And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines", which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life.
— "In Search of Lost Time" (À la recherche du temps perdu), by Marcel Proust, excerpt.
"Things always seem fairer when we look back at them, and it is out of that inaccessible tower of the past that Longing leans and beckons."
— "Literary Essays, vol. I", by James Russel Lowell
"Where is she?"
The soldier peered nervously at her from his position of attention. His eyes had the characteristic strained, yet relieved look of a man experiencing post‐combat recoil, one who was finally out of his armored suit.
He hesitated, weighing how to say it.
"I'm sorry, sir. We tried, but it was hopeless. We held the position as long as we could. No one else made it out. I filed a report—"
"You're not listening to me."
Her voice came out soft, with only a hint of a growl, but its intonation was enough to stop the trooper cold. He stared at her, eyes wide, and took a slight step backward.
"Sir," he said, swallowing as subtly as he could. "Your gem looks dim. Don't you think it's time you recharged it?"
"You have no right to tell me what to do."
"Sir," the soldier repeated, stiffening his spine. "Rank or no, if you're experiencing instability, I am not obligated to listen to you."
His voiced softened slightly.
"Please, we've all lost someone. My entire platoon is dead. All of them. But we have to deal—"
His sentence ended with a strangled noise, as her telekinetic grip clamped down on his throat.
Easy. So easy to apply a little more force and crush the neck entirely, reinforced windpipe or no. So easy to take out her anger on a target who certainly didn't deserve it.
She still had a little rationality left, it seemed. Perhaps it was the influence of her TacComp, which was straining with all its electronic might to keep her sane, keep her under control. It had been a mistake to allow her to exit emotional suppression—now, it had no way to reverse that decision.
"Bring her back," she whispered.
The man looked at her, his eyes filled with fear, as he futilely tried to reach for her with his arms, which he found to be restrained with ineffable force.
She raised her own arm, and the man lifted into the air, struggling.
She wanted to scream in anger, but instead what came out was a broken, shaking plea:
"Please, bring her back. I can't live like this."
The man flailed in the air, his face definitely not the face of God, his strangled voice certainly incapable of giving her the answers she sought.
She could see around her the horrified faces of the other soldiers and technicians, flattened against the wall either by fear or by her telekinetic bubble. That personal bubble of space—a small radius within which her magic could warp reality—had served her well over the years; granting her access to all sorts of powers. All it took was a bit of preparation, and she could be a teleporter, or a mind‐reader, or a telekinetic—just not all at once.
At the moment, it felt as useless as ordering a single magical girl to hold back a full alien division.
She screamed, and hardly even heard herself; the walls of the room around her fractured as pieces broke off, crumbling like her heart had in the moment she had heard the news. Her surroundings blurred in a torrent of tears, and a small part of her wondered just who was in control of her actions, her powers—because it certainly wasn't her. She felt something crack inside her, fall apart bit by bit, and she wondered—
A loud popping noise, and the painful grip of someone's hand on her head, brought reality rushing back in.
She only had a few moments to see the frightened face of the teleporter that had appeared next to her, and the determined, serious expression of the telepath in front of her. Elfrida Vervloet, her name was, one of the division's psychiatrists; the one who she had told just hours ago that she was fine. Not particularly powerful, or the telepath would have noticed something was wrong with her, and wouldn't have needed direct contact to exert her mental control.
She had training to resist mind‐control, obtained along with her promotion to Colonel, what felt like a lifetime ago. She didn't use it, though, even as the hand on her face began to glow brightly yellow, and she felt the telepath's suggestions edge their way into her own thoughts. So much easier to just give in, let someone else do the thinking. Yes, sleep, that sounded like a good—
Shirou Asaka woke gasping, kicking her legs abruptly. She grabbed wildly with her arms, taking only a moment to find something to cling to—the girl next to her, the one whose face was pressed into her neck. There was only a moment of confusion before memory returned to her, along with a warm, soothing certainty.
Alice Lynwood, whose hair teased her chin, whose smell filled her nostrils, and whose… body was pressed against her.
The girl stirred, disturbed by Asaka's waking, and made a displeased noise.
"That dream again, Asaka?" she sighed. "I wonder what's going on with you."
"That dream" had been plaguing her for months now. Each night it was slightly different, and each morning she lost most of the details. It was frustrating; she would have ignored it had Alice not nagged her endlessly about getting it checked out. She really wasn't enthused about seeing a shrink, but she had eventually agreed.
"You don't have to nag me about it," she said. "We'll find out what's going on; it's probably nothing. Come on, let's talk about something more fun."
She gave the other girl an experimental squeeze, causing her to squirm.
"Oh, you," Alice said, rubbing herself against her playfully. "Not that I'm against the idea, but honestly, if there were ways to make having kids be more fun, I probably would have talked you into it already."
Asaka, who had been in the process of saying something, choked in surprise instead.
"I'm not sure we're ready," she said, recovering. It was the familiar cadences of an old argument.
"You know we are," Alice rebutted. "You're just scared."
Asaka closed her eyes, accepting for the moment the half‐playful, half‐serious teasing. Children, she thought. Alice would inevitably talk her into it, and then she'd have to call her mom—
"I'm serious," Alice continued. "Look, they even sell kits now, for making it into an enjoyable exp—"
Asaka rolled over aggressively, body sliding underneath the sheets, but over the other girl. It startled Alice into silence.
"Not now," Asaka said, descending for a kiss.
"So how's the wife?"
Asaka lowered her binoculars for a moment to glance at the girl next to her, then raised it again, peering at the town in front of her. MadhuritheGreat, or "Maddy" to friends, was second‐in‐command of the guild, and one of her most trusted subordinates. Asaka had grown to rely on her in the interguild combat matches that typified this particular game.
Magical Sky, as it was called, was a virtual reality first‐person multiplayer cooperative combat game—VMCC—about an alternate universe where magically‐empowered girls had helped decide the Second World War. As strange a concept as it was, it had become one of the most popular games of its genre, nourishing a fanbase of viewers healthy enough that prominent guild leaders, such as Asaka, could live in luxury—and just as importantly, afford to pay off Governance's exorbitant VR usage fees.
She was fond of Maddy, not just because she was reliable, but also because she knew Maddy to be a female in real life—she simply couldn't completely escape the vague feeling of creepiness that arose from knowing that a grown male was inhabiting an obviously female avatar. Stupid, maybe, but she had a right to her biases.
And if Maddy's in‐game avatar happened to resemble Alice—well, that was probably a coincidence.
At the moment the two of them were on the ground behind a small ridge, faces, green uniforms, and helmets smeared with mud, surveying a small German town just across the river. Various opposition infantrymen, affectionately called "mobs", wandered the streets and inside the buildings, obvious in her x‐ray vision, one of the passive abilities of the command class she was playing.
"Same as always," Asaka said. "Still can't get her to play this game much."
"Ah, stop being mad about that, Asaka," Madhuri said. "VR games ain't for everyone. I wish I had a boy at home who'd take care of me the way your Alice does."
Madhuri was, in fact, Maddy's real name. Asaka used "VioletOverwatch", personally, but Madhuri knew her real name and used it.
"I'm not mad," Asaka said. "I just think it'd be nice if she joined more often. I miss her."
"Aw, you two are so sweet," Maddy said, patting Asaka on the back.
"We're thinking about having a kid," Asaka said.
There was a brief silence, while Maddy chewed on the revelation.
"No shit? Which one of you is going to be, you know, the oven?"
"We don't know yet. I don't want to do it, but I don't want to make her do it either. I'm sure she'd be happy to, but, I don't know, it feels weird I guess."
"Well, it's natural to be nervous about it. Listen, I'll cover the guild for you whenever you're busy with the baby, as long as you name it after me. That a deal? We'll throw you two a baby shower—"
Asaka held up her hand to interrupt her, frowning.
She scanned the town one last time.
"Something's wrong," she said, suddenly whispering. "It's too quiet. Where's the enemy team? Where's the armor? I should have seen something by now."
She chewed her lip for a moment, then issued a telepathic call for updates. Had anyone had visual contact with members of the enemy team, or any armor units?
The responses came back uniformly negative, and she grew seriously worried. It was one thing to be bogged down in heavy combat with the other side—another to have no idea what they were doing. The other team wasn't composed of newbie shmucks—if she didn't know what they were doing, then whatever they were doing was bad news for her.
"You're right," Maddy whispered, realizing the issue. "Something's wrong."
They edged away from the ridge, allowing some of the friendly mobs around them to take watch instead, their adjutants appearing out of the bushes to follow them. As they moved, Asaka summoned a magical map of the area in front of her and Maddy, so they could study their disposition for any weaknesses. The terrain was generated randomly, and in this case the river bent away from their side of the map, forming a "v" that pointed towards them. The town Asaka had been looking at was just across the river on the left side, near the point of the v but not right at it.
