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.

"As you have likely heard by now, major news today on the alien war."

"Reports are still relatively preliminary, and the standard sense of caution still permeates post‐battle analysis—except for the lovably‐bombastic AFB—but it seems clear that recent events in the Kepler‒37 system represent a signal triumph over the Cephalopods, and it's hard to miss the excitement between the lines of official pronouncements."

"Details remain scarce on the ground. It seems that the aliens were preparing some sort of trap, involving some sort of massive cloaked fleet sent through a recently‐constructed wormhole, and that this trap was broken by a MagOps insertion team destroying the Wormhole Stabilizer facility. The massive alien fleet was then hurled back through the wormhole. In terms of fleet action, much importance accrues to a counteroffensive by Fleet Admiral Lyubov Feodorovich, which appears to have been a closely‐fought affair. It seems that the alien salient into the Euphratic Sector has been severed, for now at least. It is a feat we have seen repeated several times in this war."

"The MagOps operation involved is the kind of audacious magical intervention we've almost come to expect in this war. Almost—my read of the situation is that something else is going on here. A wave of excitement and rumors is spreading among my Cult of Hope sources about some kind of Akemi Homura‐like magical feat. The exact identity of the magical girl involved remains unrevealed, but circumstantial evidence already points to a limited set of possible actors. In particular, the MagOps team apparently involved can be deduced from certain military records, and includes several distinguished members. It seems inevitable that details will eventually emerge, but for now the Armed Forces appear to be deciding how they want to portray events. For now, we can only wait."

[For those who can't wait, scroll to the end of the article for my very much not‐confirmed speculation]

"It is important not to overstate the positives of the situation. The mention of a 'massive alien fleet' is especially concerning. It serves as a reminder that the aliens appear to have reserves we cannot currently match."

"Several government reports also highlight high casualties and 'the grimness of the situation', indicating that battle was by no means a certain affair. A certain reluctance to discuss casualties by official sources seems to indicate a possibly immense casualty account—though sadly this is a common feature of this war."

"Also important is the widely reported death of Chair of the General Staff Roland Erwynmark. His leadership so far in this war has been unmatched, and will be greatly missed. The politics of who will be his replacement will be an important feature of upcoming weeks. My sense is that the General Staff and Military Affairs will wish to avoid a prolonged vacancy, and will announce a replacement relatively soon; but the burning question is of course: who? It will make for interesting viewing, possibly."

"Here's what Field Marshal Tomoe had to say, for those who like carefully screened public statements:"

[Hologram depicts Field Marshal Tomoe Mami speaking to a room full of journalists and reporters; textual transcript follows]

Tomoe Mami "He was a fine officer, one of the best any of us have served with, and his insight and leadership will be missed. That said, he died heroically, in a way none of us would ever be ashamed of, and I cannot imagine he regrets it. His death serves as a reminder that in this war, even the field marshals should be prepared to give their lives in the service of Humanity."

Kate Locke (AFB reporter) "Do you know how his death will affect the composition of the General Staff?"

Tomoe Mami "The Staff will meet to discuss the issue very soon, with Military Affairs in attendance. There will not be a leadership vacuum for long, I assure you."

[End transcript]

"Now for the speculation you're all waiting for:"

"In my opinion, there are three likely candidates for the amazing feat hinted at by Cult members:"

"Clarisse van Rossum: It is difficult to overstate the reputation Van Rossum has on the internet for startling feats of magic, and many an eager speculator has placed her in the center of all manner of events, both current and historic. However, in this case, the speculation is a bit more legitimate, as there appears to be actual evidence that she was personally involved in the MagOps raid, a rarity for the 'Ancient' magical girl."

"Misa Virani: Another well‐known magical girl—though of course not on the scale of Van Rossum—she has been apparently involved in many notorious incidents. However, it is difficult to imagine how exactly she could have leveraged her electrically‐based powers to apply to the given situation. It is known, however, that she has received another copy of the Order of the Revenant, Second Class, a prestigious award 〈typically given to those magical girls who lose their bodies in order to complete an important combat task.〉②"

"Shizuki Ryouko: A relative unknown, she stands out for several reasons: As an almost brand‐new contractee, it was extremely unusual for her to be included in a mission of this scope, as she undeniably was, raising questions of what exactly she was doing there. In addition, she was immediately promoted post‐mission, and awarded the Akemi Homura medal, a medal not given to the rest of the team. 〈Much online attention centers upon her descent from the distinguished Shizuki and Kuroi Matriarchies, although I personally do not consider this particularly important.〉①

[Hologram depicts Captain Shizuki Ryouko being awarded the Akemi Homura medal by Field Marshal Tomoe Mami]

"Of course, it is impossible to rule out the other magical girls on the team. Such is the nature of magic, after all."

— Avnit Hassan, "Rapid Reaction," personal blog.

"Tensions between the EU and the Russian Federation substantially rose this year over allegations of atrocities committed by the Russian government, with greatly escalating military drone activity on both sides of the Polish border. Continued infighting in the European Parliament threatens to undermine the current government, which has been forced to repeatedly withdraw a proposed resolution condemning Russian atrocities, in the face of staunch non‐interventionist opposition—only increased security has prevented a repeat display of the fisticuffs that broke out during the first such proposal. Observer AIs characterize the situation as dangerously unstable, predicting that, given the escalating protests in key member states, the government will soon be forced to push through its resolution with only a bare majority."

"The US elections this year were chaotic, with protests and riots throughout major East Coast metropolitan areas, despite appeals by the outgoing President Caceres for calm. The collapse of the incumbent Democratic Party, the remaining half of the former two‐party system, surprised all observers, rendering the election an extremely volatile affair. Voter participation varied widely among localities, appearing to hinge heavily on a controversial set of Voter Education Laws passed in numerous states. Such laws had caused supporters of the upstart NWP to allege that the similarly upstart FP was attempting to rig the election in its own favor, and indeed appeared to heavily influence results. Though late‐stage projections had forecast a FP victory, a surge of surprising NWP support gained them the plurality, but not the majority. A bitterly‐divided but newly NWP‐controlled Congress appears set to vote NWP candidates Shelton Mayson and Tu Ling as President and Vice‐President, giving the NWP surprising but probably shaky unified control of the Federal Government, as protests and counter‐protests continue to rock the nation's capital."

"Diplomats from major East Asian nations meeting in Mitakihara, Japan began (and continue) to hammer out details of a proposed 'Eastern Pacific Defense Organization,' a military alliance designed to buffer its members against increasing global tensions. This meeting is notable for including China, a nation until now reluctant to participate in what it termed "lighting fires". With tensions along the Siberian border higher than it has been in centuries, it is believed that Chinese leaders now see a benefit in the new security arrangements, which enjoy at least the tacit support of the current US and EU administrations."

