Volume III: Ontological Paradox

"The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the Universe tends to a maximum."

— Rudolf Clausius, Statements of the First and Second Law of Thermodynamics

"Among the more eccentric aspects of the magical girl system, the phenomenon of color is among the most easily noticed by the general public, and among the most mysterious. Put simply, besides standard black or white patterning, magical girl costumes are nearly all monochromatic, usually reflecting the hue of the user's soul gem, which often, but not always, seems to reflect the personality of the magical girl involved."

"Many theories have been advanced to explain this curious phenomenon, both inside and outside the MSY, and none have been even close to proven. Contrary to popular belief, color is only poorly determined by a mage's "favorite" color. It also doesn't seem to be affected by other magical girls in the area at time of contract—examples of both rainbow and single-color teams exist in the historical record. The correlation between color and type of magical power is weak, and not any stronger than would be expected based on the connection of personality to both color and magical girl. Finally, explanations involving Incubator intent run up immediately against the Incubator refusal to comment. Nor do so-called polychromats provide any real insight, distributed seemingly randomly among the magical girl population."

"Nor do soul gem colors provide any real insight. While costumes are reflective of soul gem color, there is an important, if subtle difference—the costumes only reflect light, while soul gems are luminescent, and emit light with a characteristic, often highly-complex spectrum, usually resembling no existing non-magical material, and dimming with increased use. Careful analysis has yielded little, except for the intriguing observation that the spectrum extends only over the spectrum that may be directly seen by the eye. Girls contracted after the advent of military optical implants exhibit a spectrum that extends into the newly visible near-infrared and ultraviolet, but not into the additional range that can be viewed with false color."

"In the end, it is a mystery. For its part, the MSY maintains a spectrographic database of its members, for research and identification purposes."

— Julian Bradshaw, personal blog.

"Defeats on the battlefield failed to put the remains of the Freedom Alliance in the mood for surrender, however. The hyperclass oligarchs, by now thoroughly indoctrinated by their own poisonous ideology, placed the blame for failure squarely on the shoulders of their soldiers, declaring that if their soldiers could or would not perform, then they would be modified until they would. In underground laboratories around the world, scientists tinkered with the genomes of vast arrays of clones, designing thicker cranial plating, muscular augments, toxin glands, and whatever else might be expected to improve combat performance, regardless of personal welfare or the source of the genetic modifications."

"Perhaps the most disturbing modifications were those made to the brain, the seat of consciousness itself. Some brain regions were enlarged; others were shrunk or deleted entirely, written off as unnecessary in an instrument of war. Empathy, love, fear—all these were unnecessarily evolutionary adaptations that could now be placed squarely in the dust-bin of history. The tools of war, these 'perfect' soldiers would not need to ever question their orders, or indeed do anything but show their prowess in combat.

"This horrific disregard for basic human dignity showed itself amply in the names of the abominations that would serve as the FA's elite soldiers in last stages of the war. Grunts, Tankers—these were not nicknames given by their enemy, but their actual designation, followed of course by a serial number. These soldiers came in different varieties, each shaped by their battlefield role—giant hulks for assault troopers, lithe, giant-eyed nymphs for snipers. The Tankers were some of the worst, barely more than an out-sized head on a shrunken body, perfect for connecting directly to the life-support system of a medium armored vehicle."

"While some of these creations were sentient, after a fashion, the nature of such a sentience was loathsome—tied to one task until death, devoid of human or even animal emotions, and each bound irreversibly by its cortical control module to its masters. It is telling that, at the end of the war, there was essentially no resistance to the Emergency Defense Council's Decree 224, ordering the summary execution of any FA 'Elites' found anywhere."

"In the end, the FA spared not even its civilian functions from such 'enhancement'..."

— Excerpt, Unification War, textbook for Primary School History

"Good afternoon, madams. Invitations, please?"

The courteous demand, delivered by a liveried servant as they arrived at the door, startled Ryouko, engrossed as she was listening to the conversation taking place next to her. Her mother had never had a serious chance to talk to Asami before they left Earth, and the woman was certainly making the most of her visit. Sometimes it almost felt like she got along with Asami better than she got along with her daughter.

She gaped up at the doorman for a moment, the tall white hat seeming to throw her for a loop, before Asami intervened to save her.

"Here," Asami said, producing the requested card from within her purse. Stylish and absurdly tiny, the gray bag served no real purpose than to carry the invitation card. It was for show, like Ryouko's own somewhat larger white purse, and like so much else in this simulation. That included the formally-attired doorman and the invitation cards, engraved with serious-looking text entitling the bearer to the privilege of attending the birthday party of none other than a certain Chitose Yuma, magical girl celebrity.

Such accoutrements were superfluous in the age of nomenclators, and even more superfluous given that they were attending this party in simulation. Really, they could have manifested directly into the ballroom, but that would apparently have been discourteous.

"She's just trying to create a smooth experience for both the virtual and non-virtual guests," Asami said, as they stepped through the threshold, glancing at Ryouko. "Stop being such a grump."

The girl sidled up to her and grabbed her around the waist, rubbing her head against Ryouko's hair. Asami was big on physical intimacy, something Ryouko had acclimated herself to over the past month, but she still wished her… girlfriend would restrain herself a little, especially in front of her mother. A part of her suspected, though, that Kuroi Nakase's visit was only making Asami more touchy-feely. It was a form of claiming ownership, a way of proclaiming without words that "She's mine!".

And recently, the girl had started to evince the disturbing ability to anticipate Ryouko's thoughts. Ryouko wasn't sure if it was just natural intuition, or if it was evidence of a growing mutual telepathy that apparently developed sometimes between paired magical girls.

Even a month into it, the whole thing still felt odd. It had seemed natural for Asami to follow her to the planet of Eurydome, a low-gravity world near Optatum crowded with scientific institutes and universities, only half a week of travel time from Earth.

More precisely, it wasn't natural so much as deliberately arranged. Joanne Valentin had come to her under the auspices of Governance: Science and Technology, which was deeply interested in the possibility of studying Ryouko's powers for scientific reasons. If analysis of her power could contribute meaningfully to Humanity's technological development, Governance felt that it could be far more valuable that anything she was likely to contribute again on the battlefield, especially considering the risk of her dying in the process.

Now, Governance was aware of Ryouko's feelings with regards to various matters. While it would have been optimal for Ryouko to be studied in some facility on Earth—Prometheus or Zeus or a high-energy physics institute—they were willing to accommodate her stated preference to explore other worlds, and could post her to a colony world with the necessary scientific facilities. In order to facilitate the process, Governance was willing to allow a certain Nakihara Asami to travel with her. With her gravitational powers, it was possible she would even be useful to the experimentation.

