〈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
〈Officially, the government will hold the stance that:〉②
〈1. Soul gems tap into the power of a girl's soul, without directly being her soul.〉②
〈2. Depletion of a soul gem's energy has no effect on a girl's mental state.〉②
〈3. Any other modifications to the truth that may be required to conform to the above facts.〉②
〈Given the regrettable amount of information that has already been released, it is not anticipated that it will be possible to fully enforce these provisions. Maximal effort towards information control will be exerted towards girls of contracting age and younger. These efforts will be carried out by the appropriate committees, such as the Committee for Truth in Media…〉②
— Information Restriction Acts, excerpt.
Despite the intense efforts of numerous investigators, Akemi Homura's early life remains an enigma. It began before the era of ubiquitous record‐keeping, and many of the records that did exist were destroyed in the tumultuous Unification Wars of the twenty‐second and twenty‐third centuries, a fact which has long frustrated biographers. With this publication, the author is pleased to announce, based on the recovery of long‐lost records, the definitive identification of her childhood home, long believed to be a Catholic convent within Greater Tokyo. The aim of this paper…
— Ishihara Tomoya, "Definitive Identification of Akemi Homura's Childhood Home," Journal of MG History, abstract.
By the time Mami reached the theatre, she had changed her entire appearance.
Most of the disguise was quite trivial. It was simple to ask her hair to drop down into a relaxed conformation—she was extremely thankful she no longer had to do her hair every morning—simple to transform her soul gem into a less standard bracelet, and also simple to dismiss her personal transport in a secluded area and instead board a civilian‐standard model.
If only she could grab a hooded coat out of a clothing supplier and then be done with it.
Unfortunately, in this age of ubiquitous facial recognition, that simply wouldn't be enough.
Thus, she was obliged to walk into the theatre with a miniature holoemitter stuck to the side of her cheek, one capable of distorting her appearance to that of someone else who lived in the area, someone who vaguely resembled the famous Marshal Mami, but obviously wasn't. Another one stuck to her finger concealed the tell‐tale flower fingernail mark.
It was widely known that the government granted exceptions to the regulations against identity disguise, but that didn't make her disguise any less effective. Sure, she wouldn't fool any of the surveillance monitors, but it was more than sufficient to mislead the casual inspection of passerby. And the monitors knew not to attract anyone's attention to her.
She had considered showing up dressed for the occasion, picturing herself stepping out of the nighttime lights into the brightness of the theatre in a stunning dress, and wearing the face of someone particularly attractive, but in the end had decided against it. Turning heads in her direction would be risky, even if she had an urge to have people do it for reasons other than "It's Mami‐san!"
Besides, other than being puerile by trying to grab attention, what would be the point? She had stayed relationship‐free her entire life—a number of years she didn't like to think about—and didn't see it as a good idea to change that anytime soon.
So she showed up in the theatre dressed in the exact same clothes she had worn before, a stylish but nondescript blouse and skirt. Around her, couples and groups chatted, nearly all dressed better than her. She frowned. Ironically, she might attract attention for being too poorly dressed.
It would be a chilly night, she thought to herself, checking her chronometer. 18:30.
Once, long ago, that would have forced everyone to show up in jackets and heavier clothing. As a magical girl, she had always been carefully aware of things like that. Once you realized the degree to which it was possible to manipulate your own body, it was startlingly easy to forget yourself and just walk everywhere in the same clothing, mindless of the temperature.
Both Kyouko and Homura came to mind there, though Yuma had always held a mindset more similar to Mami's, until the later years.
Nowadays, though, every ordinary human was capable of ignoring the temperature just as stubbornly, so they no longer had to bother. Still, though, Mami remembered.
She stopped to admire the giant posed holostatues in the main atrium.
In the middle stood the star, Homura with a fierce expression, purple flaming bow drawn and arrow pointed, the display contrived so that no matter where you stood, it was pointing at you.
To her right, Kyouko stood, spear drawn and pointed aggressively, crouching in combat posture. In the sort of detail that biographers always missed, Kyouko did not have any food in her mouth or with her.
Behind Kyouko, Yuma stood, blunt mace at her feet, looking up wondrously at an imaginary sky. She was portrayed slightly younger than the others, even though that had stopped being accurate rather early.
Above them all, in a cloud of white mist, you could almost make out the form of a girl, embracing them all. It was a nice touch, and entirely appropriate, Mami thought. It was a movie about Homura's life, after all, and her Goddess had clearly been real to her, if to no one else.
And, of course, to Homura's left stood Mami herself, musket at attention on her shoulder, two more floating in the air pointed at imaginary targets. She looked regal.
Mami couldn't help but smile a little. Nowadays, computers carefully retouched the actors' faces and bodies so that they looked just like the originals, but they could never resist turning up the attractiveness just a little. Personally, Mami couldn't recall either Kyouko or Homura having chests quite that large, but she supposed she shouldn't begrudge a little pandering to the audience.
The movie industry definitely kept up with the latest technology, for what it was worth. For instance, given how much easier it was to do nowadays, it was now considered a point of professionalism for actors to become fluent in the language their characters spoke, and audiences were expected to use their language enhancements to keep up, if that language wasn't their own—though the lazier ones could activate a voiceover if they really wanted. It was a better experience to do it the harder way, however.
She moved on, avoiding the obvious temptation to just stand and stare, especially at herself. It would have been a little suspicious.
She glided past the entrance to the virtual reality version of the movie, even though, as a serving member of the military, it wouldn't have even cost her anything.
She had gotten more than enough of the real thing.
Instead, she stepped into the area for standard holographic viewing, the entrances to the various different rooms arrayed concentrically around a large, circular middle area with yet another concession stand in the middle.
The food was free, but Mami didn't partake, instead stopping to ponder on whether she should go for a private room or try to have a more proletarian experience, as part of a group.
Suddenly, she realized that she was standing directly across from another customer, a woman with short, cropped hair, civilian‐standard age twenty‐seven or so. She looked similarly indecisive, and they looked at each other. Perhaps Mami would have someone to go with, after all.
Mami opened her mouth to say something—
—when a girl appeared at her side. She appeared nineteen, which meant she really was nineteen, since civilians all froze their apparent ages in their late twenties.
"Hey, want to join us, Chito‐san?" the girl asked, face friendly. "We have a slot empty in our room, and you look a little lonely, so…"
She addressed her by the name attached to her face, as was polite. It wasn't her fault Mami wasn't wearing the right face.
