And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

— The Conclave Bible, Datalinks

"If it's a sin to 'play God', then why would He leave His tools lying around?"

— Unknown

"You can't be serious," Mami said, leaning across the table to stare at Kyouko.

Kyouko grimaced.

I knew she'd respond like this, she thought, sighing internally.

That was why she had asked for a VR meeting in the first place, after all. A little chat, at a table in a café they had frequented together long ago, with virtual tea—it was supposed to be disarming. More disarming than yelling at each other over a voice line or a video call, anyway.

Kyouko did her best to smile into the face of the Field Marshal's disapproval.

"Look, it's not that crazy, Mami," she said. "If there's evidence Homura might be involved in this, one of us should be involved, right? You're busy and we both know Yuma never leaves Earth. That leaves me."

"We both know that this is about your damn cult," Mami said, leaning onto her arm, hand on her forehead and eyes closed, pantomiming a headache. "I can't believe Internal Security leaked it to you."

It had certainly helped that Kuroi Kana had approved the leak, but Kyouko knew not to mention that.

"It's not just about my Church," Kyouko responded. "Look, I can keep my responsibilities to the Union separate from my responsibilities to the Church."

Mami looked up at her, then shook her head.

"You say that, but you know that's not really true. Let's say you hypothetically meet Homura. I'm sure she knows about your cult. I wouldn't be surprised if that weren't part of the reason she's staying away. How could you keep that separate?"

Kyouko gritted her teeth, keeping her instinctual anger under control. They'd had this particular argument before, and it didn't help to argue with Mami about the Church and Homura once again. That'd just poison the atmosphere.

"It doesn't matter, Mami," she said, looking the other girl in the eye. "You know I'm right. If Homura is involved, one of us should be in the area. It's not like I'm a newbie. I can handle myself in any situation. That's the only compensation we have for being this old."

"It's so tentative, though," Mami said, glancing away. "So one of the last places where Homura might have been was a planet the Ordo Illustrata docked at. It's a bit of grasping at straws."

"Straws are all we got," Kyouko said, shrugging. "And there always was something weird about that cult. The Church keeps track of any that involve magic or magical girls and they always seemed… too well organized. They had too many resources. We had them under special watch. The theory was that it was related to someone's wish, which, you know…"

She and Mami cringed simultaneously, obviously thinking about the same thing.

"But anyway, we never found any wishes that matched up, and the founder's daughter was already dead. Then they disappeared and didn't turn back up, so we forgot about it."

Mami shook her head, clasping her hands together around her cup of tea, now quite cold.

"If it were just a matter of my judgment, Kyouko, and if it were anyone else, I'd still say no," Mami said, looking back up at Kyouko. "But, I will respect that it is you. You can go."

Mami paused, frowning slightly.

"But did you have to take Shizuki‐san with you? Not Sayaka, but—"

"Yeah, Ryouko‐chan, obviously," Kyouko said, still frowning at Mami's unexpected use of her personal name. "Look, she came willingly, and I can't say I blame her, after what happened."

Mami peered down into her tea.

"I can't believe there's still someone trying to kill her. I had hoped the previous time was some sort of crazy misunderstanding. The idea that there'd still be someone doing this kind of thing, someone we can't track, and then this business with the Ordo Illustrata, and this vague Homura connection. My instincts tell me something is very wrong. I've told you about what I've learned about the missing grief cubes, and this new complaint from Clarisse…"

Mami let her voice trail off, and they sat in grim silence for a moment.

"It could still be nothing," Kyouko said, shaking her head sadly. "The soul gem might have been weaker than they thought. She was the one who destroyed the last generator, with a lightning storm. It would have taken a lot of power. Maybe they didn't give it enough grief cubes."

"Would Clarisse have made that kind of mistake?" Mami said, still looking into her tea. "Does that make any sense?"

Kyouko sighed, and leaned back into her chair.

"No, she wouldn't. And it doesn't. For a soul gem to just fail like that is crazy."

Mami sat back, looking up at the wooden ceiling of the café.

"Something like this happening to someone close to someone like Clarisse elevates this whole affair to an entirely new political plane," Mami said. "And if someone inside the MSY is responsible, they would know this. Clarisse will be breathing fire the next Committee meeting. The ramifications could be enormous, especially if it comes out we didn't tell everyone right away."

"We don't know that someone was responsible, Mami," Kyouko said. "It could just be a new phenomenon."

"Things like this don't just start happening," Mami said. "You know that. Someone was responsible, even if we don't know how."

Kyouko leaned her head into her hand and sighed again, then took a bite of her chocolate croissant.

It might as well have been cardboard.

"Fortunately, Clarisse is more reasonable than that," Mami continued, when Kyouko didn't say anything further. "Of course she is. For now she's keeping things to herself, but if we don't start producing results with this investigation… well, you can guess how she put it."

"Who else knows?" Kyouko asked.

"The rest of her team, of course," Mami said. "Though for now, they're satisfied to hear we're working on it. No one has told Shizuki‐san, though."

"And no one will," Kyouko said. "Or at least we won't. Not until we know."

She put one hand thoughtfully to her cheek.

"Does Clarisse think she can help?" she asked. "If there's anyone whose judgment I might trust, it's someone like her."

"Maybe," Mami said. "She doesn't know yet. She did say it might have something to do with a mission Virani‐san was involved in, about a decade ago. Some incident on the planet of New California."

Kyouko looked off to the side for a moment, digging through her memory.

"I haven't heard of this," she said.

"Neither had I," Mami said. "It's absurdly and explicitly classified, both on the MSY and Governance level—and you know how rare explicit classification is. Apparently there was a string of unsolved disappearances on the planet. Teenage girls, but not magical girls. Public Order wasn't having any luck, and neither was the Soul Guard, so she and one of her teammates were sent undercover to investigate. The evidence suggested it was a magical girl with family problems who had found out about the cloning program and had gone a little insane. They weren't able to capture the girl alive. Nasty business."

Kyouko wrinkled her nose, making a face at the explanation.

"Except why would it be so classified? The cloning thing is common knowledge for mid‐level security clearance. That explanation also makes no sense. Were there any other details?"

Mami shook her head.

"No. That's essentially all there is to read, and if I can't read any further, who can? So few details, such a high classification—there's something important being left out."

"Obviously," Kyouko echoed. "Does Clarisse know more?"

"I asked," Mami said, anticipating the question. "No. She just knows Misa mentioned it vaguely to her teammates once, and seemed uneasy about it. She's not really sure why she thinks it's important—just one of those instinct things."

"One of those instinct things, huh…" Kyouko said, letting her voice trail off.

"Yeah," Mami said. "One of those."

She slid downward, resting her head on her arms.

"According to the records, there was a delay in shipping Misa Virani's clone onto the ship after the battle, because her primary was lost on the surface of Apollo along with one of the city centers. Because she was Black Heart, she had a secondary clone on ice on a more secure planet, but it was necessary to get it shipped out. During that period, the transport vessel was forced to reroute because of residual Cephalopod combat vessels in the sector. It was two weeks before the clone arrived at Zhukov."

