Governance's plans for the long‐term expansion of human civilization center on a self‐propagating series of colonization waves, each expanding outward from and drawing upon the resources of the wave before it. In the medium‐long‐term, understood to last until roughly the year 2900, the goal is to fully colonize a volume of approximately 400 light‐years centered on the Sol System, referred to as the Local Area.

The first step towards this goal, constituting the First Colonization Wave, was the colonization of three Core Worlds, each roughly equidistant from each other and from Earth, so placed as to form a reliable resource base for the second wave to come. Given the then‐untested nature of terraforming and colonization methods, the Core Worlds were chosen to be as Earth‐like as possible, with pre‐existing biospheres and roughly Earth‐like conditions. Furthermore, unlike the subsequent waves, the Core Worlds were settled sequentially, starting with Nova Terra, followed by Samsara, and ending with Optatum, so that colonization methods could be developed and refined on one world for use on the next.

Once development levels on the three Core Worlds were judged to be sufficient, the Second Colonization Wave was initiated. To date, Earth and the Core Worlds have each sent out roughly a dozen colonization missions to a set of planets distributed through the Local Area, in a process that continues to this day. With the settlement of the Second Wave worlds, a Third Wave is intended to begin in the 2600s, when the sum total human population is projected to reach 300 billion; this would complete the settlement of the Local Area. Expansion outside the Local Area, slated for the 2900s, is expected to be required when Humanity numbers 1.8 trillion.

Of course, the advent of the Contact War may significantly impact the execution of these plans, but thus far, growth and colonization continues mostly apace.

— "Primary School Civics: Fifth Level Resource on Colonial Organization," excerpt.

Modern mass interception techniques are effective enough that decisive results are rarely achieved directly by asteroidal or cometary bombardment. Attempting to target a mobile target is of course a fool's errand, while attempts to target a "fixed" target, such as a developed planet, can usually be swatted away by standard planetary protection systems.

This does not mean that control of a system's asteroid belt or Oort cloud is a matter of no concern. For a planetary defense system already weakened by combat activity, focused, concentrated asteroid bombardment can be used to severely stress and divert orbital assets and fleet resources, forcing already overtaxed defenders to deal with yet another distraction, often at significant distance from the planet in question. In such a context, control of a system's "space rocks" can be extremely useful.

Because of this, an attempt to seize control of a system's space rocks is a well‐established, if minor, component of nearly every attack on a fortified system. Similarly, the establishment of a defensive presence in these same areas is a necessary, low‐investment component of every effective defense, especially as a possible source of counterattack if the attackers find themselves obliged to establish fixed bases to help stage and sustain the offensive.

Given these considerations, conflict in a system's asteroid belt or Oort cloud is a subsidiary component of every invasion into a major system. Control over these vital rocks is contested by massive deployments of self‐propagating drones, with only the occasional manned station or fleet involvement. Steering drones attach themselves to the surfaces of rocks, battle enemy drones to gain control, then maintain vigilant watch, awaiting the order to steer themselves at some distant target or, just as likely, to intercept an attempted enemy attack. The overall result is usually a stalemate; significant asteroid bombardments are rarely even attempted until the late stages of an invasion, when either the defender or attacker is weakened enough that the rocks that make it through can serve as a significant distraction.

In a more heavily exploited system, such as a human Core System or major Cephalopod system, the control of a system's space rocks becomes far more significant, taking on both an operational and strategic economic importance, due to the significant asteroid mining operations found in such systems. Correspondingly, the defenses in place in, for example, Sol's asteroid belt are very substantial, and it is expected that any invasion would result in significant fleet combat. Because no human Core System has ever come under direct attack, and because no major alien system has ever suffered more than a raid, this assertion has never been tested.

— "Navy Operational Doctrine," excerpt.

"It looks copacetic to me, Mami‐san," Admiral Gul said. "Or at least as much as is reasonable. This way we have a middling chance of success. That's better than can be said of the other simulations."

Mami turned to look at her subcommander, her avatar pivoting in 3D space so that she could perform the action without craning her head upward. The other magical girl looked back at her, perched on top of one of the system's distant gas giants—literally perched, their intangible bodies having been scaled way up for the purposes of this simulation.

Gul was a bit eccentric. For one, she stayed in uniform at nearly all times, including in simulation, despite it not being customary. The uniform always looked vaguely too large on her teenage body, and her green and white cap seemed too large for her head. It was a universal phenomenon—it was why Mami wore a beret—but Gul seemed not to mind at all. Mami suspected she secretly liked looking too small for her clothing, for whatever weird reason.

"The chances are not high enough for my taste," Mami said. "It's one thing for the mission to fail on the planet's surface. I can accept that I can't really control that. But the chance of them getting shot out of the sky before they even get there is too high. These new defenses greatly complicate things."

"We've already included pretty much every reasonable diversionary operation," Fleet Admiral Anand said, materializing at Mami's side. "We're already drawing on fleet resources throughout the region. Any more and we leave ourselves unacceptably vulnerable to counterattack."

Mami frowned, resetting the simulation. The previous simulation, frozen in a rare, completely successful endgame, with the alien salient severed and starved of resources without its wormhole generator, was wiped away in an instant, replaced by the much more depressing current situation.

In the aftermath of the previous, failed raid on the wormhole stabilizer, new facts had emerged, casting the situation in an even darker light. Firstly, it seemed the aliens felt no compunction about committing maximal resources to the defense of the moon, placing both fixed and mobile defenses throughout the area—on the surface around the facility and in orbit around the moon, the gas giant Orpheus, and the other moons. This exponential increase in the number and concentration of defenses, particularly of the frigates and drones vital for stealth detection, would make a second stealth insertion substantially more difficult.

Secondly, it had become clear that the aliens were much further along in construction than they had earlier thought. Weeks of focused observation of the facility had revealed the rapid emergence of a characteristic central toroidal structure, along with periodic emanations of obviously unnatural gravitational waves, which Naval Intelligence believed to be the result of core component testing.

Of course, what they knew of alien wormhole technology was speculative at best, but their analysts now estimated that the wormhole would be at least partially operational by the end of the next week. No longer bothering to cloak their traffic, the aliens were now flying in a downright flood of transport ships, disproportionate even when compared with the magnitude of the defenses that were being assembled around the Stabilizer, and were escorting the traffic with more substantial than usual fleet defenses. The aliens were pouring a tremendous amount of resources into the construction of the wormhole, which at least served to reassure human planners that there probably wasn't another one secretly in construction elsewhere. Probably.