Mami glanced at the group behind her, who waved. Mami waved back, thinking about how strange it was that magical girls had developed the practice of maintaining the appearance of teenagers and, occasionally, children. Nowadays, it helped them stand out on the battlefield—and made them smaller targets—but its main purpose was as a show of solidarity.
No one else could truly understand them. Never forget that.
Mami glanced back, looking for the woman with the cropped hair, but she was gone.
She probably shouldn't have, but Mami nodded. "Sure—"
Nodame Riko, her nomenclator fed her.
"Nodame‐san," she finished.
She walked over to join them.
Privately, she laughed to herself.
I guess I did look a little lonely, didn't I? she thought, mirthful. And here I am trying to pretend to be nineteen. If Kyouko ever finds out…
"So did you go to school here, Chito‐san?" the girl asked, as they stepped into the doorway.
Mami nodded, even though she had no idea if that was true.
"Funny, I've never seen you. But I guess you could have had a different focus."
The door slid shut behind them, the system acknowledging that the room now had a full quota. They headed for their seats.
Chito Hiroko, huh? Mami thought, committing the name of the person she was impersonating to memory. It wouldn't do to slip up, after all.
Modern holotheatres were rather impressive affairs, straining at the utmost limits of what was possible without directly accessing a person's government‐restricted VR implants—which could only be done in the prohibitively‐expensive paid VR sections of the theatre. In an effect similar to that which had been done to the Homura statue at the entrance, every seat was given a view from what the director felt to be the optimal perspective, and, in a slight concession by the government, the theatre owners were allowed to use the VR implants to rotate a person's head for them, and to blink the eyes—this could be refused, but that was only recommended for a second viewing.
Besides that, scents were pumped into the room, sounds were funneled directly into the same intercranial systems used to process voice calls, and the ground itself shook when necessary. Antigravity and gravity generators throughout the walls—a serious luxury, given how rare antigrav was—changed the direction of gravity as needed relative to the viewer's head.
The line was drawn only at directly shaking or otherwise perturbing the viewer's chair—people didn't seem to like it.
All of that resource usage, and they were still free to attend, stubbornly resistant to the economic trends prevailing elsewhere.
The main lights dimmed to darkness—a completely unnecessary effect that was mostly an homage to the past—and the four walls lit up with images that quickly seeped out into the air itself and solidified, until they became literally everything Mami could see, blocking out the people around her, the walls, her body, and even her nose. She granted the machine permission to access her auditory implants, and immediately her head filled with orchestral music. Seven girls clad in stolas danced around her, giggling, before their images dissolved and reformed in front of her to form… the logo of Seven Muses Technologies.
"Damn it, do they have to do that every time?" some boy to her left complained, invisible. Someone hushed him.
He should be grateful he doesn't have to also deal with twenty minutes of ads, Mami thought dryly.
In truth, it was easily possible to also block out the voices of the other members of the audience, but it was deliberately not done. What was the point of a group viewing if you were going to be isolated in a bubble the entire time? The whole point was so you could hear the reactions of those around you, in the form of "oohs" and "aahs". Extended commentary was usually not appreciated, however.
Despite the boy's complaints, the movie got to the point refreshingly fast, at least from Mami's antiquated perspective, pausing only to let all of them make their choices about whether to allow the movie to direct what they turned their head to look at. Mami went ahead and agreed. She was content to let the director take her wherever he or she wanted to.
Mami found herself looking at eye‐level down a broken‐down paved street, of the old asphalt style. It was deserted, and the houses looked rundown.
It was raining, and she could hear raindrops hitting an umbrella above her.
She heard the panting breath of a running woman, heard the taps of footfalls on pavement, and her view shook slightly, advancing down the street. Mami realized that she was in the perspective of the running woman.
She looked behind her, seeing only the same road again, then looked down, and saw what the woman was carrying in her arms: a swaddled infant in a basket, sleeping calmly despite the circumstances, thumb in mouth.
The woman looked back up, and seemed to be getting tired—she was definitely slowing down, and the panting was getting heavier—but was approaching her destination, the back door of an impressive‐looking stained glass church, well‐maintained and bright compared to the surroundings. On the sign, partly hidden, the name of the city could be barely read: Tokyo.
The woman placed the infant on the back steps, gingerly and slowly, despite the hurry she seemed to be in. She pulled out a water‐stained piece of paper, and her hands shook as she wrote the name.
Mami had deduced what was coming, and did her best not to roll her eyes.
"Homura," it said.
Then, after what seemed to be hesitation, she added in front:
Slipping the paper into the basket, the woman looked up at the rain—the room kindly gave Mami's face a few raindrops to emphasize the point—then looked back down, setting the umbrella carefully against the wall so that it shielded the infant from the rain.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Finally, the perspective changed, and instead of being the women, she turned her head left to watch the back of the woman as she ran away through the rain, weeping. She had the distinct feeling of lying on her back.
She turned her head to look back up, and saw the umbrella above her, shielding her. Next to her, the wooden door creaked open.
The scene faded to black.
It was a very sentimental scene, Mami decided, but it was almost certainly overly dramatized and definitely fictionalized. Homura had never clearly explained to any of them how her parents had ended up leaving her in the care of a nunnery, and Mami suspected Homura didn't really know anything about it either. Mami had never even been sure if Homura was really an orphan.
The opening sequence that followed was a typical exercise in stretching the special effects as far as the production crew could manage, taking the audience on a flying ride through pitch darkness, past a series of images dissolving into mist: a soul gem, a demon preparing an attack, Homura diving out of the sky on white wings, Kyouko and Mami following, Yuma crying on the floor, Homura giving a speech in front of a podium, and finally, Homura, eyes blazing with rage, stooping like a hawk into a clearly‐panicking alien armor formation, wings tormented and black.
The movie reviewed Homura's childhood in the orphanage, the strict discipline of the nuns, the religious lessons, the little girl quiet, introverted, and studious, playing with the others, making friends, doing everything normally, but still seeming somehow detached from it all.
This part was probably as accurate as it could get, Mami thought, even though it was all guesswork. Homura had never said anything about her childhood, and for all she knew Homura had been a totally different person before her sickness—but somehow she doubted it.
"I can't describe it," one of the nuns said, shaking her head. "There's something strange about her. Sometimes, I get the feeling that she's waiting for something. Ridiculous, I know, but that's what it looks like to me. The way she looks out the window, sometimes…"
She shook her head again.