"Repeated bombardment of Paraguayan military bases has triggered widespread calls for war in Asuncion and Buenos Aires, further sabotaging the efforts of Argentinian President Páez to find a diplomatic solution to tensions with Brazil. Urban rioting, EU sanctions, and shockingly violent police reprisals in Brazil have a triggered a wave of refugees fleeing south out of the country, despite military border controls on the Brazilian side. The stories of these refugees have in turn generated significant sympathy and anger in the region, leading to calls from citizens for the army to go North and "clean up the mess". Despite Páez's efforts, the Paraguayan army is widely reported to be mobilizing, and Argentina's western neighbor, Chile, has taken a considerably more hawkish stance, offering Paraguay "unlimited support". This support, however, means little without Argentinian assistance, or at least acquiescence. It is believed, however, that the embattled Páez administration will soon abandon its dovish stance, especially now that it has come under diplomatic pressure from the EU. In all this, however, the US presence is conspicuously absent, caught up in domestic affairs."

In sports news, the cancellation of the 2160 New Delhi Summer Olympics, following a wave of withdrawals from key nations, paints a grim picture of the international situation—the last time the Olympics was canceled was in 1944, during the Second World War.

— Unified News Association (UNA), "Year in Review," December 31, 2160.


Mami wasn't quite sure she understood the logic of it.

The dream state debriefing (or interrogation) had a long and sordid history. During the Unification Wars, the technique had been used by the UF, FA, and Black Heart on prisoners of all types, seeking to extract valuable information from recalcitrant enemy personnel. In the dreaming state, prisoners were significantly less on their guard, and if necessary, things could be arranged so that they didn't realize they were being interrogated at all. One favorite trick had been to instigate a dream of a miraculous rescue, followed by a series of events that would lead the prisoner to divulge critical information, in ways that could often be extremely subtle. After all, if the prisoner happened to take a walk through an important fortification they were intimately familiar with, it was the most natural thing in the world for their brain to fill in the missing details.

Those early interrogations, carried out with crude equipment against soldiers with hostile implants, were less successful than might have been desired, but the technique had the benefit of being relatively gentle, requiring little or no surgery, leaving the prisoner's psyche relatively intact, and being unlikely to trigger automated memory wipes or other anti‐interrogation implants.

It was dirty, dirty stuff, the kind of thing Mami would have been happy to leave to Yuma and never learn about, except that it was later adopted by the MHD for a much more benign usage. It turned out that a REM interview, even when carried out as a lucid, consented in‐dream interview, was a fairly good way of tapping deeply into a patient's deepest feelings or memories, especially in those circumstances where the patient was incapable of otherwise divulging such information for psychological reasons. It also had the advantage of being much less likely to trigger a despair loop—if recalled memories or events started to influence the soul gem, it was easy to abort by simply waking the patient.

That being said, using it on Shizuki Ryouko struck her as a bit too paranoid.

"It's precautionary," Atsuko Arisu said, as they stood outside the virtual doorway. "After a mission and battle like that, we want to make sure there weren't other reasons for her soul gem collapse beyond simple exhaustion. Especially since the accounts from the various team members disagree."

"About the, uh, divine intervention?" Mami asked, biting down the skeptical adjective she was about to add. She remembered that Arisu was sympathetic to Kyouko's Cult, even if she wasn't a member herself.

"Among other things," Arisu said smoothly. "In addition, the MHD has noticed a pattern of girls in similar situations being unwilling to share the truth, and your military high command wants to get all the details this time. That's easier in these kinds of interviews."

Arisu wasn't being too subtle about the connotations of her usage of the word "your". It stung, a little.

It's not like I want to do this that much, Mami thought to herself, but the consensus of command is that we should, so I'll go along with it, for now. I'm only here to keep an eye on things.

It was a luxury she could afford now, devoting a meaningful part of her consciousness to something like this. The battle was winding down; Feodorovich's offensive had gone successfully, trapping the alien forces in the spearhead in the Kepler‒37 system. As humanity had learned over the course of the war, even the Cephalopods needed their supply lines, and wilted without them. The demands of modern war were stringent.

Mami would have felt better about the accomplishment, were it not for the massive alien fleet that Ryouko had apparently forced back through the wormhole. As humanity had also learned over the course of the war, the squid had reserves and hidden abilities that humans could only dream of.

But then, that was true of Humanity as well.

Besides, it was just an interview, how badly could things go?

Without waiting for her prompting, Arisu opened the door in front of them, which Mami realized with a start was one of the old‐fashioned types, with a doorknob. How hadn't she noticed before?

"The details of these kinds of environments are highly variable," Arisu explained, smiling slightly at her confusion. "You have to remember that ultimately, this world belongs to the dreamer. The rest of us are guests or intruders, depending on how lucid the dream is. Our ability to manipulate is limited, and best kept unused."

Which had been, of course, the major downside of dream state interrogation techniques—they depended on the prisoner never realizing they were undergoing the procedure. Once training to resist the technique spread extensively, it became much less effective.

It went without saying that except in the most dire cases, these interviews were done lucidly, out of respect for the patient, which was why they found Ryouko ready for them, sitting in a plush high‐back chair in front of a tall wooden desk, along with a piece of cake she had apparently decided to summon.

She looked both very annoyed and a little… embarrassed?

Upon entering the room, Arisu immediately bowed deeply, in a gesture of apology.

"I'm truly sorry about the timing of this. It's a precautionary measure, you understand, and we weren't careful enough in the dream insertion."

"Yes, well, I suppose it can't be helped," Ryouko said, still sounding bothered. "It seems my TacComp has been less than forthright about the content of some of my dreams."

"In my defense," Clarisse van Rossum said, materializing in avatar form next to Ryouko, "it's not like you would have wanted to know. And I wasn't paying close attention. These things don't go into memory storage by default, and, you know, privacy."

This version of Clarisse spoke with Ryouko's voice instead of Clarisse's, but then Ryouko looked queerly at the girl next to her, and it finally dawned on Mami—whispered into her ear by Machina, more precisely—that the avatar wasn't Clarisse van Rossum per se, but rather Ryouko's TacComp of the same name.

"Really?" Ryouko asked skeptically, gesturing at the avatar with her hand. "This isn't confusing at all, I'm sure."

"What do you want from me?" Clarisse asked. "This is the first time I've chosen one of these avatars, and it seemed like the natural choice. Plus, I've got the eye tattoo and everything to distinguish myself."

Mami wondered what her face looked like at that moment. It was certainly one of the more novel interviews she had ever experienced. Arisu, on the other, had the serenely unflappable look of a professional.

Seeming to finally remember they were there, Ryouko waved her hands, and three more chairs appeared around the desk, along with a small platter of assorted cookies. As Mami sat, she noted that the cookies appeared to have an Incubator motif.

"You have to remember that however lucid she seems, she's still not perfectly normal. She's probably not taking this as seriously as she should—but on the other hand, it also means she's not as tense or anxious. Typical for this kind of interview. They also tend to be a little…quirky."

That thought, from Arisu, was relayed to Mami outside the dream.

"Anyway, you're here to ask about the mission, so ask," Ryouko said. "I'm still not sure why we have to do this; I told you I'm not under psychological distress. Feed me some grief cubes and I'll be fine. I'm assuming you already did that."

"The military probably thinks it would be easier to try to get information out of you this way," Clarisse said, sipping a cup of tea that she had just summoned. "It seems like just the kind of thing they'd do."

"You can do that in my dreams?" Ryouko asked, looking askance at the TacComp.

"I've never tried until just now," Clarisse said. "Bet you didn't know I could taste, either. Well, okay, honestly, I can't. But there's a way you can simulate—"

Ryouko interrupted the other girl by waving her hand dismissively.