She didn't check to see if Kyouko understood her, because Kyouko had already heard the account. Mami was just reciting it out loud again, trying to see if there was anything she missed.

"Since we needed to wait for a clone to arrive, one of the soul mages aboard put her soul gem in induced stasis, and we stored it next to a grief cube maintenance system. According to Zhukov's logs, just before the clone arrived, the soul gem luminescence dropped catastrophically, despite immediate grief cube support. By the time the soul mage arrived, the gem was already disappearing. Video surveillance confirms the scenario."

"But it makes no sense," Kyouko said, reiterating their previous discussion. "We've had this kind of soul gem storage down to a science for decades. This kind of thing doesn't make sense."

"Well, it happened now. None of the other girls who 'disappeared' have done so under quite so much surveillance."

"I don't buy it."

"Well, I don't either."

"The soul mage—"

"I've known her for over a decade. She wouldn't. Besides, we already—"

"I know, Mami. We've already had this talk. I'm not asking if you already investigated her. I'm asking if you asked her if she noticed anything unusual about the soul gem."

"We did," Mami said, biting her lip adorably without realizing it. "She didn't notice anything unusual, besides the soul gem being way more corrupted than it should be."

"Have you asked for her memories?"

Mami bit her lip again.

"That's a bit much, isn't it?"

"You know that's the only way to totally prove innocence, and with magic we only have her word to go on that she didn't do anything."

"But for a human, especially a magical girl, only a mind‐reader could extract provably accurate memories. Do you know what that's like? I know her—"

Kyouko stood up, grabbing Mami's shoulders and peering down into her eyes.

"I know you don't like it, Mami. I'm sorry. But you know this is too important to beat around the bush. Order the mind‐read. It's not that bad, Mami. With consent, it barely feels like anything. Please. I know you. You're putting off the inevitable."

Mami looked down, pulling on her virtual skirt. Kyouko could see her eyes flutter, one of them tearing slightly.

Oh Goddess, no, Kyouko thought.

She had made a mistake. Mami was more sensitive than she thought. More sensitive than she should have been. It—

She hastily summoned a virtual handkerchief, bending down to dab Mami's eyes. She looked Mami in the eyes, as heartfelt as she could.

"I'm sorry, alright?" Kyouko said. "I said too much. Come on."

Mami sucked in a breath, gaining control of herself.

"I–I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know what came over me. Losing control of myself at my age. It's embarrassing. The topic isn't even—"

Kyouko did what she thought she had to: she leaned over and hugged Mami, closing her eyes for a moment.

She felt Mami squirm in surprise.

"What's going on, Kyouko?" she asked, confused. "It's not that bad—"

Kyouko released the hug, standing back up, looking into the middle distance for a moment. Hugging Mami took her back, waaay back, to before her father had flipped out and killed her family. Before everything changed.

Then she looked at Mami again.

"Just wanted to cheer you up," she said, with false flippancy. "You seem stressed."

Mami took a deep breath, looking down at the table for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess I am," she said. "Thanks. You're right, though. I was just putting it off. I have to order the mind‐read. It's only proper."

Mami grabbed her teacup, downing the entire cup in one go, entirely the opposite of her usual manner of drinking tea.

Mami let out a breath as she finished, then looked at Kyouko.

"I guess I need to get going," she said. "I've been here for too long already, and my schedule…"

"Yeah, sure," Kyouko said, nodding.

Mami winked out of the simulation, body dissolving into little motes of light, a fancy little effect. Kyouko watched the spot where she had been for a long moment.

Fuck, she thought.

Then she collapsed into her chair and rubbed the palm of her hand into her face.

She began drafting a classified memo.

Mami held her soul gem in front of her in both hands.

"In theory, mind‐reading should be one of the easiest skills for a magical girl to learn, even with no head start," a familiar voice said. "Our natural telepathy is already the beginning of it. One only needs to grow it."

Mami peered into her soul gem, the golden, pulsing glow emanating from within its cage seeming to envelop her vision.

"And yet, it is often one of the hardest. It takes a great deal of experience, an understanding of others, and even of yourself."

"Nice speech," Kyouko said, sucking a lollipop. "Sounds like we're trying to meditate. You telepaths are* weird.

*Mami blinked, turning to look at her.

"Why am I here, anyway?" Kyouko asked. "This is Mami's show."

"Mami knows you well," the voice said. "And you're the only one of her friends who'd actually let her try reading your mind. Think about it."

*Kyouko shrugged, making a show of yawning. She could be so immature sometimes, Mami thought. It was annoying, yet oddly endearing.

There was someone at the corner of her vision, just out of sight. A woman, the source of the voice—she turned her head, passing her gaze over where the she was. And yet, as fast as the image entered her mind, it vanished, a blank in her consciousness.

"Remember, I'm manipulating your mental state with my power," the girl said. "To increase self‐understanding. It makes the process easier. But the final step is for you alone to perform. I can only guide it."

Mami sensed, rather than saw, Kyouko rolling her eyes, yet she kept her gaze at the patch of space in front of her. The space was clearly occupied, but her mind refused to fill in who was there.

"If Kyouko‐san here had deigned to listen to my explanation earlier, she would remember that the mind magics are the most sensitive to state of mind, to analogy and focus. Well, at least for learning."

She pointed at Mami's soul gem, and Mami gazed back at the luminescent stone.

"Gaze into it. The soul gem will help serve as a focus. Empty your mind. Be like a still pool of water, sensitive to even the slightest breeze."

Mami knew from experience that emptying your mind was much easier said than done, especially in the dead of night when she couldn't avoid thinking about the regrets of her life.

And yet—

It must have been true that the girl was manipulating her mental state, because she felt her mind emptying as instructed. The golden glow of her soul gem grew again, seeming to absorb into it all that she was, and all that she had been.

"What do you hear?" the voice asked, though it seemed to Mami that it came from far away.

"Nothing," she said.

"Someday, that will change," the voice said. "But for now, think about Kyouko‐san. Try to imagine that you are her. Think about how you feel, and what you're thinking of. Not just the thoughts, but also the sensations."

Kyouko snorted in derision, but it only helped Mami.

This is stupid, Mami thought, doing her best imitation of Kyouko. This is boring. I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Mami's sake. I want to take a nap. I'm tired.

Mami let a sense of tiredness wash over her, even if she didn't really feel it. It seemed right for Kyouko.

Nothing changed, though. Was she making progress?

"Try to imagine what the lollipop she's eating tastes like," the voice suggested. "What it feels like to have that much hair, and that giant ribbon. What it's like to sit with your elbow on your knee."

Kyouko grunted in annoyance, and Mami tried to incorporate that, too, along with the sourness of the candy in her mouth, the hair pulling down on the back of her head…

I wonder how they talked Mami into this, Mami thought, taking another shot at thinking like Kyouko I thought we agreed that the whole idea was icky. But I guess her work is just too important to her. I bet that's it. She puts too much stress on herself.