They were the team on offense, with extra members and firepower, and they were under a time limit. They had only recently made it to the river, and were regrouping for an assault across it, trying for the double envelopment by attacking from both sides. As such, the team had been divided in half, with Asaka and Maddy on the stronger half facing the town and "Batty", the third‐in‐command, on the other side.
"It'd be crazy for them to pull back from the river and wait," Maddy said. "It's their best natural defense, the key to the whole damn map."
"But we don't see them," Asaka said. "They're not there."
"They must not want us to see them," Maddy said. "That must mean—"
"They're concentrating for an attack," Asaka said, finishing the thought. "It's the only explanation. It's crazy, but crazy like a fox, if they catch us where we don't expect it."
Maddy studied the map.
"But where…" she began.
Both their eyes fell simultaneously on the center of the map, at the apex of the "v", which had only a force of mobs defending it.
"Oh God, we're idiots," Maddy said.
"There's still time to fix this," Asaka said, jumping up now that they were far enough from the ridge, where they might come under fire. "We need to shift—"
She was interrupted by the distant rumble of artillery.
They stopped. Asaka nodded at Maddy, who used telepathy to check in on the situation, since Asaka's telepathy was still on cooldown.
"I think we just ran out of time," Maddy said, sending her the information. "They just decloaked in the middle. Infantry, armor, support, close‐in, fliers, the whole works."
Maddy peered at Asaka for a moment as she chewed her lip, thinking about it. This game wasn't exactly like real war, where it might have been sensible to regroup, defend, and wait for the momentum of the numerically inferior attackers to peter out before counterattacking. They were on the clock—they had to win soon.
"The attack has to proceed as planned," she said. "We can trade queens if we have to—without their artillery and air support, cleaning them up will be easy. And if we stall them, give the rear time to prepare, we might not even have to lose our queen. We just have to make sure we do our attack fast."
From what she understood, aggressive counterattacks of this sort had not been a common trait of the faction her team was playing—but it wasn't as if they got style points for successful roleplaying, so who cared?
"Should we send someone to help stall?" she asked.
"We can move a few members here, since we have numbers," she said. "But our dispositions don't help. Most of the team is too far to get there in time, and the line is getting shredded too fast. We're going to have to sacrifice someone to make a last stand. I—"
She stopped abruptly, looking at the map in front of them. The planning for this attack had been a disaster, and that was at least partly her fault. By far the two closest girls to the event were her and Maddy—she had tried to keep command close to the middle for simple logistical reasons.
So stupid—she and the guild would have to talk it over later—but that wasn't what was bothering her. Something…
"I'll go," Maddy said, seeing the thought flit across Asaka's face. "You're too important to the team, and last stands are easy. I've done them before."
Asaka nodded, swallowing, hand shaking a little. She didn't feel right, but she couldn't—
"Hello? Is everything alright?" Maddy asked, a touch of concern appearing in her voice. "We have to move fast. I need to go now!"
"Oh yeah, sure, go," Asaka said, looking at the other girl. "I'm just—"
A wave of nausea passed over her. In that blonde hair, those playful bangs, she couldn't help but see—
"Asaka? Is something wrong?" Maddy asked, and this time the concern in her voice was obvious.
For a delirious moment, it seemed to her that the other girl was Alice—not Alice's in‐game avatar, but Alice—and the nausea became overwhelming.
She felt herself falling—
〈CRITICAL SIMULATION ERROR〉
She jerked in her chair, the cable leading to the back of her neck somehow managing to stay attached.
She breathed heavily for a moment, recovering, holding her hand to her chest, where her heart pounded strenuously.
"Hey, you alright?" Maddy asked, through their guild voicechat. "The stupid server glitched up somehow. I don't know if you got the message. It seems like it hit you the worst. You looked like you were about to throw up."
A simulation error? she thought with astonishment.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," she subvocalized, speaking into a microphone in her throat. "Seriously? A glitch? I've never seen one like this, especially on the live‐watching servers. Those are supposed to be extra‐robust."
"They say they're looking into it," Maddy said, "and we're not going to be able to restart the match anytime soon. You want to talk to them about it?"
Asaka thought about it.
"It's fine. They know they screwed up. Tell them it better not happen again or we're switching services."
"Alright," Maddy responded. "This sucks though. That was a good game."
"Yeah, although we got pretty close to being spanked. I'll talk to the guild."
"Alright, boys and girls," she subvocalized. "This is bullshit, but it looks like today's game is canceled. We'll reschedule with the other guild, and we've already made our displeasure known to the server host. Those of you who can, go to the practice servers. I'll be taking some personal time."
She then sent a more typical text‐based message to the other guild, followed by another one apologizing to the audience. That wasn't strictly speaking her job—guild Marketing and their payment processor would take care of most of it—but she liked to use a little personal touch.
Then she signed off, ordering the interface cable to detach and return to its storage position. She actually preferred a server issue to an issue with her personal setup—personal VR rigs were mind‐bogglingly expensive, and were usually rented. She owned hers and Alice's, though, and did not relish the idea of possibly paying to have it repaired.
A movement next to her caught her attention. Her dog, a female American‐style Akita with white paws, had been napping on a cushion next to her VR chair, but was standing now. It watched her, tail wagging—it had probably heard her subvocalizing. Dogs were good at that sort of thing.
They had named it Colonel Fluff.
She leaned forward out of her chair, rubbing it on the neck. It barked playfully, fur twitching happily. Like their human owners, dogs nowadays were heavily enhanced—no one liked having pets that died of old age. However, while physical modifications were relatively common, Governance had strict rules about mental enhancement to pets. Dogs could only be moderately smarter than their unmodified ancestors had been.
Which wasn't to say there were no enhancements at all. For example, dogs nowadays had their own canine toilets, and knew how to use them.
Thanks to special implants, they also understood human speech to a reasonable degree, and could make their desires known via little snippets of text. Colonel Fluff wanted to know if she was done, and if they could go to the park like she had promised. It was eager to see the other dogs.
"Yes, yes, Colonel, I'm done. Come on. Go get Alice."
She patted the dog on its side. It barked happily, then ran out the door with excitement.
Asaka leaned back in her chair. Now that she had been able to think about it a little, the server glitch had unnerved her. Something about it had reminded her of the nightmares she had been having.
If that was what server glitches were like, she never wanted to experience one again.
She and Alice cuddled on the grass of the park, watching Colonel Fluff frolic with the other dogs. She was glad it was possible to block reception of dog messages, or at least archive them—there were only so many canine expressions of excitement one could take and still remain sane. Apparently, Colonel Fluff didn't seem to understand the concept of restraint in messaging.
It was remarkable, the extent to which it was possible to modify dogs and still have them remain, fundamentally, dogs. She wondered if it were possible that, given enough time and enough subtle changes, they would gradually become so different that they would become unrecognizable to someone from the past.
The question applied to humans, too, of course. Not just in a technological sense, but also in terms of personality. Day by day, you were recognizable as the same person, but it was also undeniable that you changed over the course of years, or decades. Over the course of centuries, was it possible that you would become someone else entirely, without even knowing it? What did that even mean?
It depressed her to think that it was possible that she would change like that, changing who she was without even realizing it.
Shaking her head slightly, she inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of Alice's hair, causing the girl to tilt her head upward on her chest, looking at Asaka with a patronizing expression.
"Want to play fetch with Colonel?" Asaka asked. "We haven't been paying much attention to her."
"Alright," she said, pushing herself off the grass.
Asaka followed a moment later, reaching for the ball in her pocket and signaling Colonel.
The dog's head snapped up immediately, and it bounded over only a few moments later.
"Oh boy!" it texted. "I love fetch! Mr. Puddles was annoying anyway. Kept asking to mate."
Asaka's lip quirked upward. In her opinion, dogs nowadays were a bit too informative. Plus, she wanted to meet whatever joker in Chronos Biologics had decided that dogs should occasionally text sentences with excessive exclamation marks.
She pulled the ball out of her pocket and tossed it far into the distance. It was one of the fancy models, with a tendency to abruptly change direction.
Alice slipped her arm around her waist, and Asaka returned the favor, now grinning broadly. In the distance, children frolicked in the colorful robes customary on Nova Terra, the native trees of the planet giving way to the skyscrapers of the city of Imperia, framed by a brilliant azure sky. The sun dipped behind one of the buildings, casting the landscape in light and shadow.
The wind blew, and, in that moment, she knew this was paradise.
The therapist's office was painted a soothing shade of light blue, a choice probably designed to put her at ease.
Asaka didn't really know why she was here. She didn't really consider bad dreams a good enough reason to see a therapist, but Alice had been so insistent and apparently the therapist, a certain Tanaka Yui, had agreed that it was worth her time.
