Having emerged victorious in the last round of the Unification Wars, the ruling Emergency Defense Council of the United Front faced a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Half a century of repeated, often unlimited postmodern warfare had brutalized Earth and its Human populations. The world population had declined to below half of its pre‐war maximum, with tremendous numbers of humans dying in direct combat, of starvation, or in one of the innumerable purges ordered by the insane hyperclasses of the Freedom Alliance states. Wide swaths of once prosperous territory were now radioactive wastelands, the planet's ecosystems and climate were on the brink of collapse, and unfriendly or enslaved FA AIs, still loyal to their dead masters, lurked the wastelands of the world. Almost the entire globe was under direct military rule, with even the governments of nearly all UF states having buckled and collapsed under the strain of total war.
But where so many people saw disaster and ruin, the AI and human members of the Council saw opportunity. Placing their faith in its technology and the brilliance of its carefully protected military scientists, the Council predicted that the restoration of law and order and basic services would trigger an unprecedented economic boom, and that the UF's massive standing armies could, if redeployed, help perform reconstruction in record time. The populations of the UF nations, implant‐enhanced and genetically modified in the exigencies of wartime, would rebuild unimaginably fast, though the rehabilitation of the world's remaining population might prove problematic.
If the UF could successfully rebuild the world, its directors hoped to use the gratitude of the populace to entrench their ideology and successor government forever. To this end, on top of its ambitious rebuilding objectives, the Council promised grandiosely to construct Eudaimonia on Earth, promising to make the Future dreamed of by Humanity real, and to change the human condition forever.
Nothing was off the table. On a small scale, congestion‐free streets, universal augmented reality, easy air travel, an end to violence and crime. On a larger scale, the Council inaugurated a set of projects ambitious both in scope and name, intended to be Manhattan Projects for a new age: Project Eden sought clinical immortality, Project Janus sought FTL travel, and Project Icarus sought to use solar satellites to harvest the light of the sun, making energy not just cheap, but free. With these accomplishments, the Council sought to win eternal loyalty from its citizenry.
Finally, the Council sought to remake government. The Council sought to make a government provably aligned with the populace's interests, indivisible, and so amorphous as to be unassailable. There would be no personality, no princeps, only Governance, a perception that was only enhanced by the absolute secrecy surrounding Council members that, started as a wartime security measure, would only be ended decades later.
When the Council finally ended martial law ten years later, dissolved itself, and made way for its successor, historians were already considering it one of the most successful governments ever, despite the fact that its most ambitious projects had yet to bear fruit. Earth's ecosystems were well on their way to healing, the former FA populations had been absorbed without major incident, and civic unrest was nominal. Industrial production had already doubled the prewar maximum, and the human population was booming, reclaiming the urban centers that had so long ago been abandoned to rot.
In recent years, there has been speculation that the Council's ambitious goals and seemingly ludicrous optimism were prompted indirectly by the Incubators, via MSY intermediaries. No evidence has ever emerged to support this claim…
— Infopedia article, "Emergency Defense Council," section: "History," subsection: "Post‐Unification Wars," mode: discursive, moderate density; excerpt.
〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
〈By the early part of the twenty‐fourth century, the radical ideological and fringe religious groups of Earth were in full exodus mode, pooling whatever resources they had into colonization ships, equipment, and planetary surveys. Now that the establishment of the first primary expansion wave colonies had demonstrated the maturity of colonization tools and techniques, cultists and radical dissidents the world over dreamed of setting up cloistered societies in their own little pockets of Human space, hoping to fashion Utopia among the stars.〉②
〈Subdocument: "The socio‐political context of this colonization policy" expanded inline〉
〈They were encouraged by lax Governance policies toward independent colonization. The Directorate saw little harm in allowing those still dissatisfied with life on Earth to take their malcontent and agitation elsewhere, and even tacitly encouraged the practice, throwing very little in the way of bureaucratic roadblocks. Extreme long‐range planners within the government pointed out that independent clusters of Humanity would foster a diversity of social systems and colonization practices which could prove fruitful in the long run. Among other things, it would provide much needed resilience in the event of an existential threat to the species.〉②
〈Governance placed relatively minimal requirements on would‐be pioneers. Aspiring independent colonies were required to register their intended destination, pledge eternal allegiance to Governance, and promise the establishment of a legal system capable of protecting the Core Rights that were still mandatory. As an adjunct to this last part, new colonies were required to guarantee free exit and accessible interstellar communication as soon as these were technically possible.〉②
〈Groups heading out for colonization were inspected to see that they satisfied minimal requirements: sufficient genetic diversity to sustain a population, sufficient resources to realistically survive, and a competent leadership structure. Perhaps most importantly, they would receive none of the massive government support that flowed to officially sanctioned worlds.〉②
〈Such requirements did little to dissuade the truly determined, and it was not long before tiny independent colonies began sprouting throughout the empty expanses of Human space. Most failed early, forced to return home with heads hung in shame, or make desperate requests for Governance evacuation. Many, though, thrived, and though they lacked the explosive population and industrial growth of the many official colonies, they did well in their own way.〉②
〈Governance, however, was not content to merely rely on the word of colonial leaders. Both the extensive state security apparatus and diminutive military kept a watchful eye on independent colonies, mostly covertly, but also in random inspection tours, meant to remind colonies that Governance was watching and that it always reserved the right of military intervention.〉②
〈There were three primary reasons for Governance's concern. Firstly, Governance feared the rise of colonies too powerful and too hostile to the government of Earth. Secondly, Governance feared that some combination of incompetence, bad luck, or mere ideology could lead to the degeneration of living conditions and social structures, such that one or another of the Core Rights would be violated. Finally, perhaps most exotically, Governance feared the emergence of dystopias. Decades of social modeling by AIs had indicated that there were a variety of possible stable dystopias inimical to the human condition, and Governance was not going to take a chance on any of them actually forming. It was for this reason that Governance, despite its lax colonization policies, kept a close eye on independent colonies.〉②
〈Inline subdocument expansion ends〉
〈Despite Governance's efforts, however, the monitoring of so many widely scattered colonies, many quietly hostile to Governance, proved a considerable challenge, and many worlds managed to slip through the gaps, successfully hiding themselves from the government's security apparatus, and patching over their problems whenever a military inspection appeared on the horizon. In practice, Governance monitoring was carried out as a collaborative effort, on the one hand by the unwitting official organs of the state, and on the other hand by another, secret organization.〉②
〈The MSY shared many of the same concerns as Governance regarding independent colonies. The organization contained and controlled every magical girl alive, and it was not about to let that change, or allow any of its membership to suffer under an incompetent or oppressive colonial regime. Further, the MSY had a humanitarian interest in cleansing colonies of any demon hordes that might form, a cleansing that could not occur if the colonies contained no contracted girls.〉②
〈Consequently, the MSY smuggled deep cover operatives or even entire teams into nearly every departing colonial group, and rigidly forbid any girls deemed too sympathetic to certain fringe groups from following their families or friends into space. MSY Internal Security agents flew among the colony worlds on specially commissioned stealthy ships, keeping an eye on worlds in a way Governance agents were often incapable of.〉②
〈Unlike Governance, these Internal Security agents and their on‐the‐ground counterparts were much less shy about manipulating colonial administrations to correct perceived injustices, and were usually perfectly willing to call in reinforcements, foment riots, and carry out assassinations if they felt it necessary. It was, after all, a natural extension of the Black Heart's previous history. Of course, they were perfectly willing to push information into the back‐channels of Governance, so that a military cruiser would appear unexpectedly in the skies above the colony.〉③
〈This combination of two monitoring systems was usually sufficient to keep any deleterious tendencies in independent colonies in check.〉② 〈Officially,〉③ 〈Governance has never had to perform a full military intervention.〉② 〈Unofficially, such an intervention has occurred on at least four occasions, usually in exactly the kind of cases that prompted nightmares among government social planners.〉③ 〈This author has been unable to obtain information about the majority of these cases, but can attest that in at least one case, the colonial rulers had implanted mind‐control devices in the citizenry. Further details he is not at liberty to discuss.〉④
〈Another illustrative example of the kind of extreme circumstances it took for an intervention to occur was in a colony that was, from Governance's perspective, crushed for gross incompetence and classical oppression of its citizenry. From the MSY's perspective, however, the colony had become the site of a bevy of shocking soul crimes. This author's sources have been unwilling to disclose the exact nature of these crimes, except that it involved some sort of experimentation, and that the perpetrator has become a favorite dark legend within Internal Security, with many alleging that, given the lack of any eyewitnesses to her apparent soul gem‐induced disappearance, she actually escaped.〉④
〈The author has his own suspicions as to who this woman was, but it is perhaps for the best that these details are not revealed.〉④
— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.
Kuroi Nana stood at the side of the door, listening in on the conversation of those inside, hands clinging to the wall, straining for stealth.
She stared at the far wall, with its framed painting, waiting for the next sentence, the newest revelation.
