The advent of clinical immortality was the capstone of centuries of demographic change instigated by the ever‐increasing human lifespan. Except for a brief period during the Unification Wars in which the "traditional family" went back on the upswing, the twenty‐first and twenty‐second centuries had seen a gradual decline in the prominence of the permanent marriage model. While most children were still born to stable couples, open relationships, cohabiting singles, and other alternative arrangements slowly became ever‐more prominent in social life. By the late twenty‐third century, the average multi‐centenarian was on their third or later marriage, with perhaps a couple of adult children scattered among different partners.
These changes to the structure of the "family" led to anguished debate about the necessity and desirability of manipulating the social fabric to promote what was seen as a more suitable environment for children. The newly minted Governance followed its libertarian leanings in refusing to accede to these demands, though it did bias the provision of child licenses to stable, preferably married couples, on the simple observation that a stable environment led to stable individuals. There the situation has stood since, with the odd result that many children grow up idealizing the relationship their parents seem to have, only to become disillusioned upon their parents' eventual divorce, and upon encountering the plethora of relationship types present out in the world.
With another full century of observational data, however, it appears the oldest humans alive generally settle into one of three steady‐states: more or less asexuality, a fluid pool of casual companions, or a stable marriage‐like arrangement of some sort. It may be that this is what awaits all of us, in the long‐term.
— Susheela Franjic, "Musings on the Family," blog post.
Science has always been a reputation‐based affair, dating back to the first philosophers inscribing their philosophy down onto clay tablets. Your career relied on the number of people—particularly, wealthy patrons—who considered you wise, or else you were condemned to quiet obscurity. Given the lack of economic reward that accompanied studying the natural world, you either needed to be independently wealthy, preferably nobility, or you depended on the indulgence of the wealthy. That was just how it was, and the transition to the era of government‐funded science, after the first big wars, changed only the amount of funding, not the nature of its acquisition. At the end of the day, someone was funding your science with their largesse, and their largesse depended heavily on your reputation, because they didn't really understand what you were doing.
The problem, of course, has been that reputation is only a proxy for what society really cares about, which is your potential contribution to science in the future. One way to determine this is by examining your past contributions, but it was often far too difficult to determine what these really were. The early history of science was therefore filled with charlatans good at marketing their work, and with anonymous scholars whose work, never appreciated in their own time, never helped them in any way, sometimes even lost to the sands of time. Later on, as science became more of a professional institution, it became necessary to codify your accomplishments into journal articles, reviewed by committees of your peers and published when deemed satisfactory. While mostly successful at eliminating charlatans, the system was filled with other imperfections, and was considered only the best among a sea of worse options.
Insofar as past performance is an indicator of future success, then, what is necessary is to tie public reputation as close to actual scientific contribution as possible. With the advent of universal surveillance and the widespread use of AIs in research labs, scientists quickly realized that the best way to unimpeachably claim credit for their work was to have the AIs archive and organize their every action and statement, such that when the work of the lab or institute was finally presented to the public, anyone could flip through the work history and determine that person A had X idea at Y time, and so forth. In theory, anyway; in practice, the only entities capable of reading through all of that were other AIs, and "reputation" quickly became a function of what other lab AIs thought of you, based on what your own AI had recorded about your work. Eventually, these opinions began to be collected into meta‐opinions, stored in databases online.
The journal article approach to science has fallen out of favor, replaced by an update model. The lab AI posts regularly about the latest work in the lab, including the relevant metadata about levels of contribution. Other AIs read the data and form their opinions. Meta‐opinions are calculated, both for the lab and for individual researchers. Finally, these meta‐opinions are used by Governance agencies and private funding groups to determine level of funding.
The same system has spread to other aspects of science. Research and funding proposals are now posted online, their merits judged by a system of AIs, and funded or modified accordingly. The curators of meta‐opinions regularly distribute research proposals of their own to relevant labs based on a similar system, and the advent of new "facts" to Infopedia is controlled in largely the same manner. Thus it is that an interested party may read a new fact on Infopedia and, if desired, immediately access both a "truthiness" rating and a detailed rating of the contributions of often innumerable individuals.
As a system, it works tolerably well. In contrast with the past, for instance, it is very difficult for two groups to accidentally be doing the same work, and if this somehow does happen, the group that is slower or less lucky at least has a consolation prize—everyone knows they were doing the work, and how competently they did it. The downsides of the system can of course be counted as well—lab AIs that spend an absurd amount of time reading and grading each other's work, the pressure on researchers that arises from constant judgment of their work, and the flaws that come with having all work judged by a series of numbers graded by conventional opinion.
— Joanne Valentin, "The System of Reputation in Science," blog post.
"Simona moved back home. She said something had come up with her parents. It was a bit vague, to be honest."
Ryouko blinked up at the virtual screen, from which Chiaki watched her with a strange expression, running a hand through her hair absently. Maybe it was just her imagination, but the conversation seemed oddly tense, almost as if the topic of Simona had made Chiaki nervous.
She felt herself frown. It felt strange, letting visions from a Goddess affect how she viewed people, but she felt Chiaki's apparent nervousness spreading to her as well.
"Really?" she asked, as generic a response as she could manage. "That's… unexpected."
Chiaki shrugged, narrow shoulders moving elaborately.
"I'm not terribly surprised. Do you remember when we were entering middle school, and I opted out of attending Anko Academy?"
Ryouko did remember that, of course. She had remembered being angry that she lived just outside the Academy's favored geographical district. It had been a mixed bag of feelings—a mixture of relief that Chiaki would stay with her, guilt that she would feel relieved, and confusion as to why Chiaki would make such a choice.
"What about it?" Ryouko asked.
Chiaki frowned, scrunching her face in thought. She seemed to have changed her mind about what to say.
"Come on, we don't need to talk about this," Ruiko said, sticking her head into the frame from outside the viewing window. In the back, the familiar contours of Chiaki's bedroom reminded Ryouko of her old life. She had been hoping to catch Chiaki alone, but Ruiko had turned out to be visiting.
"Don't disturb the lovebirds," Ruiko said, looking at Chiaki.
Then to Ryouko she said:
"Hey, when you two get married, are you going to pay for us to fly out and be your bridesmaids? I hear you girls make a lot of Allocs."
Chiaki gave Ruiko a look, then shrugged, seeming to relax.
"They make exceptions to the excise cost for special events," Chiaki said. "Didn't you pay attention—"
"I dropped that class; it was boring," Ruiko interrupted.
"You're hopeless," Chiaki said bluntly.
Ryouko smiled slightly, watching her friends' banter. Next to her, Asami stirred, waking from her nap. The girl insisted on sleeping with her arm around Ryouko—it was a little uncomfortable, but she had gotten used to it. Ryouko, not being as tired as Asami apparently had been, had taken the opportunity to make a phone call—one of the little conveniences of modern implants was the ability to automatically tune out irrelevant sound if one was sleeping, so Ryouko hadn't needed to fear waking Asami up.
She felt Asami adjust her arm slightly, causing the blanket to slide over Ryouko's skin.
"Come on, it'll be a while before something like that happens," Ryouko said, answering Ruiko's joke of a question.
"Really? I don't think so," Ruiko said, smiling mischievously. Ryouko couldn't quite read the expression.
"Phone call?" Asami murmured, breath tingling against Ryouko's neck.
"Yeah," Ryouko whispered, toggling the mental command that prevented what she said from being transmitted over the call.
"Is that a video call?" Asami asked, eyes opening blearily.
"Yes, of cour—"
Ryouko's eyes widened.
No, I am not this stupid. I did not forget how implant‐mediated video calls worked, just because I'm used to civilian calls.
