Statement of Purpose

Up until now, the magical girl system has been a tragedy of massive proportions. The dreams of teenage girls become a nightmare of fear, conflict, deprivation and death. This is the result of a failure of organization and cooperation, not intrinsic to the system itself. The participating teams of Mitakihara City hereby undertake to build an organization, the Mahou Shoujo Youkai, capable of fostering the cooperation and organization necessary to end the unnecessary pain.

The MSY is founded as a mutual aid group, with five primary mandates:

The elimination of grief cube shortages in any one time by the establishment of a grief cube pool

The provision of a forum for the airing out, resolution, and arbitration of misunderstandings and disagreements

The provision of effective countermeasures in the event of serious external threats or dangerous circumstances

The distribution of non‐magical resources such as money in a manner beneficial to the group as a whole

The distribution of team members, particularly newly contracted girls, in an optimal manner

Article I — Fundamental Organization

1. Global Meeting

Major decisions shall be made at a General Meeting, held at least once every three months, but more frequently whenever necessary. This Meeting shall have the power to issue exceptions to every part of this Charter, and may amend whenever felt necessary. At least one member of every member team must be present to constitute a quorum, and decisions require an absolute majority of present members, as well as the agreement of at least one member of each team, with the exception of certain sanctionary actions mentioned below, for which the quorum requirement may be relaxed to as little as one member per each of half the existing teams. This may be done, for instance, for failure to attend the Meeting.

Chairmanship and Hosting of the next Meeting will be decided at the previous Meeting. The hosting team will organize and chair the session, charging any direct costs to the General Fund. Any member team may request an early Meeting at any time.

2. General Fund

Two joint Treasurers from different teams shall be assigned to manage a General Fund, which shall be used to finance organizational activity, as well as provide reimbursements when practicable. The Treasurers shall provide a description of organizational finances at every General Meeting, and may be replaced by the Meeting whenever desired.

The founding teams commit to providing at least twenty thousand Japanese Yen (¥20,000) per member to initialize the Fund. Subsequently, teams are required to contribute at least ten thousand Japanese Yen (¥10,000) each month per member. Individual members may be required to contribute more at the discretion of the Global Meeting, particularly if the given member has access to significant outside wealth.

Any contributions exceeding this amount may be used to deduct from the contributing team's required surplus grief cube contribution, at a rate to be considered and reset at every Meeting, depending on the state of the organization's current finances and grief cube stocks, but may not be used to deduct from the absolute minimum. The initial rate is set to ten thousand Japanese Yen (¥10,000) per cube.

Businesses or investment ventures undertaken by the organization will be financed from the Fund, and any proceeds will return to the Fund. Every General Meeting, a monthly reimbursement amount for each team will be decided upon; this amount may exceed the contribution amount, and the amount may differ between teams, as circumstances warrant. Teams may also request emergency allotments, issued at the discretion of the Treasurers; the resolution of any resulting fiscal issues may be decided at the next Meeting.

3. Grief Cube Pool

Three Cube Keepers will be assigned to manage a Grief Cube Pool, which shall be used to insulate member teams against poor grief cube harvests. The Pool shall be kept in multiple locations, as practicality and safety permit. Every two weeks, or more frequently, teams shall submit a number of grief cubes not required to exceed the operating surplus, but otherwise not lower than an absolute minimum of one grief cube per member per week or fifty percent (50%) of their operating surplus, whichever is higher. In the event of an operating deficit, withdrawals may be made from the pool up to one grief cube per week per member. Additional withdrawal may be granted at the discretion of the Keepers, but must be discussed at the following Meeting.

The Keepers shall provide a description of organizational grief cube stocks at every General Meeting, along with an account of the productivity of various teams, and may be replaced whenever desired by the Meeting. The direct purchase or selling of grief cubes to or from the Pool may be permitted, within limitations prescribed by the previous Meeting.

The Incubators have agreed to perform verification of operating deficits and surpluses.

Article II — Entrance or Departure of Teams

A team that wishes to enter the organization may, with majority agreement of its own members, submit an entrance request at any time. Such requests shall be taken up by a General Meeting as soon as practicable. If requested by any one member team, a disapproval vote may be held—a majority shall suffice to refuse the entrance request. Otherwise, entrance is automatic. The Meeting may also require the requesting group to provide additional resources, i.e. monetary instruments, grief cubes, before allowing entrance.

A team may leave the organization at any time, with majority agreement of the team's own members. The other teams must be informed as soon as possible. Leaving the organization does not discharge outstanding debts and obligations.

A team may be ejected from the organization with the agreement of four‐fifths (⅘) of the remaining total membership of the organization, with the assent of at least one member from each team except the one being ejected.

Article III — Lending of Individual Team Members

Member teams may transfer or lend individuals between one another with unanimous mutual agreement, and in cases where newly contracted members have skills that would be essential to a team other than the team in her contracting area, it may be expected, depending on residency status, age, and so forth.

Individuals lent or transferred to another team have a right to expect treatment comparable to that which would be expected from their own team, including training, housing, social support, and so forth. The original team may, with the assent of the individual in question, demand that the move be reversed, with arbitration by the General Meeting if the new team does not agree.

Article IV — Other Resources

It is expected that member teams will share resources not already discussed, i.e. access to health care or transportation, in a manner that is generous, reasonable, and fair. Disputes may be arbitrated by the General Meeting, but this is hoped to be avoided.

Article V — External Threats, misc.

Member teams are expected to cooperate in the utmost in the eradication or handling of any external threats and other issues that may arise.

Article VI — Additional Enforcement Measures

In the event of noncooperation, failure to attend General Meetings, or willful violation of Charter stipulations and/or Meeting decisions, a Meeting may impose sanctions upon a team, with the agreement of two‐thirds (⅔) of the remaining total membership of the organization and with the assent of at least one member from every team except the one being sanctioned. These sanctions include, but are not limited to, increased monetary and grief cube contribution requirements and refusal of emergency allotments and grief cube withdrawals.


Akemi Homura, on behalf of the Mitakihara Four
Kuroi Kana, on behalf of the University Area Group
Chiyo Rika, on behalf of the Northern Group
Tanaka Yui, on behalf of the Financial District Group
Takara Chinami, on behalf of the Factory Area Group
Yasuhiro Rin, on behalf of the West Kazamino Three

— MSY Original Charter, 2021

"For the theoretical prediction and experimental demonstration of the Pauli Exclusion‐Locking Effect, the basis of modern forcefield systems."

— Citation, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2455, awarded jointly to Nishka Virani and Ludwig von Rohr

Ryouko examined her reflection in the mirror. Despite Clarisse's assurances that her dress uniform was designed to spec, she couldn't help but feel that, on her, the cap was oversized, the sleeves flared out a bit too much, and the pants were too short.

I'm telling you, it's your imagination, Clarisse thought. You're just being insecure about your size again. If it really bothers you that much, you can try increasing your height later, or maybe aging a bit. The uniforms are exactly proportional.

That's very nice of you to say, Ryouko thought, sarcastically. Really, though, no thanks.

Saying it to you more subtly doesn't seem to have had any effect, Clarisse thought dryly. So I thought I'd be more direct. Plus, it would be nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone tries it at least once.

"Hmm," Ryouko said out loud, as a thought occurred to her. She waved it away immediately, though. Who would she be trying to impress anyway?

Who indeed… she thought, before she could stop herself.

Her reflection in the mirror reshaped itself, seemingly of its own accord, simultaneously growing taller and obtaining a bit more chest development.

Clarisse… she warned.

I'm just showing you what it would be like, Clarisse thought. No need to get angry.

With a thought, Ryouko reset the mirror, returning the reflection to reality. While she had to admit it looked better, she didn't think doing that kind of thing was the right idea. Besides, would Asami even appreciate something like that?

She clenched her teeth together for a moment.

Tell me, Clarisse, she thought. What exactly is bothering me right now?

The device made a deliberate sighing noise.

I'm not some sort of magic self‐understanding shortcut machine. It'd be better for you to figure it out yourself.

This is more efficient, Ryouko thought.

I suppose.

For a long moment, Ryouko thought Clarisse wouldn't continue, but finally there was another sighing noise, followed by:

You're confused and not sure what to think. Humans have a natural desire to please others, and now that it's relevant, you find yourself considering your appearance from Asami's perspective. At the same time, you realize what such an effort might imply, so you try not to think about it. Indeed, at the moment, you prefer not to think about any of it at all, because of the difficulty and complexity you feel would be involved. You're torn between the feeling that you should probably try to communicate with Asami at some point, while being concerned about what that might imply to her. Overall, you're not sure what you want to imply, so no decision can be made.

Unusually for mere conversational speech, Clarisse delivered the audio at an accelerated pace, such that Ryouko found it difficult to interrupt. Instead, at the end, she looked down at the gloves she was holding in one hand, finding something meaningless to focus on.

That was perhaps too candid, she thought.

I know.

