The origins of current immortality technology lie in the years leading up to the Unification Wars, in the efforts of the newly emergent hyperclasses, which were understandably unenthused by the prospect of their own mortality, the only obvious limitation on what were otherwise lives of luxury and unrestrained decadence.

Longevity research was hardly a new phenomenon; exorbitant rejuvenation treatments had been developed as early as the 2090s. These, however, possessed severe flaws, including unpleasant side effects, incredibly exorbitant cost and, most importantly, lack of repeatability in the face of inexorable genetic and tissue damage. Even the luckiest of these early treatment recipients only saw their lifespans extended into the 160s, dying on the eve of war with their dreams of immortality unfulfilled.

While this kind of lifespan made the hyperclasses Methuselahs compared to earlier generations, it was considered unsatisfactory. Tremendous resources were poured into anti‐aging research, vast numbers of scientists working tirelessly in enormous laboratories, as the masses around them languished and died, deprived even of cures to diseases long since eradicated in the rich.

Progress was nonetheless frustrating. Nanotechnology had been used successfully in manufacturing and other applications for decades, but even with AI‐guidance, the biological equivalent was slow to develop—the first generations of nanites were finicky, relatively ineffective, and hard to maintain, the drone populations mutating uncontrollably far too often. Reversing or suspending aging was a subtle, difficult task, and while research teams managed startling feats of biological manipulation, these too often seemed inapplicable to the main problem, serving only as additional bodily modifications enterprising hyperclass members might find amusing.

An application was found for this research soon enough, of course. The exigencies of total war tore apart the limits of what had once been considered acceptable, leading both sides to send into battle soldiers with progressively more extensive bionic and neural modifications, enabled by the very nanite technology that had previously seemed so useless. Even within the core nations of the United Front (UF), it soon became customary to think of the armed forces as a cyborg army—as this was in effect what they were.

While it was the Freedom Alliance (FA) that took the technology far beyond the limits of ethics, even the UF performed actions that would have been absolutely unthinkable before the war, most notably with the Universal Readiness Decree of 2200, which began the mandatory installation of nanite‐based implant technology into the civilian population. The justification was, of course, creating a civilian population more productive, more resistant to attack—including nuclear attack—disease and deprivation, and capable of taking up arms in a post‐modern war that could no longer be fought by humans. With basic survival at the forefront, protests were muted, and unfortunate accidents that would have been major scandals in peacetime were brushed aside.

At the end of the war, the Emergency Defense Council (EDC) restarted the stalled prewar research projects, under the new banner of Project Eden. With over a half‐century of feverish wartime research behind them, and a population already filled to the brim with bionic implants, a once‐frustrating problem proved surprisingly facile—where a prewar scientist might have hesitated to suggest installing an implant into the deep brainstem, a postwar scientist merely had to suggest modifications to what was already there. Decades of fine‐tuning and testing were necessary, but the problem had in essence been solved—it turned out, extensive cyborg modification was the answer.

— "A Brief History of Immortality," online article.

"Sometimes I walk outside, alone, and I explore. I take my private vehicle and I drive. Sometimes I circle the residential towers. Sometimes I explore the MSY district. Sometimes, when I really have time, I leave the city entirely, and drive out into the forests and the fields. I get out, and I breathe in the air, and I look at the sky."

"I do this because when I'm out there, alone among the teeming masses of humanity, or alone among the endless trees, I can almost feel her. She's everywhere; I know it."

"And then I wonder, is this what she really wanted?"

— Akemi Homura, redacted quote from "Akemi Homura, an Official Biography," (MSY Internal), 2405. MSY‐classified material is viewable only with permission from the Leadership Committee.

It was snowing.

That wasn't really a surprise, of course. According to the handy travel guides her TacComp had downloaded for her, Roland Erwynmark's home planet of Bismarck had apparently once been the victim of a cataclysmic impact sequence, knocking its rotation radically off‐axis. This had the effect of greatly amplifying seasonal shifts across most of the planet, producing glaringly hot summers and sunless winters. Temperature discrepancies between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere during the cold or hot seasons led to massive superstorms.

Overall, the guide recommended, it was best to travel to Bismarck during the temperate seasons, when it was possible to watch the local fauna desperately mate as they fled across the continents in giant migratory herds, before there was nowhere to go and it was time to hunker down for either summer or winter. Even the plant life got in on the action, executing an exotic biannual lifestyle. While some of the settlements were in the tropics, and some groups of humans even emulated the animals, migrating back and forth across the continent, most human settlements weren't, instead located near important sources of minerals. Roland Erwynmark was from one of these settlements.

It was currently winter there.

So if they went to all the trouble to put up weather control stations around the settlement, you'd think they could make it so we wouldn't be surrounded by knee‐deep snow, Ryouko thought.

There are limits to reasonable uses of resources, Clarisse thought. They don't have limitless energy from solar satellites like Earth. There's a limit to what you can do with geothermal. Besides, it's not so bad.

I know, obviously, Ryouko thought. Just complaining. And you know I know so stop being pedantic.