It was then that Shizuki Sayaka had explained her presence. While Governance was more than capable of compensating Ryouko for the experience themselves, the MSY preferred to keep their hand in when it came to affairs involving magical girls. MSY Finance would gladly finance her trip, her living arrangements, and her salary, and would even work with Science Division to arrange an apprenticeship position for Asami at one of the botanical institutes. The matriarch also wanted to personally apologize for the unfortunate seduction incident, which had been the meddling of one of her subordinates, apparently.

Of course, it was more than possible that either the scientists or Ryouko would lose interest in the relationship after a while. At that point, Finance would be glad to offer her a position in one of their offices should she so desire, especially given a certain aptitude she had shown in school for economic matters. The compensation could be quite high.

Ryouko, not being naïve, could easily see the arrangement for what it was, at least from Shizuki Sayaka's perspective. Yet, she could also perceive how well it was crafted. Both Governance and the MSY had tons of surveillance data on her, and had created a plan to suit everyone's interests—Asami could leave the front and live her dreams, they could both go to an alien world, the scientists could study them both to their heart's desire, and Shizuki Sayaka could ensnare her more deeply into her clutches. Everyone would win, with the possible exception of Kuroi Kana.

Asami had been astonished when Ryouko didn't accept the offer on the spot. Instead, she had spent a few days ruminating on it, talking to both her parents, and both Mami and Kyouko. They all said it sounded perfectly reasonable.

So she agreed. What else could she do? It was too logical, and the only obvious route by which Asami could be pulled away from the combat assignment she had grown to detest.

It still felt odd.

She consented to Asami's cuddling for a moment, curling their hair together in the apparently common fashion as they continued to walk. She felt conspicuous entangled like that in the mansion's atrium, and just to be contrary, she muttered:

"I feel like a damn stick of celery."

Her dress, one of those scrupulously formal ballroom dresses that would apparently never go out of style, was a somewhat dark shade of green, with ruffles at the bottom that flared outward. On her body, the strapless dress clung on more by friction than anything her chest could provide, and it was Clarisse that had made the vegetable quip, as she had examined herself in the virtual mirror. She just couldn't shake the mental image now—she looked like an unusually dark stick of Apium graveolens.

I regret making that comment, Clarisse thought.

"Oh, don't say that, Ryouko," her mother said, appearing next to her in a black dress. "You look beautiful, and you need to get to used to wearing this kind of thing, for these kinds of social events."

"I'm pretty sure it's your job to say that," Ryouko said.

Clarisse sighed, in that deliberately loud tone that she had been hearing far too often lately.

Ryouko, Asami picked that dress for you. You asked her to. You can't say it makes you look like celery. Think about it. I'm an idiot for even bringing that up. It was a joke anyway. My aesthetic value algorithms say you look great. I'm not making that up.

Ryouko did think about it, for half a second, then cringed.

"Shit, I didn't mean that," she said, stopping and turning to face the other girl. "I was just saying something grumpy, just because."

Asami, who had been walking quietly, stopped, her own dark purple dress swirling around her feet. She shook her head slightly, turning to look at Ryouko.

"It's no problem," she said, smiling slightly. "I'm used to that by now. Besides, Clarisse sent me a two thousand word essay last week about you. I read it. I'm okay with it. Anyway, the dress matches your soul gem."

The girl grabbed Ryouko's hand, the one with the virtual soul gem, and raised it for a moment. Then she pulled Ryouko forward, into the building, so they would stop clogging the atrium.

You sent her an essay? Ryouko asked incredulously.

And a video, Clarisse thought. Let's not talk about this right now.

They breezed down the hallway, passing a few clusters of guests lingering outside the ballroom, drinks in hand.

On the way, they were stopped by an unfamiliar magical girl, decked out almost entirely in green, as Ryouko was. Ryouko waited a moment for her nomenclator to process, and only then did she notice the girl's conspicuous eyeball tattoo, the kind of tattoo no human would have.

An AI? she thought, as her nomenclator obligingly spit out:


Age: 20
Occupation: Governance: Magical Girls—Advisory AI
Special Comments: Governance: Magical Girls proper is Chitose Yuma.

"Oh, it's the girl of the hour!" MG said, putting a hand to her mouth to cover a gape. "I'm charmed to meet you."

The AI curtsied elaborately, drawing her broad-based dress outward. To Ryouko, the AI looked eerily like Kyouko, but different somehow. She couldn't decide how. It was enough to confuse her briefly.

Ryouko blinked, trying to decide quickly what to say.

"I don't think I'm the girl of the hour," she said. "That would be, uh, Chitose-san, I'd imagine."

"I suppose," MG said genially. "Nice dress, by the way. Us green girls have got to stick together."

"Oh, uh, sure," Ryouko responded awkwardly, as the AI left to greet other guests.

"See, she likes it," Asami said under her breath, as they stepped through a set of wooden double doors.

"I told you I was sorry," Ryouko replied—before stopping cold.

Weeks of living on Eurydome had gotten Ryouko a bit more acclimated to large, open buildings, but she still had to stop and gape at the ballroom. Corinthian columns, giant chandeliers, and two-story picture windows framed a gleaming white marble floor, all enormous in scale. The columns and floor were inlaid with what appeared to be elaborate veins of emerald and jade, winding their way along the polished surface. At the edges, recessed alcoves led into private niches and exitways, suggesting no end of places to explore and hide.

Even with its size, the ballroom was plenty dense with people. A motley assortment of teenagers and adults socializing, eating, and dancing. It came as no surprise to her that the teenagers were all girls, and that the population of the room as a whole skewed heavily female. She wondered how old all of them really were.

Once, long ago, these kind of parties were all some magical girls ever did, Clarisse said. A shame, really.

What? Ryouko thought.

Nakase grabbed their shoulders, shooing them away from the entranceway, towards a jade-and-gold table full of food hidden in one of the side-alcoves.

"Well, what are we supposed to do now?" Asami asked, looking just as lost as Ryouko felt.

"Eat, socialize," Nakase said. "Or, actually, why don't you try dancing?"

Ryouko glanced at her mother, who looked oddly gleeful, then at the dance floor, which was full of couples swaying back and forth to a familiar-sounding piece of old music. She felt skeptical.

"I don't even know how to dance," she said, making sure her skepticism showed on her face.

"I'm sure your TacComp can provide something useful. In my day, we danced first and slept later."

"What?" Asami asked.

"You're not that old," Ryouko echoed.

"Nothing," Nakase said. "Go. Dance. Walking around slowly also counts. That's an order."

She gave Ryouko a small shove, urging her forward. Ryouko started to look back, uncertainly, then sighed, turning back towards the ballroom floor. If she was going to be dragooned into doing this, she might as well make the most of it. Her mother was right. Yuma's birthday party was set in a ballroom. Dancing was what was supposed to happen.