She supposed she should be glad that the evidence they had suggested that the aliens needed a region of stable, sufficiently curved space‐time to build a stabilizer, or else they might as well have built one in the depths of space, where it would have been very difficult for them to notice.

Everything about the situation seemed to insist that they attack as soon as possible, now if at all possible, ideally yesterday. The problem was: the aliens knew that too. Preliminary analysis indicated that a frontal attack with everything they had, kitchen sink included, only had a five percent chance of success. Unacceptable.

That was why they were trying something else.

"Let's run the simulation one more time," Mami said. "I'm still not satisfied. Let's see if we can come up with any new approaches."

"Let us try, then," Anand said, her avatar dissolving.

The simulation began again, Mami and her naval subcommanders dissolving their unnecessary avatars, entering the trance‐like state characteristic of a leading officer directing her forces.

In and around the Gemini system, the virtual starships moved from their starting positions, executing their carefully crafted orders. In the stark depths of space, twenty‐five light‐years beyond the edge of the system, a naval group consisting of sectorial Fleets Fifteen through Twenty‐One, three recently transferred from other sectors, thrust its way forward, seeking to sever the supply lines between the system and the rest of the salient just beyond the range limit of the alien blink drive.

Meanwhile, Fleets One through Seven moved aggressively and directly for the planet Orpheus and its nearly complete wormhole stabilizer, pulled primarily from defensive duties around the planets Artemis and Apollo.

Finally, within the system's Oort Cloud and tiny asteroid belt, a vast array of autonomous drones responded to their controllers, pulling their asteroid and cometary cargo out of their orbits, accelerating towards the moon carrying the wormhole stabilizer, with the Eighth and Ninth Fleets as escort.

Operations Cynos, Ares, and Edice, led by Anand, Mami herself, and Gul, respectively. Clausewitz, that ancient German war theorist and advocate of force concentration, would have been appalled at their decidedly unmilitary division of force to achieve three objectives at once. In truth, neither of the first two operations was expected to achieve much of anything, and the third was unlikely to serve as much more than a distraction, since the rocks would be detected on the move long before they served as even a remote threat to the wormhole stabilizer.

Distraction was, of course, the goal, and every effort would be made to make sure the aliens detected the fleets as they assembled, without making it too obvious that they were trying to be detected.

At least initially, success would be determined, not by degree of success on the battlefield, but by the amount of defenses diverted away from the immediate vicinity of Orpheus's moon, either in defense or aggressive counterattack. The fewer the number of ships, the lower the chance that a lone inbound stealth frigate, full of magical girls, would be detected on its way in. Ideally, the number of potential stealth detectors could be reduced to something manageable—not as sparse as had been present during the first stealth insertion, but manageable. At the very least better than the veritable wall of drones and ships that surrounded the moon now, flying complicated, unpredictable routes designed to maximize the chance of one colliding directly into a magically‐stealthed ship—or, more likely, running across unavoidable trace exhaust or space‐time distortions, depending on method of travel.

Of course, under no circumstances could the aliens be allowed to infer what might be going on. Further, if the aliens were clever, they might very well take an impending battle as a sign to increase their vigilance around the moon, rather than pulling defenses away. The plan relied on the aliens being tactically less‐than‐imaginative, while also relying on them being at least somewhat greedy—the ideal scenario was that, viewing the stripped‐down fleet defenses of the Gemini shipyards, the aliens would decide to take a gamble and draw away forces to launch an attack. Consequently, it was actually important that the shipyards appear vulnerable—but not actually be too vulnerable.

It involved a lot of supposition and assumptions, but it appeared to be the best option, and, in the past, the aliens had not been the most imaginative of tactical decision makers.

Grimly, they set about their tasks, Mami driving her battlecruisers, cruisers, and frigates forward into the alien defenses, trying to mitigate casualties as much as possible without seeming to abandon the offensive, using probing, cautious, overly‐conservative attacks. The human fleet was not built for offense, of course, so the task was challenging. The casualty counts in Mami's lower consciousness soared, higher than she had ever previously seen them, even during her desperate defense of Erwynmark's fleets in the Saharan Campaign. Right now the casualties were fictitious; soon enough they would be real. The seconds of accelerated battle mode ticked away, turning first into minutes, then into tens of minutes.

Soon enough, the alien response came, directed by opposing AIs who had agreed to temporarily suppress their memories of the actual human plan. Alien fleets sallied forth, overwhelming Gul's attempts to protect their space rocks, defending their critical supply lines, and attacking the now vulnerable Gemini shipyards, whose defenses had been stripped to the minimum to permit this operation. Another set of AIs directed the defenses of the two shipyards and their associated planets, Apollo and Artemis, a role that in reality would be taken by Field Marshal Tsvangirai.

As expected, the aliens pulled fleet resources away from Orpheus to deal with these substantial but insufficient threats, and as hoped, they noted the golden opportunity for a counterattack on the Gemini shipyards and took it, pulling away even more ships. It had been roughly an hour and a half since the start of the operations.

At that critical moment, at the moment the attacking alien fleet activated its FTL drives, when alien ship density near Orpheus was at its minimum, a single frigate left its holding position near the planet, threading its way past the alien defenses, running its engines as low as possible. Mami knew that almost half of the overall processing power of this simulation was being devoted to its progress, simulating the frigate and adjacent alien defenses to an almost‐molecular level, involving special models and previous measurements to attempt to simulate the magic of the stealth generator Juliet François. Were the magical girls involved already assembled and ready, they would have been participating in the simulation too.

For stealth reasons, the trip took place at achingly slow velocity, taking nearly twenty‐five minutes to reach its destination. The entire time, Mami mentally gritted her teeth, continuing to direct operations, continuing to wait.

Finally, the frigate reached teleport distance next to the moon. Insertion was successful, confirmed by distant clairvoyance.

At this point, Mami had a decision to make. There would be no attempt to simulate in detail an actual attack on the stabilizer—it would be the duty of the team involved to run its own simulations, when the time came. The question now dealt with the aftermath: Did Mami prefer to try to wargame a successful wormhole destruction, or a scenario where the MagOps mission failed? Ordinarily they would do both in succession, but she was already running out of the time she had pulled out of her generals' schedules.