It really wasn't that bad, to be honest. The implants made the cold mostly bearable, as long as you bundled up, and paving drones had been deployed to create ice paths that wound their way throughout the area. By simply putting on a pair of skates and letting your implants guide you, it was possible to have a quite pleasant experience exploring the area. It wasn't really something Ryouko had ever done—the climate control in Mitakihara prevented the city from ever experiencing more than mild "holiday" snow.

She had arrived a day early, and she figured she might as well look around a little.

Maybe I could bring my parents or friends here, she thought, as she peered at her surroundings, allowing her legs to propel her forward on the equivalent of autopilot.

Nominally, she was on the outskirts of the town of Neumalchin, population 15,673. In practice, she was in the middle of nowhere—there was nothing visible of the town from where she was, with her visibility impeded by the high snowbanks and dormant native plant life. The town was tiny and sparse, and no amount of renovations to old mining facilities—revamped as temporary housing for the incoming flux of dignitaries—could change that.

They could have melted the snow, of course, if they had really wanted to. The military had the resources, for an important event like this. But for what purpose? To reveal brown mud and leafless plants? It was pointless, and Erwynmark had apparently grown up with the snow—for half the year, anyway.

Ryouko held up her hands, breathing out. The cloud of condensation puffed outward at her mittened hands. The cold, the condensation, the mittens—it was all novel, and kind of fun, in a way, different from the paltry skin‐thin layer of snow Mitakihara was allowed.

She looked up, at the starry endless night, framed by tall, bare, native trees. Out here, in the breathtakingly muted snowy landscape, in the seemingly eternal dark, it seemed possible to get lost forever, to wander timelessly in the endless wilderness, blessed with eternal life, and to never return.

It seemed strangely enticing, but also a little sad. It occurred to her that it would be better experienced with someone else.

Is it starting to happen? she thought. Am I finally starting to feel lonely?

She skated silently for another long moment, brooding on the implications of the thought.

Clarisse, she began.

Then, before she knew what she was doing, she had jumped, spinning into the air, the world spinning into a blur around her. With twin bursts of magic, she partially transformed, an arbalest appearing on her left arm, and her skating shoes replacing themselves with more combat‐ready green boots.

The projectile missed her head by a mile, and she landed on the ice deftly, boots sticking to the surface with a flash of green light, achieving an impossible level of traction. Her left arm was already raised to fire.

But she hadn't completed the transformation, and she didn't fire, because she realized that the projectile was made, improbably, of snow.

The two culprits of the attack made a scared noise, hidden at the top of the snowbank, bright and obvious in Ryouko's infrared vision.

Kids, she thought.

She blinked, returning to standard vision, then jumped, clearing both snowbank and children in one powerful leap, turning as she did so, so that she could land behind them, and look down upon them.

Or so she planned, anyway, but in practice, she promptly wedged herself deep into the snow, and found herself more or less eye‐level with the wide‐eyed children who, she realized abruptly, were only a few years younger than she was. They had been tensing to run, and had clearly not expected her to react so adroitly.

"And what was that about?" she demanded, looking between the two kids, one a defiant‐looking thirteen‐year‐old boy and the other a scared‐looking twelve‐year‐old girl.

"We didn't mean anything!" the girl blurted out tremulously. "We just wanted to see—"

"We were just playing," the boy said, peering at her pugnaciously. "Don't—"

"We heard there were a lot of magical girls in the area now," the girl said. "We wanted to—"

"Don't tell her that!" the boy said, glaring at the girl. "Now—"

Then he froze, a look of utter shock crawling up his face.

"We're so sorry!" he said, turning back towards Ryouko, his previously‐defiant expression suddenly terrified. "We were just playing, Miss Shizuki! We didn't mean any disrespect!"

Their face scanners just processed who you are, Clarisse explained, as Ryouko started to make a puzzled expression. Hero of Orpheus.

Oh, Ryouko thought, softening her expression so as not to scare them.

"It's alright," Ryouko said reassuringly. "No harm done. What are you two doing way out here?"

"Well…" the boy began, looking away from her.

The girl, whose gaze had turned briefly worshipful, seemed to blush slightly.

"Well," she said, looking downward bashfully. "I thought it'd be romantic—"

"Stop telling her these things!" the boy shouted, suddenly blushing furiously.

Suddenly, Ryouko understood the situation.

She turned her head away instinctively, and fiddled with her arbalest briefly with her other hand. Then she realized what she was doing and abolished the weapon entirely.

"So this kind of thing is considered romantic, huh?" she asked, recalling her earlier train of thought.

I can't believe I just said that! she thought immediately.

Oh God I'm humiliating myself in front of my fans.

She turned around to hide her face, a difficult task buried in the snow as she was, but one achievable with her considerable enhanced strength.

"Well, I'll leave you two alone, then," she said.

Then she propelled herself into another jump, as the other two watched her, awestruck. Relying on her magical boots, she stuck her landing on the ice, and dispelled the boots, preparing to skate back.

"Wait!" the girl yelled, from behind her.

Ryouko turned back, to see the girl climbing awkwardly over the snowbank. Ryouko thought for a moment that she would fall, but the girl slid down the side with surprising skill, landing on the ice just as a set of skates deployed from her bulky‐looking boots.

"Can we come with you?" the girl asked.