She stood there for a moment, pulling the gloves over her hands, clenching her hands to see how they felt. Then she placed one hand on her shoulder, taking another look at the two white block arrows on her shoulder mount, white emblazoned into the bright green of the rest of her uniform. First lieutenant, the patch meant.

Ryouko sighed. It was nice that dress uniform colors for magical girls matched their costume colors, she supposed, but it'd also be nice to wear some other color occasionally. And didn't the higher ranks wear something else?

She spared a look for the artificially regenerated starfield framed in the long window next to her, even more artificial than might be expected, given that she was too deep in the Zhukov to even be next to the hull. Her cabin was much larger than she had expected, but contained little in the way of decoration or furniture. There was a bed, a dresser, a nightstand, a synthesizer, panel lighting… and that was pretty much it, unless you counted the bathroom. All of it was stock‐standard, colored to resemble lightly‐colored wood.

Tapping the toes of her shoes against the carpeted floor, she tested their feel. At least the boots were spiffy: they were colored a deep black that seemed like it would match the depths of space outside.

Thanks, though, she thought.

Then she headed out the door.

Ryouko felt self‐conscious, stepping out into the corridor fully attired as she was, and indeed the crewman she passed right outside the door did a double‐take as she passed, before saluting half‐heartedly and pointedly turning his head back around and continuing down the corridor.

He was most likely just surprised to see an MG in uniform. It's not particularly common, Clarisse thought.

No, I'm okay now, Ryouko thought. I'll get over it. You don't need to keep reassuring me.

At least the ship was relatively sparsely populated.

She walked only a short distance further, seeking the entrance to the fast travel tunnel along the generic metal‐gray wall. Informational announcements scrolled within the apparent metal, following her as she walked. She could have had it play a news report or something similar as she walked, but at the moment she wasn't in the mood. The corridor was brightly lit in her immediate vicinity, but dark elsewhere, the lighting following her as she walked.

Ryouko turned abruptly, walking into the fast travel tunnel, the door sliding open just in time for her to enter.

Her body bobbled slightly in the sudden lack of gravity as she stepped forward onto the narrow platform, listing slightly off the surface with the force of her last step.

A sudden, blisteringly strong wind shoved at her from the right, accompanied by a constant roar. It wasn't true weightlessness—if she had tried to move, she would have been pulled back, and there was definitely something keeping her from flying away with the wind—but to her stomach, it certainly felt like it.

She had seen the FTT before, of course, when she had first arrived on the ship, and a few times after that, but it still took her breath away. Lit with a uniform eerie blue, the walls of the cylinder stretched away from her in both directions, extending so far that she could see a horizon, where the tunnel curved away from her eyes. Equipment, personnel, and drones zoomed leftward at high speed, both directly in front of her and as specks far in the distance, silhouetted in blue. Nothing in her experience, including the limited information about battlecruisers she had seen before, had prepared her for anything like it.

The FTT spanned nearly the entirety of the battlecruiser, serving as the primary transport network of the ship. With substantial energy already devoted to tremendous artificial gravity generators, the ship could easily devote some of its gravity fields to precision transportation, routing all manner of cargo through the unidirectional tunnels.

Ryouko hardly had time to dwell on the topic, as she felt her head being turned in the direction of the tunnel to decrease her cross‐sectional area. Before she had time to prepare herself, she was accelerated forward at a brutal rate, the system taking full advantage of the durability of her not‐quite Human body. Almost immediately she matched velocities with the rest of the traffic, which now appeared stationary relative to her. As she flew, a precession of doorways and larger access portals zoomed past her, leading into other areas of the ship.

She no longer felt any wind, since there was no longer any difference in speed between her and the air.

The others she had traveled with before had seemed utterly inured to the process, casually inspecting internal menus or even reading. She had felt embarrassed by how comparatively unsteady she had been. This time around, she tried to follow her progress through the ship, noting the regions of the ship as she passed them. One could get used to anything, she supposed.

And just like that, it was over, as she was decelerated equally brutally, then drifted to a stop at another narrow platform near her destination, the platform "tugging" her gently down to the "ground"—or rather, what passed for ground in this section of the ship.

She had once asked Zhukov—"Georgy"—if the tunnels really needed to be so fast. The ship had merely replied that it was optimally efficient and left it at that. Clarisse had told her that, for protection reasons, the core tunnels were located near the center of the ship, and that, in case of damage, there were alternate transportation methods that included more traditional carrier drones, "pusher" devices that launched you on your way, or even old‐fashioned magnetized handholds and attachment points. Somehow that sounded more pleasant.

Still, though, Ryouko had to admit feeling a certain rush traveling by gravity‐assist FTT.

Asami would love it, she realized.

She frowned at the thought, then shook her head at herself, continuing to her destination.

This section of the ship looked no different from the section she had just departed, but she knew from a carefully‐labeled internal map that the section she was in was special indeed.

She stopped in front of a set of elaborately carved double doors, framed by subtle gold trim. In the middle were two old‐fashioned "doorknobs", which particularly caught her attention by the way they jutted out.

For a moment, she just stood and stared. She had never been within the command residences of the ship, though that didn't mean much considering she had only been here two days.

Wooden doors for the higher officers are a matter of tradition in the Navy, Clarisse thought. They're usually imported from Earth. It's one of those things.

Ryouko glanced at the "Tomoe Mami, Field Marshal" plaque at the right side of the door and took a breath. She wasn't surprised the door hadn't opened at her approach. An internal counter indicated that the marshal was still ETA ten minutes. Ryouko hadn't wanted to arrive late.

She took a moment to rub her hand on the door. It felt novel, a little rough and grainy, similar to artificial wood she saw occasionally…

Then she jumped backwards, standing up straight as the ETA dropped precipitously from ten minutes to a mere forty seconds.

She must have cut something short to hurry over, now that I'm here, Ryouko thought, realizing her mistake.

Standing there awkwardly, she thought over what to say in her head as the seconds ticked by.

The moment she heard footsteps behind her, Ryouko turned on her heel and bowed more deeply than was usually necessary.

"I'm sorry for being early," she began, rushing the words. "You didn't have to—"

As she moved her head back up, she found her eyes traveling up the contours of a casual black sweater.

But when she reached the top, she didn't find Tomoe Mami looking back down.

Shen Xiao Long, Tomoe‐san's personal bodyguard, Clarisse identified, while Ryouko was still peering in confusion.

"Don't worry about it," the marshal Ryouko was looking for said, appearing at her bodyguard's side, in—this was novel—full green‐olive general staff dress uniform. "I wasn't doing anything important enough I couldn't leave a few minutes early. We'll just finish earlier. Come on, let's step inside."

When Mami pulled open the door—the old‐fashioned way, with the doorknob contraption—Ryouko was briefly surprised by the lack of movement from the two bodyguards, who had arranged themselves so as to flank the exterior of the doorway. She had expected to follow the others in, but instead found herself leaving the two bodyguards behind, Mami motioning her to follow. It made sense, on reflection.

Ryouko, who had been expecting to walk into some sort of ornate admiral's cabin, complete with framed portraits of ancient seamen and other similar paraphernalia, instead found herself looking at the apparent interior of a large personal apartment, of the sort one might find in certain parts of Mitakihara City. In front of her was a cushy, extravagantly large bed, high and decorated in pink and yellow. This piece of furniture was flanked by a bedstand and dresser, all in the same style. At the far side of the room was a matching pink work desk, and the lush carpeting and rugs fit the décor as well. At the two sides of the room, she could see entrances to a bathroom and dining area. Peering, she thought she saw part of a kitchen as well, attached to the dining area. The only thing that ruined the effect was the window, which displayed a reprocessed version of interstellar space, rather than the city scenery that might be expected.

All in all, it appeared to be extremely similar to Mami's early adulthood apartment, as depicted in the movie Akemi, if apartments had doorways that led directly to the bedroom. Despite its cozy feel and décor, though, the room was actually rather large, as evidenced by the triangular coffee table and sofa directly to Ryouko's right. Instead of seeming crammed in, the table fit naturally into what would have otherwise been a large void in the layout of the room.

Ryouko realized that the room she was seeing was, of course, much more logical than the admiral's cabin she had been imagining. Admiral's cabins in movies always had a maritime flavor to them. Then again, admirals in movies were always bearded old men with gruff voices.

She stood around uncertainly for a moment. She had seen Mami disappear into the dining area, but didn't know if she was supposed to be following her or sitting down somewhere.

A moment later, though, the field marshal re‐emerged into the room, carrying a tray containing two slices of strawberry‐topped cream cake, a teapot, and two small teacups. Ryouko experienced a brief flashback to Atsuko Arisu's office, what seemed like a lifetime ago, to when the psychologist had served her the same cake. Did the personnel files really contain information about her favorite cake, or was it just some sort of coincidence? It was good cake on its own merits…

Mami set the plates and cups downs on the coffee table, then took a seat next to the table on the floor, ignoring the sofa directly behind her.

Seeing Ryouko standing there watching her stiffly, Mami gestured for Ryouko to sit, and she did so awkwardly.

