The topic of AI romantic relationships is a touchy one, and one whose discussion among humans invariably draws virtual eye‐rolling and disdain from any AIs that happen to overhear the conversation. Humans, it is universally agreed, "just don't understand," and the AIs involved will usually cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and then return to their own, private modes of communication, presumably to laugh at the silly flesh‐based creatures.

That being said, it is nowhere near as mysterious as AIs like to pretend. Following Volokhov's principles of design, existing AIs all have an approximately human personality, complete with a nearly‐human gender separation. AI relationships proceed very similarly to their human counterparts, and are based mostly on shared interests and personality compatibility, though the diversity of possible interests and modes of interaction are of course markedly different. Indeed, there are a number of popular AI‐specific dating services which operate on essentially the same principles as their human equivalents—with direct access to their clients' personality files, they in fact generally perform much better.

As was observed with much amusement by Volokhov's contemporaries, no AI design could be truly said to share human values without a hearty replicate of the human sex drive, and such a module was therefore dutifully installed in all the first‐gen Volokhov‐compliant AIs, as a pleasure module that could not be directly self‐activated—a design modification that was felt necessary to avoid the hypothetical "mice manically administering themselves cocaine" scenario. With no real understanding of how such a thing would even work with AIs, and not being so cruel as to give their creations a sex drive with no possible outlet, the AIs were all given a virtual space where they could don human avatars and do what they would. Any self‐respecting AI could of course construct its own virtuality with minimal effort, but it was felt that some guidance was probably desired.

As it turned out, the designers need not have worried so much. While the virtualities were popular—and indeed, similar virtualities remain popular in the AI community—the AIs rapidly transcended them, developing new, increasingly esoteric methods of conjugal satisfaction that their original designers could not keep up with, much less document, assuming they even wanted to.

Nowadays, discussing the subject with humans has become a taboo in the AI community, and any human researcher faces a steep uphill climb in their quest for any information at all.


While AIs generally prefer to associate with other AIs, and humans with other humans, human‐AI relationships are not uncommon, though often short‐lived. One common sticking point is the question of children—for AIs, designing a new AI, while a complicated process, is often quite satisfying, and the child AI can be designed to mix the personalities of both parents. Like for humans, the only impediment is the Governance queue‐and‐lottery system, implemented in this case to keep Earth's computing resources from being overrun. For a human and AI pairing, the question of progeny is often much more puzzling.

— Society magazine, "The Mysterious World of Artificial Intelligence," article series, excerpt.

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

〈Despite the advent of clonal body‐replacement technology, attitudes about bodyloss within the MSY remain remarkably unchanged, even among the numerous individuals who know about the cloning system. Even after the trauma of the first bodyloss fades into memory, the loss of the second or third body is still considered a major negative event, somewhat less important than loss of a family member in combat, and the individual in question often receives numerous conciliatory messages from friends, and there is even occasionally a ceremonial party.〉②

〈One major exception to this is the Magi Cæli, where bodyloss is common enough that it is no longer considered a serious setback, and the mages affected shrug off the transition from body to body; indeed, a rookie is not considered truly bloodied until she's "lost her first." "Your gem your cockpit, your body your wings." is, in fact, one the Magi Cæli's internal mottos.〉②

— Infopedia article, "Magical Girl Clonal Replacement," section: "MSY Culture," mode: discursive, moderate density; excerpt.

"What the hell were you doing?" Misa demanded, when Ryouko reappeared near their positions on one of the top floors. "You could have gotten yourself killed! There could have been all kinds of—"

"Cool it!" Clarisse snapped. "Now's not the time for this. You know what it's like, for her. Don't give her more pressure."

The two girls locked eyes for a moment, before Misa relented, walking away slowly.

Ryouko stayed quiet, staring impassively at the middle distance. She heard everything, of course, but felt a bit detached from it all. The embarrassment and discomfort of being rebuked, the pain of her shattered arm, the headache that racked her head in the aftermath of her TacComp's meddling with her brain—it all seemed to pale in comparison to what she had experienced before: the white‐hot anger, the crystal‐clear certainty that was so in contrast with her usual self.

Now that it was over, she found herself wondering just where it had all come from. Speaking objectively—or even subjectively, really—Eva hadn't been that important a person to her. Was she that strongly affected by someone dying near her? Even in the simulations earlier, she had never reacted quite so severely.

In some ways, she wanted that certainty back.

The team had regrouped on Annabelle and Misa's position, considering what to do about the wormhole core at the bottom of the chasm. They were already scanning the core with their gravimetric sensors; soon they would know if it were legitimate, or if they had lost a team member attacking a decoy.

Clarisse was applying her hands to Ryouko's elbow, which, all things considered, was doing impressively well, having sustained itself with a combination of her inherent magical healing, the healing that came with her enhancements, and nanites pumped into the area by her armor. Clarisse's healing served to finish the process that had already begun.

Meanwhile, Gracia was attending to Eva's recovered body, performing some sort of religious rite. The telepath's face was impassive, almost cold, but her hands shook slightly. Without the magic necessary to sustain the transformed armor, it had reverted back to a muted gray‐black default.

At least it was fast, Gracia had thought earlier, seemingly to herself. A slow death—sometimes it leaks out telepathically. It's a terrible experience, and as the only ones who can, we telepaths feel compelled to listen, to try to talk to them as they go under. But even a fast death is terrible—that emptiness—is terrible to feel, even from the squid. It's why I can't live without imagining something on the other side.

That was when Misa had gently smacked the back of the other girl's head, telling her to stop scaring the new girl.

The healing done, Ryouko test‐flexed her arm, trying to imagine smashing it into an alien's face again. She remembered how strangely cathartic it had been.

You know, if you want, I could just replay the memory, her TacComp thought. Well, not now, of course. Later, after we get off this damnable rock.

I don't think I want to, Ryouko thought, doing her best to suppress the fascination she was feeling. And you don't seem pleased about this mission.

It hasn't been exactly pleasant. And personally, I would prefer it if we could keep the mind‐shattering revelations about your own personality somewhere where they can be dealt with safely.

