One of the linchpins of the economy of Human Governance, instantaneous interstellar communication was one of the last of the "miracle" technologies to emerge from the post‐war period, not reaching full development until after the actual colonization of the three Core Worlds that formed the first colonization wave. Since the development of such a technology was hardly certain, relying after all on novel physics, Governance had formed its colonization plans on the assumption that interplanetary communication would rely entirely on data carried by relatively slow FTL starships. With the actualization of the IIC Relay system, colonization schemes were quickly redesigned, with plans made for a greatly expanded second colonization wave. Easy communication made possible colonial economies that would be much closer knit, single‐currency zones that could extend over multiple systems, and, perhaps most importantly, a much greater degree of central control and cultural influence.
By this point in time, well into the early part of the second colonization wave, the governments and cultures of the first‐wave Core Worlds had already developed substantial independence from Earth, an occurrence that had been grudgingly anticipated and tolerated by Governance. Although this development could not be easily reversed, Governance would make sure that its influence on later colony worlds would be substantially more direct. While colony worlds were afforded a measure of independence and self‐rule, Governance now found itself capable of enforcing certain legal policies—and, more importantly, its ideology—far more effectively than it had anticipated, and it used this ability freely. Moreover, Governance could now much more effectively manage the economy of the Human Governance as a whole, ensuring that it could perpetually lurk over the shoulder of the colony worlds' Capitalist economies, adjusting capital flows as it saw fit. In this, it could wield the powerful bludgeon of Earth's enormous manufacturing capacity—but it had to do so carefully: while Earth's manufacturing capacity could supply all the needs of the colonies entirely by itself, this would effectively extend Earth's command economy over all of Human space, an inefficient result. Consequently, Earth‐Colonial trade was strictly controlled, and Earth's surplus was carefully diverted into industrial expansion in the colonies.
Control and cultural interchange are limited principally by three important factors. Firstly, restrictive policies on civilian immersive VR prevent interstellar communication from achieving the fidelity of face‐to‐face interaction, a necessity for true cultural synchrony. Secondly, the IIC Relay system, while free of the limitations of transmission latency, suffers from continual bandwidth and routing limitations, due to the high costs of constructing and maintaining even one IIC relay. Many colony worlds have only one, and non‐Governance sponsored colonies often have none. Governance Representatives and military officials, occupying the highest priority slots, can experience fluid, low‐latency communication, but for everyone else IIC‐time is a precious resource. Installing the massive bandwidth it would take to make large colonial governments mere extensions of Earth Governance would be extremely expensive. Finally, Governance does not feel it in its interests to enforce too much homogeneity, for the same reasons that it tries to prevent a total monoculture from appearing on Earth; it feels that the loss of cultural diversity does carry some cost, and that a greater variety of cultures provides greater civilizational robustness should a cataclysmic event occur.
With the arrival of the Cephalopods and the demonstration of a working example of instantaneous interstellar travel, research into the fundamentals of the IIC relay system is now at a feverish pitch, in the hopes that IIC contains within it the secrets of the alien Paradox Engine.
— Infopedia article, "IIC," section: "Effects on Colonization," mode: discursive, moderate density; excerpt.
Those nations that survived the Unification Wars the most intact, generally the United Front and MSY's core nations, have as a legacy of the wars a substantial population of ethnically foreign residents, partly due to a massive influx of war refugees and their descendants, but also due to the natural consequences of the UF's globe‐spanning military and governmental operations. UF core nations found themselves acting as transit points for military units from almost every imaginable source, and sent military units to the far corners of the globe, only to receive them back accompanied by a baggage train full of rescued freedom fighters, hanger‐ons, and newfound lovers. Due to the exigencies of war, the UF Executive Committee and later EDC were in little mood for parochial or nativist sentiments from constituent nations, routinely overriding diplomatic protests in order to establish new refugee settlements, and pressuring governments to relax citizenship requirements.
While many such new residents returned to their homelands post‐war, many others chose to settle down, preferring not to return to what was often a wasteland. Immediately post‐war, the UF EDC was extremely sensitive to the possibility of fragmentation, and used the lack of borders in the new super‐state to encourage migration in all directions. People moved to find jobs, to join family in new nations, or simply to find a better life—and post‐war, this could usually be found in the nations that had survived the war most intact.
Consequently, the ethnic compositions of many pre‐war nation‐states were transformed, with some formerly homogeneous regions finding their populations to be as much as twenty percent minority. While ethnic tensions occasionally flared up, EDC punishment was harsh, and most of the populace proved to be exhausted of violence due to the war. Over the centuries, as global integration proceeded, cultural divisions faded, allowing the world's cultures to blend into what would later be maligned as the "monoculture". While this loss of cultural diversity would eventually come to alarm Governance, it had the side effect of triggering the heavy assimilation of minority peoples into their host nations—which were becoming indistinguishable from their homelands anyway. In the end, the result was curious: ethnically diverse nations that, after centuries of intermarriage and cultural integration, hardly seemed to be diverse at all.
— "Demographic Shockwave: Global Mixing and the Legacy of the Unification Wars," excerpt.
"Before that steam drill shall beat me down, I'll die with my hammer in my hand."
— John Henry
Tomoe Mami would like to inform you that she has started the simulation, and will be ready for you whenever you choose to join.
Kyouko nodded, a habit she still couldn't break despite having spent well over a decade with one of these contraptions in her head—well, spine, but whatever.
Setting her old‐fashioned tablet down onto the desk next to her, she stretched luxuriously, or as luxuriously as she could in the tiny alcove that she called her bed. It was easier in this small body than it would have been in one of her more adult forms, but it was still cramped. She remembered hating sleeping in the alcove as a child, until they had been able to move into a house near the church, rather than being obliged to live within the church itself. That was just before her father had started preaching outside the doctrine.
In retrospect, she wasn't sure why she had had this room reconstructed. It was a form of austerity, sure, but was she implicitly rejecting the doctrines her father preached?
Of course not. Her father had been ahead of his time, in many ways. But the Central Church had refused to listen, and because they refused to listen, the people didn't listen. It was… a very good metaphor for religion today.
Well, religion except her Church.
It was a form of nostalgia, she suspected. Despite the poor memories she had of the room, her overall memory of that stage of her childhood was quite bright, certainly brighter than the hungry times, or the times after that.
Sometimes she dreamed of her sister. Afterward, she would wonder: Knowing what she knew now, what fate would she have preferred for Momo‐chan? A long and happy life, dying of old age while her eternally young onee‐chan watched over her? Or perhaps Kyouko would have preferred that her sister contract as well, so that even now, they could still be together.
And the afterlife: What was it like? What would it be like, meeting her again? Meeting Sayaka again? Meeting… her father again?
She shook her head at herself, perhaps annoyed. Now, in her old age, she found herself ruminating on such things more and more, waxing nostalgic about the ancient past, casting her eye more to the sky and less to the ground. Perhaps that, too, was why she chose to sleep in this small alcove. It reminded her of when she had been young.
Plus, for what it was worth, a cramped space provided for interesting variations on—
She frowned, popsicle in her mouth suddenly turning sour. That was not where she had wanted this train of thought to go.
She had been watching a recording of her earlier performance, on her outdated holographic tablet, annotating and reviewing. It hadn't been bad, but something about her body language was off.
Unbelievable. It was the Goddess's birthday, and still all she could think about was her regrets. Momo‐chan, her family, Sayaka, Yuma, Mami, Homura… plenty of others, but also Maki.