"They offered me a personal chef," Mami said in her native Japanese, pouring out the tea for the two of them, "but I declined. It wouldn't feel right. Not that I ever have time to make my own food anymore. I have to apologize; this is all synthesized stuff, except for the tea. I have my own supply of tea leaves, and a robot to brew it. It's not bad. But of course your generation has lived their whole lives on synthesized stuff, so—oh I'm just rambling now, sorry."

Ryouko looked back at the other girl blankly for a long moment then, too late, realized that she had should have insisted on pouring the tea, rather than let Mami do it.

"If Sakura‐san were here, she'd tell you to relax and let loose," Mami said, setting the teapot down, and looking Ryouko in the eye. "I mean it. This used to be so much easier, so much more informal, but nowadays every girl I take on looks too scared to even breathe."

On cue, Ryouko let out a breath she didn't even know she'd been holding.

"Good," Mami said, nodding to herself and sipping at her tea, holding the cup with both hands.

"So how are things?" the blonde‐haired girl asked, again peering at Ryouko. "I mean, how was training and all that? I've seen the psych reports, of course, but I want to hear it for myself."

Ryouko blinked. This was not what she had been expecting, so she had no response prepared. She dug around in her mind for a response, all the while trying to remind herself that she knew Mami's reputation, there was no need to be scared, she was being too nervous—

"It was fine, fine," Ryouko said, repeating the last word unnecessarily. "I don't think it went any differently for me than for anyone else. There was the fighter attack and all that, but we lived, and the radiation trauma wasn't that bad. And, uh, I made friends."

She cringed when she mentioned "friends", and hoped it was only an internal cringe. Her response seemed terribly vacuous, but the marshal nodded sagely, seeming satisfied with the response.

"You know," Mami said, leaning back against the chair behind her, "your leadership during that attack is the official reason for your promotion, and the reason why you're here."

The reason I'm here? Ryouko thought. Truth be told, she didn't know why she was here, only that Mami had wanted to meet with her, and had told her to wear her dress uniform. She hadn't known what to expect.

"Well, what is—" Ryouko began hesitantly.

"In a moment," Mami insisted, waving one hand at Ryouko while using the other to sip tea. "Finish your cake first. I'm told it's your favorite. I like it too."

Not feeling daring enough to ask who had done the telling, Ryouko nodded slightly and set about meekly doing as instructed, picking up one of the tiny forks to cut into the cake. She was glad she had finally gotten over the dysgeusia—it had made eating really strange for a while.

"I remember when Akemi‐san first contracted," Mami said, holding her teacup and looking up at the ceiling wistfully. "We invited her over for tea and cakes, and she was so shy—nothing like she was later. I was the oldest, so she and Sakura‐san both looked up to me. Later, I started to miss being the senpai, just a little. Nowadays, everyone acts the same way, though."

Ryouko, who had frozen with her fork halfway to her mouth, realized what she was doing and crammed the cake into her mouth.

"I see," she said thoughtfully, trying to chew her food at the same time.

Something was off about Mami's Japanese, something Ryouko only noticed now, in this ostensibly casual conversation. The accent, the word choice—it reminded her of her grandfather, a little, only more intrinsic somehow. It was almost as if the marshal were speaking a different dialect entirely, but it sounded like nothing Ryouko recognized.

"Just look where we are now," Mami continued. "All those years ago, we couldn't have even imagined it. We used to be girls too, but none of us ever got to finish our childhoods or live normal lives. Others did later, but not us. But, I suppose after hearing your wish, I can't say you didn't ask for it."

Ryouko, who had been drinking some of her tea, barely suppressed a jerk of surprise at her sudden inclusion into the conversation.

She coughed slightly, setting down the cup and looking at the other girl's face for a continuation, but Mami did not return her look, seeming to focus instead on eating her own cake. Unsure of what to say, Ryouko eventually looked back down and did the same.

Eventually, she finished her cake, setting the fork down with a slight clatter. She hadn't relished it as much as she might have.

"I'm sorry," Mami said, with a slight smile. "I don't know what came over me. Now that I think about it, I realized I've only ever said depressing things around you. I shouldn't do that. Come on, stand up."

Ryouko looked up in surprise, and found Mami already getting up off the floor. She followed suit a moment later.

The marshal seemed to peer at her face for a moment, as they stood face to face.

"You really do look like her, but…"

Here, Mami's voice trailed off, as the marshal frowned in sudden puzzlement.

"Like who?" Ryouko asked.

Mami shook her head, eyes closed and smiling slightly.

"Zhukov, we're ready," she said abruptly, switching to Standard.

An aged Russian male, wearing an archaic uniform and a receding hairline, materialized out of thin air to Ryouko's left, image at first pixelated and blurry, but quickly resolving.

"HSS Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov here will be the official witness," Mami said, gesturing at the starship's avatar, which bowed.

"Witness—" Ryouko began to repeat.

"This is an award ceremony," Mami explained, smiling broadly. "Forgive me for being childish by not informing you earlier, but I wanted to see the look on your face myself. Seeing girls like you happy makes me feel young again."

"Award—" Ryouko repeated again meaninglessly.

Mami reached into one of her pockets, pulling out a small metal badge and ribbon. She held it out in the palm of her hand for Ryouko to look at. The badge itself was shaped like a small block arrow, and was made of a pure white, almost luminescent metal. The ribbon itself was also white, and its attachment to the point of the arrow made it clear that the arrow would point up when worn.

"Just to be clear," the marshal said. "I didn't recommend the award. For that, you can thank Laplace."

"Always found him a charming fellow," Zhukov commented, in an affected Russian accent.

Ryouko's gaze darted back and forth from Mami to Zhukov. She was slightly bewildered, and indeed, her face must have been something to see.

"An award?" she repeated again. "For what?"

Mami cleared her throat, fist to mouth, seeming to stand up straighter.

"It is my pleasure to present to you the Chitose Yuma Medal for Combat Leadership Exceeding Expectations of Age and Training Level," she said, carefully and clearly, stepping forward and bending down to pin the glaringly white arrow to the left side of Ryouko's uniform.

"Your calm and careful reaction to an unexpected Cephalopod attack would have honored a veteran with a year of experience, and set an example for your comrades to emulate. You acted decisively in a situation you were not trained for, and prevented substantial losses. Congratulations."

When the marshal stepped back, Ryouko again looked at the other two individuals in the room. She hadn't thought herself one to be easily affected by something as artificial as a medal, but in that moment her eyes blurred slightly and she felt… pride? Yes, that was it. She was proud of herself, unexpectedly. It was a novel sensation.

Then the moment passed, and the glow faded.

"Congratulations," the ship said. "You know, I don't know what's with this obsession with long award names. Couldn't it be called the Combat Leadership Arrow or something?"

"Hush," Mami rebuked. "Now isn't the time to talk about that."

"I don't mind," Ryouko said blankly. "I'm—I'm honored."

"The honor is mine," Mami said, looking at her seriously. "I don't ever go out and fight like you girls do. I stay in my flagship or mobile command post, and watch the rest of you."

"Much more flagship and less command ship now, with the new position," Zhukov said, looking sidelong at Mami. "Not that I mind. I always said you took too much personal risk, going out there like that."

Mami smiled and nodded to herself.

"Your parents will love reading about it," she said. "They always do. Though—"

"Wait," Ryouko interrupted, focus abruptly sharpening. "You're telling my parents about this?"

Mami tilted her head, elaborate hairstyle shifting along with the head.

"Of course. We forwarded the medal citation, and we'll be forwarding a video of this ceremony. Standard procedure, unless the parents are estranged—is something wrong?"

Mami asked the last question in a worried tone of voice, due to the sudden dismayed look on Ryouko's face.

"No, nothing is wrong," Ryouko insisted, too quickly. "I–I was just curious."

"If you say so," Mami said.

They looked at each other for a moment.

"Now," Mami said, her body language visibly dismissing the previous subject. "I obviously didn't summon you to my ship for you to sit around idly. Come on, let me show you the bridge."

"The bridge," Ryouko said, blinking. "You mean, the ship's—"

"Yes, that bridge," Mami said, grabbing her by the shoulder friendlily and nudging her in the direction of the door. "It'll be educational."

The lights darkened behind them. A moment later, Zhukov, the only source of light in the room, smiled to himself, shrugged, and dissolved his avatar.

The trip to the ship's bridge was refreshingly short. Just outside the admiral's suite, Ryouko followed Mami into one of the ship's ubiquitous short travel tubes, which were essentially a less ambitious version of the fast travel tube, generally permitting only a few people at a time. This one happened to be directly vertical, without even the luxury of a platform, so that as Mami entered, she appeared to be stepping directly off a ledge, falling immediately downward. Ryouko reminded herself that she had done many more daring things than this, and followed suit.

They were ejected directly into the bridge, Mami landing with aplomb, Ryouko stumbling slightly. Looking up, Ryouko saw a room that looked very much like what she would expect out of a command center. The darkly‐lit cylindrical room was about the size of a large classroom, and every available surface, including the ceiling and floor, was sheathed with informational displays. The floor was devoted to a giant symbolic representation of their current star system; looking down, Ryouko found herself standing on part of the system's Oort Cloud.