Roland Erwynmark had been a town hero. More than just the prototypical local boy made good, he had also saved the town itself—he had started his military career here, tasked with leading the hastily assembled local militia in the defense of the town. That had been near the start of the war, when Bismarck—a relatively minor planet—had come under dispute. Neither side had committed many resources to a relative sideshow, at the very edge of the ambitious squid incursion, leaving the planet to defend itself with mostly its own resources.

Neumalchin had been a smaller‐scale version of the same phenomenon. A small mining town in the north, serving as a waypoint for scientific teams heading into the wilderness, was not high on the civil defense priority list, and had been lucky to receive enough outdated armor suits to outfit its adult population. Erwynmark was one of the few who had previously bothered to volunteer for militia training, and had more or less fallen into the leadership position.

It was a mystery why the aliens had even chosen to land the troops necessary to occupy the region—especially in the dead of winter—but when they did, they had likely expected to overrun Neumalchin as a matter of course.

Instead, the villagers' last‐ditch defense of their town had become the stuff of planetary legend. The history holos Ryouko had accessed painted the experience vividly—villagers digging into snowbanks and ice, exploiting their mastery of the local terrain to the absolute hilt, and constantly jiggering and rejiggering their weather manipulation station to generate blizzard after blizzard in the face of alien counter‐manipulation. Erwynmark himself skated endlessly back and forth over the ice roads, moving from sector to sector without cessation, as their numbers continued to dwindle.

At the end they had finally been forced to withdraw underground, into the mining tunnels, following a morbid precedent set on colony world after colony world.

By the time the alien troops withdrew from the region, the villagers had long since cannibalized every building they had for the energy necessary to forge and reforge ammunition over and over, not to mention power their suits and fuel their increasingly deprived bodies. Alien corpses, human corpses, damaged equipment, trees, shrubs, weather phenomena, underground heat and biomass, the rarely‐visible sun—anything and everything that could be reacted or harnessed to generate usable energy was reacted or harnessed.

But in the end, they still stood, with hardly anything left but their own indomitable wills—and a much‐reduced population. The performance caught the eye of the planetary commander, who lifted Erwynmark to a higher position. The rest, as they say, was history.

All of which served to explain why as Ryouko and her newfound fans—friends?—made their way into the town square, they headed down Erwynmark Rd., past Erwynmark Hall, a monument to Roland Erwynmark, and finally into Erwynmark Inn, Café, and Bar.

To be fair, she had also passed monuments and roads named after other local heroes, including a monument to the magical girl team that had been involved in the battle, a paltry three girls strong—one local MSY‐assigned demon hunter and two newly‐contracted locals. The team had originally numbered five, but the MSY, seeing the apparent writing on the wall, had withdrawn all but the one who had refused to leave. In the end, only she had survived, forced to withdraw from fighting entirely to focus on demon hunting, lest the town be left without a single magical girl to fight demon hordes.

The town had been obliged to rebuild everything from the ground up, and was understandably fond of memorializing the most important event in its history. For the upcoming memorial service, the buildings were decked out in banners with Erwynmark's face and welcoming the crowd of dignitaries that would soon arrive—most of whom weren't here yet, since everyone was busy.

The girl Ryouko was with was named Priska Höfler, apparently, and seemed inordinately proud to be Erwynmark's second cousin's granddaughter. Ryouko had let the girl and her "friend" skate aimlessly with her for a while, until Ryouko had received an unexpected message summoning her back to town. The two teenagers—children?—had insisted on showing her the way, even though Clarisse had a map of the town downloaded and ready to use.

At the moment, Priska was filling her head with village color and gossip.

"Anyway, so Amelie says she thinks it's insulting that so many of the, uh, dignitaries aren't coming in person, but Mama says it's understandable, since everyone is so busy. I mean, it makes sense, since I'd guess that's why Mami‐san wouldn't come."

"Yeah, something like that," Ryouko agreed.

"It makes sense, of course," Priska continued, a little breathlessly. "I'm sure they all have important business, but it sucks that Mami‐san isn't coming. She's so cool!"

"Yeah, she is kind of cool," Ryouko agreed.

"Krista says Amelie is just sour because her parents won't approve of her dating so early. I feel bad for her, but only a little, because her parents have so much money. Compared to my family, anyway. The other day, we went to the general store, and they had this special nanofabricated jewel Mama wanted and my parents got into this big fight, right there in the store! Is it true, what they say, that people from Earth don't really care about money?"

Ryouko had stayed mostly silent, not sure how to talk to them. She wasn't sure what this sensation was—Priska and her friend, Marcus, seemed unbearably young to her, the two‐year difference between them and her feeling like a chasm.

"Uhh… yeah, pretty much," Ryouko said, looking at the other girl's wide eyes. "More or less. I mean, we care a little, especially nowadays with the war on, but no one really thinks about it."

"How much do you make?"

"Er…" she prevaricated.

She consulted Clarisse quickly. Converted into local currency, the sum was astronomical—she could probably have bought that "nanofabricated jewel" hundreds of times over.

"Uh…" she repeated.

"That's not a polite question, Priska," Marcus said, a little tersely. "Anyway, we're here."

Indeed they were, the gray metal door of the inn sliding open at their approach.

Stepping inside, Ryouko glanced around, taking only a moment to find the girl who had summoned her.

