" her grandfather began.

Ryouko glared at him, and somewhere in her anger she had the presence of mind to note that her father didn't seem as distressed as the others, standing in front of his parents, who were wearing faces as if they had just accidentally bitten into something particularly unpleasant. Her father looked almost satisfied, in fact, his body language signaling—signaling what?

She turned to look at him, but before she could say anything, he spread his hands, shrugged, and said:

"I told them from the very beginning it was a bad idea, but they wouldn't listen."

That got Ryouko to pause, for a moment, before she accused:

"You could have said something. I—"

"Shizuki Ryouko!" someone said from behind her.

"What?" she demanded, rearing around, tired of being interrupted yet again.

She found herself looking at a stern Kyouko, wearing a face she had never seen before. The three other girls stood at her side, Shizuki Sayaka looking confused and darting glances at Kuroi Kana, who was shaking her head to herself. Atsuko Arisu, for her part, looked dead serious, and seemed to be trying to watch everyone at once.

"Lieutenant," the general ordered, crossing her arms. "Control yourself."

By all rights, that shouldn't have been enough to faze her, but Ryouko found herself so struck by the surrealism of the command that the spell of her anger broke, and she found herself looking up at the four of them, breathing heavily.

"Well, Lieutenant?" Kyouko asked.

Ryouko stood up straighter, not really sure what to do.

"Oh, uh, yes, er, sir?" she managed, confused, for some reason pulling out the Human Standard "sir" rather than "Sakura‐san".

Kyouko unfurled her arms and sighed.

"Look," she said. "I invited your aunt to come here. I thought it would be the right thing to do. I don't think your family should have kept something like this from you, but you should at least hear out their reasons."

Kuroi Kana glanced at Kyouko, perhaps confused.

"What?" she said, turning to face Kyouko. "No, I was the one who told her to come. I've let this branch of the family languish in dysfunction for far too long. It was time to clarify matters."

Her voice picked up a tone of… arrogance, perhaps? Whatever it was, it chilled Ryouko slightly, and Kuroi Abe seemed to be sharing her sentiments, judging by his expression.

"I invited my sister here," Ryouko's mother said sternly. "For your information. I thought it was my responsibility."

Her father cleared her throat.

"Well, actually—" he began.

"Well, I should say—" Ryouko's grandfather began.

They looked at each other, having managed to interrupt each other.

The girl—or rather, woman—in question cleared her throat and spoke, and her voice sounded just like Ryouko remembered it, a somewhat deeper‐pitched version of her mother's voice.

"Yes, I got a lot of invitations," she said drily. "But Ryouko, I think we all owe you an apology. Just let me talk to you for a while and explain ourselves and, maybe, you will feel better about us."

It seems that everything about my life is learning to understand things that my family does without my knowledge, Ryouko thought morosely.

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes and drawing on the reservoir of calm she liked to believe was her core.

"Alright," she said, nodding. "I'll listen."

She followed the girl out into the genetically‐engineered short grass one more time, this time more deeply, far away from the others.

They walked until they reached the far corner of the green space, where a transparent panel of some nearly unbreakable material blocked them from stepping off the edge and careening to their deaths or, more likely, the embrace of a patrol bot. Green spaces were rare and extremely expensive, but every school had one, quite expansive spaces, at that.

As they walked, Ryouko glanced at the wrists of the other girl and found, as expected, the Kuroi bracelet.

"Why didn't you wear that bracelet when you came to see me?" she asked.

The girl turned her head slightly, looking back at Ryouko.

"Hmm? You mean that time when you were a kid?"

"Yeah."

Ryouko realized suddenly that it was perhaps the most tangential possible question to ask, but it was too late to take it back.

The girl stopped, having reached the transparent wall. She put her hand on it, looking through it at the skyscraper across the chasm, the skyways and tubes that bridged, and all the paraphernalia of a modern city.

"I'm surprised you remember that," Nana said. "I wasn't sure you would. Is that the one I gave you?"

She gestured at Ryouko's wrist, and Ryouko nodded.

"I'm glad," her aunt said. "I thought maybe Kana‐san gave it to you."

Her voice was almost wistful.

"I usually don't wear this thing," Nana said, answering the question Ryouko had no longer intended to press. "Only at social functions of a particular sort. I spend most of my time under an assumed identity, and a bracelet like that would be a red flag to certain people. Last time, my job took me near here, so I thought I'd stop by and pay a visit to my niece, quietly. It's never been easy, staying away."

"So why give one to me?" Ryouko asked. "Wasn't that a giant risk too? What if I looked up the bracelet online? I threw it in a drawer for years, so you lucked out there, but the past couple of days I've been wearing it on and off everywhere and—"

She stopped, puzzled.

"Why didn't anyone notice?" Ryouko asked. "My mother saw it, I think, even if I didn't notice, but I was waving it around Kyouko's Cult center everywhere. I even went to a meeting of their Theological Council. No one seemed to notice anything about it."