The woman herself was currently seated in front of her, on the other side of her desk, sipping a cup of tea and making an elaborate show of reading off an old‐fashioned tablet. Her hair was tied in a simple long ponytail, and she looked strangely young, a fact that was only accentuated by the long white robe she wore. It was a local colonial style, and being from Earth Asaka couldn't help but think that it looked like some sort of religious wear.
Something about the woman bothered her, though she supposed she was just nervous.
"So you'll be glad to know that the diagnostics turned out fine," Yui said, putting down her tablet and looking her in the eye. "That means there's nothing physically wrong with you or your implants. Whatever is going on must be psychological, then."
"I see," Asaka responded blandly, not sure what else to say.
The woman smiled amiably, closing her eyes for a moment.
"Since this problem isn't at the moment impeding your ability to function, I don't feel there's a need to try anything too dramatic. Come over here; let's talk it over."
Yui got up as she said the last sentence, gesturing Asaka to head over to the side of the room, where next to a window there was a stereotypical psychologist's couch, of the sort she had been sure was hundreds of years out of fashion. Was Yui really expecting her to just lie down and start talking?
"Isn't there some kind of implant modification you can do?" she asked, as she edged reluctantly toward the couch. "Something that would suppress dreams?"
"Traumatic dreams of the kind that your partner described to us are often indicative of possible underlying psychological issues," the therapist said, smiling thinly and shooing her towards the couch. "I would like to make sure there is truly nothing going on before I resort to implant manipulation. With any luck, it will resolve under your own power. Come, lie down."
Reluctantly, Asaka followed the instruction, lying down onto the couch, which turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. She would have considered falling asleep on it, except that this was obviously not the time, and Tanaka Yui was now seated on a chair at her side, holding her tablet and a writing stylus.
"Well then, let's begin," Yui said, after a moment. "Tell me in your own words what's been going on."
Asaka took a breath, buying time to think about what she wanted to say.
"Well, it began a few months ago," she said. "Maybe in April? I don't know how to put it. One night I had a terrible nightmare, the worst I've had. Alice said I woke crying. We thought that would be it, but instead—"
She hesitated, before continuing:
"—instead, I don't think I've had a good night since then. It varies how severe it is, but I think I always have it. Every night. I don't understand it."
"It, you say," Yui prompted. "Is it the same dream every time? That seems to be what you're implying."
Asaka started to nod, then stopped herself.
"Kind of, I guess. I have a hard time remembering the details of the dreams, so it makes it difficult to tell. I don't remember the same thing every time, and I'm pretty sure it's not exactly the same every time, but it's all connected somehow. I'm sure of that."
The woman bit her lip, a surprisingly cute gesture.
"It's strange you wouldn't remember much," she said. "If it's disturbing enough to wake you up crying, typically you'd remember the details."
Yui paused for a moment, tapping the end of her stylus against her cheek.
"Well, tell me what you do remember about the dreams, I guess," she said.
Asaka turned her head toward the window, preferring to look at the building across the street rather than the therapist's unnerving eyes. The truth was, though she had told Alice she couldn't remember, she hadn't really tried.
Yet here she was. There was no sense in not trying, not when the government was paying good money for her to see a therapist about it.
"Does it bother you to try to recall it?" Yui asked, gently, after she had been silent for an extended period.
"Yes," she admitted, even though she knew it probably set off alarm bells in the therapist's head.
It disturbed her too, to be honest. She didn't…
"I don't know," she said. "I have a hard time grasping the memories. They seem to slip away when I try and I feel… afraid somehow."
She was talking to herself as much as she was talking to the therapist, speaking out loud just what it was that bothered her; yet, having done so, she was uncomfortably aware that the truth of those words suggested there might indeed be something wrong with her.
A terrifying thought, that.
She tried to focus, feeling the therapist's eyes boring into her, and finally something came to her.
"It's about a war. It's always about a war. It's like—do you know what I do for a living?"
She finally turned to look at the therapist again, and found not the penetrating stare she was expecting, but instead a strangely gentle expression.
"Yes, I do," Yui said, her eyes dropping down to her tablet. "You're a gamer. You play war sims. That's actually one of my working hypotheses. Some simulation games can be pretty traumatic, even if they're virtual."
Asaka shook her head to dismiss the idea.
"I mostly play only one game, and Magical Sky isn't all that… realistic. Not in that manner, anyway. I don't think I've ever even seen a corpse in the game."
She paused for a moment.
"That being said, the game is what my dreams remind me of. It's the only connection I can draw right now. But it's… different. More violent. People getting killed. Especially—"
She frowned. She had been about to say something, but had stopped abruptly, and now she couldn't remember what it was. It was important.
"You don't have to push yourself," Yui said soothingly.
There was a moment of silence.
"I have to say," Yui commented, frowning at her notes, "if you insist your video games don't have any traumatic content, then I'm at a loss for explanation. Your description sounds like you're experiencing the aftermath of some kind of trauma, but it's unusual for you to be unable to remember any of it. Nothing in your file indicates recent or past trauma. Is there perhaps something that is not in the file?"
The therapist wore a serious expression, and Asaka got the impression that it was supposed to convince her to talk, if indeed she were hiding something—but she wasn't.
"Honestly, I don't think so," she said. "I've had a pretty comfortable life."
"Tell me your life story."
The request was phrased so matter‐of‐factly that it was a moment before Asaka realized what was being asked, looking up in surprise.
"Don't you—" she began, gesturing at the therapist's tablet.
"I want to hear it from you," the woman said, continuing to smile slightly.
Asaka turned her head to face the ceiling again, exhaling. She didn't think this would lead anywhere.
She took a moment to compose something suitably biographical in her mind.
"I'm not sure there's much to say, at least that's not already in your files. I was born on Earth, in Kyoto, Japan. I had pretty much a normal childhood, except that my parents thought I was too introverted. It wasn't really a surprise, since the doctors had warned them that my genetics would land me pretty far on the path to the old autistic spectrum, but it still bothered them."
She figured that, of all people, a therapist wouldn't need to receive an explanation regarding Governance policy on genetic modification and human personality diversity. It was something she tended to tack on automatically to forestall the usually inevitable "Why wasn't that edited out of the genepool?" question that usually resulted. Personally, she was glad it hadn't, or she wouldn't have been here to think about it.
She paused for a moment to think about it further, before continuing:
"They tried to push me into hobbies I didn't really like, and we had a lot of fights about it. I spent a lot of time in the school gaming club using their equipment. I can go into lots of detail if you want, but it's pretty typical stuff. Definitely not war trauma, anyway."
The therapist nodded, peering at her tablet.
"I'll take your word for it. We can revisit it later if we see the need. Did you play any particularly violent games back then?"
"Not really. You know, most of us aren't actually interested in seeing blood and gore everywhere, except for a few weirdos. It's an annoying stereotype."
"I have to ask," Yui said, spreading her hands in a gesture of harmlessness. "Continue."
"Well, I was a poorly‐adjusted teenager, as I was saying. There was a period when I was very angry at everyone, but I eventually… worked myself out of it, I guess. I don't want to sound sappy, but that's right around when I met my wife. Well, I, uh, she was very supportive."
She paused, having rammed into a bit of a dead end in her story.
"And I guess that's it," she finished. "There's not really much more to say. We graduated from high school and got married. I was already making pretty good money from my guild, and I wanted to get away from my parents, so we moved here. It's been quite a while since then."
"Only two years," Yui pointed out. "Though, maybe that does seem like a while to someone as young as you."
Asaka frowned. Yes, it had been… only two years. It was so easy to forget. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
"And you two are planning on having children?" Yui asked. "Do you know, ah, who will do the baking?"
Asaka turned to stare at the therapist, a look of surprise plastered on her face.
"Well, yes, probably, but how—"
"Sorry, sorry. It was in the information your wife filed when she made this appointment. It's important to know if you might be pregnant, since it affects the kinds of interventions we might pursue. Though it probably won't affect you at all."
"I see," Asaka said, wondering if Alice was going to pressure her into having kids simply by telling everyone in the area they were going to, the equivalent of investing an enemy fortification instead of trying to take it by assault.
Tanaka Yui chewed her lip for a moment.
"Well, this is the end of our session. I hadn't wanted to resort to this, but there is actually something we can do about all this, even if you can't remember anything. Do you know anything about dream studies?"
Asaka shook her head.
"Well, basically," Yui explained. "We can use your implants to watch your dreams from the outside. I'd like to make an appointment for you to go to the facility sometime… tomorrow, maybe? We'll see what times are available. That way, we'll know once and for all what you're not remembering. The way it works is, we'll record it, and the first one to see it will be you, when you wake up. That way, if you don't want me to see anything, you can choose not to show me."
She looked at Asaka questioningly, eyebrow arched. Asaka thought about it for a moment.
