They came down from the sky onto an unsuspecting humanity, no longer used to war.

They massacred millions for incomprehensible goals, cthuloid monstrosities striking fear and panic throughout the colony worlds, and even on Earth itself.

Aurora Colony, Atlas Colony, wiped off the face of the map, and the human military seemed helpless to stop them. Even fully mobilized, the technological disparity would have been too great.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Earth Governance had begun implementing procedures it had hoped never to invoke, hastily and secretly preparing long‐range colony ships to—hopefully—seed humanity on distant planets beyond the reach of the aliens.

New Athens changed everything. It was like a Hollywood movie, a band of hard‐bitten, world‐weary veterans, banding together to do what the military could not.

Only, these veterans were a little different from the stereotype…

— Emilio Gonzales, online article.

The MSY, in its vast entangled bureaucracy, had been preparing its entire existence for all sorts of absurd contingencies. Its agents watched the military, even though the military hadn't been relevant for centuries. It owned its own fleet of disguised and stealth ships, one that was consistently labeled a boondoggle by internal politicians, but persisted nonetheless. It had contingency plans for fighting the military, overthrowing governments, all sorts of ridiculous scenarios, just in case.

And even though they somehow never thought to prepare for an alien invasion, all these plans, all these ships and preparations, would prove their worth in one giant spasm of glory.

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.


Boom!

The ground shook underneath them.

A drop‐pod has landed in our sector, a girl thought from somewhere. The military has opened fire, but their shield is holding. Alien drones are deploying.

A pause.

Also, I believe I sense air superiority platforms and fighters.

The message relayed its way into Homura's—well, the audience's—mind, bouncing its way from the clairvoyant through what was probably hundreds of girls to the improvised command post.

Thank you, Homura thought back. Remember the plan, everyone. We're not going to be able to deny low orbit for a while, so we want them to commit themselves into their demonstration attack before we surprise them. We don't want them to change their minds and vaporize us all from orbit.

Her voice registered in Mami's mind, the actor's cadences modified to sound just like the actual girl, the words just as Mami had recalled to the writers. It was quiet, yet commanding, and the only thing ruining the effect was that the implant‐mediated sound just wasn't the same as true magical girl telepathy. You could tell, somehow.

In the background was the—faked—endless murmur of telepathy, team captains and scouts and local directors communicating.

With two decades of experience, Mami idly analyzed the attack, knowing that the virtual Mami standing next to Homura was doing nothing of the sort.

The MSY's—and the military's—assessment of the situation at the time, after over three weeks of complete panic, was that the aliens were, for lack of a better word, showboating. A demonstration attack, as Homura had said.

Looking at it now, Mami could see that they had been completely correct.

It was stupid, she thought. The militarily correct thing to do would be to try and obliterate the surface from orbit. New Athens didn't even have any heavy fortifications ready.

Nowadays, colony worlds all had extensive lower orbit defenses designed to delay such a genocidal attack long enough for the human fleets to, hopefully, stop the attempt. Back then, not even Earth had had anything like that.

Neither was it particularly smart to simply land in circles around the densely packed urban centers and expect to march their way in—not even bothering to claim the high points, or establish air support, or protect their flanks, or guard against the possibility of being surrounded in turn.

We don't need to be strategic, the aliens had been saying. We can steamroll you in the stupidest way possible, and you can't touch us.

Well, they got the surprise they were asking for, Mami thought, rather vindictively.

She knew the details behind what was happening in front of her.

They had arrived in chartered spaceships, and as passengers on commercial liners, by the tens of thousands, in a phenomenon so marked it had even attracted the attention of the media. Why were so many apparently school‐age girls heading for Epsilon Eridani? Why did none of them appear to have living parents? Why weren't any of them enrolled in school? How had so many of them slipped under society's radar? Who were the mysteriously named social organizations chartering all these ships and paying for the tickets? What was their goal? It would definitely have been the story of the year, if it weren't for the ongoing alien invasion occupying everyone's full attention.

The government, Yuma reported, was conducting a quiet investigation into the anomaly, but hadn't stopped any of the travelers, partly due to the efforts of embedded MSY representatives. And, not surprisingly, the invasion occupied all its time.

Now, the girls, for the most part posing as groups of tourists, had slipped away from the evacuation queues—this time, everything was organized, and it had already been decided who would stay and who would leave immediately—to head to predetermined spots throughout the region. They ignored the warnings and drones and MPs warning them to go back, using their powers when necessary to proceed, and when they reached where they were going, they settled down and waited. The most vulnerable teams, near the expected landing points, or within close proximity of military units, were accompanied by those rare girls that had cloaking powers.