She grabbed Asami, who really had turned back, and pulled her forward, spinning the girl around so that they faced each other. Asami looked back at her, eyes wide, and Ryouko felt a small spike of affection.

It was true, what Clarisse van Rossum had said. It was possible for love to grow into you. She could definitely see that now. As for whether it could be called love yet…

She let her TacComp guide her through the motions of a formal dance, old-fashioned, dating back to the twenty-second century at least. She put one hand on Asami's waist, but a moment later Asami put her head on her shoulder, so that they ended up doing more of a swaying walk than an actual dance.

Well, that worked too.

When they finally retreated from the dance floor, they found Ryouko's mother seated in one of the small alcoves with few small plates of hors d'oeuvres. Improbably, she had found someone to talk with. Even more improbably, that someone was Kyouko, who was in fine form, wearing a sparkling—and revealing—red dress, with high heels that looked like they could kill.

"I actually wrote a book on the subject, back in the day," Kyouko said, as they approached. "It's a little embarrassing, but I can send you a copy. Though it sounds like they have things under control."

"It was pretty loud," Nakase said. "Which is funny, because—oh, but here she is! I saved you some food, Ryouko."

Ryouko glanced at her mother, taking the proffered plate. She suspected she knew what the conversation had been about, but said nothing. Suffice to say, agreeing to let her mother stay in her room, while she moved temporarily into Asami's room, had resulted in a bit of a cascading effect.

I totally warned you about that, Clarisse commented. You should have taken the couch.

Says the Tactical Computer that didn't say a damn thing when she opened the door and looked in, Ryouko complained, for what must have been the twentieth time.

It was already too late. Saying something would have just made it worse and interrupted the fun. It's not my fault you showed poor judgment.

I'm not sure about the 'fun', with someone like you looking over my shoulder and dispensing advice. Sometimes you should just let things happen.

And let you flounder? Face it, my advice helped. Besides, I literally can't not be involved. And, you know, I presume they give me manuals for a reason.

It just wasn't comfortable. It was awkward. I'm not used to it.

It was awkward anyway.

"Ryouko!" Asami said, nudging her in the side with an elbow, startling her out of her reverie.

"Oh, yes, sorry," she said hastily. "Good to see you again, Sakura-san."

"No need to be so formal," Kyouko said blandly, pausing to take a sip of her red wine. Ryouko had never seen her so decked out.

"She's been doing that a lot nowadays," Asami said, by way of apology. "I don't know what she's thinking about."

Had she? Ryouko supposed she had had much to think about.

"I guess life has been treating you well, then?" she asked rhetorically. "Your mother has just been telling me how well the two of you have been doing. It's early days yet—very early—but that's good to hear."

Ryouko started to protest that the current arrangement was temporary, that she didn't know how long she was going to do this, and that she wasn't sure she wanted to stay away from the front permanently, but managed to stop herself. That discussion with Asami could come later.

Instead, Kyouko saw her hesitate, and chose to speak first.

"Not to imply that you're destined to break up or anything, but take my advice. Treasure your first relationship. There'll never be another one quite like it."

The girl peered at Ryouko, with the kind of fierce gaze that seemed intended to will her into agreeing. When she finally nodded, Kyouko switched her gaze to Asami, who nodded with almost unseemly haste. The intensity surprised Ryouko, who hadn't expected Kyouko to care quite so much.

"Well, anyway," Kyouko said finally. "I feel I am obligated to ask. Have you had any other visions lately, Ryouko? It's rare that we have anyone have any away from the Ribbon, so I thought I'd check."

Ryouko had learned over the past month to expect this kind of question, whenever she and Kyouko communicated. It was usually easily parried by a simple "no", but now she shared an uneasy glance with Asami.

Then she looked at her mother, who was watching her with a serious expression. Doubtless, Kyouko had used the earlier conversation to feel her mother out on religious topics—and would have learned rather quickly that her mother had little tolerance for religious claptrap, despite the rumors that surrounded her daughter. Ryouko… had not yet tried to speak with her regarding the "Goddess". It had been easier not to.

Kyouko had outflanked her, she realized. It was already too late to fake a confused reaction, which would have been impossible to hold in the face of Kyouko's questioning anyway. She couldn't switch to transmission, either, since her mother—a scientist with much experience with the military, among other things— would immediately realize what she was up to.

She had learned to get used to being outflanked by Ancients in conversations. Their superior experience meant that they were capable of running circles around her, if they so chose. That didn't really make it less annoying, though.

"No, I haven't, Kyouko," she said, trying to shrug nonchalantly.

Kyouko nodded, then turned to say something to Asami. Ryouko sighed in relief.

Perhaps, if her mother weren't here—if Asami weren't here—she would have been tempted to speak further. It would have been a terrible idea, saying it to Kyouko, given everything she had lied to her about, but she would have been tempted.

She wished, not for the first time, that she could meet Clarisse van Rossum again. Unlike either of her official mentors, she was someone she could feel safe asking advice from, but she was stubbornly never around.

Then, for the first time, it occurred to her that Clarisse might be at this very party.

Oh, that's not a bad idea at all, the other Clarisse, her TacComp, thought. She's on the invitation list. You should find her later. Also, you have zoned out of the active conversation, once again.

Her TacComp's prompt startled her out of her reverie once more, and the device even obligingly played back the past few moments for her.

"I understand the reservations Ryouko has about affiliating herself with us, but we really are a very inclusive group," Kyouko was saying. "If you have any questions, even on her behalf, I'll be available. You can message me directly if you like."

"O—okay," Asami said, wilting under Kyouko's gaze, and peering desperately at Ryouko for guidance.

Ryouko cringed internally. It had not been a good time to mentally check out of the conversation.

"Maybe," she asserted, feeling her mother's eyes on her. "It's not like I'm stopping Asami from joining. Don't pressure her."

That was mostly true. After the "relationship advice" incident, Asami had been briefly interested in learning all she could about the Cult, and seemed puzzled that Ryouko wasn't a member. Ryouko's explanation had been simple: the Goddess was real, but she didn't think the Cult necessarily had any answers. Asami was free to look into it more if she wanted. Ryouko wasn't going to stop her from joining or anything like that.

That had satisfied Asami, who stopped looking into the Cult. She was fine, it seemed, with Ryouko's judgment substituting for her own on the matter. Privately, Ryouko was relieved, even if she felt a twinge of guilt about being manipulative. To her, it seemed possible Asami would have been happier as a member of the Cult. Certainly, knowing that they had an afterlife waiting for her had soothed Asami's psyche, even before Ryouko had used Shizuki Sayaka's proposal to pull her away from the front lines.

Kyouko shook her head slightly, smiling, seeming amused that Ryouko had stood up to her, just a little.

"Nothing like that," she said. "I'm just letting her know her options. Seems fair enough. Incidentally, have you seen Mami? She's supposed to be at this shindig."