"Of course, everything is absolutely confidential; we'll provide you with a strict privacy agreement," Yui added, as encouragement.
"I guess I am curious," she said. "And if I get to see it first, I guess it's alright."
"Okay," Yui said, smiling. "Let me send you the agreement form."
"Thanks again for coming all this way to see us," Alice said, smiling pleasantly as she took her seat at the dinner table.
"Oh, it was no problem," Patricia von Rohr responded vaguely, watching Alice rearrange the food on the table with a slightly bewildered expression. The small table in front of them—square, artificial wood—was adorned with a colorful and carefully arranged array of freshly prepared food. Beef bourguignon served as the centerpiece of the meal, flanked by mashed potatoes and a salad of local vegetables, including the fuzzy red lettuce locals always tried to scare Earthers with. Drinks consisted of wine—Burgundy, to go with the beef. Alice was particular about these things, which meant that Asaka had to pretend it mattered to her too.
It wasn't exactly the food Asaka had grown up with, but certain concessions had to be made when you married outside your ethnic group, especially when you were almost always the kitchen assistant, not the chef.
Besides, Nova Terra being a Core World, they typically ate synthesized fare, eating cooked food only when it struck Alice's fancy to try and make something. It depended on her mood, and whether or not the schoolkids Alice spent her days shepherding had decided to be kind to her that day.
Occasionally Alice tried her hand at something more Asian, but not today. Patricia was a guest, and both Asaka and Alice knew that despite Patricia's years of living in Japan, she had never quite reconciled herself to the local cuisine. One downside of synthesizers: it was entirely possible to live decades in a foreign country without touching any food you didn't want. Not exactly optimal cultural interchange.
So a salad, mashed potatoes, and beef bourguignon, the last of which Alice always reassured her was "sort of like Hayashi rice." Having had it on multiple occasions, she supposed it wasn't terribly off the mark.
"I've always wanted to take a vacation out here," Patricia explained, unfazed by the fuzzy red leaves in the salad as she moved some of it onto her plate. "And it's not that far, really."
"How long did it take you to get here?" Asaka asked.
"Two weeks by commercial vessel," Patricia said. "It wasn't that bad, I swear. They had lots of amenities. Not as fast as being on a military vessel, but…"
"You've been on a military vessel?" Asaka asked.
"No," Asaka responded instantly. "I, well…"
"I suppose two weeks is still faster than how we got here," Alice said, getting up from the table. "But we didn't have to go both ways."
"Ah, well, you know how it is," Patricia said. "Work schedules on Earth aren't very strict. Oh, and you didn't have to do all this, not when I'm infringing on your hospitality by staying here."
The last sentence had been triggered by Alice reappearing from the kitchen with a pot of white asparagus soup.
"Nonsense, we have plenty of extra space," Alice rebuked, setting the pot down, "and the food wasn't really much trouble at all. This is all pretty easy stuff."
Asaka smiled, and sipped at her wine. It was true that they had much more living space to themselves than would have been typical on Earth, and it was also true that the food Alice had made wasn't too time‐consuming—but the real truth was that Alice was eager to test her ability at playing host, whether she admitted it or not.
Left on her own, Asaka doubted she would have settled down as rapidly as this, but life was unexpected, sometimes.
"I just hope you don't intend to do this every day I'm here," Patricia said, "or I'm going to have to insist on helping with the cooking and, for all of our sakes, let's hope that doesn't have to happen."
Alice shook her head amusedly.
"Of course not. Tomorrow we'll be back to bread and water. But what kind of friends would we be if we didn't hold a celebratory dinner for your arrival?"
Alice held up her wine glass, and it took a moment for the other two to realize what she was doing.
They held a toast to a "new life."
"So how is the gamer life going?" Patricia asked, masticating on a piece of beef.
"Oh, not bad," Asaka said. "The guild is growing, we're winning games, we have viewers. Can't really complain."
"Sometimes I have to join a game, just to nag her into leaving," Alice said. "Though I do admit it's not bad as a break, sometimes."
"I can see how some people might be tempted to never leave," Patricia said. "Have you heard? There's a new black market implant hack. It's quite sophisticated. Accesses some of Governance's buried emergency subroutines, and makes it so a properly configured server can suppress any memory. You can forget all about reality, if you want."
Asaka looked down at her noodles, twirling her fork to pick up some sauce. Alice had really outdone herself today.
"Really?" she heard Alice say. "I hadn't heard of it. Sounds scary."
"I guess I have to be more in touch with this kind of thing, in my line of work," Patricia said. "Governance is not happy about it—it didn't want people to know those subroutines even existed. The speculation is that there's going to be a major crackdown. I would have thought you'd have heard of it, though, Asaka."
"I guess I haven't," Asaka said, shaking off some of the effects of the alcohol. "Sounds familiar, though."
She paused for a moment, looking into her empty wine glass, then poured herself another cup.
"It seems like you could do some pretty crazy stuff. People unhappy with their lives could try to escape reality, for example."
"I can't say that sounds healthy," Patricia commented.
"Definitely not!" Alice echoed. "I mean, even if, worst case scenario, you lost someone you loved, you'd have to deal with it eventually. You can't stay stuck in your old life forever."
Asaka glanced over at Alice, into those ice‐blue eyes she loved so much. For a moment, they seemed to chill like ice, too.
"Yeah, I guess," she agreed, looking back down at her wine glass.
She took another drink.
"Do you still remember how we met?" Patricia asked, later that night, when they were seated in the living room to chat.
Asaka looked at her, waiting a moment for the memory to form.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "It was in the school gaming club, wasn't it? I forget why you were there, but you said you were studying VR implants, and I knew a lot about them."
Patricia smiled shyly.
"I wasn't such a genius back then, so I needed a lot of help."
"It doesn't sound very modest to call yourself a genius," Asaka pointed out.
"It's crazy, how much better you got in high school," Alice said, referring to Patricia. "It's like someone flipped a switch one day, and suddenly you knew how to do everything. On the other hand, I don't know what I was doing. I sort of muddled through."
Patricia shook her head.
"Don't say that. You worked hard. I've never been satisfied, no matter how hard I worked. Not since…"
Her voice trailed off, and there was an awkward silence for a moment.
"It's depressing to look at things that way," Asaka said. "It's over now, and it can't be a loss. I met you there, after all. I don't know what I would have done without you."
The last sentence was directed at Alice, whose hand she reached out to grasp.
"You would have been fine without me, Asaka," Alice said, squeezing her hand. "You didn't need my help."
"Are you kidding?" Asaka said, incredulously. "Don't you remember when—?"
She stopped, having lost her train of thought.
"When…" she tried again, still unable to complete the sentence.
She shook her head at herself, confused.
"Well, in any case, I have some fond memories of the time," she said, trying to recover.
"As do I," Patricia said. "But one can't live on memories alone."
Probing: Sector 5a22e. Seeking—
It was as if she had to watch everything through a fog. Only a few details ever caught her attention—an explosion here, a chatter of gunshots over there, the sound seeming to come from another world. But, somehow, she always reacted fluidly.
Open fire! she heard herself order, and to her far right a thunderous cacophony of small arms and armor‐mounted mortar fire broke the relative silence, resonant and eerie to her distorted hearing.
Around her, behind the trees that densely saturated their area, six other teenage girls crouched, dressed in a series of costumes that were more appropriate for children's entertainment than an apparent war‐zone. She nodded at them, and they nodded back. Distantly, a part of her noted that one of the girls was Alice, but, just then, the fact seemed entirely appropriate.
She performed one last mental check, scrolling over the platoons of shock infantry that would be following them in. This she did with a determined grimness that she had never before experienced in Magical Sky, yet at no time did it seem unusual to her.
The other attack, far to the right, was only a distraction. The aliens were attacking elsewhere, so they were counterattacking, striking at an exposed flank while the aliens were distracted. It was as interminable as the flow of time itself, attack and counterattack and counter‐counterattack, the natural result of their two opposed, yet eerily similar, tactical doctrines. It had a logic and a force of will all its own—they were merely leaves tossed about by the wind.
She took a breath, the sound of rushing air loud in her ears, then gave the order to GO.
They broke out into the open, seven girls charging down a clearing, bold and audacious, even ahead of the drones, for maximum surprise. They ran faster than any human, or even any machine, spurred onward by the accelerating influence of Alice's magic, shielded in front by Asaka's barrier.
Jack‐of‐all‐trades, they had called her, sometimes affectionately, sometimes disparagingly. Capable of doing everything, but good at nothing. She was capable of more than just that, she knew, but there had been no way for the simulations to show it, based as they were on her measured power. She knew that she could grow her abilities, that she just didn't start with a default power like most girls, but—
She discarded those thoughts as they impacted the alien position—literally impacted, as she shoved as much power as she could into her forward barrier, driven forward by Alice's magic. Alien infantry and equipment went flying into the air in almost comic fashion, some of it smashed to pieces.