"She's hardly eating anymore," her mother said. "Naka‐chan spends hours in her room with the door locked. You can't possibly have missed it. Her teachers have been sending me—us—messages saying she doesn't seem to care about her studies anymore. They're pleading with us to do something. I don't understand how you can be so blasé!"
It was true. Her younger sister, Nakase, had been distant for weeks, and seemed to not want to talk at all anymore. Not even to her. It crushed her heart to think of.
It had all started a couple of months ago, when her sister had joined some sort of new after‐school program. Soon after that, she had started staying out late with her new friends at nights, sometimes late enough to outright murder their curfew.
It hadn't really been an issue. True, she was always evasive about what exactly she was doing, but the whole thing was very run of the mill for a girl her age. She had brought some of her friends over, once or twice, and they didn't seem too bad. The only thing unusual about them was that they all seemed too old to be friends of hers—high school students and college students, essentially. They were, however, part of the program, so it wasn't too strange.
It was absurd to suggest that there was any more to it. Her sister had been the same girl she had always been. They were still close, still talked regularly. That she was keeping secrets from her nee‐chan, that she was running with a new pack of friends—it meant little, because she could see in her eyes that she was the same girl as she had always been: bright, childish, bubbly.
Her sister wanted to be a doctor, like their father, and was, if anything, devoting herself to her studies even more fervently. Nana would know, since they were only separated by two years and went to the same school; it was a rarity, even in these times of population boom, for parents to have children so close together.
They were sure she wasn't in any real danger—the few times her parents had involved guardian's privilege and tried to track her, the technology showed her at her friend's house, quite as expected. It was disrespectful to stay out so late, but not dangerous.
Once, Nana had rather awkwardly pushed her way into going with her sister. None of the other girls had seemed pleased to have her there, but they weren't truly hostile, and nothing too strange happened—they simply chatted their way into the night, playing a few games along the way.
Sometimes, Nana had caught the girl staring out her window at the expanding superstructure of the city, thinking about something, perhaps not even really looking—but that was normal enough, wasn't it?
Ryouko's head throbbed with the memories, these pieces of someone else's life. It was so intense, and she had trouble holding onto her own identity. She needed no primers or introduction. The knowledge was implanted in her mind, who her "parents" were, who her "sister" was.
Nakase, was that—?
Things had changed that day her sister had failed to return at all, simply not showing up one night. She had stayed up, waiting with her parents, until they received a terse message from Nakase asserting that she was fine, and she would be back tomorrow at school.
And the explanation was—well, there was no explanation.
Her parents fumed and checked her tracker, but she was apparently still at the friend's house. They decided to wait and yell at her later.
In retrospect, her father had seemed very distracted that night, though the significance of that she would not understand until much later.
She didn't show up at school, of course, an event which triggered a brief parental warning message to that effect.
Nana, who was at school herself, would only hear from her parents later about how they had checked the tracker again and, this time, received a perfectly serene "Error: tracker missing." This had, of course, triggered barely suppressed panic and an immediate inquiry to Public Order.
Public Order sent a detective immediately, who explained that, after a brief inquiry, it appeared that there had been an accident—Nakase was fine, incidentally—and that they were holding everyone involved for questioning. Because of the exact details of what had happened, the location was undisclosed, and it was requested that no one else be told about it.
This response was both reassuring—since she seemed to be fine—and, at the same time, vastly unreassuring, but despite much pressuring and yelling, they were not given any more details.
At that point, there was very little they could do, except sit around the apartment nervously and file complaints to Public Order. Nonetheless, Nana didn't sleep at all that night, and ended up having to take supplements.
Early the next morning, Nakase had reappeared in their doorway, face dirty and eyes swollen red, escorted by the same Public Order detective. They were elated at her return, but she would not talk about what had happened, or where she had been, saying over and over that it was secret. She wouldn't say a word or drop a single hint, despite the endless wheedling she was subject to the moment the officer left.
That was when it had started. The aloofness, the isolation in her room, the picking at her food, the disappearances growing longer than ever. That was when Nana had stopped being able to talk to or approach her sister, who seemed desperate to avoid talking to her, if such a thing made sense. Something had happened; that much was obvious. But what?
And so here she was, clinging to the wall outside of her parents' room, listening to them argue.
"I'm not being blasé," her father said, calm. "I'm as concerned as the rest of you, but I've spoken with her, and she has problems she needs to deal with. She won't tell us, but I'm willing to trust her judgment."
"Trust her judgment!" her mother said, making the phrase an epithet. "She's only twelve! And before you think I'm insulting her, allow to me say that I wouldn't trust myself at twelve with tying my own shoes, much less this!"
"What do you suggest we do, then?" her father asked. "Hire someone to follow her? I won't be the one to try something as crazy as that."
"I'm saying that clearly there's something here we need to get her away from. Her new friends—there's something about them. I'm not accusing them of anything, but perhaps she just needs a change of scenery. Why don't we send her on one of those foreign exchange trips the government is always advertising? It might be just the thing. She could visit my mother's country. I think she'd like that, if she were still alive."
"That's—" her father began, before pausing to consider.
"That's actually not a bad idea," he finished.
Something tore inside Kuroi Nana. They were going to send her sister away! They couldn't possibly do a thing like that! But here they were, still discussing it as a possibility behind her.
She leaned forward, putting a hand over the aching in her heart, as she thought through her outrage and impotent urge to protect. True, her sister had been a bit of brat before, but—
This was stupid, she thought. Here, her parents were about to make a decision about her sister's life, and they weren't even going to make a serious effort to find out what was really going on. That was…
But what was she doing? Her sister was suffering, and she hadn't really done anything either. Just stood around uselessly, making futile attempts to talk to her.
She clenched her fist. That would change.
With a shift that was much gentler than the sensory deprivation that had preceded the whole experience, the world shifted around Ryouko, blurring, then reforming into a new configuration.
In the days following her parents' discussion, Nana had tried to secretly follow Nakase, but had found the girl consistently eluding her, with an effectiveness that suggested more than just mere coincidence. Looking into the logs, she found that, yes, Nakase was indeed monitoring her location tracker. Nana could block it directly, but that would be noticed, and trigger a message for her parents. She had to be more subtle, especially given the disturbing hints of Public Order involvement in whatever it was.
It hadn't been easy, but as a student focusing on Computer Systems, she knew a few tricks and, more importantly, knew someone with a certain amount of pull, thanks to the program that had recently recruited her. She had explained her situation to the teacher—more accurately a Systems Expert who volunteered some of her time to teach—and the woman had nodded and gotten her what she sought, without asking too many questions.
Nana's location tracking service currently reported false information to everyone but a single observer, the teacher herself, who had refused to give her the help without the ability to track her from afar and intervene if something seemed to be going wrong.
Thus, here she was, casually strolling on the skyway outside a certain residential building, a few floors above a certain residential suite, so she wouldn't be easily spotted. It was the home of some of Nakase's new friends, older university students who lived together. It was also the place where Nakase had spent so much time, or so the tracking service said.
The first thing Nana had discovered was that the "after‐school program for aspiring physicians" was a complete lie, a fact which she forwarded to her teacher. Nakase and the others made no pretense of heading for the program's supposed location, instead making a beeline straight for the friend's home. Acting on a hunch, Nana had asked her teacher to "stealth" Nakase's location tracker, and found that the tracker was cheerily reporting that Nakase and her pack of friends were exactly where they were supposed to be, nowhere near the home. What on Earth was going on?
Listening in on the interior of the home with the borrowed monitoring bug she had planted on the door, Nana could have been forgiven for being very, very confused. The conversation was nearly completely banal, all about the most trivial of topics, and could have been dismissed as meaningless if it weren't for the cryptic references to "MSY", "Logistics", "voting", and "upcoming referendum". There was even the occasional mention of "demon" and "hunting", though these were rarer. It was all a perfect pack of nonsense, and a search for video games matching the description turned up little.
What on Earth is going on? Nana thought again, her thought ringing in Ryouko's head as well.
What was also notable was that Nakase was saying very little, and that the others seemed awkward talking to her. Another observation that seemed meaningful but did little to clarify anything.
She sat down on one of the conveniently placed benches on the skyway, looking down at the pristine white faux‐limestone surface, gathering her thoughts. Given the current trend of the conversation, it didn't look like she was going to get any serious insight anytime soon. She'd have to come back tomorrow.
She had to think. Something deep and murky was going on here. The whole thing reeked of conspiracy, even if none of it quite made sense. It just wasn't something she felt equipped to handle, at her age. Fortunately:
"None of it makes any sense, as far as I can tell," her teacher thought, over their private channel. "My search daemons have turned up no organization with the acronym MSY that could possibly have any connection to this. Certainly not any with a voting structure they could participate in. This business about them hunting demons—there's a few video games that might make sense, but nothing else they say fits. I'd expect at least a few discussions of weapons or loot, for example."
A few seconds of silence.
"We're in deep, Nana‐chan. I only wish I knew deep into what. I regret sending you out there. I thought it'd be run of the mill drama. You'd be surprised how often I get requests for things like that."