"And she prays so fervently," she continued. "Ordinarily, I'd welcome that kind of devotion, but it's disturbing, somehow."
"Can you blame her?" her colleague responded. "Is it wrong, to keep your eyes on heaven? Isn't that what we aspire to? She will make an excellent novice."
Then, one day, while playing a game of tag, her head swam, the world spun, and the ground rose up to meet her.
Later that day, in the hospital, the girl sat with her eyes wide, uncomprehending, as the doctor repeated his words and the nun stood by her side in her habit, struggling to maintain her stoic composure.
Then came the hospital stays, the drugs, the surgical procedures, the girl sedated, or else whimpering in pain. The nuns shook their heads at each other and began to openly whisper that, perhaps, she wasn't truly meant for this world after all.
The girl grew older, and lost her faith, hurling away her leather bible when one of the nuns tried to pray with her, weeping so inconsolably in her hospital bed that the nun was asked to leave, and the hospital counselor called in.
Finally, miraculously, one final operation, and the girl was pronounced fit to be discharged, still alive after all. She was old enough now to leave the orphanage, and when her caretakers arrived to beg their former sure recruit to stay and attend the Catholic school, she refused, head bowed but inflexible. They conferred, shook their heads sadly, and told her that they would arrange an apartment for her and bring her the forms for a new school, that she would find money in an account every month, and that they hoped that she would find it in her heart to forgive God.
The day of the discharge approached, and the girl prepared herself solemnly, telling herself that it would be the start of a new life. No more waiting.
Mami sipped at a cup of iced tea she had had surreptitiously delivered. She wondered if the Catholic Church had somehow insinuated itself into the production committee. It was a lovely story, and for all Mami knew, it was even true, but it seemed a little overly friendly to the church. Besides, Mami thought, was that even how Church orphanages had operated? There were a few troubling points.
For what it was worth, though, Homura had never brought up her Catholic upbringing, other than to matter‐of‐factly mention that she used to attend a Catholic school. Only additional questioning had uncovered the orphanage angle, and not even Kyouko had dared to ask what Homura thought about the faith.
Homura entered her new school, and found that her hopes had been too optimistic. After so much time alone, she was too nervous to respond to the friendly advances of her classmates, and the health officer, a cold and arrogant girl, wasn't much help. She couldn't do any of the math problems on the board, couldn't keep up in PE—an anachronism to the viewers of this future age—couldn't do anything right, in short, or so she thought.
Now, finally, the movie reached a timeframe whose accuracy Mami could actually evaluate. Thankfully, they hadn't done much to butcher it—they managed to get Homura's glasses and pigtails exactly right, among other things—except to make things a little more dramatic than they actually had been, and to fill in details Mami hadn't been there to personally see.
And Mami had been there to see, indeed. It was surreal, and slightly disturbing, to view her first appearance in the movie, a memory she had replayed in her own mind countless times, one that had stuck in her mind despite everything that had happened since then.
"So that's her, huh?" the holographic Kyouko said, appearing dramatically out of a shadow, wearing the uniform of the school. The viewer was obliged to watch her back, the shadow of a support column cutting diagonally between her shoulders. The girl looked out of a window overlooking the schoolyard.
"Yes," the virtual Mami said, suddenly appearing in front of the real Mami, having walked through the viewer's point of perspective. She leaned on a railing.
Kyubey says she has unheard of potential, the girl thought, the director focusing on Mami's face to show her unmoving lips, a time‐honored method of implying telepathy.
"She doesn't look like much, honestly," Kyouko said, tossing her hair with a flick of her hand.
"Appearances don't necessarily mean anything, Sakura‐san," the other girl said. "You know that."
"Should we be really letting this happen?" Kyouko said. "I feel sorry for her already."
Maybe we should tell Kyubey to back off.
"He would never listen, Sakura‐san," Mami said, looking at Kyouko with one eye. "As if he would follow our wishes for something like that."
Kyouko leaned back against the support column.
"I know," she said, sounding peeved. "I just wanted to say it."
"Besides," Mami said. "We need a third. It would make our lives easier, and she looks like a nice girl."
It's not just the demons. It would also help convince the Southern Group to stop infringing on our territory.
"How stupid it all is," Kyouko spat. "Why couldn't we just work together? There's nothing stopping us except pettiness."
Watching a movie about herself was proving surprisingly awkward. They had done quite well. The moment was adequately recreated, despite the differing details: the overly‐busty Kyouko, the support column and shadows in a school Mami had told them was all glass and light.
The holographic Mami smiled slightly, and Mami shivered at the memory.
That was eerie. The real Mami had done the exact same thing, and it wasn't a detail she had thought worthy of sharing with the scriptwriters.
At the time, she had been thinking to herself about how glad she was that Kyouko had abandoned the outrageous attitude she had adopted after the "incident" with her family. It had taken her so, so long to coax Kyouko back into working together, and even—after another "incident" with the Southern Group—to move in and join the school. Kyouko was finally starting to bury the wound, Mami had realized.
If only she could truly heal it, Mami thought. If only she hadn't aggravated it even more.
"Well, that's just how it is," the holographic Mami said. "Maybe we can change it someday."
Kyouko looked down, and the viewer, looking at the back of her head, could see that she was looking at Homura, panting exhausted in the shade of a tree.
"Maybe," she said.
"Let's go back to class," Mami said. "They'll be wondering where we went."
As a point of fact, Mami had spotted Homura while going to the bathroom, and telepathically called Kyouko out from a different class entirely, but she didn't expect the movie to explain something so minor.
Kyouko nodded, and they walked back into the shadows.
That day, going home alone over a bridge, the fictional Homura fell into a deep depression.
I can't do anything right, she thought, head bowed. I'm useless!
Why? Why did it have to be me? Why did I have to have this heart problem? Why does anyone? What kind of world is this?
"Why am I alive anyway?" she demanded, screaming up at the sky. "If I'm just going to occupy space uselessly, then I might as well just die!"
And then she saw it, silent as a ghost, approaching the edge of the bridge.
"What—who are you?" she asked, quietly this time, the audience now sharing her perspective, looking up at the giant.
The demon said nothing, several companions materializing at its sides.
Homura stood her ground nervously, obviously unsure whether she should be welcoming them or running away.