"Let's get back to the topic," she said. "Well, is it true? Are you here hoping that I'll be more talkative now than when I'm awake?"

"Yes," Arisu said, before Mami had even finished considering whether she would lie. "Not in an adversarial manner, of course. If there were anything you really wouldn't want to tell us, an interview like this wouldn't really achieve anything."

"This seems pointless, then," Ryouko said.

Mami couldn't help but agree with the sentiment, even if she knew that Arisu was being misleading. Part of the game was to get the patient to accidentally let things slip out, which could be interpreted in the more psychological sense of a patient revealing a truth they had been denying to themselves—or in the much more ethically tenuous sense of taking advantage of someone who wasn't fully in control. It was analogous to the obsolete trick of plying someone with alcohol for information.

Mami could reasonably guess, for instance, that Ryouko would never ordinarily call a meeting pointless to the face of the vaunted Field Marshal Tomoe Mami, member of the Mitakihara Four. The honesty was actually a little refreshing.

"Just bear with it a little," Mami said. "Now, let's—"

"How's the battle going?" Ryouko asked, looking at Mami seriously.

"Ah, quite well, actually," Mami said. "Thanks to you, in large part. That's actually—"

"Good. My access to outside electronics seems to be limited. Anyway, can you tell me anything about Nakihara Asami?"

The question was directed at Arisu, who had been watching with a slight amused expression. At the mention of Asami, though, Arisu's expression reverted to a professional mask.

"Why do you ask?" Arisu asked. "We'd be glad to tell you, but—"

"Well, I was worried since she—"

"Obviously, it's natural she'd be worried about Asami's status," Clarisse interrupted, her arm almost physically pushing Ryouko away from the table. "I mean, if we're being frank, it's not as if there's nothing—"

"Hey, don't just—" Ryouko began—but then she and her TacComp matched eyes, and some invisible understanding passed between them, probably transmitted outside the dream.

Arisu and Mami met eyes as well. Something had happened just now, they both understood. Clarisse had cut Ryouko off from saying something revealing.

"I've never interviewed someone like this with a version Two TacComp," Arisu relayed. "This is going to be more complicated than I thought. The local telepath reports that she somehow seems to know something bad happened to Asami, but can't get any deeper than that."

Arisu was still on Earth, but there was a MHD telepath standing next to Ryouko as she slept. Another dirty trick.

Mami, for her own part, had just finished looking up who "Nakihara Asami" was. It was in Ryouko's personnel file, of course, but Mami generally stayed out of personal business unless she had to. It was interesting, she thought, how many newly‐contracted girls developed relationships so quickly. They needed emotional support, she supposed. She could empathize with that.

We can probably say something, I think, since she already knows about the clones thing, Mami thought.

Mami had a visceral distaste for the whole thing which still surfaced whenever it came up, but had learned to swallow it—she had to admit that, if people had listened to her and canceled the whole thing, many girls would be far worse off. She had taken it as a lesson of sorts.

She knows, Arisu thought, but she doesn't know that we know. So…

"Let's discuss that afterward," Arisu said. "For now let's focus on the topic at hand, so we don't get too distracted."

"I—" Ryouko began, but stopped, seeming to think better of it.

"Just describe, in your own words, what happened down on the surface of the moon," Arisu said, after waiting a moment. "Specifically, what happened at the very end, when the wormhole reopened. We don't have to talk about the rest of it right now."

Ryouko's face seemed strangely blank as she regarded the two of them. Mami didn't mean that in purely an emotional sense—her face seemed to almost fluctuate, becoming briefly a caricature of itself, before returning to normal. It was deeply unsettling, to say the least.

"What do you know already?" she asked. "I'm sure you've already debriefed my squadmates."

"We know that at the very end, you seemed to have some sort of epiphany, before suddenly performing, let's face it, an incredible feat. Accounts differ about what exactly happened. While everyone seems to agree that you zoned out, some members of your team insist that something more, well, religious occurred. We'd like to hear your version of it, in particular the part no one can explain, which is how exactly you did it."

The strange blank look returned. This time, Mami couldn't resist asking Arisu what was going on.

"Dreams are amorphous things, Mami‐san," Arisu thought. "It is only through our intervention that this world is as stable as it seems, but chaos is only just below the surface. In our experience, a true uncontrolled dream appears real only to the dreamer; to anyone else, it looks like madness. In this case, the telepath believes she's exerting her control over the dream to deliberately hide her facial expressions—this might be the way it ends up looking to us. She's trying to hide something. She doesn't intend to lie to our face, though."

Mami performed the mental equivalent of frowning. What, exactly, would Ryouko be trying to hide? It didn't match her understanding of her student's personality.

"Well, I can tell you how I did it," Ryouko said. "The fact of the matter is: it turns out my teleportation functions by opening an instantaneous wormhole and pushing me through it. The nature of it also allows me to manipulate pre‐existing wormholes by, for instance, reopening one that has collapsed. In retrospect, I don't know why Asami never noticed."

There was a moment of silence, as Arisu and Mami chewed on what she had said.

Manipulates wormholes! Mami thought. That could be…useful. More importantly, it might be repeatable.

It fit with some of the more optimistic guesses Command had made about what had happened. She instructed Machina to pass the information on to parties that might be interested.

"She probably only saw you teleport in real life a couple of times, at most," Arisu said. "And while I'm no physicist, I can say that at least on the quantum scale, the distinction between wormholes and quantum teleportation is extremely subtle—it can be argued that there is none."

"If what you say is true, you might know more about the topic than our physicists do," Mami commented, prompting a nod from Arisu.

"Can you elaborate on how you came to suddenly know about your power?" Arisu asked.

That blank look again.

"Well, it's difficult to explain," Ryouko said. "I guess it can be said I had a vision. I had a vivid flashback to a physics lecture I had had in the past, and suddenly I understood how my power worked. I'm not sure if that makes sense."

"It's not unheard of," Arisu said. "Sometimes this kind of understanding doesn't arrive until it's needed. It's frustrating, but it's what it is. I myself didn't understand aspects of my power until much later. Is there an explanation you can provide for exactly how you pushed the alien fleet back through the wormhole?"

Truth be told, Command wasn't entirely sure if the alien fleet had really been there the whole time or if it was some kind of illusion or some other effect—it was tough to say with the magic that had apparently gone on. But the presence of a hidden fleet was the most natural explanation, and if it was wrong, they would hear about it right now.

Ryouko shook her head.

"I'm not sure I could say anything helpful, at least not without thinking about it some more myself. When the wormhole collapsed, it apparently sent ripples outward into local space‐time, and left a lot of, uh, debris I guess, like the bubbles where we were. I was able to redirect some of the energy back to the origin, but only enough to hold it open for a brief moment. Then something about the way my power works allowed me to push the ships through. That makes sense, but I'm not sure why I didn't have to go with them. That's how my teleportation usually works. Maybe it's different when I don't open the original wormhole personally."

Arisu nodded.

"Care to comment on any possible religious aspects to the whole experience?" she asked.

The blank look returned to Ryouko's face, lingering for much longer than it had previously, such that it held even as she started to speak, creating the unsettling impression of a voice emanating from a closed mouth.

