"Act for the Regulation of Telepathic Magics"

Whereas mages capable of compulsory mind‐reading, forcible alteration of behavior, alteration of mental perception, alteration of memory, and other such acts, hitherto referred to as "telepaths", are capable of disproportionate and widespread harm if disposed with malicious intent,

Whereas harm is possible even if the intent present is beneficent,

Whereas the existence of such mages excites fear and suspicion in the populace, having resulted in a number of regrettable incidents,

Whereas the performance of such telepathic magics is widely recognized as an undesirable reduction of privacy and free will, to be used as infrequently as possible,

Resolved by the Rules Committee, 22nd of June, 2044,

Section 1: The Organization of a Body for Training and Monitoring

The Executive is instructed to create an organization for the Training, Monitoring, and Mentorship of Telepaths, which shall be referred to as the "Telepaths' Guild."

Membership within this body by telepaths shall be mandatory, to be enforced by the appropriate use of fines and other compulsory measures.

This body will determine and distribute legally‐binding guidelines for the acceptable use of telepath magics, in order to minimize their undesirable use for the invasion of privacy and free will.

These guidelines may be enforced by the use of appropriate fines, etc. up to and including the distribution of warrants for the use of Soul Guard force.

This body will maintain records on the capabilities, location, and status of all its members, and any violations of the guidelines they may have performed.

This body will be funded from the general Soul Guard Operations fund, and will prepare a yearly budget following standard procedures as outlined in the Charter.

Section 2: Forbidden Compulsory Acts

The use of telepathic magics to extract information or compel behavior against a subject's will is expressly forbidden except for the following listed exceptions. Executive will enforce this by the designation of appropriate punishments and enforcement measures, up to and including capital punishment.


The extraction of information for criminal proceedings, by court order, when this information cannot be obtained or would be inaccurate otherwise.

As a temporary measure for the maintenance of order in situations of public disorder.

When approved by the Executive for instances of extreme need affecting public security, or following a declaration of Emergency.

Section 3: Acts Forbidden even with Consent

The use of telepathic magics to alter memories or personality is forbidden regardless of consent, with the following exceptions. Executive will enforce this by the designation of appropriate punishments and enforcement measures, up to and including capital punishment.


When authorized by licensed psychiatric specialists as medical intervention for the resolution of soul gem‐endangering psychiatric disorders or psychological distress, when no other solution seems feasible. Secondary approval by a member of the Leadership Committee is required before the operation may be carried out.

When approved by the Executive for instances of extreme need affecting public security, or following a declaration of Emergency.

Section 4: Executive Discretion

This body reserves the right to review all actions approved by the Executive following the provisions of this Act, and to rescind its approval on a case‐by‐case basis. The Executive shall provide an annual report to be submitted to this body for its review.

— MSY Proceedings of the Rules Committee, 2044

The ashes of memory
taste bitter in my mouth.
The corruption eats
at my crystal heart.
I long for the purity
of an empty mind.
But I know my soul
will never be clean.

— Unknown, graffiti found scrawled on a wall in Mitakihara City


There was probably no other real way to describe an orbit‐to‐ground assault against a fortified position, Ryouko thought.

The principles hadn't really ever changed, not since the first group of swordsmen had charged the first row of spikes. One on one, the defender would always win. Offense required overwhelming force and overwhelming speed.

That was the case here as well, she thought, letting out a breath, watching in her mind's eye the stream of units and weaponry literally falling onto the surface: per minute, two thousand personnel, twelve thousand drones, a hundred armored vehicles, forty artillery pieces.

She tried to picture how it must look on the surface, how it had been in some of the simulations, landing on the surface along with a wave of shock troops and other magical girls, either traveling by teleport or streaking out of the sky. It had been heart‐pounding, engulfed in the storm of projectiles, artillery roaring, planes and Aer Magi zooming by, all while being expected to rush forward to the front immediately, under cover of a hailstorm of one‐way dropships already firing their main cannons.

But she knew that wasn't how this was going to go. Traveling with Lieutenant General Sakura Kyouko, she'd be among the last to descend, onto a surface that should be already pacified.

Even by those standards, it would still be anticlimactic. There would be no drop tubes for them, no diving out of the belly of the ship into the bitter, treacherous wind, trusting their magic to manage their landing. Instead, doctrine stated that in an opposed planetary landing, the teleporters should be distributed among the descending frigates as broadly as possible, which would not attempt surface deployment at all—the onboard teleporters would carry the occupants to the surface once the ships had descended far enough. Ryouko would simply teleport them the rest of the way—not a full two hundred kilometers, but something she could do more easily, around forty.

When the time came, then, she didn't find herself under enemy fire, or even near any other kind of fire. Instead, she found herself in the middle of a quiet, small alleyway, between two squat, unaesthetic‐looking buildings, typical of newly founded colonies without Governance support. With her was the rest of the roughly dozen girls assigned to Kyouko, among them Asami, Nana, Azrael, Marianne, Gracia, and Meiqing. It was an odd mixture of inexperienced girls and behind‐the‐lines personnel, intended more as Kyouko's mobile staff than an actual combat unit; the more experienced, combat‐prepared girls had landed much earlier.

They immediately arranged themselves in a colorful array on both sides of the alleyway, three of the girls using the walls to jump to the rooftop above. Elisa had already thrown up a barrier that completely enveloped the area.

Again, doctrine—just as Ryouko was Kyouko's designated teleporter, Elisa was her designated barrier generator. Doctrine was also why Command had told Ryouko to land in a small area with cover, rather than inside a building—the region was not fully secure, and experience had shown that recently captured bunkers sometimes exploded and collapsed, even when they seemed clear of booby traps. Better safe than sorry, and landing in an alleyway under the umbrella of a barrier generator was more than safe enough.

At both ends of the alleyway four sentries already stood guard, armored suits brilliant white to match the walls of the building, which reflected the bright midday sun shining directly down upon them. A few native vines had crawled tenaciously up the wall Ryouko and Kyouko stood against. They smelled oddly fragrant. In the distance, the quiet high‐frequency staccato of gunfire was punctuated by the occasional loud zap of tank fire.