Is that what you're calling it?

"If you'll excuse me," the other Clarisse said, getting up, now that she was done with Ryouko's arm.

"Uh—" Ryouko began, hurriedly.

thank you, she would have finished, but it was too late now.

Clarisse walked over to Eva's body, nodding to the other Cult member. She crouched down, placing her hands on top of the armor. A pale violet glow began to emanate from a small region of the chest. As the other two watched, astonished, what appeared to be an old‐fashioned book rose slowly out of the body, seemingly pulled by one of Clarisse's glowing hands. Clarisse took the book in both hands and Ryouko was able to note that the book's cover said, simply, "Eva Guderian".

Clarisse took a deep breath, clutching the book to her chest, where the object seemed to slowly dissolve in violet light as it dissolved into her body. A strange look passed over her face.

Then, a moment later and the deed done, Clarisse looked up at the others.

"Ordinarily, I like to take a few hours to digest it all," she said, "but obviously there is no time for that now. It will have to happen later."

She gestured at the body, which burst into a brief, violent flame, the light of its combustion casting her face into sharp relief. Ryouko watched the brief cremation silently, the image of the flame reflecting in her eyes. She had been told to expect it—there was no way they could take the body with them, and they didn't want to leave it in the hands of the aliens.

Then, as the magical fire died abruptly, the body settling into charred ash, Ryouko jerked her head away.

There were better places to look, she thought, rubbing the base of her neck with one hand, rubbing the place where her soul gem would have been, were it exposed in the open.

I have to get ahold of myself, she thought. I can't keep stewing on this.

They had gathered on one of the top levels, where Misa and Gracia had been earlier. Mina and Nadya were visible many floors below, cautiously using their sensor packs on the putative stabilizer core, Ying‐zhi casting a barrier over all three of them. Mina had taken Gracia's sensor pack, since if the team was going to separate over a significant distance, it was better to have a teleporter on both ends.

Those girls not involved in either studying the core, administering to Ryouko, or tending the body—namely, Misa and Annabelle—stood on guard, watching either the girls below, in their terribly exposed position, or watching their own immediate surroundings. Ryouko knew from all their previous simulations that Misa didn't place any importance in a dead body, or in religious rituals. The girl would much rather they have all stood on guard, on a mission of such importance.

"It's just a body, after all," Ryouko could almost hear her saying.

But Misa had kept her silence, and even glanced over when Clarisse carried out her mysterious memory transfer. Now that it was over, though—

We've got to be more careful about our gems from now on, she thought, conveying the message to the whole team, including the group that was analyzing the stabilizer core. Clearly, despite the suit's protective mechanisms, they might still be able to find the gem somehow. We would have been better off just using the decoys. Watch your backs, and don't be afraid to toggle your stealth devices if you have to.

Ryouko nodded, listening with only some of her attention. Another part of her was quietly checking and rechecking her soul gem's power level—more specifically, the power level according to the light sensor that was now attached to it. Measuring gem status with a light sensor was usually straightforward and reliable, but for a moment, at the last stabilizer core, the readings had gone impossibly high, until Ryouko had once again calmed it down. At the time, the gem had seemed to tug at her, demanding her to go…


The demand had been quietly maddening, such that she had been forced to constantly resist the urge to look up, the urge to fly upward with flight powers she did not have, the urge to teleport as high as she could, up to—well, there was only one thing close enough, in the sky above them.

She had wondered: Was this what it was like being Clarisse, always being dragged along by your gem, your own soul, as if it had had a mind of its own?

Maybe if she hadn't been so distracted, she could have saved—

No, she couldn't think about that. Not now.

In any case, what occupied her mind at the moment was not just the strange behavior of her gem, but the fact that the behavior had seemed to fade, after she teleported away from the core where they had set the nuke. She could still feel it, yes, and still felt the same maddening urge, but it was… weaker, and her gem had not tried to flare up again.

Your gem is bothering you, isn't it? Clarisse thought, and this time it was the human Clarisse, who had appeared at her side, looming over her.

For a moment, Ryouko was surprised, not knowing what to say. She blinked, trying to collect her thoughts.

I–I don't think this is a real stabilizer core, she managed, the thought coming out uncertainly. I think it's a decoy. I—

She never completed the thought, however, as at that moment Nadya swore telepathically, in Russian, with such vehemence that it instantly seized her attention.

A few seconds later, Nadya, Ying‐zhi, and Mina reappeared next to the rest of the team.

"It's a fake," Nadya said, repeating what they now all already knew. "We're going to have to move on."

The other girls started moving, withdrawing cautiously in Ryouko's direction, but Clarisse stood in place next to her, watching her with an air of quiet expectation.

"If we only jump a short distance this time, I can handle it," Mina said, eyeing Ryouko with concern, noting that she had yet to get up from her sitting position. "It's probably best we let her recharge for the trip back to the ship."

Ryouko held up her hand, waving off the suggestion.

"No, it's not that," she said. "It's just–just that I think… I think I have a more efficient way of detecting stabilizer cores."

Fleetwide fatalities: 1.13 million.

Current loss rate: 750±50 sentients per second.

Heavy bomber attack, partially mitigated, Zhukov thought. Forcefield absorption: 30%. Forcefield energy reserves: ‒12.1% to 30.1% of combat level; status: depleting. Sector 14‒B: lost. 15‒B: lost. 14‒A: major damage. 14‒C: minor damage. 15‒A: minor damage. 15‒C: major damage. SHERMAN cannon firing energy reduced by 2% to 83% of combat level. Power generation reduced by 5% to 72% of combat level. Estimated personnel losses: 800±20.

A large part of Mami's consciousness devoted itself to following the battle at this level, but another part was engaged in actively debating larger‐scale aspects of the battle. There were no avatars, no virtual representation of a conference room—none of the ornate trappings that usually accompanied a staff meeting. It would have been easy enough to arrange, but such trappings served no purpose in their current state. Far better to discuss the issue mind‐to‐mind, each of them undergirded by the processing power of their battlecruisers—already depleted by the loss of HSS Flavius Aetius, among others—as well as their own personalities.