Her aunt smiled.

"If they did, why would they go out of their way to specifically mention it?" she said, voice a combination of gentle and sharply precise that reminded Ryouko of her mother. "Besides, the bracelet isn't very well‐known. Long ago, it was a way for family members to recognize each other even if they didn't know each other. I have no idea how we managed to keep it sub rosa for so long, but Matriarchal naming conventions made them much less important, and the face software made it completely obsolete. Nowadays, we don't bother keeping it a secret, but no one bothers to remember about it, either. Sort of a funny symmetry there."

"Anyway, I gave it to you on a whim. The real risk was that you would show it to your mother, but that was a risk I was going to take. I've never really agreed with the family policy regarding you, though—well anyway, I'll tell you later, don't ask now."

Her aunt looked down for a moment, into the vertiginous drop in front of her, as if thinking.

"Do you believe anything the Cult says?" she asked, finally, still looking down.

Ryouko was surprised by the question, partly because it seemed random, but partly also because she had no response ready. No one had asked her recently about her beliefs. A week ago she would have answered confidently "No." but now…

"No, nevermind," her aunt said, looking up to read the conflict on her face. "You don't have to answer that. Personally, I'm not sure if I believe what they say, but the experiences I've had in recent years make me believe they're at least onto something."

Ryouko blinked, surprised because the answer was eerily close to her own actual opinion.

"I've spent the past twenty years hunting Akemi Homura," her aunt said, looking through the transparent wall again, eyes not looking at Ryouko. "Nominally, I'm Internal Security, so occasionally I do other things, but that's my personal assignment. By the way—"

She turned to look at Ryouko.

"—I'm sure I don't have to tell you this, but I'm breaking rules just telling you that much. If you breathe a word of this to anyone, we could both be in big trouble."

Ryouko looked back at the other girl's eyes, then nodded understanding.

"Internal Security?" she asked, frowning. "That's not—"

"You can't look it up," her aunt said. "Level Three Security Clearance. We're part of the Black Heart. If the MSY has a secret police, we're it. It's not as scary as it sounds—it's just that there are some enforcement actions that don't fall into the legal structure of the MSY Rules Committee, or violate Governance Ordinances. Essentially, we do what the Soul Guard can't, at least not legally. Governance doesn't like us much, but leaves us alone."

The girl sucked in a breath, then sighed.

"I used to be her student, you know, long ago. I'm not her most recent student, but I'm the only one who happens to be in Internal Security. I guess that's why they thought they should give me the job. I—"

She paused, as if thinking.

"We've been trying to track Homura ever since she disappeared. Despite what everyone's been told, she did leave behind a trail, right after she disappeared. There's evidence that she traveled to a few other major battle sites, in the early months, casting her aura and helping the fight. We have no idea how she avoided detection, but after a while, the trail goes cold. That's when she really disappears. We've been chasing leads for two decades, following reported sightings, unidentified magical girls, things of that sort, but it's always been dead ends, hoaxes, mistakes, or something else entirely. What's confusing is—"

She stopped abruptly, then recovered, continuing:

"Well, I can't talk about everything. Anyway, there is a reason I'm telling you this. It's—well, it's half the reason I never met you, not until now. There were secrecy concerns, better if I didn't even have a family, but also—"

Again she stopped, while Ryouko watched her with slightly wide eyes.

"I'm sure you're tired of me avoiding the main point," her aunt said, voice soft. "So let me say that there's a reason your mother is having me do this, instead of just telling you herself. It's because unlike her, I can transfer memories."

Ryouko blinked at her, taking a moment to grasp what she was implying.

"Are you saying—" she began.

"It will make things easier," the other girl interrupted. "Do you mind sitting down?"

Ryouko looked around, but there were no chairs in the immediate vicinity. After a bit of hesitation, she sat herself on the grass.

"I spent a long time putting this together," her aunt said, sitting as well. "A long time. Most of it is fuzzy, because it all predates any of the TacComp perfect recall stuff, but that actually makes it more focused, strangely enough. Ever use a VR simulation?"

Ryouko shook her head no.

"Though I have been through the installation process, if that counts?" she said, making it a question.

"It's not the same," Nana said, shaking her head, "but I guess that's why I asked you to sit. Hold on, it will take a moment to transfer."

"A moment to transfer?"

"Just wait a moment."

They watched each other for a long moment, as Ryouko mused over what it meant for something to take time to transfer.

Done, her TacComp thought. You may trigger the memory recall when ready. I recommend closing your eyes. Would you like partial or total immersion?

She looked at the other girl, who was watching her with a slight frown, as if concerned about something.

"Go ahead," the girl said.

Total, please, Ryouko thought, thinking back to her vision at the Ribbon, and wondering if this would be similar.

What am I in store for? she thought.

Then she triggered it. For a moment nothing happened, and then the world vanished around her.

For a moment, all was oblivion, and the blackness pressed in upon her, but then her mind began to clear…