"I'll be fine, sensei," Nana thought. "It's just listening. And I need to know what my sister is doing. It could still be trivial."
"Maybe," her teacher responded. "But if something happens to you, it'd be my responsibility. I couldn't—Wait, listen, something's happening."
Nana tapped into the surveillance device again.
"It's not your fault, Naka‐chan," one of her sister's friends was saying. "We keep saying that. Stop blaming yourself."
"How is it not my fault?" her sister demanded, voice shrill. "If I had moved in faster, if I hadn't been such a damned coward—"
"Enough of this!" the other voice interrupted. "It might have not mattered. Kavita was having issues with her family. You know that. That was why she was here in the first place."
"It's not expected of trainees to intervene in something like that. You're supposed to stick to your defined role. You did nothing wrong."
"She lived, Naka‐chan," a third voice said. "Her soul gem survived, and she got a new body. She's just having some problems. The MHD will take care of her. It's what they do."
Nana's teacher cursed briefly over their line.
"Now I'm getting hits," the woman thought. "Rumors about military‐grade trauma units being designed and shipped to sustain the brain‐dead, as well as bodies with ridiculous amounts of damage. But growing back bodies? Soul gems? What the hell is going on?"
Nana shared that sentiment.
"I told you we shouldn't have brought her to the revival," someone mumbled. She couldn't tell who, and neither could the electronics.
"Are you sure you're good to go?" a third voice asked, more quiet than the others.
"I guess," Nakase said. "I have to be. I have to make up for before."
"I told you! Stop doubting yourself! Don't let what she said get to you. You're perfectly competent. You don't have to make up for anything. We all have to spend some time learning."
"And the rest of you!" the voice continued. "You know what the MHD said. We're not going to let her sulk around at home. She needs to rebuild her confidence. Let's go. Every second we waste could be someone's life! We're starting at Expansion sector 2B, at the park, chop, chop."
Even as one part of her celebrated the phenomenal luck of having it explicitly announced to her where her sister was heading, the rest of her was tying itself into knots trying to understand. What was all this? She was missing something fundamental, some key that would make it all comprehensible.
She got off the bench and headed for the nearest vehicle pick‐up site. One of the toughest parts of hiding your location was ensuring that the vehicles still picked you up and delivered you properly. Fortunately, she hadn't had to do that; her teacher had done the work for her.
She got into her vehicle and headed for her destination, taking a moment to observe the cheerily bright sky—or, rather, it would have been cheerily bright, were it not for the endless skyscrapers blotting out the sky. It would only get worse in the future, as construction on the upper‐level skyways and vehicle tunnels progressed, despite attempts to incorporate transparent materials.
"Is there anything connected to Bogotá Memorial Park that makes any of this make sense?" she thought, looking up the unfamiliar location.
"Nothing I can find," her teacher thought. "But Nana‐chan, are you sure about this? It might not be safe—"
"I'm sure," Nana interrupted. "It's not as if anything really bad has happened."
"No, no, listen! I looked up this 'Kavita'. It's a unique name around here, so there were only a couple of them. One of them was a student at a local high school. Foreign exchange. Withdrew from the school one day recently, without explanation, the day after you said your sister disappeared. I haven't been able to find anything about her afterward. It could be the privacy locks—but Nana‐chan, I'm worried for you."
Nana looked up at the roof of her vehicle, and at the distant sky, thinking.
"I must go then," she thought. "If it is truly dangerous, then it is only more important that I find out."
There was a significant pause.
"Alright," her teacher thought. "I understand. But if there's any kind of true danger, call Public Order and get out, do you understand?"
She stayed silent. She didn't want to lie to her teacher, so she didn't agree. If her sister was in danger, she could not guarantee that she would really turn and run.
She rode on.
There was another scene transition, allowing Ryouko to surface for air. She had, despite everything, been able to think during the immersion and remember what she was here for. The story made no sense. Her mother wasn't contracted—there was no way that could be true! It was absurd to even contemplate. But then, what was this story about?
Bogotá Memorial Park was bright and sunny when she arrived, stepping out of her vehicle onto the warm grass. Here, at least, the sky could still be seen in most of its glory.
The vehicle rolled away on its retractable wheels. Out here, the tubes were still being built, and going by surface was the only way. The traffic had been annoying.
She briefly thought about taking off her shoes to feel the grass on her feet, but decided it wouldn't be a good idea to go into whatever this was barefoot.
At least it's pleasant out here, she thought, feeling the breeze. Atmospheric wind effects in the city center were… unusual.
She looked around to see if she could see a good spot to watch the park. Her sister couldn't possibly have gotten here before her, after all, so she needed to be well‐hidden when she did.
Then it struck her what was weird about the park.
Where is everybody? she thought to herself.
She looked around, blinking, before realizing there was no reason to blink. The sun had lost its potency, and seemed almost dull in the sky. Disturbed, she looked straight up at it, and found that she could look right into it. True, everyone had optical implants nowadays, but none of them made the sun not seem bright.
The breeze that had stirred the grass was gone. What kind of strange weather phenomenon was this?
"There's no one in the park," she thought to her teacher. "Absolutely no one. I know there's not as many people in the expansion districts, but you'd think there'd be a kid or a dog or something."
"Many… signals… area," her teacher responded, voice interrupted by strong bursts of static. "Inter… what is…"
"What?" she thought. "You're breaking up."
One more burst of static, with one last distinguishable word from her teacher said very loudly:
And then there was no signal.
"Hello? Hello?" she thought, as error messages began to scroll across the top of her vision.
She was starting to get worried. It was true that the newer implants occasionally had weird errors, but auditory communication was one of the oldest and most reliable.
Still, they were taught what to do in this situation.
She sat down on a bench, hoping she wasn't making a mistake by sitting out there so conspicuously, and ran a self‐diagnostic, enduring the blurred vision and numbness that came with it.
〈Readouts nominal,〉 said a computerized voice, one she hadn't heard in years, not since they practiced this exact procedure in primary school. 〈But apparent signal interference across all channels. Recommend trip to hospital for maintenance.〉
She sighed. Really? At a time like this?
She stood back up—and froze.
There were plenty of people around her now, seemingly having appeared out of nowhere, but their appearance was hardly reassuring. They stood still as statues, stares empty.
"Hello?" she said, feeling fear start to settle in her stomach. "What's going on?"
No one responded.
"Hello?" she yelled this time, hurrying up to one of them, a woman pushing a child in a stroller.
For a moment, it seemed as if the woman would respond, turning her head in Nana's direction, and she felt her panic lessen just a little.
Then the woman collapsed to the ground, limp as a rag doll, almost toppling the stroller over with it, the infant staring quietly at nothing.
Nana screamed, loud and shrill.
〈Basic combat routines now online,〉 the computerized voice thought.
She felt a wave of numbing calm descend on her, and was glad for it.
To think, that just the other day she had read about some Representatives arguing that it was time to start uninstalling the unneeded system, relic of the Wars that it was. Governance consensus, however, was that there was no reason to take apart an already built system, giving its relatively low resource costs—but perhaps new installations might be stopped.
She looked around at her world with new eyes, assessing her situation, but saw nothing new: the same eerily quiet grassy field, the same zombie‐like people standing around listlessly, not moving or even noticing the woman on the ground. Even the few dogs seemed no longer interested in anything. Possible escape routes and methods of disabling those around her suggested themselves in her vision.
Before she even knew what had happened, she found herself ten feet down the path, cringing behind another bench.
She looked at where she had been, where the infant and mother had been, she found a scorched black spot on the ground, stroller now toppled and cracked and mother's body lying next to it. Above it, a ghostly white giant was turning away from where she had been to face her.
She felt the fear start to cut through the drugs, but swallowed it. Getting up, she turned to run—
—and found herself burying her fist into the belly of a man who had lunged for her.
What— she barely had time to think.
For a long while, everything was a blur, as she sought her way through the crowd that was now, inexplicably, attacking her, heading for her with seeming murderous intent. She slammed elbows into the necks of women in white dresses, shoved aside men in casualwear with unnatural strength, and kicked away children and dogs with what she hoped was only disabling force. There was no time to think—only time to obey the combat routines, and hope her energy reserves lasted long enough.
And then she stopped, panting. She had cleared the crowd, barely gaining enough distance away from them for her to take a rest, but now found herself facing a whole field of the white giants, pixelated and silent, watching her, preparing. She didn't know how she knew, but they were preparing for something. Her legs twitched, her body searching for a way out—
The yell, brilliant and strong, pierced the silence like a dagger. She looked nearly straight up at its source, but the source was already gone. Her combat routines responded by immediately turning her head rapidly downward to where they thought the source would be.
She saw her sister standing among the giants, wearing an absurdly colorful blue dress, raising a crossbow with her arm.
She saw her sister supporting that arm with her other arm, the arm with the crossbow bent at an impossible angle, leaking blood. She saw the burned gashes in her side and the way her legs shook. She saw her sister give up on the arm with a snarl, and the crossbow vanish and reappear on her other arm, like a hologram.