"Not at all. I just got here," Ryouko said—but Kyouko was already ignoring her, striding past her and peering across the room.

"Ah, I see her," Kyouko said. "Thanks anyway. I'll send you two that book."

"Book?" Ryouko asked, too late.

For a moment, she watched Kyouko's back as she walked away—then received the mental ping indicating she had a new message. With a book as an attachment, apparently.

She needn't have bothered, Clarisse thought sardonically. That book of tips she wrote is actually one of the manuals I came preloaded with. This is all rather amusing, actually.

Tips? Ryouko thought, flipping the virtual book to a random page.

Her eyebrows shot upward, and she wasn't able to suppress a blush as she did the mental equivalent of slamming the book shut. Asami might have finally gotten over being in a new body, but Ryouko didn't think they were ready for that yet.

Then she looked at Asami, who was staring off into space with a vacant expression, but blushing furiously.

Ryouko reached over and grabbed the girl by the shoulder, shaking vigorously. Looking at her mother, she could see the woman smiling, laughing silently at them.

She knew it wouldn't last, though, and once Asami blinked herself back awake the woman's expression turned immediately serious, as easily as flipping a switch.

"Ryouko," she said, her voice carrying an undertone of warning. "What was all this talk about visions just now?"

Ryouko shifted a little, wondering if she could get out of the discussion. Asami watched her to see what she would say, but didn't seem to realize that she should contrive a distraction for Ryouko's mother.

Ryouko considered messaging her, or using telepathy—they were in the same VR facility, buried in the bowels of the university Ryouko was currently "working" at. She decided, though, she couldn't avoid the topic forever, and now was as good a time as any to get it out of the way.

She swallowed, as surreptitiously as she could.

"I've been keeping this a secret from the Cult," she said, "because I don't know if I want to get mixed in with them, but I may have had a religious experience before I did the wormhole thing."

She tried to keep her tone business-like throughout the statement.

Her mother tilted her head a little, looking shocked but not totally surprised.

"A religious experience? What kind?"

"I might have spoken with this Goddess they believe in. She might have given me some instructions regarding the wormhole."

Her mother let out a breath, shaking her head slightly.

"Just as the rumors said. Ryouko, you know my opinion of religious-type things, and I'm glad you don't see the need to join the Cult, but… well, in my line of work I've met quite a few girls from the Cult. They've always seemed quite sincere in their beliefs, but I've never thought there was much to it. At best it was some kind of side effect of the magic, some kind of group telepathy, driven by emotional fervor. Are you sure it wasn't something like that?"

Ryouko shifted where she stood, squirming slightly. She considered the possibility for a moment, but dismissed it almost immediately. It had all seemed too real, and there was also…

"No, definitely not," she said.

She hesitated for a moment, again swallowing. Not even Asami had heard the other part of the story from her. Did she really want to tell it to her? After all, it could easily be considered a family matter.

She looked down and squirmed a bit more, this time deliberately, to conceal the message she was sending to her mother.

"It's not just that," she transmitted. "I think we're related to her. Apparently she was the sister of one of your ancestors."

Her mother, well used to the military's enhanced messaging privileges, concealed her reaction to the message well, only blinking once in surprise.

"I wouldn't have taken you for someone with a messiah complex," she transmitted back, for once betraying deep scepticism. "Besides, I'm not even sure that means anything. If you go far enough back in time, any given person is the ancestor of either everyone living, or nobody. Literally."

Ryouko looked back up, suppressing a smile. Only her mother would think to insert a comment like that—and Ryouko herself, if Asami was to be believed.

"Can we talk about this later, Mama?" she said out loud. "I don't think this is the place."

She also needed time to consider what to say. Out of respect for her mother, she had considered it a necessary, inevitable conversation—but she hadn't planned what exactly to say.

She did, however, start forwarding the memory she had received from her grandmother, who had given her the right to share it, if she so chose.

"Alright," her mother said, nodding.

"What do you mean you haven't even visited her?" Yuma demanded, voice as loud as she could discreetly make it.

"I mean that I haven't visited her," Kyouko hissed back, hunching over so she could speak into the smaller girl's ear. "I don't see why it's my responsibility to. We broke up. That means something, you know."

To the others in the room it looked like they were having an intimate, whispered conversation, seated in an isolated corner of the room. The birthday girl taking a break from the party to talk with one of her oldest friends. That was the impression they intended to give, of course. Setting up a formal privacy screen would have caused too much whispering.

"You know how she feels about you. You're just going to leave her to rot?"

"You could've brought this up about many of my previous relationships. Why now? What's special about her? Why do you suddenly care about these neophytes?"

"Two reasons, nee-chan," she said, placing an angry inflection on the phrase. "The first is that we're getting tired of cleaning up after you. It's a polite fiction you've got going, pretending the girls you sleep with don't care when you toss them out like yesterday's garbage. For some of them it's even true. But not most of them. All those broken hearts you leave behind, and for what? So you can keep trying to fill the hole in your heart? I've read the reports, nee-chan. I know what the MHD thinks of you."

"Reading confidential reports now, Yuma-chan?" Kyouko asked, glaring back at her, not acknowledging what she had said.

"You know very well we all read each other's reports. We look out for each other. That's how it's always been."

Kyouko turned away, and spoke calmly.

"I don't want to be lectured by the likes of you and Mami. A girl who playacts as a child and another too traumatized to make any new friends. We're all broken. You have no right."

"I wasn't done talking, nee-chan. I said there were two reasons."

Kyouko sat impassively, still turned away, refusing to acknowledge the comment.

"Kishida Maki is special because she's special to you. It might have started for twisted reasons, but you started to care about her. It was obvious. We were getting hopeful. But that's why you had to end it, wasn't it?"

A heartbeat of time passed, and then Kyouko said:

"She's young. She'll get over it."

"You were her first, nee-chan. The first is special. You're the one who says that."

"So I leave you two alone for fifteen minutes and this is what happens, huh?" Mami said, suddenly looming over them. "For four-hundred-year-olds, you two sure aren't any good at hiding when you're having an argument."

"Assuming you two old maids didn't plot it against me," Kyouko grumbled.

"You keep calling me that," Yuma said. "But you're just making baseless assumptions."

"You keep claiming you're not, but you never present any evidence otherwise," Kyouko retorted.

"Stop bickering, you two," Mami said, in her best "Mami-nee-chan" voice. "Yuma-chan, didn't you say you wanted to meet the 'Hero of Orpheus' while she was at your party? Well, don't miss your chance; I'll introduce you."

Ryouko sensed Yuma coming before she saw her, the sea of guests shifting gradually before her. The ripples spread through the crowd, the background murmur of the crowd quieting, replaced by the greetings of well-wishers. The wave approached only slowly, as Yuma was impeded by the crowd, obliged to respond attentively to everyone she passed, but Ryouko knew, somehow, where it was inexorably headed.