The next few minutes were a blur, even by the already stilted standards of her perception. She shielded those around her as best she could with her bubble, casting stronger barriers in specific locations when it seemed needed. She was stuck as barrier generator for now, and she made the best of it, watching for threats, defusing them when she could. The drones finally arrived, pouring into the gap in the alien line they had created, followed by the infantry of their platoons.
An alarm went off. Someone in her operating team was critically injured and required immediate evac—
"Alice!" she screamed.
Twisting her right wrist in almost impossible fashion, she spun the dagger in her hand, driving into the hapless alien next to her. The magical blade tore through shield, armor, flesh, and bone, splashing ichor over her already drenched arm.
She tore across the battlefield, across the distance that now separated them. She moved faster than any human could imagine, but still felt as if she were running through molasses. She drove her barrier like a wedge in front of her, shoving everything aside, risking everything. Shards broke off her barrier, like glass shattering, but these shards sharpened themselves immediately, flinging themselves outward to impale anything in the area.
Why did Alice have to be so damn fast? How had she gotten so damn far?
And yet, sooner than she expected, she was there. Alice looked up at her prone on the floor, clutching at a severed leg. The girl was biting her lip, and when she looked up, she showed a moment of weakness, a tear appearing in her eye from the pain—using your implants or your soul gem to suppress pain carried downsides to the precision of your power usage and movements, making pain management sometimes a delicate balance. She had been trying to escape on her own power, a not unheard of feat for a magical girl missing merely one limb—though not quite a common one.
It's okay, Asaka thought, trying to be soothing despite her emotion. I'm here. Keep the pain suppressed, and I'll get you out.
It's armor, Alice thought. We're not powerful enough to take them on alone, not the two of us. You should—
No, Asaka growled. I'm not leaving you. Come on.
She bent down to pick the other girl up, draping her over her shoulders effortlessly, even as she tried to be gentle with the gaping wound, even as she tried desperately to look away from it.
As she did so, she tried to ask for friendly artillery to hone in around their position, maybe clear a path for them, but she was too far. No one could hear her.
I can use my magic to help you move faster, Alice thought.
Save your gem, Asaka thought.
We have to. You can't—
Asaka barely responded in time, throwing up a barrier strong enough to block the laser impact, gritting her teeth with effort as the focused radiation almost blinded her.
Then she could sense them, entering the bubble she now had spread broadly around them, stealth tanks hovering silently into range. One of them had taken a shot at her, but the others still hoped their stealth would hide them, oblivious to Asaka's barrier—spread so thinly it wouldn't have stopped a fly, but sufficient for detection.
Asaka felt a quiet anger seep into her. Anger at having her life so rudely violated. Anger that anyone would dare to hurt—
"This is my world," she growled, and the barrier around her—the barrier that defined the range of her powers, and followed her everywhere—crackled to life, angry and violet, glowing with radiant power.
"Get out!" she screamed.
The dream warped around her, and a moment later she was no longer in the alien forest, no longer trapped with Alice behind alien lines. Instead—
"I heard about your promotion," Alice said, looking at her kindly from the hospital bed. "They said no one expected you to have something like that in you."
"Yeah," Asaka said emptily, reaching out with one hand for Alice, who returned the gesture.
"How's the leg?" she asked, a moment later.
"It'll only keep me here about three days," Alice said. "It'd go faster with a magical healer, but there aren't enough of those right now."
She smiled warmly, and Asaka smiled back, slightly. Then she let the smile drop.
"They're trying to get me away from you," Asaka said, looking down at the edge of the bed, the words coming in a torrent. "The promotion gives them an excuse. We weren't supposed to be assigned together anyway. It was only because of the exception. The MHD granted one, because they thought I wouldn't be okay alone. I'm sorry I never told you. But now it's been long enough, and they're worried that if something happens to you, I'll—"
Alice squeezed her hand, turning over to try and hug her, an awkward affair with one leg still mostly missing.
"I know," she said. "They told me about all that. And they told me about your transfer too."
"I don't want to leave you," Asaka sobbed. "I can't leave you."
"I know," Alice said, patting her on the head. "But they're right. You'll be okay. We can stay in touch."
"I won't leave you. I won't—"
External Interference! Shutting D—
In the end, Asaka convinced herself to let Tanaka Yui and the dream analysts view the video, but it was a tougher decision than she liked to admit. The dream had no salacious scenes, no dark family secrets—nothing that would justify keeping it locked in her mind.
When she had watched herself in the dream, it hadn't seemed nonsensical, or symbolic, or prophetic, or any of the other things one might expect a dream to be.
It felt like memory, memory of another life, another world, another existence.
It felt like…
Something about the dream shook her to her very core. It seemed natural, that she would be some kind of magic user, that she and Alice would fight together in a war, that she would be a…
Why did it seem so real?
She looked up when the door in the waiting room opened, inordinately frightened of who it might be. She had to suppress a sigh of relief when it turned out to just be her therapist, back from watching the dream recording.
Of course, she thought. Who else could it be?
Am I going crazy?
Tanaka Yui wore a plain blouse, coupled with a medium‐length skirt. She sat down across from her, so that Asaka found herself looking directly back into the therapist's eyes.
She glanced away—something about those eyes disturbed her.
"Well, I have to say: it was quite something," Yui said.
"Yeah," Asaka responded, wondering if the therapist could tell how much viewing the dream log had unnerved her.
"One of the things that struck the analysts about the dream was how strangely consistent it was, if that makes sense. Everything viewed in a dream is actively filled in by the brain, so it is usually the case that nothing really looks the same twice. Buildings change, people change, the situation changes—but that's not what this dream is like. It's startlingly consistent in narrative and detail, and the same people and objects recur throughout."
"I see," Asaka said emptily, looking down at the floor. What was she supposed to say? It made sense.
"There's also the mechanical voice that begins and ends the dream. I have to admit, in all our years of work, we've seen nothing like it."
"It's not from the recording system?" Asaka asked, looking up in surprise. "I thought…"
"No," Yui said, when she didn't finish the sentence. "That voice was part of the dream itself, and we have legitimately no idea how it got there."
Asaka furrowed her brow. A mechanical voice…
What did it all mean? An unusually consistent dream, that felt disturbingly real, despite being impossibly fantastic—did it signal some kind of psychiatric problem?
"In any case," Yui said, "I have to ask you: Is there anything about your past you're keeping from me? Something that might explain the events in this dream?"
The question froze Asaka for a moment. She looked for a moment at her open hand.
What kind of question is that? My past? Is she wondering if I have some sort of trauma?
"Why?" she asked, finally.
Yui took a breath, seeming conflicted.
"Well, given the evidence on hand, we don't think it's really a psychological problem. The only conclusion that really makes sense to us is that what we're looking at here is some kind of legitimate memory, one…"
Yui seemed to stall mid‐sentence, but for a moment Asaka didn't notice.
A legitimate memory? Asaka thought. But that's…
She didn't finish the thought, the word "nonsense" dying stillborn in her mind. Somehow she couldn't just dismiss it like that, and that was the most chilling revelation she had ever experienced.
Asaka looked up, eyes deeply confused, and Yui finally continued.
"I don't know if I should really tell you this, but we think this dream is the fragment of a memory that was artificially suppressed at some point. The obvious conclusion is that you were involved in the alien war, but now you're here, somehow. It still doesn't entirely make sense, but it would explain the consistency of the dream, and the mechanical voice, which almost sounds like some kind of memory probe. I'm not saying it's one hundred percent certain, but we do know that kind of technology exists, and this is… what it would probably look like."
The therapist looked small for a moment, almost as if she were afraid of Asaka somehow. Asaka wondered what her face looked like at that kind of moment.
She gaped silently. Suppressed memory? Memory probe? It sounded like some kind of conspiracy theorist fever‐dream, except her dream was hardly feverish at all. Instead, it was the kind of dream that was making the trained therapist in front of her visibly scared.
"This kind of thing…" Yui said, finally, now seeming confident that Asaka wasn't going to explode at her. "I'm worried we've stumbled into some kind of secret Governance thing. Something dangerous. I'm going to ask a friend I have, but… the whole thing makes me tremendously nervous. This is all textbook‐only stuff, training for dealing with Unification War veterans, but mostly hasn't been relevant for centuries. You're nowhere near that old. Officially, anyway, I guess. But then the dreams don't look anything like that war, and the technology was never really that good. The magical girl stuff must be some crossover from the video gaming, but maybe it's a hint—it's the only thing in the dream that doesn't feel real. But it fits in—"
Yui's eyes, which had glazed over, snapped abruptly back into focus as the therapist realized she had slipped into a rant, talking to herself rather than to her patient.
