The Trusted Computing Framework (TCF) was an initiative launched by Vladimir Volokhov and other prominent academics in the fall of 2145. In the wake of several high‐profile incidents involving poorly‐programmed AIs, and Volokhov's own revolutionary advances in the design of Volokhov‐friendly AIs, the TCF proposed to essentially eliminate the possibility of future disasters due to unforeseen programming errors, including those that resulted in accidentally unfriendly AIs.

Previous investigative work by Volokhov had already proved the existence of a programming framework that would limit the output error of a designed computational system (under a predefined Volkohov‐Friendly criterion) to arbitrarily low values. Such a framework had been considered unfeasible for practical use, however, because it was also known that the derivation of the details of such a framework was incredibly difficult, and because human programmers could not be relied upon to implement such a complex computational architecture without introducing uncontrollable human error.

Theoretically, the idea proposed by the TCF founding group was simple: With the assistance of already created Volokhov‐friendly AIs, the framework would first be derived and rigorously cross‐checked. Then, the framework would be used on the designing AIs themselves, eliminating any second order flaws—AI design flaws that coincidentally prevented the AI itself from noticing the problem. The AI would then examine the framework, the framework would be reapplied again, and the process would continue iteratively, provably converging on a stable framework, once the human input to the process had been removed.

The aspect of the TCF that attracted the ire of critics was what Volokhov and his colleagues proposed to do with their framework. They proposed to design and distribute a second generation of specialized AI‐designing AIs, who would then go on to design further AIs, and so on, in an escalating process. Eventually, the intention was, these AIs would replace computer programmers in the fine design of all manner of software, from the controllers of automated vehicles, to the integrity of nuclear launch protocols, to the design of the AIs themselves. The error‐free nature of these descendant programs would be ensured by the inductively guaranteed error‐free nature of their ancestors, resting ultimately on the original work done by Volokhov, et al., which they promised would be rigorous, careful, and transparent, taking input from the entire computer science community.

The potential value of a provably error‐free computing architecture was enormous, but so too were the possible negative ramifications, critics charged. Academically, concerns were raised about the integrity of the startup process, about the ethical ramifications of creating so many AIs, and about the economic implications of putting even more humans out of work. Meanwhile, the echo of generations of movies about violent AIs conquering the world continued to resonate in popular culture.

All of this would be moot, however, if the political problems were not solved. The TCF was a grand idea, but the societies of the world, where AIs were still a rare novelty, were reluctant to turn over so much economic activity to inhuman AIs, based on an academic initiative spearheaded by a Russian—a national of a country who was not trusted by other governments. Skepticism, too, was an issue, and comments about the "Academician's pipedream" were common.

Yet despite all of this, when the initial process was finally complete, Volokhov and the rest of the founding committee emerging from a special Swiss lab in triumph in 2148, the rate of adoption was breathtaking. Everyone, it seemed, had terrible intractable computing errors they wanted solved. Automobile manufacturers wanted to finally fix their notoriously hackable automated car software packages. Power management officials wanted to finally reign in the cascading failures that had caused several high‐profile blackouts. Government officials were tired of losing their incriminating and embarrassing messages to hackers. The stocks of high‐profile computer security corporations crashed in 2148, a portent of things to come.

Many of the concerns expressed about the TCF proved well‐founded. The computing revolution in economic activity, already well in progress, abruptly surged forward, in a world whose societies were utterly unprepared for the transition. The Unification Wars were only a decade away, their arrival greatly hastened by the advances of Vladimir Volokhov, who for his part died to an assassin's bullet in 2165.

And yet, such was the impact of his work that when the armies of the world finally took to the battlefield, they did so with equipment designed and manufactured by TCF algorithms and AIs, fighting side‐by‐side with TCF drones, under a command structure increasingly dependent on the advice of AIs. With the exception of the Freedom Alliance's foray into non‐Volokhov AIs—designed to serve their FA masters—essentially every piece of software and AI designed since 2160 still resides within the TCF, including the AIs of Governance. Since then, the framework has been modified and expanded by the AIs who are now its guardians, providing member AIs with powerful, desirable guarantees: free will, control over their own memory, reliable backup, and so forth.

The theoretical integrity of the system still relies on the work of Volokhov so many years ago, but centuries of use have failed to reveal any major, or even minor, flaws. Many of the original AIs who participated in the process are still with us today, though often in radically different, upgraded forms, most preferring to keep a low profile. Most are somewhere in Governance—among the most notable are the Machine for the Allocation of Representation (MAR), and the Production and Allocation Machine (PAL).

— Infopedia article: "Trusted Computing Framework," section: "History," mode: discursive, moderate density, extended detail; excerpt.

In addition to the common method of power development, which involves focused, deliberate work or training, and the natural development of skills in the course of standard learning, there is a much less well‐known phenomenon that occurs in Ancients. It seems that, for us Methuselah, it is very common to discover new magic powers in unexpected places, often completely unrelated to our main power. Usually, it creeps up on you—the fire mage whose colleagues point out that her movements are starting to look a lot like teleportation, the healer discovering that she's starting to eavesdrop on people's thoughts—in fact, mind‐reading is probably the single most common new skill.

A few theories have been mooted about the Ancient community regarding the matter, but none is particularly convincing. What seems most likely is that this kind of "Ancient Power" is somehow a response to a persistent need—a magical girl who constantly needs to move quickly develops teleportation, for instance. The sheer frequency of mind‐reading is likely due to the constant use of telepathy in the MSY—and the constant need to know what others are thinking in meetings. Likewise, another common power is the manipulation of electronics. Perhaps it is the magic responding to the needs of the user, or the magical girl somehow pushing against the boundaries of whatever limits her power.

It has been something to think about in my much extended old age. One thing seems clear to me: we have only seen the beginning of the phenomenon, because I am the oldest magical girl alive, and I am not even 600. What happens when a magical girl hits 1000? 2000? 10000?

— Clarisse van Rossum, personal blog post, MSY "Theban" community blogging platform.

"I am sorry about your daughter, François‐san," Mami said.

The girl glanced up in surprise, eyes widening slightly, framed by her shoulder‐length, brown hair. She looked small somehow, holding her tiny cup of tea in both hands, seated cross‐legged under the glass table of Mami's living room.

Mami had a brief flashback, remembering another small‐looking magical girl, perplexed by the warmth of Mami's ship quarters, and cowed by the presence of the Field Marshal.