Speaking of stress, I'm hungry. Oh, Yuma gave me a cookie earlier! I wonder if I still have it in my pocket—

"Ah!" Mami vocalized, startled out of her trance. She darted a glance at Kyouko, who stared back, frozen in the middle of reaching into her jacket pocket with one hand.

"You have a cookie in your pocket," Mami said, feeling silly for saying it with so much awe in her voice.

She paused, thinking for a moment.

"Chocolate chip," she added.

Kyouko raised her lip in slight incredulity, glancing between Mami and the other girl. Then, slowly, she pulled a chocolate chip cookie, wrapped in paper, out of her pocket.

"Don't tell me this training actually worked," Kyouko said, with an 'I don't want to believe it' kind of voice.

"I knew you could do it!" the mysterious woman said, happiness clear in her voice. "Very few manage to do it on their first try. I guess you really are old."

"Thanks for putting it that way," *Mami said sarcastically, glaring at the woman she could not see.

"Sorry, sorry," the girl said. "Anyway, just so you know, it wouldn't be that hard now to try some mild suggestion. You simply imagine doing things instead. And it's useful in combat. You don't have to use it on anyone human."

"I'd really prefer not to," Mami said. "You know why."

"Mami with mind‐control powers would be a nightmare anyway," Kyouko said, sneering. "Imagine if she could 'suggest' to me to act more polite at meetings. Oh geez, I feel like a robot already."

Then Kyouko started pantomiming robot motions with her arms, and Mami heard herself laughing along with the mysterious voice.

The laughter echoed in her ears as her eyes opened, and she found that she had buried herself in the blankets of her bed, in her cabin on the Zhukov.

What the hell was that? she thought.

"As you have no doubt learned during your training, imagination is key to the development of new magical powers. Things that you can imagine yourself doing—these are the things that become possible. Initially, everything is a struggle, and must be done through analogy or explicit construction, like Mami‐san's famous ribbon muskets. But it is clear that she no longer consciously thinks about how her guns are assembled, or she could never even fire one in combat. So it must be for you when it comes to telepathic defense."

Ryouko nodded, acknowledging the obviously rehearsed speech. Across from her sat Gracia Perez, the telepath she had met in the wormhole mission, and who had given the speech. Next to her, Asami was also listening intently. One seat over sat Kyouko, here to monitor her trainee. Finally, Marianne François rounded out the girls seated at the table. Apparently, she had been sent by Mami to accompany Kyouko on the mission.

Of the five, Gracia, Ryouko, and Asami were transformed; the rest were not.

Ryouko looked up at the room they were seated in. This wasn't a specialized training center—it was an ordinary‐looking living area, with an adjoining kitchen. Large by Earth standards, Ryouko had seen many places like it in the housing brochure she and Asami had flipped through on their way to Eurydome.

This wasn't Eurydome, though—this was a starship, and they were seated in Gracia's cabin. For shipboard accommodation, it was downright exorbitant. Ryouko didn't think even Mami's cabin had been as large.

Then she looked down at the soul gem she held in both of her hands. Gracia had told her and Asami to transform, then summon the gem, even specifying the exact manner in which they were supposed to hold it. Ryouko suspected they were about to use the gem as a focus—that was possible, according to her basic training, though she had never been asked to actually try it.

Thinking back to her training made her remember all that had come after that, and for a moment she remembered Marianne crying at her daughter's funeral. What was it she had said? That she had warned her daughter away from fieldwork? Wasn't accompanying Kyouko on this mission considered fieldwork?

Ryouko realized she had zoned out, as she asked Clarisse to replay the part of the lecture she had missed. It was a bit of a bad habit, but…

"Unfortunately, telepathic defense is harder than attack, especially when it comes to blocking mere mind‐reading. As a passive defense, it is possible to simply avoid thinking about sensitive topics, but any skilled telepath is capable of drawing a person's mind to a topic. Therefore, any truly good defense must work passively, even when you're not on guard, even when you're not transformed, possibly even when you're asleep."

Gracia paused, making a point of pinning her and Asami with her eyes to make sure they got the point. Something about the girl's dark eyes unnerved Ryouko.

"But," she continued, smiling, "you're new, and not specialist telepaths, and we don't have much time. That's way too much to expect of you. I'll be satisfied if you can put up a credible mental block when you know you're being targeted. Perhaps you will receive more training in the future."

"Excuse me," Asami interjected, raising their hand as if they were in school. "I'm just curious. Do all the, uh, MSY executives have this kind of training?"

She directed the question at Gracia, seeming to realize only after a few seconds of silence that Kyouko was also sitting at the table.

Kyouko smiled slightly when Asami finally looked at her, tilting her head and closing her eyes.

"The more important we got, the more important it was that we know how to do these things. We're pretty well‐sealed. I actually have to turn it off, rather than on. Plus, all us old‐timers are pretty well‐trained. Back in the day, you heard horror stories about what girls with mind‐control could do. Entire cities of girls enthralled, things like that. You can bet when we started having training for telepathic defense, everyone showed up. Nowadays, we don't even teach any anti‐magical girl techniques to most new girls. It feels weird to me, even if I know why we don't."

Asami looked down, frowning.

"I guess I've never thought about using mind‐control on other… people."

It seemed to Ryouko like an odd statement for her to make, but no one else at the table seemed taken aback. Gracia even nodded slightly.

"It's not something you typically think about, but it's something that's definitely possible," she said. "It's not as if there's something special about humans that makes them any harder to control than squid."

Asami blanched, and Ryouko saw Kyouko glare at Gracia, who looked confused.

"Well, magical girls are special," Gracia said, a little hastily. "We're more difficult to control than most humans, because of the soul gem. Even a little basic training goes a long way. Most mind‐controllers can only manage suggestion and manipulation against a girl with training, not outright control. Plus, implants also really help. There even exist implant setups that can help a normal human resist telepathic attack."

It's true, Clarisse thought, before Ryouko could think to ask. It's written in the manuals. I'm supposed to keep you on task in the face of mental manipulation, or to block certain thoughts. Of course, a truly good telepath could override implants, and probably me too. Plus the implants they issue to Governance Officials are only somewhat effective.

Ryouko blinked, absorbing the information Clarisse had given her in accelerated format.

"In any case," Gracia said, shaking her head slightly, long hair sifting over her shoulders. "Resisting mind‐control is actually a somewhat different topic from resisting mind‐reading. Usually we focus on the latter, since it's much more common nowadays, and also a bit easier. Now look into your soul gems."

The command surprised Ryouko, who had honestly started to forget what they were doing. She did as instructed, watching her soul gem glow quietly green, casting her fingers in an eerie light.

A moment later, a message arrived from Kyouko.

"Secret number! 572. Try to block the telepath from stealing the info!"

"Imagine your mind as a battlecruiser," Gracia said, interrupting Ryouko's nascent laugh. "Protected from everything around it by thick armor and powerful forcefields. Imagine doors closing, gates shutting, castle walls. Imagine your magic surrounding your soul gem and your brain, blocking anything from getting in or out. Imagine standing in front of a crowd blocking the door out, or a wall standing between me and you. I want you to ponder the imagery that appeals to you the most, and try to seriously focus on making it real. And then I will try to steal your secret from you."