Ringing the room was a line of dark black chairs, arranged so as to face whichever part of the wall was nearest, and each accompanied by a small console. Each occupied chair was ringed by an additional set of constantly flowing holograms. A small circle of three chairs sat in the middle of the room, facing inward, towards a large cylindrical column that occupied the exact center of the room.

What surprised Ryouko the most, however, were not the features of the room, but the people within it. No one was standing; instead, officers sat in the black chairs, the backs of their necks covered by what appeared to be a piece of black rubber. This "black rubber" was connected directly to the corresponding chair by an intimidatingly thick cable, long enough to allow seated personnel to easily turn their heads, but not much more than that. Many of the chairs were not occupied, and Ryouko glanced over the ones that were, identifying "senior weapons officer", "junior navigation officer", "junior damage control officer", and so forth. Though Ryouko suspected the seats were interchangeable, many of the consoles were decorated with personal effects.

Mami watched her with an unreadable expression.

"It's a direct connection cable," Mami said. "You should be familiar with the idea, from your training. It's the same thing, except you can move your head."

Ryouko followed Mami over to the triad of chairs in the center, passing the only standing figure in the room, an avatar of Zhukov, who nodded at them as they passed.

One of the central chairs was already occupied, by the captain of the ship, Emilio Rodriguez, who looked up, nodded politely, then did a double‐take.

"Award ceremony, Commodore," Mami said, explaining the uniform.

The man nodded again, then settled back into silence.

"Sorry he's not more courteous," Mami explained. "It's very mentally taxing to run a ship. He's not even acknowledging me very much. It's understood."

Ryouko nodded, as Mami sat down in one of the other chairs.

"This is essentially the center of the ship," Mami said, settling in and placing her arms on the armrests. "Zhukov's most powerful computing clusters are in the area, and these interface chairs are the most direct, lowest latency connections to his primary consciousness. This column in front of me is the most direct manual input, in case of chair failure, and in the event of AI failure, is the most powerful command console on the ship. This area is also one of the most heavily‐defended, along with the main engines. Though of course there's a secondary bridge, and backup officers, and backup everything."

Mami gestured at the remaining chair, and Ryouko looked at her in surprise.

She pointed at herself, wanting to be sure. Mami nodded.

"We all have chairs we prefer; that's the first officer's, but he's scheduled for another section of the ship, and it's just a training thing, anyway. Sit down."

Not without some trepidation, Ryouko stepped forward, maneuvering into the last remaining chair.

Mami nodded pleasantly, as the cable attachment to her chair reared upward like a snake, expertly latching itself to the back of her neck, just under the head, the black rubber‐like material seeming to melt and flow to conform to a new shape.

Ryouko managed not to jump in surprise when something warm and liquid contacted the back of her neck a moment later. She felt the slight prick of the interface microneedles digging into her flesh, then the vague indescribable feeling she had learned to associate with this kind of connection—the feeling that somehow, next to your own consciousness, there was someplace else.

Welcome, the ship thought, and the texture of the thought couldn't be remotely compared to the voice of Zhukov's avatar, though they sounded superficially similar. The thought carried with it a visceral sense of welcome and beneficence, while seeming to suggest in its undertones tremendous power. It made no sense, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she could feel Zhukov's processing clusters thrumming in the background, a sensation that this was a mind vastly more powerful than hers, however human it may seem.

A Version Two TacComp, I see, the ship commented. Not something usually seen at your rank and standing. Special experimental exception, it seems. It does not matter. It's always good to meet a new one.

There was a pause, and Ryouko knew somehow not to say anything, despite the pervasive sense of waiting.

Uh, hi, Clarisse responded, finally, thought seeming flimsy and weak in comparison, and nervous, somehow. Hello. Uh, nice to meet you, I suppose.

I feel as if I should point out that I'm here too, Mami's TacComp thought, and somehow Ryouko knew that it was Machina doing the thinking, not Mami, despite the similar voice.

I meant to ask earlier, Mami thought. But your parents got you the upgrade somehow, right? I read the approval documents.

Yes, Ryouko admitted. My father.

Realizing she had closed her eyes without meaning to, Ryouko opened them again to look at Mami, who was watching her with a slight smile.

I recommend you close your eyes again, Mami thought, this time telepathically.

Okay, she thought, closing her eyes as instructed. She had a feeling of anticipation, and didn't know whether it was her own or imposed by the ship.

Well, let's not dally too much, Mami thought. Let us proceed as planned, Zhukov.

Indeed, the ship thought.

Without waiting for Ryouko's input, the sensations of the world began to disappear, the pressure of the chair underneath her rapidly dropping away. She braced herself for the familiar brief sensory deprivation that accompanied immersive chair simulations—but instead, as the outside world faded away, a new world took its place, the transition occurring smoothly. She had the sense of gradually floating out of her chair, as stars appeared in her field of view, even though her eyes had remained closed.

Then Mami's gently smiling face appeared in her field of view, off to the side, and she was at last able to orient herself—somewhat.

Stretched before her was a starmap of Human space, the likes of which she had last seen in the Mitakihara starport. Like that one, this was colored by region of control, a serene blue for areas still in Human control and an angry red for regions of alien incursion. An array of symbols decorated the map, Earth and the Core Worlds drawn extra‐large. A vague fog seemed to obscure the far distance, where knowledge of the relevant areas grew scant, contracting to only the sum of astronomical observations.

She seemed to be floating in the midst of this particular starmap, though, rather than watching the ceiling, as she had done at the starport. Realizing abruptly that she had no sense of gravity, she turned to face Mami, and found herself executing the turn automatically, with no need to apply magical pressure or transfer angular momentum. But then, it was a simulation, of course, and come to think of it, there was no vacuum despite their apparent position in extragalactic space, outside the plane of the Milky Way.

"In this simulation, you can go wherever you want with a thought," Mami said, voice clearer than life.

To accentuate her point, the starfield transitioned impossibly fast, zooming past them in the blink of an eye. Too busy watching the scenery, Ryouko noticed too late that she was falling, and only barely managed to land properly onto newfound ground, bracing herself on the powdery surface with both arms, the feel of the surface beneath her hands reminding her of fine gravel.

Standing back up, she looked at Mami's standing figure—and at Earth framed behind her, hanging half‐visible in the sky. She looked down, and realized where this crater‐pocked surface must be.

Mami, who had been watching her with arms crossed, turned to look at Earth too, dropping her arms back to her sides.

"I visit when I can, which isn't often," she said. "I miss it. But simulations like this take a lot of resources, so let's move on."

With the same abrupt transition, Ryouko found herself in interstellar space again, flailing her arms slightly.

"You've heard of the Euphratic Incursion, right?" Mami asked, turning to face her. "Look how advanced the lines are."

An angry red involution in the smooth sphere of Human space called itself to attention, its internal symbols growing more prominent and pulsing slightly.

"At the beginning of the war, before we even had any idea what was going on, they established fortified outposts around us, to lock us into this segment of the Orion Arm," Mami said.

On cue, a set of glowing red points surrounding part of Human space revealed themselves.

"The majority of settled space is actually empty," Mami continued. "So we won't run out of colonization space for a long time, but it forced us to redesign our emergency long‐distance colonization plans."

Suddenly, they zoomed in on the Euphratic sector, so that the area in question formed a majority of her field of view.

"Those outposts also form a significant problem if the sector is lost," Mami said. "The position of the salient is such that if we lost the sector, we'd have to divert military supplies above or below the salient to reach the far edge of the sphere. Because of how narrow Human space is out there, we could hardly do so without running into those same outposts, which are exceedingly difficult to clear and tenaciously defended. It would not be worth it. Effectively, we'd have to withdraw our defenses in the far edge to the other side of the salient and shorten our line. Our military cannot survive without supplies from Earth and the Core Worlds."

This time, Mami pointed at the starfield in front of her as she spoke, and the view in front of her shifted and rearranged to suit her explanation, showing with arrows the described force movements.

She leaned forward, and the view zoomed in again.

"Currently, the tip of the salient, the focus of the fighting, is in this system, the Kepler‒37 system. We are here—"

This time, when Mami pointed, the world shifted again, and Ryouko found herself suddenly floating within only a few feet of a large asteroid, one with a strangely metallic—

No, she realized. The HSS Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov.

A moment after Ryouko's realization, the material in front of her seemed to vanish, appearing again only because Ryouko was looking for it, and because of her sheer proximity. It took another moment for her to realize that the vessel was massive, stretching far away to her left and to her right. It was no wonder her initial guess had been "asteroid" and not "starship". The scale was nearly incomprehensible.

She looked around, and found the escort vessels of the fleet surrounding her, the cruisers, frigates, fighters, and assorted drones that comprised the meat of the fleet, along with two other battlecruisers, the Horatio Nelson and the—lengthily named—Jean‐Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau. They were colored to be difficult to see, but the symbols that showed up in her field of view easily made up for it. An escort MedEvac flew directly past her, small, agile, and missile‐shaped, with its cargo of deployable mages clearly labeled, complete with individual specialties.