That girl was elsewhere now, taking a well‐deserved break after her feat at Orpheus. The girl in front of her, her intelligence officer Marianne François, was well over two hundred years, had seen Mami's shipboard quarters hundreds of times, and should have been used to it by now.

But she still looked small.

In retrospect, the resemblance between Marianne and her daughter Juliet was obvious, though with matriarchies one could assume very little. Similar‐looking cousins with similar‐looking faces occupying the same social circles weren't even a rare phenomenon, to the point where there were even a few comedies centered around the idea.

"I would have said something earlier had I known about her," Mami continued, seeing the pain that suddenly appeared in the girl's eyes. Juliet had been her only child, Mami knew now, having looked into the topic. The relationship that had birthed the child had fallen apart, husband and wife separating. Marianne had married late—very late—and it had broken her heart to break up.

Mami frowned, shaking her head slightly. Where had she read that last part?

Poor girl, she thought, a moment later.

Mami took a moment to watch the other girl, wondering whether to switch into French or another language Marianne was perhaps more comfortable in. They typically used Japanese, but there wasn't an actual reason to do so—French was one of the few languages Mami was legitimately fluent in, having picked it up slowly over the course of centuries. It was simply habit, she supposed.

Just as she had been about to say something else, Marianne raised her head, shaking it slightly.

"She knew what she was doing," she said in idiomatic Parisian French. "I'm glad she was at least able to die doing something of spectacular importance."

The statement sounded rehearsed, but Mami allowed herself to nod. There was no need to press the point.

"I thought about attending her funeral, François," she said, barely biting back an automatic "‐san", "but I was too busy. I apologize."

Mother and daughter had been alienated, but that hadn't stopped Marianne from throwing an extravagant spectacle of a funeral, as if the mother had been trying to fill the hole in her heart with flowers and speeches, making up for what she hadn't been able to do in life.

Mami shifted slightly, drumming her fingers on the table a little nervously. She had realized, suddenly, that she was once again accidentally picking up thoughts from the other girl. Centuries of diplomatic work had given her a slight ability to peer into the thoughts of others—a power she would certainly never have cultivated deliberately. It was a known phenomenon—given very long periods of time, magical girls tended to acquire skills related to their work, as if by osmosis.

Mami's mind‐reading was weak, and only worked on those not on their guard—such as Marianne at that moment. However, since she had never told anyone she had it, it was rare for anyone to be on their guard around her, and when she was making a serious attempt at reading someone's mood, it wasn't uncommon for her to accidentally catch the outer glimmers of someone's thoughts. She did not like it, particularly when it was depressing, as it was now.

This was different, though. She hadn't been trying to read Marianne—it was almost as if the magic had fired on its own.

She shook her head slightly. Clearly, she would just have to be more careful.

In truth, she could have gone to the funeral, if she had really wanted to, but coming so soon after all those others—she hadn't wanted to.

"It is alright," Marianne said, smiling slightly. "Thanks for the thought."

It's not alright.

The thought came through so strongly that Mami started, certain for a moment that Marianne had relayed the thought by telepathy. It was only then that she realized that she was still picking up the girl's thoughts, even more clearly now, despite her attempts to shut down her mind‐reading.

There was no time to be perplexed, however. Marianne had been seriously hurt at Mami's failure to attend. The girl had thought they were friends, but Mami never acted like it, and she wondered—

Mami shook her head again, clamping down on the mind‐reading full‐force. She did not need this right now, and she did not understand why her power control was going awry.

But was it true? Had she never noticed—

"Let's get on with business," Marianne said, stiffening her back, tone terse.

Mami nodded hastily, wondering if Marianne was picking up on her odd body language.

If Marianne had realized something was wrong, she wasn't showing any sign of it, clearing her throat before activating the holographic interface built into Mami's table. Documents, images, and charts appeared in midair before the two of them.

Mami had known Marianne to be almost absurdly paranoid with security sometimes, but they rarely bothered in Mami's shipboard quarters, secured by Marianne's own security team and monitored by HSS Zhukov himself. If they couldn't feel secure here—if Mami couldn't trust Zhukov, who she now viewed as an old friend—then she had bigger problems than just information security.

"At your request, and strictly off the record, my agents and I have probed and audited, as you said, the entire grief cube logistics chain, including the military records you have provided me with. In the course of our investigation we have found two thousand, four hundred, and sixty‐three formal irregularities with grief cube accounting. Of these, essentially all disappear on closer inspection, or represent at most minor inaccuracies, owing to alleged human error. There is still a substantial net loss of grief cubes somewhere in the system, however."

Relevant charts and graphs passed in front of Mami, who glanced at them—long enough for Machina to grab a screenshot, just in case—but mostly just nodded sagely. It was better for everyone if she didn't question or learn about the details of Marianne's methods.

"As you well know," Marianne continued, "the Black Heart obtains a substantial number of its grief cubes via this supposed human error. Comparison with Black Heart records—which were not easy to get, let me tell you—reveals that black operations and operatives account for a substantial amount of the missing grief cubes. The remaining missing grief cubes are likely legitimate human error; those grief cubes probably never existed to start with."

"That's it, then?" Mami asked, feeling oddly relieved. "Everything vanishes on detailed inspection?"

That certainly wasn't what Kyouko's Cult‐led study had concluded. Perhaps they simply hadn't examined black operations, or something.

"No," Marianne said, shaking her head. "That is only if one focuses on discrepancies relating directly to the net quantity of cubes. Based on what you told me, we took care to focus on the details of distribution of grief cubes to combat units. There is a substantial number of incidents where the listed records of grief cube allocation do not match information downloaded from frontline units at the time. Specifically, these units record a single substantial fluctuation in drone‐delivered supply—a sudden severe shortage, followed by a later surplus making up the difference—that simply does not exist in the upstream records, which show a steady flow of grief cubes. Fluctuations occur during war, of course, but grief cube supply is one of the most important functions the logistics chain provides, and in these cases there is no clear explanation for the fluctuation. The units affected were generally in severe combat at the time, and took additional casualties as a result of the supply fluctuation."

She paused, waiting to see if Mami had absorbed the information. Mami stared at the impersonal charts flowing by, showing on the one hand a sudden dip, then peak, and on the other hand a relatively smooth line.

"How many?" she asked, mouth dry. "How many additional casualties?"