Above them, orbiting near the battle in space, helpless refugee ships struggled with supposed engine problems, and weapons platforms with military grade cloaking waited silently, the cargo holds of both packed with girls in space combat suits, with as high a ratio of girls from the space stations as possible.

They didn't need the suits, since they didn't need to breathe, but it was a lot less taxing on the soul gem to have the suit. In the same way, they could all fly their way through a vacuum competently, but the maneuvering jets used less magic.

Like those on the ground, the girls in space had spent a week in a crash course on military combat. They watched videos of alien operations on Atlas, absorbed pilfered military training manuals directly into their minds, and rehearsed an entirely new set of tactics, planning how to respond to an entirely new set of weapons. Not giant demons with laser beams, but cephalopods with laser cannons, and shields, and rapid‐fire laser rifles, and drones with explosives, and smart missiles, and other exotic weapons.

Like those on the ground, they waited for the signal to swarm the alien cruisers and troop transports.

Not yet, Homura thought.

She and the facsimile Mami were seated inside an agricultural silo, on a now‐abandoned farm. They wore signal amplifiers attached to the back of their necks, to reinforce their ability to view the situation at hand.

This Mami still maintained a teenage appearance, in solidarity with the strange preferences of her friends. It was only later that Mami had chosen to age herself slightly, since it was a bit difficult to project command authority as a teenage girl.

Nearby, a teleporter and shield generator stood nervously, acting as a bodyguard, along with several other girls working pieces of equipment. Outside, a sizable concentration of girls occupied the farm grounds and arborage, part of the mobile reserve. Several of them maintained a shroud over the area.

All were members of the Soul Guard, the enforcement division of the MSY, in ordinary times tasked with taking down the abhorrent and the insane.

Farther up the hill, a contingent of artillery produced an endless succession of zapping noises, as their railguns provided fire at some distant target. They were accompanied by a nervous group of volunteer militia and air defense drones, waiting for combat to activate their enhancements.

None of them noticed the startling number of teenage girls lurking just two hundred meters downhill.

You heard her! Kyouko thought, somewhere distant. We want surprise! Don't break discipline!

Mami enjoyed the experience of being, for once, in the movie Mami's point of view. Inside her eyes, in an interface freshly hacked by MSY technicians, she watched as magical girl teams silently withdrew in the face of alien advances, holding back, waiting for the signal.

Looking at it, the deployment depicted in front of her was inaccurate. The actual deployment they had used was a lot more flawed with, in retrospect, numerous deficiencies. The aliens might not have been trying, but the magical girls were going solely by books and electronic guides.

It didn't matter that they had all taken the time to cram military manuals into their brains, or that the telepathy surrounding them was full of freshly‐learned military jargon, thought with the tones of those unused to the words. They had had no idea what they were doing.

Not to mention this was by far the largest organized attack they had ever planned. Organizing raids on demon hordes was, at the very most, a thirty girl affair, covering perhaps twenty city blocks. Even the most complicated of MSY operations only involved perhaps one hundred girls covering a single city. Not one hundred thousand girls covering an area the size of central Europe.

They hadn't been holding a battlefront—it had just been teams of girls doing what they had done for centuries, with a sprinkling of fresh military training in the mix.

There hadn't been time to organize any better.

The military is losing ground! one of the team captains relayed. Just to the drones! And their fliers are getting massacred! They're going to lose air control! Let us intervene!

No, not yet! both Mami and Homura relayed, Mami having, once again, the surreal expression of having her own voice blare through her head.

Any moment now…

Dropships are arriving, someone thought.

Follow the plan. Homura thought. We want to catch them mid‐deployment. Let them get troops on the ground so they can't plaster the area.

Mami remembered how painful those few minutes had been, waiting and waiting, knowing that somewhere, Earth's military and militia were getting slaughtered by the newly arriving infantry. The movie chose to accentuate it by showing montages of the aliens deploying, laser weapons shattering the foliage, human infantry cowering behind cover despite their armored suits, some of them getting shattered by the high‐energy beams anyway. Alien drones and air platforms rained fire from the air, now virtually unopposed, shattering the hulls of human armored vehicles attempting to maneuver and fire, melting incoming artillery shells out of the air, while the shields of the marching monsters and the larger drones deflected bullets and laser cannon fire like it was a bad joke.

On the ground, even the human drone swarms were being overwhelmed, and the infantry and militia found themselves swarmed by microdrones, who tore at their suits or, in the case of the often unarmored militia, skipped the formalities and began injecting powerful toxins. It was a terrible way to die, and the directors clearly wanted the audience to never forget it.

It was an absolute miracle no one attacked early.