"Sir," the officer next to one of the sentries acknowledged, saluting briskly with metallic armored hand. With the passive informational awareness typical of combat, Ryouko knew immediately that it was Colonel Raul Santos, XVII Armored Division, Nile Sector Operational Reserve. Not part of Task Force Rhamnusia, who was storming the entrances into the underground complex, but reserves summoned to increase the manpower of this invasion. Typically, colonels were high enough in rank to merit their own fortified bunker, but this was a special circumstance.

"I thought this area was secure?" Kyouko said, gesturing at the sentries, who were watching the main road, weapons ready. Her tone was firm, adult, and commanding in a way Ryouko had never heard, and indeed incongruous emerging from her current form.

"It is," Colonel Santos said, voice emanating from his suit's speakers. "But better safe than sorry. These civilians put up a lot more fight than they were supposed to. We've taken a number of casualties. Plus, apparently the place was infested by, ah, demons. And with this business with the clairvoyants not being able to see what's going on underground, we're very nervous."

Immediately after landing, several pre‐chosen clairvoyants had immediately tried to tap into events underground, as a matter of tactical priority. They had… been unable to see anything except a few abandoned corners of the facility, and it was possible they were being jammed magically, which was not unheard of.

"Indeed," Kyouko said. "It is very disturbing, but we'll have to deal with things as they come. Where are your bodyguards?"

"Supporting the rest of the regiment against a fortified complex. We don't have many mages, and these colonists don't seem as resourceful as the squid, so I figured these sentries would be enough."

They had heard about the demons and clairvoyants during the descent, of course, as they had everything else about the battle. They had even discussed it among themselves. A colony such as this should have had at least a few contracted magical girls, even if none had been on the original colony expedition. The invasion force had expected to encounter some resistance from such girls—and yet none had appeared. The common theory was that they were underground.

"Is there something wrong?" Kyouko asked, surprising Ryouko out from her brief reverie. She realized she had missed part of the conversation.

"Permission to speak freely?" Colonel Santos said.


"Is this really necessary? I know about the underground complex from the briefings, of course, but to just attack like this… couldn't we have negotiated or something? The men are asking questions, and it's affecting morale. Especially with all this resistance, there's quite a few dead civilians, and we're used to fighting squid—"

Kyouko put her hand on the colonel's suit, causing him to stop mid‐sentence.

"Let's see what's underground first," she said. "Then we'll see if this was the right thing to do."

The words sounded unconvincing to Ryouko's ear, but she knew that there was little else Kyouko could say. There was also, of course, the uncomfortable irony that Ryouko's vision had helped cause this invasion, via Kyouko.

"You said there were captives for us to interview?" Kyouko asked.

Ryouko and a few of the other girls glanced over at her quizzically. They hadn't heard anything about any captives or interviews. The older girls didn't seem surprised, though.

The colonel nodded.

"Yes, follow us."

He stepped to the end of the alleyway, one of the two lead sentries dashing at enhanced speed to the other side of the street, crouching behind a vehicle that had been gutted by weapons fire.

Colonel Santos disappeared around the corner, Kyouko followed immediately afterward and, taking a breath, Ryouko followed directly after.

Stepping out of the alleyway, she looked around—and stopped.

She had seen plenty of ruined buildings in the simulations, of course, and could even recall the streets of Apollo from her vision. There, though, it had always been the fault of the squid—either the squid had inflicted the damage directly, or it had been the natural result of a modern firefight, which was capable of turning an ordinary street into a ruined shell in mere minutes.

She had possessed some idea of what she was about to see, of course, from the gutted vehicle she had seen from the alleyway. The alleyway itself, though, had been seemingly intact, leading Ryouko to expect an abandoned street‐front with some incidental damage.

Instead, she faced a landscape that seemed more in place on the besieged Apollo than a colony world captured by swift invasion. Shattered storefronts spilled their wares into the street, glass melted or obliterated. Holes larger than Ryouko, lined by scorch marks, dotted most of the buildings along what had apparently been a major commercial thoroughfare. Several of the buildings had collapsed entirely, their metal and permacrete carcasses piled into the street in front of them, making it unnavigable. Squads of MPs were active around several buildings, drones spraying water in an attempt to douse several still‐smoking fires, while several larger vehicles appeared to be clearing the street, accompanied by smaller drones collecting the armored bodies that dotted the area. At a glance, most of the bodies were wearing outdated infantry armor models—but even that was far more than this colony should have had.

The buildings were collapsed by the colonists, Clarisse whispered in her ear. It's in the battle history. They collapsed the buildings when some of their own were still inside, to try and surprise us with their fanaticism. The buildings were also rigged to collapse into the street, to impede our armor. Not that it did much.

Not exactly minimal civilian casualties, Ryouko thought, a bit shakily. She was struck by Clarisse's blasé tone.

"It's hard to keep the destruction to a minimum if they're going to resist the way they did," Nana said, appearing at Ryouko's side.

Nana grabbed her shoulder.

"Come on. Let's not linger."

Ryouko continued onward, still staring, as behind her Nana waved some of the other rookies forward.

They were led to an odd circular structure set in the middle of the street. Impassive and low, perhaps only a meter tall, Ryouko would have taken it for an archaic traffic circle, were it not for the combat implants informing her the moment she saw it that it was a captured bunker with concealed weapon slits, now being used to hold civilian prisoners.

As they approached, Ryouko could see a gaping hole that had formed on one side of the structure, just large enough for one person to step through.

"It's pretty small," Colonel Santos said as Kyouko reached the hole and peered in. "Between the captives and the guard, there's only space for some of you. No more than five."

Ryouko relaxed slightly, not realizing until then how little she relished the prospect of confronting human prisoners. Surely, Kyouko wouldn't—

As if anticipating her thought, Kyouko raised an arm, making a "come here" gesture with her hand that was clearly intended for Ryouko.

Ryouko stepped forward as instructed, a bit apprehensive.