It must be a hologram, right? she thought, dazed. This all has to be to be some sort of illusion.
"Naka‐chan!" she shouted anyway, reaching her arm forward.
Her sister turned and glanced at her for only the slightest of moments, and then a blue wall appeared to separate the two of them, giving her outreached hand a sharp rebuke.
She looked around her and found that it wasn't just a flat wall. It was a cylinder.
Then she cringed, barely suppressing a scream as something bright and white impacted it. But the wall held, and when she opened her eyes again, both her sister and the apparitions around her were gone, the white giants in the distance now heading for a new target, a blue streak that darted rapidly among them, accompanied by bright blue barriers that formed and dissolved. The movements were too fast for her to precisely follow, and it was impossible for her to tell whether the bright white beams emanating from the giants were finding their target or not.
Then the blue dot blackened and crashed to the ground.
A moment later streaks of red and green rained down on the area from somewhere in the sky, roiling the ground and shattering the white giants, but it was too late.
"Naka‐chan!" she screamed, as the barrier around her vanished.
Another scene transition, and this time Ryouko digested the image she had seen, of her own mother standing in costume so similar to hers, with so many injuries lacerating her body. She looked so different, so much younger, so much more like her, but the girl was still unmistakable.
She wasn't ready, but the memories continued.
"What the hell was she doing?" the girl in red said, kneeling on the ground, bending over and looking at something. "It's impossible that her sister is here."
"I told you we shouldn't have brought her," the girl in green said angrily.
"I only followed recommendations," the girl in yellow answered coldly, but still clearly distraught. "There was no expectation that she would do something like this."
"This is too much damage for me to heal reasonably," the girl in red announced, voice an emotionally‐forced variety of clinical. "Too much of the original body is missing. It'd be too traumatic. At the very least, I'd need sedation."
Kuroi Nana staggered down the path toward them. Somehow her teacher had gotten back in touch with her, asking what had happened and thank goodness and she had called Nakase to tell her and what was going on—
She had hung up.
"Where is she?" Nana demanded, her voice a strange combination of shaky and loud. She no longer cared for the social niceties. She didn't even care enough to look up their names again, or to try to remember them from the one time she had met them before. She recognized them as her sister's "friends", yes, but at the moment they might as well have been Martians for all that meant to her.
"Who—" the girl in green began, turning her ostentatiously ornamented head towards her.
She stopped talking, and froze. So did the others. A girl in white fumbled the sword she was carrying.
"My God," she said. "How is this possible? The location track—"
"You idiot!" the girl in green snarled, turning to glare at the girl in yellow. "This is what she said! She said her sister—"
"It does not matter," the girl in yellow growled. "She wasn't in any danger. Demons take longer than that to kill their victims, as long as the victims have no potential. If her sister had potential, the Incubators would have warned us. Don't be unreasonable."
"Keep her back, you fools!" the girl in red yelled, the only one to notice that she was still walking forward.
But it was too late. With a cry of pain, Nana ran for what remained of her sister.
For the first time, Ryouko lost complete immersion in the scene. She knew what she was supposed to be seeing on the ground: a limbless body, head attached by little more than a flap of skin, abdomen punctured in multiple places, an entire section missing. Somehow, she knew. But the region of her vision where it was supposed to be was gone, nothing but a field of white.
She felt herself being detached from the memory. She felt the physical sensations of Nana crying over the body, chest heaving, too despairing to even feel disgust at the sight of the body, but she didn't feel the emotion, not anymore.
It was for the best, she realized. Her head swam, and she realized she couldn't have taken the sight of it.
No wonder her mother didn't want to talk about it herself, she thought.
And a small part of her couldn't help but notice the parallels to her own life.
You can fix this, you know.
The voice was androgynous, child‐like, and resonated in her head like nothing else she had ever experienced. It was nothing like the many telephone calls she had taken in her life. It was… deeper.
Even so, it took a few seconds for it to penetrate the morass of her sorrow. Finally, she looked up from kneeling over the corpse of her sister, not even noticing the blood that now coated her hands and clothing.
The tears that flowed freely from her eyes blurred her vision, but it was still immediately obvious this was no ordinary creature she was looking at. She struggled to blink away the tears, finally managing to focus for a few moments on the… cat? But it was nothing like any cat she had ever seen, fur colored in clearly meaningful patterns, eyes knowing and unwavering, clearly intelligent.
And… were those ears growing out of its ears? And floating golden rings? Antigrav wasn't supposed to be anything more than a laboratory curiosity.
"Fix what?" she screamed, glaring around at all of them, straining to suck up the grief. "My sister is dead, you–you bitches! What kind of terrible game is this?"
Calm down, the creature ordered, voice again tearing into her head. She's not dead, not truly. Her soul gem is still intact. They have it; that is sufficient.
"What the hell are you talking about?" she demanded, gesturing at the gore on the ground. "Are you kidding? This–this is barely even a–a—"
I can barely even recognize who this is, she had meant to say, but it had come out all wrong, and she wouldn't even be able to finish.
The creature paced in a little circle on its four paws, flipping its tail.
I am called Kyubey. I grant wishes, the creature thought, to those with potential. Your potential is greater than your sister's. Much greater. If you want, you could bring her back the way you want, and bring her home, but the price is that you must take her place here. For us, it is worth it, but for you?
For a moment, she just stared at the creature, tears starting to dry on her face. It was bullshit, but looking around her, and thinking about all she had seen in this hour, could she really call anything bullshit?
"Wait!" someone said, perhaps the girl in green. "You don't have to. We have—"
She cut off suddenly, as if interrupted.
Alright, Nana thought. If it's all true—if the world is really some strange fairyland with magical girls in costumes and talking cats that grant wishes, then why not? I might as well mean it. I want my sister back!
"Alright," Kuroi Nana said, shakily, swallowing her tears forcefully, calm enough to recoil in sudden disgust at her bloody hands.
She swallowed the disgust too, clenching her eyes with the effort, still kneeling.
"If that's true, then–then sure, I'll do as you suggest. I wish I had my sister back, the way she was before whatever this is happened. I want her alive again. I want the sister I knew back!"
She had strained so hard for forced calm that her voice had seemed almost monotonic, until the burst of emotion at the end.
Wish granted, the creature thought. This transaction has reduced net entropy.
She didn't know what she expected, but it certainly wasn't the grinding pain that suddenly tore at the center of her heart. She wanted to gasp, but was somehow incapable of doing so.
But even as she watched the light extend from her chest and form itself into an orb in front of her, her eyes caught sight of another source of light. She strained to turn her head downward and she could barely see, out of the corner of her eye, the blood extracting itself out of her clothing, and some of the light pouring into the piece of meat that had been on the grassy floor, enveloping what was now the shape of a body.
And when she collapsed back down, catching the glowing orb in her hands, she saw another one bury itself into the chest of what was now recognizably her sister's intact body.
Then the girl's eyes opened, and Nana knew the impossible was possible.
Without even looking at the hard, warm object in her suddenly bloodless hands, or at the white creature waiting patiently for her to say something, she bent over and hugged her sister, the imouto she had always cherished.
"Naka‐chan," she sobbed, embracing the girl.
There was a moment of silence.
"Nee‐chan?" Kuroi Nakase asked. "How—?"
The playback seemed to pause and, for a moment, Ryouko thought about it.
It all made sense now: her mother's knowledge about arbalests, her obsession with developing the clones, her emotional disapproval of Ryouko's contract.
Some questions were still unanswered…
The two of them sat in the shadow of one of the tall trees that dotted the middle of the park grounds, watching the confused denizens of the park justify to themselves what they had been doing and whatever strange injuries they may have had, then resume their activities or, more likely, start heading home. Fortunately, the mother and child she had thought she saw killed earlier appeared to be fine, if a little shaken.
"Kyubey never told any of us you had potential," her sister said, leaning on her shoulder. "Or the team would have moved in immediately when your teacher called me. As it was, since it was assumed you had none, the demons would have taken the time to sap your grief before killing you. It would have been unacceptably risky to try to save you immediately, given that. Plus, they didn't fully believe what I said about the location tracker, and there was no time to patch in your teacher."
"Sometimes you sound like a textbook, Naka‐chan," she said.
There was a pause. Nana wondered what her sister was thinking, but didn't turn to look at the girl's face.
"The logic was right, but I couldn't let it happen like that," Nakase said. "My friend—Kavita, you wouldn't know her. She lost her body because I didn't intervene, because I was too scared."
She felt her sister shake her head.
"Can you believe that? I wished to protect a girl I didn't even know from the monsters chasing her, and then I was too afraid to save her again when I had the chance."
Nana stayed silent, rubbing the new ring on her finger like a talisman.
"So I couldn't take a risk on my own sister," Nakase said. "And I'm glad I didn't."
Nana still didn't say anything, staring at the ring on her finger.