"Why do you ask?" Ryouko responded, somewhat tersely. Clarisse the TacComp, who had been sitting quietly looking slightly bored, turned her head slightly, seeming suddenly a lot more interested in the topic of conversation.

"We would like to rectify your account with those of your teammates who insist that there was a religious aspect to what you did. I'm sure you know some of them are members of the Cult of Hope."

"Is the military interested in the Cult suddenly?"

"The military has always been interested in the Cult. After all, the emotional stability they provide is very useful for improving magical girl survival, which is why the military provides the Cult so much logistical support. I myself am here on behalf of the MHD, and we're interested for the same reasons."

"What do you think of the Goddess, Atsuko‐san?"

Mami's sense of dissatisfaction grew deeper. She didn't need a telepath to tell her that Atsuko had hit on something important, but she had expected Ryouko to dismiss the topic out of hand.

And for a moment Ryouko had seemed to talk of the "Goddess" as a fact, rather than a mere belief.

Well…Ryouko had visited Kyouko's Cult before she left Earth. Mami had kept enough tabs on her to know that. Perhaps she should look into it a bit more—ask Kyouko, perhaps, though she didn't really want to.

Atsuko visibly sighed, making it deliberately obvious.

"The truth is, Shizuki‐san, while the MHD officially considers the beliefs of the Cult to be a purely religious phenomenon, there is a growing body of evidence that some of the beliefs of the Cult may not be entirely invalid. While we're not endorsing a Goddess or anything like that, we would not rule out the possibility of some sort of benign magical influence that helps magical girls on occasions. It would even make sense, from a wish‐based perspective. Among other things, we'd like to gather information on the phenomena."

"Well, I didn't experience anything like that, though the nature of my epiphany makes me wonder."

"Now this is interesting," Atsuko thought. "The telepath can't pick up anything at all. We have no idea if she's lying or not, which is surprising, because she has no counter‐mind‐reading training."

"Is there anything else?" Ryouko asked, after a moment.

"No, not really," Arisu said, shaking her head.

"Is Asami alright?"

Arisu looked down for a moment.

"She suffered from soul gem depletion, and it was necessary to remove her gem from her body. It might take a while to revive her. We might…ask you to be there. I wouldn't be telling you this if I weren't sure you were psychologically healthy."

A gloom seemed to pass over Ryouko's face.

"I know about the clones thing, for the record. Did you manage to keep the original?"

"It's somewhere in deep space. We're looking for the beacon to track it back down, but it might not be possible."

Ryouko's face tightened, seeming to glare at the psychiatrist.

"How long?" Ryouko asked.

"If we have to regrow it? Maybe two weeks. The preparations have already begun."

"Really?" Ryouko said, surprised. "That's faster than I expected."

"Well, technology," Arisu said, spreading her hands and not elaborating on the somewhat Frankensteinian techniques Mami knew were involved.

Then a moment later:

"She'll be alright, Shizuki‐san. I'm sure of it. You'll see her soon enough. We'll let you go back to normal sleep now."

Ryouko seemed to smile slightly.

Then, abruptly, she vanished, and the floor dropped out from under Mami, leaving her staring into a twisted, purple void. She gasped, then looked for Arisu, who was standing next to her with a strange look. Then, above her, something headed for them—something large and full of teeth.

Then Mami dropped out of the simulation, the fragment of consciousness released to handle other affairs, briefly taskless. She wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but the apparition had caused her to pull some of her attention away from her command tasks.

"I don't think she liked us very much," Arisu relayed to Mami. "Not many people try to drop you in a nightmare before you can exit. She'll regret it when she wakes up, of course."

"I don't think she did, no," Mami responded. "I should focus back on my work. I have a lot to think about."


It had all been a bit of a blur. After the rather surreal dream experience, she had been made to undergo another, more traditional debrief, followed by a thorough psychiatric evaluation. Then they told her something she had forgotten to ask her earlier: her grandfather was alive and well. She felt a little embarrassed about not having asked.

As they questioned her, she checked the status of the battle outside. As Mami had said, it was going well, thanks to her. The aliens had been caught flat‐footed yet again. A deity had intervened, and she had been the instrument.

But Clarisse—the real Clarisse—had told her not to talk about that, somehow relaying the message telepathically to her while she slept, just before the start of the dream‐debrief. While she had personally been too asleep—and distracted—to notice, her TacComp had picked up the message and informed her later. It had been…strange.

After the interviews, Clarisse herself showed up to escort her back to the rest of the team.

Was it really the right thing to do, not telling them? Ryouko thought, as they headed out of the room.

It's for your own sake, Clarisse thought. You're a hero now. If you start saying that your actions were due to a vision from the Goddess, you will become indelibly tied to the Church, in the eyes of the public. I do not think you would want that.

I know; you told me that already. It just feels—

Deceitful? Much of the world is founded on deceit. Such has it always been. Otherwise I wouldn't have this with me."

Clarisse reached upward, pushing apart her hair to reveal a small hairpin buried within. It looked like an ordinary gold hairpin, but now that it had been pointed out, something about it seemed to draw her attention—

It's emanating magic! She thought, in surprise.

It's an artifact, like the suits we were wearing earlier, Clarisse thought. It protects against mind‐reading and mind‐control effects. I'm sure you noticed the mind‐readers in your debriefings. I didn't want them listening too carefully. Don't ask me how I got it.

Then Clarisse dropped her hand, letting her hair fall back down.

Ryouko stayed silent for a moment. Clarisse had turned out…not as she had expected. More real, more human, and much less idealistic. In a way, though, she almost preferred this.

Can I ask a question? she asked.

Yes?

What's your opinion of the Goddess?

Clarisse slowed to a stop, then turned to face her.

What precisely do you mean? the Ancient asked, head tilted,

What—what kind of person do you think she is, I guess? Ryouko asked, a bit flummoxed by the sudden intensity of Clarisse's look.

Clarisse turned back around and started walking again.

Person. Funny that you should put it that way. Well, she's definitely got a good heart. I can honestly say that I think that there's no one else more suited to be what she is. At the same time, with the kind of knowledge and good intentions she has, it—well, I guess the way to put it is that not even the most kind‐hearted king can avoid rolling a few heads here and there.

Again, Ryouko stayed silent, trying to think of what to say to that.

Not what you expected? Clarisse thought. The world is not as nice as you might think it is, aliens or not. You'll need to remember that in the future.

Then, suddenly, they were there, the door opening to a recreation area located near the medical bay, deliberately set close enough that it wasn't necessary to take the tubes.

The conversation in the room fell silent as they entered, and for a moment the rest of the team and Ryouko stared at each other.

"Well, good to see you're okay," Nadya said, finally. "That was quite a stunt you pulled. I didn't expect anyone to one‐up Misa."

"Well, uh, I didn't have to, you know, lose—" Ryouko started, walking over to sit on one of the open lounge chairs near Zheng Ying‐zhi. Unlike Asami, she had had an extra body directly on hand, and could be revived relatively quickly—though Ryouko wondered what was taking so long with Misa.

She had cut herself off, though, because she didn't think talking about the bodyloss was a good idea.

"Yeah, it's a shame," Annabelle said. "But really I miss Juliet and the others. Things just aren't the same here without her and her, uh, silence."

The joke fell completely flat, as expected, as the others stared back blankly.