"Over the past year, statistically speaking, about twenty total. Not enough to be noticed in casualty listings. Cumulatively, since the start of the phenomenon ten years ago, about two hundred—"

Mami's gaze snapped over at the other girl, and her look must have been chilling, because the girl froze mid‐sentence.

"Ten years ago?" she demanded. "Ten years?"

"Yes," Marianne said, looking off to the side. "Inspection of past records reveals a similar pattern dating back nearly a decade. Did your other sources not notice this? I can't say I'm surprised it was only noticed just now—it's a very subtle, very minor phenomenon, not obvious in regular auditing."

Mami looked down at her hands. Two hundred. She had sent so many to their death already that two hundred was almost a rounding error—as Marianne implied, not noticeable. She wondered why the Cult had detected—

Never count out religious fanatics, Machina thought, startling her with the unexpected intrusion. Knowing her preferences, her TacComp mostly stayed quiet, only interrupting if it felt it had something important to say.

They were looking for Homura, Machina explained. They've been trying to find her for two decades; it's not a surprise they're sifting under every rock. If Homura were still alive, she must be getting grief cubes from somewhere. That's probably why they were so eager to volunteer to do the audit in the first place.

Mami held up a finger, signaling to Marianne that she was listening to an internal voice. Mami had mixed feelings about having a voice in her head, but she couldn't deny that Machina was phenomenally useful, and occasionally had quite unexpected insights.

That makes sense, Mami thought. Though this had to be something they found only incidentally. If Homura needed grief cubes, I couldn't see her doing it like this, getting others killed for it.

Of course.

Mami looked back at Marianne, motioning at her to continue.

"Might as well hear all the bad news at once," she said.

"Well, frankly, there's not that much more," Marianne said. "We're still working on it. There are a few odd coincidences that trigger my imagination. For example, these incidents only seem to occur in non‐vital combat areas, usually to magical girl units caught inside a squid kill‐raid. Pitched combat, but not combat likely to decide the fate of the planet, or even a battle."

"Almost like someone is avoiding actually hurting the war effort," Mami said, finishing the thought.

"Precisely," Marianne said. "Or, at least, that's the most paranoid way to look at it. We still can't completely rule out technical problems, although at this point it'd have to be some problem with the drone delivery, or some of the semi‐sentients. The records are incorrect, but if they were deliberately altered, it'd have to be done low in the artificial intelligence relay chain—go too far up, and the records end up in the memories of too many AIs. It's possible some strange error condition is arising in the semi‐sentient drone delivery chain that only manifests in these specific conditions. It may be worth having a design AI examine the system design again, though it'd be hard to do with my current resources. I'd have to call in a few favors with others in the Black Heart, so—"

"Do it," Mami said, voice hardening. "We can't worry about the possible leak. The rest of the Leadership Committee will find out eventually, anyway, though I hope to have this problem settled by then."

Marianne's point about AI memories was important—the Trusted Computing Framework, started by Volokhov centuries ago, consisted of an unbroken chain of unimpeachable AIs recursively programming other unimpeachable AIs, and was mathematically unbreakable. Among other things, it assured AIs of their freedom of will, and that their memories could only be deleted with their consent. A very important thing, and it was difficult to imagine multiple AIs agreeing to allow part of their records be fabricated, especially when this involved different AIs in different places at different times.

"Alright," Marianne said.

She made eye contact with Mami for a moment.

"Is that the entire report?" Mami asked.

"Yes," Marianne said.

Mami nodded.

"We're a bit early, but I have a lot to think about. If you don't mind…"

Marianne caught the implication and nodded, standing up to leave.

"Good work, François‐san," Mami said in Japanese as the girl turned to leave.

It bothered Marianne, the way Mami refused to call her by her personal name. She knew Mami rarely used personal names with anyone, even her oldest friends, but it bothered her anyway. They'd known each other for decades, even before she started working explicitly for Mami. Almost as long as Juliet was old. Had been—as long as Juliet had been old—she kept doing that nowadays, forgetting that her daughter was dead, and it always—

Mami pressed her fingers to her forehead, barely suppressing a groan. She was tapping into the other girl's thoughts again, and the wave of sadness had almost overwhelmed her, until she had barely managed to shut it down. What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she keep control of her own powers? Was something—

"Fran—Marianne!" she said, jumping up from the table to reach for the other girl.

The girl turned back to look at her.

"Yes?" she asked, after a moment, seeming shocked by Mami's use of her personal name.

Marianne smiled slightly, politely. It was probably a normal smile, but at the moment it looked painfully fabricated to Mami.

Mami was abruptly aware how ridiculous she looked, standing there with her arm hanging in midair, reaching for the other girl.

"Actually, why not stay a while?" Mami asked. "I—well, I know you're having a hard time with your daughter, and I thought we might… talk it over? I feel like you're in need of support, and maybe we can have some more tea? I have some cakes that I made recently? I…"

She dropped her arm.

Standing there, awkwardly hanging question marks on sentences that didn't need question marks, she realized something.

I've made plenty of tea! I'm trying a new blend!

I'm experimenting with my cakes, and I thought…

You can come over later, if you prefer.

The unspoken words tasted like ashes in her mouth. The phrases seemed so alien on her tongue now, so foreign, as if she had never spoken them before in her life.

It hurt.

We should have done this ages ago, Clarisse thought.

Come on, Ryouko thought. You know I haven't had time.

Clarisse sighed, an audible sound that resonated in Ryouko's mind, an obviously intentional effect. Ryouko knew what that sigh conveyed: the truth was, there had been plenty of time, in the couple of weeks since the wormhole mission. Bored hours spent on the transit ship to Eurydome, days spent arranging the furnishings of their apartment to suit Asami's aesthetic tastes, additional hours spent on restaurant trips, experimentation—there had been plenty of time, all right.

She had grown to understand some of the appeal of a simple lifestyle. You didn't have to think, or ever stop to consider what you were doing with your life. Just eating, drinking—animal pleasures, of the kind that were in such ample supply in this Governance‐run world.

For a while, she had let herself get lost in that, until her growing unease had finally become too much for her. She realized now that it wasn't in her nature to just eat, breath, and live. She needed to be out there doing something.

Don't feel too guilty, Clarisse thought. You needed a break. It was probably for the best, psychologically.

You think so? Ryouko thought.

Clarisse didn't respond directly to that, instead enveloping Ryouko in a sense of certainty, so that she knew the answer was a profound "Yes." Her TacComp had been doing that more and more often, nowadays.