It occurred to her that she might be getting used to being a center of attention herself, the kind of person important individuals would seek out, trailing their shockwaves behind them. Kuroi Kana, Shizuki Sayaka, Atsuko Arisu—they had all sought her out already, stopping by to offer a few words of greeting. In Kana's case, Ryouko had found it difficult to read what the Matriarch really thought of Ryouko's new, Shizuki-sponsored position.

"I think Chitose-san is approaching," Asami said, as Yuma grew closer, and Ryouko nodded absently, for once ahead of her partner.

She craned her head to look, and finally got a glimpse of the girl. Dressed in a simple green dress, her childish frame was difficult to spot even in a crowd saturated with relatively young magical girls. She was conspicuous only due to her magnetic effect on the people around her, further enhanced by the presence of Kyouko and Mami traveling with her, the latter's modest yellow dress serving as a contrast to the former.

Even in a virtual setting, the color-coded trio formed a formidable—and rare—nexus of MSY power. They operated so smoothly that it was easy to forget for a moment the gaping hole in their circle of power, one that had once been occupied by a certain Akemi Homura.

Finally, Yuma turned away from the girl she was talking with—a certain Kugimiya Aiko, apparently—signaling with her body language that she was ready to move on. She stepped into the crowd, and for a moment their eyes met.

Ryouko knew, then, why MG had looked so oddly familiar to her. MG didn't just look like Kyouko; she also looked like Yuma, a fact which seemed obvious in retrospect.

More importantly, Yuma's virtual form was older in age than the child form she usually carried. This version of her appeared closer to eleven than eight; it reminded her unavoidably of a memory of hers, of the same girl crying on the ground in front of a corpse, calling herself a monster.

But before she could remember the details of the vision, or think through its implications once again, Yuma arrived, striding into the corner of the room where Asami, Ryouko, and her mother had placed themselves. The girl surprised her by stepping forward immediately, extending her hand in expectation of a handshake. Ryouko had been prepared for a round of Japanese-style bowing, but recovered swiftly, taking the hand of the smaller girl.

"Happy birthday," she said in Japanese, for once knowing exactly what to say first.

"Thank you," the girl said in Standard, tilting her head in acknowledgment.

Ryouko stood there awkwardly for a moment, as the other girl watched her coolly. She knew she looked foolish, sweating nervously in front of a girl that looked four years younger than her, but she couldn't help it. She knew what was said about Chitose Yuma.

"I've heard about your exploits, of course," the girl said finally, bowing her head slightly. "Congratulations on a mission well-executed."

"T—thank you."

The conversation stalled again, Yuma again watching her with that unnerving gaze. What was she trying to see? Did she know that Ryouko had seen her past? No—that was preposterous.

Finally, Yuma turned slightly, bowing in the direction of Ryouko's mother, who appeared surprised, having been expecting a handshake. They exchanged bows, and then Yuma said:

"I appreciate the work done at both the Prometheus and Zeus Institutes by hard-working scientists such as yourself. And of course, the work that goes into raising such a fine daughter."

Yuma smiled slightly at the end of the last sentence, lightening what had been a surprisingly stiff and formal exchange.

"Thank you," Ryouko's mother said, exchanging with Yuma a look Ryouko couldn't interpret.

"Child licenses are so hard to get nowadays, aren't they?" Yuma said airily. "Though I suppose it shouldn't have been too hard for someone of your pedigree."

Ryouko's mother blinked, hesitating for a moment.

"Well, my family matriarch wasn't exactly pleased about my marriage. It didn't make it easy. I was able to talk them into it. Ryouko-chan wouldn't be here without it."

She rubbed Ryouko's hair enthusiastically for a moment, causing Ryouko to flinch slightly, her hair tendrils flailing in protest.

"Hmm, well, Kana-chan can be strange sometimes," Yuma said.

They stood there a moment longer, Yuma seemingly content to simply stand quietly, before Mami cleared her throat slightly to get their attention. Ryouko had almost forgotten she and Kyouko were there.

"Well, personally I'm glad we were all able to get together like this," Mami said. "Your daughter has a lot of potential, and Yuma-chan was excited to meet her. Yuma-chan is just bad at talking to people sometimes."

"Nee-chan! Don't embarrass me in front of the young ones!"

Yuma pouted and looked… bashful? The expression seemed incongruous, the change from her previous expression being almost enough to give whiplash.

The girl held up her arms to be picked up, and Mami rolled her eyes, but picked her up anyway, holding her in the air for a moment before setting her back down.

"Anyway, see you around," Yuma said, turning back towards Ryouko and waving, before turning to walk away.

Ryouko watched her as she left. Mami followed Yuma to the next set of guests, but Kyouko lingered, noticing Ryouko's look.

"You have something to ask, don't you?" Kyouko relayed to Ryouko. "I can see you thinking about it. Well then, ask."

Ryouko looked down. How on Earth had Kyouko known? Should she deny it?

"I've seen Yuma before, in one of my visions," she thought, weighing her words carefully. "She was crouching over a white magical girl who was dead. She—that girl—was Mikuni Oriko. I know the story. But… I don't know. I think the Goddess was trying to tell me something about Yuma. But I'm not sure if I should say anything."

Kyouko's ordinarily unflappable expression seemed to waver, just a little. Then she chuckled.

"Oh, the ways of the Goddess are mysterious indeed," Kyouko said, out loud. "She really seems to like you. You're destined for something. It's obvious."

With that parting shot, the girl turned on her heel and strode off. Ryouko sighed, then turned to look at her mother, who she expected to have questions about what she and Kyouko had been talking about.

Instead she found her mother looking off into space, clearly lost in thought.

"Mama?" she asked. "Is everything alright?"

"Oh, yes," her mother said, blinking rapidly. "Of course. Didn't you say you wanted to look for Clarisse van Rossum? I remember how you used to talk about her. How was it, meeting your childhood hero?"

"Oh, uh, interesting, I guess," Ryouko said, rubbing the back of her head.

"That was an odd conversation," Asami commented. "With Chitose—uh—sama, I mean."

"Yeah, it was."

She left her mother and girlfriend behind to look for Clarisse, and found her conferring with Nadya Antipova in a corner, wine glasses in hand. Their faces looked grim, and Ryouko wondered if something was wrong.

Clarisse spotted her approach, though, and the two of them rapidly dismissed their serious expressions, greeting her as she arrived. Like Mami and the others, Clarisse and Nadya's dresses were color-coded to match their soul gems. Ryouko wondered if it was some sort of MSY tradition. Didn't people get tired of wearing the same color all the time? She suddenly regretted listening to Asami and wearing green.

"Here to ask me for advice?" Clarisse asked, before Ryouko could even say anything.

"Am I that obvious?"