She instinctively pulled her sheets further up, so that it covered her neck and Asami's arm, triggering a burst of laughter from the other end of the call. Ryouko looked at the virtual video screen, and found Chiaki covering her mouth in mirth, while Ruiko had disappeared off‐screen altogether.
"We weren't sure if it was intentional," Ruiko said, through laughter.
"You could have said something anyway!" Ryouko said, blushing furiously.
"Oh, Ryouko‐chan," Ruiko said, putting her hand to her forehead and shaking her head in bemusement. "The best result would have been for us to finish the call without you ever realizing. You make this kind of mistake all the time. Wow."
Ryouko's cheeks burned, and she could feel Asami watching her.
"I think I need to go," she said lamely.
"Yes I think you do," Chiaki said, still smiling. "Happy birthday, by the way. Not today, obviously, but just in case I don't get to say it tomorrow. I'll put in a call request tomorrow, though. Later."
As the call ended, Ryouko felt a frisson of mirth emerging from a certain spinal implant she was highly displeased with. These days, Clarisse seemed to derive far too much enjoyment at her expense. She was starting to feel like she needed to get her TacComp a hobby.
But there was a more pressing task.
"I'm sorry," she said to Asami. "I forgot—"
"It's okay!" Asami said, embracing her with both arms, forestalling the apology. She even giggled slightly.
"Calling your Earth friends?" Asami asked, rubbing her face into Ryouko's neck.
"Yeah," Ryouko said, uncomfortably.
"I called Meiqing recently. She's doing okay. Says she lost a leg on Apollo but no big deal. She wants you to call her."
"Yeah," Ryouko repeated. "You know my mom is still here, right? In the next room?"
"Oh, I know," Asami said. "We might have to get used to it. You know, your mom is thinking about staying."
Ryouko turned her head to peer at Asami in surprise.
"Really? She hasn't mentioned it to me."
"Well, she's just thinking about it. She wants you to get it sorted how long you're staying, and then apparently her boss will let her switch work locations for a while. It's a good chance. She would have difficulty transferring off of Earth otherwise, with the restrictions."
Ryouko made a face. Truth be told, she had gotten a bit used to living on her own. Having her mom living with them would be—
"I know," Asami said appeasingly. "I'm just telling you she's thinking about it. It's a legitimate option. She doesn't intend to play the dating game right now, and you are her only daughter. She might get her own place."
Ryouko sighed, looking down at the bottom of the bed.
"I'll talk to her about it."
"Anyway," Asami said, grabbing opportunistically at her. "What I'm saying is—"
"We don't have time," Ryouko pointed out immediately. "It's time for us to go to the lab."
"Oh, right," Asami said, checking her chronometer. "You're right, we should get going."
She found her mother seated in the sitting room—an actual room, just for sitting around in!—frowning at a sheet of paper in her hands. It piqued Ryouko's interest immediately, given how rare paper was, but as they emerged from the hallway, her mother folded it and placed it into the pocket of her pants.
"I trust you two enjoyed your nap?" she asked, before Ryouko could say anything.
"Oh, yes," Asami responded.
"Good. I suppose it feels natural for you two, taking a nap in the early morning. Eventually, you'll lose that circadian tendency, but it might take a while. I'll make you two some breakfast. Eggs are easy, though I'd really rather not think about where they come from."
Her mother spoke quickly, not allowing a word in edgewise, and got up to head to the kitchen. Ryouko saw Asami's face scrunch slightly at the odd phraseology of "circadian tendency".
Ryouko walked forward, shifting her location so that she could see over the breakfast counter into the kitchen. She wanted to ask about the sheet of paper, but…
"Asami says you're thinking about moving to Eurydome, mama," she said, leaning onto the counter.
"I'm thinking about it, yes," her mother said, back to Ryouko, facing the stove. "It makes a lot of sense. My parents aren't on Earth anymore and you're my only daughter. Career‐wise, it'd be hard to give up my current position at Prometheus, but the institute does have some offshoots here."
Her mother turned to look at her with one eye.
"Of course, the Earth thing to do would be to move in here, but since this is the colonies, it wouldn't be hard to get a different place. I wouldn't really mind too much either way. Give me an opinion."
Her mother turned back toward the stove.
"I wonder how you're supposed to get the white to phase change but the yolk part to stay liquid. It's not really working out like I expected."
Ryouko sighed. She should have thought about this more before bringing it up. She didn't know yet what she wanted.
"I don't know, mama," she said, as honest as she felt she could be. "You're still on vacation for two more weeks, so let's see how it works out. Do you want to stay here?"
"Well, if I do stay here, we're going to have to get them to install new soundproofing on your room. And you know, if this turns out to be a long‐term deal, I can eventually do the cliché thing and start pressuring you for grandkids."
"I'm kidding. But seriously about the soundproofing. Oh, the internet says to add a bit of water. I guess that makes sense. Will carry heat to the surface and… the proteins in the egg are too hydrophobic to mix with water? That would make sense. Should I cover it?"
Ryouko scowled, even though her mother couldn't see. She knew her mother was talking to fill the empty space, and inhibit Ryouko from talking about something.
"Mama, what was on the sheet of paper?"
Her mother glanced back, then pulled the folded scrap of paper out of her pocket.
"My sister is visiting," her mother said, still tending her eggs. "She said she's bringing company, and she wants to talk to you. Alone, without me or Asami‐chan. I've already told the physics lab you two will be late. I guess this will be a good chance for Asami to show me around the university?"
She regarded the piece of paper in her hand for a moment, then shoved it into the feed hole on the side of the synthesizer she had brought from Earth. The synthesizer would break the paper down into composite parts, which it would then either store or recycle to a central distribution point.
"I was supposed to destroy it," she said, shrugging.
Her mother poked at the eggs with a spatula, trying to lift them off the surface onto a plate.
"Ah, nee‐chan, if only Akemi‐san hadn't pulled you into a career like that. I wonder—"
Her mother paused for a moment, spatula with egg in midair, then finished the motion, without the finishing the sentence.
"Akemi as in Akemi Homura?" Asami asked, with surprising intuition, looking at Ryouko. "You have an aunt who knew her?"
"Yes," she said, as blandly as she could, as internally she traced out the same line of thought her mother assuredly was. Akemi Homura had chosen to mentor Kuroi Nana, though the memory Ryouko had received had not clarified exactly why. If Homura had truly believed that there was a familial connection between her Goddess and their family, then that would be a compelling reason for her interest in Nana. Such a conclusion could be reached based solely on the contents of the memory from her grandmother, even if one didn't believe in the Goddess at all—and Ryouko's mother had certainly viewed the recording Ryouko gave her, even if she had not yet elected to say anything about it.
"Though it's not very easy to find out I even have a sister, going by the public records," her mother said, turning to place two plates of food in front of them. "We're that kind of family, apparently."
Ryouko looked down at her two eggs. The yolk of one had ruptured, leaking orange‐yellow liquid onto the piece of bread her mother had thoughtfully placed underneath, probably following internet guidance.
Her mother looked at her and shrugged apologetically.
"I wonder if your aunt knows," she said.
"If she does, she didn't tell me," Ryouko said. "I hardly know her, after all."
She let her voice develop a tinge of snark, to let her mother know she was still unhappy about that.
"It couldn't be avoided," her mother said breezily. "It certainly might be a good idea to tell her, don't you think?"
"Probably," Ryouko agreed. "Do you know why she's here?"
"No, she didn't say anything specific. It must be sensitive, if she's excluding her own family."
Ryouko let the exchange lapse into silence. Asami had developed that unhappy look she got when forced to listen to a deliberately cryptic conversation, an occurrence that was starting to become too often nowadays. Ryouko would hear the displeasure later, she was certain.