Ryouko took a breath, and tried to do as directed. She imagined a sheet of metal in front of her, blocking the girl on the other side of the table. She tried to imagine that it extended into her skull, into her eyes, such that nothing got in or out. Gruesome imagery, she realized, but she tried to really imagine it.

She saw her soul gem pulse slightly.

"Five hundred seventy‐two, Ryouko," Gracia said. "And one thousand thirty‐six, Miss Nakihara."

Ryouko let out a breath.

"Damn," she heard Asami say, mirroring her own thought.

"You girls were more successful than you realize. I had to try a bit harder than I usually do."

"Do we have to use our imagination every time?" Asami asked. "I don't want to have to imagine a battlecruiser every time I need it. Especially not in combat."

"Fortunately, no," Gracia said. "As you practice, you'll be able to do it faster and faster. Eventually, it won't take more than a thought. I don't know if you girls will be able to get to that point in just a few days, but if you do, we can talk about willpower, and magic consumption, and all sorts of advanced topics."

Ryouko and Asami looked at Gracia, then at each other.

"We should try again," Gracia said.

"Let's take a little break," Kyouko said, grabbing a plate of dark chocolate cookies from a wheeled robot that had slid up to the table. They smelled oddly—and deliciously—fragrant, and Ryouko realized that she was hungry.

"Mami taught me the value of cookies made by hand," Kyouko said, mumbling as she picked one up and wolfed it down. "But I'm way too lazy to actually do it. The Church has a baker who makes them for me. I'm surprised this place has a cooking robot. You don't see many of those."

Gracia smiled crookedly.

"They pamper us sometimes, when they feel like it," she said.

Then, after a pause:

"Which is entirely too rare for my taste. Can't you ask Mami‐san to look into that? We're Spec Ops! I want to be pampered!"

"I feel as if I should point out how much you girls get paid," Marianne said archly, breaking her silence.

"When do I ever get to use it?"

"That's why I told my daughter to get out when she still could. Instead, you know what happened."

Gracia gave Marianne an odd look, which Marianne returned a moment later. They sat there in silence for a few seconds, on the verge of saying something, but biting their tongues. It felt really awkward for Ryouko, who was caught in the middle of eating a cookie, but unable to express how surprisingly good it was, because this was not the appropriate time to say anything.

"Ladies, let's focus," Kyouko said, finally. "Whatever past disputes we may have had, we're all involved in this, and we need to see it through. We don't want any accidents, and that means we need to get the new girls up to speed."

The others nodded silently in agreement, Ryouko grabbed another cookie, and then Asami said:

"I've been meaning to ask: Why are we focusing so much on fighting other magical girls? I thought we were investigating a rogue religious group. I'm not sure why we're spending all this time on telepathic resistance and combat tactics for unknown magic. Are we expecting to fight hostile magical girls?"

Kyouko and the other older girls glanced at each other, communicating by eye contact. Finally, Kyouko put one fist to her mouth, clearing her throat lightly.

"We don't expect there to be hostile magical girls, but these kinds of rogue colony missions turn them up surprisingly often. A lot of the time, these girls have never heard of the MSY, and have to be dealt with delicately. Other times, the colony is hostile and the girls agree with the rest of colony, and we can't talk them out of it. There's other possibilities."

"Remember that the colony appears to still be functional," Marianne said. "Unfortunately, a stealth probe can't evaluate demon populations or anything like that, but the probe we sent picked up plenty of people on the surface."

"They're friendly a lot of the time, too," Gracia said, her eyes fixed on Kyouko. "Sometimes, they're glad to see us, or they need rescuing. Don't get the wrong idea."

Kyouko and Gracia shared a look, but Ryouko found herself confused. The way they spoke seemed to imply—

"How many rogue colonies were there?" she asked, glancing at Asami, who looked wide‐eyed and confused. "I was always under the impression that rogue colonies were mostly a hypothetical situation."

Another shared look between the three older girls. Kyouko opened her mouth to speak, but Marianne cut her off, putting a hand on her arm and shaking her head.

"It'll be easier if we just introduce her to Azrael. She can explain it to them."

The two girls stared at each other for a moment, Ryouko and Asami looking on. They seemed to be having a telepathic conversation of some sort. Ryouko mused that this was what Asami must have felt like, watching Ryouko and her mother talk.

All Ryouko knew about Azrael was that she was a shy, black‐haired girl they had been introduced to when they had first boarded the ship. They had shaken hands. Ryouko remembered her for being even shorter than her, almost child‐like, standing there in a jacket, skirt, and boots. She had been really shy, blushing while shaking Ryouko's hand, which had seemed really odd once Ryouko looked up her age—she turned out to be nearly forty.

"They're going to see her in action eventually anyway," Marianne finished. "It's probably better to have them know ahead of time."

"Alright," Kyouko said.

She turned to face Ryouko and Asami.

"I'll send a message to Azrael. The two of you set up a time to go visit her in her room ASAP. Got that?"

Ryouko nodded, as Asami voiced her assent.

"Any other questions?" Kyouko asked, glancing between the two of them. "Might as well ask now. I realize the mission briefing assumed a lot."

Ryouko and Asami shared a look. Asami shrugged.

Ryouko turned to face Gracia.

"I wanted to ask," she said. "I thought MagOps teams were kept together whenever possible, yet only some of you are here. Has the team been broken up?"

Gracia shifted in her position, looking uncomfortable.

"Well, we've taken some casualties, as you know," she said. "We're officially on standby right now until… certain things get resolved. Kuroi‐san put out the word that we could join this mission individually. She thought it'd be helpful for you since we were part of your team. Mina and I signed on because of your connection with the Goddess, and Annabelle because she was getting bored. Nadya has something she has to deal with, and Ying‐zhi is taking a vacation. It's good for us to get away from each other once in a while."

Marianne had snorted at the reference to the Goddess, and it occurred to Ryouko that she had never asked Marianne's opinion of the Cult. Juliet had been quite devout; Marianne, it seemed, not so much. Another source of mother‐daughter tension.

Ryouko nodded. It made sense.

"Anything else?" Gracia asked, peering at her carefully.

"Not right now," Ryouko said. "I can always ask later if I think of anything."

"Then let's continue with the training."

Ryouko heard Asami sigh, and grabbed a cookie.

Eventually, they were able to take a break from training. Kyouko had recommended that they nap, but neither of them were really in the mood to sleep, so they were simply laying awake in bed. On Eurydome, when their relationship had still been new, they had gotten separate bedrooms, though the arrival of Ryouko's mother had pushed Ryouko from her bed into Asami's. For the accommodations on this ship, they had dispensed with what had become a pretense.

Ryouko had tried browsing her old haunts on the internet, which had been one of her major pre‐contract hobbies—her only hobby, if she were being honest.

As was starting to happen too often nowadays, though, she couldn't get into it, so instead she asked Asami a question.