Damn that girl for getting into her head! To some degree, she prided herself on not being like Mami, not letting herself be weighed down by every damn thing, but one stormy breakup later, and suddenly here she was, brooding just like Mami would. And it wasn't like this was her first bad separation. She really was getting old.
Well, at least it was clear she would never be Yuma or Homura, with their ability to place human lives and happiness on a scale and reason their way into terrible actions, blood icy cold the entire way, justifying it with vague gestures toward the afterlife or the greater good. In a way, she was proud that she wasn't like them, despite the implicit praise the Incubators used to ladle in their direction, urging her to be more like them. As if!
And Yuma turning out that way had been her fault, at least partly. If she been more—
Okay, seriously, this is too much, Kyouko thought. No more.
She accepted Mami's invitation, lay back down on her bed, and closed her eyes, waited for the world to fade.
"Well, that took forever," Yuma complained, when Kyouko opened her virtual eyes. The tiny girl at her feet glared up at her with a faux‐angry expression.
"What were you doing, anyway?" the girl continued. "I thought you broke up with your girlfriend! Or did you get a new one that fast?"
Inwardly, Kyouko groaned, hoping she wasn't showing it. She was trying not to think about that.
"Firstly, I was on Church business," Kyouko lied, using her height to look down on Yuma. "Secondly, I don't appreciate the government—that means you—snooping on my affairs. And thirdly, given how much you talk about it, maybe you should try it sometime. It's relaxing."
Yuma's expression became sardonic.
"Suggesting lewd things to your imouto again, nee‐chan?"
Kyouko ignored her, bending down to scoop the girl up into her arms. It was actually quite the feat, since the apparent age disparity wasn't that great, but these things didn't matter to a magical girl. Not to mention she could have just adjusted the virtuality if it were really necessary.
She took a moment to spin Yuma around in her arms, smiling goofily, the virtual apartment spinning around them. It was decorated in a spartan style—simple white walls, single glass table and small black sofa. Attached to this bleak living room was a kitchen devoid of anything but a single box‐like synthesizer, merged with a dining room with a single, surprisingly large table, almost completely unused.
Only two things caught one's eye about the room. One was the glass doors leading out to the balcony and the view beyond, a bird's eye panorama of Mitakihara City below, and the sky above. Given that the era of this simulation was modern—or, rather, future—it implied the apartment was almost unbelievably high up, high enough to look down on the city.
The other was the ever‐shifting holographic wall surface opposite the sofa, the only thing that could be called flashy about the room. A wide array of miniature screens filled the wall, shifting to and fro, left and right, in and out of focus. Each screen was filled with a seemingly random snippet of factual text, or else some kind of diagram or image. Kyouko knew from experience that the master of this apartment often sat and watched the random screens for an unnerving amount of time, or just as often used it as a sort of interactive workspace, the screens becoming coherent and responding to her thoughts.
Just another one of those quirks that Homura had never deigned to explain.
In the later years, Homura had spent a considerable amount of time practicing and refining her digital artwork, often showing the rest of them some of her drawings. Some images were touching, almost‐heartwarming drawings of the bespectacled, pigtailed Homura from the distant past, or of Mami's coffee table, resplendent with platters full of cakes. Though it couldn't really be said that she had talent, she had acquired a certain honed competence from sheer volume of attempts.
But there were also the other images. Incoherent and random, they were as beautiful as they were disturbing. Homura did not explain, even when asked directly, preferring only to listen to their comments. A wasteland of sugar, candy, and hospital symbols; a red‐clad horseman—horsewoman—whose head was replaced by a giant flaming candle; a clownish monstrosity, floating upside‐down in the sky, with gears under its dress; a pitch‐black mountain reaching up from a devastated, flooded landscape. Ironically, it was in these pictures that Homura hedged the closest to true artistic novelty: Kyouko had tremendous difficulty looking away from some of the pictures, which seemed to suck her in, reminding her of something atavistic.
As strangely mesmerizing as they had been, though, Kyouko had never come closer to doubting Homura's intrinsic sanity, as Mami did.
Even now, though Kyouko instinctively felt as if there was some connection between the images and the Goddess, Kyouko did not speak of it to the Church, nor had she ever. She could not conceptualize how it fit into the scheme of things—no, more accurately, she refused to believe the conceptions she did come up with.
Once, a few years after the founding of the Church, she had obtained access to the Black Heart vaults where Homura's personal files had ended up stored, away from the prying eyes of Governance or the lower tiers of the MSY. But try as she might, she could not find any sign of the images she had seen or, as she had hoped, any drawings referencing the Goddess. Nothing of use to the Church, in other worlds. Suspecting shenanigans, she had authorized her own agents to penetrate the Black Heart and search further, but they came up with nothing either. It was disturbing, and one of the reasons she refused to believe Homura was dead, though she could not speak of it.
All of that flashed through her mind, in impression rather than in detail, as she took Yuma for a playful spin: once, twice, thrice.
"Really, how old are the two of you anyway?" Mami said, appearing in the doorway to the dining area. "And is it possible for us to go one of these events without dirty jokes floating around?"
Kyouko sent Yuma back down on the floor.
"Don't be such a drag, Mami," Kyouko said. "Yuma's fun to play with."
"I am four hundred fifty‐eight years old!" Yuma said, reporting her age in the same excited tone a child would, with an undertone of mockery.
"Hmm, well, either way, now that you're here, we can get to eating," Mami said, ignoring their comments.
She stood by the doorway as the other two passed by, but stopped Kyouko momentarily with a tug at her sleeve.
I'm keeping tabs on Kishida‐san, she transmitted, relaying the message on a private channel. She's doing fine so far.
We're over, Mami, Kyouko transmitted, still walking, without giving any visible sign of the conversation.
Why are you always like this? Mami replied, watching the other girl's back. Is it really so bad, settling down with someone? I think it'd be good for you.
That's an interesting comment, coming from you, Kyouko retorted, sitting down at the table. Since it's not as if you have anyone.
Mami started, taken aback. She struggled briefly to formulate a response.
That's different and you know it, Mami protested, finally, starting to follow the other two over. It sounded lame to her ears, though.
As she sat down, though, Kyouko surprised her by replying:
I'm sorry, Mami. I didn't mean that. Forget I said anything.
Mami blinked in surprise. Kyouko rarely showed contrition when criticizing others, yet here she was apologizing. Come to think of it, her lack of relationships was an easy target, but Kyouko and Yuma never made fun of it. Was it some weird kind of respect? And why had Kyouko's comment made her hesitate?
Don't worry about it, Mami responded. I'm not insulted.
Were this a true gathering, with the three of them in actual physical proximity, Mami would have shown a lot more gusto, gushing pride as they inspected her dishes and ate them greedily. As it was, this was a virtuality, the food was not real, and Mami hadn't even pretended to cook any of it—it would have been very extravagant of them to run a full‐detail molecular‐level simulation for something like this, but with any less detail, there was no noticeable distinction between Mami's superior‐in‐reality cooking and the—admittedly damn good—simulated food Mami had tried before. They could have artificially stimulated their pleasure centers to enhance their perception of the food, but none of them wanted to do that, not to mention they would have been getting close to breaching Governance restrictions on simulation parameters, even for military personnel.
So they sat at Homura's oversized dining table, large specifically for the purpose of hosting gatherings such as this, and "got to eating." Both ends of the long table were left empty, one end for Homura's—and now Kyouko's—mysterious Goddess, the other for a friend who depressed them with her absence.
"We haven't done this for real in years now," Yuma complained, stirring pieces of chicken in with her rice. "I wish this war would get easier so you could come home more, Mami‐nee‐san."