"Asami, I don't really know what this is about either, but the work my aunt does is highly secret. Even if I did know what was going on, I wouldn't be allowed to tell you. She doesn't even want to tell her own sister! Think about it."
She was only tangentially addressing the issue, she knew. It wasn't as if Asami were being unreasonable about classified material—the problem was with the secret information Ryouko and her mother obviously shared.
She knew, too, that Asami wouldn't be distracted by an irrelevant explanation like that, but the girl still allowed herself to be mollified, expression softening. She was glad for that—Asami could be surprisingly understanding sometimes. There were a lot of secrets in Ryouko's life, and she simply wasn't ready to share them with Asami yet.
"Well, I guess I can show your mom around the school," Asami said. "Though I'm not sure there's that much to see. When do you think we should leave?"
"I don't want to leave until she arrives," Ryouko's mother said, shaking her head. "I don't see my sister very often and she said she had no problems with me staying around. I—"
She was interrupted by a sharp knocking noise, coming from the direction of the front door. They turned to look at it with faint surprise, faces blank.
It was Ryouko's mother who responded first, signaling the door to slide open for the person on the other side.
Kuroi Nana peered in at them, flanked on one side by none other than Sakura Kyouko, founder and leader of the Church of Hope, who seemed to be working her way through a stick of beef jerky.
"Kyouko‐san!" Ryouko exclaimed, almost involuntarily.
"Nee‐chan," her mother echoed, more calmly.
"I'm sorry about the door thing," Nana explained. "If I'm going to conceal my movements, it's best if I leave as few traces as possible, so I couldn't tell the door I was there."
Ryouko's aunt and mother exchanged a brief unreadable look, and then Ryouko found herself looking on as the two siblings hugged.
She looks like your sister, rather than your mom's sister, Asami thought, glancing at Ryouko.
I guess, Ryouko thought, trying to spot the resemblance.
She turned towards Kyouko.
"You'll find out soon enough," Kyouko said, smiling crookedly as she intercepted Ryouko's question before she could ask it, biting off another piece of jerky.
Next to them, the two sisters parted their embrace, holding hands for a brief moment. Ryouko wondered briefly what it was like to have a sibling so close in age. She supposed she would never find out.
"Come on, Asami‐chan," her mother said. "Let's go."
There was a brief awkward shuffle of bodies as Kyouko stepped forward, Ryouko and Nana stepped to the side, and the remaining two angled forward, the whole maneuver far more complicated than necessary.
Finally, Nakase and Asami stood on the threshold, looking back for a moment.
"See you later," they said, almost simultaneously.
If they're here to try to get you to go somewhere, just—well we can talk about it later, Asami thought.
Then the door slid closed, and they were gone.
Ryouko stood uncomfortably for a moment, feeling Nana and Kyouko watching her.
"Come in," she said, finally remembering that it was her apartment, and according to the system of social niceties, she was host.
She gestured vaguely at the multiple cushy couches arranged in a circle in the sitting room, feeling a pang of embarrassment at the decor scheme Asami had chosen. She hoped it wasn't giving them the wrong impression about her.
"Want me to get some snacks, or tea?" she asked, as the two of them sat down. It felt very strange to her.
Her two "guests" signaled with hand gestures that they were fine, Kyouko pointing to the snack she already had, so Ryouko stepped past Kyouko and sat down on the couch against the wall. She faced them both across the table, Nana directly in front and Kyouko to the left. They watched her and she watched them.
She sighed, realizing that they were waiting for her to say something.
"So, I guess I might as well be direct about it," she said. "What is this about?"
The other two girls smiled slightly in response.
"Is your privacy field thing up and running?" Kyouko asked, looking at Nana.
"It's always on, except when it isn't," Nana said, glancing back in response.
She turned her head back to look at Ryouko.
"I guess I'll go first," she said. "Sakura‐san here can give her spiel afterward. Believe it or not, the topic is the same."
"I can't imagine how," Ryouko said, quite honestly.
"Well, let me try to explain this as correctly as possible," Nana said, voice smooth and urbane. "I've heard about your little assignment here, the arrangement with the Prometheus Institute and MSY Finance. Quite frankly, you're being railroaded a bit, as I'm sure you've realized. I can understand how such a thing might feel, so one of the reasons we're here is to present you with a bit of a different option. Simply put, I've discussed the matter with our friendly family Matriarch, and we're happy to try and find you a suitable arrangement in the intelligence services instead."
Nana paused a moment to assess Ryouko's reaction, observing the wheels starting to turn in her head. Then she continued:
"This would not have to be to the exclusion of the life you're building here, or the work you're doing—among other things, to pull you completely out of wormhole research would be doing a grave disservice to the war effort and Humanity as a whole. Indeed, were it not for certain extenuating circumstances, we would have left you alone here for at least another couple of months, at least long enough for the scientists here to get a good idea of whether they would need you for another few years, or whether what they already had was enough."
Nana paused again, and this time she watched Ryouko for longer. Ryouko had her head bowed downward, parsing the densely‐packed meaning of what Nana had said, even having Clarisse playing back parts of the message a few times.
"Extenuating circumstances?" Ryouko asked, looking back up at Nana.
"Well, to phrase it simply, there is a mission on hand that Kyouko and I think would be useful to have you on."
Nana and Kyouko shared a look, seeming to reach some sort of shared decision.
"You recall how I told you once that I was part of a team looking for Akemi Homura?" Nana asked.
Ryouko nodded, slowly.
"You'll recall that for a while after her alleged disappearance, we were able to find traces of her passage in various locations, but that eventually this trail ran out. There has been a recent development which leads us to believe that the trail may not be as cold as we think."
Another glance from Nana to Kyouko, and then Nana made eye contact with Ryouko, gaze turning a little soft.
"It's not that I don't trust you, Ryouko‐chan, but I've generally found that it's better not to tell people who don't need to know, for all sorts of reasons. If you don't agree to join the mission, I don't think you need to know."
"Personally, I think she's being too paranoid," Kyouko said, peering at her with one eye. "But it's her show, so I'll do what she says."
Nana looked at Kyouko, then back at Ryouko.
"I don't see why you're here talking to me," Ryouko said, wondering if she was missing something obvious. "Is there a need for a long teleport?"
Another glance between Kyouko and Nana, and Ryouko was sure now: they were holding some kind of telepathic conversation, though not bothering to hide it from her.
"Well, not quite," Nana said.
"The Goddess has taken a special interest in you, Ryouko," Kyouko said, giving Ryouko a meaningful look. "I don't think all this is a coincidence, and I don't think she means for you to live quietly here working with wormholes."
Ryouko instinctively glanced at Nana, and found her watching Ryouko impassively. It didn't seem like Nana was shocked or repulsed by the goddess‐speak.
She swallowed her qualms and said out loud what she never had before.
"The last time I asked her about my life, she said she wanted me to live my own life, and wouldn't give me any direction. At the same time, I got the impression she wasn't done with me. I can't say I really know what to think now, about what the Goddess wants or doesn't want me to do."
She peered back into Kyouko's eyes, but instead of the searing look of inspection she had expected, the girls eyes were soft, full of understanding somehow.
"Homura was my mentor for a good part of my life," Nana said. "It would have been impossible for me to work with her for so long, and not learn about her connection to her Goddess. Whatever the truth of the matter is, if we are indeed digging in the right place, she may find it hard to resist contacting you."
"I'm basically bait?" Ryouko asked, cringing immediately at how blunt she sounded.
"I wouldn't think of it that way," Kyouko said. "I'm going to try and convince Mami to let me go too. The Church is interested in anything involving Homura."
Kyouko nodded approvingly at herself, and Ryouko realized that she wasn't looking at a well‐reasoned decision, but the product of some kind of faith. It felt odd to her, since even her direct interactions with the divine were heavily tinged with practicality.