The audience, of course, knew, and Mami could hear several of her young companions yelling variations of "Run!" and "Get out of there!"
The demons grew closer and Homura began to shake in fear, an event shared by the audience.
Finally, the three of them reared up their heads, light gathering at their apices, and Homura finally lost her nerve, turning to flee.
She recoiled just in time at another demon that had appeared behind her.
And then a beam struck her, and everything turned to white, almost blinding to behold. Her ears rang, and the audience's auditory cortices rang in sympathy.
Mami leaned forward in anticipation, despite the situation. This was the moment where she would show up heroically…
It didn't happen.
Instead, a vaguely‐defined white form, a little girl, appeared in front of her, all mist, embracing her, and therefore Homura. It was strangely beautiful—the special effects people knew how to do their jobs.
The audience perspective returned to third person, in that white world.
Homura stood there, eyes wide.
"I'm sorry I can't protect your world," the girl said, voice airy. "It's not something I can do. But I promise you I'll make it up to you someday. You asked what the purpose of your life is. You are my apostle, here to defend the world in my stead. Please. I sacrificed myself for this world. Protect it. Please."
The mist began to dissipate rapidly, and by the time Homura managed to shout out:
"Wait! Who are you?"
—she was already gone.
Suddenly, the world was thrown into chaos, Homura—and the audience—finding herself on the floor, looking up at an incomprehensible scene.
Explosions, demons falling apart left and right, archaic muskets floating and firing in midair, and in the middle of the chaos, two strange apparitions, clad respectively in red and yellow, moving so fast they were blurs—or they were supposed to be, but Mami's eyes could follow them—dancing through the chaos, tending to it, tearing the demons apart.
It was spectacular, but still not as spectacular as the real thing, to Mami's trained eye.
Still, though, she was enthralled, and when the virtual Mami yelled "Tiro Finale!", summoning her signature giant musket to blast away the last formation of demons, it took a disturbing percentage of Mami's willpower not to shout it too.
Though she probably could have gotten away with it, given how many of the others did exactly that, especially the males.
Magical girl movies were the guilty pleasure of that demographic, since it was almost like an action movie. Almost: you wouldn't catch most of them dead going to one alone.
Finally, the scene nearly over, Mami could think about what she had just seen.
Despite her constant vague allusions and complaints, Homura had always been reticent about giving any details about why she believed in her Goddess. As she had put it:
"If you're not going to believe anything I say, why would I embarrass myself explaining the details?"
Mami didn't mind the writers inventing something plausible for this movie, though. They had to put something, after all.
Oh, but it was just now getting to the good part.
Mami had mentally tuned out the part where she and Kyouko explained the system to Homura, and where Kyubey appeared to explain that Homura, too, had potential. She had heard it too many times before to want to hear it again.
Now that the audience perspective was shifted again, it was clear that, somehow, Homura's hair had unbraided itself during the previous encounter with the "Goddess". In actuality, Homura had never explained why she changed hairstyles, and they had never asked. Kyouko and Mami had both agreed, privately, that it was a great improvement.
The Homura she saw here hadn't even noticed yet.
Do you have a wish prepared, then? Kyubey asked, making his debut appearance.
The girl swallowed, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose nervously.
What am I waiting for? she thought, the audience privy to her thoughts. I had a vision, and if that wasn't a sign, what is? Wasn't I demanding to know what the purpose of my life is? I have it now.
"I wish to defend this world," she said, at first quiet but voice rising. "I wish to protect this world which God has abandoned, and defend it against everything that threatens it!"
Mami started in her chair.
Mami and Kyouko had stubbornly kept Homura's wish secret all these years, and the movie was no exception. They had insisted to the writers that they make up a wish, because they certainly weren't telling.
The writers had guessed essentially right.
It had been an audacious wish, as she had realized when she first heard Homura make it. Homura was the only girl she knew who had made a wish like that.
It was one of the reasons why Mami and Kyouko had never believed that she was truly gone. Her wish wouldn't permit it.
Mami was surprised, even though she shouldn't have been, when a soul gem ring appeared magically on Homura's hand, the audience looking down on it carefully, using Homura's eyes.
"But that's not—" she began, biting her tongue just in time.
Right. The censorship. She had forgotten.
"Is something wrong, Chito‐san?" the girl next to her asked, face invisible. The proximity of her voice implied she had turned her head to look at Mami, even though there was nothing to see. The theatre didn't paralyze your neck muscles—it couldn't, in fact. That would be silly and uncomfortable. It only moved your head when necessary. Audiences nowadays were used to mostly not moving on their own, though.
"No," Mami said, not turning her head. "It's fine. I was just, uh, confused by something."
The ring turned into a glowing gem in the palm of Homura's hand, crested by the four‐pointed star that was Homura's insignia.
This gem draws on the power of your soul to grant you magical powers, Kyubey thought. I will warn you now, though, you have to be careful not overuse it, or the strain might kill you. I'll let the other two here explain about grief cubes.
Bullshit, Mami thought, then cringed at her own language.
While the Incubators were slippery and masters at being deliberately misleading, they never misled girls on something like that. They were always quite clear: the gem is your soul. And it wasn't "might kill you," it was "would kill you."
Of course, the censorship on the movie would never allow the truth through. Within the movie, this fake Kyubey's explanation of the situation would be entirely true.
Mami really tired of the propaganda sometimes.
Settle down, Tomoe‐san, she thought. It's just entertainment. No need to get worked up.
She had to work hard to keep that in mind over the next few scenes, as the producers recreated Homura's first few demon battles, creating a spectacle that was completely unrecognizable. For instance, Homura hadn't been quite that bad with her powers initially, and she certainly had never gotten airsickness while trying to fly. Also, while the movie made a big deal of Homura discovering her most valuable power, the real Homura had known what hers was right off the bat. Finally, their school had never come under attack, yet here was a scene with the three of them dramatically slaughtering demons while working to make sure the miasma prevented them from being noticed.
It wasn't their fault, she had to remind herself. It wasn't a detail they had gotten much into, so the writers were just creating what they felt was appropriate.
However, this heart‐warming scene with the holographic Mami confessing how lonely she was and how much she missed her family—that was just downright uncomfortable. She was glad no one around her could see her face.
Everyone knew her wish, of course, since it had become common knowledge long before it had become tradition to keep it a secret from everyone but friends, and Mami had never seen a reason to keep it that private.