What had she gotten herself into? She had received a quick explanation, about demons and soul gems and grief cubes and the MSY, and it had sounded so fantastical, like a distorted version of the interactive holo‐anime they had played as children. They had wanted to tell her more, but she had insisted on talking with her sister.
None of it had really sunk into her—not yet.
"I can't see the Incubators anymore," her sister said. "My potential is gone. I feel bad for saying this, but I'm glad. If I had the potential to make another contract… I don't think I could, and I wouldn't want to know that I chose to let you fight alone."
Nana thought about what that comment meant for a moment—and then was surprised to feel her sister start crying.
"Naka‐chan," she said, turning quickly.
"I hated it," her sister said, tears flowing, face clenched with the effort of trying to hold it back. "I wasn't ready. I couldn't do it. My team thinks I'm useless. They don't say that, but I know they think it. I was useless, but the MHD kept saying I needed to try, that I just need to gain some confidence, prove to myself that I could. How does it prove anything, if I can kill a couple of demons with the entire damn team watching my back, and I'm not even allowed to do anything on my own?"
Nana hugged her sister to her chest, wondering at this "MHD", and the MSY and what all these strange organizations were like.
"I stayed with her the whole day, you know," her sister said, sniffing loudly. "Carried her soul gem to the facility myself. They were so confident. They smiled at me, and said of course it would work. I believed them, too."
A long pause, while her sister sucked up more tears.
"She woke up screaming. She–she said she would kill me, for leaving her out there. She said we were all monsters, zombies. They couldn't stabilize her soul gem. They had to take it away from her. She–she was my best friend on the team, and she hates me! They say she's crazy, that there was an incompatibility in the emotional circuits, there's something wrong with the nociceptors. They keep talking about neural microsurgery and genetic editation, but–but–but—"
Kuroi Nakase clung to her clothes, bawling starting afresh, soaking the front of her shirt, smart fibers not able to dump the moisture fast enough.
Let's try not to think about this now, Kuroi Nana thought. Whatever insanity this is, I can deal with it later.
"Come on," she said, embracing her sister briefly. "Let's go home."
"Except it wasn't home anymore. Not really."
Ryouko jumped, hearing the voice, then realized that she could jump.
She looked down at her hands, and realized that for some reason she was standing in the memory, next to the tree with the two sisters hugging, except that the environment was frozen and blurred, as if she were looking at it through frosted glass.
"I'm sorry, did I surprise you?"
She looked back up, seeing her aunt walking towards her. Unlike how she had been at the party, she was decked out in full costume. Looking at her at close range, it was apparent just how similar her costume was to her own, except for color and the lack of crossbow attached to the arm. Did these things really inherit that reliably?
"I'm just a simulacrum," the girl said, "but I can answer basic questions."
It stopped in front of her, smiling almost shyly.
"I told you I spent a long time working on this. Before you ask anything, though, we are going to continue the story, so it's not worth asking me what happens next."
The simulacra looked at her expectantly.
It seemed natural that she would have questions, but she hadn't had time to really think about it. Now that she did, she realized that, despite the story having been shocking, there were really very few untied ends remaining, when you took into account the fact that there would be a continuation. The whole thing was compactly informative. It had been put together with thought.
"Was the, um, was the blood deliberately censored?" she asked, feeling silly for asking about something minor.
"Yes," the girl said. "I had nightmares about that for weeks, myself. I'm not going to go around showing my niece detailed memories of her mother's mangled corpse. Did I make the right choice?"
Ryouko glanced to the side.
"Yeah, I, uh, I appreciate that," she said.
"Good," the simulacra said.
It waited again for more questions.
Ryouko thought about it. She wanted to ask about what happened with her family, but she had a feeling she was about to find out. Instead she asked:
"So what happened to your teacher after all that? She must have known something was up."
"We visited her later," the girl said. "She agreed to cooperate and keep quiet. She got trusted NC status later, which is a little aggravating, considering."
Ryouko frowned at the comment.
The simulacra shook its head.
"I am not equipped to adequately answer that question," it said, looking almost embarrassed.
"Oh, okay," she said.
Ryouko thought for a moment.
"What about Kavita?" she asked. "Did she—did everything—"
"Things turned out okay, eventually," the girl said. "For cadaver resuscitations, the gem doesn't usually change everything before consciousness is achieved again. It's often the case that, for example, many neurons still carry the genetics of the original body, even after the pathways have been rewired. Sometimes that can be disastrous, since the pathways were originally grown into place with different genetics on hand."
It shook its head.
"I sound like my sister. Anyway, something like that happened here. Fortunately, a Reformat wasn't needed here. They were able to wait it out with some gene therapy, drugs, and psychiatry. Didn't even need surgery. Turned out, the girl had some underlying mental issues to start with. She visited later and apologized. It worked out quite well."
"Hold on," Ryouko said. "I think my father mentioned Reformatting before. What are you talking about?"
There was a pause, then it shook its head.
"I am not equipped to answer that question," the girl said. "However, you'll find out someday. That's why I mentioned it."
Ryouko tilted her head at this answer.
"Hey, it's just what I was programmed with," the simulacra said. "Don't look that me that way."
"You're pretty realistic," Ryouko commented.
"But I'm not sentient," the girl said reproachfully. "Don't make that mistake. Any other questions?"
Ryouko thought about it, then shook her head.
"Maybe after I see more about what happened," she said.
The simulacra nodded.
"Well, the main reason I'm here is that I—well, I guess your actual aunt, but let's not split hairs—thought I would spare you the tedious family drama that comes after this. Besides that, honestly, I'm not that comfortable sharing it."
The girl started walking through the grass of the park, and Ryouko followed. It was surreal, with the world frozen around them, the blades of grass somehow bending pliably.
"My parents noticed immediately that something had changed, of course," she said. "Our father knew all along, of course; it's hard to be in the Kuroi family without knowing. But mother didn't, and MSY policy was that we couldn't tell her."
It shook its head sadly.
"Things were different back then. You needed to have some good reason for your parent to be granted trusted NC status, which we didn't have. Given how things turned out, we should have just broken the rules and told her, but we were naïve back then, and didn't really understand."
It ran her hand through her hair nervously, an eerily Human gesture for a simulacrum.
"My sister—your mother—gradually went back to normal. She was still traumatized by it all, but she no longer had a reason to be gone all the time. She was still friends with the rest of them, of course, but our positions switched. I was the one who was part of some mysterious program and gone all the time. I tried to come up with good excuses, but it wasn't really possible to hide it all, not now that my mother had an idea that something was going on."
"My mother noticed immediately, of course. She's not stupid. But of course we couldn't tell her what had happened. I managed to defer most of my training time, came home on time every day, and even introduced her to all the other girls again, but it wasn't enough. She knew we were hiding something; from her perspective, I had gone out and switched places with my sister somehow. She got all sorts of terrible notions about what had happened. That was ultimately the problem. It's not that I was being suspicious; she just refused to buy our explanations."
The simulacra looked down for a moment, pausing.
"You should have heard the arguments we had," it said. "She just refused to trust me, and that started bleeding into everything else. Suddenly, nothing I did was free of suspicion, even if I was just heading out to buy some clothes. I thought it would settle down eventually, but—I don't know, it's just hard taking back some things once you've said them."
The girl kicked a rock on the ground, and Ryouko was surprised to see it actually bounce off, clattering against a tree. She looked vulnerable, and Ryouko felt the urge to give her a hug.
"My father tried helping things, but it didn't help. It just made her suspicious of him, too. She knew we were lying to her and—she stopped trusting us. It was a mess. Like I said, we should have just told the truth. I know that now, but dad had his reasons for keeping quiet."
The girl stopped, and looked down for a moment, thoughtful.
"Well," it said. "And then this happened."
Before Ryouko could think to ask what it meant, or even fully process the sentence, the girl made a hand gesture, sending the world back to dark…
"And then he asked me to go out with him," Takukatsu Yuka, formerly known as the girl in white, said. "Got on his knees and everything. It was mortifying."
"Yeah, and what did you say?" the former girl in green, Shiraishi Akari asked, leaning back and biting into an egg roll.
"Do I look like I just got a boyfriend?" Yuka asked rhetorically. "I said no. I thought about it, but I think it'd just be too much on my plate right now."
They sat around a small square table, munching on snacks—chocolate‐filled egg‐rolls, freshly synthesized, one of few things the newly developed, experimental machines were any good at. The flat as a whole was shared by Nakajima Emiri, the girl in yellow, Ikeda Saki, the girl in red, Matsumoto Aki, and Osumi Ayano, who she hadn't seen the other day. Emiri—who had apologized for everything a long time ago—was currently lying down on the couch next to them, boredly tossing a ball to herself. The other three were out shopping.
There were another two who were actually married, and lived somewhere about half a kilometer away. They looked a bit older, for legal reasons.
All of them—except Akari, who was in college, and Yuka, who was a senior in high school—were scarily old from Nana's perspective, but of course didn't look any older than she was. Emiri, especially, made a big deal of not disclosing her exact age, which mostly had the effect of driving their estimates of it sky‐high.
Yuka sighed, melodramatically.