"It will be you, me, Gracia, and Nana," Kyouko said in clear Standard. "The rest of you stand guard. You too, Elisa."

Elisa, Kyouko's designated barrier generator, looked reluctant, but didn't move to protest.

Don't forget, I'm supposed to be your mentor, Kyouko thought to Ryouko. And if the Goddess really does have plans for you, it's best for you to see the world as it is.

Kyouko turned and followed Gracia and Nana into the bunker, leaving Ryouko to chew over that ominous declaration for a moment before following, jumping down the small drop.

The inside of the bunker was dimly lit by scant sunlight leaking in through the now obvious weapon slits and the blast hole. There had been light‐emitting tiles on the ceiling, but they were cracked beyond any semblance of function. In the corner lay a pile of shattered munitions and rubble.

Colonel Santos had not been kidding about the crowdedness. The four girls, the single guard, the pile of munitions, and the three captives on the floor gave Ryouko barely any room to move.

The captives themselves, three men, were unconscious, seated against the wall. One of them had medical gel covering a hole in his side. There was no sign of any armor suits they might have had.

"We were able to knock them out with an EMP and concussion grenades," the guard said, faceless helmet turning towards Kyouko. "It's the only way we would have gotten them alive, the way these colonists have been fighting."

"The usual precautions have been taken?" Kyouko asked, crouching down to inspect the face of one of the captives.

"Yes, sir," the guard said.

Kyouko looked up, sharing a look with Nana, who nodded.

"He means their augmentation control networks have been overridden," Nana said, looking at Ryouko. "It's a nasty process. Involves nanite injections, all of that. It's the only way to make sure they can't commit suicide or signal anyone."

Ryouko gulped, nodding. Honestly, she had feared worse. The internet was rife with conspiracy theories that Governance had a backdoor into everyone's implant controls, even though that had been expressly forbidden by the Ethics Committee. Nanite injections and forcible takeover—well, they wouldn't do that if there was a backdoor, would they?

Unless the regular army just doesn't know about a backdoor, Clarisse thought. Or the colonists managed to get rid of it. Or they only have them in military personnel.

Is there a backdoor? Ryouko thought.

Well, I don't know, obviously, Clarisse thought. They wouldn't tell me. I'm just speculating.

Kyouko stood back up and looked at Gracia.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I'll wake them up," Gracia said.

She turned to look at the guard.

"You're dismissed," she said.

The guard glanced towards Kyouko, confusion visible even through the suit.

"We'll be fine," Kyouko said. "We can handle ourselves."

Finally, the guard nodded and left the bunker, power‐jumping up through the blast hole.

They're passing information by telepathy, Clarisse thought, making it clear by the flavor of her thought that she meant Kyouko and the other two magical girls.

You think so? Ryouko thought.

They're controlling their expressions, but some of the facial muscles are still twitching slightly. It's very hard to conceal without implant assistance, and they probably haven't decided to go that far.

Gracia turned back towards the prisoners on the floor, seeming simply to stare at them for a moment. Then, one of the men on the floor, the one Kyouko had been looking at, seemed to take a gasp of air, eyes snapping open. The eyes focused on the girls looking back down at him, and the man seemed to panic, eyes darting about frantically.

But he didn't move otherwise.

It took Ryouko a moment to realize what should have been obvious: the man was immobilized by his implants. The idea simply hadn't occurred to her until then, even though she knew, for instance, that civilian implants were calibrated to prevent significant violence. The utility of the immobilization was obvious, but it still bothered her, and her mind recoiled at trying to imagine what it must be like.

She swallowed surreptitiously.

"How much time do we have?" Gracia asked, looking at Kyouko.

Kyouko looked at the roof of the bunker, clearly examining the current battlefield situation. They all could, of course, but Kyouko had the most authority to make decisions.

"Not enough time," Kyouko said. "Are you okay with expediting this? Ordinarily, I wouldn't be willing to make this decision so hastily, but the information they have could greatly affect the course of the battle. Usually we rely on clairvoyants for this kind of thing, but you know…"

"As ready as I ever am," Gracia said, sighing slightly. "Are you sure about…"

Gracia tilted her head in Ryouko's direction, ever so slightly, but making it immediately clear what she meant.

"If she's considering coming into this line of work, she will have to see it someday," Kyouko said.

"I agree," Nana said, surprising Ryouko with her contribution to the conversation.

Ryouko, who had not yet figured out the point of this conversation, merely looked back at the others blankly.

Without answering her implied question, Gracia bent down towards the middle of the three prisoners, who had stopped darting his gaze around, instead choosing to fixate on Gracia.

"It's painless," Gracia said. "For what that's worth."

Gracia pressed her palms to the sides of the man's head and closed her eyes, seeming to focus. A moment later, his eyes started to glow a bright red, the details of the pupil and sclera washed out in a diffuse red glow.

Ryouko stepped back, startled.

Is she—

—reading his mind against his will? Clarisse thought. Yeah, I think so.

In that moment, Ryouko felt a certain visceral—well, she couldn't describe it, not exactly. The closest approximation might have been that she felt sick to her stomach. But it wasn't exactly that. It was as if she felt the strong compulsion to be anywhere but here, doing anything but watching Gracia pry the colonist's mind open, but instead she couldn't move away, couldn't look away. It wasn't moral revulsion, not exactly, though there were elements of that—she felt as if she were watching something that simply should not have been.

She felt a chill, in a way she hadn't when Gracia had tested her ability to defend her mind, when it had been more of a friendly game. There was no stealth here, no sneaking past the guards, no sly knocking on the door of the mind. It was simply power and will, and she recoiled at the radiant energy she felt emanating from Gracia, feeling the compulsion to flee growing ever stronger, as if her soul gem itself detested being there.

And yet she still stood there, mesmerized.

Then it was over, and she found herself blinking in confusion as the male colonist slumped down to the floor, eyes closing as he again slipped into enforced unconsciousness.

"You okay?" Nana asked, appearing in a flash at her elbow, and Ryouko realized that she had started to collapse towards the floor.