Clarisse shrugged, before smiling slightly.

"You're welcome to, of course."

"How come no one ever asks me for advice?" Nadya complained. "I'm over two hundred years old! I'm practically a fount of knowledge!"

"I'm over half a millennium old. I'm wiser than you. Shoo!"

Clarisse made the corresponding gesture with her hand. Nadya left in a huff, making a show of being affronted.

"She'll be fine," Clarisse said. "She's just faking it. Now what's up?"

Clarisse was back in her older body, at least virtually, and bent over slightly to observe her. Ryouko felt her mouth going dry. She had sought out this meeting, but it was still a challenge to say what she wanted to say.

She looked down, and found herself looking at Clarisse's cleavage. A memory returned to her, and she glanced away, blushing.

"I'm conflicted," she said, managing to blurt out the words. "I don't know if I'm happy."

It felt odd saying the words in Standard, since she had always thought them in Japanese, but it would have been strange to speak to Clarisse in her native tongue.

She glanced up, feeling herself blushing even more, and found Clarisse studying her, looking every bit like the wise Ancient she was.

"Oh dear," she said. "I think we better sit down for this. Come on."

Clarisse gestured at a nearby windowsill, and they shuffled over in their dresses to sit down. The virtual sunlight pouring in through the window looked beautiful, she thought.

Clarisse looked around, making sure no one was close enough to listen in, before swirling her wine glass and getting straight to the point.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

Ryouko swallowed. She didn't know why she was so nervous, suddenly.

"I don't know what to say," she started, finally, avoiding eye contact. "I feel like I'm adrift. I don't know. After I made my contract, I lost control of my life. It was just so crazy and non-stop, and I realize now that I was never really in control. It was the Goddess, I think. I felt a little jerked around, honestly. But now… well, I asked her when I got back what she wanted me to do now, and she said I should choose for myself, and it's stupid, but now…"

She let her voice trail off, and she looked up at Clarisse, who had one eyebrow raised. She realized she was rambling, and tried to focus.

"I don't know," she said finally. "I feel like I should be happy, but I'm not. I have a cushy life on an alien world, and even a loving girlfriend. Asami is in paradise. I can tell. But I'm not. It feels like… it feels like my wish was never made. I don't think it was about Earth at all. I think it was about my life. I don't like living a normal life."

Ryouko searched Clarisse's face for a reaction, and found the woman's eyes closed in bemusement.

"Ryouko, I don't actually know what your wish is, and I don't have telepathy over interstellar distances. It is difficult for me to properly evaluate your statements in light of that. To be frank, I'm not even sure what you have been doing since the wormhole mission."

"Oh," Ryouko said, embarrassed. "Well, I, uh—"

Clarisse bent over slightly, making direct eye contact with Ryouko.

"It's okay. You don't have to tell me. I think I understand anyway."

The woman bent her head for a moment, as if considering something, and then the rest of the virtual world blurred, sealed behind a privacy screen.

"You made your wish to get away from living a normal life," Clarisse said. "Because you wanted an extraordinary one. But now circumstances have returned you to normality. You want to shake things up again, yet you are afraid of destroying your relationship with Asami. Is this a good description of your problem?"

Ryouko felt her mouth drying out again, then nodded hastily. Clarisse had produced a better description of her situation than she would have.

Clarisse swirled her wine glass thoughtfully, eyes resting on windowsill.

"I suppose it depends on the nature of your current relationship. It is the nature of things that in a serious relationship both parties must often make sacrifices. It is rare that both parties have the same idea of paradise, but the sacrifices must be roughly equal, or else it engenders resentment."

Clarisse set the wine cup down, abandoning her drink for the moment.

"But of course," she said, "that is only true for a serious relationship. At your age, it is frankly doubtful that it really could be. You do not seem ready to settle down, so there is no reason to force yourself to. If it is merely a matter of companionship, that can be satisfied without most of the other accoutrements of a relationship. It is not widely known, but I have a few friends of my own I see from time to time. It may sound cynical to one as young as you, but it does not have to mean anything more than that. With the benefit of old age, it is possible to see some things in a clearer light."

Ryouko shifted uncomfortably. Clarisse's attachments were an occasional topic of discussion on the fan forums, but to hear her say something like that—

"I don't think Asami wants something like that," she said, watching her feet on the floor. "I can see it in her eyes. She wants everything. To be honest, I'm not sure if I don't want everything. It's not just about the sex for me, I don't think. Honestly she's the one who really wants that."

Her eyes widened a moment later, and her hands shot to her mouth, appalled. Did she just say that? She had meant to say "companionship".

But when she looked at Clarisse, the woman seemed hardly fazed by her embarrassing comment.

"I thought as much," Clarisse said, staring at the blurred-out room in front of her. "You're both young enough to crave romantic love. But you're a wanderer, and it makes things difficult, even in this day and age. But…"

Clarisse cupped her head in one hand, tapping her fingers against her chin.

"The memories I have taken from others imply that it is better to be truthful, and quickly," she said. "It is not good to let these things fester. You are too young to settle down. Even she is, whatever she may think. Tell her now, and it may be possible to form a workable long-term arrangement. If you wait until you get miserable, that will lead to yelling, and that typically does not end well."

Clarisse seemed to shrug slightly, then picked up her cup and finished her wine. Ryouko sensed the conversation was over, but felt she had to ask:

"If it's not too much to ask, you mentioned you were in a few relationships. How serious were they? I know your life made it difficult, but…"

She let her voice trail off, not meeting Clarisse's eyes. She wondered if it had been a bridge too far.

"As a matter of fact," Clarisse said, voice airy. "It got serious several times. To some point, at least, but not far enough to seriously contemplate marriage or children. It was always more for companionship. My lifestyle is too problematic for anything otherwise. But not all of us Ancients are as broken as your mentors. It is possible to reach my age with an intact heart."

Ryouko glanced at her, startled by the comment.

"Mentors? You mean Kyouko and Mami?"

Clarisse smiled and shrugged, then dissolved the privacy curtain, standing up.

"Go back to your girlfriend," she said, bending over towards Ryouko. "I bet she's wondering what you're doing. You can contact me if you want more advice, okay? Just not of the sexual sort. That's better addressed towards Kyouko."

Clarisse chuckled slightly, taking the opportunity provided by Ryouko's embarrassed reaction to leave, abruptly and efficiently. Ryouko realized she had been outmaneuvered once again.

I don't like these old people, she thought.

No birthday party, even an elaborate virtual ballroom gala, was complete without cake and presents, and it wasn't long before a suitably large and multi-tiered cake was wheeled out onto the dance-floor, next to a prodigious stack of virtual presents. Covered in a green-tinted icing, it was exquisitely designed, brown and green vines of sugar frosting winding their way on, around, and seemingly into the cake, twisting their way up to the higher layers. White flowers dotted the vines, some fully bloomed, others half-opened, still others tightly furled. Its ethereal design hinted at the uncanny, and despite its vibrancy, there remained the suggestion of age, of the kind that would befit Yggdrasil. At the very top, one great apical blossom opened to reveal not just a flower, but a soul gem, transparent sugar vibrant in the lighting.