"Well, if you would just leave Earth for once in your life, we could do something like this on the Zhukov or wherever you prefer," Mami pointed out, gesturing at Yuma with her chopsticks. "Really, it's childish."
"You know why I don't," Yuma said, pouting. "Don't take advantage of this form to make fun of me."
"I still say you're worried about what would happen if you weren't next to your machines," Kyouko said, artfully managing to time her words in between chugs of miso soup. "Is it really that bad to suffer some tiny routing delay? MG will live without you, I'm sure."
"Eeeeh, it's this conversation again," Yuma said, drawing the "eh" out into a sound of exasperated annoyance.
She made a reaching motion for some fish at the far side of the table, clearly too small to reach it. Mami picked the dish up and handed it to her.
"I still remember when MG was just a fresh‐faced kid," Kyouko said, sounding deliberately wistful, "and then she got warped by being around you all the time."
"Oh, come off it," Yuma said. "She's a perfectly well‐adjusted AI, and you know that."
She chewed some of her fish thoughtfully, as there was a long moment of silence.
"Let's talk about some business," she said, finally. "I know it's not the best time, but…"
She looked around for agreement.
"I suppose," Mami said, "though I had hoped to avoid it. This is a social gathering, after all."
"I don't think there's anything better to talk about, unless you've got some leads on Homura," Kyouko said.
Obviously Mami didn't, so she didn't respond.
Yuma cleared her throat for effect. It was strange coming from someone so small.
"So regarding your budding protégé," Yuma began. "I went ahead and had someone interview her schoolmate, Simona del Mago, under the guise of correcting government records. She couldn't give a reason for why the wrong parents were listed for two of her schools, except that in the cases where the listing was wrong, the incorrectly inserted individuals were friends of her parents. We actually knew that already, so it checks out, and in any case the telepath didn't think she was lying. Genetic tests confirmed paternity."
"So nothing, then?" Kyouko asked, forced to be brief by the fact that she was actively stuffing chilled noodles into her mouth.
"Almost nothing," Yuma answered. "But the telepath doesn't quite think so. She says the girl feels like she has telepath‐resistance training. It's—"
Kyouko coughed on her noodles, spraying food in front of her in a rather ugly fashion, before the food in question automatically deleted itself, eliminating the spray, plate of chilled noodles, and whatever was in Kyouko's illusory windpipe. A moment later the plate rematerialized in front of her, with a fresh set of noodles.
"Seriously?" she asked, wiping at her mouth with a napkin even though there was nothing there to actually wipe. "How reliable is this?"
"Not very," Yuma said, smiling slightly at Kyouko's behavior. "For a non‐magical girl, complete telepath resistance is unheard of. Good training can instill the mental discipline necessary to avoid leaking information under interrogation, but the telepath will still know if you're lying or holding information back. In the past, we rarely bothered—no one can be vigilant 24/7, so the telepath would always get the information anyway, if they just waited in the vicinity long enough. My agent can't detect that she's holding anything back, and that would ordinarily be the end of it, but she tells me she can't shake the feeling she's being misled somehow. I don't know whether to believe her."
"So what exactly does this mean?" Mami asked, no longer bothering with her pointless food.
"I have no idea," Yuma admitted. "I've told the agent to follow her for now, and we're continuing to dig into her family background, but nothing of note has been found. Sometimes telepaths make mistakes. It's rare, but it happens."
"There are a lot of coincidences stacking up on all of this," Mami said, eyes shaded. "Take this recent attack on the convoy carrying Shizuki‐san."
She paused to see if they knew what she was talking about. Kyouko nodded instantly, but Yuma was obliged to pause and stare off into space for a moment, before finally indicating that she understood.
"Post‐battle analysis indicates that they clearly thought they were attacking something of unusual importance," Mami said. "Those fighters were pushing well outside their usual operating range—they would have had to perform multiple jumps to make it, and they don't usually do that, because our deep space scanners are good enough to make them pay more often than not, given that they have to blackout at the end of every jump. In terms of weapons and shielding, they were stripped down to make the trip, which made them easier to destroy. The cost‐benefit of it doesn't make any sense, unless that one transport was carrying something very important."
"A transport with eight magical girls on board could be worth it," Yuma pointed out. "It was what, seven fighters? We're worth more than a fighter each, I think."
"Only if they knew they were there," Mami said. "Our convoy patterns are deliberately designed to make that kind of raid on average very cost‐ineffective. Among other things, the navigational specifics of these trips are not laid out until the last moment, so even if they got their hands on our transport data somehow, they should only have information for a very short time‐window. In that case, why not attack more than one transport? Why only one?"
"Maybe they're trying out something new," Kyouko suggested.
"Maybe," Mami said. "But the military AIs don't like it at all. The alert level for military shipping in the sector has already been raised. Another thing—"
She shifted in her chair, pushing her food slightly aside.
"The radiation attack by the last fighter was tactically very irresponsible," she said. "It certainly wasn't pleasant for anyone involved, but the pilot and its AI couldn't possibly have expected that it would actually kill any of them. Not with the ship relatively intact, and all of them still alive and undamaged. If any of them had had sufficient training, it wouldn't have even managed as much as it did. The fighter should have cut losses and run. Why try a suicide run? The squid love suicide runs, but only when it makes sense. Not like this, even if its chances of escaping Human space weren't great. The cost‐benefit would only balance if it thought it had a distant chance at taking out something like a battlecruiser. Eight magical girls, a transport, and a few passengers and cargo do not equal a battlecruiser."
There was an extended silence as they thought about it, and Mami realized that she had perhaps spoken too earnestly.
"Not that I'm suggesting a connection between this and the demon attack," Mami said. "That would be crazily far‐fetched."
"We know you're not," Kyouko said, meeting her eyes. "You're right, though. This girl is more of a handful than I expected."
"I don't think we've seen the end of it, either," Mami said. "Not with a wish like hers."
The others nodded, without bothering to ask what the wish was. The privacy of wishes was strongly respected, as it always had been.
"I guess I might as well add that we investigated further into Director Valentin," Yuma said, swirling a drink in her hand. "But I don't have anything to report. Everything checks out. Even telepathic surveillance has returned nothing so far."
She paused, and when no one said anything, continued:
"I've thought about the logistics of it a bit more, and while it's certainly possible that the supersaturated grief cubes could have been generated in a residential area, there would be a lot of risk of accidental spillage if that were done. It would be much easier to do something like that in a specialized facility like Prometheus or, actually, Zeus. The Zeus Research Institute doesn't have the Joanne Valentin connection, but they do a lot more on the purely magical side of things. Enchantment, power development, magical quantification, things like that. Except for the Valentin thing, they'd be a more logical suspect, and they do go through a lot more grief cubes. Of course, being that this is Mitakihara City we're talking about, there are literally dozens of places where it'd be at least reasonable to do, and any magical girl could do it in their home if they knew how and weren't worried about screwing it up and unleashing demons everywhere."
"I'm a bit bothered that I'm literally right in between those two places and still don't know that much about what they do," Kyouko said, looking thoughtful.
"You should pay more attention," Yuma rebuked.
"To be frank, I never thought it'd matter much to me," Mami said. "As long as the technology keeps coming in, I have many other things to worry about."
Instead of continued speculation, there was a long moment of silence that ended only when Kyouko went back to her food, poking at some tempura with her chopsticks.
"So how much can you tell us about how the war is going, Mami?" she asked, casually. "I don't keep up as much as I should."
Mami sucked in a breath, though Machina's timely intervention prevented the action from actually manifesting within the virtuality.