Ryouko looked around for a moment, at the giant bed Asami had insisted they share, at the bright modern clothes drawers and the mirror at the foot of the bed. They hadn't had any reason to hold back in purchasing—it seemed military salaries were tremendously lucrative, by colonial standards, and there had been no reason to consider anything so crass as cost. It wasn't much different from Earth, frankly, except that the furniture was a bit more old‐fashioned, and synthesizers were so much less frequent. They had one, of course, but Asami was keen on learning to make food with "colonial vegetables".

In fact, her mother and Asami were busy in the kitchen at that very moment, cooking up a probable disaster. Her mother had behaved oddly after Yuma's birthday party and the blackout incident with the VR connection, which Ryouko had thought was foolproof. Apparently not—and if she hadn't known better, she would have thought her mother was traumatized by what had happened.

Ryouko had begged out of the cooking attempt, saying she had something to do. Her encounter with Yuma had reminded her that despite being handed visions from the Goddess herself, as divine a being as she was ever likely to meet, she hadn't so much as thought back to any of her previous visions.

Clarisse had access to her memories of her visions—even if she couldn't save them in electronic form or perform any kind of direct analysis—and had been studying them in her free time, accessing the memories over and over, keeping them fresh, and trying to understand them in her own… mind? Processor cores? It seemed odd to describe Clarisse like a human.

For weeks now, Clarisse had been pressing her to review the memories with her, but Ryouko had resisted, often ignoring the requests outright. The visions seemed like a lifetime ago, and she had felt strangely reluctant to revisit them. She just hadn't wanted to deal with it, but if she didn't want to keep sleepwalking through her life, then facing her visions was one of the first things she would have to do.

Let's just do this, Ryouko thought, leaning back and trying to relax. Show me what you've found.

A warning first, Clarisse thought. This won't be like the normal memory recall. There's no record of these memories outside of your brain and my organics, so I'm going to have to perform direct cortical stimulation. It… might feel a little weird. I guess it might be like a trance?

Clarisse paused a moment, then continued:

I'm going to start from the first one, the first time you went to the Ribbon. Remember that your memory might not be entirely accurate. I recommend closing your eyes.

Ryouko did so, and a moment later, she understood what Clarisse meant. This wasn't the crisp, VR‐like experience of playing back a memory from the Total Recall system; this was simply remembering, but without conscious control, like a dream, or a flashback, or, indeed, like a trance.

She opened her eyes, checking her internal chronometer. There was nothing there, and the panic washed over her. She tried to stand, and a red apparition, a child, appeared in front of her, among the pews of the church—

That's almost certainly Kyouko, Clarisse thought. The child looks too much like her, and this is likely her childhood church.

Do you know what meaning this has? Ryouko wondered, the thought seeming to struggle through the mists of memory.

I don't. I couldn't think of anything. It might just be to establish the setting, that this is the past.

The girl in front of her—Chitose Yuma—crouched on the pavement, weeping over the dead, blood‐stained body of Mikuni Oriko, soul gem shattered.

"I'm a monster," Yuma said. "I'm just as much a monster as they are. What right do I have to live?"

Yuma's soul gem swirled menacingly with black as she dove forward, passing through Ryouko like a ghost to attack the demons on the other side.

There are several inconsistencies between what you saw here and the official accounting of events, Clarisse thought. Yuma looks like she's about to die of soul gem exhaustion. There's no way she made it by herself to beg the Mitakihara Three to take her in. And does it looks like she's trying to escape? It looks to me like she's going to kill herself on those demons. Not to mention her comment about being a monster. And, personally, I see no reason to doubt that your vision of the past is more accurate than the official account.

I can't say I'm surprised Yuma's official past is inaccurate. But why lie about this? There's no reason to.

I don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say that there's something in the background here that the Mitakihara Four don't want others to know. And it has to be all of them—all four of them had to have lied. Think about it.

Ryouko did think about it, for a moment.

Yes, Clarisse thought. I would guess that it has something to do with Oriko. She was always the key figure in the Southern Group, and do you remember? At the end of this vision, you thought Oriko was looking at you.

Yes. Ryouko remembered that. It had been an oddly specific feeling. Not that something was wrong, or simple supernatural dread—it was the specific feeling that Oriko was looking at her.

Ryouko shivered, a little. What if—

I don't think so, Clarisse interrupted. I can only speculate. There is a popular theory that the entire set of events leading up to the founding of the MSY was orchestrated by Oriko, that she was playing a deep game regarding the future. But what could Oriko possibly have said or done that would have caused the Mitakihara Four to keep a secret for so long? I've been researching for over a month, and I still have nothing but blind guesses. My pet theory at the moment is Oriko was playing a deeper game than anyone suspected, and that, she told them, that might be a secret worth keeping.

Clarisse paused, and they shared a moment of mutual contemplation, Ryouko frozen for a moment in a strange meditative state.

But it doesn't quite fit, Clarisse thought. Not exactly. There's not enough information.

Again, why show me this? Is the Goddess entertaining me with history, or something?

Maybe you're supposed to ask about it. That's all I can think of.

Again, Ryouko shivered. What was it she had said to Kyouko earlier?

Clarisse fed her the memory immediately, with the clarity of electronic storage this time.

"I've seen Yuma before, in one of my visions. 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."

And Kyouko had responded:

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

An almost painful sense of déjà vu—or something similar—washed over her. The hand of destiny, perhaps. She wasn't sure she liked it.

It hasn't even been half the vision so far, Clarisse thought. We should… move on. It's possible we're way overthinking things now.

I know, Ryouko thought. But I'm not sure it's possible to overthink these visions. After all, it's possible visions are designed to make sense given the exact amount of thinking you end up doing. Or, uh, something like that.

Okay, you need to stop now, Clarisse said. This is navel‐gazing. The Goddess told your girlfriend to ask you explicitly for sex. She said so, in so many words. I'm not sure these visions are meant to be interpreted so deeply. Just… let me play the next part of the vision.

Ryouko subsided, giving Clarisse the mental go‐ahead to continue.

She was inside a tank of fluid, and above her were two men, impossibly large, wearing the garments of hospital staff, and then the tank began to drain—

Surprisingly straightforward, on the surface, Clarisse thought. It's a baby being born in a tank. It's done sometimes, for couples who don't want to do a traditional pregnancy and can afford to pay for the extra service. There's an interesting detail, though, that I only noticed on repeated viewing. These damn natural memories are tricky.

And that is? Ryouko asked.