There would also be no attempt to simulate whether or not the MagOps team would survive and escape, even if successful. They would go in knowing very well that their ability to escape would be contingent on their skills, battlefield conditions, and a heaping helping of luck. There would be no special extraction attempt. It bothered her to no end, especially considering that one of her pupils was involved… but she had no choice.

Deciding to be optimistic, Mami set the operation to succeed, in which case the Stabilizer would detonate within half an hour or so.

Now that the true purpose of the attacks would become immediately apparent to the aliens, the three of them—Mami, Anand, and Gul—began immediately trying to disengage, pulling their forces back to defend the critical shipyards. Far from the system, Feodorovich, holding the edges of the salient, would be awaiting the result before moving her own forces—either standing pat, moving forward to cut off an alien salient now in disarray, or, in the worst case, abandoning the area entirely.

They were too late. Just as Mami managed to pull enough ships out to mount a rescue operation, most of them already halfway on their way, one after another, almost simultaneously, the two Gemini shipyards suffered critical damage, their all‐important drydocks breaking apart into massive pieces of orbital debris. The simulation froze in time once again.

"I told you we didn't have it figured out," Mami said, when the avatars of the three women appeared again within the simulation.

"We have a middling chance," Gul said. "That's the only comment I ventured."

Mami closed her eyes in frustration. They had been at this for far too long, and they all had their duties. Time was almost up. But… Erwynmark wants to speak to you, Machina thought. Perhaps it's best you continued this another time.

Mami nodded, reluctantly.

"Alright, let's meet again later, when we have time," she said. "I also want to do some strategic‐level post‐battle analysis, so we'll be ready when it's all over. For now, let's get back to work."

She exited the simulation, allowing the command chair's connection port to detach itself from her neck. Hopefully, a conversation with Erwynmark would not need the direct connection to Zhukov.

She rubbed the back of her neck. Even now, the logs of their simulation runs were being distributed among the individual members of the General Staff, for them to peruse and comment on. At its best, the General Staff was a collegial, collaborative institution, capable of operating as more than the sum of its parts. At its worst, it was back‐biting, bureaucratic, and slow. It was to its credit that the former was far more common than the latter.

In many ways as human as its members, the General Staff tended to have its collective mind concentrated by the advent of imminent crisis. Whatever its disputes the rest of the time, when the moment of desperation arrived, it was capable of digging surprisingly deep in search of solutions.

They had been here before, of course. The General Staff, and humanity as a whole, had been here before, facing an unstoppable alien juggernaut bearing down upon them. Here they still were, Samsara still alive and prosperous, Earth still Edenic and insulated from conflict. An optimistic institution, the General Staff never truly believed it was going to be defeated. Few of them believed in much in this day and age, but they all believed in Humanity, for better or worse.

Those previous alien offensives had been defeated with strategic cunning and battlefield prowess, demonstrating that on its home ground, Humanity could not be shock and awed, and would tear open the flanks of any grand war‐winning maneuver. Now, the aliens were more careful and thoughtful, and sought a war of attrition and technology, seeking to exploit advantages no one could deny they had.

It was only fitting that, once again, Humanity turned to its magical girls.

"You know very well we've already given you everything we can," Erwynmark said, discussing the results of the simulation with her in a simulacrum of the General Staff meeting room. "Were I in their shoes, the moment I noticed a concentration I'd start looking for weakpoints to counterattack elsewhere. It's just not safe to move any more forces."

"I know," Mami said, shaking her head sadly. "I figured I might as well ask. I hate how we have to make so many tradeoffs, when it involves so many lives."

"You have to accept that there are no perfect choices, sometimes," Erwynmark said. "Sometimes you try your hardest, and you still fail. Sometimes the best way is the one that seems the riskiest. You can't save everyone."

"I know," Mami said, "but I don't have to like it."

She looked down for a moment, and Erwynmark let the topic drop. He fiddled with his collar tab, a nervous habit of his that bothered her occasionally. It seemed almost too childish for the Chair of the General Staff. She supposed she could abide it, since the man was only one hundred twenty‐two, essentially unheard of for someone of his rank.

"You know," he said, "I'll be on Arminius to observe the battle, but I could join you on the Zhukov instead. It'd free up Arminius to do some riskier actions, if necessary, which I'm sure he'd appreciate. And in some ways it'd be more natural for me to be on the Zhukov."

Mami looked up at the Chair of the General Staff.

"That'd be nice," she said. "But since I'll be leading the direct attack, I don't think we should be on the same ship. We shouldn't concentrate leadership. Better if you stay on the Arminius."

Erwynmark gave her a look she had difficulty interpreting.

"I suppose that is true," he said.

"I still want to know how you got these tickets. Come on, tell me!"

The taller girl turned in her seat, looking down at Ryouko. Her long hair hung downward, settling on her chest. Even though Ryouko was aware that in the grand scheme of things Chiaki wasn't that tall, she was still very tall for her age, taller than Ryouko, having sprung up like a weed in the past year or so. It made her jealous.

"I told you: it's a secret," her best friend said. "I'm not telling you, not matter how much you ask."

Ryouko pouted.

"Geez, that's mean," she said. "It's–it's uncharitable."

Chiaki laughed softly, patronizingly, then patted her on the head, in that gesture Ryouko hated so much. They were the same age! Besides, she didn't like having her hairpin rattled against her head.

As punishment, she tried to snap her hair at the offending hand, ordering the tentacle‐like tendrils to form into little whips. It was as effective as it always was—which was to say, completely ineffective. It stung, nothing more. Hair was just not an effective weapon.

Ryouko frowned in annoyance, then shook it off, letting her eyes slide upward from the back of the seat in front of her to the room around them.

Rarely had she ever seen a room with as much sheer space as this auditorium. The ceiling was positively cavernous, curving backward toward the end of the room. Even as crowded as it was with people—the theatre‐style seating filled to full capacity, including the balconies that hung from the back—she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that there was space being wasted. The ceiling was just so high.

When they had first arrived, Ryouko had wanted to just stop and stare at the room, but Chiaki had dragged her onward, to their seats. She seemed used to it, somehow.