Sakura Kyouko was seated at the bar, tearing her way energetically through a half‐eaten roast chicken—special local breed—holding one of the drumsticks in her hand and using it to gesture at Patricia, who was seated next to her looking bemused. Patricia had a plate with some of the chicken as well, but didn't really seem to be eating, probably afraid to get in Kyouko's way.

As a robot arrived to collect Ryouko's jacket and other cold‐weather accoutrements, Kyouko chugged the remaining third of her cup of beer then gestured at the bartender for more. Ryouko glanced at the kids with her, feeling suddenly uneasy. A memory flashed through her mind: blood and gore on the streets of a distant world, the remains of a girl that had sacrificed herself to save Patricia.

She swallowed, then walked forward.

Sensing her approach, Kyouko stopped eating abruptly, calmly and deliberately setting her food down and taking a moment to dab her mouth clean with a self‐cleaning cloth.

"Yo," she said, turning half around in her rotating bar stool to face Ryouko. "I see you've made some new friends."

"Ah, yes, uh," Ryouko began impotently, surprised.

"Don't look so worried," Kyouko said, smiling toothily. "There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to make a few friends your age. Come on, take a seat. The rest of you too. Order something. My treat."

To her, we really are the same age, Ryouko realized, as she walked over to the seat next to Kyouko.

Patricia gestured at the two kids, who shuffled hesitantly over, Marcus mumbling something about messaging his mother.

"I, uh, thought you weren't coming to this," Ryouko said. She had checked the list of attendees, after all.

"I wasn't going to," Kyouko said, chewing thoughtfully on some meat. "Mami was pressuring me to, to make up for her absence, but funerals ain't my thing, especially the gloomy type. I hate going to them, to be honest."

Ryouko craned her head slightly, to make sure the two locals were okay. Patricia seemed to be chatting them up, so she decided not to worry about it.

"So what changed your mind?" Ryouko asked.

"I heard you were coming," Kyouko said, working delicately at the chicken in front of her with a knife and chopsticks. "And I thought I'd check up on you. I am supposed to be your mentor, after all."

Ryouko nodded.

After a moment of silence, Ryouko started to access the menu, not sure what else to say.

"I'd ask you how things are," Kyouko said, "but it'd probably be a useless question. Things are probably changing so fast that even you don't know what's going on with your life. That's probably the way things are, right?"

Ryouko thought about it a moment, then nodded. It was accurate enough. For the past few weeks, she had mostly let the flow of events carry her along, too bewildered to be capable of anything else.

She wasn't really sure if it was a bad thing, though. She seemed to be going places, intentionally or not. And besides, in an organization such as the military, how much could she really change on her own?

"I've been okay," she said. "There's been a lot going on, obviously."

She knew that was a tremendous understatement, but she wasn't really sure how else to put it.

"That's an understatement if I've ever heard one," Kyouko said, instantly mirroring Ryouko's thoughts. "I was sorry to hear about your grandmother, by the way. My condolences."

"Oh, yeah, it's, uh, thanks," Ryouko responded, caught off‐guard.

"I'm not surprised you pulled off a big stunt like that," Kyouko said, focusing for a moment again on her food. "For Mami to glom onto you that quickly is usually a sign. Hmm, well, I can admit the stunt was a bit bigger than I had imagined it being."

Kyouko turned her head to look at Ryouko, very deliberately, and Ryouko found herself staring back into the Ancient's eyes.

Let's pretend to eat for a while, Ryouko heard Kyouko think, the voice resonating in her head. Whatever you might have told everyone else, I know the Goddess was involved. I am the head of the religion, after all, so I'd like to hear about it.

Ryouko let out the breath she had been holding. Somehow, she had contrived to completely forget about that aspect of things.

Why are we holding this conversation in a public bar? she asked, buying time while also asking a pertinent question.

Kyouko shrugged.

Figured I might as well get in a lesson about the world while I was at it. You see that couple at the table over there? Don't look too directly.

Kyouko pinged her the location telepathically. Ryouko glanced where she indicated, trying to do it out of the corner of her eye. They looked fairly nondescript, except that they were obviously from out of town. Thinking back, they hadn't been there earlier, so they had probably come in after Ryouko did.

Reporters, Kyouko said. They've barely touched their food, they're trying too hard to blend in, and the male one can't stop himself from glancing over. The town is infested with them, but they try to hide themselves. These two have probably been following you for a while. Notice any drones following you on your way here, by the way?

Ryouko, a little slack‐jawed, starting shaking her head, before stopping herself.

No, she thought.

There were at least a couple, Kyouko thought. Anyway, those reporters are probably really ticked off right now, since it seems none of their recording devices are working, and they can't even crank up their auditory implants. What a shame. It's almost as if there were some kind of electronics expert here suppressing them with her magic.

Kyouko smirked a little, glancing for a moment at Patricia, who seemed to be talking to the two kids animatedly about genetics or something.

A moment later one of the reporters yelped in surprise, as her plate of food spontaneously upended itself into her lap.

The point is, Kyouko thought. You got to pay more attention to this kind of thing, now that people know who you are. You probably also didn't notice the telekinetic I put in the other corner.

No, Ryouko thought, looking confusedly. Yes, there was a girl there, but was she—

She frowned for a moment, then finally picked up the hint of magic, very carefully suppressed.