Mami mused briefly on Homura's aura, the power which they had been constantly grateful to have. Simply put, Homura could grant everyone around her a slower rate of soul gem corruption. It was one of Mami's own traits written large, and the combination of the two had enabled her to gleefully summon muskets with nary a thought to power consumption. It had also been a tremendous help against the Southern Group.
An audacious power in exchange for an audacious wish, she supposed.
Finally, Sayaka appeared, a fourth recruit for the team, and this time the appearance was… quite a bit off. All they had to go off of, after all, was a faded copy of a picture Kyouko still had for some reason, and some fuzzy memory reconstructions. It hadn't quite worked out.
The movie breezed through the story of her life, partly because it wasn't too relevant, partly because neither Mami nor Kyouko had actually known too much of what was going on. She had been in love with a boy, and it was at one of his auditions where her life had ended, overexerting herself against the demons. That was all they really knew, though Kyouko said she could tell something had happened, in those last few weeks.
This version of Kyouko didn't show any unusual interest in the girl, since that was one of those details that there was no need to mention.
At the end of the sequence, Sayaka's body dissolved into thin air.
They're pushing the censorship, Mami thought. But… technically it is fine.
Then "it" happened.
The audience was shifted into Homura's point of view.
She saw Sayaka's soul appearing from where her body had been, smiling back at her. Around her, Mami and Kyouko were frozen, as was the dissolving miasma. The world was fuzzy, as if shrouded.
Homura raised her hand towards Sayaka, and then the white‐misted girl appeared behind Sayaka. Homura gasped.
The girl took Sayaka's hand, they nodded to each other, and their former fourth recruit disappeared into the mist.
"I did as you asked," Homura managed, finally.
The girl turned, and started floating towards Homura.
"You're a goddess, aren't you?" Homura said. "Answer me!"
"I'm glad you did," the apparition said, approaching closer. "I can't make up for your sacrifice today, but I can give you a gift. I can return your memories."
"What are you—"
The girl touched her hand to Homura's forehead.
The audience was treated then to an exploding kaleidoscope of scenery, randomly shifting images of Homura running, eating, laughing, clearly from another life, but vague enough so as not to give away what exactly she had been doing—since Homura flatly refused to discuss what she claimed to remember doing in her past life.
And then, they found themselves looking down at Homura's hand, and a red ribbon that had appeared there. Mami was in the middle of talking about the "Law of Cycles".
Homura broke down crying, and the others turned to look at her.
"My goddess," she lamented.
And the screen faded to black.
Of course, once again, the writers were more or less making things up, since Mami and Kyouko, their two primary sources of information, didn't know what exactly had happened to Homura that day, except that that had been the day when her personality had shifted markedly, and she had started talking about a Goddess, and alluding to a previous life and… well, generally acting like she was crazy. But again, the movie was about her, not Mami.
When the next scene began, Mami nodded to herself.
The focus was now on a young teenager, younger than any of the other girls, stepping off a bus in the middle of an empty intersection, looking bewildered and lost. She clutched a slip of paper, on which there appeared to be directions.
The girl swallowed, and walked down the street, approaching a building that was supposed to be Mami's old housing complex—they had actually gotten the look entirely wrong, but nevermind that.
"What are you doing here?" Kyouko's voice demanded, as the girl tried to walk up the stairs.
Her costume brilliantly red, the spearman flipped in the air and landed in front of the cowering teenager, brandishing her spear in her face.
"You should know better than to intrude on our territory," Mami's voice rang out, the yellow‐costumed girl appearing behind Yuma. "Is this some sort of challenge?"
"I'm tired of the games," Kyouko said, thrusting the spear forward and forcing Yuma down the steps. "Tell your master to stop sending little girls out to mess with us!"
Homura appeared behind Kyouko.
"What's going on?" she asked. "What is she doing here?"
"She's a member of that Southern Group we were telling you about," Kyouko growled. "The ones who attacked us during a demon hunt."
"No, please!" Yuma pleaded, actually falling onto her knees on the steps. "I had nothing to do with that! I was the youngest member! I had no say!"
She placed her hands to her face and began sobbing openly.
"They're all dead!" she said, chest heaving and forcing out sentences between breaths. "I have nowhere to go. I can't survive on my own. You're the only other girls I know! I don't even have anywhere to live anymore!"
Kyouko backed off, moving her spear to her side. Her expression became, suddenly, markedly more sympathetic.
"You have to admit," Mami said, appearing from inside the apartment. "She did always look a little reluctant. And she's so young…"
"You better not be lying," Kyouko said.
"I'm not!" Yuma asserted, tear‐stained face looking up pleadingly.
"I think we should give her a chance," Homura said, tilting her head and letting her long hair fall.
"I'm not sure about this," Kyouko said. "I can't just accept a former enemy so quickly."
"I have a suggestion," Mami said.
They turned to look at her. She was holding out her hand. From the way the camera kept switching between Mami, Kyouko, and Homura, it was clear they were using telepathy, but this time the audience was denied entry into their thoughts.
"What is your name?" Mami asked, finally.
"Chitose‐san, give me your soul gem."
The girl recoiled, instinctively protecting the ring on her hand.
"Why? I'd never give up my magic!"
Mami rolled her eyes. Sure, she would be giving up her magic… and something else that was rather important. Censorship…
"As a guarantee," Mami said. "If what you said is true, then we will probably have to expand our territory to include what was formerly yours. I propose we scout it now, and if you are telling the truth, we won't be attacked. I will hold on to your soul gem as a guarantee, and give it back afterwards."
Yuma shook her head.
Mami's face softened.
"Please," she said. "You want us to trust you, and take you in. Trust me too, then. I don't want to doubt you, but we need proof you aren't lying. Too much has happened in the past."
Yuma looked around, bewildered, but they only met her with determined, if sympathetic faces—mostly sympathetic, in Homura's case.
Finally, the girl nodded, slipping off her ring and offering it to Mami, and they departed.
Mami nodded again—but not in approval at the scene's accuracy. The scene was flagrantly fictional, and had never even come close to happening. This time, it wasn't because the writers didn't know, or because they were dramatizing, or because of censorship—it was because Kyouko, Mami, and Yuma had all lied through their teeth.
She nodded because the lie had been perpetuated.
If anything, what had really happened to Yuma was more dramatic, but the less spoken about that, the better.
A few scenes later, the film performed a timeskip, the words "Ten Years Later" blazing themselves in front of her eyes.