"Why did you come with me?"

"Hmm?" Asami asked, looking up from running her hand idly through Ryouko's hair as it lay on the pillow.

Ryouko didn't say anything further, feeling that her meaning should have been clear enough, and a moment later Asami responded:

"Well, I wasn't looking forward to having to live with your mother while you were away."

Ryouko shook her head slightly.

"I'm serious," she said. "You don't like combat. You could have stayed back. Granted, this isn't exactly a combat mission, but still…"

She heard Asami let out a breath, the warm air wafting softly against the side of her neck.

"Well, how do I put it?" the girl said. "I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was doing. I didn't really think it through that much. I just knew if I were with you, I wouldn't mind the combat much."

In the pause that followed, Ryouko felt another gust of air against her neck.

"I guess I would say that when you have a good thing, you don't let go of it easily," Asami added, finally.

Ryouko turned her head slightly to look at Asami.

"Do you think not following me would have been letting me go?" she asked, allowing their eyes to make contact.

Asami looked away from her for a moment, and said:

"You don't think I'm worried about you? You said someone is trying to kill you. If that happens again, I'd prefer to be there for you, even if I get another metal beam through my gut. I mean that."

Asami smiled wanly for a moment.

Then the smile faded, and she said:

"Well that's not the entire reason. When you took me to that Cult center, that Ribbon—the Goddess said that it was important I stick with you, for your safety."

"You stopped me from hitting the ground, in the gravity chamber," Ryouko said, shading her eyes. "I thought that was you, but we never talked about it."

"I don't think it was just for your safety," Asami said. "The way she talked about you, how you're a wanderer, and a leader, not a follower… I've thought about that, and I don't think we're destined to live quietly. It was fun, but you can't live your life like that."

Asami reached over Ryouko's shoulder with one arm and pulled them together, so that her head rested against Ryouko's neck, and Ryouko could feel her light breathing against her skin.

Ryouko was surprised, but returned the embrace.

They lay there for a moment.

"I feel sorry for your mother," Asami said, finally. "She's not happy about this, you know. If I really had stayed, it would have killed me to watch her worry."

"I know she isn't," Ryouko said, "but what can I do?"

"I know. It's just… I wish I could make her happier somehow."

Ryouko stayed silent, wondering what her mother or Asami would think if they knew that Akemi Homura might be involved in this. It was only a distant connection, but…

Well, she knew, even without asking Kyouko or Nana, that it was a bad idea to say anything about it to anyone else. Nana was traveling with them, of course, and had promised her mother that she'd watch over Ryouko. Ryouko didn't think that had really reassured her mother, or that her mother really approved of Nana's path in life.

It was… what it was.

For a long moment they lay there, Asami breathing against her skin, their hair coiled together intimately, and Ryouko thought Asami was asleep.

"We need to talk about Clarisse," Asami said, abruptly.

Ryouko tensed, both in surprise and in trepidation, and Asami laughed softly.

"She still sends me messages, you know," Asami said. "I think she really wants us to work out. The way she writes, and the way you talk about her sometimes… she's sentient, isn't she?"


The word was foreboding, carrying heavy weight in this age of artificial intelligence and in the light of what they had learned about ethics in school. For a moment, Ryouko didn't know what to say.

It's alright, Clarisse thought, transmitting the message to both of them. Yes, I am. Please don't tell anyone.

Asami laughed again.

Do you watch when we… you know? Asami thought back.

I swear, I wouldn't if it were at all possible for me not to, Clarisse responded, sounding embarrassed.

That's what I thought.

Ryouko felt Asami shake her head slightly.

Well, I guess I have to get used to it. I'm not sure what to think about it. It's a little embarrassing, I guess.

Ryouko and Clarisse both waited for her to say something further, but it never came, Asami seeming satisfied with the discussion.

A short while later, Asami was truly asleep, but Ryouko kept her eyes open, wondering what the future would bring.

They visited Azrael Elizabeth Maslanka half a day later, after a series of brutal—and bruising—combat training sessions with Kyouko and Nana. Neither of them had any training fighting other magical girls, and the basic combat instincts were nearly laughable in the face of a four‐and‐half‐century‐old Ancient, or in the face of a Black Heart operative whose power was literally the neutralization of magic and advanced technology.

Kyouko claimed there was no shame in losing to an Ancient, but even so, it was not heartening to learn that either of the older girls could consistently kill the two of them in less than five minutes—Ryouko even suspected that the two girls had been holding back.

Azrael was expecting them, of course, and the door to her room slid open on their approach. The room was luxuriously large, as Gracia's had been, and decorated in largely the same fashion—there had obviously been no time for anyone to customize their living areas.

Even so, they paused in the doorway to peer in surprise. Both the wall directly opposite them and the half‐wall that separated the main room from the kitchen were adorned with absurdly large pairs of wings, one bulky and ruffled with an assortment of colorful feathers, the other separated into two parts, covered with what looked like a stretched sheet of… metal? Plastic?

It was probably some sort of metamaterial, Ryouko decided, waving aside Clarisse's offer to analyze the material in more frequencies. It wasn't that important, obviously.

The far wall had been set to display a hologram of an unfamiliar, dark red alien sky. The cloud banks looked like they went on forever, and Ryouko honestly felt a little vertiginous looking at it. On the wall next to that hung what appeared to be a giant metal fan.

Remember, Clarisse whispered in her ear, her record lists her powers as flying and telepathy.

Oh, that made sense. Ryouko decided that Azrael was probably just a little eccentric when it came to her powers. It wasn't even close to unheard of—Asami still got giddy sometimes in the gravity chamber, and had to be shaken out of it.

Azrael herself had walked forward to greet them, waiting while they stared at her decorations.

She looked embarrassed, and seemed even more diminutive than Ryouko remembered.

"Hi—welcome," the girl said in a high‐pitched voice, directing the two of them towards a set of chairs arranged around a narrow coffee table.

They sat as directed, then glanced at each other. The girl's nervous demeanor and voice seemed odd in light of her older age—both Ryouko and Asami were used to older girls effortlessly dominating conversations.

Why did Kyouko send us to her? Ryouko wondered. What could this girl possibly have to tell them that Kyouko couldn't?

They watched Azrael for a moment as the girl crossed and uncrossed her legs. The girl was wearing a knee‐length dress, coupled with a tank top and jacket, which seemed like an incongruous combination to Ryouko.

"So I'm supposed to talk to you about rogue colonies," Azrael said, finally.

"Yes," Ryouko answered, simply.

"Well, are you familiar with Governance ideological restrictions on the establishment of colonies?" Azrael asked, voice seeming to smooth out a little.

Ryouko glanced at Asami, checking which of them was going to respond. Asami tilted her head slightly, indicating that Ryouko should take the lead.

Ryouko faced Azrael again, mulling over the question in her mind.

"Well, broadly speaking, Governance just wants colonies to guarantee the Core Rights, right? There's also restrictions on how much modification colonists can make to social structures, and to their own bodies. Governance wants to make sure its colonies retain their human heritage."