"I wish I had a different power, no offense. That way my applications would have gone through, and I wouldn't have had to sit around here getting trained to fight demons."
"Your lack of success is from your lack of credentials and experience. There are very few powers that grant you ready‐made positions, unless you want to be weak. Look, it's not easy swinging an internship at your age. Trust me, I know. Just bear with it, get some good post‐secondary schooling, and you can apply again later. Soon enough, we'll even let you take off the training wheels and demon hunt as a full team member."
Yuka looked away, not quite rolling her eyes. She complained about her situation on a regular basis, and got more or less the same answer every time.
"I'm not sure I should look forward to taking more dangerous roles," she said, slumping down on the table. "But I guess at least it will be more exciting."
"It's not that bad," Emiri said, still tossing the ball. "There's plenty of time to do stuff, and you get some excitement in your life. You damned whippersnappers are too wrapped up about getting your cushy office jobs. Look at Ayako and Chiharu. I'd say they're doing fine."
Emiri was a career demon hunter, and was a little defensive about it. She was also quite old, and awkwardly self‐conscious about it. Her response combined a deliberate "Get off my lawn!" message with a segue into what they knew to be one of Yuka's reasons for being annoyed. It, too, was practically a canned response at this point.
"Yeah, they married each other," Yuka said. "It's a little harder if you're straight. Besides, it's not as if I really think I wouldn't be able to have a relationship. I just, you know, think it'd be nicer if I could do it when I'm already working."
"You have the weirdest concerns," Akari commented.
"This is work too, you know," Emiri said, annoyed. "You don't get out of your required training hours just by landing an MSY position early. It just gets deferred or, at most, mitigated."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Yuka said. "But I could spread it out more that way. I'm not exactly impressed by this apartment full of centenarian maidens, even if it's a pretty big apartment."
Emiri turned to face her, her customarily laconic expression replaced by one that could freeze blood. It was moments like this when you could feel how old she was, under that carefree shell. Yuka visibly flinched.
"You're an idiot," Emiri said coldly. "I'll leave it at that. Someday you'll learn."
She rolled over to face the backside of the sofa she was laying in, either truly angry, or just trying to sleep. It was hard to tell sometimes. She had stopped tossing the ball, though.
You are an idiot, Akari thought, into a channel that presumably sealed out Emiri—the simulation couldn't replicate the proper sensation—but included Yuka and Nana. The both of you, listen up. There was a war back in her day. You might have heard of it. People died in that war. Has it occurred to you that maybe she just doesn't want to try again? Maybe she prefers being alone?
Yuka's eyes widened.
"Oh wow, I—" she began, before clamping her mouth shut and thinking:
I didn't know!
Of course you didn't, Akari thought. But maybe sometimes you should think before you talk, hmm? And not put your foot in it all the time?
Your complaints don't even make sense, Nana thought, from her position slumped on the table, where she had been trying to sleep. No, really, I've been thinking about it. They don't make sense.
From the mouth of babes, Akari thought smugly.
You're a college student, Nana thought. You can't call me a 'babe'! To people like Emiri, we're practically the same age. Just because I'm the youngest—
She stopped abruptly, looked up sharply. They looked at her in surprise.
"Do you feel that?" she said. "Someone's coming. I don't know who it is."
The others immediately switched their focus, searching outward to seek what she was talking about. Even Emiri shifted positions, looking up, while Yuka swiveled her head uselessly.
"Yes, she's right," Emiri, the most experienced, said a moment later. "Not transformed, though. She seems familiar…"
"I'm jealous," Yuka said, looking at Nana. "Why do you get a wish that lets you do that so easily? I've been trying for years and I still can't pull it off."
"Should have made a better wish, then," Nana taunted, sticking her tongue out. She got another tongue in response.
"Maybe it's someone canvassing for votes," Akari said thoughtfully. "Representative elections are coming up."
"I don't know why anyone bothers," Yuka said. "It's same damn people every time, especially in this city."
"They do keep two seats open for new people to get in," Akari commented.
"Like—" Yuka began.
Suddenly, Emiri sat bolt upright, surprising the rest of them into silence.
"Take this more seriously, girls," she said, eyes sharp, jumping off the sofa. "It's Akemi Homura. Yes, the Akemi Homura. Get up, get up!"
"Wait, really?" Akari said, jumping up and brushing herself off.
"Oh geez," Yuka said. "Do I look okay? I knew I should have worn something fancier today."
"You look fine," Emiri said, heading to stand by the door. "Someone clean up those eggrolls."
Nana picked up the plates in question and dumped it, disposable synthesized plates and all, into the trash chute.
"I've never met her personally even after all these years," Emiri said, as they gathered around the door. "What is she doing here?"
"I don't know, obviously!" Yuka said.
Both Akari and Yuka's hair were hurriedly arranging themselves into different hairstyles, tendrils of hair waving about and weaving themselves into a braided ponytail and an exotic three‐tail crossing configuration—it was hard to describe.
Nana, who was wearing her hair down, wasn't sure why they were bothering. Could it really matter?
There it was: the light mental tap of someone requesting entry at the door. The confirmation was there: Akemi Homura was at the door.
The door swung open automatically, and the most famous magical girl ever stood in their doorway, looking at them curiously.
Given Homura's position, she rarely personally held the research, commercial, or government positions that required facing the public in an adult guise. Thus, unlike some of her contemporaries, she still kept herself in the teenage age bracket.
Seen in person, she was unimposing, neither unusually tall nor short. Up close, she was classically beautiful, and her eyes seemed strangely detached—but from a distance, she would have blended in completely. All in all, it fit in with Nana's personal belief that even the most powerful were, in the end, just people.
She didn't even have an escort!
"Ah, uh, hello," Emiri said, finally, the first to say anything. "Welcome, Akemi‐san! Why don't you, uh, come in?"
They bowed politely. Nana had never seen Emiri so nervous about anything.
The raven‐haired girl bowed slightly in acknowledgment, the trademark ribbon in her hair flopping about, then stepped inside.
"Pardon the intrusion," she said. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything. I tried to come while you were off‐patrol."
One of you get snacks and tea! Emiri ordered telepathically, and Akari almost tripped over herself to try and oblige, while Nana thought about how she had just been ordered to throw away the eggrolls. Well, she supposed they were half‐eaten anyway.
"No problem," Emiri said, nervously.
"There is no need to be so tense," Homura said, bending down to remove her shoes.
"I don't bite," she said, standing back up, smiling pleasantly.
The three of them still there chuckled awkwardly, except for Yuka, who overdid it, starting to cackle gracelessly before slamming her mouth shut.
Homura seemed to sigh slightly, or so Nana thought.
"I won't take up too much of your hospitality," she said, again making what was clearly meant to be a disarming smile.
"If it's not too much to ask," Yuka blurted out, rushing the words. "Why are you here?"
Emiri glared at her with one eye while Nana groaned inwardly.
But the First Executive didn't look offended, only amused.
"I'm here about your newest member," she said, gesturing in Nana's direction. "Her powers are promising, and I've come to offer her my mentorship."
There was the sound of a tea cup overturning in the background.
They stared at Homura, and then Emiri and Yuka turned to stare at Nana as if she had grown two heads.
For her part, when she finally managed to close her jaw again, Nana said:
"What? Really? Me? I–I—"
"I just need some time to speak to her in private," Homura said, glancing around. "Is there a bedroom or something where—"
"No, no, have the living room to yourself," Emiri said, physically dragging a surprised Yuka with her. "We can go to the back. Come on!"
"That's not—" Homura began, before thinking better of it.
Almost immediately, the room was deserted, leaving only Homura and Nana, who was shifting around nervously stealing glances at Homura. She hadn't been here long—only months—so there hadn't been time for her to develop the extreme awe the others seemed to be feeling, but that didn't exactly make the situation comfortable.
"Let's sit down," Homura said, after a suitable wait.
She tried not to rush to the table with unseemly speed.
For a long moment, the two of them sat there silently, nominally facing each other but, in Nana's case, looking mostly at the table. She really wanted to pour herself a cup of tea, but it was polite to wait for the guest, who wasn't moving, which was weird and—
Wait, I should be pouring it for her, she thought suddenly, realizing her breach of protocol.
Hurriedly, she moved her hand for the teapot, only to find the other hand on hers, blocking her motion.
She recoiled as if electrified, blushing slightly, then realized what that looked like and blushed more strongly.
"I was going to say don't worry about it," the other girl said, watching her with a slight twinkle of mortifying amusement. "I had some coffee before I came, so it'd be too much liquid for me anyway."
"Ah, okay," Nana said, rubbing her hand.
Another pause in the conversation.
"So what do you think?" Homura asked, pouring out a cup of tea. "Do you think you're going to accept?"
"I'd be crazy not to!" Nana blurted out, before amending. "Well, that's what the others would tell me, anyway. But why me?"
There was that strange smile again, and then Homura thrust the cup of tea forward for her.
"Here, drink," she said, and Nana realized that she had failed the host politeness test once again.