"So how did you find training?" Kyouko asked, out loud. "I'm always curious to hear what new girls think about it, since they don't make us Old Ones do anything like it."

The open speech surprised Ryouko, but before she could respond, Kyouko thought:

Missing a magical signature like that would have gotten you killed, back in my day, Kyouko thought. Anyway, enough small talk. I'd like to hear about the Goddess. I notice you didn't exactly deny it before.

A moment later, having sorted out the confusing situation, Ryouko sighed. She was cornered, and she knew it.

"It was everything everyone said it would be," Ryouko said, a nice safe response that required no thought. "It felt like it took forever, but it all feels kind of fuzzy. That's intentional, apparently."

A moment later, she appended her real response:

She came to me and told me how the battle was going. She said I was going to make a mistake, since I didn't know about the fleet that the aliens had cloaked. I was going to just try to take the team home. She's the one who said I should try to reopen the wormhole.

Kyouko nodded, then turned, staring into Ryouko's eyes unnervingly.

"You make any friends during training? I'm told the friends you make during training are often the closest."

Did she give you the power to do it? Kyouko asked, seemingly simultaneously, leaving Ryouko blinking. Had Kyouko just relayed one thought while speaking another?

"I made a few," Ryouko said blandly, hoping that her facial expression wasn't betraying their mental conversation.

I don't think so, Ryouko thought. I think I could do that on my own.

Kyouko seemed to chuckle slightly, then put some of her food into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

Some of the Theological Council think no ordinary magical girl could do something like that, that you had to have some power boost from the Goddess. I told them they didn't have enough faith in ordinary magical girls. You are ordinary, right? She didn't tell you you're the new prophet or anything?

A memory echoed in Ryouko's mind suddenly, unbidden. It was the Goddess's voice:

"You don't know it, but this is one of the things you were born for."

One of—

Ryouko felt suddenly dizzy, but hid it as best she could.

She didn't.

Kyouko nodded to herself.

"I'm told you made one particularly good friend, actually,"

Is there anything else you want to share? If it's relevant to the Church, or Humanity, or anything like that, I'd like to hear it. But if she gave you relationship advice or something, you don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to. You wouldn't believe how often she does that, on the side. Well, so I'm told, anyway.

Another memory flashed through Ryouko's mind, of Maki's body being torn apart. This one was a repeat, but it only served to make her queasier.

Am I traumatized or something? she thought to herself. I don't usually—

"I'm not sure what you mean," she said, stalling for time. She didn't like either of the topics they were discussing, and having to think about both at the same time made her head hurt. It didn't help that Kyouko persisted in saying two things at the same time.

Not that I'd like to share, she relayed to Kyouko, even though she was starting to think that, indeed, one of the visions was directly relevant to Kyouko. She didn't want to deal with it.

Fair enough, Kyouko thought, nodding, pushing away her plate, which was now empty. Ryouko wondered how she had managed to miss Kyouko finishing all that food.

I'd really rather you not tell everyone I said this, Ryouko thought.

Kyouko turned towards her elaborately, filling in the apparent gap in their verbal conversation.

As much as I'd like to blare the trumpets on this, Kyouko thought, looking at Ryouko thoughtfully. I wouldn't do that to you if you don't want me to. And I can definitely understand why you wouldn't want to. I won't be that kind of asshole. Maybe someday, later, though. Why haven't you joined the Church? It's a simple registration. There are benefits.

Ryouko blinked, trying to think of something.

Nevermind, Kyouko thought. Later.

"Let be more specific, then," Kyouko said. "I hear you're involved in a relationship now. With a girl too. Good for you! Obviously, I'm supportive."

Ryouko's eye twitched. The two local villagers, who had been quietly staring at the two of them, easily heard Kyouko's suddenly loud voice.

Ryouko felt herself blush. She put her hands to her head.

"First, I don't know why everyone knows about that. Second, this is barely a week old, and isn't even that certain, and everyone is taking it as fact. Third, if those are really reporters over there, do you realize what you just started?"

She slammed her palm into the table at the end of the last sentence, then realized she was talking way too loud.

She covered her mouth with her hand to hide her embarrassment.

"Anyway, you're taking it way too seriously," she finished.

"Well, I was just saying, if you want special advice, I got plenty of that," Kyouko said, smiling mischievously. "If you know what I mean. Besides, I'm sure the media already knows. Probably."

Ryouko made an annoyed noise, deep in her throat.

"I don't know what you mean, and don't tell me. Anyway, I'm not sure I should take relationship advice from you, given—"

Ryouko stopped herself in time, but Kyouko's smile still turned abruptly brittle, as if she had just received a particularly effective gut punch.

The effect lasted only a moment, though, before dissipating, as Kyouko's smile returned to normal.

"You've heard the rumors, I guess?" Kyouko said. "Well, I wasn't exactly offering advice in long‐term relationships. Anyway…"

With suspiciously good timing, a server‐bot appeared behind the counter, delivering in front of Ryouko one sirloin steak, served with local vegetables and horseradish sauce, served very rare. Ryouko could almost swear she saw blood leaking out of it.