"To be honest, not much right now," Mami said, reflexively sipping at a cup of tea. "Strategically, the situation is the same as always, but the Euphratic Incursion, as you know, has serious downside potentialities. Those have started to seem more probable recently."
"So it's bad, huh?" Kyouko asked, watching her with an unreadable expression. "You don't start pulling out the lingo unless you're nervous."
"I'm not nervous," Mami said.
She was nervous. The wormhole stabilizer was still a top‐grade secret, one that she didn't want to reveal until she had to. Things had not gone well recently. The battle over the system's twin worlds was still the same grinding attrition as ever, and, as expected, the fleet just didn't have enough resources to get at the moon, not without critically weakening defenses elsewhere—not even immediately after the failed raid, when alien defenses were still relatively weak. It was a conundrum whose importance could not be overstated. She had to solve it—but she hadn't, not yet.
"You are nervous," Kyouko insisted. "Something is going on, isn't it?"
They locked eyes, and though Kyouko's expression was carefully serious, Mami thought she sensed something further. Deceit, perhaps. The operational security on fleet activity in the Euphratic sector was as tight as ever, but she couldn't easily rule out Kyouko's Cult smuggling information out. They seemed capable of something like that. And while the only part of Governance that was supposed to know the details was Military Affairs, Yuma was awfully good at getting information she wasn't supposed to have.
Still, Mami couldn't just say the truth out loud. In fact, she had a duty not to.
"Hmm," Yuma interrupted thoughtfully. "You know, I could go for some of that cake. If we keep carrying on like this, we're going to run out of time. Mami is on a schedule."
Thank you! Mami thought to herself, deciding not to worry about how much the others might or might not know.
"I'm not done," Kyouko said grouchily, grudgingly accepting the topic change. She took a moment to shovel some of her remaining food into her mouth.
"It's not real food, nee‐chan," Yuma said. "Just make yourself full."
Kyouko grunted, making a show of being annoyed.
"Fine," she said, pushing herself away from the table dramatically.
Mami got up to get the cake out of the kitchen, leaving the others to start cleaning up. There was no particular reason she couldn't just clap like a magician and make it appear on the table, but she liked to include a certain amount of realism in this. The whole point of having an immersive virtuality was to try and replicate the real thing, not shortcut your way through. Besides, it would be fun cutting the thing.
When she walked back out to the dining table with cake, though, the table was devoid of food, containing only some dessert plates and utensils.
"I told you," Mami complained, peeved. "You have to—"
"Cut us some slack, Mami," Kyouko said, hitching her arm up on "Homura's" chair like the delinquent she was. "It's just not fun cleaning up food for no reason. Besides, there was a ton left. We wouldn't have had anywhere to put it. And you know, I just thought, since we're talking about the Goddess's birthday here, I didn't want to waste too much time…"
Kyouko fidgeted slightly.
"Well, okay then," Mami said, sighing good‐naturedly, setting the cake down on the table. "Let's do this."
She sat down, and Yuma stretched over the table to stick the single candle into the cake. It was one of those fancy flame manipulation candles, the kind that spelled out in fire how old the individual in question was. In this case, the candle generated an infinity symbol, a virtual replica of the version that had been special‐ordered by Kyouko a long time ago, partly as a joke. It had seemed to both amuse and depress Homura, depending on her mood.
Kyouko stood up dramatically, thrusting a finger expressively at the tip of the candle. A moment later, it flared to life, fire forming a double loop.
"It's a lot more impressive when you do it for real," Yuma said, managing to insert some childish disappointment into her voice, lilting the phrase "for real".
"Yeah," Kyouko agreed, sounding disappointed too. "I still can't believe I put so much work into learning a party trick."
"Well, you used to be quite the party girl," Mami commented, without condemnation. "Doing it without a transformation is pretty impressive. But if you wasted that much effort learning a skill that far out of your skill set, you might as well expand it into something more useful."
"Who says I haven't?" Kyouko said absently, feeling around in her pockets for something. "And despite all the time I wasted on it, it was still easier than I thought it would be. An affinity for fire, maybe. Who knows?"
Finally realizing what was wrong, Kyouko summoned a stick of pocky into her hand and stuck it into her mouth to chew on. She hadn't thought to load her clothes with food in the simulation.
"Well, you should show me sometime, then," Mami said. "Just don't go Hinata Aina on me."
Yuma sat back down in her chair.
"Eh, we've had this conversation before too," she complained. "You still haven't ever shown her, Kyouko‐nee‐chan. Repeating the same topics is boring."
Mami and Kyouko glanced at each other.
"I like to think of it as tradition," Mami said.
Yuma rolled her eyes as Mami sat down. They looked at Kyouko, who was still standing, to say something.
This part was always awkward.
Kyouko cleared her throat.
"Well, like always, I'll spare you the speech," she said. "I've done plenty of speeches today. Let's just enjoy ourselves."
Then, without waiting for the other two to get ready, she immediately started singing "Happy Birthday", forcing Mami and Yuma to insert themselves randomly into the middle of the song. Strictly speaking, it was a version of Happy Birthday modified to account for the fact that Homura wouldn't tell them the name of the girl in question, and to compensate for the fact that "Happy birthday, dear Goddess." sounded awkward to everyone. Each of them now had enough implanted technology to sing perfectly on‐key, even if not quite at the same level as a professional singer. They had tried that one year, but somehow the normal unenhanced version, slightly discordant and mistimed, seemed more appropriate.
Afterward, Mami picked up the cake knife and carefully sliced the strawberry and cream cake into five evenly‐sized pieces, ensuring expertly that the fruit was split fairly. Once, at the very beginning of her magical girl career, she wouldn't have been so bold as to eat one‐fifth of a cake. She had feared weight gain just as much as everyone of her age group at the time. Then later they had realized that their bodies kept themselves at optimum condition regardless, and something as mundane as body fat could be easily molded with magic. Though Mami generally disapproved of unnecessary body modification, she… had to admit to having tried a few things occasionally. Everyone did, at some point.
Anyway, eating cake by the truckload had become a fairly common thing for them, and eventually they had even stopped acting delicately embarrassed about it—though of course Kyouko had never bothered to do that.
She handed out the cake, piece by piece, with Kyouko of course going first. She was glad to see that Kyouko, who might have been trying to rile her up earlier, wasn't going so far as to shove the cake into her mouth with her bare hands, as she had been wont to do when she had first moved in with Mami. It had taken a lot of training to get her to switch to the fork and knife, even if Kyouko was still a little impatient about it.
Finally, she gave the last piece to herself and sat down.
"Let's eat," she said, making the traditional gesture of thanks. "Itadakimasu."
The others repeated the phrase, which had otherwise fallen out of use after the Unification Wars.
Kyouko tore through her cake, hunched over slightly, occasionally glancing at the empty chair that represented the Goddess. Yuma and Mami were chatting about maybe inviting MG next time—Yuma was pushing the notion, Mami was less keen, though apparently Machina thought it was a good idea—but Kyouko wasn't really listening. Sometimes, she felt a little strange just unashamedly pigging out on cake and relaxing, without much reference to the girl whose birthday it was. She always remembered, though, what Homura had said, that the Goddess would have far preferred this to anything more somber.
At times like this, she remembered, too, Homura's hints that they too had once known the Goddess, and forgotten.
What kind of girl had she been? How had Kyouko treated her? What had they thought of each other?
Sometimes, in these last two decades, she would stare at the empty chair, feeling as if she were on the verge of remembering. The feeling would get so strong that she would stop eating, stop doing anything else, just stare, wracking her mind trying to recover the memory that was right there—but then the feeling would fade, and she would find herself again staring at a meaningless chair, wondering if she had really been about to remember something, or if it had been merely a product of imagination and faith.