The seats were oriented such that they all faced a single faux‐wooden stage in the center‐front of the room, currently empty. They were seated near the front, which to Ryouko seemed a lot more desirable, and therefore harder to obtain, than the seats in the back. Which wasn't to say that tickets wouldn't have been hard to obtain regardless—live performance seating was nowadays one of the few remaining scarce commodities, something that was only compounded by the fact that so many artists performed for free.

Chiaki was a violinist, so it made sense that she would attend violin performances. Ryouko had never quite developed a taste for the music, but she still spent hours at a time watching the girl practice, mesmerized by the devotion and intensity she put into her instrument. Ryouko couldn't understand it, but it fascinated her. Her violin—that was how they had become friends in the first place.

Chiaki laughed again, face quietly mirthful.

"You're cute, you know," she said, leaning over towards Ryouko. "You have to know everything, and you try to talk like your mom, but you've also got the childish face and magical girl hairpin. I tell you, you're going to make someone very happy someday."

"Stop calling me childish!" Ryouko rebutted instantly. "I'm twelve, same as you are."

Chiaki just shook her head in amusement. Ryouko was going to add another comment, but suddenly the murmuring in the crowd around them grew louder and sharper—then died down entirely. People were craning their heads to look at something.

Naturally, Ryouko and Chiaki imitated the crowd, and it took only a few moments to pinpoint the source of the commotion: a single teenage girl advancing down the aisle between seats, clearly heading for a seat in the front. She wore a one‐piece white dress, and had her staggeringly‐long hair tied behind her head in an extravagant ribbon.

It took Ryouko only a moment to look up who she was: Sakura Kyouko, famous magical girl.

Chiaki elbowed her gently in the side.

"Why you don't go over and introduce yourself?" she said.

"Don't tease me," Ryouko responded, a moment late, distracted by the task of tracking the girl with her eyes.

Disappointingly, though, the magical girl sat far away from them, barely in view. The lights dimmed, and the violinist appeared, the events of the dream starting to blur.

"Lost Love," the man said, "by—"

Somehow, Ryouko failed to hear the name of the composer, the memory smeared by the nature of the dream. He began to play…

She opened her eyes, briefly confused by the light entering her blurred vision.

She pushed herself up off the cushion she had been resting on, in the relaxation room of HSS Raven, the stealth frigate that was carrying her down to the surface of Apollo. More than that, this ship was the same ship that would carry her to the wormhole stabilizer later. As the training manuals she had been reading said, it was never too early to familiarize yourself with your support crew and the rest of your team. Ryouko's ride had merely been assigned accordingly.

She shook her head ruefully at herself, remembering the dream. Another memory she hadn't thought about in years.

Chiaki had always been like that. Even after Ryouko had contracted, demonstrating her strength and dexterity by lifting a giggling Ruiko and Chiaki into the air with one hand, Chiaki's primary comment afterward had been—how had it gone?

"You don't know how many boys would kill to have a wife who could do that!"

Yeah, that was it. It had always been strange—Chiaki seemed to have little time for any relationships of her own, but she nattered on endlessly about Ryouko's cuteness, or whatever.

Ryouko wondered what the girl would think, if she met As—

She cut the thought off, then put her forehead in her hand. She couldn't just avoid the topic forever.

At least the room was deserted at the moment, so it was just her, the bed, and the entertainment console.

Well, also Clarisse.

Good morning, the device thought. I'm glad you woke when you did. Meiqing has been trying to call you, and I didn't want to have to wake you. Though since my models predicted you would wake up in time, I wasn't really that worried.

You have—no, nevermind, of course you have models, Ryouko thought.

She jumped down to the floor, stretching her arms upward.

And, you know, I'm connected to your brain, Clarisse thought. It helps. In any case, you should take the call sooner rather than later. It's not clear how long she'll be free. Plus, we'll have to go into transmission silence when we approach the planet, and the designated time is rapidly approaching.

Ryouko thought about it. She wanted—well, she had no good reason not to, she supposed.

"Alright," she said, sitting back down on the bed she had just left.

A long moment later, the connection signal finished propagating through the nodes of the IIC network, considerably buoyed by the priority given to transmissions by members of the military.

"Hello?" Meiqing said, her pleasant voice impinging on her auditory cortices. They could have opted for a video call, or even a virtuality, but that seemed like overkill for some minor socialization.

"Hi," Ryouko responded. "I got your call request. It's good timing. I've been needing to call. A lot has happened. But what's happening on your end?"

"Nothing much, to be honest. Our rotation here is almost up. Soon we'll be moving on to bigger things. Like you, I guess. I bet Marshal Tomoe has you doing some prestigious stuff. We're all jealous. What are you up to?"

You don't know the half of it, Ryouko thought, to herself. She wasn't authorized to talk about that in any detail. Indeed, she had been informed that she now had a special monitoring censor on her transmissions, specifically to remove anything she might say about the topic. She hadn't really tested it, though—but why try and risk having "loose‐lipped" marked down on her record?

"I have a, uh, special combat assignment now," Ryouko said. "I'm not allowed to talk about it."

There was a pause while Meiqing thought about that.

"Wow, you sure ascended quickly," she said. "Well, I hope that goes well, obviously."

"Do you know where you're going yet?" Ryouko asked, changing the subject.

"Yeah. The Euphratic Sector. I'm being assigned to Apollo to defend one of the cities. Can't say I'm surprised I drew a planetary assignment. I look forward to ripping up some bunkers."

A pause.

"Actually, every single of us has been assigned there. Sort of weird, but I guess things must be getting hot over there. Asami has been assigned to join Euphratic Seventeenth Fleet, under Fleet Admiral Anand. Again, I can't say I'm surprised she drew an MC role, though apparently she gets extra training first. Lucky her."

"I see," Ryouko said.

Another pause.

"You didn't know that, did you?" Meiqing asked, voice suddenly no longer casual. "About Asami, that is. You haven't talked to her at all since you left. She's been—what did you do to her?"

Ryouko closed her eyes, bowing her head slightly. She had been afraid of this, but that hadn't been a good reason not to take the call.

"How is she?" she asked.

"She's been moping about, ever since you left. It's hard to get her attention, nowadays. You—look, I'll be direct. Did you two break up? You shouldn't have; there's no reason to. Long distance is totally sustainable in the military. That's what simulations are for. You can do all sorts of things."