"For you," Kyouko said. "Thought I'd surprise you. The blood makes it taste better. Side effect of the implants. I gotta get going. Patricia wants to talk to you, I can't imagine why, but—"

Kyouko glanced at Patricia, who seemed to be playing some sort of virtual game with the two kids.

"—later, I guess," Kyouko finished. "You have no idea how much she likes kids, if you can force her out of the lab. Anyway, last bit of advice: watch out for people trying to get into your pants. See ya."

"Uh, see you," Ryouko barely managed in time, as Kyouko hopped off the bar bench and zoomed out the door, dodging and weaving so effectively that the waiters and tables in her way might as well not have been there.

Ryouko watched her go for a moment, then turned back towards her plate. After meditating for a moment on what the last thing Kyouko had said was all about, she carved off a sliver of the meat with a knife and tried it.

Her eyes widened.

I'm starting to wonder if I should just start asking the synthesizer for raw meat and be done with it, she thought, as she started tearing into the rest of it, exerting a disturbing amount of willpower to force herself to use knife and fork.

A lot of those in the military do, actually, Clarisse thought. They even have a club. Remember, the goal is to make sure that soldiers can eat anything and everything to survive. It took some work to make sure people didn't starve themselves from refusing to eat something horrible‐tasting. Add in an 'unplanned' interaction with the enhanced olfaction and this is the result you get. Of course, many people suspect one of the design AIs was playing a joke.

Why wasn't it ever fixed? Ryouko asked.

Some people liked it too much, and petitioned to have it deliberately left in. There's an option to have it fixed, if you really want to.

Maybe later.

Something moved in the corner of her eye, prompting her to look up. A girl stood there, next to the seat where Kyouko had been. Ryouko glanced over her quickly—about her age, at least in appearance, with a soul gem ring—

"Hi there," the girl said. "Is this seat taken?"

Ryouko glanced at Patricia, who was still focused on some sort of VR sim.

"I don't think so," Ryouko said, who started to turn back to her food.

"That looks good," the girl said, gesturing at the steak. "I guess I'll have whatever that is."

Ryouko smiled politely.

"Yeah, it is pretty good," she said.

It occurred to her that the other girl was dressed quite well—certainly much better than the generic thick shirt and pants Ryouko had on.

Ryouko pondered for a moment how much cleavage the other girl was showing. The way that necklace went in and out…

Then she realized that she was staring, and looked up hastily.

"I'll be honest; when I saw you here, I had to talk to you," the girl said. "It's always nice to meet someone else from the family, especially a 'hero' like you."

The girl held up her necklace, smiling brightly, so that Ryouko could finally see what was at the end of it.

Oh, a Shizuki! she thought, quickly peering at the girl's face and calling up her nomenclator.

"Shizuki, Azusa"

Gender: Female

Age: 24

Occupation: Investment Banker, Hashimoto and Sinclair Investments and Securities; Magical Girl (inactive (special dispensation))

Rank: Captain

Special Comments:
Sixth Cousin of Shizuki Ryouko; member, Shizuki Matriarchy

"Listen," the girl said, leaning over and touching Ryouko on the arm. "The family is holding a function later tonight, in one of the nearby cities. Sayaka herself will be there. I'd love to take you there after we're done with the food. I want to hear about your mission. We can chat, and I can show you my room."

For a moment, Ryouko found herself staring into the other girl's limpid green eyes.

"Excuse me!"

Appearing out of nowhere, Patricia rudely shoved her way in between the two of them, so that Ryouko abruptly found herself looking into Patricia's pale‐blue eyes instead.

"Sorry to interrupt," Patricia said, apologizing belatedly to Azusa. "But Shizuki‐san here has a critical appointment that she has clearly completely forgotten."

Patricia gave Ryouko an accusatory look, but also sent a telepathic message:

Just play along.

"What?" Ryouko asked, too confused to understand fast enough. Fortunately, that fit exactly with her assigned role.

How the hell is it possible to forget an appointment? she protested, as Patricia dragged her toward the exit. I mean we have TacComps!

The other girl just ignored her, continuing to pull her out the door. Just as Ryouko was about to protest again, this time out loud, Patricia turned to look at her, putting a finger to her lips, signaling silence.

So Ryouko stayed quiet as Patricia half‐dragged, half‐walked her out of the restaurant, around the corner, down an alley, and into a small alcove, barely giving the two of them enough time to get their winter clothing back from the server‐bot.

There, this should be isolated enough, Patricia thought, looking back out at the sky. Can never be too paranoid about these things.

Can you tell me what that was about? Ryouko asked, working her way back into her thick jacket. All of that was a bit rude, if I may say so.

Patricia turned to look at her, and Ryouko could see a smirk travel across her face, only partly suppressed.

"I'd forgotten what it's like to be so innocent," Patricia said, smiling. "Don't you know a seduction attempt when you see one?"

Ryouko blinked, making a confused face.


"A seduction attempt," Patricia repeated, continuing to give Ryouko an amused look. "Where an unusually good‐looking girl approaches you dressed revealingly, acts friendly, and asks you to go visit her room. Come on."

Ryouko narrowed her eyes, the shadow of the building falling lightly over her face.

"Are you sure? Maybe she was just being friendly."

Patricia shook her head.