Mami and Yuma, certainly, never seemed to notice anything untoward, looking at her oddly whenever she had these moments.
Other times, though, she swore she saw Mami looking at the chair too, with a strange look on her face.
Kyouko shook her head at herself, then sighed.
Homura, where are you? she thought, desperately.
"Yes, mama, I'm doing fine," Ryouko said, reclining on her bed and amusing herself by placing CubeBot on her belly and letting it crawl its way back towards the table. On the table at the head of the bed, her soul gem lay charging next to a couple of grief cubes. It seemed like a lifetime since she had last participated in a phone call, that familiar rhythm of back‐and‐forth transmitted thoughts.
"Are you sure?" her mother responded, narrowing her eyes at Ryouko, conveying a sense of overbearingness through the video feed. Her mother had insisted on the video this time, exploiting her MG status for the extra interstellar bandwidth allotment. It was difficult to properly hold a video call without some sort of fixed spot to glare at, so most people had the video playing at a specific physical location in their field of view. Ryouko had it hovering over her head, between her eyes and the ceiling.
"They're not overworking you, are they?" the woman asked. "Have they made you do any fighting yet?"
Ryouko thought about it. If she was asking, then…
"Not yet," Ryouko lied. "But there's a large simulation part of the training, you know. It's, um—"
"Oh right, I forgot," her mother interrupted.
Ryouko expected the woman to keep talking, but instead there was a long pause, during which her mother seemed to look off into the distance, thinking about something.
"So, uh, how was that?" her mother asked.
"It… wasn't that bad," Ryouko thought, realizing it was difficult to talk about to someone who hadn't been in one, especially since she wasn't sure how much her mother knew about it. If her mother didn't know much, Ryouko didn't want to enlighten her by going into too much detail. Her mother didn't need to know.
"I got a lot of, uh, experience," she settled on saying, knowing it wasn't a great explanation.
"Oh well, that's good, I guess," her mother said, voice strangely detached.
Again, Ryouko expected her mother to keep talking, but no questions arrived. She had the unsettling feeling they were both trying to avoid saying too much. Her mother seemed again to be looking away from the "screen".
"I don't know if you heard," her mother said, finally. "But your grandfather was reassigned to a specialist posting, so he's receiving training to work in a field hospital. I knew he'd test well. He was a pretty good doctor, back in the day. And, as you probably know, doctors with experience treating actual damage are rare nowadays. Though I guess I'm probably a biased source, especially given that I was a child for a large part of it. Well, I suppose—"
"Ah yeah, I was glad to hear that," Ryouko interrupted, before her mother could go off on some long tangent.
"Let's just hope he can stay out of trouble," her mother said, a moment later.
Another pause, but this time it was a natural conversational pause.
"Anyway, make any friends yet?" her mother asked. "Nana told me that's pretty common during training, which I guess makes sense. Sounds weird to me, but…"
"Oh, yes," Ryouko said. "She's right. One of them is from near Mitakihara. I'll send pictures later. I don't think we'll be staying together, though."
"I see. Well, it's always like that. Obviously it's good to form good working relationships with those you work with, but the military goes out of its way to encourage long‐distance connections. It's healthy, you know. Feels strange saying it like that when my daughter is involved, though."
Indeed, Clarisse thought, startling Ryouko into almost sitting up. That kind of thing is built right into my programming.
Did mama hear you say that? Ryouko thought, a little desperately.
No, Clarisse thought. I thought about it, though.
Please don't, Ryouko thought.
"Did something happen?" her mother asked, noting her obvious sudden surprise.
"Yeah, I'm here. A friend showed up."
"Ah, well, if it's a bad time, you can call me later."
"No, no," Ryouko denied. "Not at all."
Her mother looked down for a moment, seeming to think.
"Hmm, well… I'm not really sure how to talk about this, but, uh…"
There was a long pause, during which her mother seemed almost embarrassed, clasping her hands meaninglessly. Ryouko wondered what it could possibly be.
"Well, I'll just say it directly," her mother finally said, making eye contact. "The fact of the matter is, now that you've gone against my advice and contracted, there is a now a metaphorical line of suitors at your door, because of all the family connections. Except, you know, we're mostly getting things from other parents. Matchmaking, basically."
Her mother paused, putting a finger to her mouth thoughtfully, noting Ryouko's horrified expression.
"Well, for the future, given your age, obviously," the woman continued, eyes dancing around nervously. "Your grandfather says it happened to him too, for me and, uh, my sister, back in the day, but the fact that your grandmother didn't know made it hard, plus the whole family estrangement thing. Oh, wow, I don't want to overwhelm you, but I felt you should know. I mean, if you just want some options, it's available. And you know, I've never wanted to pry, but there's alternative orientation options too. Obviously, this kind of thing is rather quaint, and you can wait as long as you want—"
Ryouko, you should say something, Clarisse prompted.
Ryouko had merely been listening quietly, aghast, as her mother started to ramble.
Say what? she asked, finally.
Anything! Or tell her you already got some direct messages and you'll take care of it, Clarisse thought. Or something like that. Look, I could do it for you. I can fake it, but I really think you should—
"Mama! I know!" Ryouko interjected. "I already got two messages directly. I'll take care of it."
Her mother stopped talking.
"Really? I never got any while I was contracted. Hmm. Maybe it's the Shizuki thing. Wonder if Nana ever got any? I never thought to ask…"
There was another pause.
"You know," her mother said. "It kind of makes sense. Kuroi and Shizuki are both notable names, but when I met your father, the families were not pleased. Fortunately for you, neither of us have ever really listened to those old crones, but maybe there just aren't that many Shizuki‐Kuroi marriages."
"I see," Ryouko said, not really sure what else to say.
"Anyway, obviously I'm once again a biased party, but you're too young," her mother said, making an obvious attempt to look her in the eye. "And just for the future, you should really think about this kind of thing hard before committing to anything. Forever is a long time, believe me. Though I do suppose time‐limited marriages are more popular nowadays—"
"I know, mama, I know. I'm not interested right now. But thanks for telling me."
"I do wonder about you sometimes. But, oh well. Don't forget to call again soon. I imagine it'd be hard for us to call you, since who knows how the scheduling works. Oh, and we'd love to visit. They do that for magical girls like you, you know. You can put in a word. I haven't been off‐planet in a long time—"
"You've been off‐planet?" Ryouko asked, surprised.
"Of course I have," her mother said. "It was more common before the war started. Scientific conferences, things like that. They still do it occasionally. I'm still trying to get into another one, but nowadays they try to make us get a VR exemption instead."
"You never told me this!" Ryouko said, accusingly.
"You never asked?" Her mother turned it into a question, looking at her strangely. "I guess I just never managed to mention it. Well, uh, anyway, I sort of have to go. See you for now."
The woman waved.
"See you," Ryouko said, waving back.
With a quiet artificial click, the call ended.
For the record, it's actually four messages now, Clarisse thought. I just haven't mentioned the topic to you again. And was it really wise not to tell your mother about the incident with the fighters?
I don't want to scare her, Ryouko thought.
I suppose, Clarisse thought.
Let's see if I can dial up Chiaki then, Ryouko thought.
I don't think you have time anymore, Clarisse thought.
Ryouko checked her chronometer. Clarisse was right. She had just started free time—a day‐long free time—but had agreed to meet with Asami to explore the town.
Alright, she thought, getting up. I guess I can send her a message instead.