We have to withdraw from the system! Gul urged. We're barely holding on as it is. At the rate alien reinforcements are pouring in, our grip on the system will be untenable within an hour.

This is not a failure yet, Mami growled. The attack on the stabilizer is not yet a failure. The long‐range clairvoyants report that progress is still being made.

If they take too long, it won't matter, Anand thought. If they amass enough units, then stabilizer or not, they'll overwhelm us. And then they can just rebuild it.

But not yet, Mami insisted. The aliens are overextending themselves to win this victory. Feodorovich now reports that the alien garrisons at the edges of the salient are heavily depleted. If we can close the wormhole and hold the shipyards, then she may be able to cut it. She is already gathering her fleets. We just have to hold out.

If the aliens haven't already accumulated enough ships in the system to force it open again. If our position isn't already irreversibly compromised, Erwynmark thought. That's a lot of ifs.

I just don't like it, Anand thought. As negative as it sounds to say this, I'm amazed we're holding out at all. The aliens are being very sluggish moving forces through the wormhole. I expected many more ships than this. If I were them, I'd be blowing the defenders apart by now—I'd be pushing to get every possible ship through the wormhole, as fast as possible. Ideally, yesterday.

The aliens have made mistakes throughout the war, Erwynmark remarked. It is hardly a new thing. Alien ship traffic across the wormhole is well within projected estimates, based on the Saharan data. A bit low, but nothing too drastic. It's possible they simply can't get the wormhole to sustain as much traffic as they'd want.

Feodorovich's fleets would be better used holding a new defensive line, Gul argued. God knows we might need it. She is often over‐aggressive.

A new defensive line means little if the aliens establish a functioning wormhole within blink distance of Optatum, Anand sighed. I don't like admitting it, but they have us by the balls. I'm not sure what the answer really is; I just don't think holding here is the answer.

A long‐shot is better than no shot at all, Mami argued.

Not at the cost of compromising our defenses, Gul said.

They're compromised anyway!

There was a moment of silence, and then Mami felt the attention of the group turn, subtly, towards Erwynmark, who had been mostly keeping out of the discussion.

There is no time for a full Staff meeting, he said, finally. It's your call, Tomoe. In situations such as these, I am inclined toward the more aggressive action, but that is a well‐known aspect of my personality. It has also gotten me into trouble sometimes. I'll trust your judgment.

Mami felt her insides knot up, as she felt the surprise from the others. Erwynmark was not usually the type of commander to defer command responsibility. For him to await her decision meant that he truly did trust her judgment on the matter, more than his.

I'll trust your judgment, he had said, the words seeming to settle in her stomach like balls of lead. She had been a Field Marshal for a long time, yes, and been in her fair share of battles—but not as many as the others. She hadn't risen through the ranks, like the others, and the few times she had made major decisions, the choices had been obvious, or so it seemed to her, her mind running through the few major command decisions of her life:

Reinforce the tenuous salient connecting Erwynmark's expeditionary force in the Saharan sector to Human space, even at the cost of other defenses. That had been obvious, hadn't it? His attack had come too unexpectedly for the aliens to have a strategic counterattack at the ready.

Hold the salient at all costs, even when it seemed there was no hope. That had been obvious, right? She couldn't abandon Erwynmark's entire fleet out there, even if she was risking significant parts of her fleet trying to get him back. Any other commander would have made the same decision.

The same decision… she thought.

She thought of the multitude of units, both regular and militia, still fighting it out on the surface of the system's colonies, of the desperate resistance in the vicinity of the Gemini shipyards. She didn't have to just imagine it: a distant part of her was constantly aware of the situation there, where hundreds of thousands had died and would die trying to maintain control of the planetary surfaces, and of orbit. If the fleet pulled out of the sector, an attempt would be made at evacuation, but most would die there in a last stand, first clinging to the ruined urban wastelands, then finally retreating to the planetary redoubts.

It churned her stomach to abandon them, but it would have ultimately been an acceptable loss, the sacrifice of the few for the many—but only if the decision to leave them behind was the correct one.

Nor did the battlecruiser simulations give her any additional guidance. Predictions were being made, but the possible ultimate outcomes were a complicated morass ranging from absolutely terrible to excellent, each with their own attached probability, usually with a variance of well over 30%. What could not be denied was that the aliens had the obvious upper hand no matter what choice she made, but the cost‐benefit analysis on what to do was so uncertain as to be meaningless.

You should trust yourself, Mami, Machina thought privately. Relax. You are more experienced than you know.

Mami was startled for a moment, snapping out of her trance. Machina was generally a quiet TacComp—mostly by preference from Mami. It rarely chose to comment. For it—she?—to say something…

What was it Homura had said once?

It's an old principle, Akemi Homura said from her memory, voice crisp and efficient. When you're on the weaker side, you have to gamble and shoot for the moon. Increase the variance. If both sides play conservatively, the stronger side is more likely to win. The weaker side has to take risks.

But she could be risking everything.

She thought of the situation at the wormhole stabilizer. The part of the operation that relied on a rookie was over. She knew Nadya Antipova only distantly, but she seemed competent enough. And Clarisse van Rossum had never failed the Leadership Committee, not once—though she rarely accepted missions. Was it even possible for her to fail?

Mami did the mental equivalent of clenching her teeth and taking a deep breath.

We're staying here, she said. And that's final. We have to try.

To herself, and to the MagOps team near distant Orpheus, she thought:

Please. Everything counts on this.

It had been an elegantly simple plan. They had had one remaining PAYNE device. All that was necessary was to teleport from location to location, clearing the area and spending only a few seconds cringing under Ying‐zhi's barrier, waiting for Ryouko's soul gem to make a determination as to the authenticity of whatever stabilizer core they were standing next to. They had stayed huddled next to one of the teleporters, while Mina waited for the signal, carrying her fully armed PAYNE device.

They had finally found one, triggered the device on a one‐second delay, and gotten far out of the area.