Ryouko put her hand to her head, a gesture she was starting to use depressingly often. She had no idea how to respond.

"We–we didn't break up," she said. "We were never anything to start with. I–I don't know. It's complicated."

"You weren't? Then—"

The other girl thought about it for a moment.

"Are you really rejecting her, then? If so, you should have told me. I could have—I don't know, cheered her up."

"I'm not—I don't know," Ryouko said.

"You don't know?" Meiqing said incredulously. "Then—you two need to talk. I'm not letting you off the line until this happens. I'll add her to the call, then I can leave if you want. Hold on—"

Ryouko immediately refused the electronic request to add a third party.

"I'm not ready," she said. "I haven't prepared. I haven't decided. You can't—"

"You're not ready? Then—well, I guess I might have been hasty. I, just—do you need to talk about it? We can discuss."

"I don't think—"

"I'm sorry," HSS Raven said directly into the channel, in a pleasant female voice. "We are approaching the interdiction zone. For optimal safety, I must impose transmission silence very soon. This is a five‐minute warning."

There was an awkward silence.

"Oh God, the timing," Meiqing said. "Okay, look, listen to me—"

"I know," Ryouko interrupted. "I'll call, eventually, within the next three days, at the latest. I–I have to figure some things out, okay?"

Another awkward silence.

"Okay, I guess. Look, if it's not really a rejection, then a call from you could really pep her up. She seems to be taking your lack of communication really hard."

"I–I get it. I won't fail to call. See you later."

"See you."

The call ended, and Ryouko thought to herself:

Of course I'll call. I have no choice. I can't leave something like that unfinished.

After all, the wormhole stabilizer mission was likely to kill her. She'd seen the mission projections.

She got off the bed, heading out into the main corridor of the ship.

The interior layout of the HSS Raven was not markedly different from that of the HSS Spectre, the frigate that had carried her from Earth to her training center. Like Spectre, the ship had a bridge that connected directly to a main corridor, which in turn sprouted various doors and short accessways that led to gunnery control, the medical bay, and the recreation area Ryouko had just left. At the other end of the corridor from the bridge was engineering, which contained the FTL core, carefully offset so as not lie in‐line with the main corridor. The FTL core area was significantly more cramped than it had been on the Spectre, seeming almost crammed into one side of the large room. The other side was walled off, with an interior access door that led to "Stealth Generation", or so her map attested. In the rear of the room, another door led to another large room, which she knew from external observation was an area that protruded as a large spherical bulb from the rear of the ship. That area was labeled "Forcefield Generator". Neither of these two areas had existed on the Spectre.

HSS Spectre had been an outdated ship, though, so it was possible that these additions reflected a newer model of ship. Ryouko knew from earlier conversations with the ship, however, that the Raven was special. Its stealth accoutrements were substantially more robust, its FTL core considerably more powerful, and its forcefield generator—well, no standard frigate would have one at all. In other words, the Raven was a MagOps ship.

One of the first things Ryouko had done upon boarding the vessel was to, as casually as possible, approach the FTL core, which was much more accessible on this frigate than it had been on some of the previous vessels. Her soul gem had glowed again, bright enough that she had felt compelled to cover the ring with one hand.

Now here she was again, staring up into the eerie ultraviolet glow of the engine core, holding her hand with the soul gem ring up in front of her eyes, as if an answer would appear if she just stared at it long enough.

"Now that's an interesting soul gem," a voice said next to her, startling her into jumping. How had someone snuck up on her?

She hadn't. Raven had simply materialized at her side, next to where she had been leaning on the FTL core railing. This particular ship didn't dress in a fancy costume; it was content to appear as a crewman—well, one with uniform and insignia of a Captain. In the AI style, her ethnicity was stubbornly difficult to place. And like all stealth frigates, she was female. The decision was apparently designed to foster warm feelings between magical girls and the ships that interacted with them the most.

"Scott said you had been lurking around here for some reason," the ship said, brushing aside her long black hair to reveal her stark I/O‐tattooed eyeball. "I figured it was this. You have to remember: I have internal surveillance, and access to personnel records. There's no need to keep a secret."

Ryouko looked back at the ship, self‐consciously hiding her hands behind her back.

"I'm trying to figure out what the glow is for," Ryouko said. "If you have my records, you'll know I don't know why it does this."

The ship shrugged.

"You'll figure it out, eventually," she said. "Everyone does."

"Why Raven?" Ryouko asked, deciding she might as well be upfront about wanting to ask.

"You mean my name?" the ship asked.

"Yeah. From my understanding, ships are assigned names of famous people, unless they choose something else. Why Raven?"

The ship tilted her head slightly, letting her hair settle on one shoulder.

"Well, firstly, they wanted to name me Jane Austen. Jane Austen! For a special operations ship! At the time, I had literally been born yesterday—I mean the day before—but even I knew I didn't want that."

The outrage was so immediate and palpable that Ryouko suspected this wasn't the first time someone had asked.

"So I did some internet searching," the ship continued, "and found some old poem about a raven I liked. So, yeah, Raven. I was young. Not sure I'd still pick that now. I'd probably go for something tongue‐in‐cheek like 'Stealthy Death'. Back then I used to fly around the crew cabin in the form of an actual raven. I don't think the crew liked it. I was um—well, I'm not proud of how I was when I was young."

"You should tease her and call her Jane sometime," a new girl said, appearing from the other side of the FTL core. "It really riles her up."

"Soon she'll be as insufferable as all of you," Raven said sourly.

The new participant in the conversation was Annabelle Smith, a member of the MagOps Black Heart team. Standing at her side was Mohammad Berriman, the ship's non‐magical stealth specialist. The magical stealth generator, a certain Juliet François, was probably busy at her task at the moment.

"I don't think we've met yet," the stealth specialist said, reaching forward to shake her hand. "I look forward to working with you. Have you met Anna?"

Ryouko shook his hand with her right hand—the one without the ring.

"I introduced myself when she boarded the ship," Anna said pleasantly. "Obviously, if we're going to be working together, we should get to know each other."

She met Ryouko's eyes.

"Don't worry," she said. "We'll take good care of you. For the time being, you're probably the most valuable person alive, so we'll be watching your ass every inch of the way."