Peering into the distance, Ryouko found that she could see labeled locations for the planets of the system: the three fiery inner worlds, the relatively small colonized worlds of Apollo and Artemis, an asteroid belt, and the distant gas giants. The colonized worlds each had an orbital shipyard, the inner worlds and asteroid belts had mining, research, and defense facilities, and the outer worlds—well, those were generally under alien control. The situation was fluid, without clear‐cut battle fronts. Intra‐system FTL jumps allowed easy penetration both ways into poorly defended areas, which were generally wherever there weren't planets or asteroids to defend, and wherever the constantly fluctuating ship traffic routes didn't happen to be. Of course, penetrating into a random patch of empty space rarely garnered you any rewards, and could be responded to quickly.

Mami put her hand directly onto the virtual hull of the Zhukov, patting it.

"We're holding trajectory near the planet Apollo," she said, pointing at the planet in the distance in front of her. "This system, with its two shipyards, is critical to the defense of the sector due to its heavy starship production. Loss of the shipyards would seriously impact fleet operations through the area."

Ryouko turned to look at the distant planet, only visible as a bright star at this distance. Focusing on the planet, it suddenly filled her vision, and she received a flow of information on population, economic productivity, emergency exigencies, and so forth. And, of course, information on its shipyard. All of this entered her mind as sudden, unlearned knowledge.

Mami seemed to lose focus for a moment, looking off into the vacuum of space.

Ryouko thought for a moment, deciding whether she should ask.

"Ah, um, To–Mami‐san," she asked, hesitant. "I'm just curious: Is there a specific reason you're telling all this to me, or is this just for my information? I really appreciate it, but—"

She stopped, realizing that Mami still wasn't listening, her head tilted upward. Mami wasn't just looking off in a random direction; she was watching something.

"I'm sorry," Mami said, finally, looking back down. "I have to kick you out. Something unexpected came up. You can stay on the bridge and use the crew interface to follow, but try not to get underfoot."

Ryouko was unceremoniously ejected from the simulation, the stars and ships fading almost instantly out of view. She opened her eyes and found herself looking at the two commanders in their command chairs, both with eyes now completely closed, rather than maintaining partial contact with the real world as the captain had done earlier. The connector had already removed itself from Ryouko's neck.

"Battle stations," Zhukov thought simply, the thought arriving clearly and directly into her auditory cortex, without any preamble. Ryouko instantly understood what had so drawn Mami's attention.

She stood up, wondering whether "crew interface" meant one of the less important chairs that ringed the room, or something else. Before she finished formulating the question, Clarisse informed her that Mami almost certainly meant the standard unattached interface used by most of the crew, rather than any of the chairs on the bridge. Ryouko glanced around hastily, and found a corner to stand in between one of the entrance doors and one of the consoles, as officers poured into the command center.

She leaned against the wall, requesting the relevant interface, feeling uncomfortable from the questioning glances of arriving crewmen, though they looked away as soon as they registered that she was supposed to be there.

A restricted starmap of the local area unfurled itself in her field of vision, overlaying itself over her view of the bridge. Ryouko wavered for a moment, uncertain of whether to commit all her attention to the battle view or to save half of her attention for the bridge. Then she decided, giving the command to black out her own vision and replace it with a battle view.

She toggled field command mode, though she wasn't sure how much she'd need it.

It seemed that a significant alien carrier force had been spotted approaching attack range of the shipyard orbiting the planet Apollo. It was, the operational analysis indicated, almost certainly insufficient to inflict meaningful damage to the shipyard itself, but only if the fleet responded significantly. It fit the pattern of attack over the past week: just enough to attrit the Human fleets and force them to stay committed on defense around the two planets, but not enough to represent a serious committal of resources. It kept them pinned and unable to concentrate their forces, and it didn't help that the planets were on opposite sides of the star at the moment.

Ryouko frowned. If she understood this correctly, recent alien activity seemed to be defensive in character, as if "they were confident that the situation would turn decisively in their favor soon"—so the operational assessment pouring into her head indicated. But it contained no indication as to why the aliens felt this way, or even any guesses.

You received that analysis on a Level Two Access level, apparently because Tomoe Mami has an active Classification Exception for you for reports of this type, Clarisse thought. That's only done if you need to know… which it seems you do. But I'm not sure why a first lieutenant would need elevated access here… and it raises the question of what here is too sensitive to include in a Level One analysis.

She probably intends it to be an educational thing, Ryouko thought. She is my mentor, after all.

She told Clarisse that, but privately she still wondered about the analysis's silence in explaining recent alien fleet activity. It was doubly troubling: firstly, because of the discrepancy itself and secondly, because she knew from past experience—both recent and pre‐contract—that classified material was never handled so sloppily. If a discrepancy existed, it was intended that those with Level Two would notice the discrepancy, even if apparently they would not receive the full explanation.

Then she realized that Clarisse was reading her thoughts anyway, even if she wasn't explicitly forming the words.

You think deeply, Clarisse thought. Well, about some things. It makes my job easier, since I don't have to train you to. We have subroutines just for this. We have subroutines for a lot of things.

Within field command mode, Ryouko had plenty of time to divert to thinking of this sort, as the battle winded through its opening, preparatory stages. Mami's sectorial First Fleet was moving to intercept the alien fleet, the winged polygon glyphs that represented the Fleet's battlecruisers shifting menacingly in the direction of the carriers to keep them from getting too close. As she watched, the flow of time dragging onward, the carriers decelerated, slowing their approach, launching a wave of interceptors and bombers.

They're not being serious, Clarisse thought. They're not bringing any blink cannons.

They're being serious enough that we're here, aren't we? Ryouko thought.

Around Ryouko, the Zhukov shuddered slightly, as its main SHERMAN gun fired in concert with the other battlecruisers. The projectiles were anti‐fighter, designed for projectile speed and timed dispersal rather than impact energy and FTL disruption. Fired into the path of the alien craft, it forced the ships to break formation and lose speed, and local gravitational effects disrupted steering control on the relatively lightly‐engined craft.

The enormous wave of alien craft entered the first layer of defenses, the wall of hastily deployed smart flak, mines, and other obstacles dropped by the outer line of screening frigates. About ten percent of the interceptor and bomber signals disappeared from the interface, confirmed destroyed. The rest activated stealth devices, and their trajectories on the tracker became unstable, ships disappearing and reappearing as brief glimpses of sensor contact were used to correct predictive estimates of location.

The screening frigates were already in the process of returning to the main fleet, but could not outrun the alien ships in time. A layer of drones, human interceptors and Magi Cæli mitigated losses, but the alien vessels fed on the easy targets, shredding weak hulls and detonating FTL engines, so that the screening line became a depressing array of disappearing signals, dozens of frigates disappearing each second as the casualty rates spiked upward.

When the fight reached the cruiser line, with its enormous drone counts, well‐stocked mage complements, and heavy defenses, the alien craft abruptly turned away, focusing on bombarding the stationary mines and flak they had just passed through, assisting specialized craft that had already stayed behind. Standard tactics, clearing the way for the following waves of ships, already on their way.

The second wave of bombers reached the cruiser line, and had a much tougher time of it. Missiles and projectiles veered off course inside a variety of defensive systems, were intercepted, or detonated on forcefields. MC mages danced throughout the area, stopping attacks, detonating ships, and wreaking other forms of defensive havoc, dodging the occasional hard radiation bomb and other forms of lightning‐quick death.

But the alien bomber waves did not linger to engage the much larger human ships face‐to‐face. They veered out of the area as soon as their main armaments depleted, making way for the next wave of alien ships. The alien fighters seemed endless, arriving in wave after gigantic wave despite the heavy attrition imposed on them—indeed on both sides—while the Human fleet lumbered forward, struggling to close the distance to the alien carriers. The battlecruisers kept firing, targeting the ships as they arrived, but unable to use their main guns for their intended purpose.

They're not being serious, and we aren't either, Clarisse thought. We're not committing the stealth MC frigates. There's a directive to conserve fleet strength, but no explanation why.

The battle ground onward, and the losses began to pile up—more and more frigates, more light cruisers, a heavy cruiser. Ryouko reflected that, for the average crewman manning an anonymous post somewhere on a giant ship, it must be refreshing to have an idea of how the battle as a whole was going, even if one couldn't personally see it.

Finally, a human carrier near the edge of the defenses broke up and detonated under a wave of laser fire, its engine areas no longer able to take the strain. It was probably the most significant loss of the day, and indeed caused the single highest jump in casualty counts. The alien craft stopped arriving soon after; the human battlecruisers were nearly in close enough range to attempt FTL interdiction with their SHERMAN cannons. The aliens were too coy to stand around waiting for that, already forming the FTL shells necessary for departure. The moment the last interceptors and bombers returned to the area around the carriers, the fleet departed. The First Fleet made no attempt to pursue—the aliens were faster.