"Trust me, she wasn't. Take the word of your elder. That was a determined attempt to, uh, get down the skirts of someone too young to know what was going on, if you'll pardon me. Seems like the Shizuki family is getting serious about pulling you in. A sixth cousin marriage would be just the thing."

Ryouko looked down for a moment. It didn't…

She shook her head.

"Aren't you being too paranoid?" she asked. "Maybe she just wanted to hit on me."

It felt weird saying the words, as if the very concept of someone "hitting" on her was too strange.

"No," Patricia said, shaking her head again, then pinning her with a look. "It's too much of a coincidence. The Hero of Orpheus is a hot commodity right now. And with your family background, a Shizuki girl wandering into a bar dressed to entice going after you can't be anything else. Not every suitor is going to send you a nice monographed letter. For all we know, Shizuki Sayaka sent the girl herself."

Ryouko frowned, feeling strange. She didn't like thinking ill of people on so little evidence, but Patricia just seemed so sure.

"Honestly, it isn't really my business," Patricia continued. "But Kyouko wants me to help keep them away from you, especially now that you might have something of your own going on."

In Ryouko's mind's eye, a message twirled, having just arrived. A follow‐up from Azusa telling her where the "function" was, and telling her she should still go.

A moment later, Ryouko sent a message demurring, saying something had come up. It wasn't as if she really liked parties, anyway.

"Do people really do things like that?" Ryouko asked, looking up.

"It's a cutthroat world, way more than it should be," Patricia said. "Trust me, if the Von Rohr family thought they could get away with it, they'd try to talk me into doing the same to you, right now. Not every matriarchy is like that, but many are."

Patricia turned away, facing the gray sky again, and Ryouko thought the other girl looked bothered.

She sighed. It didn't feel like the best time to ask, but she felt she had to, eventually. Besides, she wanted to talk about something else.

"Alright, I'll listen to you," Ryouko said, letting it go. "But on a different subject, how is Kishida‐san doing? I heard she, uh, lost her body."

Patricia turned, a little quickly, taken aback.

"You heard about that?" she asked. "She's doing okay. New body and all that, so it takes some adjusting to."

Patricia seemed unnerved, and for a moment the two of them met eyes. Finally, just as Ryouko was about to change topics again, Patricia spoke without prompting, looking away.

"The truth is, she isn't doing that well," she said, voice hushed. "She seemed alright when I saw her before the bodyloss, but she really isn't taking the breakup well. I think she really expected that Kyouko would show up if she got seriously injured, but Kyouko didn't. Now they're holding her back for psych reasons. I visited her. She isn't doing too well. I—"

Patricia took a breath.

"They—Asaka said, and Kyouko too, that I made mistakes, in my command. That I hadn't executed well. Something like that."

The burst of words surprised Ryouko, who really hadn't expected more than a "she's fine, thanks for asking."

"I told Kyouko she had to visit," Patricia said, voice starting to rise into anger. "But she wouldn't do it, even though I know she wants to. Damn stubborn pride, I guess, or something. Of course, she thinks since she's an Ancient she knows better than someone like me. I guess maybe she does. If I hadn't—I mean, she—"

Patricia stopped abruptly, still in mid‐gesture with her hands held out in front of her and her ponytail hanging down over her shoulder. She seemed to take a breath and calm a little.

"I'm sorry," she said, standing up straight again and looking at Ryouko. "I'm acting crazy. I needed to get that off my chest. I–I don't know. It hasn't been a good couple of days for me. I'm going back to Earth, to see if maybe I can work myself into the telecluster, and Asaka has been—my damn family is butting in on my life again. What does it matter if—"

Patricia shook her head at herself.

"Whatever, I'm not even half a century old, so it's alright if I embarrass myself a little, but before I make this any worse, let me get this over with."

Watching the other girl with her shoulders slumped, Ryouko had the unsettling feeling that she was supposed to be saying or doing anything, but… she had no idea what.

Then the moment passed and, taking another breath, Patricia reached into one of the pockets on her jacket.

I don't really know how to ask this, Patricia said. But I want to do a deeper genetic analysis on you. The sample I got from you last time didn't… well, I want to do a broader sample of your somatic cells. Sometimes different parts of the body can have different genetics.

Ryouko stared for a moment, then crinkled her forehead.

What do you mean? What's wrong with my genes? Does this have anything to do with the six‐sigma thing?

Genetic disease was supposed to be impossible now, but—

There's nothing wrong with you, Patricia said. I'm just thinking something might be weird. This is just a weird hobby of mine, since I'm a scientist. If you don't want to, that's perfectly alright—

No, it's fine, Ryouko said. What will it take to do this analysis?

A nanite microinjection, to gather samples. Like I said, if it bothers you, you don't have to.

Ryouko mulled over the question. Injecting nanites did seem a little—

I think you should do it, Clarisse thought, interjecting her opinion unexpectedly.

What? Why? Ryouko thought back.

I just think it'd be interesting to see what she finds, Clarisse thought. I'm also a little curious about what I'm built out of.

Ryouko thought for a moment longer, then nodded in assent.

"Alright," she said out loud. "I'm probably being way too trusting, though."

Patricia smiled, then stepped forward, touching the side of Ryouko's neck, holding an injection patch to the side for a few moments.

That should be it, Patricia thought. I'll try to catch you after the ceremonies to collect them back.