Ryouko summarized what she remembered of the topic as best she could, and found Asami nodding along, as Azrael watched her with an odd expression. This was Primary School Civics material, and though Ryouko was sure she knew more on Governance topics than most people, she didn't see a need to talk about it at length.

"That's pretty much it," Azrael said. "Do you know what a rogue colony is?"

"That's a colony that doesn't follow the rules," Asami said. "Well, intentionally. A lot of unsponsored colonies have failed rules unintentionally, usually by not being successful enough to provide for their members."

Azrael nodded along.

"Pretty much," she said. "How many rogue colonies do you think there have been?"

The key question, after several lines of honestly boring conversation. Ryouko found herself ready for it.

"Well, we were always told that there were only a few, minor cases. Restrictions on free speech, restrictions on divorce, that kind of thing, where the colonial leaders were trying to get away with something they knew wasn't allowed. Usually resolved by negotiation. But I get the feeling that I wouldn't be here if there weren't more cases than that."

Azrael glanced off to the side.

"Honestly, 'more cases' is an understatement," she said, shaking her head. "And that's assuming I know about all of them, which I probably don't. There was a long period before the war when Governance didn't bother to monitor colony ships that carefully, and quite a few groups managed to slip the net and hide themselves on this or that planet. A lot of them just didn't want to be monitored, but a lot of them broke the rules pretty badly. Some of the cases are pretty horrifying, actually."

Ryouko sucked in a breath, then glanced at Asami.

"How horrifying?" she asked.

Azrael held up her hand, palm inward.

It took a moment for Ryouko to realize that Azrael was making a gesture, though she didn't recognize it.

"I'd rather not talk about it, and you don't need to know," Azrael said, with an air of blunt finality. "Just know that a few of them required military intervention, which you'll never get Governance to admit. That's all I'm going to say."

The conversation was at a standstill for a moment, the three of them peering at each other quietly.

Finally, Azrael sighed.

"I've spent most of my life as an agent sent to scout rogue colonies, both for Governance and the Black Heart, though before the war the last part was obviously a bit more secret. It turns out the Incubators are usually glad to recruit girls on rogue colonies to hunt the demons there, without bothering to tell anyone about the colony. I was recruited when I was fourteen."

Ryouko frowned at the statement. From the way she said, it almost seemed as if—

She didn't finish the thought, because she saw something move rapidly across Azrael's eyes.

She and Asami sat there for a moment, Asami's mouth slightly open, confused as to what they had seen. It almost seemed like Azrael was looking back at them through a transparent sheath that was covering her eyes, giving them a slight yellowish tint.

Just as abruptly as it had appeared, it retracted, disappearing into the outer corners of her eyes.

Then, as they continued to stare in amazement and befuddlement, the sheath slid back and forth over Azrael's eyes several times. It was almost as if she had a second set of horizontal, transparent eyelids.

"They're nictating membranes," Azrael said, not meeting their gaze. "They protect my eyes during high‐speed flight. And in addition to that, there's also, well…"

Azrael put a hand to her mouth, surprising Ryouko by blushing furiously, cheeks turning a rosy shade of red.

"I'm sorry. I know it's not as big a deal for you, but I–I'm still not used to it. Ah, do you—can you look away for a moment?"

Ryouko shared another glance with Asami. What on Earth was going on?

They turned away as instructed. Behind her, she heard the rustling of clothing.

Ryouko found herself staring at one of the pairs of wings hanging on the wall. With a strange intuition, Ryouko began to see that the wings were a little too elaborate to be mere decoration. They seemed to be jointed, and mounted in the center was a rather large metal… hump?

"Okay, you can look now," Azrael said finally.

They turned back around, and this time Asami couldn't restrain an audible gasp.

Azrael was seated facing partially away from them, back exposed, no longer hidden underneath a jacket or an oddly shaped backpack. Ryouko could see now that what had looked like a tank top was in fact held together in the back by only a small strap.

Down both sides of her back were an array of spine‐like protrusions, each almost ten centimeters long. Each pair flanked one of the vertebrae of her spine, and though they were the same color as her skin, they looked flexible, rather than fleshy. Next to the spines lay two parallel sets of large metal discs, which Ryouko recognized as connection terminals, similar to the one she had on her own lower spine, but larger, deeper, and not hidden beneath the skin.

The two of them stared in frank, open‐mouthed amazement, unable to tear their eyes away, even to look at each other. Images flashed through Ryouko's mind, of videos she had been shown in school, of mutants growing in vats, of horror movies she had seen, of Freedom Alliance Elite snipers crawling through ruined cities with feet that were not feet, skin changing color like a chameleon, eyes inhumanly large, covered by transparent second eyelids. In her nightmares they had stalked her, and her mother had yelled at her father for letting her watch a movie like that.

"What did they do to you?" Asami blurted out, stretching out a hand to touch one of the spines, then jerking it away, realizing what she was doing.

Azrael laughed quietly, before sighing deliberately and loudly. She shook her head, hair sweeping over the topmost spines.

"Everyone says something like that," she said. "But I was born like this. I—if you want to touch one, go ahead."

The two rows of spines twitched, then folded inward, before extending back out. Asami looked strangely fascinated, but Ryouko felt a surge of revulsion, shaking slightly.

Easy there, Clarisse thought. You're not being rational. She's just as human as either of us. Think about it.

Ryouko swallowed, allowing Clarisse's relayed calmness to wash over her. That was right, wasn't it?

Wasn't it?

She followed Asami's lead and touched one of the spines. It felt cartilaginous, like touching someone's nose.

Azrael pulled away abruptly, flinging her jacket back around her shoulders in one abrupt motion, facing them again. Her face was still flushed with what was apparently embarrassment.

"On my planet, we–we never showed our spines to anyone, so it's a little embarrassing," she explained. "But it's the fastest way to explain things. My—"

She paused, taking a breath, passing her gaze between the two of them.

"My colony was founded by geneticists and bioengineers who were angry about Governance's policies against improving the human form. They thought it was backwards, that the Freedom Alliance had terrified everyone beyond reason."

She shifted her gaze downward, looking at the table.

"My ancestors told Governance that they were going to set up a small model colony to make their case. Instead, we settled on a different planet entirely, one with an atmosphere so thick it wasn't possible to live on the surface."

She turned her head toward the holographic viewpoint that occupied the far wall, gesturing at them to turn and look. The viewpoint, which had once shown a red alien sky and cloud, bathing the room in red light, now showed something in the distance. It looked like a tower, ringed by smaller towers sprouting around it like mushrooms, and—

"Is that city floating?" Asami asked, incredulously.

Azrael smiled slightly, flicking her nictating membrane back and forth over her eyes.