Nana cleared her throat slightly to get her attention.
"Besides my section of Internal Security, the… Church of Hope is the only group conducting a serious search for Akemi Homura. We've had contacts for a long time, and sometimes shared information, though I can't say I've really spoken with Sakura‐san much before this. Calling her in on this is something that I owe to the Church, and having an Ancient on a mission always helps."
Kyouko coughed slightly at Nana's use of "Ancient", but didn't say anything.
"There's also…" Nana continued, before pausing for a moment, looking down at the table. Kyouko looked at her and nodded, slowly.
Nana shook her head.
"Later, perhaps. But that's more or less the gist of it. And, the fact is, I am aware how important wormhole research can be. One option is simply for you to join the mission, and then come back. The offer from Kana‐san to join the intelligence services is a bit more open‐ended."
Ryouko looked from Nana to Kyouko, and back again. She didn't know what to say. She had been feeling uneasy about staying here, on Eurydome, but she had not done anything about it, nor spoken to Asami. Did she really want to leave, even temporarily, for something like this?
"How long do I have to decide?" Ryouko asked.
"About a week," Nana said. "I'm sorry, but we're on a tight schedule."
Ryouko looked down at her hands. So this was how it was going to be, it seemed. At least she was being given a choice this time, she supposed.
A message from Clarisse entered her thoughts—a question Clarisse wanted her to ask, and it was a good question indeed.
"You mentioned Mami was somehow in control of the mission?" Ryouko said, looking up abruptly at Kyouko. "How is she involved?"
Kyouko looked bemused for a moment, scratching at her cheek with one finger.
"Well, nominally the mission is under her control," Kyouko said. "I actually haven't talked to her about going, but I'm sure she'll be accommodating."
Kyouko didn't sound as sure as she claimed, but Ryouko let the topic drop.
"I don't think I can decide on the spot," she said. "Is there a, uh, way I can contact you?"
It wasn't usually a question worth asking, but Kuroi Nana could, and probably would, disappear into the mist the moment the meeting ended.
"You can just tell Kyouko," Nana said, nodding. "I can't say it's surprising you need to think about it. Any more questions?"
Ryouko thought for a moment and shook her head slowly, reluctantly. Nana watched her for a moment longer, then stood up.
"Well, I'm sorry I can't stay longer. I might come visiting again, for more of a family thing, but I have too much to do. Give my regards to your mother. Oh, and, uh, sorry for missing your birthday. I wanted to come tomorrow, but the timing didn't work out."
Ryouko started to get up to show Nana out, but then looked at Kyouko, who wasn't moving, and suddenly an obvious question occurred to her.
"I'm sorry if this seems rude, but… well, why are you here? You traveled from Earth just to see me? Do you have something to ask too?"
Kyouko looked at her and grinned broadly, row of gleaming teeth glistening.
Kyouko placed the last part of her beef jerky in her mouth.
"Well, I'm here to check up on my favorite trainee, since she's about to have a birthday. Why don't you show me around?"
Ryouko didn't really believe that Kyouko was here just to check up on her, but the Ancient was, in fact, her mentor, so there was little she could dispute. As Kyouko ended up pointing out repeatedly, she hadn't really done much for Ryouko since sending her to training—and implicitly, Mami's care.
So, after sending Nana the memory file she had received from her grandmother, she checked her internal chronometer, sighed, and decided it couldn't hurt to bring Kyouko with her to the lab. Something about the Cult leader's almost predatory smile unnerved her, however.
It was only a short while later that Ryouko found herself on her way to the University of Thalia, located in the eponymous city. It was the largest of Eurydome's cities; that was to say, still small by Earth standards. MSY Finance had been kind enough to provide Ryouko with her own private vehicle, which weaved its way through Thalia's streets as she pondered her situation silently.
"You asked me a while ago about a vision you had," Kyouko said, getting her attention by looking in her direction. "One with Yuma, and Oriko."
"Yes," Ryouko acknowledged, looking back at Kyouko and wondering what had prompted this topic.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Kyouko asked. "I admit—I'd like to hear more about it."
Ryouko peered into Kyouko's quiet, thoughtful eyes, and tried to read the Ancient; not something that was likely to work, but she had to try anyway. Kyouko had all sorts of reasons to want to know about visions from the Goddess, but Ryouko could easily imagine that the topic was also important for other reasons.
"Well, it wasn't a very long vision," Ryouko said, shading her eyes downward. "It looked like Oriko had just died, and Yuma was crying over her. What bothered me was that… well, Yuma looked like she was on the verge of soul gem breakdown, and then she attacked a group of demons. I don't know how to say this, but it doesn't match the official story, and it was part of a vision…"
She let her voice trail off, risking a glance at Kyouko's face to gauge her reaction. Kyouko did not look terribly annoyed or bothered, or even skeptical. Instead she maintained the same calm, matronly expression as before. Ryouko suspected it revealed very little about Kyouko's true thoughts.
"Well," Kyouko said, clasping her hands together. "That is because the official story simply isn't true."
Kyouko paused, watching Ryouko's reaction, and Ryouko found herself blinking, waiting for Kyouko to continue.
"Perhaps you can get Yuma herself to tell you, someday," Kyouko said, before Ryouko could ask. "I admit that sounds rather far‐fetched, but if you got a vision about it, then it would certainly make sense for you eventually to learn all the necessary context—"
Kyouko paused dramatically, raising a finger.
"—but I can't be the one to tell you about it. I know that sounds unfair, since I just asked you to tell me about your vision, but it's really her story to tell. I needed to check just how much you knew. Sorry."
She paused, putting her hand to her mouth.
"I wonder, though, just how much Oriko saw of the future. Even Yuma never really got a full idea."
Kyouko looked pointedly away, making it clear that Ryouko wasn't intended to ask about what Kyouko had just said. As Ryouko began to ponder whether to ask anyway, Kyouko started digging through her clothing, obviously searching for some thing.
She quickly gave up, though, then sighed loudly.
"I miss Mami's swank car," Kyouko said. "It makes tea and snacks for you. But I guess that's asking too much. I should have brought more food."
"Car?" Ryouko asked, tilting her head slightly. "You want cookies?"
"Nevermind," Kyouko said, waving off the question. "We're almost there, anyway."
Indeed they were—the organization of the buildings around them had gradually transitioned into the highly‐networked structure that typified modern research clusters. The sky above them was filled with skybridges and workspaces, at a density that would have been unusual even for Earth. Ryouko often wondered why the University didn't simply shift the road they were traveling on underground, and replace the aboveground with one monolithic structure. Too much retrofitting, perhaps.
The vehicle pulled up to the curb next to a particularly ornate structure, tall even by the standards of the University. This entrance was only a side entrance, intended for staff rather than visitors, but the top of the door was still carved with a symbol that resembled a many‐pointed star, evocative of the sun, of particles colliding, or perhaps even of black holes. It was tough to say, really.
Ryouko stood on the threshold for a long moment, staring at the symbol and thinking. Asami had already sent her a message informing her that she and her mother had arrived at the lab, so it really wouldn't do for Ryouko to be any later than she already was. And yet, Ryouko found herself strangely reluctant to enter the building. She didn't want to see the scientists, because she didn't want to be reminded that she would be letting them down if she left on a mission, taking the risk of getting herself killed. Childish, maybe, to want to avoid making a decision that displeased people she knew, but even after everything she had seen and done, she still felt like a child sometimes.
She could feel Kyouko's gaze upon her, so she turned to ask:
"Does it ever go away?"
"What?" Kyouko asked, as Ryouko knew she would.