Then, finally:

Now! Homura and Mami thought simultaneously.

A moment of anticlimax, aliens in suits languidly falling out of dropships, almost peacefully, drones buzzing.

Then, chaos.

The signature of the Mahou Shoujo.

Great shockwaves traversed the ground, shining purple and bright, blowing back and dismembering the plethora of advancing drones and alien infantry, releasing gushes of bright‐green blood. Drones, air platforms, and fighters exploded and fell out of the sky under an onslaught of unrecognizable projectiles—bright bolts of light of every color and description, entangling webs trapping them, bullets somehow powerful enough to break shields, an eclectic assortment of firepower that was nonetheless deadly.

And the dropships—the dropships were the primary target. The one closest to the audience sheared in half, as if sliced by an invisible blade. Half of the one behind it vanished, the audience catching just the tiniest of glimpses of a girl appearing on the hull. Another unceremoniously developed a giant hole in its hull. Another one crashed itself into the ground. Another one seemed to explode for no reason at all.

And they all shattered, or fell, or detonated, with their crews and any unfortunate infantry on board dying gruesomely.

Those dropships still arriving, witnessing the massacre on the ground suddenly reversing itself against them, turned to flee. Some fell out of the sky, but many were able to return to orbit—where they found no solace.

The alien cruisers, troop transports, and fighters found themselves with a new, almost ridiculous phenomenon—ten of thousands of humans in breathing suits, floating in orbit, lunging at them. It was absurd. Their shipboard AIs leveled weapons, and fighters changed vectors, firing and expecting slaughter.

Instead, they got a fight, and cruisers and interceptors and troop transports began breaking into fragments, their debris littering orbit, the troop transports losing great masses of troops and equipment out of hull breaches, escape pods launching and exploding en route.

And like their brethren in outer space, the surviving human infantry regiments and armor on the ground could only watch, open‐mouthed, as an equally ridiculous tableau played out before them. Groups of what appeared to be teenage girls appeared and disappeared in thin air, wearing ridiculous costumes, laying devastation on the enemy, dealing absurd damage with weapons as ridiculous as bows and muskets and Springfield rifles. On the ground, girls with archaic swords and spears and axes and needles and daggers danced through alien fire, dodging with absurd speed and slicing apart the aliens in their suits as if the shielding and armor meant nothing at all, shrugging off alien drones with great bursts of light.

Then, as a group, the infantry and militia rallied, began firing their weapons again, and began retaking ground from the invaders, in attempted coordination with the newcomers. Their commanding AIs and officers reasoned that, all things considered, they knew the aliens would kill them, while the others, who at least appeared human, showed no signs of wanting to kill them. There was no need to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"You do not have to know who we are, or what we are," Homura's voice said over their internal intercoms, her transmission accepted by their AIs. "Just know that we are human, and we are here to help. Assist if you can, and obey any orders they give you. What else can you do?"

It was compelling logic, and most listened. The Human commanders began repositioning their forces, and even the militia corps up the hill moved out farther forward, now that a shattering penetration was no longer expected.

In the silo command post, the mood was euphoric. Both the ground and space battles were going better than expected. The aliens had been completely unprepared. The rings around the urban centers were broken in multiple places, the flanks being rolled up. At this rate, it would turn into a rout.

Mami and Homura shared a look, and smiled.

Then, in a certain sector of the perimeter, near the largest of the cities, the triangles representing magical girl teams began disappearing rapidly off the displays. Circles representing alien forces appeared and disappeared rapidly. Others began carrying special flags marking them as "Armor".

Chilling screams and curses began streaming in telepathically, rapidly shattering the mood.

That's Kyouko's sector! Mami thought.

What the hell is going on? Homura thought, tense.

They're firing on us from orbit, Kyouko thought. They're vaporizing teams all around the city! And some sort of alien tank, and some of them have stealth. The empaths and mind‐readers are picking them up, but they're tearing us apart!

Homura and Mami glanced at the reports from orbit, preempting the real Mami, who was about to turn her head to do the same. The girls in space were trying to reach the ships firing downward, but it would be tough going, and they were unlikely to get there fast enough. On the ground, the entire sector was beginning to fall apart, despite the magical teams and militia and infantry units streaming in to try and fill the gap. Grief cube shortages were beginning to proliferate.

And it was clear why the strike was there, too. Capturing the associated city would open the metaphoric gates into the wide plains behind, allowing them to drive further into the other sectors.

So many dead, Mami thought, shaken.

Yes, Homura agreed. It's clearly time for reinforcements. Should we send the whole reserve?

How can you stay so calm? Mami thought.

What would panic do? Homura thought. We knew this could happen. Every one of us is a volunteer. Now, what is your opinion?