"I… I think," Ryouko said, rubbing one hand against her forehead. She was not normally the fainting type.

"The mind magics are closely related to the soul magics," Nana said into her ear. "Every magical girl recoils instinctively at displays of soul manipulation. It takes getting used to."

In her line of work, your mother has seen much more than most, Nana thought. There's a reason she didn't want this for you. I'm not telling you not to be Spec Ops, but you have to know what it entails.

Ryouko looked back at her aunt blankly, wondering the natural question:

Why now?

Nana looked at Kyouko, who nodded briskly, then turned towards Gracia, seemingly unaffected by what had just happened.

"Anything valuable?" she asked Gracia, who was recharging her soul gem into a set of grief cubes she'd pulled out of a pouch in her costume.

"I'm not sure," Gracia said. "I only have surface memories. To dig deeper I'd need longer. Apparently, once the colony realized we'd be coming, DeWitt, the cult leader, withdrew into the underground complex with all of the colony's children. This man hasn't been told what's down there, but DeWitt said that whatever it was would destroy us. That there was a new messiah. This particular colonist had started to doubt what DeWitt says, and viewed this battle as kind of a test of faith. Either way, they were supposed to buy as much time as possible."

Kyouko grunted, curling her lip into a bit of a snarl.

"Religious lunatics. No wonder we haven't found any children on this colony. That's not very informative, though. You sure you don't have any more information?"

"One of the tenets of their cult was that only a few would know the details of what's going on. That way, if anyone were to capture one of them and interrogate them, there wouldn't be much to find. I have to say, if they stuck to that, it was pretty clever."

Gracia glanced down, shaking her head.

"I can dig deeper into this one," she said, gesturing at the soldier she had just finished "interrogating", "but I think it'd be more useful for me to check the others. I'd guess they don't know any more than this guy, though. I'd need someone high‐ranking, somehow."

Kyouko threw her head up and laughed, sharp and shrill, startling Ryouko into jumping slightly.

"Clever in more than one way, I'd wager," Kyouko said. "Given what is supposedly waiting for us underground, I'd say we're on the clock. Who knows what's going on down there? With all those kids… this is now a humanitarian thing. Do we call his bluff?"

The way Kyouko said "humanitarian", casually, carelessly, felt oddly off‐putting to Ryouko.

"Keep at it," Kyouko ordered, pointing Gracia at the soldiers. "It looks like old General Albescu wants to have a powwow with Governance, now that we have the results of your interrogation and Rhamnusia is almost at the entrance to the underground complex."

Kyouko stalked up to the blast hole, then stopped, turning towards Ryouko.

"Come on," she said. "There's no reason for you to be here."

Ryouko gulped, then hastened to follow Kyouko out, leaving Nana behind with Gracia.

She didn't want to see that bunker again.

"Are we absolutely sure there's no antimatter squirreled down there? No nuclear devices?" Colonial Affairs asked, sharp feminine voice rising over the virtual conference table.

At the other end of the conference table, the assembled senior officers of the invasion force, headlined by Lieutenant General Sakura Kyouko and General Pavel Albescu, grimaced nearly in unison. While retaining their individual personalities far more than an equivalent set of fleet commanders, army commanders in a combat zone were still connected together on a level deeper than thought and sometimes, it showed.

The only part of the military delegation who didn't grimace was Mami, who was seated next to Kyouko, looking regal in her full dress uniform, an affectation she had only taken on after ascending to the Chair of the General Staff.

"The scanners have come up negative on all counts," General Albescu said. "And now that we are on the ground, they should be considerably more accurate. If we've missed anything nuclear, then at least the antinuclear defenses will hopefully counter a detonation. We can't do much about antimatter, but that's also much easier to detect."

"Antinuclear defenses" was the unimaginative term for the set of automatic defense systems designed to detect the opening stages of a fissile chain reaction and immediately irradiate the area with a burst of exotic particles designed to force the reaction to fizzle and explode without releasing most of its energy. First developed in the cauldron of the Unification Wars as a counter to hand‐delivered tactical nuclear weapons, it was these kinds of devices on both sides, along with the comparative cost of producing and transporting antimatter, that prevented the war with the aliens from being a frenzy of nuclear weapon detonations.

But they were not perfect, as Kyouko expected to be brought up immediately as an objection.

"Those defenses are hardly foolproof, General," Science and Technology said, shaking his head lightly. "Nor are the scanners. The Cephalopods have certainly demonstrated this a number of times. Even with clairvoyant support, it's an iffy business at best."

"If we assault the underground structure as planned, and they do detonate even a small nuclear device, the casualties will be tremendous," Mami said, glancing over at the other military officers. "And it will be difficult to conceal what happened here."

"These are not the Cephalopods," General Albescu said. "Despite whatever unusual abilities the colonists have demonstrated so far, they are not nearly as technically competent, or we would not already be in control of the surface."

"With all due respect," Kyouko said. "What would you have us do? We have a possibly insane cult leader deep underground with a colony's worth of children and teenagers, along with Goddess knows what. If this were purely a military matter, or if we had any idea what was down there, we could afford to take our time and do this carefully. But right now we have the equivalent of a hostage situation!"

A collective intake of breath all around the table, including from the Governance Representatives. It was not a pleasant situation, no matter how you sliced it.

"It is true: we don't have terribly many options," Military Affairs said, baritone voice rising over the table. "With the clairvoyants out, we're now running blind. Have there been any attempts at contact or negotiation?"

General Albescu shook his head.

"Not yet. I felt that was a decision for this council to make."

"Is there any other way to get information about the interior of this underground complex?" Mami asked, looking over at her subordinates. "A MagOps insertion, perhaps?"

Kyouko cleared her throat, getting the attention of the table. Her thoughts had already progressed along this line; she had merely been waiting for the proper opening to give her pitch.