"In a dense atmosphere, it's possible to float structures by simply filling them with less dense gas. It was a suggestion originally made for Venus, but our planet, which we named Terra Roja, was even more suited for the idea. It has a breathable atmosphere, despite the density, and an entire ecosystem in the upper atmosphere. The first colonists floated their giant colony ships and built outward, pulling asteroids into orbit to mine for materials. And…"

Azrael paused, looking at them to make sure they were following the story, then continued:

"And they engineered themselves wings. That was the point, you see. You can use airships, but everything is so much better with wings. Smaller bodies, lighter bones with connection ports and spines on the back to connect and nourish the biomechanical, powered wings, along with an outgrowth that you can connect a tail to. In a dense atmosphere, it was possible for even humans to fly with a little mechanical help. That was the vision."

She looked down at the floor, reciting an explanation she had practiced many times.

"I was the third generation, and I was born with everything in place. They gave me a pair of wings and a tail extension when I was three, and I learned to fly."

She looked up, gesturing at the pair of feathered wings, and the fan, which Ryouko now realized was a tail.

"They grow with you as you get older," she said, "and you can use different extensions—feathers, no feathers, and so on, depending on what kind of aerodynamics you want. I can feel everything, and control everything with my spines. Organo‐mechanical, something Governance had never managed, because it never wanted to try. They were glad to take the technology when the time came, though. Last I heard, they were testing parts of it for the new TacComp iteration."

Ryouko felt an uneasy sense of surprise emanating from Clarisse, and didn't have to guess what it was about.

Asami sighed, shaking her head.

"I don't expect you to understand, but it was beautiful. We built spires in the sky, giant towers, with thermal eddies everywhere, where you could fly for hours while barely trying. We did everything in flight—weddings, parties, you name it."

Azrael turned to look at the holographic projection, and Ryouko thought she saw her eyes glimmer with tears.

"Our goddamn government wasn't stable," she said, peering at the spire in the hologram. "The whole idea was that Governance would eventually find us, and we could introduce ourselves to the rest of humanity, and drive a revolution in ideology. But some crazy radicals thought we hadn't gone far enough. Why not grow the wings and tail naturally? Why have legs, when we barely use them and it just unbalances flight? A lot of us were disturbed by that."

She closed her eyes and shook her head.

"It was so stupid," she said. "There was a civil war. Do you have any idea what happens when you fire explosives at a city that's basically a giant balloon? It was a massacre."

She waved her hand, and the holographic wall switched to a different view, of a spire that was miniature in comparison, collapsed in on itself, ruined, the top broken off.

"I was only fourteen," Azrael said. "My parents were dead. Someone finally sent a distress call with our stored IIC system, but by the time Governance arrived, it was just me and a few others in that spire, a couple dozen in other small spires, and a few technicians in orbit."

Azrael pinned the two of them with an intense gaze.

"We wanted to rebuild, of course," she said, "but Governance wouldn't let us. They forced us to lose our wings, change back to baseline human, and keep everything a secret. Do you understand? It's all we ever knew our whole lives. I feel broken without my wings, and they wanted me to change back. And then, I met a small white animal."

"An Incubator," Asami said, sounding breathless.

"Yes," Azrael said. "After I made my wish, Governance had a change of heart, of course. I could keep my wings, if I agreed to work for them as a scout on other colonies, after a bit of training. It didn't make much sense, not even for the MSY, even though I got telepathy as my main magic, but it was good enough for me. In retrospect, I regret not wishing for something bigger, but I was only a kid."

Ryouko looked down at her hands. What was she supposed to think of a story like that? She supposed the colony's founder had been in the wrong, doing something so obviously wrong, with disastrous consequences. But none of that was Azrael's fault, and it seemed terrible to try to force her to change back.

In the end, as repelled as she felt by the spines, they were a minor change. Nothing like the FA Elites.

"Wow," she heard Asami said, and echoed the sentiment.

"I don't like doing this," Azrael said. "They use me to introduce new recruits to the whole rogue colony thing, because of the shock value. I get it. No one takes things seriously unless they see evidence. "

Ryouko looked up, to find Azrael smiling again, blushing.

"It's also a bit of a test for you," Azrael said. "I don't know how important you are to this mission, but if you really couldn't handle it, they'd probably take you off the mission. I guess Marianne and Kyouko trust you. A lot of people respond really badly. I'm just happy you two haven't fled the room. I still haven't found anyone willing to date me."

Ryouko chuckled nervously at the joke, unwilling to admit how affected she had been, and glad that Azrael, whose power list included telepathy, didn't seem to be reading her mind.

"So there's a lot of rogue colonies, then?" Asami asked, making a clear effort at normal conversation.

"Yes," Azrael said. "There's a lot of people like me out there. However, I have to admit, most of them don't have fond memories of where they used to live. I don't really like Governance, but I've grown to appreciate the work I do."

"Can you attach the wings?" Asami asked. "I'd like to see it. I think they're cool."

Ryouko looked at her in surprise, and realized that Asami meant what she was saying, and even looked a little excited. She remembered, then, that Asami wanted to be a xenobiologist. Azrael was a little like an alien, after all.

"Hey," Ryouko said, tapping Asami on the sleeve. "Don't get carried away."

"No, it's okay," Azrael, eyes wide with genuine surprise. "I think it's cool, too. No one has ever actually asked."

Azrael stood decisively, pulling off her jacket. She turned around and pulled the bulkier pair of wings off of the wall, lifting the heavy object with surprising deftness and moving it behind her head.

Ryouko, who was expecting a simple locking mechanism, almost jumped when a set of metal manipulators sprouted out of the midbody of the wings, reaching for Azrael's back. She let go of the wings, which settled themselves into place, seeking out the spines and connection ports and attaching itself adroitly. A moment later, the rigid‐looking outer segments of the wings folded downward, bending and shaping itself around her with smoothness that was eerily organic.

Then, Azrael walked towards the wall with the hologram, pulling the metal "fan" off the wall and placing it on her back, where the same procedure repeated itself, though a little more awkwardly, due to the device having to reach into the back of her dress.

Azrael then turned around, massive wings and tail flexing to avoid hitting anything. The entire effect seemed a bit absurd, a relatively tiny girl hidden among giant wings and startlingly lengthy tail.

Azrael giggled slightly, hand to her mouth, apparently aware of the effect.

"Yeah, I know it looks a little silly. I don't actually have magical flight, despite what my record says, so I had to grow both of these much bigger for thinner atmospheres, and I have different wing surfaces for different situations. It's all very complicated, and on a place like Earth I would have to wear a little antigrav device for stability. It feels stupid, so on break I go to Optatum. Nice thick atmosphere, giant geese I can hunt, though the eagles are annoying sometimes. I have a little cabin in the mountains. No people."

Ryouko blinked, startled at the girl's suddenly bright personality, but then Azrael frowned, looking between the two of them.

"Do you two know why Nana and Kyouko are on this mission? I don't want to reveal any secrets."

Ryouko grimaced, looking at Asami—which turned out to be the wrong thing to do, because Asami had glanced at her, caught the grimace, and immediately realized that Ryouko knew what Azrael was talking about.

"Hmm, well, let me show you a holo," Azrael said, glancing between the two of them.