An attritional battle, one that seemed almost meaningless, except for the still‐updating casualty reports, which were Access Level One. AI/Personnel Losses: roughly twenty‐two thousand. Mage losses: twenty‐eight, with eighteen critical cases still being resolved, or en route via MedEvac. Another eight were heading back as soul gems alone, but were at least stable. Ryouko wasn't sure what was worse: that she felt easily capable of brushing off twenty thousand dead in the context of the rapidly growing, two‐hundred‐million‐strong Human military, or that twenty‐eight mages seemed like a tremendous number to her, somehow.

With a thought, she exited the interface, and the battlecruiser's command center snapped back into focus. None of the battlecruisers had come under even light fire, and officers were already in the process of leaving, returning to personal quarters or other regions of the ship. For a long while, Ryouko just stood there and watched, wondering what she was supposed to do. Mami, still silent and immobile in her chair, was not giving any instruction. Ryouko supposed that there was a lot to deal with, in the aftermath of the battle, but she couldn't just keep standing here. Her schedule was empty after this. Mami was supposed to—

Just as Ryouko began to consider sending a message to ask, Mami's eyes opened and her head turned, pinning her with a sharp‐eyed look that was almost a glare. It was so unlike what she had grown to expect from the woman—girl?—that Ryouko stepped backward involuntarily, wondering what she had done wrong.

Come over here, the marshal commanded by telepathy, and Ryouko hurried to obey.

Sit, Mami told her, before she could ask any questions.

She sat, and again there was the feeling of something warm and liquid against the back of her neck, the sensation of interface array inserting itself into interface port—

This time she found herself not in the depths of space, but in a cozy conference room, decorated in the manner Ryouko had expected of Mami's cabin earlier, without the maritime flavor. The walls and long meeting table were real, dark wood, and much of the decoration consisted of old‐style framed portraits, of what appeared to be primarily Unification Wars UF Generals. There, for instance, was Marshal Wu, Admiral Eberhart—

She stopped, gasping slightly. She knew where this was.

Her eyes had stopped on the far side of the table, where a giant‐sized version of the logo of the Armed Forces of Earth was inscribed. Two arrows pushing upward against a rounded envelope, it had long ago replaced the more complex emancipation‐themed seal of the UF.

And if that hadn't been sufficient to tip her off, she could have easily referred to Field Marshal Roland Erwynmark, Chair of the General Staff, who had appeared next to her, giving her an unreadable look. It went without saying that she had never seen him this close before. The marshal was not movie star handsome—a fact that had disappointed a decade of filmmakers, most of whom ended up using artistic license to touch up his face—but his charisma was legendary.

Almost ridiculously, Ryouko found herself thinking that Ruiko would kill her if she found out, since the girl belonged to the marshal's legion of online fangirls.

Before she fully had time to process this new development, face frozen in an incredulous expression, she found herself shaking hands with the much taller marshal, her virtual body performing the action automatically—Clarisse was covering for her. Suddenly, the room contained not just Erwynmark, but also Tomoe Mami and Kuroi Kana, the latter of whom somehow contrived to remind Ryouko of one of her more lethargic classmates, even here.

"It is good to meet you," Erwynmark said formally, tipping his embroidered cap. "Tomoe has only had wonderful things to say about you, though of course you are inexperienced. I was inexperienced too, once. I don't think either of these two ladies can say the same."

"You never fail to remind us of our ages, Erwynmark," Kuroi said, in seemingly good spirit, but with a slight undertone of warning.

"You may be wondering why you're here," Erwynmark said, addressing Ryouko. "The reason is that, while I respect Tomoe's judgment, I'd like to see you for myself before talking to the rest of the Staff. Much rides on this."

Rides on what, sir? Ryouko almost said, but she bit down the sentence. She would surely find out soon.

"Let's get to it, then," Erwynmark said, glancing at the others, who nodded.

With a gesture, the surface of the table lit up, a series of grainy holographic and flat images filling the space about the formerly wooden surface. They appeared to be all of the same object, some sort of building situated on an arid surface.

"I'm sure you've seen this somewhere in your training," Mami said, leaning forward and gesturing at the holograms.

Ryouko frowned slightly.

"That's a wormhole stabilizer, isn't it?" she said, after doublechecking with Clarisse. "I'm not sure, though. It looks misshapen."

"That's because it's incomplete," Mami said. "But it is far closer to completion than we would wish, far closer than we previously thought it was. They've already begun testing major components."

The hologram above the table shimmered, replaced by a map of the local star system. It quickly zoomed into one of the system's distant gas giants, then to one of the planet's moons, an unpromising‐looking barren rock. One region of it lit up, a small structure appearing on the surface.

"A few weeks ago, we discovered a wormhole stabilizer being built on this moon," Mami said. "They were trying to hide it by not placing obvious defenses in the area. We sent in a MagOps team, but they were detected and destroyed."

Mami glanced at Ryouko, gauging her reaction, as did the others. Ryouko had wondered why Mami was the only one talking, but she had figured it out: she was Mami's trainee, chosen to learn this information. It would have been unseemly for Erwynmark to brief her.

More importantly, though, Ryouko was thinking through the implications of what she had just heard. She knew what wormhole stabilizers did, of course, but thinking back to the image Mami had shown earlier—to build one here, in the middle of Human space, would drastically shorten offensive supply lines, and—

"This is the real reason they're here, isn't it?" she said, surprising herself by saying it out loud.

Mami smiled slightly, torn between natural pleasure at receiving the right answer and the gravity of the overall situation.

"Well, it's most of the reason," she said. "The shipyards are still important. It's a brilliant synergy. If we lost the shipyards, we wouldn't have the strength to mount an attack on the generator. If the generator goes online, then we most likely lose the shipyards. Both must be dealt with at the same time."

"If the team you sent was detected," Ryouko said, a moment later, "then that means it's no longer secret."

"One of your cousins died trying to carry out that raid," Kana said, sounding vaguely angry.

Erwynmark cleared his throat.

"We're overstretched," Erwynmark said. "Put bluntly, the fleet is not built for offensive operations, not against forces of this magnitude. Against so many units, we can hold a fortified position—in fact, we were doing quite well—but we cannot counterstrike. There's a chance we couldn't break through to the moon even if we stripped Apollo and Artemis of all fleet cover. They exploited our weaknesses perfectly. We thought time was on our side. It wasn't."

But you attacked the Saharan Sector! Ryouko wanted to say, but the words died stillborn on her lips. If the famously daring author of the Saharan Raid didn't think offensive action would work, it probably wouldn't.

"Then what?" Ryouko asked, meeting Erwynmark's look, part of her in disbelief that she would ask such a blunt question. "You can't possibly have brought me here just to tell me this!"

The field marshal smiled, more broadly than Mami had earlier, the expression spreading slowly over a face that had previously been severe and serious.

"No, of course not," he said.

Ryouko followed his gaze back to Mami.

"The operation failed during the insertion phase," Mami said, looking back at her. "One of the girls did something wrong, or the aliens have developed even better sensors. Either way, they were unable to successfully traverse the full distance between low orbit and the interior of the facility. Because of the atmosphere, they couldn't get closer than one hundred eighty kilometers without compromising stealth unacceptably. An obvious solution would be to repeat the attempt, but carry out the teleportation in one jump, rather than by relay. There is only one person with that kind of range."

Ryouko couldn't pin it down, but there was something unsettling in Mami's tone. It seemed dull, somehow, as if it lacked a dynamic range it would normally have.

And then she finished processing Mami's statement, which had been so terse that Ryouko had gotten lost trying to decide what detail she should ask about first. As it was, though, she immediately settled on:

"Are you suggesting that I go on the next raid?" she asked incredulously.

"It was out of the question to put you on the first one," Kana said, her normally pleasant and mild voice carrying strong undercurrents of fury. "We could have rushed you out and slapped on some emergency training. We judged it a bad idea. It's still a bad idea now, but we do not have better ideas."

Her ancestor's expression was searing, her eyes filled with a harsh, overwhelming fire. Kuroi Kana no longer reminded Ryouko of a lethargic classmate or anyone else she knew. Instead, Ryouko felt as if all four centuries of Kana's life burned within those eyes—it was an elemental look, of the kind that a human shouldn't have been capable of.

"The squid will be even more ready this time than the last," Mami commented. "Now that they no longer fear detection, they can openly place defenses and detection equipment. Our only advantage is that they might not think us willing to try a second time."

"They do not understand the nature of a cornered beast," Erwynmark said. "They have demonstrated this many times in this war. We can only hope they haven't learned any lessons."

The others turned again to look at Ryouko, who was at a loss as to how to handle the ensuing silence. She felt—

"I'm not ready," she said, looking downward, face haunted. "I'll do my best, and I'll try not to fail, but I'm not ready. This whole sector depends on this, doesn't it?"

"None of us are ever ready," Erwynmark said, looking at her with a grave expression. "Not with your level of experience. What matters is whether you rise to the occasion. You seem intelligent and perceptive. It would be unreasonable to expect more at this point."