"Ah, Misa would laugh uproariously at that," Nadya said, before things could get too awkward.

"She's a strange one," Annabelle said. "Refuses to wave her arms dramatically to use her powers, but loves making a spectacle. Did you ever get out of her just what happened on New California?"

"No," Nadya said. "Which must mean it was something really serious, because she's not usually all that tight‐lipped."

"We were there with her," Mina commented, referring to her and Gracia, "and even we don't know what happened. Juliet never found out either. Well, so far as I know…"

"What exactly are we talking about here?" Clarisse asked. "I admit: this isn't something I've heard about."

Ying‐zhi drew Ryouko's attention away from the conversation, tapping her on the arm. Their eyes met, and for a moment Ryouko wondered what it was like to inhabit a new body like that. It didn't seem to bother her, but…

Don't worry, Ying‐zhi thought nodding her head at the rest of the room, they're dying to ask you about what you did out there. They're just giving you space to breathe by chewing the cud a little first.

Ah, yes, Ryouko said, blinking at the strange idiom, which she had had to hastily look up. How did you know I was wondering about that?

That's what I'd be thinking about, Ying‐zhi explained. But, in any case, I'm not surprised. Not with your family background.

The other girl gestured at Ryouko's bracelet and necklace, the visible jewelry she wore signaling her relationship to Shizuki Sayaka and Kuroi Kana. Ryouko self‐consciously covered the bracelet with one hand—she had forgotten it was there.

Not many people nowadays know what those mean, but Nadya did. And of course, we all knew your background before you joined the team. That kind of background can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because you probably are powerful, and those connections open doors for you even besides that. A curse, because some will expect more from you, and others will think of you as an entitled brat.

Ryouko furrowed her brow at the comment.

A brat? But—

It's just what some people might think; not the truth. Listen, soon enough the media will find out what happened here, and that's when it will all begin. And when it does, the MSY sources will all be sure to mention who you're descended from. You won't be able to escape it. Even beyond that—maybe you've already experienced a little of this—the two families will start stabbing each other in the back to try and claim you, and a bunch of other families will start sending people to try and marry you. You're young; I don't know if you're ready for it. You've got to have thick skin. Ah, you've already experienced it.

That last sentence was in response to the look that passed over Ryouko's face, remembering her "suitors", which she had up until now completely forgotten about.

By the way, I now have ten more letters from prospective suitors, her TacComp thought, privately.

Hush, Ryouko ordered, knowing full well the device was making fun of her.

And this girl you might be involved with, Ying‐zhi continued. Nakihara Asami. There's a good chance your illustrious ancestors will not like her. She has no lineage to speak of. I'm just warning you.

The girl pinned Ryouko with an intense look, so that she felt compelled to nod in understanding.

I've been down that road, Ying‐zhi thought. It's not very fun. I just want you to be more ready than I was. If you ever want advice, feel free to message me.

Again, Ryouko nodded awkwardly. Like Eva, Zheng Ying‐zhi had not been one of the team members Ryouko would have said she was close with, but apparently something about Ryouko struck a nerve with her.

Then she thought of something.

Wait, does everyone here know about Asami? Was it in the files?

Yes, everything is in the files, Ying‐zhi thought. That's something else you should get used to.

"Scaring the new girl with your anecdotes?" Nadya asked, appearing next to the two of them, causing Ryouko to startle slightly.

"I'm just telling her the truth," Ying‐zhi said.

Nadya shook her head, then gave Ryouko a sympathetic look.

"Ying‐zhi here is a little traumatized. You shouldn't mind her. Anyway, we're going to have the synthesizer make some snacks, do you have anything in particular you want?"

"Coffee," Ying‐zhi said.

"Strawberry cream cake," Ryouko said, realizing abruptly just how long it had been since she had had any.

As Nadya walked back to the synthesizer, where the others were now standing clustered, Ryouko sat and pondered what Ying‐zhi had said. Her life was about to get a lot more complicated, wasn't it?

But then Gracia and Mina walked towards her, a certain gleam in their eyes, and Ryouko braced herself for a round of questioning on the Goddess and the nature of visions.


What have I gotten myself into? Ryouko thought.

Some part of her had looked forward to the end of her previous rotation. She could ask for leave, that part had thought. Surely it was justified after that last mission. At the very least, she could receive a more relaxing rotation, perhaps stationed in some exotic colony world somewhere, and go exploring. At the very least, maybe she could see what being a staff officer was like.

The other part of her was, quite possibly, crazy, and wanted her to instead find a new assignment, one that was just as exciting. Maybe she could swing a permanent MagOps assignment.

Neither part had had their expectations fulfilled.

Instead, the days afterward had been filled by, for lack of a better word, ceremony. First had come the interview requests—just a trickle—from reporters curious to hear from a member of the "Wormhole‐destroying" MagOps team.

Then had come the hybrid virtual/physical press conference, and she never seen so many reporters and bloggers and assorted media personalities in one place, appearing like a sea of faces in front of her. Mami had coached her, and did most of the talking, but the usually shy and reclusive Ryouko couldn't help but blanch just standing there in the background, even hidden among the rest of the team.

When she was finally introduced to the audience, with a sea of NIM lenses pointed at her, it took an uncomfortable amount of implant intervention to keep her from stammering while saying her lines and answering a few, prescreened questions.

After that, there had been the medal ceremony, another media‐filled event, completely unlike the more intimate, three‐person ceremony that had accompanied her previous decoration. Where the previous ceremony had been informal, this one was stiff and regimented. Where it had been simple, this one was pompous and ornate.

Now she found herself seated in her quarters on the Zhukov, flipping through a sheaf of new messages. Interview requests, fan mail and—this was new—requests from various physicists for her to pay a visit, maybe even participate in a study or two.

It was hectic, and no less than a little exhausting, but if she were honest with herself, part of her enjoyed it.

It was probably the same part that had wanted her to go right back into the field, performing more high risk MagOps assignments. She wasn't sure if she should listen to it.

Am I crazy, Clarisse? she asked her TacComp.

I wouldn't say so, the device thought. After all, if you had wanted a safe life, you could have just stayed home. But then I doubt you would have ever met any Incubators.

Ryouko paused for a moment.

I—I guess I know that. I don't know what to think right now.

Let's leave the subject, Clarisse thought. You don't have time to respond to any of these anyway. At least not now. If I have this right, right now the plan is to call your parents again, decide to put it off, and then spend some time worrying about Asami even though you can't do anything about it. And then you'll consider responding to all these letters from suitors that you keep getting. Then you'll decide that you need to go ask someone for advice about it, even though four separate people—Ying‐zhi, Clarisse, Nadya, and Mami—have told you that you shouldn't keep ignoring it. Maybe this time you should ask Kyouko. She might tell you what you want to hear.

I see that sarcasm module got substantial upgrades in Version Two, Ryouko responded sardonically.

Only with genes inherited from the very best, Clarisse replied, in the exact same tone of voice. Seriously, though, why do you even keep me around if you're going to ignore my reminders? You know I'm right.

Ryouko sighed.

I know, she thought. I just…don't…

The truth was, she had bit the bullet and called one person already. She had called her grandfather, because she felt she had to, but even though neither of them did or said anything wrong, the conversation had been so uncomfortable, the sudden gap between them so wide and visceral, that it had paralyzed her ability to repeat the action.