It's been a while, hasn't it? It feels like months have passed. To me, anyway. There's a joke there I'll have to explain later. Sorry I haven't been in touch; they've kept us really busy.
I've got to go, or else I'd call you. Give my regards to the others.
"So we came all the way out here to see a game of—"
Basketball, Clarisse fed her, before she even had time to fail to remember the word.
"Basket… ball?" she repeated, repeated the unfamiliar combination of words.
"Yes," Asami said, making a face in the general direction of the playing area—specifically, that vacuous‐looking expression people had when trying to zoom in on something distant with their optical implants. "Apparently it's a pre‐war game, one of those that stopped working well after everyone got implants. Someone redesigned the rules and managed to make it popular again, but it hasn't caught on again on Earth."
Ryouko looked around her. The building they were in was huge, and seemed to be purpose‐built, with the playing court in the middle surrounded by an ocean of seats, with a transparent roof above. Besides that, it seemed as if a staggering number of people were crammed into the building, which positively buzzed with activity: the quiet roar of countless people talking, the people moving in and out of their seats, the server robots traveling up and down the aisles to deliver snacks and food.
For the first time since she had left Earth, Ryouko felt cramped.
"You weren't kidding about the popularity," Ryouko said, turning to look at Asami.
"Hey, don't look at me," Asami said. "I'm just doing what the tourist guide recommended. It's a very colonial sport, and the, uh, Acheron Devils are supposed to be pretty good. Supposed to be a good two‐person activity."
Ryouko, who hadn't realized that she had accidentally made a skeptical face, quickly corrected her expression.
"Oh, no, I was just, um, wondering why they don't just have more people watch from home instead of building this giant building just to accommodate all this," she said awkwardly. "I mean, look at how small that, uh, court is in the middle of this building. It's tiny!"
"I guess they have more space to do this kind of thing?" she said.
"They must do something else with this place when they're not playing these games, right?" Ryouko asked. "It'd be such a waste otherwise. Look at how many people this seats!"
She gestured broadly, at the crowds of people that surrounded them. Indeed, she didn't turn her whole body to make the gesture, as she might have, because she would have smacked her hand into one of the people around them. In the distance, a dirigible floated over the building, advertising custom hair enhancements. The glaringly bright lights shone down on a crowd full of people wearing red uniforms. In the distance, some of them were attempting—and failing—to do some sort of coordinated arm wave. She honestly didn't know what to make of it.
"I don't know," Asami said, shrugging again.
There was a brief silence while Asami consulted an internal reference and Clarisse fed Ryouko the answer.
"Wow," Ryouko said. "I guess—I guess they really do have a lot of space out here. Did you notice how big the rooms were?"
"Yeah," Asami agreed. "I don't know who could possibly have enough stuff to fill it all."
They both lapsed into silence, as Ryouko tried to think up a new topic worth discussing, but was spared that trial by a sudden shift in attention by the crowds of people around them, as well as the lights around them dimming. The game was starting, it seemed.
Truth be told, she had never been a big fan of sports. Neither of her parents had ever shown much interest, and as a child she had never really been too impressed by the soccer stars power‐dashing their way up and down the field. There were sports clubs at her school, sure, and she had even participated in a few, but all had failed to spark her interest. To her, it seemed like just another way for her peers to feel like they were accomplishing something important, when actually they were accomplishing nothing.
Which wasn't to say she hadn't been engaged during the actual games. She had; she hated losing, and always tried her hardest to win, which was why it had distressed her that her efforts were often unsuccessful. She felt terrible losing, and on those occasions where her side did win, she would experience a burst of satisfaction, followed by a sinking emptiness as she realized that, on the large scale, none of it had counted for anything.
Now, though, as she watched players struggle mightily to get a large round ball through their opponents' goal, she felt something new. For the first time, instead of being struck by the pointlessness of what she was seeing, she felt strangely convinced that it was too easy. An athlete, powered by specialized implants, would jump absurdly high into the air to snag the ball out of the air and instead of being impressed, she simply felt bored. Players executed complicated plays, zipping the ball back and forth almost too fast for a normal human to see, and she couldn't help think that the players seemed sluggish and tired.
I can do all of that easily, she realized suddenly. That's why I'm not impressed.
Probably, Clarisse thought, even though she hadn't been directly addressed. It's actually a common phenomenon among you magical girls. But even so, most girls are at least capable of enjoying yourselves. You're a strange mistress.
Please don't call me mistress, Ryouko thought, a moment later. It makes me feel strange.
And, as Clarisse said, Asami appeared to be enjoying herself moderately, carefully tracking the movements of the ball across the court, and occasionally joining the crowd in cheers. Seeing this, Ryouko swallowed her ennui as best she could and tried to stay engaged.
"I'm sorry about that," Asami said suddenly, as they reached the street corner where they had arranged to be picked up.
"About what?" Ryouko asked, turning her head to look at the other girl.
Acheron rotated only a little slower than Earth, meaning they had passed enough time that it was already nearly pitch‐black. The remaining lights of the city served to cast a slight glow to the smoky sky. Nakihara Asami's face seemed buried in the gloom, carrying that eerie cast Ryouko had learned to associate with her preternatural night vision. The girl's ponytail shifted slightly.
"I know you didn't really enjoy it," Asami said, eyes downcast. "It's my fault. I was the one who insisted we try to explore alone. I shouldn't have placed my faith in an online source."
Ryouko watched the other girl's expression. Something was unusual here, but she couldn't quite place it.
"Don't worry about it," she said, choosing not to pointlessly deny her lack of interest. "I should have said something. I didn't want to make you change plans just for me. Besides, it wasn't that bad. I had fun."
In the awkward silence that ensued, Ryouko reflected that, indeed, it had been a little unusual of Asami to insist on exploring alone, but that it had still been a good idea. Ryouko wasn't going to let her own strange behavior ruin this night.
"Hey, come on," she said. "Don't be so gloomy. We should be having fun. Weren't we supposed to go to the hot springs next?"
Asami nodded, as the shuttle they had called pulled up in front of them.
"Yeah," she said.
They were uncharacteristically quiet during the drive over, Ryouko looking out the window, watching the short buildings of the town—she still didn't think of it as a city—pass by. There were a surprising number of religious facilities here, compared to Earth, but according to Clarisse that was expected. Other than that, there wasn't much to look at; she was already getting used to this planet.
She frowned slightly. Here she was, exploring a colony world, and it wasn't much more dynamic than puttering around on Earth. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
That's because I'm in a city again. Not exploring the wilderness, not flying a starship, just… visiting places. There isn't even that much Capitalism; we get free shuttles, food, and board from the military, and way more money than we can use. It takes some of the impact out of it. And the advertisements get old once you've seen fifty of them.
She watched the horizon for a moment longer. Generally speaking, the night sky here didn't look that different from Earth, except that with the atmospheric dust, stars were considerably harder to see. There was also no comforting moon hanging in the sky.
Of course, where she had lived on Earth, the tubes blocked most of the sky, though she had always made the best of it she could with her telescope, working her optical implants to improve the contrast of the sky. On the first night here, she had set up her telescope and taken a look. The constellations were different, of course, but she had never placed much stock in those meaningless, Earth‐specific shapes. Far more important were the worlds circling those stars, and who lived there. She supposed the constellations were useful for historical reasons, though, as an explanation for the naming of some stars.
Clarisse, she thought. I concede. You're better at this than I am. Why is Asami behaving so strangely?
I don't believe she's really that depressed, Clarisse thought. I believe she's thinking about something.
Do you have any idea what?
There was a distinct pause, which Ryouko attributed to Clarisse thinking about the problem.