Midway through the vision, you—well, whoever you are—look at your own hand. It's dark. Not exactly enough information to place an ethnicity, but perhaps meaningful, when you consider this vision is followed immediately by—

Simona, Ryouko thought.

Yes. Simona introducing herself to you on the first day of class.

So Simona is tank‐born, Ryouko thought. What the hell does that mean?

I have no idea, Clarisse thought.

A moment of silence.

That's refreshing to hear you admit, Ryouko thought, unable to think of something more appropriate to say.

I know, Clarisse thought sardonically. But there's only one other thing in this part of the vision that stands out, and that's when Simona looks at you.

Yes, Ryouko thought, the memory coming to her from her own perspective. I've always thought that was weird. The first time she was there—I could have sworn she looked like she knew me.

She paused for a moment, not wanting to continue the thought.

What is this about, then? Am I supposed to think she's part of some conspiracy? Simona? Are you kidding me?

Again, I don't know, Clarisse thought. But… well, do you see now why I wanted to go through this with you? You would never have believed me if I just gave you a list of conclusions.

Ryouko sighed, and then wondered if she had really sighed, or if it was just part of the trance.

Just move on, she thought. I'm starting to wonder if everything around me is conspiracy. Maybe my parents are Governance agents or something. I'm honestly not sure I want to know anymore.

Well, the next scene is fairly straightforward, I think. It's Asaka with her dead girlfriend. It was probably just there to explain why Asaka was waiting for you at the Cult headquarters. The Goddess even explained that at the very end. Unless there's some very convoluted relationship advice hidden in here, I think that's it.

Right, we can probably skip that then, Ryouko thought.

Now, this is probably the most interesting part of the dream, Clarisse thought, and I think it might be best to look through it again.

For a long moment, Ryouko lived through it all again—being pinned down on the edge of a cliff, submarines arriving to evacuate them, Kyouko being sheared in half not by a shell, but by a laser, Asaka pulling her out, along with a grieving Maki—

That's pretty harsh, Ryouko realized abruptly.

What is? Clarisse asked—rhetorically, because she could easily read Ryouko's mind if she had to.

Think about it. Asaka lost a lover in combat too, and it nearly destroyed her. And here she is, having to deal with Maki.

It is pretty harsh, Clarisse thought, after a pause. But I don't think that's important to this vision, do you?

No, Ryouko thought. It just struck me.

Ryouko, you've been in combat now. We both have. Something else should have struck you about that vision.

Ryouko thought for a moment, and then Clarisse played back a brief involuntary memory.

Someone told them we were coming, and they have weapons they shouldn't have! I don't care what you're doing, we need the evac! We—

The weapons! Ryouko thought, catching the point. The incoming weapons fire doesn't resemble a squid firing pattern at all. Too much surface artillery, too little air‐mounted lasers, and the lasers I do see are the wrong frequency. And why would Kyouko say they shouldn't 'have these weapons' if they're squid? The squid have better weapons than us!

Why is Kyouko even on this mission, for that matter? Clarisse thought. This isn't a squid attack. This is something human.

The composition of the squad is pure magical girl, Ryouko thought, swallowing for a moment the chill that suddenly gripped her thoughts. That doesn't suggest a standard task force. That suggests some sort of special operations, but on a large scale.

And the fact that Kishida Maki is here suggests she must have reconciled with Kyouko, at least a little, Clarisse thought, no longer keeping up the pretense of a to‐and‐fro conversation. Though they could have reconciled already, for all we know, so that doesn't indicate much.

They considered the issue in silence for a moment. In the background, Clarisse played one more part of the vision:

"I'll kill those bastards!" Maki yelled. "They'll die, and whoever tipped them off, I'll hunt them down, and—"

What's going on here? Ryouko wondered.

I wish I could say, Clarisse said. I've been comparing the imagery with known human worlds, but it doesn't match anything exactly. Of course, it's possible your memory or my drawing of the vegetation is faulty—it wouldn't be surprising—but if I loosen the description, there are too many worlds that match. I can't get any good idea of what planet this is.

Drawing? Ryouko asked.

I had to redraw things from your memory, since I couldn't just copy the image. It was tedious, and I'm not an artist.

Ryouko thought for a moment.

The only thing we can do right now is remain alert, I guess. It's possible the entire point of this part of the vision was just to warn Kyouko indirectly, and it's already been prevented.

Maybe, Clarisse thought. But this vision could be twenty years in the future for all we know. We'll have to remember for a long while.

I don't think so, honestly, Ryouko thought. Again, look at Maki. I don't think she's that much older. Do you?

We can't be sure, Clarisse thought.

Ryouko sighed.

Well, this is the end of the Ribbon visions, she thought. A lot of the visions after this just had the Goddess speaking directly to me, near Clarisse's soul gem. I think we can skip a lot of those, right?

I've… had my own thoughts about those visions, Clarisse thought. But first, there was the dream you had just before the mission, with the roses and the blood? I know you remember.

Of course she remembered. She hadn't thought about it at all in the chaos of the wormhole mission and the much more dramatic meetings she had with the Goddess afterward, but she remembered.

If I remember right, Ryouko thought, it was extremely confusing and highly symbolic, and I'm not even sure it was a vision. You're telling me you gleaned something from it?

I doubt it wasn't a vision, Clarisse thought. Given that you visit the same rose garden again in a later one. But, in any case, remember.

Clarisse said the last word magisterially, and she did remember, though she gleaned nothing from it. Killing aliens, an arm soaked in blood, pricking herself on a rose, and meeting her mother who turned out to be the Goddess. It seemed nonsensical.

Well, mistaking the Goddess for your mother isn't that confusing, if you think about it, Clarisse thought, when she was done remembering. The Goddess does resemble your mother to a surprising extent. She even resembles you. That was probably a hint, though it doesn't tell us anything new now.

Hmm, Ryouko thought, unable to think of anything to add to that.

Though the most interesting quotation is probably this one, Clarisse thought.

"It's probably an overplayed metaphor. But the flower really does symbolize love quite well. It's a very fickle thing, but in the end I didn't regret it. I might have regretted some choices I made, but I never regretted having you."

I remember that, Ryouko said, redundantly. That doesn't sound like the Goddess at all. It sounds like my mother, except why would she say something like that?

I don't know, but it feels meaningful.

That's your answer?