"In truth, I have already considered the possibility," Kyouko said. "We already have enough personnel and experience to make the attempt, and our clairvoyants can still see part of the facility, which makes teleportation feasible. Enough teleporters, an earth manipulator, numerous Black Ops personnel, and, in fact, a significant proportion of the team that destroyed the alien wormhole. I could assemble the team in twenty minutes, real‐time, and make the insertion. A kind of stealth reconnaissance, with force if necessary. We can relay what we find out by telepathy, and then we can decide what to do. There won't be time to train specifically for this scenario, but hopefully there will be enough veteran experience for it not to matter."

"The way you talk, it sounds like you intend to go yourself," Yuma said, peering directly at Kyouko, eyes seeming to bore into her. Even as old as she was, Kyouko did not like being under that look.

"I do," Kyouko said, as levelly as she could.

She heard Mami let out a breath, using one hand to knead the bridge of her nose.

"That is hardly wise, general," Military Affairs said, voice rumbling. "You don't need me to tell you that. Not to put too fine a point on it, but someone of your importance should not be risking your life on a mission with this level of danger."

Importance. Kyouko knew why she was important to Governance. She was important because her followers believed her to be important, because her Church's activities were important to the health of the magical girl population, and because without her leadership the Church might splinter and fall to ashes like so many before it. Governance didn't care about her or her Church per se, only the ends they achieved. Other than that, she knew Governance considered her Church a bit of an abomination, fundamentally not that different from the cult on X‐25.

"I am also the most experienced girl on this mission by far," she said. "No one else of my age group is anywhere near X‐25, and I am one of only a few girls on the planet with any experience fighting other magical girls. This is a situation where I feel I'd be more useful in the field than in command. We certainly have no shortage of commanders."

The Governance Representatives shared a look.

Finally, Yuma sighed.

"I don't mean to be indelicate, Onee‐chan, but are you sure you aren't allowing your personal history to interfere with your decision‐making?"

Kyouko let out a breath. She supposed it was too much for her to hope that Governance—and Mami—would allow such an obvious point to pass by. The downside of being famous was that everyone knew your life story, even if the relevant events were centuries ago.

"I would say I'm using my personal history to inform my decision‐making," she said. "I am painfully aware of what can result from religious fanaticism, and I feel it is only natural that I would exert myself to prevent it. I feel that, as a religious leader myself, I may also be uniquely positioned to negotiate, should such a situation arise."

She met the gazes of the Directorate Subcommittee, and of Mami, and tried not to think of how much the street‐rat Kyouko would have laughed, long ago, at what she had just said.

Yuma tilted her head at the other Governance Representatives, the AI‐human collective clearly performing some sort of off‐record consultation.

"I feel obliged to point out that, as of yet, we haven't actually discussed whether sending in a penetration team is really the best option," Mami said, looking at Kyouko and General Albescu. "Granted, I'm not sure I see any better options, but I feel it's at least worth discussing."

"Well, there aren't any better options," General Albescu said, "Not that I can see, or else I would dissuade General Sakura here from this foolhardy mission."

"Indeed," Yuma said. "It really is the most promising solution. The only real question is whether it is really wise for General Sakura here to personally go. We have decided to respect her argument regarding her experience, in light of her great age. Please do not disappoint us. If it is necessary, we will meet again, once more information is obtained."

Yuma winked out of the simulation like a soap bubble, simultaneously with the rest of Governance.

Just like that, the meeting was over. Governance was never big on farewells.

The invasion force was well‐stocked with qualified magical girls, but as she had mentioned to Governance, few of those had the desired Spec Ops experience. Of those who did, many were already with her: Azrael, Marianne, Gracia and Nana fell easily into this category. Azrael wasn't logical to bring, sadly, despite her experience, simply because bringing a flier into an underground facility was far from optimal.

She wanted to bring Ryouko, of course, because it was clearly intended by the Goddess, and the girl had shown an ability to perform in the wormhole mission. Earth mages were rare, so Meiqing, who she had summoned to this operation deliberately, was a natural inclusion despite her lack of experience. The other rookies were out of the question, except…

Well, Nakihara Asami. Whatever the girl's situation with Ryouko—and there definitely was one, as Kyouko well knew from perusing Ryouko's personnel file—it wasn't sufficient justification to bring her on the mission. However, the two girls had shown signs of power synergy while stationed with the lab on Eurydome. It wasn't really a great reason, but Kyouko had a hunch.

So, she had assigned Asami as well, much to the girl's obvious delight.

It was a short ride from where they had landed to the rally point for the newly assembled MagOps team, just in front of what appeared to be the main entrance to the underground complex. They could have hoofed it—it was generally safer for magical girls to stay active and mobile—but the city was secure enough that they could ride IFVs, so they did. Kyouko had learned long ago that magical girls were not any less lazy than the average human, and riding in relative comfort improved morale.

The other option was to teleport there, but it was taking time anyway to extricate the remaining members of the newly‐formed team—those not assigned to Kyouko originally—out of their respective combat situations, so there was no reason to rush it too much.

Normally, Kyouko would have chatted with the other girls on the way, but at the moment, she simply wasn't in the mood, preferring to sit quietly, eyes closed in thought.

Why did you show that to me? Ryouko thought. Why now?

She opened her eyes, looking at the girl next to her. Ryouko's eyes looked bothered and disturbed, in a way she hadn't shown in the bunker itself.

Then she closed her eyes again, returning to her previous posture.

You've had time to think about it, then? It disturbs you.

There was a pause before the girl answered.

Yes. It does. It makes sense why you did it, but it still seems wrong.

Kyouko let out a breath.

There's a thing the Incubators always prattle on about. You probably haven't heard about it at all, since they talk to new girls so infrequently now, but they used to always tell us that the universe has to stay in balance, that the amount of good is always balanced by the amount of bad.

I've heard of that. It's a very Buddhist idea. I've read about it on the internet, but the question always is: Where is the bad for our wishes? According to the Incubators, human progress is based entirely on wishes, but with the MSY, where is the bad?

It doesn't really make much sense, does it? But there is a kernel of truth to it. When you see good being done on a wide scale, the world being made better, it very rarely comes without a cost. This was true for Governance and it was true for the MSY.

Kyouko waited a moment, until she was sure the other girl had understood.