Her grandmother was dead, the woman she barely knew, and the difference between their reactions to the events was such that they might as well have lived in different worlds. He was devastated, and she had no idea what to say.

She'd gotten the notice shortly after the battle ended. It seemed her grandmother had been killed defending a cruiser production facility from an alien insertion team. The news had seemed to hang in the air for a moment, before her TacComp had gently reminded her of the circumstances of one of her visions, the one with the unidentified captain killed defending the Pollux shipyard. The details matched up exactly.

She considered the box of memorabilia on the bed next to her. There wasn't really much in it; a few favored clothing items—including those bunny slippers she'd had for ages—and a disassembled telescope, the body of which she was holding in her lap.

Why had the Goddess bothered to show her a vision like that? What point was there to it? The more she thought about it, the more it bothered her. The first two visions, the one with her grandmother and the one with Patricia and Maki, seemed to have had no direct bearing on the situation. Was the Goddess just being verbose for no reason?

What bothered her the most, of course, was the simple lack of emotion she felt. Yes, she had known her grandmother well as a child, but that had been a long time ago. In truth, she realized, she hardly knew the woman at all, and couldn't really summon more than an abstract kind of sorrow.

If she had just lived a little longer, Ryouko could have easily visited, as she had her grandfather. It bothered her more than she cared to admit.

She flipped through her calendar, calling up a visual of her upcoming schedule in front of her.

The logic was simple: memorial services took some time to arrange, but not that long. About one and a half weeks, with the scale of the effort proportional to the importance of the person who was dead, and some considerations made for timeliness—there had to be time for anyone invited to cross interstellar space, if required.

Thus, simple logistic considerations had contrived to place her in no less than three consecutive memorial services. The first would be on ship, arranged by the MagOps team for Eva, Juliet, and the ship and its crew. Then they would depart the Zhukov by fast transport, and attend the state funeral for Roland Erwynmark, on his home planet of Bismarck—Mami was too busy to attend in physical person, so it was imperative that the team and the newly styled "Hero of Orpheus" show up. Then, finally, she would take leave and head back to Earth, be there while they woke Asami's clone, then attend the funeral for her grandmother, which her parents were already setting up.

It felt tiring just to think about.

Sighing, she placed the telescope back in the box, closing the lid. Three funerals, for people she in truth didn't know very well. It wasn't that she felt the time wasted—instead, she regretted not knowing them better.

Ryouko stood up, shook her head at herself, and headed out the door. It was time for the first service.

The memorial service was a simple affair, more an informal gathering than anything. It wasn't intended to replace any funerals the families of the people involved might want to hold. It was, she supposed, just a remembrance, hurriedly arranged and deliberately low‐key.

She felt awkward approaching the room where it was being held. In truth, like most people from Earth, she had never been to a memorial service. There were none to go to, when no one died. From what she had read online, it seemed these kinds of group remembrances were often conducted as generically as possible, trying to split the difference between more traditional elaborate somber gatherings, stoic colonial‐style services, defiant Unification War‐style mass feasts—food had been a big deal at the time—and probably most importantly, Cult of Hope‐style funeral parties.

At least the neo‐Roman fad that had been briefly popular—complete with masks, mimes, and dancers—seemed to have been just that: a fad.

She had been told to expect a restrained affair—no speeches, nothing religious, no alcohol, and definitely no dancers. There would be a place to pay your respects, and a table of snacks, an apparent concession to the more celebratory style of funeral.

The invitation had also specified that she was supposed to come in casual attire, so she didn't have a chance to be confused about that.

Sometimes she wished doors would stay closed until you opened them, instead of trying to anticipate your arrival. Sure, you could turn that off, but going out of your way to do that could be considered a statement.

Turning the corner into the room, she almost stopped dead.

It took her a moment to recover, long enough that her TacComp would probably have nudged her had she spent any longer standing there slack‐jawed.

"Oh, hello," HSS Raven said, noting Ryouko's appearance in the doorway. "Glad you could make it."

"They're still working on building a new body for her," Nadya said, noting Ryouko's moment of confusion. "It has to be done carefully, you know, since she's not a new AI. She's stopped by for this. It's AI tradition, though I guess it is kind of weird."

The last sentence was clearly spoken for Ryouko's benefit, since she had completely failed to anticipate this.

"I always wondered what it would be like to attend my own funeral," HSS Raven said, still dressed in her customary naval captain uniform. "I guess I'm finding out. Or maybe I was born last week, and these memories are just fooling me into thinking I'm the same ship. Can't think too much about that."

"Well, I guess I'm glad to see you up and…about," Ryouko managed, feeling proud of herself for not stammering.

"Have some food," HSS Raven suggested. "I'm told Nadya makes excellent hors d'oeuvres. Never seemed to match my image of her, that."

"You live long enough, you learn everything," Nadya said sourly. "And Juliet was the better cook, by far."

Ryouko shuffled past them, thinking to herself that AIs just might be irredeemably weird, at least if Raven and Clarisse were any indication.

This was one of the ship's observation decks, chosen for this occasion. Against a panoramic backdrop of the stars outside—simulated during FTL transit—it featured a long table full of food, various small clusters of people seated or standing, a large central table with static holograms of the deceased. The event was only sparsely attended, featuring the remaining team members and what few friends and family members could travel to the ship on such short notice. Tomoe Mami had been invited to attend, but couldn't make it.

She shimmied up to the food table, squinting skeptically at one of the carefully arranged platters of food. Native Samsaran Effictian Rock Pigeon, nanite‐preserved fresh from the slaughterhouse, on tiny individualized leaves from Nova Terra. The leaves were the same fuzzy blood‐red leaves she had had at that lunch where she met Asami, what seemed like a lifetime ago, but what really made her skeptical was the meat, which was a distinctly plant‐like shade of green, and served raw, slathered in bright blue "Gleeb" salsa.

It looked more like a dessert than anything.

Swallowing slightly, she picked up a small plate and gingerly picked up a piece with the provided utensil. No sense in wanting to be a brave explorer and being squeamish about the food, after all. Besides, what would Asami say? And it smelled pretty good…

She sighed. That vision with Asami still ate at her, and she couldn't help feeling a certain sense of guilt. She knew there was nothing she could do but wait for the week or so until she received the notification that Asami's body was rebuilt—she had already asked to be present when she was revived—but she couldn't help feeling a certain restlessness.

Then something toggled in her mind, and she glanced to her right, at the table where the photographs had been set up. There she found a girl, about the same physical age, leaning on the table for support, seeming to be in throes of emotion, though not sobbing. Next to her stood an awkward‐looking Gracia, who was waving at Ryouko to come over. As Ryouko watched, glancing around for Nadya or Clarisse or someone to come bail her out, Gracia telepathically pinged her again.

Get over here already! Gracia insisted.

Why are you asking me for help? Do I look like I'm two hundred years old? Ryouko asked, reluctantly walking over, still looking around for some of the others—Nadya was still at the door, Clarisse was in a far corner.

No one else is available! Gracia insisted. I'm not good at this! She doesn't believe in the Goddess! I don't know what to say!

I'm not good at this either!