"Are you sure you don't remember anything about it?" she asked.
Asaka wasn't sure why she felt suddenly so calm. By rights she should have been up and screaming, but instead something bothered her…
"Alien war?" she asked.
Yui blinked at her.
"Yes. The war against the squid. You do remember, right?"
Asaka put a hand to her head, shaking her head at her own question.
"Yes, yes I do. Of course."
Yui looked at her with a combination of worry, fear, and scientific interest.
"If you say so," she said. "But if you do find yourself experiencing memory lapses, please tell us. It could be a hint. And…"
Yui paused again, searching for the words.
"I don't know," she said. "This is too far out of my clinical experience. But… the patient is most important. If you feel uncertain or unhappy at all, I'm here. I want you to come back in tomorrow for another study. And, if you can, show the video from this session to your wife. She figures prominently in the dream, so she might know something. In fact, bring her tomorrow, if you can."
Asaka looked at the therapist.
"What the hell am I supposed to think?" she said, finally. "This is crazy. I should tell you you're crazy, but you're right: the dream feels real to me. But then what? Is my life fake somehow? What the hell am I supposed to do about that?"
Asaka looked down.
"Thank you for being honest with me," she said. "I don't… The worst part is, I shouldn't believe any of this. My life is real. I should know that. But… somehow the dream feels like the truth, and that scares me. I regret ever coming in here. I'm scared, and I don't want to know, but how can I live now without finding out?"
Yui fiddled with her tablet.
"I don't know."
"Welcome home, Asaka."
Asaka could only hope she managed to respond to Alice cogently at the doorway, but suspected she had actually just mumbled something incoherent and stumbled past her. Alice wasn't the type to be offended by that, if there was something obviously wrong—and in this case, Asaka had no delusions about being able to convey that there was nothing wrong. Alice would know.
Instead, Asaka opted to lie down on their shared bed and stare out the window, waiting for her to come. She wasn't sure what to do—in the normal course of things, she'd be glad to pour her heart out to Alice, but this? What was she supposed to say?
Besides that, there was the singularly unsettling fact that if the therapist had been right in her theories, then Alice had to be involved somehow. Had to, because not only was Alice part of the dream, the two of them had been practically hanging on each other's shoulders since high school—if there really were a mysterious gap in her recent life history, it couldn't possibly have gone beneath Alice's notice. That meant that if there was memory tampering going on, it had happened to Alice too or—unthinkable—Alice was in on it.
No, she couldn't doubt Alice. She wouldn't. But if it were the other possibility, she was doing Alice a disservice if she didn't say anything. Not just a disservice—she had to say something.
It was crazy that she was taking this seriously. It was more likely that this was all an overblown overreaction, that she had some sort of paranoia problem, and that the therapist didn't know what she was doing. At the very least, she should have sought a second opinion, or at least have talked to some of the dream "analysts".
Ugh, I have to talk to Alice.
"So I take it you didn't exactly get good news," Alice said, appearing next to her almost as if on cue.
Asaka looked up at her wife's face, wondering what to say. Ordinarily, at a difficult moment, she might have tried to pull Alice in for a tumble under the sheets. It was a coin flip whether or not Alice would accept, but even just the attempt would have relieved stress.
Somehow, at the moment, she just didn't feel like it.
She sighed, then frowned, noticing something.
"When did that building show up?" she asked, pointing out the window.
Alice glanced over, accepting for the moment the change to a seemingly irrelevant topic.
"That? That's the Zeus Research Building. It's been in Mitakihara for at least a century, supposedly. Haven't you ever noticed it before?"
"No, yeah, that's…" Asaka mumbled emptily, as thought to herself:
Mitakihara? But that doesn't—why…
She put a hand to her head.
"I'm sorry, Alice," she said, pushing herself into a seated position. "I need to de‐stress a little, play some games. I'll tell you about it afterwards. That's a guarantee."
She clasped hands with Alice and smiled slightly to seal the deal. Alice smiled back.
"Okay, but I think I'll join you today."
There was no prearranged, serious match this time. Much of the guild was engaged in practice matches, either with other parts of the guild or other guilds elsewhere.
Asaka and Alice materialized in the guild "lounge", a vast, simulated mansion filled to the brim with recreational delights, ranging from the virtual tennis courts, to the vast reading room, to the ever‐popular privacy rooms. More of a play area than a simulated reality, it was constantly shifting in response to the demands of its users, who generally teleported where they wished to be, rather than wasting time walking.
The server time required to run the simulation came directly out of guild funds, along with the rented VR equipment used by most members. It was a tremendously expensive perk, and testified to the success the guild had managed in attracting viewers—but the expense meant that recreation time was strictly limited, and tied to both combat performance and time spent in practice. As guild leader, Asaka had more access than anyone, but rarely used it, except for the occasional private session with Alice, when they felt like experimenting.
This time they weren't here for any of that, so they materialized straight into the waiting area, an unlimited‐access sitting room that was used for basic socialization, and of course to find games to join. As they walked through the room, a wave of greetings sounded from the other guild members in the room, which Asaka accepted pleasantly.
Alice's in‐game avatar, which was always what she was using in the lobby, bore a strong resemblance to the way Madhuri looked in real life—according to Madhuri, anyway; Asaka had never actually met her. Alice had chosen it primarily as an in‐joke, to reflect the way in which Madhuri's avatar reflected her.
Speaking of which…
"Is something wrong?" Alice asked, noting the frown that had appeared on Asaka's face.
"Maybe," she said. "I'm trying to query if Madhuri is online, but this damn interface doesn't seem to be working. I thought we might have fun discussing the child you intend for us to have, and child licensing."
"Who's Madhuri? And does this mean you're finally agreeing to it?"
"I'm not agreeing. I'm just saying that if—"
Asaka froze mid‐sentence, turning to look Alice in the eye. A chill crept up her back.
"Madhuri," she said. "You know, second‐in‐command, old friend of mine. We talk all the time. You've known her for years."
"I don't know who you're talking about," Alice said, shaking her head. "I don't know anyone named Madhuri. And second‐in‐command is Henrietta. Look, here she comes."
Asaka looked, and the girl approaching, with the absurdly pompous screenname "Henrietta Nattherhiem Elenora", had an avatar that looked more like Alice than Madhuri ever had.
"Is something wrong?" Henrietta asked, coming to a stop.
What Asaka felt then wasn't nausea, not exactly. It was more a combination of confusion, fear, and complete dislocation. She looked back and forth between Henrietta and the increasingly worried‐looking Alice, and her world spun, just a little.
"Are you alright?" Alice asked. "I'm really worried—"
Asaka cut the simulation perfunctorily, using the almost never‐used emergency exit protocol. As the world came back into focus in front of her, she found herself breathing heavily.
As the connection cable detached, she leaned forward, putting her head in her hands. Next to her, Colonel Fluff raised its head, making an inquisitive noise.
"Are you okay?" her dog asked.
Asaka didn't know what to say. She couldn't deal with this right now. She remembered Madhuri. What was going on? Was she crazy?
She had gone into the game to try and relax, and it had only made things worse.
In that moment, with nothing solid to focus on, all she could think, almost nonsensically, was that if she were crazy, it was definitely not a good idea to have kids.
A long moment later, Alice stirred in the other chair, the twin to Asaka's own. At that moment, Asaka found herself pitifully unsure whether she wanted Alice to comfort her, or whether she preferred to be alone. She would never previously have thought she would ever want to be away from Alice, and that fact terrified her.
Alice walked over, and something abruptly occurred to Asaka, something that had strangely escaped her until then.
"Where's Patricia?" she asked, before Alice even had a chance to say anything.
Alice peered at her for a moment, weighing whether to answer the question or ask what was going on with Asaka.
"Patricia? She was visiting earlier today, but she's gone demon hunting. Left before you got back. Asaka, what's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Demon hunting," Asaka said, repeating the words emptily.
Yes, that made sense, of course. They were magical girls, and that was what they did. There was no reason to expect Patricia to be here—she had her own flat, after all.
And yet, somehow, despite the sudden certainty, Asaka had the queasy sense that somehow, just a moment ago, the facts had been different. The world had been different. Reality had been different.
Instead of answering Alice's question, she grabbed the girl's waist, burying her face in her stomach. Colonel Fluff appeared at her side, whining, not using the texting service, which she was ignoring. Her dog knew something was wrong. It was almost an absurdist tableau.
"I just—" Asaka began, without moving her head.
"I want you to come with me to the therapist tomorrow," she said. "I—"
She stopped, thinking about it.
"Asaka, I'm seriously worried about you right now," Alice said. "What happened to you at the dream study?"
Asaka took a breath, and pushed herself up out of the chair, trying to stabilize herself.