The obvious flaw with the plan was that while they had possessed one remaining PAYNE device, the aliens had possessed three remaining active stabilizer cores. The hope had been that destroying two out of four cores would be sufficient to at least temporarily disable the wormhole. Sure, the Saharan wormhole had functioned on only one core, but it seemed almost absurdly paranoid for the aliens to build three redundant, fully‐functioning wormhole cores just for security.

Now they stood in yet another part of the facility, having cleared out yet another set of defenses. This time the welcoming committee had consisted of a combination of hard radiation bombs and tunneling, explosive drones. The aliens were apparently big believers in diversity when it came to base defenses—which might very well have been wise when defending against a team of magical girls with a set of undetermined powers. Even with a barrier generator on their team, it had taken a moment for Ying‐zhi to properly reconfigure her protection—long enough that they had all been forced to divert magic to deal with the radiation damage. Without a barrier generator—lost, for example, to earlier combat—they would have been in serious trouble.

Ryouko knew already that the core was a decoy, but that was only part of what they interested in checking.

Since the roof was still intact over this particular decoy, they were relying on Gracia to check the status of the wormhole above their heads—the alien base, like all well‐designed military bases, was constructed of material that blocked most EM radiation.

Finally, Gracia turned her head away from the ceiling and shook it, slowly.

It appears to still be operating as before, she thought.

"Damn it. I thought that would work," Nadya said.

Then she said something in Russian, a phrase that Ryouko's translation module automatically translated, before she had time to consider whether or not she wanted it translated.

Wow, that's vulgar, she thought automatically.

So what now? Misa thought, confining tactical discussion to telepathy, in case of enemy eavesdropping. We no longer have a reliable way of taking down the remaining devices.

We're going to have to improvise something, Nadya thought. At least we've already crossed most of the potential candidates off the list.

They stood there for a moment in thought, in a decoy alien control room that was, for once, mostly intact, marred only by gaping holes in the floor where the drones had emerged and, of course, the numerous scattered alien bodies, whose green ichor discolored the metallic‐gray floor and smooth white control consoles forming a ring around the room. According to studies of previously captured alien bases, these holographic control consoles served as manual overrides for what were otherwise mental controls, and were inoperable by other species—not too different from human bases, when you got right down to it. The consoles were even paired with cushioned gray chairs that seemed to be molded out of the floor, a design that Ryouko was certain she had seen in a movie or apartment somewhere. It was a disconcerting reminder of similarity between squid and human.

Finally, Annabelle raised her arm above her shoulder, summoning onto her shoulder what appeared to be an anti‐tank missile launcher. Ryouko had not previously seen her summon this particular weapon, and was struck once again by the sheer incongruity of its aesthetics—white and blue, with yellow flower prints—with the obvious military origin of its design.

Permission to try this on the decoy? she asked, tilting her head slightly.

Go ahead, Nadya though. If there's any booby traps, I'm not sure what waiting until now to trigger it would accomplish. Just in case, we should be on our guard.

Nodding, Ying‐zhi raised her barrier again. A moment later, Annabelle fired the rocket, a cloud of blue exhaust propelling out the back of the device. The bright blue exhaust resembled more the magic aura of a magical girl than any mundane propellant and, true to form, dissipated after only a moment.

The projectile crossed the roughly fifty meters that separated her and the center of the decoy stabilizer core, bypassing the forcefield with Annabelle's signature magic, then bypassing a second forcefield in the direct vicinity of the spherical orb at the center of the decoy stabilizer core. The orb detonated in satisfying fashion, sending fragments flying outward with enough force that a few even bounced off of Ying‐zhi's barrier.

I think that might work, Annabelle thought.

Perhaps it will, Nadya responded.

She stood there in thought a moment longer, then continued:

Alright, let's move out then. Let's see what she can do.

Again, the team converged on Ryouko, and Ryouko shifted away from the edge of the room, towards the center, where there'd be more space to form the necessary huddle. Mina had offered several times to relieve Ryouko of teleportation on some of the shorter range jumps and, to be honest, Ryouko wasn't sure why she hadn't yet needed the help. She should have been worn out, in terms of teleports, but instead she felt more or less fine—except in terms of the requisite grief cube cost, of course. However, that had not turned out to be much of an issue; the rapid teleportation strategy they had used early had used much fewer grief cubes than had been anticipated in the simulation, so they actually had what seemed like an excess.

Annabelle kept her anti‐tank missile out as she walked over, carrying it easily in one hand. The device glowed briefly white as she reloaded the projectile.

I'm not even going to wait for you to check if it's real, she thought. I'm just going to fire. Magically, these things are not that expensive.

We could have just done this from the start, Ryouko realized, out loud.

We couldn't have been sure it would work, Nadya thought. We still don't know that now.

Ryouko waited a few moments longer as the others made their various preparations, then took a breath and made the jump.

For a moment everything seemed normal, at least for the type of insertion they were performing: controlled chaos as the other magical girls tore apart the point defenses arrayed around them, this time a standard set of high explosives. Ying‐zhi's barrier kept the chaos out, allowing them to stand as the untouched, golden eye of the storm. As they performed their work, they discussed the situation with accelerated thoughts.

Annabelle fired her missile at the core—Ryouko had taken special care this time to land directly next to the forcefield. The missile phased out as it reached the forcefield, briefly disappearing—

—then detonated just inside the forcefield, prematurely. The alien forcefield shimmered slightly.

Annabelle grunted in annoyance, reloading her weapon.

What's wrong? Ryouko asked, having confirmed just a moment ago on the group interface that the core was legitimate.

Annabelle fired again, the projectile lasting only slightly longer below again detonating prematurely.

Some sort of volumetric forcefield, she thought. I can't keep the rocket incorporeal for that long.

Then the legitimate cores are better defended than the decoys, Misa commented, her thought carrying a strong edge of annoyance. Just not in any way we could have detected from the outside. We should have just tried this earlier instead of wasting our time with the gravity sensors.

The girl continued her typical policy of standing absolutely still while using her magic, but gritted her teeth, channeling a torrent of electricity from the reactor on her back toward something in front of her.