"That feeling of not really knowing what you're doing. I feel like I have so much responsibility, but then I remember people like Mami‐san, who have so much more. I'm really just a child, aren't I?"
Kyouko tilted her head, the gesture indicating her surprise at Ryouko's sudden choice of topic, emotional as it was.
She smiled slightly, crookedly, and for a moment Ryouko felt she saw a glimmer of something authentic in Kyouko's eyes.
"The feeling never goes away," she said, putting her hand on Ryouko's shoulder. "Not even for us. Not even for Mami."
Kyouko paused slightly, just for a moment.
"You'll be fine," she said. "We wouldn't have sprung this on you so early, but there wasn't really a choice. We can talk more later. Come on."
Ryouko allowed herself to be led through the doorway, the building's authentication sensors automatically granting her, and by extension Kyouko, passage.
Ryouko frowned, watching Kyouko's back as she walked. There was something she needed to tell Kyouko, now that she was here. It was not really something she wanted to talk about, but—
She startled slightly, stopping just in time to avoid running into Kyouko. The girl had paused just inside a large atrium, looking around the room with a thoughtful expression, then turning to peer at Ryouko questioningly.
It took Ryouko a moment to pick up the obvious: Kyouko had no idea where they were going. As a partially‐secured facility, the Institute for Theoretical Gravitonics—ITG—gave visitors only an incomplete map. Even if Kyouko had taken the time to look up which lab Ryouko was affiliated with, it wouldn't have availed her much.
"This way," Ryouko said, leading Kyouko towards the other side of the atrium, past a few scattered researchers seated in front of "Event Horizon Brewing", a gourmet coffee shop that seemed to really enjoy making terrible puns between "black coffee" and "black hole".
They walked for a while into the depths of the building, threading up ramps, down twisting hallways, and past a bevy of doorways inscribed with the ITG logo. Unlike Prometheus on Earth, which had a relatively straightforward, grid‐like layout, ITG's main building had been designed by a rather eccentric AI architect. According to legend, the AI, a bit of a physics enthusiast, had been shown a few cross‐sections of a Calabi‐Yau manifold, and had been so inspired that it had spent a solid month designing a building layout that could house working research labs and particle accelerators, fulfill all safety and usability requirements, and whose layout would map meaningfully to a full Calabi‐Yau manifold.
The practical result had been a building that was impossible to navigate without the full internal map, and had gotten so many visitors lost going to the bathroom that special robotic escorts had been installed. The running joke was that with its blasphemous angles, the building was only waiting for the stars to be right to awaken into its true form—a joke that the building AI took in surprisingly good humor, though it had been forced to abandon using a Cthulhu avatar after a returning veteran panicked and tried to attack it.
They came to a stop outside an elevator with circular doors. Typically, the elevator was busy elsewhere. It was an annoyance compared to Earth.
"Why are the floors on this elevator labeled with two numbers?" Kyouko asked.
"It runs diagonally," Ryouko explained. "Don't ask."
"Diagonally…" Kyouko echoed.
But she didn't ask.
Ryouko let out a breath as they stepped into the elevator car. She supposed she didn't have to talk to Kyouko about the vision until later.
Ryouko… Clarisse warned, the nagging tone of her voice rubbing abrasively inside her head.
Fine, fine, she thought.
Her TacComp had been on her case recently about her "procrastinatory habits".
"Kyouko," she began, hesitating as always on dropping the honorific as Kyouko preferred.
"Hmm?" Kyouko asked, tilting her head towards Ryouko.
"I'm not sure this is the right time to bring this up," Ryouko said, as they began to descend into the subterranean levels of the building, "but do you remember the first vision I had, the one where it looked like you had been killed?"
"Of course," Kyouko said. "Why?"
"I've been thinking about it," Ryouko said. "And looking back at it now, I don't think we were fighting aliens in the vision. The weapon types used don't match. I just thought you should know."
Kyouko closed her eyes for a moment, bowing her head slightly.
"That's interesting to hear," she said. "I've thought about it too. When your aunt came to talk to me, I thought about just sending someone, instead of going myself. But, you know, I didn't want to stay on Earth just because I was scared. If that's what the Goddess wanted, I think she would have been more clear about it."
"Is she usually more clear?" Ryouko asked.
Kyouko closed her eyes again.
"In a way. Sometimes I visit the Ribbon, and she'll talk to me, just her voice. I've only rarely gotten a vision more elaborate than that. I'm a bit jealous of people like you."
Kyouko opened her eyes again, and looked at Ryouko.
"Something bothers me about all this. Your vision implies that someone is going to try and kill me. Someone might have already tried to kill you. I can't help but think it's all connected, somehow. But it doesn't make sense."
"Have you figured out who it was?" Ryouko asked, voice quiet. She had almost forgotten about it, and it disturbed her to think about.
"We haven't learned a damn thing," Kyouko said, voice tinged with a hint of anger.
Kyouko's forehead wrinkled in frustration for a moment.
"Well, the Goddess will take care of things. I try not to worry too much about this kind of thing. Even if I die, things will work out. It's not like I haven't lived enough."
The elevator settled into a gentle stop, and the doors slid open. They stood there for a moment, and then Ryouko led the way out.
"Just how deep underground are we, anyway?" Kyouko asked.
"Not very deep, compared to a redoubt," Ryouko said, "but pretty deep compared to anything else. Apparently all the really delicate stuff gets done down here."
Ryouko felt a vague glimmer of satisfaction as they strode down the hallway, Kyouko turning her head to and fro to peer down side corridors. For once, Ryouko wasn't the one being shown around, the gawker standing out like a sore thumb among a crowd of veterans.
"Are you sure you can even let me down here?" Kyouko asked, sotto voce.
"It's fine, as long as I'm not showing you anything too secret," Ryouko said. "Which I'm not. I brought my mom here, after all."
"Yeah, but she's a scientist, I guess."
The deep subterranean levels, constrained by the large‐scale equipment installed around them—particle accelerators, artificial gravity generators, and the like—had a more conventional floor plan, coupled with a high ceiling and bright, cheery lighting, designed to dispel any claustrophobia that might have resulted from the long elevator trip down. Solid stone squares, as tall as the doors, were set into the wall at regular intervals, chiseled with abstract symbols and drawings of astronomical phenomena. It was a bit of an odd design aesthetic, but Ryouko had gotten used to that in the weeks that she had spent here.
Finally, they arrived at their destination, identified by a small sign labeled "Very High Energy Studies ‐ Director: Tao Shaojie". Ryouko had learned to identify when she was almost there by watching for the stone tile inscribed with what appeared to be rippling water.
The door slid open at their approach, revealing immediately the most striking feature of the room: the giant metallic tubes, thicker than Ryouko was tall, some of which passed right by the entrance. The room was evidently enormous, more of a warehouse than a room—as could be seen by peering past the tubing into the far back corners—but was filled nearly to the brim with desks, measurement equipment attached to the tubes, and research personnel.
Dr. Tao himself was waiting a few steps in, eagerness barely concealed.
"Oh, so this is the other visitor?" he asked, tilting his head. "Well, I'm afraid the tour will have to wait. We are keen to begin, and I am sure seeing the lab in action will be far more interesting than looking at inactive equipment."
Ryouko allowed them to be led deeper into the room, accumulating as they went a small crowd of scientists. Ryouko had memorized some of their identities over the past few weeks, at least vaguely, and could identify the senior researchers, the research students, and the students from the local high school, including the boy who Asami claimed was always giving Ryouko "The Look", though Ryouko didn't believe it.
They found Ryouko's mother standing in the observation room, peering through a thick pane of reinforced glass down at the study area, where Asami was performing various gravitational feats for the benefit of the facility's gravitational sensors.