But she drank it all in one go.
"Tell me what your power is," Homura said. "I know it's already in the system, but describe it out loud. Maybe that will help clarify things."
Nana blinked, surprised at the request.
"Er, well, okay," she began hesitantly, even though she had recited a full description of her power at least four times so far to curious parties. "I control an anti‐magic, anti‐technology field. Specifically, I can disable whatever I want to in close proximity to me, or I can focus it as a beam. It dissolves demons on contact and is robust against magical objects and powers. With enough power, I can force an untransform on another magical girl. On the technology side of things, I can disable anything made with technology more sophisticated than peak human technology during the Second World War, but that hasn't really been useful at all. I don't know why I have it."
She nodded to herself, having successfully polished the explanation down to a miniature speech.
"Right," Homura said. "And you don't think that would be useful to, for example, the Soul Guard?"
"Well, well, yeah," Nana said nervously. "But that apparently wasn't enough for them to try and recruit me early."
"Well, I'm here, aren't I?" Homura asked rhetorically.
Nana just looked back at her blankly.
Homura tilted her head slightly, then tossed her long hair with one hand.
"You're also studying Computer Systems in school," she said. "When you wanted to follow your sister, you decided to plant a tracking device on this apartment and recruit help to fool the location tracking systems. Did you really think the Soul Guard wouldn't be interested in a girl who tried to pull something like that off?"
"None of that answers the question!" Nana interjected, before coloring and covering her mouth with both hands.
"What I mean is," she amended, "why me? Why would you choose to mentor me? You're not Director of the Soul Guard. How does this explain why you're here?"
She held her breath, hoping she hadn't been too forward.
Akemi Homura dropped her eyes and seemed to hold, for just a second, a slightly more somber look.
"I don't take many students," she said. "But I do take some, occasionally. Mostly, I tend to groom students for the more independent, less bureaucratic roles. Things that take independent action and thinking, Black Heart Special Operations teams, things like that."
The girl seemed to be watching her for a reaction, but the phrase "Black Heart" meant exactly nothing to her, so she looked back blankly. Special Operations?
Homura shook her head for some mysterious reason.
"And anyway, I've known your family for a while," she said. "So I figured it made sense."
The mention of family triggered a chain of thought inside her that she really should have had from the beginning, strong enough to exclude the immediate questions that came to mind.
"Akemi‐san!" she said, bowing her head in a gesture of pleading.
"I'll be glad to accept your mentorship," she said. "But I have a request."
The other girl tilted her head in a gesture of questioning, looking at her.
"Go ahead," Homura said.
Nana looked up, making eye contact with the other girl, looking into those dark, endless eyes.
"It's about my mother," she said. "Keeping this secret from her is tearing us apart, but the organization won't grant her trusted NC status. I know we can't just give it to everyone's parents, but can't you make an exception?"
She stared into the other girl's eyes and thought she saw a flicker of something there, but Homura turned away.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But there's actually a good reason her trusted NC status keeps getting rejected. You do know that her mother died when she was very young?"
Nana's eyes widened slightly.
"Yes," she said. "But how—"
"She died on an MSY mission," Homura said, watching her with serious eyes. "It was very traumatic for your mother. The MHD's standing recommendation has always been that she be denied knowledge of the organization, lest she ever put the pieces together."
Nana repeated the blank stare she had had so many times that day, until she finally said:
"That's a terrible reason! I'd want to know how my mother died, if that were how it happened!"
"That's what the MHD said," she said. "They're not usually wrong. Otherwise, your father would have said something a long time ago. And there's another reason."
Nana looked at the other girl curiously, for the moment ignoring the "not usually wrong" which she personally felt was somewhat debatable.
"What?" she asked.
"I said I knew your family," Homura said, again looking away from her, eyes shrouded. "It sounds kind of weird to say it now, but I'm also honoring a promise I made. Her grandfather's dying wish was that she be kept out of the MSY, no matter what happens. I'm trying to follow through."
Nana made a face, confused.
"What? Why?" she asked. "What kind of wish is that?"
Homura looked at her.
"I'd rather not say," she said. "But I have my reasons. And anyway, there's the MHD's recommendation to think of, too. They're pretty good."
At that point, the conversation hit a lull, Nana unwilling to share her doubts about the MHD and, more importantly, thinking about the weird intricacies of her life, and the prospects of her future life, so different now with top‐tier mentorship. She wanted to ask Homura about her family—but no, the girl didn't want to talk about it. There'd be time later, probably.
"So you girls are going out on patrol later, right?" Homura said, deciding to break the silence.
"Oh, yeah," Nana said. "In a couple of hours. I'm only in training, so I don't do much, but—"
"I think I'll join you," Homura said. "Hopefully that'll break the ice a little."
Suddenly, a loud coughing noise rang out from the back of the apartment.
"And yeah, they've been listening the whole time," Homura said, smiling slightly. "I didn't really mind."
Nana opened her mouth to say something, but then the front door swung open.
"We're back!" Ikeda Saki said excitedly, stepping through the door with a bag in hand. "Emiri, we got those cookies you like and—eh?"
There was a jump of perspective, and Ryouko once again found the world frozen, looking at the tableau of Homura, Nana, and the others in front of her.
This time, she expected the other girl who appeared next to her, so that they were both standing looming over the table.
"Is it really true?" she asked, voice slightly hard. "Did you really keep quiet just because of the MHD recommendation? I didn't even know they gave recommendations for random members of the public."
"Not a random member of the public," the simulacra corrected. "The daughter of a magical girl, whose father and later, husband, were MSY affiliated. On its own, that isn't too unusual."
The girl looked down for a moment, as if pondering.
"Over the years, I've had time to collect a lot of doubts about the recommendation. It seems to go against a lot of the MHD's own guidelines on how to deal with these kinds of situations. An argument could be made that it might have prejudiced her against our contracts, but once we both passed contracting age, that justification falls away."
"Are you saying the MHD was wrong?" Ryouko asked.
It shrugged ambiguously.
"Like I said, I would do things differently now. I think my father would too. But I made that decision far too late. Anyway, that's not the main point."
The simulacra glanced at her to make sure she was listening, another eerily Human gesture. It then looked down.
"The fact is, a couple months after Homura took me in, she convinced me it would be best for my training if I traveled a little. It was an excuse, really. Living at home was a nightmare. The girl who ended up studying abroad was me."
"I went to Paris the first year. I actually convinced them to let me bring Naka‐chan with me, since the MSY gave me an apartment and everything. It was supposed to be for diversification and to "clear my head", but the real reason was because the city is full of Black Heart operatives. It's one of those things."
"It was only supposed to be for a year, but even though my sister left, I stayed. It was all so new, and I didn't want to go back. I kept coming up with reasons, new programs to participate in, things like that. I visited home sometimes, but it was always awkward. I don't know how my mother knew, but I could tell she knew I was still lying about something. She just couldn't let it go, and we'd always get in a fight about something stupid."
"So you started to stay away," Ryouko said, following the train of thought.
"Yes, I told myself it was for the best. It'd be easier to keep secrets and, anyway, it always felt so confining going home to Japan. So when I finally graduated from school, I found someone willing to teach me for a couple more years, and moved to Samsara."
"Samsara?" Ryouko interrupted. "The planet Samsara?"
"Yes," the girl said. "You get it, don't you? The urge to go somewhere else. In my case, I didn't really want to go home, either, so it all fit together naturally."
"What was it like?" Ryouko asked, unable to resist the question.
"Samsara? It was much less developed back then, so—well, it was interesting. Everyone trying to climb on top of one other and grab their chunk of the planet, MSY businesses trying to turn profits, and your own personal vehicle. I never had to do much of that, myself, but sometimes I'd fly myself out to the far end of civilization. There was a whole continent back then that was untouched, and sometimes they did safaris."
The simulacra closed her eyes briefly, seeming to imagine it, a memory Ryouko quietly wished she could see into.
"The breaking point with my family was really when I got my first real mission. It was a doozy, but I wanted something hard and individual."
The girl stopped, seeming to hesitate slightly. Finally, she said:
"There were a lot of religious and ideological fringe groups who wanted to fly out to their own world and make Utopia. Back then, Governance didn't keep such tight control on colonization, so they were free to do so. There were plenty of empty planets—still are, actually—so they had their pick, and honestly Governance had its hands full trying to keep track of all them. The MSY wanted me to scout them out, make sure none of them posed any real threat to the existing social order, check up on our deep cover demon hunters, see if the colonists would be amenable to our influence, things like that."
"I was chosen so that, if push came to shove, and I ever found some newly contracted girls who wouldn't get with the program, I could make them get with the program. I'm well suited for that. It was a bit of a theoretical risk, really—we're pretty cozy with the Incubators, so they probably wouldn't contract any girls they couldn't convince to join the MSY system. But, we couldn't rule out the possibility that they'd get greedy."
The girl paused briefly.