Perhaps you will find out soon, the device replied.
The buildings outside her window thinned out shockingly fast, and she began to see a lot more of the rocky landscape, with a smattering of shriveled looking plants clinging to the surface. She began to peer out more carefully. A part of her wanted to stop the vehicle to go out and take a look, but that would have been obviously inappropriate. Eventually, they began obviously ascending, the vegetation becoming denser, so that the ground no longer looked quite so much like a wasteland—though she still wouldn't call it lush by any stretch. With a start, Ryouko realized that the last time she had been on a mountain of any sort had been nearly ten years ago, on a class trip to Mt. Fuji.
She looked back over her shoulder, at the town they had just left, nestled in a volcanic valley. It looked different than the cities she had visited on Earth—it seemed smaller, shorter, and altogether more compact. It looked strange.
Sooner than she expected, they were there, the shuttle exiting down a ramp onto a smaller road that quickly started to wind and twist unfamiliarly. Five minutes later, they pulled to a stop in front of a modest looking building which appeared to be, of all things, partially set into the mountainside.
Stepping off of the vehicle, Ryouko looked up at the unpromising building façade, painted in garish bright red and white. The sun seemed brighter here, though she wasn't sure if it were her imagination.
The marketing daemon here wants to transmit an "Informative Audio Introduction," Clarisse thought, making the quotation marks apparent with her tone of voice. Do you want to hear it?
I guess, Ryouko thought.
She turned to say something to Asami, but the girl had her hand to her ear, signaling that she was busy with something, probably the same "Audio Introduction". Idly, Ryouko wondered just how that particular hand‐to‐ear gesture had gotten started. It certainly didn't seem very efficient, having to move your arm up just to tell people you were listening to something. It would have made sense if it were just a matter of pointing at your ear, but you were actually supposed to clasp a finger over the hole, as if you were holding something in. It didn't make sense.
She shrugged, and headed up the steps to the glass sliding door, which slid open to reveal an eerily‐lit tunnel stretching farther inward. As they stepped into it, the walls lit up, revealing illuminated imagery of an austere Acheron landscape, devoid even of plants. Gruff‐looking holographic humans in dusty clothing looked dramatically back out at them, meeting her eye, while drones carried out mysterious duties in the background.
A pleasant feminine voice droned in Ryouko's head:
The colony world of Acheron was marked for early second‐wave colonization in 2360, following extensive survey by Governance and civilian prospectors.
Despite the planet's seeming inhospitality, its abundant sulfur deposits, bacterial life, atmospheric oxygen, and sunlight made it a promising site for specialized industrial development. Basic settlement construction and biosphere elaboration were begun immediately, culminating in the planet's official founding and naming in 2404. Pre‐settlement conditions were mildly unpleasant, and the name "Acheron" was suggested by the prospectors on site.
As the voice spoke, the walls around them transitioned gradually, first into images of robotic construction equipment and seeding planes, then into an image of the founding ceremony, which featured a couple of newly‐minted colonial bureaucrats standing around in front of a building cutting a giant ribbon with giant scissors. Among the two or three awkward‐looking suited officials stood a single woman in dusty overalls, smiling vaguely. One arm was sheathed in a partial exoskeleton, while the other had a nanomanipulator wrapped around the wrist.
Governance: Colonial Expansion, in avatar form, she knew, before she could think to ask.
While industrial mining is, of course, handled primarily by automatic machinery, an enterprising mining AI named John Henry soon realized that there were other benefits that could be accrued from the volcanic mountainside.
While it was initially difficult to convince more human mining workers of the value of a hot springs bath on one of the hottest colonized Human worlds, John was able to exploit existing machinery to construct the first of Acheron's hot spring baths, which quickly became a hit, especially after they pooled their salaries to add a second, cooled frigidarium.
Outside investors were quickly brought in to tour the facilities, and soon the first of Acheron's true tourist attractions was up and running, with an arrangement made by the Acheron Tourist Group, LLC to purchase depleted sulfur mines from Strategic Sulfur, SOE, in a true display of the value of—
"Hey, do you know what that means?" Asami asked suddenly, surprising Ryouko out of her listening trance. Ryouko looked back at the girl blankly.
"All that stuff about LLC and SOE," Asami said, looking at her strangely.
"Uh, limited liability corporation," Ryouko said, proud of having remembered that much herself. "And, uh, state‐owned enterprise."
She had pulled the second phrase from Clarisse, and she wondered why Asami hadn't just looked it up herself.
Then, suddenly, the tunnel ended, just as the audio terminated. It was an interesting technical feat, one Ryouko had seen before in other places: using careful holography, different images could be displayed to different people, depending on where they were in the audio track. It could presumably handle many more people than just the two of them.
The room they had arrived in, however, was deserted. It was large and cylindrical, with multiple corridors leading out from the rear of the room, behind a large hewn rock counter that was currently unmanned. Dim orange lighting emerged from alcoves carved into the wall, keeping their source hidden. Ryouko switched briefly into infrared, and was disappointed to find it was just a standard lighting fixture, if oddly colored.
Ryouko and Asami glanced at each other, each discerning that the other was somewhat put off by the complete lack of people. For a tourist attraction that had appeared bustling from the wall images, it sure wasn't very packed.
"Ah, welcome!" a voice said breathlessly. "Sorry, I was busy with another customer."
A bikini‐clad woman hurried out of one of the corridors, sandaled feet clattering against floor. She narrowly avoided knocking over the racks of brochures on the counter, stopping herself just in time, then looked at them expectantly, hair dripping.
They stepped forward warily.
"Don't worry, I don't bite," the woman insisted. "Yeah, I know it's sort of empty, but there's actually plenty of people in the rooms back there. But war policies have really taken a toll on tourism around these parts. Governance wants to focus economic activity on Capital Investment; something like that. Anyway, how long will you two be staying? And, uh, are you opting for swimsuit or bare? We have some to borrow or buy, if you want."
"Maybe two hours bare?" Asami suggested, before Ryouko could say anything.
The woman looked at the two of them appraisingly for a moment.
"Okay," she said. "I'd tell you how much it is, but, heck, you can afford it. I'll forward the information to your TacComps anyway, though. Not trying to rip anyone off here. Follow me."
A small door at the side of the counter unlocked, and they followed the woman down one of the corridors, the floor changing suddenly from polished marble to black volcanic rock. Ryouko, who had been vaguely aware of the temperature slowly rising the whole time they had walked down the tunnel, felt it spike even higher. Not without a little nervousness, she checked to make sure it was still within her acceptable temperature range.
They dove deeper into the cavern, turning left into a sub‐tunnel, before finally reaching a door carved directly into the rock. It swung open at their approach, revealing a surprisingly non‐volcanic‐looking set of changing facilities.
"Well, luckily for you, you can easily have a whole room to yourself," the woman said. "There won't be anyone to disturb you. Anyway, I've got more customers, so uh—"
The woman ran back the way they had come.
Ryouko and Asami watched her back as she departed.
"Was it really necessary for her to escort us?" Ryouko asked.
Asami shrugged, again uncharacteristically silent.
Ryouko stepped into one of the changing rooms, closing the door behind her. Now that she thought about it, it was perhaps a little strange to visit a place like this with just two people, but it did seem to be one of the city's touristy things…
She hesitated a moment while reaching at her shirt. Come to think of it, the last time she had visited a public bath had been back in late elementary school, with Chiaki and her parents.
Ack, why am I hesitating? she thought. It's not like I'll look that bad in comparison to her. Probably.