Do you know the meaning of the name Black Heart? It means that at the core of the MSY there is a kernel of darkness, that nourishes the whole body and can never be removed. At the core of the soul gem is a speck of black despair.

Kyouko paused, letting out a breath.

Do you know the story of my life? What happened to my family when I was a child?

It was a long while before Ryouko responded, but Kyouko was content to wait.

Yes. I know the story.

What do you think it does to a girl, to see something like that, at an age like that? After that I spent a full year running from the truth, thinking that I could ignore the world and hunt my food.

She opened her eyes again, and found Ryouko watching her now, eyes wide.

To be Spec Ops, and more than that, Black Ops, is to see the darkness, know the darkness and sometimes, be the darkness. That last part is the Black Heart's motto, and you'll hear about it if they ever formally induct you. It's not just about raiding alien bases. That's why I'm bringing you down into the tunnels with me. We have no choice but to face whatever is down there.

Kyouko smiled, feeling the vehicle slow to a halt. She had timed this perfectly.

She stood up, stretching luxuriously.

Operational magical girl teams rarely consisted of more than fourteen members, simply for reasons of power coordination and leadership. If it were felt that an operation needed more manpower, it was generally the case that two teams of eight or higher would be assigned instead. At the same time, having less than eight members on a team was considered risky, leaving the team lacking in critical specializations.

This mission was primarily intended as reconnaissance, so only one team was necessary. Besides the girls Kyouko already had with her—a teleporter, a telepath‐clairvoyant, a clairvoyant who could also hack in the field, two girls who were effectively telekinetics, and a melee illusionist—she had also summoned Mina Guyure to serve as a second teleporter, two additional barrier generators, and no fewer than three stealth generators, to suit the nature of the mission. Nearly all were well suited to combat in confined space, and the group of girls had diverse secondary specialties and hobbies, ranging from xenobiology to physics. You never knew what came in handy.

The remaining girls were already assembled at the rally point, a newly fortified building just outside an ostentatious cathedral‐like structure in the center of the settlement which contained the entrance to the underground complex.

Kyouko looked over the motley group of girls, seated on various boxes and pieces of still‐intact furniture inside the depressing, gray room.

"Well, you've already got the mission details so I won't repeat them to you," she said. "I wish there were more time to prepare, but this must be done ASAP. We will be relying on your experience with teamwork to carry this off successfully. Look around, have your TacComps imprint your team members and their combat roles into your memory. It's just a little reconnaissance, so I won't tolerate any casualties on my watch. If there's any talking to be done, let me do it."

She paused for a long moment, allowing the team to look each other over. She saw several look over the "Hero of Orpheus" carefully, as well as the other girls of the wormhole mission team.

Then she rubbed her hands together.

"Alright ladies," she said. "Let's get this show on the road."

A short while later, Ryouko found herself in what looked like an unremarkable office, with a chair, small desk, and… not much else. It was one of the few locations in the facility their team clairvoyants could see the surroundings of clearly, and was therefore probably safe to arrive in.

That didn't mean it was safe, of course; they spent a few tense moments nervously scanning the area with scanners, magic, and basic human senses.

Stealth field is up, Agnes Griffin, one of their stealth generators, thought, replicating the message that had already passed through machine channels.

Backup stealth field is up, Xochi Espina, another stealth generator, echoed. The third would stay on standby until needed.

Can either of you get a better view now that we're here? Kyouko thought at Marianne and Gracia.

I can see a bit farther outward, Marianne thought. But not anywhere as far as usual. Someone is definitely jamming us. Not only is that a very rare magical power, but whoever it is they're doing so quite skillfully.

That is my situation as well, Gracia thought.

What's around us? Kyouko thought.

Mainly more offices, Gracia thought. It seems to be structured like a lab, but the equipment has been removed.

A lab, Marianne echoed. You'd think if there was a lab down here, someone aboveground would know what was going on, but none of the prisoners interrogated so far seem to have a clear idea.

That's easy, their backup barrier generator, Tammy Shepard, thought. Whoever is down here stayed down here. I reckon they'll be here soon enough.

From the corner of her eye, Ryouko saw Meiqing swallow nervously.

We'll see soon enough, Kyouko thought. Marianne, you think you can safely check if there's any lab data remaining locally? Could be useful.

Marianne shrugged.

It's not like I actually hack anything. It's magic. They won't pick me up unless they have another magical girl watching the systems.

They could, Nana pointed out.

We didn't come here not to gather data, Kyouko thought. The risk is small. Try it.

Marianne nodded, then pointed towards one of the near walls, next to the desk.

It will be safe for me to touch the wall? she thought, looking at Agnes.

It should be.

A series of bright white strings flew from Marianne's hands, sticking to the wall on contact. She stood there for a moment, eyes closed, seeming to be listening to something.

No, the data has been completely wiped, she thought.

I shouldn't be surprised, Kyouko thought. Alright, let's move out. Barrier generators and Gracia first, stealth generators and teleporters in the middle, Marianne last. Marianne, can you get the door open? Don't forget to close it behind us.

The door slid open immediately, and the group of girls headed out into the hallway in roughly the order prescribed. Ryouko doubted a team leader would have ordinarily been as explicit with her instructions as Kyouko had been, but there had been no time to prepare or train—better to be wordy than sorry.

Ryouko took a moment to look at their team map of the area. It was pitifully incomplete, with only the area immediately around them revealed and the rest of it essentially a giant question mark.

Er, I think I can get a better idea of the rooms, Meiqing thought. I have some idea of how the earth in our vicinity is arranged, and I'm not being jammed. I can't warn you of any enemies, though.

She updated the map of the area, which expanded to nearly double the previous size, though the outer ring was considered not necessarily safe.

Good thinking, Kyouko thought. Let's go. It looks like there might be a main hallway coming up.

They moved forward cautiously, but briskly. A stealth field of this magnitude was expensive to maintain, and they had been instructed not to linger unless necessary.