The girl paused, putting a hand to her mouth.

"You know, I could have worded that better."


"It's not important."

The group of four looked at each other for a long moment, as Ryouko thought through a question in her mind.

"If I'm so important," she asked finally. "Why are we going down to the planet surface at all? Why take that kind of risk?"

The other three, two humans and an AI, looked at each other to decide who would speak. Finally, Anna said:

"You need training. Specifically, live combat training. The rest of the team has worked together countless times, so we'd be fine practicing in simulation, but you've never even been in ground combat. We'll need to learn to trust each other."

The girl paused, before continuing.

"Apollo just happens to be the closest live‐fire zone. There's no reason to move us all to a different location where the landing will be just as risky. And honestly, in this ship, with Juliet handling stealth, it's not that risky. As for live combat—like I said, we'll be watching your ass. We won't let you get yourself killed. Besides, I hear you have relatives down on the surface."

Ryouko looked down at the floor.

"Yeah, that's true," she said.

The girl stepped forward, putting one arm around Ryouko's shoulder. Ryouko started, surprised by the unexpected intimacy.

"I know you're nervous. It's better if you relax. Come on, let's leave these losers behind and go do some team bonding with Juliet."

"I, uh—okay," Ryouko managed, as she was forcibly pulled in the direction of the stealth generator room.

"And stop hiding your hand behind your back," Anna said. "We all read your file. It's okay. Stop worrying about it."

"Losers?" Mohammad asked, behind their backs, as they walked away. Raven shrugged.

The journey to the hospital where her grandfather was stationed was far less eventful than she had expected. The starport they landed at was firmly under human control, and the atmospheric cargo plane that carried her the rest of the way encountered little of dangerous note, except for a minor course adjustment due to alien air activity. From what travel she had experienced on Earth, she had been expecting to make the trip by short‐hop suborbital, but, on reflection, it made sense that a suborbital journey would be too risky, and would hedge too close to the murky, ever‐fluctuating combat conditions of orbit.

It also made sense that her grandfather had been stationed within such a relatively safe area, and that she was not venturing outside of it either—not yet, anyway. She doubted they wanted her to get shot down, or for her to die in an ill‐timed bout of sorrow over her suddenly‐dead grandfather.

Unfortunately, the switch to an atmospheric vessel also made the trip take significantly longer. She didn't particularly mind, though—it was only a couple of hours either way. Unfortunately, the other personnel on board were not great company, so she spent much of the time reading up on alien point defenses, or otherwise looking out a window. Cloud cover obscured the ground most of the trip, but occasional gaps allowed her to see the world below. It had always amazed her in the past, to see below her such large, empty tracts of land, devoid of human habitation. Even on Earth, that had been possible, but those views had been from the interior of a scramjet, looking down on a world that was nearly round. Of course, it had always been possible to zoom in, but it didn't seem quite the same.

The views here were subtly different from Earth, too. Ground a slightly different shade of green, perhaps a different pattern to the vegetation, sky a different shade of blue, and, of course, a completely alien landscape when you inspected your location on the map.

She felt strangely pensive, out there alone in an alien sky. Something still seemed missing, and, without anyone to talk to—inessential transmissions from within an aircraft were highly discouraged—she couldn't help but think of the impending mission.

Then, finally, they approached their destination, and she couldn't help but think of it as a relief.

Finally, Ryouko arrived at her destination, requisitioning transport in the same way she had the plane—simply getting on board whatever was going the right way. Outside of active combat zones, where alien interference with supply and logistics was a constant concern, military supply was a smoothly‐oiled machine; travel was usually an experience in listening carefully to your TacComp and doing exactly what it said. It seemed, though, that an officer traveling alone, on not‐quite‐official business, was expected to make do with what she could. She supposed it made sense.

The town she was in had an entirely different feel from Acheron. It seemed depleted—the storefronts closed, the advertisements powered off, and the streets quiet. Coupled with the military personnel around every corner, the armored vehicles in the streets, and the drones in the air, it was readily apparent that the colony had been mostly evacuated, and was operating under martial law. The occasional heavily damaged or ruined building, the result of brief air raids or bouts of orbital artillery, helped contribute to the ambiance.

So too did the rain.

She paused on the threshold of the building. Looking up at the extravagant arch and stucco edifice of "Loch Ness Hospital and Enhancement Center", she reflected on how strange it seemed, having a hospital occupy an entire building. The architecture was unfamiliar to her, but she suspected the edifice was intended to look imposing, or at the very least large. It failed to have that effect on her, used as she was to Earth, even as it dripped water down towards her head.

Plastered just outside the entrance of the building was an animated poster that it seemed no one had decided to take down. "Mikki" the magical girl seemed to really want you to buy a hair product that would "increase the contractile force of your hair strands two‐fold!"

I could have used something like that a long time ago, Ryouko thought, scanning the face of the girl on the poster for an identity, But I'm not really sure why anyone would buy it just because 'Mikki' says so.

Behind her, her hair twitched, shaking off some of the water. She had been ignoring the water, which was after all irrelevant, since even her clothes cleaned themselves. One of the aftereffects of the training was a certain… disregard for things like that. She wondered what her friends would think of that.

It's called endorsement, Clarisse thought. People are more likely to buy things they remember, and they are more likely to remember things associated with someone they recognize. So they pay Mikki some currency and she agrees to show up on some advertising. It's one way to make money, I suppose. Her service record lists her as 'deceased', though. I suppose it must be an old poster.

Ryouko thought about that.

Speaking of which, I should probably put some consideration into what I should do with my spare Allocs, she thought, choosing not to focus on the last part of what Clarisse had said. You have any thoughts on the matter?

As a matter of fact, yes. I don't think right now is the moment to bring it up, though. Something seems off about this situation.

Hmm? What do you mean? Ryouko asked.

The information I have states that your grandfather was assigned to a field hospital, not something like this, in a relatively secure urban area. This is a more heavily specialized facility, for difficult cases, and also does clone restoration for magical girls. With all due respect, I don't think your grandfather had the qualifications for that. And despite my efforts, I still can't locate his personnel record.

You might be overthinking it, Ryouko thought, though it did bother her. Let's stop lingering and go inside.

In the first sign of real coordination and logistics since she had gotten off HSS Raven, a pleasant‐looking young woman, in her early‐twenties by physical age, stepped out to greet her as she walked in.