Still, one couldn't approach getting naked in front of someone with full equanimity, even if it had already happened once or twice during the training simulations. She reassured herself with that thought. At least it couldn't possibly be considered chilly in here.
She re‐emerged from the room quickly, but found herself waiting. When Asami finally showed herself, she seemed, if anything, even more embarrassed, especially when Ryouko instinctively gave her the once‐over.
Ryouko glanced away, stopping herself too late. She really needed to get over these self‐esteem issues.
"Well, let's go see if these fabled baths are really any good," she said, perhaps a little too flippantly. She found herself actually blushing a little.
To her slight relief, it turned out that the hot water pool, the next room over, was not directly carved out of the rock, but was tiled with antiseptic‐laced synthetic marble, just like a normal public bath. She wasn't sure why it mattered to her, but it seemed more civilized, somehow.
She dipped her feet into water, gingerly, and found it surprisingly not as cringe‐worthy as she expected. With a shrug, she went ahead and put the rest of her body in, head out, of course.
You can thank me later for the superior temperature adjustments, Clarisse said. Though we are nearing the limits of your standard operating range, for the record.
I see, Ryouko though. It actually seemed like a bit of a shame. Cringing your way into the pool seemed almost traditional, somehow.
She leaned back, absorbing the steam and heat into her skin. It was indeed pleasant, though she didn't think it was a good idea to be falling asleep here.
"It's not bad," she said out loud.
"Yeah," Asami said, a moment later, joining her. Her voice was subdued.
"You know, public bathing used to be a worldwide thing," Ryouko said, scooting over to close the weird gap Asami had left between the two of them. "The frigidarium they have here is totally a Roman concept. But it stopped being popular in many areas after the nineteenth century. It was a cultural thing, and later on people started being worried about sanitation. It only really came back into vogue after the Unification Wars, when there was that flood of refugees into Japan and the surrounding areas. Of course, we now know that the relative survival of the area wasn't a complete coincidence. So just think, if the MSY hadn't been founded in Mitakihara, this kind of public bathing might never have gotten popular again. If Japan had gotten seriously bombed out, it might have been gone entirely. And then where would Acheron get its tourist money?"
Ryouko knew from experience that people didn't actually like her going onto random textbook‐like historical tangents. She liked to think she was better than her mother, in terms of being self‐aware about it, though she acknowledged the maternal similarity there. But now, though, she had a feeling she need to say something.
She looked at Asami for a response, leaning over slightly, but the other girl was staring at the water, seemingly not listening.
Ryouko took a breath.
"Asami‐chan?" she asked. "What's wrong? You haven't seemed right ever since the basketball game. It wasn't that bad, really! I don't understand why you're moping around like this."
She watched as the other girl closed her eyes, visibly swallowing.
"It's embarrassing," Asami said. "To admit something like this after all that we've talked about…"
"What?" Ryouko asked, confused.
Asami clamped her hands between her knees and swallowed again.
"The others always made their assumptions, telling me how lucky I was to be your roommate, about all your family connections, and how I should take this chance while I have it. I always denied it, since I didn't think…"
She shook her head at herself.
"I don't know," she said, chuckling. "I didn't see you as anything other than a friend at the beginning, but then I saw you fight. Do you remember, all those times you saved my life, in those simulations?"
Hold on! Ryouko wanted to say, her heart starting to beat faster, unaccountably. She didn't understand—
"Of course," she said. "But you saved me plenty of times too. It's just how it is."
"Not as often," Asami said, shaking her head. "Do you have any idea, what you look like when you do that? What you look like when you lead? It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. You look…"
The girl swallowed one more time.
"I don't know. Is this what love is? The others seem to think so. Recently, I've felt so empty without you around, as if I have nothing to do, nothing worth doing. Taking a bath together like this, I feel so nervous, but am I just confusing myself? Is this real? I don't know."
Ryouko's eyes widened. She raised her hand weakly out of the water, then let it drop again with a quiet splash. She could feel her conception of the world rearranging abruptly, as it had when she had seen her clone in its closed vat, what felt like a lifetime ago.
Love? It seemed so foreign, so alien to her understanding of herself that someone would think that way of her. Those silly proposals she had gotten in the mail—those had been easy to conceptualize in terms of power and mutual benefit, in the same way one thought about the affairs of governments and militaries. This made no sense at all.
"Do you mean that?" she managed. "I'm sorry. I don't—"
"I know you don't understand," Asami said, looking her in the eye, finally. "You're like that. So focused. It amazes me. I thought I was like you, but then I realized: not so much."
They locked eyes, Ryouko searching the other girl's eyes for something to hold onto, something that made sense. Why did—
Brace yourself; she's about to kiss you, Clarisse thought, her thought loud and overriding at a moment like this, even if it sounded just like Ryouko's own voice.
And then it happened, Ryouko with eyes wide, open, and searching, Asami with eyes closed.
Ryouko hadn't even had time to process the sensation before the other girl pulled back.
"I told myself I wouldn't leave any regrets behind," Asami said, eyes sidecast, voice shaky. "I know—I know you'll need time to think. I'll leave you alone."
With one explosive motion, she launched herself out of the water and onto the ground above, using a good deal more strength than was necessary in her haste.
Then her bare feet padded away, leaving Ryouko reaching for her, "Wait!" stillborn on her tongue.
I… she began, unable even to complete the thought.
I won't interfere too much, Clarisse thought. It's your own decision to make. If you're wondering about orientation, my analysis indicates that the potential is within you, should you choose to exercise it. You're strange, though. Without impetus from somewhere, the thought never even crosses your mind. According to my built‐in models, that places you into a tiny minority. Also, I, uh… just really thought I should say something, as awkward as it is. Most people do not appreciate us TacComps commenting, but I figured you might need some guidance.
Ryouko stared at the exit door a few moments longer, paralyzed by the sheer surrealism of it all. Receiving a love confession in the middle of an alien volcano, stark naked, with a voice in her head kibitzing. This was not how she had pictured her life three weeks ago.
Then she pushed herself out of the water and headed for the exit. She didn't know what she was going to do, but she had to do it.
Thanks, Clarisse, she thought. I know you're trying to help.
The timing of this all is terrible, Clarisse thought. You've been recalled from break. Technically, I should have told you earlier, but it was sort of not a good time.
Not right now, Clarisse thought.
Ryouko didn't argue that, instead focusing on finding the other girl immediately. It was not as if Asami could get far, with no clothes on, and there had been no time for her to dress.
She caught the other girl when she emerged from the changing room, triggering a wave of surprise and fear in the other girl's eyes.
"You're right," Ryouko said, surprising herself by saying something decisively. "I don't know what to say to any of that. I'll think about it. That's all I can promise. Please, I don't want this to ruin things, ah, between the two of us. You know what I mean."
Asami looked back into her eyes, eyes wavering, then nodded.
"Somehow I knew you'd be decisive like that," the girl said.
Then the girl collapsed forward, grabbing onto her shoulders. Confused at first, Ryouko realized: Asami was exhausted, emotionally. Not knowing what else to do, she patted the other girl on the head meaninglessly.
She really wished she could get some clothes on first, though.
So why am I being recalled? Ryouko thought, finally, as they were on the way back.
Word just came through. You've been promoted to First Lieutenant, and are skipping the rest of garrison tour. You're to leave immediately for the Kepler‒37 system, in the Euphratic Sector.
Immediately? Ryouko thought, not sure what to comment on first. But…
She glanced over at the Asami, who was looking nervous in the other seat.
I know. I said it was horrible timing, Clarisse said. But this comes from Field Marshal Tomoe herself.