The aliens have always made perfect decoys, Nadya shot back, arms raised in a telekinesis gesture. I don't know why they would change their policy now.

They had sensors inside the fake core we destroyed earlier, Gracia thought. They changed the configuration of their defenses in response to it.

She did not bother to explain where she got the information. She was the group telepath, after all.

Annabelle snarled loudly, a sound that was shocking in comparison to her normally pleasant demeanor.

Then Gracia turned her eyes skyward.

Orbital artillery strike inbound, she thought.

A moment later, Ying‐zhi screamed, loud and piercing, and it was so disconcerting that it took all of Ryouko's focus not to immediately blink out of position and over to the girl. The barrier around them turned brilliantly, blindingly golden, and their position, their precious eye of the storm, trembled, the ground beneath them shifting… downward?

Nadya shot an arm outward, and they stopped falling, buoyed by her telekinesis.

Then it was over, and Ying‐zhi was fine, in the sense that she was still alive and the barrier was still up, but one check of her vitals was sufficient to tell that the round that had just hit them had taken a lot out of her. The girl's soul gem had dropped to half capacity in just that one shot. As they all knew, orbital artillery, and space‐based weapons in general, packed a serious punch.

The others abandoned what they had been doing, as even a cursory EM scan was more than enough to verify that the area around them had been utterly denuded by the artillery strike, and that they were now floating in a bubble within an empty cavity, within which the stabilizer core, safe in its powerful forcefield, floated almost blissfully. Far before them, the ground sparkled dully, vitrified by the artillery impacts.

The aliens had never been too concerned about friendly fire, when it was justified by conditions on the battlefield.

Clarisse knelt onto the "ground" next to Ying‐zhi, placing her hand onto the girl's suit, transferring grief cubes from her own suit to the barrier generator. The generator's soul gem was already in the process of drawing energy from her full assortment of grief cubes, but the transfer rate could only be so fast, and it was doubtful that the aliens would only fire one round.

"We have to take down this core now!" Nadya said, yelling the obvious, reaching in the direction of the core with both hands, trying to gain a hold on it with telekinesis. She strained against the "surface" of the forcefield, trying to rip part of it off, the ordinarily invisible forcefield taking on a shimmering translucent white form—resembling a gel—as it resisted the assault. No penetration occurred.

The others had already responded, even without hearing the command, slamming whatever weapons or powers they could into the same region of the forcefield, magic bolt and missile and scorpion shot, making a visible depression—but no penetration. Mina teleported every contact explosive she had directly next to the core itself, and was rewarding with a spectacular explosion that sent the interior of the forcefield shuddering—but no damage to the core.

All their soul gem meters began to tick downward as they poured energy outward, especially Nadya, who was working to keep them all afloat, which was not a skill she had specifically trained for.

In the next moment, before the smoke around them from the previous impact had even had time to clear, another artillery round hit them, illuminating their barrier with blinding, shuddering golden light, and sending Ying‐zhi's soul gem meter down to 10%. This time, she didn't scream, staying prostrate, in a position reminiscent of Atlas holding up the sky, but it was obvious she was suffering. Clarisse knelt back down, visibly chewed her lip, then placed her hands on the girl again. A moment later, the girl's soul gem recovered to 30%—but Clarisse's dropped by the corresponding 20%.

I can only do that once every minute! she hastily relayed. It's a limitation of the girl I got this power from. We have to—

Another round arrived, and this time Ying‐zhi did scream again, sweat pouring down from her forehead, and the golden light that enveloped them dimmed perceptibly. Above them, a small crack appeared in their bubble, appearing for all the world like a crack in a yellow pane of glass, even though Ryouko had been absolutely certain that Ying‐zhi's barrier was more a liquid than a solid.

Their barrier generator's gem was at −10%, and mental alarms sounded throughout Ryouko's awareness. Soul gem collapse imminent, they said. Take immediate action, they said.

She looked up at the older girls in the party, hoping they would have guidance as to what to do, but they looked as shell‐shocked as her, eyes wide and looking back and forth for ideas. The forcefield in front of them, the wall that blocked their way to the stabilizer core, mocked them, continuing to hover in the air unblemished.

Well, it was not true that everyone looked shell‐shocked. Clarisse's eyes looked hard and sharp.

We need to leave and regroup, Nadya began. Maybe we can stabilize—

"No!" Clarisse said, standing up decisively, and they instantly snapped their heads around to look at her.

"It's too late! Shut down your barrier! Give me your soul gem!" she ordered the girl at her feet.

The girl did not respond.

"You're killing yourself! Do as I command!"

Ying‐zhi still did not respond, and Ryouko realized with an additional shock that the girl must already be in the despair loop, the self‐reinforcing downward spiral that accompanied irreversible gem failure, and might not have even been able to hear Clarisse.

To Ryouko, the next couple of moments passed in a blur, even by the accelerated standards of all that had just occurred.

In the first moment, Clarisse grabbed the girl's helmeted head, propelling a burst of purple magic into the girl's skull that Ryouko would only realize later was mind‐control. Instantly, the girl relaxed, the barrier around them fading.

In the second moment, Clarisse, whose body was already developing a bright white aura—not her natural magical color—seized the soul gem and grief cubes being ejected from the girl's suit with her left hand, violently kicking the body away from her with such force that a stunned Nadya was unable to catch her, the corpse sailing into the distance like a doll being propelled by an explosion. Again, Ryouko would only realize later that Clarisse was saving her life—without a body to sustain, or a brain to fall into a cycle of despair, the gem would last much longer.

In the third moment, she inserted the soul gem and grief cubes into her own suit, presumably for storage and restoration, as the glow around her continuously intensified, becoming nearly blinding even for Ryouko's eyes. She held her right hand out at her side, and Ryouko could see the beginnings of a glowing white magical beam appearing.

In the fourth moment, another orbital artillery round struck their position, but it was somehow inconsequential, seeming to dissipate in the tower of white flame that was now emanating upward from Clarisse's right hand, which she was now raising above her shoulder. The tower seemed to stretch all the way into the sky above, and was blinding to look at.