The scene now was Mami's apartment, again, but different. The room obviously belonged to the same owner, but the furniture was in different places, and the location of the doors had changed. It was, Mami knew, the filmmakers' way of hinting what she knew—that a few years after high school graduation, they had all been obliged to move.
It had been a combination of reasons. Partly, it was prompted by the sense that the neighbors were starting to get too suspicious of Mami‐san and her strange friends, who had graduated school but showed no signs of a job, or boyfriends, or college—too suspicious of the girls who came and went at all times of day, and who appeared not to have any family.
The last straw had really been when their next door neighbor, a kind, matronly lady, had emerged onto the balcony late one night and found, on the other balcony, Mami carrying Kyouko in her arms, the girl bleeding heavily out of an abdominal wound, barely staunched by ribbons.
It had been terrible timing—Mami had just landed a jump from the ceiling and Yuma had been with Homura in another part of the city, and had only just then got back—but there was nothing that could be done, and it was more important to get Kyouko healed than to try to talk to the woman next door.
Mami still remembered the wide‐eyed look on the woman's face when Mami told her to "tell no one" as she carried Kyouko in.
But of course, she told someone, even when Mami went next door and implored her to cancel the emergency call, and the paramedics and police arrived just in time to find Kyouko asleep with Yuma fussing over her, but with no obvious wounds, and to find Mami and Homura in the middle of trying to remove blood stains from the floor—because none of them had any magical skills particularly useful for cleaning.
They were able to come up with some terribly implausible explanation for the police inquiry—that actually worked, somehow—but it was obviously time to go.
Posing as her own mother, Homura rented a new room elsewhere in the city, and they spent two weeks carrying all of their possessions to the new location—the furniture flown over in the dead of night by Homura. They kept themselves shut in as much as possible, so that hopefully no one would notice that they seemed to be getting progressively younger.
Finally, one day, they left, suddenly and abruptly, leaving behind as little of a trail as they could manage without outright changing identities or leaving their territory. They arrived at their new location teenagers again, to throw off anyone who might recognize them, and so that they could exploit the sympathies of their neighbors.
There was a lot to be nostalgic about, but Mami didn't miss the way they had to constantly fight to maintain secrecy.
But there was another reason they had needed to move, and this was implied by the threadbare furniture, the somewhat lower‐quality tea being served, and the smaller room they sat in.
Frankly put, it was money. None of them had a source—the Church had stopped supporting Homura at twenty, and Mami's family funds, though substantial, were starting to strain to support all four of them. They took part‐time jobs at grocery stores and the like, but they were becoming deplorably reliant on Kyouko's regular ATM robberies. It simply wasn't possible to take a steadier job—not with the constant need to leave to fight demons, the irregular sleep schedules, the inconsistent ages…
Which, conveniently, was the current topic of conversation.
"To wrap this up," Homura began, addressing the audience of girls. "I'd like to talk about a topic we haven't yet covered, just to introduce the idea. We all see the benefits of cooperation, and we agreed yesterday on the details of how it would work, but there's another enticing possibility we have yet to go over that I want to cover."
It was a special weekend. The Mitakihara Four were hosting representatives from five magical girl groups, representing outlying regions of the city and the suburbs. This planning meeting was the culmination of nearly a decade of conciliatory gestures, tentative friendship meetings, and joint fights against demon concentrations.
Without the Southern Group jamming up the works, the area had become a much friendlier place.
The five girls, a hodgepodge of apparent ages, clothing choices, and hairstyles—one even still wearing glasses—watched with interest, seated with the other three on the cramped floor around a coffee table, looking up at the wall. They held plates with chocolate cake and crackers, as well as cups full of tea. Homura was gesturing at a presentation shone onto the surface by a brand‐new holoprojector. From a perch on a nearby counter, Kyubey watched passively, implicitly blessing the proceedings; he had already done so explicitly earlier.
"Money, that is," Homura said, making a hand gesture. The wall shifted to show a wide variety of denominations of Yen. One of the girls laughed half‐heartedly.
"Money?" another repeated, the one with the long hair to her waist.
Yasuhiro, Mami mentally named.
"Yes," Homura said, pacing, hair undulating back and forth. "If we had more of it, then I wouldn't have had to steal this projector, and we could be dining on tiramisu instead of whatever the heck this is. Let's face it, we're all in pretty dire straits, aren't we?"
She looked around the room, and the new girls all nodded. It was a fact of life, unless you were lucky enough to have an heiress on your team.
Homura changed slides and continued talking. This slide listed the reasons why a magical girl can't get a job, with accompanying humorous illustrations.
"The primary thing stopping us from getting real jobs is the constant emergencies we can't explain to anyone," Homura said, stretching out her hand to point at the slide. "It's one thing ditching school—it's another ditching a job. Even something as stupid as newspaper delivery—miss just one day and they throw you out. I know the University Area Group—"
She nodded at the girl with glasses, Kuroi, who was their representative.
"—runs their own food stand, but don't the customers get tired of the unreliability? You show up wanting food, and one day out of four, no one is even there!"
"Yes, they complain about it all the time," the girl said. "They only show up because it's so cheap we hardly make any money out of it."
"You have the right idea," Homura said, leaning forward. "With no boss, you can run to your own schedule, but the customers still expect you to be there when needed. With just three girls and demons to fight, it's just not possible to keep it up."
"But with the new cooperation plan, we can, is that where you're going with this?" said the girl with spiked hair, Tanaka.
"Exactly," Homura said, pointing. "With the efficiencies we could extract, it should always be possible to have at least one girl minding the counter, so to speak. And I have a better idea than a snack stand, one that takes advantage of our unique skills."
She changed slides, and the new slide said "Mitakihara Delivery Service" at the top.
"In the course of our patrols, we're constantly running around the city anyway," Homura said. "We can get around the city faster than anyone, and we know all the nooks and crannies. It should be more than possible to set up a phone number hotline and make money delivering packages. We could do it faster than anyone. We might even throw in errand‐running while we're at it."
The girls looked at her dubiously, including her three comrades, who hadn't heard this particular scheme before.
Hastily, Homura waved and changed slides. This time it was a slide with financial figures.
"Anyway," she said. "I ran some numbers—"
"Akemi‐san, is this really the time to bring this up?" Mami said. "I mean, these girls traveled all this way to discuss an alliance, and you're talking about founding a business."
It was true. The slide even mentioned tax benefits.