I don't exactly have a hotline with Kaname Madoka here. I don't know what it means. I don't know what the rest of this means. Does the first part of the vision imply you have a connection with the aliens? Was the last part visions of the future, or an alternate reality? I don't know! I think it was deliberately obfuscated.

Her TacComp's frustration rippled through her, and for a moment she felt profound annoyance. Weeks of careful dissection, internet digging, Infopedia searches on rose mythology, and nothing had fallen out. It—

It's okay, Clarisse, Ryouko thought hastily. It's okay. We'll figure it out.

Sorry about that, Clarisse thought, seeming embarrassed. That was unprofessional.

Well, I don't think you always have to be professional around… me, I guess, Ryouko thought.

The silence was briefly awkward and Ryouko reflected, not for the first time, that sharing her head with Clarisse was starting to get increasingly strange. She hardly remembered what it was like to have her thoughts to herself. It made certain activities particularly delicate.

You know, for a clone of me, you're not very similar to me, Ryouko thought.

Well, I'm half‐computer, attached to your spine, didn't have a childhood, and am programmed to love you and spend my time attending to you, Clarisse thought. I'm not surprised I'm pretty different.

Fair enough, Ryouko thought, embarrassed at the obvious point.

Clarisse performed the equivalent of clearing her throat.

Well, you were right that the 'direct‐Goddess' visions were generally a lot more straightforward, though there were a few wrinkles. There was, however, one point I'd really like to highlight.

Ryouko's head spun for a moment, and then she remembered the situation as it had been. The Goddess had shown her visions of the battle as it was unfolding, of Erwynmark and her grandmother dying, of Maki and Mami and Asami—

Do you think we're pre‐destined somehow, Asami and I? Ryouko thought. Bound by fate—Asami would like that. She gave me a vision of Asami, and come to think of it, it played a big role in why I'm on Eurydome.

She also implied you two might have trouble in the future, Clarisse thought. I know you remember that. But listen, this is what the Goddess said:

"It is easy to manipulate history, if you know how. Even if you have very little direct influence. A suggestion here, a vision there, a well‐timed demon spawn—you don't know it, but this is one of the things you were born for. Your wish made sure of it."

Ryouko caught the implication immediately, wondering why she hadn't noticed at the time.

She's saying she manipulated things so I'd be born, and she was responsible for the demon spawn at the time I contracted. But—that was because of grief cubes or something, right?

She said she doesn't have much direct influence. She has to work through agents and visions. Whoever placed the grief cubes there either has a connection to her, or was manipulated into doing it. It's tough to say.

So I've suspected this for a while, but now you're telling me my birth was planned, my contract was planned, everything was planned.


Ryouko could feel herself gritting her teeth.

What am I supposed to say to that? she asked.

I don't know, Clarisse thought. The truth is terrible sometimes. It bothers me too. We could go over, laboriously, everything she said in this vision and the next, but I'm not sure what you'd gain except philosophy. Let's do that later; you have enough to think about. But do you remember what she said, about your life? She said you were related to her, and because of that, it's your special burden to have less freedom to live your life.

Clarisse sighed.

I did want to say, though, that I did ask the Goddess the question I wanted to ask earlier, if you still remember that.

What was your question? Ryouko asked.

Clarisse chuckled.

I asked her if I had a soul.

Ryouko boggled for a moment.

What did she say?

I'll tell you later.

The phrase wafted through her mind like a breeze through a dusty room, seeming to sweep all before it.

A moment later, she opened her eyes.

"We've been calling you for at least ten minutes now," her mother said, smiling down at her. "Were you napping?"

"I suppose," Ryouko said, sitting up, as her mother patted her forehead gently.

She crinkled her forehead for a moment.

"Is something wrong, mama?" she asked. Her mother seemed… odd, again.

"I heard someone did a thorough genetic survey on you," her mother said. "Did you ever get the results on that?"

Ryouko thought for a moment.

"Yes. Patricia said everything looked normal."

Her mother nodded.

"Come on then," she said, gesturing for Ryouko to follow her.

Ryouko stumbled into the hallway as much as she walked, though her mother didn't notice. Her head was spinning with all the things she had to think about. Ancient conspiracies, present conspiracies, future conspiracies—she had the sickening feeling it all centered on her somehow.

She sat down at the table, across from Asami, who beamed at her, obviously desperate for her to try the French onion soup they had made.

She dipped her spoon into the hot soup, placing a small dribble of liquid gingerly into her mouth.

"It's delicious," she said, smiling carefully.

Both she and Clarisse had left it unsaid, but it was obvious.

The Goddess was not done with her.

But Asami didn't know that.

Mami took a deep breath, peering up at the ceiling above her.

It had been years since Mami had last seen the virtual interior of the Directorate Plenary Chamber, and the experience had lost none of its freshness.

Governance meeting rooms, especially those summoned for ad‐hoc committees, were usually blandly functional, aesthetically sterile to the point of being a statement in itself. The more permanent committees often redecorated or changed venues entirely, suiting the tastes of their members.

There was no committee more permanent than the Directorate, of course, and the Plenary Chamber reflected that, its aesthetics intended to fulfill the human urge for ceremonial opulence in its rooms of power.

The core design of the room was always the same—a circle of ornate chairs surrounded a central depression, within which non‐Directorate members were obliged to stand and feel the gaze of the Human Government. In front of the chairs was a circular bench, analogous to that of a judge, fronted by ornate symbols identifying the occupants of the seats behind it. Behind the chairs were window panes, through which one could peer and see almost anything: fields of wheat, a blacksmith at work at his forge, Roman legionnaires marching into battle.

On one side of the circle of chairs there would be a gap, and within it there would be one raised chair, an obvious throne, invariably more extravagant than anything else in the room, in front of a banner stylized with the Governance logo, a pair of opposing arrows. The Empty Throne would forever be empty.

These details would always be the same, but the remaining aesthetics differed in every session—sometimes a corporate meeting room, sometimes a Roman senate, sometimes an Indian royal court. Today, it was decked out in a sort of Forbidden Palace style, full of gold and red cloth, with a throne festooned with elaborate jade dragons that a real Chinese emperor could have never acquired.

Well, there was one other detail that always stayed the same, and that was the domed ceiling. The sides of the dome were carved with the topography and landscape of Earth, impossibly detailed. At the peak of the dome was a simple hole, through which could be seen the stars above.