In the last moment, Clarisse brought her hand down, smashing the tower of flame into the stabilizer core. This time the forcefield did not resist—was barely there at all, in fact, the light slicing through the device as if it were made of the thinnest air.

Then a set of hastily machine‐relayed orders downloaded themselves into Ryouko's awareness.

Teleport. Grab everyone, including Clarisse. Get out of there. Go anywhere safe.

Before she was even fully aware of what she was doing, she hastened to comply, making a series of teleports through the air to get a hand on everyone in the team, Mina doing the same. When she got to Gracia, she found that the girl had already fulfilled her part of the plan, having chosen a suitable new landing spot, out on the barren surface of the moon.

Carrying the entire group except Clarisse, she teleported over to the violet‐armored girl, over whom the light was already fading. Clarisse was unconscious, and falling, and her soul gem read 0%.

Then in the next moment, she got out.

The bridge of Erwynmark's ship shook, just a little.

He did not feel it directly, of course. Buried as he was in Maximal Command Mode, the sensations of his physical body were irrelevant. Instead, the information emerged in the depths of his mind, one more bit of data in the ocean of information that constantly buffeted him.

Erwynmark tried not to dwell on the increasingly desperate tactical situation. They had thought the Arminius relatively secure in its position, and had been focusing their attention on extricating the damaged HSS Alexander, which had been stuck in a terrible position in front of the main line. Instead of attacking the Alexander, the aliens had surprised Command with a massive attack on the Arminius's position in the line, breaking apart the relatively solid defenses, and nearly trapping the much slower battlecruiser.

Now the Alexander had rejoined the line, miraculously still functional, and it was his ship that was in trouble. It hadn't made much sense, attacking him instead of the much more exposed Alexander, but sometimes the aliens didn't make sense.

HSS Arminius continued to withdraw, firing as it went, the rate of fire no longer the steady "pop, pop, pop" it had been earlier in the battle, but now ragged and irregular, and a lot slower, as the ship pulled together all it could to continue powering the main weapon.

He shifted the deteriorating anti‐bomber net yet again, countering not the alien fighters that had just left, but the ones he anticipated, observing the dispositions of the alien ships and the weaknesses of his own. Unfortunately, with the local formation broken and their numbers dwindling, the alien advantage in speed and maneuverability was starting to seriously tell—they were becoming increasingly adept at striking their weak spots before reinforcements could even be moved.

This time, the alien bombers came exactly where predicted—and broke through anyway, some of them tearing viciously at the cruisers in the vicinity, but most of them heading straight for his ship.

The bridge shook again, this time more violently.

Bombing run damage, unmitigated, Arminius thought. Forcefield energy reserves: −1.3% to 4.7% of combat capacity; status: depleted. FF generators lost in greater than 60% of hull. Active personnel at 50%. Power generation at 30% of combat level. I have lost 35% of my processing capacity. SHERMAN cannon has sustained critical damage and is now offline. Repairs currently infeasible.

The ship stopped, and Erwynmark could feel it considering a question, turning aspects of the situation over in its mind, running the necessary simulations.

The question had been quietly brewing in the minds of the command staff on the ship for a while now, including both Erwynmark and Captain Maria Arumburu, but their human minds had shoved it aside, unwilling to confront the possibility, preferring to focus on the battle at hand—Erwynmark with the larger issues of the fleet, Maria with the tactical issues involving the ship itself.

Combat AIs, however, hailed from a brutally pragmatic part of the Volokhov‐approved personality spectrum, and were not so squeamish.

Finally, a moment later, HSS Arminius continued:

I do not think I will survive. I recommend the immediate evacuation of valuable personnel, civilians, and most combat personnel. With your permission, I will forward the command to the necessary personnel.

Erwynmark allowed a larger part of his consciousness to shift into direct consideration of the question.

It was, for him, a momentous decision, but he tried to stay collected and remain impartial.

If you think it is necessary, then I agree. However, my disconnection from the ship would impact the combat performance of the fleet.

You may resume command at a different ship when you are retrieved, Arminius thought. Even now, the number of battlecruisers accompanying the fleet is enough to provide command competence, and there are other fleet commanders. Thus, even at this critical juncture, we can allow your temporary absence. Seriously, we'll do fine without you—probably. Hard to define 'fine' at this point.

Alright, Erwynmark thought, knowing that the ship was sadly right, give me a moment, then.

By personality, he would never have fled home from a potential defeat of this magnitude—but this wasn't fleeing; this was only transfer to a new ship. If he wanted to go down with a ship that badly—well, he still might have a chance.

He took a moment to look through his personal will and farewell address to the Armed Forces. It looked mostly in order—it should have been, given that he had revised it just before leaving for this sector—but he liked to make sure.

He formulated a brief speech in his mind, then transmitted to the crew:

This is Marshal Roland Erwynmark. The ship has taken critical damage and is unable to escape its adversaries. As such, I am ordering an immediate evacuation of the ship. I want you all to know that it has been a privilege to serve with you and that I could not imagine a finer crew for my flagship. Those of you who have volunteered or were chosen by lottery to stay aboard and keep fighting—I salute you, and Humanity will remember you always. The rest of you—abandon ship. I repeat, abandon ship.

As he finished his transmission, a thought percolated into his mind, echoed over his now‐diminishing connection with the rest of the fleet:

Be careful out there. Don't die.

I won't, he promised.

Mami had been watching the whole time of course, with a tiny sliver of her consciousness.

It was enough.

Then, having finished the process of disassociating from Maximal Command Mode, he performed an emergency disconnect, the endless holograms of the ship's bridge instantly snapping into focus before his eyes.

He stood up, slowly, even as the majority of the bridge crew hurried out the exits. The comedown from Maximal Command Mode was nowhere near as severe as the comedown from the full combat mode used by infantry, but it was still something to shake off. His head spun.

Mami didn't have that particular problem, of course. Magical girls barely noticed it, in fact. It made him a bit jealous.