"Greetings," the laboratory AI, Lemaître, said, as their small group entered the observation room. Rather than choosing to resemble his namesake, the AI used a nondescript, rather short avatar, which stood next to Ryouko's mother, hands clasped behind its back, in front of an elaborate control that it surely was not manipulating manually.
"Should we wait until Nakihara‐san is finished?" Dr. Tao asked.
"That won't be necessary," the AI said. "I was collecting low priority data. Now that Miss Shizuki is here, we can begin the serious experimentation."
Ryouko didn't really like Lemaître, who she suspected thought of her more as an experimental subject than a person.
But she nodded, then exited alone through a door on the side. As she descended down to the study area, she played back in her mind the proud statements she knew Director Tao would be funneling at Kyouko, how their artificial gravity generator was one of Humanity's most powerful, more powerful even than those installed on battlecruisers. The whole underground facility was seismically shielded, the sensors were some of the most precise ever produced, based on his own design, the lab had put together a new human subject study area in only a few weeks, and so on and so forth. Only a very cruel person would have pointed out that Adept Blue, the deep space gravitonics lab situated on an asteroid in the Sol System, had him beat in most of those categories.
Indeed, the interests of pure science would have directed Ryouko there, instead of to this lab on Eurydome.
She met Asami inside the small privacy room that adjoined the study area. The girl was on her way back up, and gave her one of the quick kisses she was so fond of.
If you spend too long in this room 'transforming', they'll wonder what you two are doing, Clarisse mocked.
Shut up, Ryouko responded.
She transformed and glanced at the monitor above the doorway. "Gravity Level: 0 g", it said.
She took a breath, and stepped through the doorway into the study area.
There was really very little for her to think about in these studies, she reflected, as she allowed herself to float into the air. Unlike Asami, who could perform active manipulations and even had a fascinating singularity for the scientists to fawn over, she was a one‐trick pony: she could make a temporary wormhole and pass through it. Thus, while Asami's instructions were sometimes quite complex, Ryouko's usually consisted of "teleport from point A to point B and back over and over while we adjust the gravitational field."
She had been afraid that Asami would end up stealing her thunder in the eyes of the scientists, but that had turned out not to be the case. The scientists seemed endlessly fascinated by the streams of data coming from their sensors, and hadn't begun to show even the slightest sign of apathy about her presence.
The experiments had even been a little educational for Ryouko herself, she had to admit. She had learned, for example, why a long string attached to one of her arbalest's bolts would snap when she teleported, like during her very first demon hunt. It came down to the physics of the wormholes she used to teleport: she could only manipulate the geometry of her wormhole's mouth so much, and only hold it open for so long. That meant she couldn't force something distant through it, whether it was connected to her or not.
She did plan to work on her wormhole control, however.
This week's experimental protocol tasked her with teleporting through a predefined series of points as fast as she could, until she felt she couldn't anymore. She had a restriction on how frequently she could teleport that was independent of soul gem, and Dr. Tao believed that this was due to the fundamentals of how her power worked. They wanted to test that as directly as possible, of course.
Ryouko sighed. It wasn't exactly pleasant, exhausting her teleports, and she felt faintly ridiculous, teleporting in a circle over and over in a frilly dress, in front of her mother, no less.
"Are you ready?" Lemaître asked over an intercom, and she responded by giving a thumbs‐up signal.
The signal light in the room turned green, and Ryouko started her circuit, her perspective shifting from the bottom of the room, to one of the platforms that jutted out of the side, to in the air near the roof, to one of the side walls…
Once, long ago, when she had been newly contracted, the constant changes in perspective would have disoriented her, without the natural magical girl instincts to stabilize her in combat. Now, though, she was used to the process, and quickly started letting Clarisse guide her from location to location, allowing her mind to drift.
A distant part of her mind registered that, according to the indicator sign at the top of the room, the gravitational field had increased to 0.2 g. She felt surprisingly heavy, and she could also feel that she was starting to draw on her available pool of teleports.
It felt like so long since she had been that quiet, bored Earth girl peering out the window of her room. She had experienced a lot, and learned a lot; of this, she was sure. Yet, as she had implied to Kyouko earlier, she didn't feel like she had learned what she really wanted to learn. When she had made her wish, she had imagined that she would be alone, making decisions about her own future, exploring the wide world.
And yet, now that she was finally starting to face this prospect, there was a part of her that found it terrifying. She was facing a choice about whether to leave the planet or not, and she had realized that she was starting to feel a sense of responsibility and with it, a sense of fear at the unknown directions that her decision might take her. Her vision of the possibilities for her future life had expanded, and though she was fairly certain she didn't want to be spending too long running teleportation laps around a room, she had started to muse on the idea of bringing Asami with her as she traveled, if Asami would have it.
But would she?
The gravitational field was starting to become very noticeable now—Ryouko was beginning to fall a substantial distance whenever she teleported into the air, despite it being only 0.4 g. Still, she was used to it. She shook her head at herself a little, and tried to go back to her thoughts and forget that she was starting to drain her remaining teleports, a condition that made her nervous on an instinctual level.
Her mother had asked for her opinion on whether Ryouko wanted her to move to Eurydome, but Ryouko could see what she meant: her mother wanted Ryouko to choose whether or not she wanted her mother in the area. There was a part of her that was disturbed by the idea of moving back in with her mother so soon after leaving—and yet she felt acutely aware that she was only fourteen, even if she was turning fifteen tomorrow. There were very few fourteen‐year‐olds being asked to make such life decisions—even the contracted ones were mostly being shuffled around the front lines or in and out of training centers. It would be only normal to live with her mother. She would be someone Ryouko could ask for advice.
Nor was her decision as simple as choosing to leave or not leave the planet. There were other options lurking at the edges. Nana had given the option of going on the mission and then simply coming back. That was the safest route, perhaps, but Ryouko did not want to tell Asami and the scientists she would be coming back, when she might not be.
Finally, there was the Goddess lurking in the background. The deity had a plan for her, and she doubted the plan involved her living quietly on Eurydome. Yet the deity had implied she could see the future, and was perhaps even timeless. Ryouko could imagine that she might not be called upon again for years, or even decades. She doubted that, though.
She teleported into the air once again, and this time found herself pulled down so sharply it shocked her. Her soul gem was doing fine, but she could sense that she was nearly out of further ability to teleport. She exerted herself for one final teleport, landing onto a platform on the far side of the room. Teleporting didn't remove her velocity relative to the room, though, so the shock in her bones startled her as she landed. That was not typical for such a short fall, and for her to feel it, through both her magical girl body and the augmentations, meant that the gravity must have been strong indeed.
"I'm out of teleports," she transmitted to the research team. "What is the current gravity setting?"
She had glanced up at the informational display at the far top corner of the room. It claimed "0.75 g", but she had difficulty believing that.
"We're getting great data, Miss Shizuki," Tao transmitted back. "Very interesting. I think I may understand—well, we can start again when you're ready. The gravity setting is 0.75 g, although that last fall—"
Ryouko shook her head.
"This is not 0.75 Earth gravity," she insisted. "You saw how fast I fell? I can feel it!"
From her vantage point on the elevated platform, Ryouko could see nearly the entire room around her: the sterile‐white walls and floor, the gray metal platforms that were identical on both top and bottom, sticking from the sides of the room, the ceiling, and the floor. In one of the top corners she could see the clear reinforced glass—actually a nanofabricated metamaterial—through which the researchers peered down at her. She could see Director Tao turn and gesture at one of the researchers near him, seated at the instrument panel. Asami was probably somewhere else in the facility resting, she realized.
"You're right," he transmitted back. "Something is wrong. Georges, shut down the system. Miss Shizuki, I apologize for this. We'll have it sorted out immediately."