Then Yuma cut into the bottom layer with a ceremonial knife, and Ryouko almost cringed. Even as a virtual design, it seemed a crime to disfigure.

"Ooo," Asami vocalized next to her. "Jasmine flowers, I think."

It tasted like jasmine, too, as Ryouko discovered when she was finally passed her slice, an amputated vine of brown sugar crawling over the top surface. Chocolate, jasmine, rosewater, and green tea, among other things, her enhanced sense of smell informed her. There were times when it came in handy.

Asami sighed, biting into a piece of her cake.

"This is heavenly," she said. "Even though I know it's virtual. I wonder if someone can actually make this."

Ryouko nodded silently, carefully cutting off a tiny piece with her silver fork. Honestly, she felt too distracted to eat.

"I wonder how long it's going to take her to open all those presents," Asami said, staring at Yuma in the distance, who was already holding up some gifted trinket proudly.

"She's only going to do some of them, chosen randomly," Ryouko commented emptily. "It's on the program. There's also a full list of the presents that people are going to send her."

"Oh, I see!" Asami said cheerily.

Asami bit into a forkful of cake, then crinkled her brow, detecting the shift in Ryouko's tone. She peered at Ryouko from one eye.

Ryouko knew her body language was too revealing, and that she was even slumped slightly in her chair.

"Is something wrong?" Asami asked, the inevitable question finally arriving.

I should say something, Ryouko thought. I have to.

She stabbed her cake with her fork.

But not now, obviously, she thought. This is clearly not a good time.

Just make sure you say something after the party, her TacComp thought. If you wait too long, you'll lose impetus. And we both know how you love to procrastinate.

You're the light of my life, as always, Ryouko thought, sarcastically.

"Ryouko?" Asami asked, again.

Ryouko couldn't say for certain what impulse drove her at that moment, but the next thing she knew, she had leaned forward and kissed Asami, full on the mouth, eyes closed. Asami was wide-eyed, and her hands shook slightly, before she dropped her cake entirely—but, of course, the cake and plate vanished before hitting the floor, reappearing in her hand a moment later.

Then Ryouko's mind caught up with her, and she snapped back, wondering what had gotten into her. She blushed fiercely as someone nearby cheered and clapped mockingly, and looked around for her biggest potential source of embarrassment.

But Kuroi Nakase was not there.

Ryouko's mother found Chitose Yuma standing alone on a private balcony, hidden on the ordinarily inaccessible second floor of the virtual manor. From here, the view overlooked a vibrant forest landscape, complete with circling birds and distant mountains. One part of the view was flat, though, and there the sun was setting, casting the sky into a brilliant array of red and orange.

She did not question how it was that Yuma could be here, on the balcony, and also downstairs opening presents with all the glee of an actual eleven-year-old. She had met enough Governance Representatives in her life to know that this was how they operated.

"You wanted to meet?" she asked, leaning onto the balcony.

Yuma gestured at her to walk forward to the balcony, and she did so, a little hesitantly. Whatever it was Governance: Magical Girls wanted, she doubted she would like it.

The girl smiled up at her disarmingly, the childish effect ruined somewhat by the glass of red wine the girl was swirling playfully.

"I just wanted to have a bit of a frank discussion," she said, in axiomatic, if old-style, Japanese. "There's nothing to worry about."

Nakase nodded, even though she doubted the veracity of that statement.

"About Ryouko, I imagine?"

"Don't you feel it's a little odd for her to get so… committed, this early?" Yuma asked. "With Nakihara-san, I mean. They're hardly old or experienced. I wouldn't have expected you to go along with it so readily. At their age, I was still the baby of my group. I was coddled."

Nakase blinked, pulling away from the balcony a little. This was not the type of conversation she had been expecting.

"I'm worried, of course," she said, a moment later. "Not at the relationship per se, but at the consequences of a break-up. On the balance, though, it's probably better this way, especially after I divorced her father. She's very independent, but with her lifestyle, she could easily get lonely. I remember when I was contracted—I could have used someone to lean on. Er, well, you do know about that, right?"

Yuma smiled slightly.

"Of course," she said, looking back out the landscape. "I'm sure that doesn't surprise you."

The girl leaned over the balcony a little, peering down below, and Nakase had to suppress the urge to pull her back.

"Well," Yuma said, leaning on the balcony normally again, "that's more or less the reasoning I expected. I was just curious. Of course, I called you here to talk about something more serious than that."

Nakase saw the girl hesitate a little, almost imperceptibly, and knew her original intimation about this conversation—that she would not like it—was about to come true.

"Well, I'll cut to the chase," Yuma said, turning to look up into her eyes. "You are doubtless aware that your daughter possesses a rather unusual genetic makeup. Six standard deviations away from the human mean, among other things."

Of course Nakase was aware. Among other things, they would have told her when Ryouko was born, as something to keep in mind. It would, however, have been relatively proprietary information until she was inducted into military, where they had re-sequenced her as a matter of caution. Her ex-husband had told her himself that her genome was substantively unchanged from what it had been at birth, as expected.

"Yes, of course," she said. "We never told her, since we never saw any reason to."

"Are you aware of the exact distribution of her rare alleles?" Yuma asked, peering directly into her pupils, such that she felt pinned by the gaze, unable to flinch. There was a reason Nakase did not like dealing with women of Yuma's age.

"Though this is considered secret information, the MSY keeps a record of the genetic information of its members," Yuma continued, when Nakase did not respond. "We know, statistically, which gene variants are associated with being one of our members, and which are not. Your daughter has gene variants primarily of the former."

"We knew that," Nakase said, mouth dry. "We had the clearance, and we were of course curious ourselves. It's not terribly surprising, given the backgrounds of her father and I. I myself am highly enriched in such variants."

Though she felt intimidated, she refused to beat around the bush. Better to say everything Yuma assuredly already knew up-front, to save them both time.

"Yes," Yuma said, in a continuingly unnerving tone, "but you are not as enriched as your daughter. Unlike most of the other Matriarchies, the Shizuki and Kuroi lines have been segregated for centuries, and any gene exchange that might occur has taken place only indirectly. As a consequence the Shizuki and Kuroi lines have fairly distinct MG pre-disposing alleles."

"Yes," Nakase said, nodding carefully, "and it is a matter of regret to the MSY that the two lines have not yet reconciled, since it deprives the organization of many potentially powerful recruits. I'm sure you know that my ex-husband and I probably know more on the matter than almost anyone alive."

Yuma smiled thinly.