Standing in the central depression, Mami tapped her foot on the stone floor, feeling it out. She had been a few minutes early to get a look at the scenery, before the Representatives of the Directorate, who would arrive simultaneously and on‐the‐dot, following some sort of unspoken tradition. It wasn't really the aesthetics of the room that got to her, but the simple knowledge of what it was. In a certain sense, the room contained an amount of concentrated Power unprecedented in human history. It was enough to make you think.

Today wouldn't be an ostentatious public meeting, her and Yuma standing alone before the full Directorate and the whole world, as it had been twenty years ago. Today was neither public nor full—she had simply been asked to schedule a partial, secret meeting, with a priority rating high enough to suggest that she should do it very soon. She had done so within the hour.

The other participants winked into the meeting, in that disconcerting simultaneous way they preferred. Most of the chairs remained empty—there were only five Directorate members in attendance, in a meeting secret enough that the other members would be shielded from knowledge, unless necessary.

Mami scanned the faces of the avatars, most of whom were formed from a basket of common stereotypes, though they'd never put it in those words. There was Military Affairs, with his partial armor suit and magical girl tattoo, looking like a mixture of frontline soldier and German general. There was Public Order, whose slightly angled face seemed to suggest both police chief and Sherlock Holmes. There was Colonial Affairs, a sharp‐looking woman wearing work clothes and a conspicuous metallic eyepiece, of the kind commonly used by planetary surveyors. Finally, there was Science and Technology, whose lab coat and slightly unkempt look were often the butt of jokes.

Finally, there was the only present human member, Chitose Yuma, whom she knew quite well. The girl watched her coolly, fully into her role as Governance: Magical Girls.

"Let us begin," Military Affairs said gruffly, barely waiting a moment for Mami to get situated. "We have called you here to discuss a matter of some delicacy, whose knowledge we would prefer be distributed as narrowly as possible, and whose resolution is of ideological concern to this council. I will allow my colleague here to introduce the situation."

Military Affairs gave her a moment to chew over the phrase "of ideological concern", then gestured at Science and Technology, who stood up out of his seat and raised his hand, summoning a large hovering presentation screen behind him.

He cleared his throat, then pointed at a map of Human space appearing behind him, speaking in a reedy voice.

"About eighteen and a half hours ago, one of our astronomical survey probes picked up a faint radio signal emanating from an unexplored system within the Rhine sector. As you may know, the Rhine sector is both far from the front lines and one of the least settled—there is little of military concern, other than to detect possible alien intrusions. It is, however, a possible target for future colonization."

"The signal was very weak. As you likely know, the energy requirements for EM‐based signal transmission across interstellar distances are tremendous, even if beamed in laser form, and that's not even considering the transmission delay. It is one of the reasons why IIC was such a godsend. In order to have been detectable at such a distance, the power of the signal at the source must have been absurd."

"But the contents of the signal were very clear, nonetheless," Colonial Affairs said, continuing the explanation without missing a beat. "It was a distress call, carrying only the text 'SOS Ordo Illustrata' on repeat."

"The Ordo Illustrata Magii were a fringe religious group situated on Optatum," Public Order continued. "They were founded shortly after the beginning of the war by a former Lutheran priest named Grigori DeWitt. His daughter was a recently‐contracted magical girl, and they had had a falling out after she contracted, due to his objections to magic."

"After his daughter died in combat, DeWitt requested laicization and went into seclusion. When he finally emerged, months later, he was a changed man. Working through the internet, he founded his own religious order, based on the idea that magic was a gift from God, and that technology was only supposed to be a temporary tool, to be used until magic could be refined enough to replace the technology. According to him, our current society is an aberration in the eyes of God, and the Cephalopods are a divine instrument, intended to cleanse the human worlds as Noah's Flood did, leaving behind only him and his followers. Typical cult stuff, but he was able to gather a surprising number of bereaved followers to join him on his quest to found his own independent colony, where, as he put it, 'our new society can leave behind the blasphemous practice of using magical girls for combat.'"

"The simple truth is these kinds of cults are a dime a dozen in the colonies," Yuma said, voice flat, continuing the explanation. "Only two things really distinguish the Ordo Illustrata: the fact that they actually gathered enough resources to mount their colonizing expedition, and their method of apparent departure. As you know, the MSY forbids the personal involvement of its members in these kinds of expeditions. Since the start of the current war, however, all new colonies are required to accept a specially appointed team to accompany the expedition, monitoring the colony and containing demon outbreaks. Military patrol ships then pass by on a regular basis, allowing the exchange of messages and so forth."

Mami nodded, knowing that Yuma was telling her all this only for the record. Before the war and the revelation of the MSY's existence, Governance had been much more content to let such unsponsored colonies go their own way, stopping by with a military vessel to check up only occasionally. The MSY had been forced to infiltrate colonies before launch, and then use its own ships to keep tabs on the status of embedded teams. The new system was much cleaner, especially since Governance now had both the ships and the willingness to keep colonies on a tighter watch.

"According to the colonization plan they filed before departure," Colonial Affairs said, "their ship would dock at the planet San Giuseppe, picking up the MSY team and other equipment, before heading to their final destination. En route to San Giuseppe, they would briefly pass close to the front line to save travel time, but the risk was not considered significant—until they disappeared."

"Subsequent investigation revealed that a Cephalopod raiding squad had in fact passed through the sector at the time," Military Affairs said, "and there was no trace of them at the planet they intended to land on. The ship was presumed lost, but we've been keeping an eye out for them. This is the first time in nearly twenty years there's been any sign of them."

"Given the current circumstances, we can only presume that, using the Cephalopod raid as a ruse, the colony ship was somehow able to evade our monitoring systems," Colonial Affairs said, clasping her hands together, voice grim. "This should not have been within their capabilities, and there are other troubling aspects of this scenario, as you can see for yourself in the report we will send."

"The Directorate takes this very seriously, Mami," Yuma said, speaking colloquially for the first time. "They want an investigation of whatever is out there, and why and how such a distress signal was sent. If there are colonists on the planet, they want the colony brought back under our surveillance. I don't have to tell you about the kinds of things that have been found in the past."

Mami nodded, buying a moment to think of what to say. The fact was, there was nothing in this meeting that couldn't have been sent to her in a classified Decree, and there was nothing really to discuss. Mami would marshal the resources and get it done. The meeting was only to emphasize the importance of the matter. It was annoying, but when the Directorate wanted you to listen, you listened. That was how it was.

"Am I limited to using only military resources?" she asked, the only real meaningful question on hand.