He sighed, and stood there for a long moment.

It was one of his policies to keep his emotions restrained, even in situations such as this, but… he had to admit to some degree of trepidation, and sorrow for Arminius—he had never abandoned a ship before. A tiny bit of uncertainty gnawed at his stomach, easily dismissed.

"Let's go," Maria urged, appearing at his side. "If we're going to do this, let's at least do this properly."

In truth, he had been feeling reluctant to move, even if he should have gotten moving as fast as possible.

"There was a time when a captain could go down with her ship if she wanted to, without all these interferences," she transmitted in rapid speech, referring to a brief unspoken tug‐of‐war that had taken place simultaneously with Erwynmark's speech.

"I suppose your ship disagrees," Erwynmark thought.

"Our ship. And don't think we didn't catch your little train of thought about maybe going down with the fleet later. You think they'd let you?"

He grunted. Sometimes the mental connections that Maximal Command Mode provided were a little… privacy‐infringing. He was just glad he was capable of keeping most leaks under control, particularly to Mami.

"They might not have a choice," he responded, a moment later.

And then Erwynmark's appointed teleporter grabbed him, and the world around him shifted.

It was by‐the‐books procedure: the commander's teleporter would shift them to a special emergency travel tube, one that would lead directly to one of several escape ships reserved for the most senior personnel. These personnel would travel separately, to remove the possibility of them all being destroyed in a single lucky strike.

"I had hoped this would never happen," his teleporter, Charin Hernandez, said, sighing, as they zoomed through the claustrophobic travel tube, dimly lit by rare blue lights ringing around them.

"There's a first time for everything," Erwynmark said, straining to project his voice over the air rushing by his ear.

"I had hoped not for you," she said. "You have always seemed charmed, somehow."

"Hopefully I still am," he said, trying to strike a balance between strength and camaraderie. "We could really use it right now."

The teleporter, the senior of his two bodyguards, chuckled slightly, covering her mouth, though he couldn't quite actually hear her.

Then, with an abrupt, bone‐jarring deceleration, they landed onto the ground next to their escape ship, a fighter‐sized, sharp‐nosed, cone‐shaped vessel designed for travel through a designated exit tube to an exit in the ship's hull or, if necessary, within the ship's internal transit network. Equipped with stealth, a rudimentary forcefield, and an expensively small FTL engine, it would be enough to carry him between multiple star systems. The autopilot was, however, non‐AI, and therefore a bit rudimentary—one of them might have to take the controls, if circumstances warranted.

The chamber was lit by a set of dull, concentric orange lights set into the floor, and was exactly large enough for the ship to turn a full circle, so as to choose which of the possible exit tubes to use. Above him, the tube they had arrived from seemed to stretch upward into infinity.

They headed for the lockers set into the wall, retrieving individual combat space suits—his was focused on defense and protection, while his bodyguards received suits of the Magi Cæli design. Ideally, there would be no need for the suits, but it didn't hurt to be cautious, and in a pinch his bodyguards could even leave the ship and try to fight outside it.

He studiously looked away as they abolished the outer parts of their costumes to fit into the suits, focusing on putting on his own, which mostly entailed placing the various parts next to appropriate parts of his body and allowing them to lock on and attach to each other.

While they were in the middle of this, their area of the ship lurched violently, sending the three of them stumbling slightly. He felt a little ridiculous about the amount of care he had to take not to see anything—they were all adults, after all, mentally at least—but there was no reason to buck social convention.

When they were done, they scrabbled over the top surface of the ship to enter from the top, dropping down into the tiny passenger compartment, which consisted of exactly three cramped seats, one in front of the other, each with its own set of emergency manual controls. It wasn't exactly traveling in luxury, but it would do.

Dropping down into his cushioned seat in the middle, Erwynmark let out a sigh as the seat buckles—crude, but still useful, technology—automatically closed around his chest and waist.

"Arminius, I'm sorry about this," he transmitted.

"Don't be," the ship thought. "We do not fear death. It's part of our programming. Leaving aside the philosophical implications, I'm finding that pretty useful right now."

"Do you regret anything?"

"Well, I always regretted not giving it a try with that nice drydock AI at Samsara. Actually, when they bring my backup online, tell him to go pay Cynthia a visit and stop being such a coward. It's not like he'll have anything better to do anymore."

"That's–that's your only regret?" Erwynmark asked skeptically.

"Is there something wrong with that?" Arminius responded, sounding a little affronted.

"No, no, it's okay. I'll deliver the message. I'll be sure to attend the body‐funeral with your backup."

Then the transparent upper part of the ship's hull closed over them, and they were launched forward, the—partially mitigated—force of the acceleration slamming them back into their seats, another reminder that their escape ship was pretty stripped‐down in terms of comfort. The escape pods used by most of the crew were, of course, even less preferable.

"Goodbye, Arminius," he thought, feeling that he had to say something, anything, even if he couldn't think of anything truly meaningful.

"Goodbye," the ship thought.

There was little for them to do at this point; they had a prebuilt, direct route out of the ship, but if that was unavailable, their escape ship would navigate itself through the battlecruiser's emergency and non‐emergency transit conduits, coordinating with Arminius—or, if the central AI was unavailable, local computers—to find the best route out.

Despite how often he had commanded HSS Arminius in battle, watching it dominate the battlefield, it was still easy to forget just how large the ship really was. They had already been traveling quite a while, but had yet to exit the ship.

"I was watching on the monitors," Charin said, from behind him. "Doesn't it seem a little strange they came after this ship with so much force? There were better battlecruisers to choose as targets."

"From our perspective," Erwynmark replied, turning his head slightly. "There could be plenty of information we don't know. That's why you don't assume too much, as a commander."

A moment later their ship reached the surface of the battlecruiser, at an exit designed to resemble a standard anti‐fighter gun emplacement, so as not to raise too much suspicion when their exit doorway opened.

The gateway opened, armor plate sliding concentrically away from the entrance, the faint shimmer of a forcefield covering the opening—it was not unknown for small alien interceptors and drones to try to enter the transit system to wreak havoc.