As they walked, Ryouko peered around at the walls and ceiling, trying to find anything unusual about the office complex that would justify the situation they were in. The facilities looked completely standard, though, if a little utilitarian—the walls were a uniform flat gray, whereas the lab on Eurydome had had elaborate decorative stone slabs, and most buildings on Earth would have had display walls.

The hallways were lined with impassive sealed doors, and though Marianne opened a few, there was nothing to see. Completely denuded lab facilities, with not a single piece of equipment left behind.

Kavitha Srinivas, one of the barrier generators, called the group to a halt.

Sorry, she thought. But I did an apprenticeship in a nanotechnology lab, and I think I recognize some of this. The equipment may be gone, but they can't have torn out all the water and resource feeds. Can we go into this one? I want to take a look; I know we have to be quick.

Kyouko nodded her assent, issuing into their mental interfaces the relevant specific commands. They filed into the room, again in the previously‐determined order—while under stealth field, the group could not be broken up.

Kavitha stood in the middle of the room, between two semi‐circular workbenches, looking around.

This was a nanotech lab. It has to be. This is where you'd adjust the programming. Over there—

She pointed at the corner of the room.

You can see the holes where the nanofabricator draws resources.

Can you see anything else? Kyouko thought.

Not from here, the barrier generator thought. This is fairly generic. The other rooms looked fairly similar, but to be really sure we'd have to go through each one.

Kyouko shook her head.

We don't have time. It's more important to look through the rest of the facility. The exact type of nanotech going here isn't as important.

They shuffled back out of the empty lab.

This is creepy, Asami thought to Ryouko, turning into words what they were all thinking. All these empty rooms… it feels like a graveyard. It feels like a ghost could attack at any moment. I don't like it.

Ryouko reached out and squeezed Asami's hand, earning a surprised look back in response. Ryouko didn't meet it, though, preferring to continue scanning the corners of the room.

The group froze, simultaneously spotting on their monitors what Marianne had detected: a pair of armored guards around the corner, guarding a door at the end of the corridor.

We could avoid them easily just by turning left here instead, Agnes thought, They won't see us passing by through my stealth.

We came here for reconnaissance, Kyouko thought. So we're going to do reconnaissance. If there's guards at a door, that means the important things are behind the door. The stealth should be able to hide us, as long as no one does anything stupid like walk into one of the guards. Eyes open; we're going right.

Remember the plan, Kyouko thought, as they walked forward. We explore until we find where the children are or we have to leave. If we can, we take some prisoners on the way out.

The end of the corridor was a T‐intersection with a large, sealed double door, with the two guards stationed at both sides. According to their clairvoyance, the other end of the double door was cavernous, a giant room larger than any of the others they had passed—the closer they got to the door, the farther in Marianne and Gracia could see, but neither of them had yet labeled the far wall of the room, nor had they yet labeled anything they might have seen inside the room.

Then, having just reached the guards, Marianne and Gracia simultaneously froze midstep.

What is it? Kyouko asked, standing only a few feet away from one of the oblivious guards.

We have to go in, Marianne thought.

What do you see? Kyouko pressed. Is it the children?

Incubation equipment, Gracia thought. Empty, as far as I can tell, but I can't see all of it. I'm no expert, but based on the size, I think it's the kind intended for humans. I just can't see it clearly yet—not with this jamming.

She forwarded a picture to the group, reconstructed from her brain activity. It looked like the same kind of incubators Ryouko had once seen in Mitakihara, but seen from a substantial distance. Ryouko could see why the clairvoyants were having trouble making a clear assessment.

The members of the team glanced at each other nervously.

I think she's right, Nana thought. And I am an expert. I can't be sure unless we get closer though.

Kyouko grimaced.

I was afraid of this kind of thing. Alright, Ryouko, teleport us in—follow Marianne's clairvoyance. The rest of you: be ready for a trap. Especially the barrier generators.

A trap?

Blatant guards, sealed door? Kyouko thought. It's what I would use as bait. Hopefully they just can't see us, though.

Ryouko let out a breath.

Alright, gather around me, she thought. Same as before.

As the others gathered around, she spared a glance down at her soul gem. It was still clear and bright, and a single short‐range teleport was unlikely to strain it.

Ryouko closed her eyes, letting herself enter Marianne's mindscape. She didn't really need it for such an easy teleport, but it made things easier.

She reached inward, stretching the fabric of space‐time just so

And then they were there, and could see it with their own eyes, through the pale blue glow of Kavitha's barrier around then.

They stood in shock for a moment, stunned by the sheer magnitude of what they were seeing.

The warehouse‐sized room stretched forward almost as far as the eye could see, the far wall only barely visible behind rows and rows of human‐sized incubation vats, about twice as tall as Ryouko. Unlike the ones she had seen at Prometheus, these did not have transparent sides, impassively gray and metallic from top to bottom. There was, however, little doubt as to what they were; centuries of movies about the Freedom Alliance had given the general public a good sense of what modern incubation vats looked like, in all their variations.

Several members of the team, even some of the veterans, were visibly fazed. Asami grabbed Ryouko's shoulder, and Meiqing appeared to shudder.

Let's not overreact yet, Nana thought. I know what it looks like, but it could be something else. Marianne or Gracia, can you check, uh, what's in the tanks?

I haven't seen anything yet, Gracia thought. Just empty fluid and tubing. I'm checking the tanks one by one.

Keep trying, Nana thought. Marianne, do you think you can check the computer systems for information?

Marianne looked at Kyouko, who nodded.

Maybe, Marianne thought. It depends on exactly how these tanks are connected to the main system. There isn't a canonical connectivity like there is for in‐wall systems, and I have to find the relevant wiring.

Marianne extended her threads to the nearest tank, her strings detaching and reattaching several times before she shook her head and thought:

No, as far as these tanks are concerned, they're just individual incubation tanks connected to a remote monitoring and control system. There's no direct connection to any databases that would tell us what the overall purpose is.

She paused for a moment.

They're definitely configured for human incubation, though. But this one is on empty standby.

For ectogenesis, embryos and fetuses are typically grown separately in smaller chambers before being transferred to a large tank like this one, Nana thought. This one could just be on standby. If we go somewhere else, we might find some active ones.