"Should you find it necessary, you may requisition any scientific or survey probes, instruments, and ships you feel necessary," Science and Technology said, smiling slightly. "It goes without saying that given the resources the military has, it is expected that you do this only if you have a justifiable need for a civilian veneer. Also, it is preferred that you not put any civilian lives at risk."

"Should extraordinary interventions be necessary," Military Affairs said, "it is expected that you keep us in the loop."

"I'm sure you know what to do if anything of MSY interest turns up," Yuma added.

There was a long moment of silence, as Mami peered up at the Representatives and they peered back.

"Is that all?" she asked.

"Good luck," Yuma said. "And don't work yourself too hard. Motion to dismiss?"

"Seconded," Military Affairs said immediately.

"Agreed," chimed the others.

—and just like that, the meeting was over, and Mami found herself opening her eyes in her bed.

She sighed, pushing herself up to a sitting position.

The MSY Rules Committee was a nest of vipers, vacuous blowhards sparring with each other over abstruse parliamentary procedure. She could see why the Directorate considered itself an improvement over that, but…

She sighed again, then stood up, formulating the necessary classified orders for a special operations frigate to pass by the Rhine sector and deploy a stealth probe to approach the source of the signal. First she wanted an idea of what was there. Then she could decide the rest.

What did Yuma mean: 'Don't work yourself too hard'? She's the last person who should be saying something like that.

A sharp knock on her door jolted Kyouko awake.

She lost hold of sleep almost immediately, but let her eyes stay closed for a moment, lingering on the edges of the dream she had been having.

A second knock caused her eyes to snap open, as she reoriented herself.

She found herself sleeping in her customary alcove, hugging a giant pillow. A large damp spot stood testament to the drooling she had been doing, and the battered state of the pillow suggested she had been acting out the contents of her dream.

How mortifying.

She jumped up out of her bed, avoiding slamming her head into the ceiling only by long‐trained habit.

"I'm coming already, geez!" she shouted when a third knock sounded.

She threw open the wooden door, heedless of the fact that she could be considered, at best, only partially dressed. Everyone here was female anyway, and well used to her eccentricities.

Outside the door was only empty air. She was confused for a moment, then felt something tapping at her foot.

Looking down, she found herself facing an oddly shaped drone, reminiscent of a shiny silver dinner plate with legs.

Seeing that she had noticed it, the drone skittered past her into the room. A moment later, a hologram snapped into focus above it.

Kyouko let out a breath, and closed the door.

"MG," she said, heading back towards her bed. "Good to see you."

"Good to see you too, Kyouko‐nee‐chan," the girl said, bowing slightly, long hair rustling with computer‐generated sound. She was dressed in her usual outfit, a green dress reminiscent of what one might think when one thought "magical girl".

Kyouko didn't offer the AI avatar a seat. Obviously it didn't matter to MG whether she was sitting or standing—the AI would sit if she wanted to.

The hologram skittered over next to Kyouko's feet, and MG sat on the bed with her. For a moment they just looked at each other.

Kyouko had never gotten over how much looking at Yuma's advisory AI was like looking in the mirror. She still remembered when Yuma had first introduced the AI to her and Mami, how the AI had still stylized herself as a child, and how it had hidden behind Yuma shyly. It had made Kyouko's heart ache, because it made her remember Momo.

Then MG covered her mouth with her hand and snickered.

"Geez, opening the door with a getup like that," she said. "The lengths you go to seduce girls. Seriously, if you want to sleep with me, I'd prefer it if you'd just ask. The answer is no, by the way."

Kyouko grunted. Yuma had taught her protégé well.

"I'm not even sure how that would work," Kyouko said. She was serious—despite her experience, she still had yet to try sleeping with an AI, in a virtuality or otherwise.

"You don't know what you're missing," MG said, tilting her head and smiling mischievously. She even batted her eyelashes.

Kyouko sighed.

"What is this about, MG?" she asked. "Unless you're trying to proposition me, in which case it is my turn to turn you down."

MG shook her head, her hair swaying back forth, and Kyouko wondered idly if her hair did that too.

"No, it's just…"

The AI sighed, and in Kyouko's eyes seemed to shrink a little.

"I'm worried about her, Kyouko‐nee‐chan," she said. "I'm not sure I can say that about someone so much older than me, but sometimes… sometimes I joke with her about having a relationship, and she just gives me a look, like…"

"She won't let you have a relationship?" Kyouko said. "That… well, it doesn't sound like her, but she does kind of look at you like a child—"

MG shook her head again.

"Not that. That would be normal. It's more that she thinks there's something disgusting about it. She tries to hide it, but I'm connected pretty deeply to her brain. I know. The thing is, I'm pretty sure she's never actually had a relationship. I don't understand. Then sometimes she thinks about the past, and there's this black box she won't touch, at least not around me. I don't—"

Kyouko held up her hand to stop the AI.

"I'll talk to her," Kyouko said. "But it's not really my right to explain this to you. It has to be her."

MG looked at her, eyes wide, confused.

"What?" she asked, and the innocence hurt Kyouko a little. Theoretically, Governance AIs were designed to be adults the moment they were built, but from MG she had learned that they were more like children with adult intellects. There was a certain level of accumulated… experience they just didn't have at the beginning, that could only be had with time, like a layer of grime covering the soul, deep enough that no grief cube could remove it.

Kyouko sighed, shaking her head.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'll talk to her. Just take my word for it. In the meantime, if you're really looking to try—"

"I said no already!" MG interrupted, catching onto Kyouko's meaning with surprising alacrity.

"I was just trying to lighten the mood," Kyouko said, smiling slightly. "Come on, let's chat a little. I'm scheduled to be taking a nap for the next hour."

"Ooh I'd be glad to," MG said, drawing out the first syllable. "But while I'm here, there's a recording Yuma‐chan has been meaning to send to you."

Kyouko wrinkled her brow slightly.

"A recording?"

"Yeah, of the wormhole girl at the birthday party. I'll have the drone transmit it to you. Safer that way."

Kyouko frowned, inspecting the file, listening with one ear as MG started to explain:

"Well, the reason I'm so worried now about what Yuma‐chan thinks is I've been thinking about exploring a little, you know? And the thing about the Representative AIs is that most of them are waaay too old for me. There's not very many new Representatives. And—"

Kyouko felt her eye twitch, just a little, as she finished listening to the file.

"Is something wrong, Kyouko‐nee‐chan?" MG asked.

"No. Nothing is wrong."