He placed his hand on her shoulder, surprising her into looking up.

"You'll do fine," the marshal said. "I can tell you will. And you won't be alone."

Then he looked around at the other two generals, nodding at each in turn. Tipping his hat, his body dissolved, disappearing from the simulation.

"Our family is one of Humanity's most distinguished," Kuroi Kana said in Japanese, walking up to her. "And as much as I hate to admit it, so is Shizuki's. I won't pretend that makes success guaranteed. I have every confidence in you, though."

The girl held out her arms, and Ryouko only realized an awkward moment later that it was an invitation for a hug.

The matriarch patted her head soothingly as they hugged, and Ryouko could not help but be struck by the apparent absurdity of this teenager, only a little taller than her, treating her like a child.

Then the other girl pulled back, keeping her hands on Ryouko's shoulders.

"Come back alive, okay?" she said, looking into Ryouko's eyes with a mournful look. "I've lost too many children already, in my lifetime."

"I–I will," Ryouko assured, not sure what else to say.

The director of the Black Heart nodded, dropping her arms. A moment later, she, too, dissolved.

"She and Shizuki Sayaka were best friends, once," Mami said, expression unreadable. "But she ruined it. It wasn't her fault; she did what she had to. Deep down, Shizuki‐san knows that. But she still can't forgive her. If she ever did, they'd be best friends again. That's what I think."

She paused.

"For the two of them, family is everything," Mami finished. "I can't say I blame them. You have to have something to hold on to."

"What do I do now, Mami‐san?" Ryouko asked, not even stopping to wonder why on Earth Mami was talking about Sayaka at a moment like this. "I should prepare somehow, but—"

"There is not much time left," Mami said, returning to the main topic. "The longer we wait, the more the defenses improve. I'm sending you down to Apollo to assemble with the rest of the team. You'll practice before going. It should help. And—"

Mami turned to make sure Ryouko was paying attention.

"I hear you have a grandfather in the military. He's stationed on‐planet at the moment. You should visit. You'll have a day off to do it. I can't really spare more. If it weren't a combat zone, I would have had your parents and other family flown in."

"But—" Ryouko began, but Mami silenced her with a hand to the shoulder.

"Trust me," the marshal said. "It's not just you. The rest of the team has been visiting family, too. It'll do you good. I wish I could help you more, but I'm too busy here. If I had my choice, I wouldn't be sending you out like this."

Mami stopped, clearly trying to think of something else to say. A moment later, she shook her head at herself.

"We can talk more later," she said. "I think I need a nap. Well, once we're done cleaning up after the battle."

The simulation dissolved around them.

Mami was in a great mood.

True, earlier that day she had sensed Kyouko in the distance, and it had invited dark thoughts. Just as true, there was the matter of that new self‐styled Southern Group to contend with. She had a lot of problems… but it could be dealt with later. She had just paid a visit to the supermarket, found some nice bell peppers on sale, and decided she was going to make pasta. That made everything better.

She actually found herself humming a little tune as she climbed the stairs to reach her apartment. Yes, she was probably overdoing it a little with the forced cheer, but over time she had learned that forced cheer was better than no cheer at all, and could be made to feel almost as good, with just a little effort.

As she neared her apartment, she slowed her pace, frowning. She smelled something—had one of the neighbors accidentally burned their cooking? No, this didn't quite smell like that. It smelled like burning, though. Burning… wood.

She found herself feeling suddenly apprehensive, despite her attempts to shake it off. As she inserted her key into its slot, she felt herself tense up.

The scene on the other side of her door was almost beyond her comprehension. Everything—smashed. They had come in through the balcony, and destroyed everything that could be destroyed. Her precious china collection, passed down through her family, was in pieces on the floor, mixed in indiscriminately with pieces of her other plates and wood shards from the smashed cabinets and furniture. The wall was smashed in in multiple places, literally none of her furniture was still standing, and even the dishwasher and oven had had their doors ripped off. A giant pool of water flooded the floor, leaking out from under the sink. It didn't look like her home—it looked like a trash heap.

She stared for a long, agonizing moment, then tried to stagger forward, but her legs gave out underneath her only a few steps in. She pressed her palms into the floor, heedless of the glass cutting into her right hand, and felt the inevitable tears arriving. She—

"What do I have left?" she demanded of the empty room, or perhaps of the universe itself. "You've taken everything! My family, my only friend, my home—What the hell do I have left?"

The universe did not answer, and she sat there, crying until she had nothing left.

As she tried to suck up her last tears, the scent of smoke again tickled her nostrils, and this time she made the connection.

She got up slowly and unsteadily, leaning on the wall, forcing herself towards her bedroom, toward the smell of fire. The doorway was ringed by black char marks, and when she finally reached the threshold, so that she could see the smoking, blackened ruins of her bedroom, she felt something snap inside her.

She did not stop to consider that it must have taken deliberate effort to burn the contents of her room and nothing else. She knew only that they must pay.

They must pay.

Mami woke with a gasp, the remains of the anger still swirling in her mind. She lay there for a long while. It had been a long time since she had last had that particular dream.

She wished she could say that she remembered nothing after that, that her next memory was of Hinata Aina's maddening, insane laughter ringing in her ears as Kyouko forcibly dragged her away from the Southern Group, binding her with that flexible spear of hers, succeeding only because Mami had too little strength left in her to effectively resist.

The truth was, she remembered every last second of it, every last second of her inexhaustible rage overriding every other possible consideration—of her ceasing to care for her own life, as long as she could extract some measure of revenge.

Then, impossibly, one of the things she had lost returned to her, and life had meaning again.

She shifted position, and fell asleep again.

"Say, Mami."

Mami looked up from the stew she was stirring, tilting her head backwards to look at the cropped‐hair girl, who was leaning her head on the kitchen counter dejectedly, almost as if life had grown too oppressive for her.

"What is it, Miki‐san?" Mami asked, still swirling a wooden spoon with one hand.

"I'm sorry if this is too personal, but when you first contracted, you were alone, weren't you? How did you deal with the loneliness?"

Mami's hand froze mid‐stir, her eyes fixating on Sayaka's face briefly.

She turned back towards her stew.

"I focused all my energy into demon hunting," she said. "I did everything I could to get better, and spent all my free time hunting. I don't think I really dealt with it, though. It was more like waiting. If no one had ever shown up, I might have died waiting."

"I feel so useless, compared to you and Kyouko," the girl behind her said. "Both of you have gone through so much more than I have, but I'm the one who can't feel satisfied with this life."

Mami tasted the stew on the spoon. It wasn't savory enough. She added a pinch of salt.

Sayaka had been miserable this past week. They had all noticed, but none of them had known what to do about it. Mami had hoped that by holding a get‐together at her apartment she might uplift Sayaka's spirits, but so far it didn't seem to be working, and the pouring rain outside didn't really help the mood.

Perhaps things would improve when Kyouko and Homura arrived.

"Sakura‐san and I only survived because of each other," Mami said. "If you're feeling unhappy, you should confide in someone. Saku—Kyouko tried to go it alone, and it almost ruined both of us."

Mami didn't think she could hint more openly than that, but she heard no response. She sighed.

"If it doesn't have anything to do with Mahou Shoujo business, maybe you can talk to Shizuki‐san," she suggested. "She's your best friend, right?"

"Yeah," Sayaka said resignedly, turning her head away. "Yeah, she is."

Mami thought that was the end of it, but she heard Sayaka mumble something.

"What was that?" she asked.

"Nothing," Sayaka insisted.

Mami placed a transparent lid over the now bubbling stew, and watched it for a long moment.

"Something's missing," Sayaka had said.

Sometimes Mami felt that way too.

The dream lost narrative flow after that, slipping into the absolute darkness that characterized deeper sleep. It was a while before she dreamed again.

"What the hell is she thinking coming out here alone?" Kyouko fumed. "Did she really think we wouldn't notice?"

They peered over the edge of the building, watching the tiny figure of Akemi Homura in the distance, standing on the docks next to the water. It was cloudy, in a way that suggested rain—rather unusual for the season.

"I don't know," Mami said. "It's quite a risk, with that Southern Group around. We agreed to stick together for a reason. And going to the edge of the territory like this—"

"Who knows why she does anything anymore?" Kyouko asked. "Ever since Sayaka died, she's been, you know, all crazy and stuff."

Kyouko's anger petered out at the end of the sentence, as she remembered just what exactly had triggered the change in Homura's behavior.

"You took it pretty hard yourself, Sakura‐san," Mami said, urging patience with a small, conciliatory smile. "I think we can give her some leeway. We're here now, and nothing seems to be happening, so it doesn't seem to be an issue."

"Mami!" Kyouko said, making it into a forced whisper even though there wasn't anyone else close enough to hear her. "Look!"

While they had been talking, another girl had appeared near Homura, approaching Homura slowly. The girl was foreign, with long hair, and carried herself confidently. She was a teenager, but still clearly older than any of them—if visual age could be relied upon. Homura visibly jumped, spinning around with an obvious expression of dismay.