That always was one of Homura's cute points, the real Mami thought. Her strange obsession with things like this. They've captured it well.
"Look, I know it's a bit far‐fetched," Homura said, pouting slightly. "But I really think it could work."
She toyed with the ribbon on her head, a nervous habit of hers.
"Well, I think it's a good idea," Kuroi said brashly. "And let's face it. We could all use money."
They turned to look at her. A few nodded thoughtfully.
"And just look what kind of money we're talking about!" another girl, also with long hair, ventured. "If those numbers are right, I could finally buy myself that purse I've always wanted."
It is a logically sound idea, Kyubey thought, standing up, asserting its presence for the first time, causing some of those present to startle slightly. Though success would depend on the implementation. We are intrigued at the concept.
They stared at it for a moment, before Homura cleared her throat to regain their attention.
"Anyway," Homura said, changing slides, looking both vindicated and embarrassed. "It's just a suggestion to illustrate the point. The point is, by working together, we can start thinking of ways to do things like this, and stop having to steal just to feed ourselves. If we can put together a working money‐making scheme, we can get ourselves metaphorically off the streets."
"It doesn't have to be this idea," she said, leaning forward again. "It can be anything. Think about it. We have all sorts of new possibilities. Anything, so we can stop robbing ATMs. Thank you."
Homura waved her hand, and the slideshow ended in a black screen.
She moved to sit down.
Kyouko got up to her feet and took her spot, looking at the others.
"Look, I'm tired of having to work alone, quibbling with everyone about territory and stupid things like that," Kyouko said. "It's high time we worked together for a change. Maybe then we can have some free time, or buy ourselves some damn purses if we want! Nevermind Homura's crazy schemes; we've blown two days talking about this! It's almost time for you to be heading home, so this is it: Are you in or are you out?"
The girls looked at each other.
"I'm in," Kuroi said. "Was there any doubt? I'm amazed how well we got it to work. I'll sign, and I think my group would agree."
"I second that," Yasuhiro said.
"If we weren't interested, I wouldn't have come," Tanaka said.
The remaining two also chimed their agreement.
"In that case," Homura began, grabbing several sheets of paper from on top of the TV, "let's get this done. We agreed we wanted everything signed and in writing, so I went ahead and printed out everything from yesterday."
She placed them on the coffee table in front of them.
"I still say this isn't necessary," Tanaka commented, elbow on knee. "Why are we insisting on this silly formality?"
"Look," Kuroi said. "This way, no one can pretend they didn't know any of the details. We've been over this. And besides, Kyubey thinks it's a good idea."
"What a bland name," the girl with cropped hair, Takara, said, thumbing through the documents. "Mahou Shoujo Youkai. I still can't believe we didn't think of anything cooler."
"It's functional," Homura said, shrugging.
She pointed down at one of the pages.
"Anyway, sign here, and I'll go make copies for all of us. Then we can exchange contact information. We can meet next weekend to plan patrol schedules and decide how to exchange grief cubes."
"I'll go get us all some more tea," Mami offered, lifting the teapot from the table.
The girls grabbed pens and signed on the indicated line.
It's amazing every time I think about it, Mami thought. We really didn't have a clue what we were doing.
That stack of papers, with signatures at the end, now had its own airtight display case in the MSY main administration building, located in—where else?—Mitakihara City.
And the Mitakihara Delivery Service? Renamed the D&E Corporation, it would become among the most valuable of the MSY corporations, before the economic restructuring dissolved it. It was hard to compete with a company that secretly used teleporters to expedite their deliveries.
Mami leaned back, chewing on some chocolates she had had delivered, watching the montage being displayed. It highlighted the growth of the MSY from a simple cooperation agreement in Mitakihara City, to a formal organization spanning the entire prefecture, to an umbrella organization spanning all of Japan, to one with branches extending through both sides of the Pacific, to, finally, one that encompassed nearly every magical girl alive.
There, at every step of the way, was the now First Executive Homura, shaking hands, giving speeches, chairing meetings, providing the ideas and organizational brilliance necessary to raise the MSY out of the mud. And next to her, nearly all the time, were the strangely charismatic Kyouko, the diplomatic Mami, and the—as it turned out—scheming and manipulative Yuma.
It was a shame that the writers had chosen to skim over this part of history. They were skipping over some of the most interesting stories—not to mention hundreds of years of time.
Mami understood why they did, though. Firstly, it would be an extended exercise in politics and conspiracy, extending the running time of the movie by hours, and their target audience was here to see drama and explosions. Secondly, a good deal, maybe most, of the best material was sensitive, and all three of them—Mami, Kyouko, and Yuma—had essentially refused to say anything about their more interesting exploits. They had given them nothing to work with.
So it was pretty much their fault. It was still a shame, though. Maybe someday it would be safe to talk about.
The climax of the movie was approaching.
It began with stock footage familiar to every currently living human. Footage from twenty years ago, Aurora colony, the first Human world to be attacked.
The confused first reports appearing on the interstellar internet: ships in orbit, shooting stars in the sky, no response to transmissions.
The breathless reporters, addressing viewers at home.
The first explosions, the panic, the screams of civilians whose Emergency Packages had not at the time included combat routines.
The surveillance camera footage of an endless sky of alien drones, and of the horrible cephalopodan aliens, wielding laser weapons with the four prehensile upper limbs of their armored suits, like something out of a distorted Lovecraftian nightmare.
And all of them firing indiscriminately, destroying everything in sight, killing everything in sight, in an ostentatious, genocidal display of power that was all the more horrifying in the knowledge that they didn't have to. They could have just wiped the surface from orbit. It would have been easy too, with a brand‐new colony like Aurora.
Iconic images, all of it, gathered from chaotic transmissions and charred ruins left behind by the aliens.
A child, crying in front of her robotic teddy bear, the kind with a built‐in camera, next to the bodies of her parents, before an alien drone appeared to end her life.
The students of the local college, recording last messages for whatever relatives they had off‐world before charging to their deaths, wielding nothing but reprogrammed vehicles and drones, hastily manufactured small arms, the emptied contents of research labs, and the courage of the dead.
The moribund military ships, arriving in orbit, trying to organize an evacuation—and every single one of them blown into a thousand, orbiting fragments.
In the end, there were no survivors, not one, not even among the resident magical girls.
The second time was not too much better.