Still no personnel, Xochi thought. I don't like it. Something's up.

It's obvious something is up, Agnes thought. It would help to know what.

Let's head down this row, Nana thought. Tank arrays like this are typically sorted by age, for convenience. If these are empty then the active ones are probably farther down the row.

Is that really a good idea, though? Marianne thought. Even if we find whatever—whoever—they're growing down here, will it really help us know what they're doing? I'd much rather find an administrative terminal or something.

Or a technician we could interrogate, Gracia grumbled.

We have to save prisoners for last, Kyouko reminded. And right now these tanks are right in front of us. It'd be crazy not to look through them before we start looking for terminals or something. Let's move forward.

Headed by Gracia, they moved forward briskly, but deathly silent. Some measure of silence was considered good mission protocol, even under a stealth field—but not this much silence.

Do you have any guesses about what's going on here? Ryouko thought finally, addressing Kyouko.

My guess is that the cult leader is trying to clone magical girls, Kyouko thought, responding surprisingly quickly. Not just the body, but the mind and personality, to try and duplicate wishes. It's what makes sense given the cult's history, and it's also the first thing anyone thinks of when they start thinking about this kind of thing.

Ryouko waited for Kyouko to continue, but she didn't, and finally Ryouko asked:

Would that work, though?

It's complicated. The short answer is that you wouldn't get the same girls making the same wishes over and over. Potential just doesn't work that way; you can ask any Incubator. The long answer is that since these girls will have favorable genetics and you can manufacture a stressful life situation, they really will be more likely to contract. It's really not worth the investment though, unless you do this kind of thing on a massive scale. Like, interstellar‐massive. Not like this.

The group fell back into silence. To Ryouko, the way Kyouko talked made it sound like she had seen the problem studied before—but even she knew better than to say that out loud.

About halfway down the aisle, Gracia held up her hand to stop the group from advancing further.

The ones in front of us are occupied. Human girls… I can sense their minds dreaming. These aren't empty clones. Other than that, I can't tell if there's anything unusual about them.

Without waiting for any prompting, Marianne shot out an arm, strings radiating from her in all directions to contact all the tanks in the area in front of them.

As far as these tanks are concerned, the inhabitants are standard human, and they are performing maintenance as such. I can't rule out the possibility that the configuration settings have been changed, though. But they're all girls.

Empty clones? Meiqing asked, the tenor of the thought quizzical in the air.

It's not important right now, Kyouko thought, brushing the question aside. Gracia, you're the telepath: Can you pick up anything?

It's hard to explain, but not really. Kind of a static. No images. I'm pretty sure these girls have never been outside these tanks.

It goes without saying there's not going to be any boys in this set, Kyouko thought angrily. I wonder what they're doing to them? False memories? Mind‐control implants? Do they kill them if they don't contract? What are the Incubators thinking not telling us about this place?

As Kyouko continued, she seemed to get progressively more furious, spear starting to shake where she had planted the handle into the ground, until Ryouko began to fear Kyouko would smash something in rage.

But in the end, Kyouko seemed to calm down, then turned to face the rest of the group.

Well, for the newer girls, you should know that before the MSY, we faced this kind of stuff all the time, just not with as much tech. Anyway, Gracia, I think it's time we sent an update to the surface. Then we can move on.

Gracia nodded, then closed her eyes. As the group's primary telepath, she had longer telepathy range than any of the others, extending well beyond the hundred meters normally imposed by the direct soul gem connection.

They waited expectantly.

Finally, Gracia opened her eyes again.

"Oh," she said aloud, startling all of them.

We didn't think of this, she thought, a moment later. My telepathy is blocked, too. More than that, trying to do that… I've been detected. They know we're here. Right here, exactly.

"Fuck," one of the girls said, elegantly succinct.

Get us out of here! Marianne thought, looking at Ryouko.

"No," Kyouko countermanded, voice hard.

She picked up her spear, pointing it forward, leaning into a combat stance.

"If we've been detected, we've already shit the bed. If the children are being taken as hostages, then backing out is only going to let them do what they're going to do. We've got to try to find them now."

Kyouko's voice turned into a growl, harsh enough that Ryouko felt herself quail, wanting to—

I think I know where she is, Gracia announced.

They turned to look at the telepath, as a single bright blip appeared on their internal navigation maps.

The girl who's blocking me, I mean, Gracia thought. She blocked me, but I was also able to sense where she blocked me from.

Then that's where we're going, Kyouko announced, sweeping her spear grandiosely in the direction of the blip. This ain't a stealth mission anymore, ladies! Let's bring it hard and fast! Ryouko!

Ryouko nodded, swallowing, then closed her eyes, as the others gathered around her.

She took a breath.

This… was a new feeling. She couldn't understand. It wasn't that she couldn't do it. It just felt… unsafe. She didn't feel the certainty that—

She opened her eyes, shaking her head decisively.

"I can't," she said, trying to keep her voice as level as possible in the face of disappointment. "Whatever is blocking the clairvoyance—it's also blocking my ability to know where I'm teleporting. I'm going to teleport into a wall or something. It wouldn't be safe. I can do a short‐range teleport over and over, but—"

Kyouko let out a growl of inchoate anger.

Save your energy, she thought. This will be faster anyway.

Kyouko dashed forward, the rest of the team following a few milliseconds later, responding with combat reflexes.

Elisa sharpened her barrier to a point, barreling the group through a wall into the next room over, which they could see was clear through clairvoyance.

Ryouko followed, letting the doubts in her heart be quelled by the moment.

But as she watched Kyouko's back, she couldn't help but remember that, just for a moment, she had doubted Kyouko's judgment. That, before Gracia had announced she knew where the interdicting magical girl was, Ryouko had seen the group doubt Kyouko's judgment, even in the face of her command authority.

If the children are being taken as hostages, then backing out is only going to let them do what they're going to do. We've got to try to find them now.

It was compelling logic, but it wasn't the only possible logic.

Where was Kyouko taking them?