But as Ryouko got to the table, the crying girl seemed to collect herself, a little, backing away slightly.

I'm sorry; I'm fine, the girl sent telepathically. I thought I'd be okay, but I'm fine now.

The telepathy surprised Ryouko. Her eyes flashed to the girl's hand, which carried the distinctive ring and fingernail mark—a spiderweb, it looked like—then to the framed portrait of Juliet Francois in front of her, then to the girl's face.

Marianne Francois, the girl thought, intercepting Ryouko before the facescan could complete. Don't believe the face thing; it's not right. I'm her mother. Was her mother, I guess.

The girl sniffled slightly, wiping at her face with a handkerchief.

Ryouko took a moment to glare daggers at Gracia, who was sneaking away.

I see, she thought. I—well, nice to meet you, I suppose. I can't say Juliet ever really said anything about you, but we don't really talk about our families much.

Privately, Ryouko registered that she was dealing with another member of the Black Heart, given the "incorrect" face‐scan, which was indeed showing someone named "Michelle Sylvie". But, a mother—Ryouko wasn't used to thinking of someone who appeared so young as a mother, despite having met several such girls before. It occurred to her, suddenly, that she had no idea if anyone else on the MagOps team had children. The topic had never come up.

She was a nice girl, Ryouko continued, a bit helplessly. I'm sorry for—

She didn't listen to me! Marianne snapped back. I told her she shouldn't be going into the field! I told her to stick to analysis work! Now look what happened!

Uh—

Suddenly the girl seemed to lose her composure again.

I haven't spoken to her in years. If she had just listened to me! I knew she was going but I—I stopped interfering with her life—I thought—Maybe if I had just talked to Mami…

The girl's shoulders slumped, and she suddenly looked much, much older.

You know Mami? Ryouko asked, surprised, looking for something else to talk about, to break the awkward silence.

I'm her chief intelligence officer, Marianne thought. I never even told her I had a daughter. It's all my fault. If I had just been able to find a boy she liked…

No, don't say that, it's not your fault, Ryouko interjected hastily. She loved her job and, uh…

At a sudden loss for words, Ryouko bit into her hors d'oeuvre, trying to buy time.

This is delicious, she thought, taken aback, knowing the thought to be completely inappropriate for the situation. I didn't think—

"Military personnel love it," Nadya said, appearing next to the two them. "Civilians, not so much. Apparently the modified olfactory sense makes raw meat taste better."

Ryouko made eye contact with Nadya. She had no idea what Nadya was seeing in her eyes, but would have guessed that it was some variation of "Please! Save me!"

"Ma'am," Nadya said, shifting her position subtly so that it was clear she was taking over the conversation. "I know you miss her. We miss her too. Wouldn't it be better to—"

Instead of saying anything coherent, Marianne just grabbed the other girl and pulled her into hug, sobbing onto her shoulder. Looking nonplussed, Nadya patted her on the head.

Feeling decidedly unheroic, Ryouko backed rapidly out of the area, taking comfort from the fact that at least Nadya was old. That would probably help, right?

I can't imagine what it'd be like, to care so much that someone is gone, Ryouko thought.

You're not thinking clearly, her TacComp said, with surprising alacrity. How concerned were you about Asami? How would you feel if she were dead? What about your grandfather?

The question stopped Ryouko cold, and she stopped there for a long moment, watching the surreal scene in front of her, as Clarisse and Nadya hovered over Marianne in front of the memorial table.

You're right, she thought final. I wasn't thinking. But…I don't know. I can't—

Then she stopped, shook her head at herself, and headed back towards the food table. She hadn't been thinking, but she wasn't sure she wanted to think.

She could tell the question would bug her, though.


Mami was looking forward to a vacation.

The last few weeks had been undeniably exhausting, but she had persevered, painful as it was. The nightmares were getting worse, and her bodyguards were pushing her to see a MHD shrink, maybe get them looked at—and maybe she would, if she had some time. Centuries of life had taught her not to be proud enough to try to deal with everything herself, though sometimes you just had to, if you had work to do. She liked to think she was capable of that, now, that she wasn't as fragile as she had been, all those years ago.

Speaking of that, maybe it was time to pay another visit to Kyouko. There was a time, long ago, when she had thought the two of them might be something. That had been—let's see—not when they first met, though, thinking back, it might have started then, It had been after they reunited, when Kyouko had picked her back up after Oriko had trashed her life.

She had realized, then, that objectively Kyouko's problems had been far worse than hers—and yet it was Kyouko helping her, not the other way around. She had perceived a strength of character that she herself lacked, one that would never try to self‐destruct, as she had against Oriko. Yet even then, she could see that Kyouko was suffering, as she had suffered while alone. She had done her best to rectify that.

For a while, then, she had thought she was in love.

She hadn't been, of course. She had grown to realize that. Love, at least of the romantic sort, was something else entirely, something she now thought herself unsuited for. Instead, she had admired Kyouko, even after the girl had broken her own heart chasing after Sayaka.

She missed those days, living with the other three. After they founded the MSY, after they had gotten their own apartments and gone their own separate ways, she had tried to recreate it again, inviting her new pupils in to live with her, and even with some of them, she had considered…

But in the end, she could never recapture the spirit. It was too ephemeral, too dependent on circumstances that would never recur—on friends that had struggled together, on friends who were young and not yet worn out by the long centuries, on friends who didn't have other things to do.

If only Kyouko hadn't developed that fascination with that Cult of hers. They could have been officers together, at least. She wouldn't be so alone out here, and so, so tired.

I'm sorry to disturb you, Machina said, but I really think you should be paying more attention to this.

Ah yes, of course. Sorry.

She realized that she had been gripping the armrests of her virtual chair, digging her fingernails into the cushion. Thankfully, Machina had helped her keep an impassive expression.

She performed the mental equivalent of sighing. An important meeting of the General Staff, to decide Erwynmark's successor, and she couldn't resist the temptation to zone out, diverting parts of her consciousness to idle musing. It was as if she had spent herself on the previous campaign.

To be fair, she had also found herself unusually affected by Roland's death. This meeting, the idea of being here on the General Staff, seemed even less palatable than usual.

She found herself staring at Governance: Military Affairs, the temporary chair of the meeting. A stern‐looking, vaguely European‐looking man, he was actually a full AI Representative. Embodying everyone's stereotype of the military, wearing a dress uniform that was almost authentic. His right arm was encased in a slimmed‐down version of an infantry armored suit, which still caused him to look almost comically disproportionate; this kind of thing was typical for the AI representatives of the Directorate, though.

Much to his chagrin, Military Affairs had yet to find a way to incorporate a magical girl motif into his appearance in a way that he was comfortable with—thus far, he had settled for a decal printed on his armored armor, depicting a magical girl about to attack. It had once been much more suggestively posed, based on "historical military tradition", but Yuma had managed to stir up enough of a controversy about the image to force him to change it.

Shaking her head at her own lack of focus, Mami took a moment to review what had happened in the meeting while she was daydreaming—implants did have their advantages, after all, and most of her had been paying attention. She replayed the audio in her mind.

"The chair of the General Staff should be someone with experience, and a long history of successful leadership, in multiple campaigns," Field Marshal Sualem said. "Only then can we be sure that their previous success cannot be attributed to luck. Marshal Porto would be an excellent candidate."