Ryouko gritted her teeth, dropping into a crouch. The gravity seemed to be getting worse, and it was becoming difficult to—
Ryouko! Get out of there! Teleport!
Asami's thought sent a jolt of fear through her heart. She strained, trying to call up the necessary teleport out of the room.
I can't! she thought. I ran out! I need fifteen seconds—
The platform below her started to bend downward, and for a moment she saw the world in slow motion—Director Tao gesticulating wildly at the researcher next to him, the two of them shouting at each other, the door sliding open as Kyouko and Asami rushed in, already transformed.
Then with a tremendous crack, the ceiling above her ruptured open, imploding down upon her impossibly fast, and Ryouko knew that she couldn't dodge.
When Ryouko opened her eyes again, realizing that she had not been entombed by countless tons of falling metal and soil, she found herself squinting up at a metallic diamond mesh, shimmering luminescent red, that somehow held up the collapsing ceiling despite its repeating pattern of holes. Around her stood a circle of red apparitions, clones of Kyouko, hands held up toward the sky.
"What are you waiting for?" Kyouko asked, her chorus of voices assailing Ryouko from all sides. "I can't keep this up much longer! Teleport to Asami!"
Ryouko propped herself up onto her arms, regaining her bearings. She had fallen down to the floor under the influence of the intense gravity, but had somehow managed to remain uninjured. She recalled falling into something surprisingly soft and pliable. Had it been Kyouko somehow?
But even as she speculated about what had happened, she dug within herself, trying to pull together the resources to teleport out, fixating on the signature of Asami's soul gem. She felt it fluctuate a little—but she couldn't worry about that, not yet.
"Grab my hand so I can teleport you out!" she shouted, reaching out her arm blindly, unsure which Kyouko was the real Kyouko.
"These are all clones!" the Kyoukos said. "Just go!"
She arrived at a scene of chaos. The observation room was strewn with rubble, having also apparently suffered some kind of cave‐in, and the door out was visibly bent, clearly in no condition to slide open. The researcher manning the control console was clutching his arm, muttering swear words at himself, but still trying to operate the console. Next to the window, Kyouko had her eyes closed, still channeling her duplicates so that they'd allow the ceiling of the testing room to collapse in a relatively gentle fashion.
"Oh, Ry—Miss Shizuki, you're okay," Dr. Tao said, appearing in front of her. He was holding one hand over his left eye, with blood leaking out visibly behind it, but appeared remarkably dignified for his situation.
Ryouko pushed him aside, though, heading for the first thing she had noticed in the room: Asami kneeling in the corner, Ryouko's mother kneeling next to her, whispering into her ear.
The latter stood up at Ryouko's approach, turning her head slightly. She seemed reluctant to move for a moment, but then stepped aside, allowing Ryouko to see the source of her reluctance.
In truth, Ryouko had already intuited what had happened from the blood staining her mother's pants, but she was only able to fully believe it seeing for herself. Asami knelt on the floor, head down, pinned to the spot by a metal beam straight through the abdomen, blood and gore covering the floor beneath her, her purple costume ripped and torn. Impossibly, she seemed to still be conscious, channeling some kind of magic, her soul gem glowing on the floor in front of her.
In that moment, unable to look away from the sheer trauma that had been inflicted, part of her mind presented her with a flashback of that same abdomen, smooth and unbroken, in an entirely different context—
She instantly regretted the memory, feeling the bile rising in her throat, until it subsided abruptly, Clarisse crushing the emotions with the velvet fist of emotional suppression.
She dropped to her knees next to Asami, searching for the girl's eyes. Only then did Asami turn her head to face her.
"I'm here," she said, blinking away tears. "I'm here."
I'm not very good at keeping my body intact, am I? Asami thought, as Ryouko realized that the girl didn't want to use her mouth to speak. I'm okay, though, really. I've got pain‐killers and everything from my implants.
Asami made a pained attempt at a smile, and Ryouko snuck a glance at the girl's soul gem, which was on the floor in front of her dumping grief into a small circle of grief cubes. Truth be told, it was doing reasonably well, and Ryouko realized that Asami was telling the truth—she really was okay, so long as Ryouko was here.
That only made it more painful.
"She was trying to save you," Kyouko said, appearing next to her. "We didn't think this room would buckle in, too. The only reason we're still alive is because she's canceling the gravity above us."
Ryouko looked up, in time to see Kyouko's face soften.
"She'll be fine," Kyouko said. "Take my word for it. I've lived through worse than that myself. Once we get out of here, she can stop using her magic and go into fugue."
"I've lost contact with Geor—Lemaître," Dr. Tao said, from behind her. "But based on the last reports I've heard, something has gone terribly wrong. The gravity generators have gone crazy in the whole complex, and there's been collapses everywhere, but at least the emergency stabilizers have gone off and kept the whole place from coming down on us. It'll take a while for anyone to get to us, though."
Ryouko closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She—
—found herself jumping up, seizing the Director by the collar and pinning him against the wall. The world turning into a haze around her, as she peered into the man's abruptly terrified eyes. She felt herself pressing the man against the wall.
"What the hell kind of lab are you running here, anyway? What kind of crap do you think you're doing, anyway? I didn't goddamn—"
Then an oddly pleasing tingle interrupted her thoughts, as she realized Clarisse had turned up her emotional suppression another notch. She felt a bit numb to the world around her, but at least she could think clearly. She finally noticed Kyouko and her mother pulling at her arms, though only the former had any chance of actually countering the force of her pin.
She released the Director, who had already started having visible difficulty breathing.
"I'm sorry about that," she said, and even in her own ears her voice sounded empty. "If it's really true that there are still uncollapsed regions of the facility, I could help retrieve them, but…"
She glanced at Asami, still laboring on the floor, in a pool of her own blood.
"I'll take us all to the surface first," she said. "The emergency workers will have some scanners that can identify where the intact regions of the facility are."
She felt Kyouko grab her by the shoulder.
"It's okay," Kyouko said. "I don't want you trying to rescue anybody. Go with her to the hospital. I'm sure there'll be other teleporters somewhere in the local area. You don't have to be the one to do it."
Ryouko turned, looking into Kyouko's eyes. Even in her dulled state, she could read what those eyes said. Kyouko wouldn't let Ryouko try to stay, even if she wanted to.
"That seems logical," Ryouko responded.
"When you take us to the surface," Dr. Tao said, straightening his collar. "Make sure to teleport the metal beam along with us. Removing the beam at this point would only add tremendous shock. It has to be done by a trained team."
"That makes sense," Ryouko said.
She ended up exiting emotional suppression when she was in the hospital, seated in a waiting room as the robotic surgeons did their work. Her mother hovered over her, speaking at length about how it really wouldn't be that bad, how they could pull extra organs off her clone in storage, how as a magical girl she could heal it more easily anyway, and so forth. She had considered ending the emotional suppression earlier, but Clarisse had flatly refused.
It wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. Her mother held her as she leaned over slightly, trying to contain the nausea that came with exiting suppression. It had been more than half an hour, and there had been enough time for her to calm down. Instead of feeling angry, or despairing, she simply felt numb. She didn't like to admit it, but having her mother with her was helpful at that moment in time.
As she leaned on her mother's shoulder, she thought about how oddly important Asami had become to her, during their short time on Eurydome. Could it be called love, or was it simply the trauma of seeing another fixture of her life almost torn away? She couldn't say.
They sat there until the announcement came that Asami had been moved to one of the hospital beds.
It was the next day before Asami was allowed to regain consciousness.
"Hey," Ryouko said as Asami's eyes opened, holding the girl's hand.
Asami seemed to peer at her for a moment, checking for something, then glanced at Ryouko's mother behind her.