"I could tell a lot of stories, or rather, the real version of me could," it said. "But there's no need to go into that much. I'm breaking enough secrecy rules as it is. The point is, I had to be able to blend in, change identities on the fly, and do whatever I needed to do. I couldn't do that and stay in touch with family. It wasn't possible. So I stopped staying in touch."
This time, when the simulacra checked Ryouko's expression, it found the girl wearing a face torn between distaste and admiration. It was as if she were hearing about a warped version of her own dream.
"I didn't know how long it would last," the simulacra said, "but when I finally asked to be reassigned, it was fifteen years later."
It shook its head.
"After that long, I didn't know how I could possibly get back in touch with my family. It took me a decade to work up the courage to contact my sister and father, but by then—my mother had already given up on me, had cried it out when I didn't answer messages, and there was no way I could explain where I was. We… decided to leave it at that."
At this point, Ryouko's face turned to full disgust.
"How could you?" she asked. "What kind—what were all of you thinking?"
The girl looked down, obviously ashamed.
"It was the path of least resistance, for all of us. We're not proud. It—"
The simulacra swallowed.
"Well, it's taken long enough, but you know enough now to understand why you were never told I existed. You see, when the War started, the MSY obviously stopped being secret. It didn't take my mother long to put together the pieces."
It closed its eyes and took a breath.
"It took me eight years to try talking to her, but obviously she didn't want to see my face. At that point she hated the MSY. You have to understand: from her view, the MSY was what got her mother killed, and what screwed up her daughter. She wanted the family to do whatever it took to keep you from contracting. None of us felt in a position to disagree. And of course, the other half of it was your mother. She didn't want you to go through what she did. That's how it all came together. And I don't think you can blame my mother for enlisting in the military and getting off the planet."
"It could have all been avoided if you had just said something at the beginning," Ryouko commented angrily.
"Of course I know that!" the girl said. "You don't think I regret it?"
"Well, I think—"
"Look!" the simulacra said, grabbing her by the shoulder. "Save your arguments for the real version of me. Nothing you say to me is going to affect anything."
"Yeah, but—" Ryouko began automatically, before realizing that the point was infallible.
"Right," she said, the wind taken out of her sails. "I forgot."
"I told you not to forget," the girl said.
They looked at each other a moment in silence, standing there next to the frozen figures of Homura and a younger Kuroi Nana.
"I guess this is goodbye then," the simulacra said.
"Wait!" Ryouko said. "What will—"
But the world was already dissolving, and she knew that she would be waking up soon.
She resurfaced to find her still sitting on the grass—of course—and her aunt still sitting across from her, rousing herself out what might have been a long wait.
Ryouko checked her internal chronometer. It had been twenty‐four minutes, out here in the real world. Twenty‐four minutes out of her own party. How surreal.
"I know where she is, you know," she said.
"What?" Nana said, looking at her in confusion.
"Your mother—my grandmother," she said, leaning forward, no longer so much angry as disappointed. "I can't just hold onto information like that. Please, you should go find her. You can't just—"
"I already have," Nana said, looking down.
"What?" Ryouko asked, her turn to be confused.
"I said I already visited her," her aunt said. "That's what I was rushing back from. She said she wanted to talk to me. She says she doesn't regret leaving but she—she's had time to think, out there. She's sorry for distrusting me, all those years ago. I'm sorry for never saying anything. At the very least, she wants normal relations, now that you're grown‐up. That's what she said. I didn't have time to add it to the program I gave you."
Ryouko sat back down, and leaned onto the grass with her arms.
"Oh," she said.
"So what do you think?" the girl asked. "About all of it?"
Ryouko waited a bit before answering.
"What am I supposed to think?" she asked, making eye contact with the other girl. "Am I supposed to be angry? Am I supposed to understand everything all of a sudden? No, I have no idea what to think. I just think it's great that stuff that happened centuries ago is reaching into my life from the past."
She let her voice drip with sarcasm, then took a moment to think, while her aunt waited.
"I—honestly, I'm leaving tomorrow. That hasn't really sunk into me yet. I'm just going around, talking to my friends, going to parties, and starting tomorrow I won't be seeing my friends or my parents. Part of me wants to just say whatever you all want to hear, because none of it will matter after I leave tomorrow. It won't matter anymore what my parents did or didn't tell me. But I don't want to run away from my family."
She let those words hang in the air for a moment, while the two of them looked at each other. Then she got up.
"I've got a party to get back to," she said. "My friends will be wondering what's going on."
"I'm not particularly good at these speeches," Ryouko's father said, his voice booming back out through hidden speakers around the field. "But I'm told this kind of thing is expected, so I'm going to do my best to embarrass my daughter in the customary fashion."
There was a chorus of polite chuckles.
From her seat at the table nearest where her parents were standing, Ryouko smiled brittlely. Truth be told, she had never heard her father speak for longer than a couple of minutes at a time, and was skeptical of his ability to make it work. Thus, she was unsure whether to be anticipating embarrassment for herself, her father, or both.
"I'm not really sure what to talk about, so I guess I'll start from the beginning," her father continued. "About fifteen years ago, Nakase and I finally got that birth permit we'd been waiting for. At the time, I had been preparing to move to Seoul to take on a new position and advance my career. We hadn't expected it to arrive when it did. We talked about deferring it, but we decided that we were so excited to have our first child that I would stay."
Somewhere to her right, Kuroi Abe coughed, somehow drinking his wine improperly, drawing glances. As Ryouko moved her eyes back to her front, she caught Kyouko's eye for a moment, before the other girl looked away.
"We thought about choosing the gender of our child," her father said. "But we decided against it. It didn't quite suit our preferences and, besides, we couldn't agree on what gender we wanted. I won't embarrass anyone by disclosing who preferred what, but in the end we decided we would go with the natural approach."
Ryouko's mother blushed politely, while Ryouko herself darted her eyes around to gauge the reactions of her friends, wondering why the hell he was talking about this.
"Anyway," her father said, "there's no real way to whitewash the fact that when it turned out we were having a daughter, we had immediate concerns about her future, given the history of this family. There were disagreements, but in the end it was decided that we would try our best to give her a normal life."
"We've been telling her since childhood to ignore any offers from talking white cats, but of course she didn't listen," her mother commented.
Ryouko snuck a glance at the table where some of her more distant ancestors were sitting. Predictably, Shizuki Sayaka and Kuroi Kana were looking rather smug. It surprised her, though, that for however much they seemed to dislike each other, they localized themselves to the same table with little fuss. Arisu and Kyouko were there, too.
"You know what this reminds me of?" Ruiko commented, from next to her.
Ryouko looked at her to show she had her attention.
"A wedding," Ruiko said. "It's just like a wedding."
Ryouko gave her a queer look, while Simona just looked annoyed.
"I'll–I'll keep quiet now," Ruiko said.
Ryouko paid attention to her father again, trying to recall from auditory memory what he had been saying while she was listening to her friend just now.
"—have reached this juncture," her father said, "there is nothing to be done but to give her our undivided support. Nothing else is possible. It may hurt our hearts to let her go this young, but at least it is not just us, and it is good to know that she will have excellent mentors and family members to back her up. Thank you."
Taking the cue, everyone clapped politely. It wasn't the greatest of speeches—it was kind of short, and kind of weird, but it wasn't terrible, and that was all anyone ever expected.
"And allow me to just say," a new voice—Kuroi Kana—boomed, "that regardless of any disagreements or problems this family may have had in the past, we are all fully invested in seeing Ryouko‐chan succeed and, just as importantly, make it through this war safe and sound."
Chiaki elbowed Ryouko, and finally she snapped out of her trance, tapping into the amplification system with a mental command.
"Uh, thank you. Thank all of you. Uh, thanks for the support everyone," she said awkwardly.
Clapping again, for the last time. Ryouko leaned back in her chair.
Everything about this was surreal. Would she really be gone from all of this tomorrow? She had been preparing dutifully, just as she had been instructed, but it had taken her aunt's ancient memories and the surrealism of this party, her party to start to clarify it in her mind. She struggled to remember the concerns that had seemed so dominating just an hour ago.
That was right, wasn't it? What did it matter that her parents had lied to her? She knew now, and soon she would be far, far away from them.
No, I can't think about it like that! she thought.
"Is something wrong?" Simona asked, startling her out of her reverie. "You look worried about something."
"I'm fine," Ryouko insisted. "Let's, uh, go get some dessert."
"If you say so," Simona commented.
"Was it really that bad?" Ryouko asked her mother, late that night, as they sat one last time on Ryouko's bed.
"To me it was," her mother said, eyes downcast. "I was just too young for it. I know I was an anomalous case, but still… the MSY made a mistake. The MHD did. They failed me. I hope—well, I hope you'll be fine."
"I'll be fine, mama," Ryouko said, smiling slightly, not really sure what other reaction she should have.
"I hope so," her mother said, smiling thinly. "You'll have it far worse than I did. But you're probably made of stronger stuff than I was. I guess I'll see just how good a parent I was."
Afterward, they took a nap there together, without any discussion about it. Her mother needed the reassurance, Ryouko thought.