Marshal Porto himself snorted.

"Let me tell you," the Unification War veteran said, "luck is on the side of every successful general. Napoleon, for instance, was famously lucky."

"And also famously talented," Sualem said. "Your campaigns in South America are masterpieces."

"And irrelevant to the current war," Porto said. "I must graciously decline."

"Stop being fatuous, Sualem," Fleet Admiral Anand said, voice seeming almost to purr. "Erwynmark himself assumed the chair based on only a few victories."

"He also showed brilliance," Sualem argued. "Something which was conspicuously missing from this recent campaign."

"Erwynmark himself helped design the campaign, in case you forget," Feodorovich said, voice stern. "The decisions of the previous campaign were well‐reviewed by the Staff."

"We won by luck," Sualem insisted. "Because a single girl just happened—"

"Excuse me," Mami interjected, leaning forward, now that she had caught up with real‐time. "It was not luck. I resent the implication. Luck played a factor, but this kind of 'luck'"—

Here she made an "air quotes" gesture with both hands, a gesture that had surprisingly survived nearly five centuries of usage.

"—is always relevant to MagOps operations. Operatives are expected to use creativity, as well as their special capabilities. Previous operations have also achieved success in unexpected ways such as this."

"Not on the scale—"

Military Affairs cleared his throat loudly, drawing their attention.

"While of course demonstrated ability is an important, perhaps the primary, consideration, it must be that other considerations also play a role. Accomplishments now are more important than accomplishments in the past, which may no longer be relevant to the current nature of the war. While retrospective analysis will of course continue for a while, the execution of the recent campaign appears to have been more than adequate, even if in the end it required 'luck'. In the end, it may be that in this war, expecting to win without luck is misguided."

The AI spoke in a level, baritone voice, taking a moment to meet each of them in turn with his eyes—or rather, eye, since one eye was tattooed with the AI‐style "I/O".

Mami frowned. She had expected Sualem to be his usual annoying self, so his taking the opportunity to denigrate her achievements came as no surprise, but on those occasions when he attended these meetings, Military Affairs generally preferred to stay silent, allowing the Staff to operate as they would. Sure, it was not every day that the Chair of the General Staff needed to be replaced, but she remembered well Erwynmark's ascendancy to the position nearly a decade ago, where Military Affairs had simply sat silently until it was time to vote.

"And of course, there's always politics," the AI continued, finally. "The Directorate continues to express dissatisfaction with the composition of this staff, which is, let us admit, less than meritocratic. While this is of course not a meeting to discuss new additions to the General Staff, there is an obvious choice for Chair that would also serve to illustrate our commitment to promotion based on demonstrated achievement."

Mami blinked, taking a moment to parse the almost‐oracular pronouncement.

Once, long ago, she would have jumped up in open surprise at what was being suggested. Centuries of work as the MSY's chief diplomat, then later as a Field Marshal on the General Staff, allowed her to express only an appropriate mild surprise.

Of course! She realized. Why didn't I see it sooner? I'm supposed to be good at this sort of thing!

Sualem, Anand, Porto—they had realized long before her. The entire discussion up until now had been conversational maneuvering, designed to make their points without having to say anything explicitly.

You were distracted, Machina pointed out, breaking her TacComp's customary silence. And, I would add, you seemed to have had a strong bias against thinking about yourself in that role. I know you have a lot of experience, but my analysis of your memories indicates that this is not the first time you have been blindsided by something you should have expected.

You're criticizing me? Mami asked, in surprise. It wasn't Machina's style to say something like that.

Well, I… her TacComp began, before seeming to let the sentence trail off.

Nevermind, I suppose, Machina thought.

Mami decided to worry about her TacComp's strange behavior later. Fortunately, their conversation had taken place in accelerated time, allowing Mami to still respond to Military Affairs in real‐time.

"Excuse me," she asked, deciding that it was probably time to throw down the gauntlet. "Is it your intention to nominate me for the position of Chair of the General Staff?"

She kept her face mildly surprised, perhaps pleased, but a storm of emotions roiled underneath the surface.

Me? Chair? I hadn't even thought to campaign for it. But he's right, after what just happened—I'm the obvious choice.

"I am expressing my support," Military Affairs said. "It was Erwynmark's wish that I nominate you in case of his demise, a wish that I agreed with. Of course, if the Staff decide otherwise, that is their prerogative."

That was not strictly true. Military Affairs, and above him, the Directorate as a whole, technically had the power to appoint the Chair directly, or to fire and replace the whole Staff at their whim. But, it was, of course, against tradition for civilian Governance to exercise its power directly.

I have to accept, Mami thought. I'm the representative for all magical girls on this Staff. It's an unprecedented honor.

"It is an honor," she said.

The comments by Military Affairs had brought the situation out into the open, triggering a cascade of looks, glances, and glares around the room, as each member of the staff tried to assess the others, gauging their positions. Mami did the same.

It looks like about fifteen out of twenty‐three, Machina commented. The endorsement of Military Affairs and Erwynmark seems to have provided a real boost of support.

"Perhaps we may as well hold the vote now," Military Affairs said. "Does anyone object? Perhaps any more nominations?"

Mami could see the anger on Sualem's face, and could take pleasure in at least that much. For a moment she thought the man would nominate someone else, even himself, in a quixotic lost cause, but in the end he subsided, even though he looked almost apoplectic. The influence of tradition on the General Staff was strong, and it would have been unprecedented for there to be more than one nominee—the Staff never nominated anyone until it was sure.

Military Affairs cleared his throat again, theatrically.

"Then on the motion to elect Field Marshal Tomoe Mami as the new Chair of the General Staff of the Armed forces, how does this General Staff vote?"

It was rare that the General Staff ever voted, preferring to carry out their business by unanimous consent. It was necessary, however, for matters of significant importance.

Each member of the Staff entered their votes by mental intention, a simple mental gesture serving to indicate their votes. The vote count imprinted itself on their minds, not relying on anything so crude as vision. First came the immediate assent of reliable supporters such as Karishma Anand, de Chatillon, and Alexander. Porto and Feodorovich, generally more neutral, surprised her by immediately entering their "yea" votes, without waiting for the majority to be confirmed. Sualem and Miller were "nay", of course.

Then, as the vote count passed twelve, the remaining "yea" votes came in, those voters who had waited longer expressing their lower degree of certainty by responding after the outcome was already determined. The vote was fifteen to six.

Taking a breath, Mami entered her vote, the traditional "abstain" for voting for oneself. Military Affairs followed a moment later, also with a traditional "abstain".

She watched as Sualem clamped his eyes shut, his face a study in uncomfortable despair, even as the other members of the "nay" group switched their votes to "yea" to conform with the majority.

A moment later he did so as well, followed by Military Affairs, then Mami herself. A unanimous confirmation, as tradition dictated.

Mami got out of her chair, head swimming, making her way to the front of the room.

Congratulations, Anand relayed to her.

Thanks, she thought.

She reached the front, pushing herself through the motions of shaking the hand of Military Affairs.

Then she turned, looking down the virtual table, at the dual rows of expectant faces, waiting for her to make the customary speech.

She opened her mouth to speak.

What have I gotten myself into? she thought.