No. The problem wasn't with reality. It was with herself. A defective implant or something. Or maybe the dream study had damaged something. It had to be something like that. She couldn't let herself fall apart. She would run an implant diagnostic, see if she still had dreams, then talk to Tanaka Yui tomorrow.
It had to work.
"Something pretty crazy," she said. "I think I need to run an implant self‐diagnostic. Something is wrong, I think."
"A diagnostic?" Alice repeated. "No one has needed to do that for centuries."
"I think I might be an exception."
"Will you just tell me what's going on?"
Alice glared at her, and Asaka met her gaze, the two of them engaging in a miniature battle of wills.
"I'll tell you after the diagnostic," Asaka said. "I know I promised, but please. I really think something is wrong. It's too hard to explain, and I should probably do it sooner rather than later."
Alice scowled at her.
"Fine. Let's see what happens."
Asaka nodded, ignoring the hint of anger from Alice, and sat back down.
Reaching inward, she repeated a procedure they had all been taught in primary school, but had never expected to have to use.
〈Are you sure?〉 a mechanical voice asked, deep inside her.
Unlike what she had heard was available to military personnel, civilian diagnostics were very limited. Specifically, they had access to a generic "self‐diagnostic", and that was it. More were available in Emergency Mode, but those weren't really relevant to her.
Nowadays, the self‐diagnostic routine placed the user into a brief period of induced sleep, which people found preferable to the old style, which involved a period of uncomfortable sensory restriction.
It had not occurred to Asaka to wonder if she would dream during diagnostic‐induced sleep. If she had, she would likely have guessed that she wouldn't—a situation where it was necessary to fiddle with brain implants seemed like exactly the kind of situation where even partial consciousness might be artificially suppressed.
And yet, she dreamed.
It's been a long time.
Asaka started, almost tripping over herself as she got up from the chair where she had been tapping her foot impatiently—then almost tripping over the bed next to her.
Privately, she cursed herself for choosing such a small bedroom for this simulation.
"Yes, it has," she managed, once she had recovered her composure.
She and Alice stood awkwardly for a moment. It really had been a long time—the battlefield had kept the two of separated for far longer than Asaka cared to think about.
Even now, they still hadn't truly managed to meet, of course. This was a simulation, with VR access gifted from those of their friends who knew just how much they missed each other. Even with the relatively commonly VR‐tech prevalent in the military, it had taken them literally months to find a time‐frame in which they were both free and had access to VR chairs, which had the high fidelity they needed for this kind of meeting.
Unable to think of anything good to say, Asaka instead stepped forward, drawing the other girl into a hug, and then a kiss, long and sensuous.
When they finally ended it, Alice looked her in the eye. Much had been said, even if no words had been involved.
"So," Alice said, smiling playfully. "Should we talk first, or…"
She looked meaningfully at the bed behind Asaka.
"That is, after all, what people typically use these simulations for. Why else the VR chairs?" Alice said,
Then her girlfriend gave her a look that made her blood run hot. She became abruptly aware of their bodies pressed against each other, of certain body parts that suddenly had her attention.
"I suppose we can play first and talk later," Asaka said, more hesitantly than she really felt. "If that's what you want."
"It's what I want."
The two of them stumbled backward onto the bed, hands groping awkwardly.
"You know," Alice said, breathing into her neck. "We don't have to do this. We could just delete the clothes from the simulation entirely. Would be faster."
"I want foreplay, Alice," Asaka managed, despite a distracting digging motion the other girl was making with her hand.
"I suppose you don't want to try using different bodies, either," Alice said, sounding playfully disappointed. "That's a popular thing to do."
Asaka answered the question by grabbing a particular sensitive region on Alice's body.
"I want you, Alice," she said, feeling her voice drop several registers.
Afterward, they talked, Asaka's head resting on Alice's neck.
"I'm sorry I can't visit you more," Asaka said. "I think we can do this more often."
"I know," Alice said. "But it's not your fault. Not my fault either. It's the way things are. We just have to live with it."
"It's different for me, though. I'm an officer. I could make time, if I really wanted to."
"No. You have obligations. I understand."
"It kills me."
"I know," Alice said. She always knew.
They lay in silence for a moment.
"Sometimes I wish I didn't," Asaka said. "Have obligations, that is. If I hadn't been promoted—"
"Don't start this again," Alice warned. "We've been over this. The MHD would never have let us stay close together anyway."
"I wished to be good with human society," Asaka said. "And so I am—that's what the promotions are about, I think. But that's not really what I want. Not anymore. What kind of world is this, where a girl has to regret her wish?"
"It's the world we live in," Alice said, "and we have to deal with it. You would never have met me without that wish. Think of it that way."
"I wish we didn't—" Asaka began.
Then she stopped, as an internal voice warned the both of them that a surprise alien offensive had just begun, and all personnel needed to head immediately to combat positions.
"Seriously?" she complained angrily.
"I'll see you next week," Alice said. "That's a promise."
Colonel Emmanuel James has been killed in combat, the Command Gestalt thought, 60% of subordinate officers have now been lost, along with 50% of the command AI bunkers.
Somewhere in the depths of her mind, Asaka swore. The command structure below her was running on fumes already, as could be inferred from the simple fact that she, a colonel, was running an entire three‐division corps, a role fit for a lieutenant general. That implied, at a minimum, that all the brigadier generals and major generals were either dead or unable to reach a usable command post. In all likelihood, the only reason General Filopovic was still alive was the fact that he was commanding from orbit. Squid decapitation strikes were brutal, a fact that helped the growing presence of magical girls in the officer corps.
The obvious answer was field promotion. The design of the command structure was intended to facilitate the smooth replacement of lost officers as much as possible—but loss of efficacy was still unavoidable. Inexperienced lieutenants and captains were filling in for captains and majors throughout the line, and their inexperience was getting themselves—and the tattered remains of their units—killed.
She hoped her own position wasn't evident of that.
As a colonel, she was already used to operating on the outer edges of Maximal Command Mode, connected to the AI networks through a fortified command bunker. That experience was serving her well now, even if she had to operate from a far more central role.
The command post she was in still had active communications and orbital links, so she knew all she needed to about the situation—and the situation was dire. The squid attack had thrown the entire front into disarray, and she was caught in the thick of it, holding the one position that had to hold, against at least three times her number. She would have expected that to mean she would receive reinforcements, but the squid had launched a major orbital attack as well. The mobile reserve was pinned down by orbital fire, and she wouldn't receive any orbital support of her own for a long time.
They were alone, the line was breaking, and she had no reserves of her own left.
We need time to disengage! We'll get torn up if we just turn and leave! one of the brand‐new colonels beneath her thought, referring to the brigade under his command, which Asaka had ordered to move and reinforce one of the faltering sectors.
I know, Asaka thought, growling slightly. You don't have to tell me. The orders are to move when practicable. Make it practicable.
Newbies, she thought to herself.
They were unused to Command Mode, and insisted on communicating directly far too often, instead of just using their damn interfaces, making both their jobs much harder than it needed to be. Verbal communications raised morale at the lower levels, but at the command level it just crowded out much more efficient "machine" communication.
But the concern the colonel had brought up was legitimate, she thought, the train of logic racing through her synapses, into the AI subroutines, and back out again, over and over, impossibly fast. She was trying to shorten the line to prevent a breakthrough at the Point 54‒57 line, but these kinds of maneuvers took time, especially when under fire. To precipitate a withdrawal by any unit in one of the other sectors could imperil the entire area, but the need was critical—4th regiment was already in literal pieces, each part withdrawing to a different location, leaving a hole open that led straight to the rear. Someone had to stay and buy as much time as they could.
The only viable choice was the piece in the middle: remnants of 2nd battalion, comprising delta company, part of charlie company, beta company, with fragments of 1st battalion, delta company. Their magical girl contingent was depleted, with only seven active. Withdrawing them would compromise the position, and given how critical the position was to the corps, and how critical the corps was to the front as a whole, it was necessary to sacrifice—
The realization hit her then, strong enough to even interrupt the AI‐mediated command state, piercing the cloud of emotional detachment that naturally accompanied.
Second division, second battalion, delta company was the company Alice was in. She knew that by heart—of course she did.
With command responsibilities still screaming at her, she ran through her options as fast she could. Reinforce—no reinforcements available. Withdraw—she might literally lose the colony. Withdraw only Alice—a complete non‐starter. Alice would know what was going on. She wouldn't go. Agonizingly, Asaka knew she wouldn't.
I can't—I don't—
The decision tore at her mind. It was her worst nightmare, made real. She should have never been in command of her own lover, it had only happened because of the breakdown in command—but what was she supposed to do? How could she order her to do this? Alice was going to die. It was nearly certain. But then, how could she? How could—
And then she felt the soft muffling grip of her TacComp's emotional suppression descending on her with maximum force, certain parts of her brain simply silenced into oblivion. The command AI had issued the order, had already issued the order to stand at all costs; she had other duties to attend to.