When the aliens arrived around the brand‐new colony world of Atlas, they found that the Human worlds had started to rouse their economies for war. They found orbital defense platforms, city defense systems, merchant ships sporting antimatter weapons, a small infantry garrison, and a civilian population with newly‐installed combat routines and synthesizers reprogrammed to produce weaponry if necessary.
All of it in only a week, possible with the miracle of modern nanoassembly and direct‐to‐cortex learning routines.
It didn't really matter.
The platforms and ships dented the arriving fleet only slightly, and while the infantry and population fought valiantly this time, it took only days to overrun the colony, and the aliens still refrained from any orbital bombardments.
This time though, they seemed to choose their targets more carefully—but their logic still defied understanding. They would expend surprising effort to eliminate an infant, then ignore the adults in the vicinity. Or they would kill three people in a group of four, and ignore the fourth even if the fourth happened to be firing in their direction. It followed no pattern anyone could discern.
There were many survivors this time, and, strangely, evacuation ships were simply allowed through.
That proved to be a mistake.
Finally leaving the realm of stock footage, the movie focused on a single girl, packed in the cargo hold of a refugee ship, literally knocking elbows with five other people. The refugees were desperate and frightened, many clutching crying children, some in prayer, despondent at the seemingly inevitable prospect of being eviscerated by alien spacecraft.
That girl clutched a ring on one of her fingers.
A soul gem.
Mami leaned forward as the scene transitioned, the words "Mahou Shoujo Youkai: Emergency Full Session" appearing and disappearing in front of her.
Then she let out a groan.
Of course they would skip it, she thought.
The holography now seated her in the middle of a vast, virtual amphitheatre, packed to the brim with the avatars of magical girls.
It was one of those technology tricks, since actually all of them had, in their own view, the best possible seat, and the theatre in reality couldn't possibly have fit all of them. It was virtual reality, MSY technicians having long‐since circumvented that particular restriction for its members.
In front of them, on the stage, standing at the podium, emblazoned with the logo of the MSY—a shooting star, rising up into the sky—Akemi Homura was preparing to address them.
It was perfectly dramatic, and skipped nearly everything that was important. What had happened first was that the Leadership Committee had debated the issues around a virtual table, with the membership in quiet observation, and anyone wishing to speak materializing in front of them. Then the Committee had voted to submit the extraordinary measure for general approval, and it had passed with ninety‐six percent approval. Then Homura had given a speech.
That kind of democratic system was a pride of the MSY, and Mami, along with the others, had repeated numerous times to the writers that, this once, the politics should be shown. They had even handed over an exact transcript of the meeting!
And the screenwriters had skipped to the end anyway.
Mami sat back into her chair. Well, at least it was a good speech.
"Fellow magical girls!" the girl on stage began, arm raised.
"I don't need to explain why we are all here. We have all read reports, seen the videos, heard the sorrow. I don't need to tell you about the five million who died on Aurora, or the six million who died on Atlas. Some of us—"
She nodded at a girl in the audience and, briefly, everyone had a focused view of who she was nodding at, a teary‐eyed girl from Zambia.
"Some of us had family on those planets. Some of us had friends. Five hundred of us personally died on those worlds. These aliens—"
Here she banged the podium with her fist.
"These aliens think they can show up and massacre innocents, and laugh and taunt us while they do it! They think they can kill us with impunity, for the Goddess only knows whatever sick reasons they have."
Here she paused, head bowed briefly.
"And why not? You've seen the intelligence reports. Earth's military is a laughingstock, compared to them. We use railguns and use lasers only when we can spare the power, while they fire freely. Their armor has personal forcefields, which we don't even understand. Their drones are smarter than ours, their stealth better, their armor stronger, their ships faster. And on top of all of that, we can't mobilize soldiers fast enough to match their numbers. If we let our pathetic military defend us, how long until the aliens come to your world? How long until they come to Earth?"
She stopped, allowing the audience to roar its disapproval. The oratory was enchanting and, Mami noted, this was not an exaggeration. Sometime over the centuries Homura had gotten exceptionally good at her speeches.
Homura spread out her arms in an embracing gesture.
"We have voted," she said. "And the Incubators have approved it. We will not stand for this, even if it means sacrificing the comfortable lives we have known for so long, and the secrecy which has been our shield. We will defend ourselves, and the innocents we devote our lives to protect, and we know where to do it."
She paused again.
"Epsilon Eridani," she said. "In one week."
She nodded at the audience, and this time the focus was on the girl who had been on the refugee ship.
Amelia Giovanni, Mami noted silently.
"We were lucky that one of our mind‐readers was able to discern this information," Homura continued. "We know Epsilon Eridani is the next system being targeted, that New Athens is the next world targeted. And now the military knows too; our spies have planted it in their simulations. Perhaps the aliens wish to intimidate us, by attacking so close to Earth. Well, it won't work!"
She flung her arm out dramatically, the anger showing on her face.
"We will go to New Athens, and we will paralyze this invasion of theirs in its track. We will swarm them on the ground, in the skies, and in space. They think they know war—but they don't know war like we do! We will seek vengeance until the blood of their soldiers stains the stars themselves!"
This time, the roar of the crowd was overpowering, washing over Mami like a tidal wave. She wasn't sure, but she thought she could hear some of her companion audience members cheering along as well.
When it finally died down, Homura continued.
"New Athens has a population of one hundred million. It is the largest world they have yet dared attack. Our projections based on past behavior indicate that the invasion force will number about one million ground troops and about two hundred of their ships. We won't rely on the Human military to provide anything too meaningful."
"As mentioned, I will go there personally, along with anyone who wishes to go. The MSY will charter every ship possible, secrecy be damned, and carry as many volunteers there as possible. Girls from the orbital colonies and space stations, those with space combat experience, will be prioritized, due to their rarity. If you still have close family, you will not be allowed to go."
Her voice grew somber.
"Our projections indicate we will end up being able to send about one hundred thousand. That's a ten to one ratio. I know we fight the demons twenty‐five‐to‐one, but this will be different. I wish we could send more. We are taking a risk. One hundred thousand is roughly three percent of our member count. I don't want anyone going who doesn't understand the risks involved."
"You can count on us!" someone in the audience shouted.
"Definitely!" someone else repeated.
The affirmations grew slowly in volume, until they grew nearly as loud as the cheering before.
"Of course I can," Homura said, looking up.
"Then let's do this," she said.
The world faded to black in a wave of applause.