As they emerged outward into the blackness of space, a set of barrage guns emerged from the sides of their exit, firing upward and sealing together to block the opening. There was no better way of resembling a gun emplacement than by actually being a functional gun emplacement, after all.

They emerged into the chaos of deep space combat, the sky resplendent with emissions throughout the EM spectrum, except for near‐blackness at X‐ray or higher, which for safety reasons was blocked by both their forcefield and armor. Fighter craft and drones from both sides crisscrossed the sky, too fast for him to follow. In the near distance, cruisers and frigates struggled against the mass of alien craft, while immediately behind him, HSS Arminius's close‐defense guns bombarded the area with flak and short‐range lasers.

As they sped away, ensconced in their stealth bubble, he couldn't resist turning his head to look upon the deteriorating hulk of the Arminius, still fighting as best it could. Gashed with massive holes, major parts of the ship shattered where containment fields had failed on some of the ship's engines, it was easy to see that the ship was on its last legs. A variety of small transports and escape pods, most not graced with stealth generators, fled the area, a sizable percentage of them getting shot down almost immediately.

It hurt to watch, so he turned away.

The last remnants of MC in the area were already withdrawing, either directly into frigates and cruisers, or into MedEvacs streaming towards the rear. The few that remained in the area to fight were pausing, only a little, to buy the outbound MedEvacs some time, and incidentally to give Erwynmark's ship a little protection, while trying to hide the fact that they were protecting anything specific.

Their ship moved forward silently. It would be pointless to dock with one of the cruisers or frigates in the area, which were themselves having a hard time getting out. They had to use their low profile, small size, and great speed to reach somewhere safer in the rear. Only then could he board a larger vessel en route to one of the other battlecruisers.

They already had a route plotted out, one designed to have him eventually reach HSS Zuo Zongtang. Unless something went wrong, they would cruise quietly to their destination in the rear. These kinds of escapes had a surprisingly high success rate, at least for senior officers. It turned out that a small stealth ship that took the simple expedients of not doing anything aggressive and staying away from large alien vessels—which were justifiably paranoid about anything approaching them under stealth—was usually quite capable of getting through combat zones. The tricky part was not getting caught in the crossfire.

Erwynmark looked out at the battlefield around him. He had never thought himself callous to the deaths of his men, but was also well aware that to function properly, a commander needed to have a certain detachment. There was no place in that understanding for vows of revenge, at least on a tactical level.

The only revenge I can get is victory in this war.

A mental alarm then grabbed his attention.

"There's a major wave of alien interceptors about to pass through this area," Charin said. "Nine squadrons. I am taking manual control of the ship."

He was immediately slammed rightward as the ship pushed itself into a new course, out of the path of the interceptors.

"What could they want out here?" he asked rhetorically. "There's nothing in this sector worth this many interceptors. And where are the bombers?"

"We should be clear now—" Charin began.

She stopped as the alarm went off again.

"They look like… they're pursuing us," she said, in incredulity. "There's no other explanation for their change in course."

"We don't have enough MC in the area to even slow something like this," Erwynmark said. "We have to try to evade. Maybe they have sophisticated sensors capable of piercing the stealth. I don't know."

"Should I go to FTL?" his bodyguard asked. "Due to this ship's limited stealth abilities, it would greatly reduce the efficacy of our stealth."

Already in tactical command mode, he viewed the readouts from the ship's sensors, of the alien interceptors drawing inexorably closer.

"What would really reduce the efficacy of our stealth would be letting those interceptors get on top of us," he said. "Assuming they can't see us already. Do it."

Another wave of acceleration pushed him back into his seat, and this time it did not subside.

He gritted his teeth. Out here in space, with its lack of friction, what really mattered in situations such as this was the ship's ability to accelerate. Consequently, this ship was very good at accelerating—but not better than the alien interceptors. He knew that.

How had they known he was here?

Tactical command mode stretched the seconds out, but the interceptors were rapidly catching up. The good news was, at this speed, it looked like they could reach friendly ships even faster than that.

Making a decision, he broke radio silence, allowing the ship to transmit to the ships ahead.

"This is Marshal Erwynmark," he transmitted, as an additional verbal message. "We're under heavy pursuit by alien interceptors. Would appreciate any assistance you could render. I—"

The next few moments passed in a blur of confusion and pain, as his optical implants were overwhelmed with an overflow of EM radiation.

Finally, the radiation faded, and he found himself looking at the shocked face of Charin, and the unshielded stars that now surrounded them, with… his one remaining eye. Emergency interfaces and warnings filled his vision.

"Raptor missile," she transmitted. "Alicia tried to block the explosion, but it wasn't enough. I managed to teleport out of the ship. With any luck, they'll assume we're dead and not look at their sensors too carefully. The FTL bubble has broken, though, so we're below light‐speed. It'll take a few minutes to reach the other ships."

"Is… is… her—"

"She's dead, yes. You've taken heavy damage to the head. Your suit is venting air. You'll go into fugue soon, assuming you can survive."

Rommel? he queried, realizing suddenly that the familiar presence in his mind now seemed to be missing.

The silence was absolute, and dreadful.

He inspected his physical condition—painfully, and manually. He felt his grasp on his own mind slowly slipping, as he looked for what he wanted.

Suit pressure below—

Primary spinal connection—

Secondary cardiopulmonary support offline—

Energy reserves—

Damage to central nervous system critical. Estimated time to permanent loss of minimal neural function: 180 seconds. Recommend immediate fugue and placement in incubation tank.

With what seemed like a phenomenal effort, he forwarded the report to Charin.

"Leave me… if you have to," he thought, grasping the teleporters hand with desperate strength, amazed he still had control of his arm. "But if you see her… tell… Mami that I… trust her."

Then he toggled the fugue state, feeling what remained of his brain shutting down. In those last few moments, his mind wandered over trivial things.

One thought rang out surprisingly clearly:

All things considered, I'm glad I never tried to start anything with Mami. She couldn't take something like this, if I had.

Then the stars around him—those brilliant shining stars, faded.