Mami narrowed her eyes, focusing her attention on the newcomer. Yes… a magical girl. What was someone like her doing in their territory?

She grabbed Kyouko by the arm. Without even looking, she knew Kyouko would be getting ready to transform and jump off the building.

"She doesn't seem hostile, Sakura‐san," Mami said. "Let's see what happens, first. If we jump, we could aggravate the situation. Akemi‐san can take care of herself, at least briefly."

"Do you think Homura came here to meet her?" Kyouko asked. "Without telling us—"

Mami shook her head sharply.

"Akemi‐san is obviously surprised," she said. "Look at her behavior. She didn't expect this."

"What is this about, then?" Kyouko asked, looking at Mami's face. Mami didn't answer, because she didn't know.

They watched for a long time in silence, nervously tense, ready to jump down at the slightest hint of trouble—but there was no trouble, even if Homura looked ready to transform at the slightest wrong movement. The two girls stood a respectable distance apart and just talked, for a long while. Finally, the new girl turned and departed. It seemed very anticlimactic.

When the girl seemed to be safely out of the area, Kyouko and Mami finally headed down. The area near the docks kept deliberately clear of buildings to make way for shipping traffic, but it was eerily empty.

Homura was still standing by the water, staring at the now‐clearing sky.

"Who was that, Homura?" Kyouko asked, skipping the pleasantries.

"I don't know," Homura said, turning to look at them. "She said she was a wanderer, that she was just passing by and won't give us any trouble. Seems to have traveled here from overseas, if you can believe that."

"It's rare to hear of one of us traveling to a different city, much less a different country," Mami commented.

"Yes," Homura agreed, flipping her hair with one hand. "I think she's very powerful. I offered to let her join us, but she declined, of course."

Mami had difficulty reading Homura's expression. The girl seemed… quieter, more thoughtful than usual. Mami got the feeling Homura was only partially paying attention to the conversation, that she was thinking about something.

For one thing, she definitely wasn't making eye contact with either of them. She was still watching the sky, even if she was now facing the other direction.

"And that's it?" Kyouko said, seeming almost disappointed. "That can't be it!"

"Maybe not," Homura said, smiling slightly. "She said she expects to see us again, probably. She wasn't sure."

"Another Oriko?" Mami said, frowning.

There were only a couple of people in the world she referred to by personal name, and it wasn't because of personal intimacy.

"Maybe," Homura said.

Finally, Homura looked down from the sky, facing the two of them. The sun had emerged again from the clouds, illuminating the three of them in almost symbolic fashion.

"She seems friendlier than Oriko, though," Homura said.

Mami shook her head.

"You know how I feel about Oriko," Mami said. "I can't say this doesn't bother me, a little."

"Let's go," Homura said, walking past them, back home. They watched her for a long moment.

"Wait a minute," Kyouko said loudly. "Why were you here in the first place? Hey, get back here! We have questions!"

Mami smiled indulgently, shaking her head, and completely missed the abrupt transition in scenery, as sometimes happens in dreams. The ocean and sky were replaced with wall paneling and office furniture. In an instant, Kyouko and Homura grew taller and much older.

"Stop being irrational!" Homura demanded, slicing the air with one hand in a gesture of frustration that indicated clearly that she would have grabbed Kyouko by the collar if she thought it wise.

"I told you, I am not working with that woman! Not anymore!" Kyouko shouted back.

Mami snapped her head back and forth between the two angry women, trying to think of something to say.

She held her hands up in a conciliatory gesture.

"Now, now, we can talk this over," Mami said. "There's no need to—"

"Do you understand how badly we need her support right now?" Homura demanded, turning to face Mami. She slammed a fist into the desk they were standing next to. "We're leveraged to the hilt to finance our newest expansions! If we don't receive a new injection of cash, the accountants are going to jump out the windows!"

She turned back towards Kyouko.

"There was a plan, Kyouko! The plan did not involve you getting into a fight with the family we're counting on for money!"

"You weren't there," Kyouko snapped. "I went trying to make friends, settle a few things. I didn't know she was going to be such a goddamn bitch about it!"

"Gain some goddamned maturity! If you're so ridiculously hung up about the past, at least swallow your pride for now. This isn't the streets anymore, Kyouko! Do you know what I—"

"Enough!" Mami interrupted, slamming the desk with both hands. "Sakura‐san, please, get out of here. We'll meet with her without you. Akemi‐san, if worse comes to worst, we can always resort to extreme measures."

"Mind‐control?" Kyouko spat, making the phrase an epithet. "Once was more than enough for me, thank you. Even if it was just getting the regulators to overlook some creative accounting."

"We'll think of another way," Homura said, seeming to cool down rapidly. "Kyouko, whatever our opinions are on this matter, you have to agree that you can't go with us for this meeting. That's a terrible idea, no matter how you look at it. Go home."

Kyouko looked between the two of them, took a breath, then turned and headed out the door, slamming it shut behind her.

Mami and Homura stood in silence for a moment.

"You know," Homura said, "we don't have to go all the way to mind‐control. Things would be so much easier if we just wiped the woman's memory. It would solve so many problems. I bet that's the first thing Yuma will suggest, when she hears about it."

"She's still got a lot of Oriko in her," Mami said, slightly disgusted. "I'd hoped we could get it out of her by raising her properly. Anyway, the point is, I won't condone something like that. Besides, what would the younger Shizuki‐san think? No, there are other ways to get money."

The door behind them opened with a slight creak.

"I hear Kyouko‐nee‐chan has really screwed the pooch this time," Yuma said, sticking her head through the doorway. Unexpectedly tall, her hair flowed downward, luxuriously long in imitation of Kyouko.

"That's what you two are talking about, right?" she asked rhetorically. "I know you won't like it, Mami, but I think a memory wipe is the right solution here."

Mami put her hand to her forehead, as if she were nursing a headache.

"No, Yuma‐chan," Mami said, closing her eyes. "I refuse. We can't just toss around these kinds of things like candy. I detest the whole idea. I don't like memory wipes. I just don't—"

A sudden concussion jolted her eyes open. Screaming sounded from throughout the plane, along with the roar of sudden decompression. Loose objects flew through the air at ballistic speeds.

"There has been a severe explosion," the captain said over the crackling intercom, voice straining with suppressed panic, barely audible. "The situation is bad. Please brace for impact."

Before there was time to think about it, there was an audible Snap! as the rear end of the jetliner detached and disappeared behind them. One moment it was there, and the next it was not. Simple as that.

Time seemed to slow.

In one swift motion, Mami left her seat, slicing off her seat belt with a jolt of power. As the plane was now in virtual freefall, she was able to float herself over her fellow passengers.

Stay here! she thought, to the passenger next to her. I'll try to—I'll do what I can!

Heedless of anyone who might see her—assuming they even had the time among their terror to look up—she applied another burst of power, placing herself next to the yawning cavity where the rest of the plane had once been, full of sun and sky and ground. Bracing herself against the ferocious wind, she transformed, reaching out to grasp what she could of the front body of the plane with her ribbons. She worried that she wouldn't be able to handle it, but she shook that thought aside. She could not let the passengers die—could not let—

"Inferno Razzo," she yelled, even at a moment like this.

It was a relatively new move, one she had perfected only a couple decades ago, after thinking about what had happened with Yuma. A modified Tiro Finale, instead of firing a projectile, it fired continuously, like a rocket, hence the name. It was designed for extremely rapid movement, such as Hinata Aina had once been capable of.

Except here she was trying to use it to slow the descent of one‐third of a damned Boeing Starliner, using herself and her ribbons as an interface between the falling plane and the rocketing cannon desperately straining to go upwards.

She clung to the giant cannon with one arm for dear life, binding herself to the magically‐summoned metal with more ribbons. She felt her body screaming under the stress, and swallowed the pain—she could only hope that the Incubators had designed it as well as they claimed.

With a screech barely audible over the roar, two of the rearmost seats in the plane broke off, hurled away by the onrushing air. Barely dodging successfully, Mami swallowed, doing her best to forget about the passengers those seats had carried. She couldn't catch them. It wasn't possible to save them all.

The ground rushed up towards her, impossibly fast. She didn't have enough time. She would have to let go—

No, I can't! she thought. She won't survive! I have to—

Her cannon started to sputter. She was nearly out of power. She could feel it.

There was no time left; she had to make a decision now—

She let go.

With what remained of her power, she was able to slow her descent to something distantly reasonable, the rest of the plane impacting explosively beneath her.

I shouldn't have tried to save them all—

She hit the ground—

Mami woke again with a gasp, a fine sheen of sweat covering her forehead. What the hell—

I was afraid I was going to have to wake you again, Machina thought. That was another impressively strong dream.

I'm fine, Mami responded automatically. I'm fine.

She lay for a moment longer, listening to her own breathing.

Machina, do you know what the last part of that dream was?

I do not, Machina thought. But I'm already storing it for future reference. It seemed… quite vivid.

Sighing, Mami checked her internal chronometer. It was time for her to get up anyway.