The holoprojection on the wall behind her shifted again, this time not to a scene of an alien sky and clouds, but to an ordinary‐looking room. Framed in the center was Azrael, wearing her wings and tail—though with a white coloration—standing shyly next to a taller, smiling Akemi Homura, who had her own, similarly white wings on display, though hers were much smaller.

"She came to visit me, right after my contract," Azrael said, turning to face the wall and inadvertently blocking much of the image with her wings. "I was flattered that such a big shot would come talk to me, you know? And she has wings too! Even if they're a little different. It really made me feel a lot better about myself."

I'm looking for her, too, Azrael thought, her voice echoing in Ryouko's mind. I used to send her messages when I was depressed. I can't believe she just left like that.

I understand, Ryouko replied.

"Let me show you some other holos," Azrael enthused, waving her hand at the wall.

Ryouko and Asami shared a look.

We're nearly out of time, Ryouko thought. We're supposed to go back to training soon. We should tell her.

I think she's really lonely, Asami thought, shaking her head slightly. I doubt she has any friends. Think about it.

Ryouko did think about it, looking down at her hand. She remembered the wave of revulsion that had passed over her when she first saw the spines, and felt the lingering sting of guilt.

Alright, she thought. We can stick around a little longer.

Get up.

Clarisse's voice thundered into Ryouko's head, helping to jostle her awake from a fairly elaborate dream about flying. She found herself immediately alert and awake, typical of being woken up for an unexpected combat situation. She snapped her head around, looking for Asami, who, atypically, wasn't there.

Clarisse steadied her.

It's fine. She's arguing with your mother over your decision to return to combat.

Ryouko grimaced. Her mother was…

What is this about, then? she asked. Is it the movie producers calling again? You really don't need to wake me—

No, of course not, Clarisse thought, sounding annoyed. Kyouko wants to see you immediately. I don't know why. Get dressed.

Ryouko, who was already throwing on a shirt, felt the obvious questions winding their way through her mind. This clearly wasn't a general combat alert, Asami wasn't involved, Kyouko wanted just her…

She reached the doorway, kicking off her bunny slippers and sticking her feet into a pair of fancy boots Asami had bought her, allowing the straps to lock into place automatically around her ankles.

She turned and yelled towards Asami that she had an important reason to leave immediately, then shot out her doorway, heading for the transit elevator that would take her one deck up, to Kyouko's suite.

She seemed to want you pretty quickly, Clarisse thought, but she's also apologetic about waking you up, so I wonder what it is.

The trip was fast; it took only half a minute at most before she found herself stepping into Kyouko's cabin, finding the living area—identical to everyone else's—already occupied by Kyouko, Marianne, Nana, and—

She started, shocked at Mami's presence, before realizing that it was a hologram, as a cursory check of her infrared vision revealed clearly.

Mami was glowering, and it seemed to Ryouko that she was walking into a room that was already filled with tension.

"Sorry for dragging you out of bed like this," Kyouko said, "but since we were already meeting like this, we figured we might as well just get you to come up here instead of trying to set up the VR."

Ryouko tilted her head slightly, acknowledging the explanation but realizing that it didn't explain why she was here.

Kyouko spoke to her in Standard.

"Ryouko, this is important," she said, pinning Ryouko with a look, "so please be honest. Explain to the others here about the vision you told me about, that one time with the Theological Council. We'd rather not distribute recordings of the meeting, and it's all based on your word, anyway."

Ryouko, shocked, glanced around at the seated girls, feeling a pit gather in her stomach. While she certainly believed in the existence of a Goddess now, and also the veracity of her visions, she had never admitted as much publicly—the last thing she wanted was to tell Mami, her aunt, and Marianne about it.

Kyouko gave her a soft look.

"I'm sorry," she said. "But like I said, it's important, and it will be more convincing if you say it without prompting from me. You can be brief."

Ryouko closed her eyes, turning her head to one side to draw in a breath. She reminded herself that there had been moments in her life where she had been forced to buckle down and do something, and that she made it through all of them. The wormhole mission, for example. This was only a sideshow in comparison.

She raised her head back up, trying not to look Mami in the eye.

"I was visited by the Goddess," she said, careful to speak about "the" rather than "a" Goddess. "She showed me a vision of a large group of magical girls on a cliff, under fire. Kyouko was there, and so were Shirou Asaka and Kishida Maki. We were attacked by a group of humans, who apparently had more weapons than they should have, and we were trying to evacuate into the ocean in a group of submarines. Kyouko was killed by laser fire from a submarine that shouldn't have been there."

She stopped, looking around at the reactions of the group of girls around her. All three of them, except for Kyouko, had gotten progressively more shocked, responding to phrases in Ryouko's explanation as if they were physically impactful.

Kyouko turned back to look at Mami, wearing a vaguely smug look but speaking carefully.

"You see?" Kyouko said. "Everything is as I said. You can see why I'm not hot on this submarine‐magical girl invasion force plan you've got sketched out. I had my suspicions, but I was even more certain after hearing your plan. Something is wrong with that colony, and they're going to have more weapons than we expect, and the submarine thing isn't going to work out. We should also remove the people from the vision from the mission. Ryouko and I have to be here, but Asaka does not have to join. It'll be unusual, but we can reassign her at the last minute."

As Kyouko spoke, Mami gave her a look that was halfway between a glare and simple, deep‐seated dissatisfaction.

"You're asking me to redesign this mission, because of a 'vision'"—and here Mami made physical air quotes with her hands—"and also arguing that you should stay, when if this vision were true, clearly the easiest way to protect you would be to leave you at home."

Ryouko looked around awkwardly for a place to sit, finally squeezing in between Nana and Marianne when they made a space open.

"We've been over this," Kyouko said. "We agreed if there's any chance of Homura being involved in this, I have to be here, because we're not getting you or Yuma to do this."

"But it's really more the changing of plans—"

"It's not completely impossible to imagine that Ryouko and Kyouko here are right," Marianne said, glancing out of the side of her eye at Mami's holographic avatar. "You were alive when precognitive magical girls such as Mikuni Oriko were still alive, and you Ancients still speak about intuition as if it is a real, useful thing. Is it that difficult to imagine that it might still be possible to view the future?"

"There are several alternate plans," Nana pointed, "other than the submarines. And for something as important as this, I'm sure the military can spare additional conventional forces. It doesn't have to be solely a magical girl operation."

Mami tilted her head, eyes closed, and Ryouko imagined that she could hear the field marshal gritting her teeth.

She opened her eyes again, fixing her gaze on Ryouko.

"Alright, I'll allow it, though I'm not happy with it. It is the reasonable thing to do. But, Shizuki‐san, is it true? Do you believe in this Goddess?"

Ryouko sighed, looking down for a moment, then meeting Mami's gaze.

"I do," she said. "I've seen her too many times not to."

Mami closed her eyes, seemingly about to say something, but then sighed and said:

"Alright, then I think that will be all. I suppose the meeting is dismissed. I have to get going."

Mami vanished, leaving Ryouko to sit there with her hands clasped, thinking. It was no longer possible not to talk about these things, it seemed.