"Then I am sure that you are aware that it's not just a matter of Shizuki and Kuroi. Both the Kugimiya and Kaname lines have produced powerful contractees in their own right, counting among their members powerful mages from diverse locales. But, not having formed Matriarchies, they have not experienced much gene flow from the traditional sources. In short, they are an untapped source of genetic variation, and it is serendipitous that all four lines would come together like this."

Nakase frowned slightly. She did not, in fact, know everything that Yuma was saying. What had this girl been doing, digging into her family records?

"Why are you telling me about my own ancestry?" she asked, making sure to sound fairly annoyed.

"I am merely commenting on the circumstances that led to your daughter being perhaps one of the most genetically unusual girls born in generations. Even beyond just mere family genetics, your daughter is also the carrier of a surprising number of meaningful de novo mutations, especially related to CNS organization. Preliminary analyses carried out by our internal genetics teams suggest that the effects of these should be similar to many of the genetic variants she already carries."

Yuma had started to pace the floor, in the manner of a detective explaining her deductions, but paused to peer at Nakase, who seethed quietly. She did not like being lectured in this way—and she had not known the implications of her daughter's mutations, because they had never figured out a way to carry out the necessary AI modelling undetected. At the moment, she almost regretted being a scientist, because it meant this child-like Ancient could say whatever she liked, without Nakase being able to feign ignorance.

Yuma resumed her pacing, walking in a hunched fashion that only made her even shorter.

"I must confess that due to the sensitive nature of genetic therapies, we overlooked Ryouko-chan, having failed to collect genetic information at birth, as is typical. Were the details of her genealogy widely known, the attempts by the various Matriarchies to integrate her into their lines would become a downright frenzy. The statistical models suggest that she is the closest thing to a sure contract as exists in this world. But you knew that, didn't you? Did you really think you could stop her from contracting?"

"What is your point?" Nakase sneered, dropping her veneer of civility. "Are you here to lecture me about my patriotic duty?"

Yuma stopped in front of Nakase, and this time stood up straight, looking Nakase as squarely as she could.

"No," she said, bowing her head slightly, "and I am sorry to have said things that upset you. I am here to tell you about your daughter."

She paused again, to make sure Nakase was listening, before continuing:

"One of our scientists, having spotted some inconsistencies in your daughter's sequence reads, was able to convince your daughter to submit to a nanite-mediated genetic survey. You know what chimerism is, don't you?"

The question, coming as randomly as it did, confused her—and then she felt her jaw drop open slightly, hanging stupidly in the air.

"You mean in the multi-embryo sense, right? Not the animal-human sense?"

"The scientific sense, yes, of course," Yuma agreed. "The results of the genetic survey were very interesting. It seems your daughter is a genetic chimera. It used to be that human chimeras were relatively common, but after the advent of nanite-guided embryonic development, it stopped really occurring. Among other things, that is why it is considered safe to assemble Tactical Computer implants based only on sequencing external DNA."

By now, Nakase had well and truly lost her cool. She could even feel herself shaking, a little. No, she had not known about this, and it scared her.

Yuma waited a moment for her to nod, then continued:

"There are several interesting points about your daughter's chimerism. There are only two genomes involved, the primary, which is detectable from the outside, and the secondary, which is not. The secondary genome has an extremely restricted—but important—distribution. In fact, it seems to only be expressed within certain structures of the brain, and nowhere else. This secondary genome is, to put it, extremely unusual. This is not a matter of just six standard deviations—this is a matter of hundreds. To put it bluntly, Kuroi-san, this is the product of extensive and concentrated genetic engineering, the likes of which I have not seen since the days of the Unification Wars, and all carefully placed so as to be invisible from the outside. There are entire genes—gene networks, even—which we have never seen before. It will take us months to even begin to understand what is being done here."

Nakase felt sick, shaky on her feet. When Yuma stopped talking, she reached with one hand for the balcony railing, and found instead that she was looking up at the sky—Yuma had caught her as she fell, setting her slowly down to the floor.

She looked up into the girl's eyes.

"I'm sorry I had to do that to you," Yuma said, surprisingly gently. "But it was necessary to test you. You had no idea, did you?"

The Ancient's voice was soothing, and Nakase let it lull her, instilling in her a sense of calm.

"Of course not," she said, quietly. "You think I would consent to have that done to my own daughter? By—the—I can't—"

"What did you consent to?"

Nakase put a hand to her head, which hurt suddenly.

"We were having trouble getting a birth license. There was an offer. I read the protocol—it looked okay—Kuma wanted—I wanted—"

The voice that trickled into Yuma's mind, loud and invasive, was set to maximum priority, and almost startled her into dropping the woman. Downstairs in the mansion, she tripped while walking towards the table with the presents, catching herself just in time. In several virtual Governance conference rooms, she paused mid-sentence, causing quizzical looks from the other Representatives.

Priority 1: "Chitose, you must stop the questioning immediately."

It was the Black Heart telepath she had on-site on the planet of Eurydome, probing Kuroi Nakase's mind from a discreet distance.

"What? Why?" she transmitted back, fearing she already knew the answer.

"Her memories have been severely tampered with. Possibly a self-erasure mechanism. You must stop pushing. We're going to have to try something else."

Yuma looked down at the woman whose head she now cradled in her lap. Her eyes were now half-closed, and she seemed to be staring at her fingers. Kuroi Nakase had once been a magical girl, but she wasn't anymore—and an ordinary human's brain could be manipulated far more easily, without an external soul gem to serve as a ward.

I'm sorry, she thought. We didn't think—

"Will she be alright?" she asked the distant telepath, the signal piercing the depths of space at maximum priority, with the best quantum encryption available.

"I believe so," the telepath transmitted. "It doesn't seem there's anything seriously malicious going on. But I'm going to have to move in and double-check her condition personally, make sure everything is alright. Contingency plan C7, probably."

Yuma let out a breath.

"I agree," she thought.

A moment later, the woman on her lap vanished, ejected from the simulation. She would be alright after all. Yuma had feared otherwise. Despite what some people thought of her, she did still have a conscience.

She stood up, brushing off the front of her dress, and picked her half-filled wine glass from the balcony. In the distance, the sun was almost finished setting.

Downstairs, another version of Yuma clanged a wine glass with a spoon, very publicly summoning the Hero of Orpheus to the front of the room to be praised, lauded, and otherwise embarrassed by the birthday girl. More importantly, Ryouko would be distracted from looking for her mother, or from leaving the party early.

Yuma held the wine glass over the edge of the railing, and overturned it, allowing the liquid within to spill over the edge of the railing, down to the garden below, with its elegant gazebo and round table, perfect for tea and cakes.

Yuma had lived her whole life in a bed of secrets and lies, but she vastly preferred the secrets and lies she slept with to be the ones she had engineered herself.