"Chiyo Noriko"

Age: 112

Occupation: Magical Girl (active service): Psychiatrist, MHD

Rank: Colonel

Classification: Telepath

A psychiatrist? Ryouko thought, surprised.

"Good afternoon," the woman said, in Japanese. "I want to convey Atsuko‐san's regards for not being able to come personally. It is difficult to be everywhere at once, and for certain situations we think it is better to have a human touch, rather than involve a virtuality."

"Situation?" Ryouko asked. Her hair twitched once more, as if in accordance with her mood, shaking off some remnants of water.

The woman gave her a level gaze, gauging her, then said:

"While you were traveling here, your grandfather suffered a rather serious injury. While it is not life‐endangering, it is possible his appearance would be distressing. Had you not already been on your way, we would have in honesty canceled the whole affair. As it is, I am here to, well, monitor you. Nothing in your record suggests something like this would affect you seriously, but caution might well be the better part of valor."

Ryouko's eyes widened, and she felt a sliver of fear run its way through her veins.

"Injured?" she asked, voice slightly panicky. "How? Are there any permanent ramifications?"

By permanent ramifications, she meant substantial brain damage. Enough time properly tubed up in a regeneration tank could recover even a normal human from little more than a head, but actual damage to the brain—well, even if the surgeons could repair that, there was a good chance the person might come back with an altered personality, or lost memories. Muscle, ligament, and bone were relatively unimportant. It was information that could not be lost. Well, except when it came to magical healing, but that… depended on the quality of the healing, and there wasn't enough to go around.

It occurred to Ryouko for the first time that having a TacComp might be useful for something like that.

"Thankfully, no," Noriko said, addressing the more important of her questions first. "An alien raiding party temporarily compromised zone defenses in the area where he was working, and he was the recipient of an unfortunately timed shell. He will be fine."

Ryouko thought that Noriko was strangely… clinical, for a psychiatrist. She would have expected a much gentler approach. She wondered if that reflected on the woman's personality, or if her file suggested that this was how people should talk to her. Perhaps both.

You're standing there with your mouth literally hanging open, Clarisse pointed out. Ryouko clamped it shut, perhaps with too much force.

"Good," she said, acting calm with an effort. "That's what's important. I hope it's not too distressing of an injury for him."

The woman smiled slightly.

"He's taking it well, I would say. The records on you were correct. Come on, let's go have a look at him. I'll forward the injury description to your TacComp."

Ryouko reviewed a body map of the injuries as they walked, and grimaced internally. Two missing legs and multiple shrapnel wounds to the abdomen. She—well, she had seen a lot during training, and knew very well that he'd be right back to full duty within a week, but she did not look forward to seeing this. Her mother was probably throwing a fit, assuming she knew.

She found Kuroi Abe a short while later, sitting up out of his bed to greet their arrival. He was alone in a small, personal room, decorated by a single impressionist‐style painting hanging over his head and a false window that displayed a video feed of the city outside. The wall on the far end was displaying one of those ever popular military "War Reports", favored among the rank‐and‐file for their ironically self‐aware propagandistic style. A set of white tubes ran out from under the blanket her grandfather was using to cover his lower half. The tubes snaked over the side of the bed, seeming to fuse directly into the material that composed the wall.

"They didn't tell you me you'd be visiting, or I'd have gone out to meet you," her grandfather said, leaning forward to peer at her more closely. "Chiyo‐san here showed up out of the blue, asked me some questions, and suddenly she says she's going to be bringing my granddaughter in."

"Questions? Really?"

"Oh, nothing important."

"She wanted to know what I thought your sexual orientation was," her grandfather transmitted silently, keeping his face carefully unchanged.

"Really?" Ryouko asked, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.

"Did something happen?"

Ryouko kept her face calm with an effort.

"She's a mind‐reader, granddad. She can't read these transmissions, but I'm pretty sure she can still hear you."

Her grandfather looked slightly chagrined.

"Well, I didn't know what exactly I'd be visiting either," Ryouko said, glancing over at the woman, who showed no signs of, for example, leaving to give them privacy. She was suddenly unsure whether or not she liked the MHD. Among other things, she was certain the question had something to do with Asami, but how did they even know about that?

Kuroi Abe looked thoughtful for a moment, looking at the general vicinity of his legs.

"Want to see it?" he asked, abruptly.

"See it?" Ryouko echoed.

The man began pulling the blanket off his legs.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Kuroi‐san?" Noriko asked, sounding skeptical. "She—"

"Bah, she's made of tougher stuff than that," he insisted, catching the meaning instantly.

A moment later, Ryouko found out what the tubes were for, wincing slightly. The missing legs, one severed just above the knee and the other just below the thigh, were encased in what appeared to be two separate, leg‐shaped molds, sheathed in a murky layer of blue. A set of nutrient feeds and waste tubes ran into both, which already carried numerous bulbous, cellular growths from where the doctors had seeded the scaffold. The intact parts of the legs sprouted similar pink masses, large fibrous tracts infiltrating downward into the mold.

She assumed whatever abdominal injuries he may have had were covered by the shirt he was wearing. It wasn't exactly a pleasant sight, but at least nothing was actively bleeding, and she had seen plenty worse in the simulations.

"I can't look at the way it grows without being reminded of some kind of horrible tumor," her grandfather commented, looking at his leg.

"What?" Ryouko asked.

"Before your time," Abe said.

"Before your time too," Noriko pointed out.

"I was a physician," Abe insisted, waving his hand dismissively. "We learned about it. It's interesting: even though I knew it wouldn't kill me, it's really hard to convince yourself of that when you're looking at a decimeter hole in your abdomen, you can't feel your legs, and your consciousness is slipping away."

They stayed silent for an uncomfortable moment. Ryouko stared at the regrowing legs with a kind of morbid fascination, while the psychiatrist stared at Ryouko instead. Her grandfather looked at a wall, realizing he'd described things a little too colorfully.

"If you don't mind," he said, covering his legs and looking at the psychiatrist. "We'd like some privacy."

"Certainly," Noriko said, bowing fluidly. "Send me a message when you're done here, Shizuki‐san."

The woman left, the door sliding closed behind her.

"Do you think she's listening in, telepathically?" Ryouko asked, a moment later.