"Hey," Asami said finally, looking back at Ryouko. "Happy birthday, I guess. What a great way to spend it, right?"
Asami smiled slightly, letting Ryouko know it was a joke.
"Yeah, I guess," Ryouko said.
Asami squeezed her hand, and Ryouko looked down at the floor, thinking about something else entirely.
How could she tell her now that she was thinking about leaving with Nana and Kyouko?
"The doctors say your recovery will take about three days," Ryouko said, making eye contact with Asami. "They brought in a magical healer to accelerate the process, which is why it's so fast. The three days is for your body to grow back over the scaffolding they've put in. Your soul gem will help you heal faster."
She gestured vaguely at the tubes running out from under Asami's sheets. She didn't mention the organs they had harvested from Asami's new stored clone. Why overcomplicate matters?
Asami looked to the side, spotting her soul gem on the counter next to the bed, draining into a grief cube that her CubeBot was holding with a robotic arm.
"That's good to hear," Asami said, smiling slightly. "We can go out to eat when I'm back up. For your birthday."
Ryouko sensed someone behind her, and turned to find Kyouko in the doorway, carrying one of those "Get Better Soon" balloons that you always got someone in the hospital. She hadn't followed them yesterday, staying behind to help with the rescue efforts. Ryouko suspected that Kyouko had been involved in bringing in a healer for Asami—otherwise, for non‐combat personnel, it was typical to save healing resources by allowing manageable injuries to heal on their own.
"Chocolates?" she said, accepting Kyouko's gift. "Well, she's actually not supposed to eat for another day, since, well, her stomach…"
"Well, tomorrow then," Kyouko said, waving her hand dismissively. "I was going to get something separate for your birthday and all, but this seemed like not the best time for that."
Ryouko nodded slightly, acknowledging the point.
"Well, thanks for visiting," Ryouko's mother said, gesturing Kyouko towards a chair near Ryouko.
"To be entirely honest," Kyouko said, sitting down and crossing her legs, "this isn't just a visit. Ryouko, Public Order is going to open a foul play investigation into what just happened."
There was a moment of silence, and Ryouko saw both Asami and her mother's faces twist in confusion.
"Foul play?" Ryouko's mother asked incredulously.
Kyouko looked down at her hand, which was idly toying with the ribbon attached to the balloon.
"The circumstances of what happened are apparently very suspicious," she said. "I'm told there'll be some Governance investigators here soon to talk to you about it. They might want your memory files."
She made abrupt eye contact with Ryouko, and thought:
Have you ever told anyone here that there was an attempt on your life when you first contracted? Perhaps we should talk about this in private.
Ryouko thought about it for a moment.
I haven't. Should I?
The rest of what I'm saying won't make sense without it.
Ryouko glanced at Asami, who was watching their telepathic conversation with a disturbed look, and decided she couldn't continue keeping this particular secret.
Ryouko sighed, sliding her chair back so that she could address the others all at once. She looked at Asami and her mother in turn.
"What Kyouko is getting at is that there's something I've never told either of you. The truth is, when I was first making my contract, there was apparently an attempt on my life."
Asami's face grew even darker, while Ryouko's mother gasped audibly.
"Ryouko! How could you never say—"
"We've never found any evidence to indicate who it was, or why they did it," Kyouko said, voice clear and serious. "The truth is, we can't even prove they were targeting her specifically. However, and I won't go into the details, the reason the investigators want to speak to her so much is that everything thus far seems to indicate that the gravity generators were rigged to cause the most severe collapse into the area we were standing in, once a testing routine was run. That chamber was custom‐built for Ryouko, you'll remember. Given what happened to Ryouko before, the conclusion seems obvious."
Kyouko checked to make sure she still had their attention, and continued:
"The evidence actually strongly implicates Lemaître, even though no one can imagine a suitable motive. However, the AI consented to a code inspection, and TCF validation shows that he wasn't involved. So, they don't really have any likely suspects at the moment, though they're going through the lab personnel."
I thought at first they might have been going after me, like in your vision, Kyouko thought, simultaneously. But they would have had no idea I was going to be here. Still, it's too much of a coincidence. Something is going on.
Ryouko gripped the armrests of her chair, feeling some of the emotions she had grown numb to come roaring back to the forefront.
"You're telling me they tried to kill me, and because of that, they almost killed all of us?" she said, growling the words slightly.
"Maybe," Kyouko said, meeting her gaze.
Ryouko seethed, gritting her teeth. She remembered how Asami had looked, kneeling on the floor in pain, her belly ripped open by a support beam. All because someone wanted to kill her?
"Is there anything I can do?" Ryouko asked. "How can I make sure this doesn't happen again?"
"Hope the investigators come up with something, I guess," she said.
"They're just going to attack me again," Ryouko said. "And this time they might get me, or Asami‐chan, and—"
She cut herself off, the anger percolating to the surface again. Her thoughts flowed with deadly clarity.
Whoever is trying to kill me is trying to kill both of us, Ryouko thought to Kyouko. If I stay here, all that's going to happen is it will happen again, and I will get killed, and so might…
Kyouko didn't answer, but at that moment Ryouko didn't see Kyouko, or even the hospital room. She was seeing the crystallization of all she had experienced for the past month. The vague hints from the Goddess, her own restlessness at the dull routine of life on Eurydome, the mission offer from Nana—she was destined for greater things. Hadn't she wished for that? Her wish wouldn't allow her to rest, and furthermore, she didn't want to rest.
Kyouko was right: there was something going on here. Maybe getting to the bottom of it was what she had to do—maybe that was part of the world her wish was trying to show her. She couldn't stay a fixed target—she had to keep moving.
And she had to go on this mission. It related, somehow.
"Ryouko?" Asami asked, watching her sit there, eyes unseeing.
Ryouko let out a breath.
"I'm sorry," she said, quietly.
"What?" Asami asked.
Ryouko put one hand to her head, then pulled it away.
"The reason my aunt visited yesterday," she said, trying to speak as clearly as she could, "was to offer me a place in a covert ops mission, one that required my involvement. The truth is, I've been thinking about going back into the field for a while. I haven't really been happy living here—not because of you! But because… I don't think I can settle down yet, not now. I'm sorry."
She made eye contact with Asami, and the sadness in her eyes felt painful.
"I have to go," she said. "I can't really explain why, but I have to. There's so much going on here, and…"
She gestured inchoately with one hand. She saw her mother open her mouth to speak, then close it again.
"Well, I think I have to come back afterward, for a while," she said, looking away. "I have an obligation to give the scientists as much data as they think is useful. But for now, it seems like the lab will be shut down, and—"
"It's alright," Asami said, surprising Ryouko into making eye contact. The girl's expression was surprisingly determined.
"I always suspected you would want to leave," Asami said, pinning her with her eyes. "You've told me your wish, after all. I just…"
Asami's voice petered out and she dropped her gaze. Ryouko thought about what to say, but then Asami continued, taking a breath, and looking back at her:
"Just take me with you, that's all I want," she said.
Ryouko frowned, looking at Kyouko.
"I'm not sure I could take you with me," she said. "And if there's still someone trying to kill me, it's safer just to stay away. I don't want you hurt—"
"Do you think I care?"
Asami voice cut incisively through her own, sharp and loud. The girl lunged forward, grabbing Ryouko by the arm, causing one of the monitors to start beeping.
"Asami‐chan, please calm down," Ryouko's mother interjected, moving forward to try and pull the girl back. "You shouldn't be moving like that."
But Asami held Ryouko's arm with indelible force, and they met eyes once again, so that Ryouko could feel the force of her will.
They battled there for a moment, and then Ryouko closed her eyes, dropping her head in concession.
"Alright. If Kyouko can make it work, alright."