The two girls looked at each other for a moment, without much to say.

"Why don't we go take a walk around the town?" Patricia suggested finally. "I should give you some advice. It will be better than anything Kyouko would tell you, anyway."

"I suppose," Ryouko said.

Tomoe Mami peered down on the crowd from her podium, resplendent in her full dress uniform, or so she hoped.

Holding a service in Erwynmark's hometown was an extravagance. He had even said as much, when he requested it in his will, stating "as a selfish request" that if he must die, he could at least give his mother somewhere to visit, since he hadn't given her any grandchildren. It was typical of him.

Preparing the venue, assembling the dignitaries—all of those would have been costly enough even in a more customary location, such as the new flagship of the fleet, the Zhukov, or in St. Petersburg. Even after all their efforts, the structures that now dotted the town cemetery couldn't really compare to the majesty of deep space, or to the soaring arches and statues that composed Memorial Tower, the works of man rising defiantly into the sky.

It didn't have to, she thought. The bare‐branched alien trees, the snowy graveyard filled with those who had died in Erwynmark's first battle, seemed austere enough.

She couldn't resist glancing down at her arm, just for a moment. Everything was as it should have been, not even the slightest of ripples to give away that she wasn't really here, that this was only a holographic avatar. In the end, she supposed it didn't really matter, but she should have still appeared in person—if only she hadn't been so busy!

She had spent so long working over the words of the eulogy she was supposed to give, the one he had asked her to give. She had read the message he had left her, and found herself surprisingly teary‐eyed. Another piece of her heart was going under the soil, and she wondered if there was any of it left. That was her flaw—that she came to see everyone she worked with as special, and then mourned them when they died, as they always seemed to.

She took a moment to steady herself, relying on Machina to hide it from the crowd, to continue the illusion that always surrounded her existence. When she finally started to speak, it came as almost a surprise.

"There are many good people in this world. They are all around us, working the fields, the factories, the labs, the stars. They grow food, make tools, and explore new worlds. They are the lifeblood of civilization."

She paused a moment, for effect.

"Akemi Homura, may she find peace, once told me about the meanings behind the MSY logo, the shooting star. It used to be said that one could make wishes upon shooting stars, that a wish made as one fell would come true. That is the obvious meaning, but the legend also contains a kernel of truth. For, you see, the trajectory of a magical girl's life was once, centuries ago, to make a wish, burn bright in the sky, and then burn out, and the brighter she burned, the faster she fell."

She had barely gotten the censors to approve that last sentence as it was, and she would never append the rest of what Homura had said, during a rare weak moment: that the shooting star was a symbol of the Goddess, resembling her true symbol and appearing on her "Grief Seed", and that sometimes shooting stars were so bright, so powerful, that they crashed into the earth below and changed all that was. Such ramblings she kept to herself, even from—especially from—Kyouko.

Even if, loathe as she was to admit it, she was beginning to wonder.

She continued:

"Roland Erwynmark was one of the bright stars. He aspired to be not just good, but good and great. He desired to be remembered, unlike most of us, who desire only to live, to continue to lead good and happy lives. In that sense, it is perhaps unsurprising that I am standing here reading his eulogy so soon. Bright stars are rare, and deserve celebration—but that does not mean we should not also mourn."

She took a breath, both for dramatic effect and from a bit of legitimate emotion.

"When I first met Roland, I found him to be brash, impetuous, and altogether too aggressive. He had been freshly promoted after a series of victories on this very world. I expected experience to teach him a lesson, and while it did temper some of those qualities, I did not expect him to teach us a lesson, instead."

She leaned on the podium.

"At my advanced age"—she paused, allowing the audience to chuckle a little—"I've always found it difficult to respect those much younger than me. I've always thought of him as a boy, even as he led fleets in campaigns without end, ended the Samsaran offensive, and destroyed the Saharan shipyard. Even now, though I know it's unfair, I can't stop remembering that fresh‐faced officer I saw at the beginning of the war. I admit, it took me a while to appreciate his qualities. I sound like a parent, I know."

Some laughter from the audience. She nodded respectfully at Erwynmark's mother, seated in the front row. She closed her eyes for a moment, and an image flashed through her mind, of a pair of mourning parents, old and vulnerable, centuries ago, when she had given a similar eulogy.

But this was a different funeral, a different world, a different time, and no one was old anymore—on the outside, anyway.

"It takes a lot to gain my respect these days, but Roland thoroughly earned it, so much so that when he selected me to lead the recent defense of the Euphratic Sector, I took it as validation of my own abilities. Thinking of him now, I remember all the times we planned together, in the Saharan Sector, and in the years since. I found his insight always valuable, and his words strangely inspiring."

Now Mami felt Erwynmark's mother giving her a strange look. Had she misspoken?

"In the end, we dimmer stars can only do our best to remember those such as Roland Erwynmark, who leave their mark on the world so brightly. I will miss him, and his leadership. Thank you."

Erwynmark's mother began to walk forward, and Mami headed for her seat on the stage, where her avatar would sit respectfully for the rest of the ceremony, while most of her consciousness worked on something else. As she walked over, though, she spotted her protégé, Shizuki Ryouko, seated in a place of honor in the audience.

She was frowning.