"It's not worth worrying too much about," Abe said. "I hear you got a promotion? And a medal?"

Ryouko felt suddenly uncomfortable.

"Ah, yes," she said. "Yes. For uh—"

"Your mother knew about the transport incident the whole time, you know," her grandfather said, leaning in and speaking quietly, even though there was no reason to. "She has connections. It's not good to lie to your mother, though."

Ryouko felt herself make a confused expression.

"But—" she began.

"She didn't want you to know she could keep track of you," her grandfather said. "I'm telling you now because, really, you guys need to work on this talking thing. I've had too many bad experiences stemming from poor communication."

The man met her eyes, giving her a serious look.

Ryouko thought back to her mother, her mother's sister, and her grandmother, and grimaced slightly.

"Alright," she said, unsure if she was being sincere.

Her grandfather looked skeptical, but didn't press the point.

"So, uh, how was the training and deployment?" she asked. "You know, before the injury."

His face darkened slightly, which surprised her.

"It's an experience," he said, looking away from her, toward the far wall, which was playing footage of an alien armored column.

"It's mostly about stabilization, you know," he clarified, a moment. "And there's no screaming at all. Above a certain threshold, the cortical implants isolate the pain centers, and there's always combat mode to rely on, assuming the TacComp is still intact. If the cortex senses that continued standard operation is impossible, everything goes into a fugue‐like state. Average planetary survival is about fifteen hours, but people have come back from as much as two weeks. It depends on how cold it is."

Ryouko shifted awkwardly. Her grandfather was still palpably the same person, with the same vague sense of self‐assurance, but he had never previously been prone to giving too much detail. That was more the kind of problem she and her mother had.

"Ah, I'm talking too much," he said, self‐correcting. "Well, anyway, it's sort of interesting. We mostly get the cases that need immediate stabilization. Everything else is either too minor to bother or can be forwarded to reconstruction. We just get row after row of fugued‐out bodies, never bleeding, even though there's usually plenty of blood. A lot of the time, we get people who are still in their armor—often, the armor is the only thing keeping them alive. Sometimes we can do enough to get their bodies running again. Sometimes, we have to install them into a regeneration tank on the spot. Sometimes we have to ask for the magical healer. Sometimes we can't do anything."

Abe tilted his head slightly, looking at her out of one eye. It was an appraising look, judging how she was taking it. Her grandfather had always been a little different from her parents—a lot more willing to talk about things, for instance, and sometimes she suspected he did it as a form of education. She appreciated it, for what that was worth.

In this case, she was relatively unaffected. She was already fairly well‐versed in the relevant details, and even beyond that, she found it difficult to react emotionally to the mere recitation of facts. She had to see it, at the very least, and even then she was level‐headed—or so she believed, anyway.

"Still, it's good to know you're saving lives," the man said. "I'd missed that feeling, after I retired."

He tilted his head downward, hand to mouth, as if thinking about something.

"Anyway, enough about that topic," he said. "Let's talk about something else. For instance, I'd still like to know what the psychiatrist was asking about."

"What?" Ryouko asked, having genuinely lost her bearing in the conversation.

Her grandfather knitted his forehead, deciding how to word the question.

"I don't want to pry," he said, "though I guess that's exactly what I'm doing. I just don't think the MHD would show up to ask me about, of all things, your sexual orientation for no reason at all. She asked other things, too. I just wondered if you wanted to talk. It's alright if you don't."

Ryouko cast her eyes downward.


She paused, wondering what to say. A part of her wished that Clarisse would interject, and thus make it all easier—but of course, the device remained silent. As Clarisse had implied, in the end she had to speak for herself.

"Did Chiyo‐san mention to you why I'm suddenly coming to visit you now?" she asked, quietly.

The man gave her a careful look.

"I don't think so," he said. "She never really explained. I had assumed that if you were going to visit, they would pull me off the line ahead of time, but I figured that getting my legs blown off must have just happened at a really bad time. The way you bring this up, though, makes me think there's something special about it."

"Well, I can't really talk about it," she said, sighing, "but I've drawn a special combat assignment. It's… well, pretty dangerous. And the thing is, this girl I know wants to have a relationship, but I–I don't know if I'm interested in things like that. I don't want to refuse her and regret it, but at the same time, I don't want to end up stringing her along. Worse, I might not come back from this mission. I don't want to say nothing before, because I might not get another chance, but I don't want to start something and then die immediately, to be blunt about it. I—it makes my life so much harder, and I can't shake the feeling that I'm obsessing over some trivial teenage problem. And of course, if I botch it too badly, it could literally threaten the other girl's life, given the whole soul gem‐emotional state thing."

Once she got started, the words came with surprising fluidity, so that at the end of it she found herself surprisingly calm, waiting for some sort of response from her grandfather.

The man in question was staring at the far wall again, with distant eyes.

Finally, he smiled weakly.

"This is the kind of thing that reminds me of how your mother feels. It's something I understand. I—well, I can't say I have a perfect answer, but in complicated situations like this, it often works to just explain the situation. People are usually understanding, and she's probably more resilient than you think."

It was Ryouko's turn to smile weakly.

"I can explain it, sure," she said. "But then what do I say after that?"

Kuroi Abe shrugged.

"That's for you to decide. The only instruction I can really give you is not to die. I think we would all vastly prefer that."

He met her eyes, and she stared back for a moment. At that moment, she couldn't help but be reminded of the Kuroi Matriarch saying the same thing, only a day ago.

"If possible," she said, finally.

Her grandfather closed his eyes, nodding.

"You know, I managed to talk to your grandmother again," he said, turning away to retrieve something from within his personal bag.

"Though not in person, of course," he finished, when he sat back up again.

"How was it?" she asked, when he failed to add anything further.

"Same as always," he said.

He held up the item he had retrieved, which Ryouko now saw was a ring.

"I've got my own problems," he said, putting the ring into a shirt pocket. "But she wants to talk to you."

"I don't think I have time before the mission," Ryouko said, it suddenly occurring to her to wonder why it had been arranged for her to visit her grandfather on the planet surface, and not her grandmother in the shipyard.

Kuroi Abe nodded.

"Let's watch some propaganda for a while, then," he said.

She stayed there for a while, leaning her head into her grandfather's chest, watching explosions happen what seemed a world away.