Then the dream broke, and the pain hit her, all at once.
Asaka woke gasping, with tears in her eyes, and this time was different than all the rest.
Half an hour later, Alice had died, and the combat AI had kept that fact from her.
What she had told herself at the time wasn't the truth. If it had been, perhaps she could have handled it.
The truth was that the TacComp's emotional suppression couldn't keep a magical girl's emotions quashed, not when the soul gem was involved, as it should have been. The command AIs had no authority to control a personal TacComp—the emotional suppression had to have originated from Asaka herself, or from the TacComp, with at least her tacit approval.
She had looked it up, after the fact, confirming for herself what she already knew.
She had always known the truth.
In the moment, she had simply run from the experience, "allowed" the emotional suppression to close itself over her and protect her from the decision—protect her from having to think about what she had done, even if only for the rest of the battle.
As for why her soul gem hadn't resisted, who knew? Maybe it had simply followed her wishes. Maybe, in the end, she hadn't loved Alice enough.
That was the thought that had broken her, in the end. She couldn't come to terms with the guilt. Should she have been angrier? More despairing? She felt ashamed that she hadn't broken down on the spot. She felt she should have.
She had heaped her devotion onto Alice, had willed herself into it, because it made her feel human. She wanted to love someone, but in the moment—
She clenched her eyes together, sobbing, feeling the anguish returning.
Then she felt a soft hand grab hers, and she opened her eyes.
Alice stood there, framed in the sunlight pouring through the window, and Asaka blinked, wondering if this was still the simulation.
The girl shook her head, answering her thought.
"I'm dead, Asaka," she said. "Part of you always knew that, no matter how deep you tried to bury it, no matter how hard you tried to shape this world around you. You even tried to Reformat yourself, crudely, but you knew it couldn't last forever."
"I don't want you to be gone!" Asaka pleaded grasping at the arms of a girl she knew only to be a simulation. "I couldn't live, but they wouldn't let me die. It was agony! Even if it had to end, I wanted out!"
The girl shook her head again.
"I'm not entirely gone," she said. "I never will be. It's very cliché to say, but I will always be in your memories. This simulation is proof. I'm not a puppet fabricated by the machine. I'm constructed from your own memories, your dreams and longings. It's the only way the simulation could possibly fool you."
Asaka clenched her teeth, looking down at the false carpet.
"Then I'm sitting here talking to my own imagination," she said.
"Perhaps," her memory of Alice said. "But your imagination also knows what Alice would think of you."
The apparition grabbed her by the chin, forcing her to look up.
"She wanted you to be free," the girl said. "Free from the nightmares that haunt you. You've always thought yourself inadequate to live in this world. Even after your wish, even after the promotions, you never believed in yourself. She wanted you to be strong enough to live your own life. Yet here you are, still running. Do you think this is what she would have wanted?"
"Of course not!" Asaka spat, looking away. "But I can't be what she wanted. I'm here, aren't I? If I were what she wanted, I wouldn't have constructed a memory‐erasing simulation to hide from reality. I certainly wouldn't have added magic to the mix."
"She believed in you," her memory said reprovingly. "Someday you will believe in yourself."
"I can't believe that."
Alice shook her head.
"Well, someday. This simulation is over."
Asaka woke a second time, and this time the weariness in her body, and the weight of her memory, told her that there was nothing else to wake up from.
She raised her right arm, peering blearily at her wrist, where a cable attached to one of her auxiliary access ports, for more bandwidth.
Then her TacComp poured into her consciousness an emotionless computerized tirade, rebuking her for violating regulation and protocol, acting against its recommendations, performing unauthorized psychologically‐dangerous activities, risking gem failure, blocking its access to her consciousness, and so forth.
She didn't blame it for being angry, but the whole thing gave her a headache, and she told the device to shove it.
What on Earth was she supposed to do now? She hadn't exactly planned what to do once the simulation was over, and it had been intended to run much longer than that. Years of simulation time, at least—she'd spent all she had on this. She wondered just who was responsible—
"You gave us a lot of trouble, you know," a voice near her said.
Almost resignedly, she turned her head to peer at the stranger.
No, not a stranger.
Tanaka Yui, telepath and MSY founder, smiled at her, a conspicuous black connection cable running to her spinal port.
"Oh, screw you," Asaka said, turning away, looking at her soul gem, which was set on a table, buried in what was literally a mound of grief cubes.
It was practically blasphemous to talk to a founder that way, but she didn't care at the moment. Her dream was over, and in its place she had nothing.
"The department didn't think you were capable of manipulating your own mental state with magic," Yui said. "Evidently, we were wrong. You went to a lot of trouble to lock yourself in. It's very rare that I have to attempt an Unformat while concurrently manipulating the simulation. Very interesting. Of course, we unfortunately had to arrest your accomplices in this matter, the ones you paid to take care of you. Do you have any idea how dangerous that pile of grief cubes is to civilians?"
"Why are you here?" Asaka asked angrily. "The MHD has plenty of specialists they can send. And aren't you afraid I'm going to go crazy and attack you?"
Yui laughed quietly.
"You wouldn't. I've had plenty of time to get to know you, and the simulation was modified to eject you so that you wouldn't be violent or suicidal when you emerged."
The magical girl appeared next to Asaka, looming over her.
"I want you to know," she said, face somber. "That last part, with Alice and your memories—that was authentic. I don't want you to think I was controlling it. She wouldn't give up on you, and we won't either."
"You don't know her," Asaka growled. "You don't know any—"
The new voice, sharp and piercing, was unfamiliar to her, and Asaka sought its source.
An Indian woman, tall and lithe with red crying eyes, appeared above her, wrapping her into an overly‐tight hug.
Asaka was quite certain she had never seen her before, but she seemed strangely familiar.
"It's me!" the woman said, before Asaka could try to query her nomenclator. "Madhuri. I know we've never met each other, but when I heard you'd disappeared—do you know how hard we were looking for you? How much you made us worry?"
"She helped us find you," Yui said, smiling again. "It appears she knows the gaming underworld just as well as you do."
"I'm sorry, Madhuri," Asaka said, her own eyes tearing up as the woman cried softly on her shoulder, because she didn't know what else to say.
It was true: she was sorry, a little, for making her worry, but she had valued her own happiness more.
"Bringing her friends is cheap and manipulative," another voice said. "Risky, too. She probably doesn't want anyone to see her like this. I'd be embarrassed."
"Cheap, but effective," Yui replied. "With the two of you here, she's forced to try and act happy."
Asaka didn't need an introduction this time.
"You brought Patricia?" she said. "You're right. She's the last person I'd want—"
"Hello to you too," Patricia interrupted, appearing next to her and tugging at Madhuri until the woman released her hug.
For a moment, Asaka stared at the three of them as they watched her.
Patricia sighed, blonde ponytail swaying as she shook her head slightly.
"What are we going to do with you?" she asked rhetorically, bending over to detach Asaka's connections to the machines—one to each wrist, one to the back of the neck, one to the lower spine, a nutrient feed.
"You're clearly not fit to be left alone," Patricia said. "I'm going to take you home with me, we'll talk with your parents, and we'll wait until you get better. We've already agreed. Madhuri will take care of your gaming career for a while."
Madhuri nodded solemnly, still a bit teary‐eyed, and Asaka felt bewildered, smothered by hospitality. She needed to be angry, spiteful even, but she was being denied the opportunity. She couldn't explode with her friends there.
"You'll get better," Tanaka Yui said, nodding seriously. "My reputation depends on it, since I've taken on your case."
"I already dislike you," Asaka said poisonously, feeling she had to say something.
Yui laughed, shrilly.
"None of my patients like me," she said.
"Here," Patricia said, when they had settled onto a military transport back to Earth.
Asaka, who had been sitting in a corner staring at her hands, looked up.
She peered skeptically at the small box Patricia was holding.
"I never got a chance to give it to you," Patricia says. "It's a wedding ring. Alice was thinking about proposing, before we left training. She decided not to. She said she didn't want to tie you down. Not yet. She was going to wait until after the first combat rotation."
Asaka took the box, and opened it, looking at the small metal ring enclosed within. Silver, with symbols inscribed on it—she always had a sense of humor.
"I don't know what to think," she said. "Why do you even have this?"
"She said it was in case something happened to her. I told her she was being too pessimistic, but I… well. Anyway, it should be yours."
Asaka stared at the ring, thinking back to all that had happened since she had first gotten her soul gem ring. Being shipped off to training without a single friend in the world, the roommate who intimidated her, just a little. Their first combat simulations, her roommate pulling her away from the group to sneak in a kiss. Alice, she thought, had been just as lonely as she was. Perhaps, if things had been different…
Unbidden, the tears began to stream from her eyes. Why did it have to turn out this way?