The Mami commanding the forces took a deep breath, and the Mami sitting in her audience's seat did so as well. She could still remember the feel of Homura's mind at that moment, hard as steel and cold as ice, a side of her she had only rarely experienced. It had been deeply unsettling.

What do you think are the chances the aliens have any more such surprises in store? Mami thought, a moment later.

Not high, Homura thought. If I were them, I'd launch everything at once, after a surprise like this. And we have the mobility to redeploy, if we have to.

Even so, we should leave some here, Mami thought. We shouldn't overcommit.

Yes, Homura agreed.

I will warn the others of what to watch for, Mami thought.

Homura got up, nodding at the technology staff around her, and went outside, to personally lead the counter‐attack.

As she emerged, she nodded to the girls around her, most of whom were already on the move, twenty thousand strong. They traveled by every improvisation imaginable, some by ground vehicle, others wielding their powers to give themselves and the others around them a speed boost.

Besides the girls in the command post, however, a small group remained, consisting of some of the most powerful girls who had come to the planet.

One of them tossed her a small handful of grief cubes, which she used to charge her soul gem just a little more before tossing them back.

Let's go, Homura thought. You've received your instructions. Stick close to the empaths.

And then, en masse, the teleporters there activated their powers.

It was a relay, one teleporter stretching her range to the utmost of her ability, then taking a break, recharging with grief cubes, while another prepared her own teleport. The scenery changed repeatedly—the bank of a river, the side of a mountain, a wide plain, the middle of a city, the militia garrison blinking at them in surprise.

And finally, the wasteland that was their destination.

It used to be farmland. Now it was scorched everywhere with wide swaths of uptorn earth. The alien armor that they had been hearing about tore across the landscape, sloped devices with bulbous guns, scurrying along on roach‐like legs.

They could hear telepathic screams.

"What have they done here?" one of the girls next to her said, appalled.

They're not invincible, Kyouko thought, from somewhere. I smashed a few myself. But they surprised us, and they're moving too fast for us to rally. And we have to watch our backs too much with all that stealth around.

Pull the melee girls out, anywhere there's stealth, Mami thought, distant. Assemble kill teams, ranged and empaths. It seems their stealthed vehicles are easier to destroy.

Homura turned to face the others.

We're at the edge of their spearhead, she thought. They're getting greedy. They haven't covered their flanks. They don't think we have this kind of mobility. We're cutting them off.

She relayed this not only telepathically, but electronically, to the commander of an armored division she knew was nearby, hastily trying to retreat and regroup.

"Give us whatever support you can," she thought, to them only this time, relaying their positions. "You know who I am. Get whatever approval you need to. This could decide everything."

Then, without waiting, she gave the order to attack, transforming and launching herself up into the air, white‐feathered wings spreading outward.

"Yes, sir!" the commander finally responded, forgetting that she wasn't in the military hierarchy.

Two empaths detached and headed for the Humans, to give them guidance. The long‐range girls hung back, finding a point of high ground.

A purple aura spread out from Homura, the ability that made her one of the most valuable magical girls alive, the one that slowed soul gem corruption.

They descended on the armored columns, the faster girls and Homura traversing the distance at maximum speed, the rest teleporting their way along, all dodging the arriving firepower and ignoring the scurrying drones trying to stop them.

The vehicles shattered, their shielding and armor breaking apart, not effortlessly as it had been with the infantry, but under the overwhelming weight of concerted attack. Three were lifted magically into the air and hurled forward, as both projectiles and metal shields, by Nadya Antipova, the strongest telekinetic alive. Other vehicles disappeared in large chunks. Homura soared into the air, spun to smash approaching drones with her wings, and unleashed a downward volley.

They're calling in an orbital strike! a mind‐reader mentally shouted. I can hear them!

Another confirmed.

They scattered, getting out of the area, trying to find cover that wasn't there in the open landscape. There was barely time to protest But they're firing on themselves!

The explosion that followed was eardrum‐shattering—or would have been, were anyone in the audience actually using their eardrums.

They re‐engaged, Homura diving to the ground to scoop up the surviving soul gem of a girl whose body had been caught in the blast, her upper body gone. Better to remove it, rather than have it burn itself out trying to regenerate this one.

The movie lingered for a moment on that, Homura forming the soul gem into another ring to wear, so she could carry it easily, looking at the body.

Then she launched herself back up.

Stealth units! someone thought.

Everything after that was pyrotechnic chaos.

A girl in orange slicing thin air with katana, the explosion revealing that it hadn't been thin air at all, but a stealth vehicle—

An empath losing a leg, screaming—

A healer, working on a girl with a hole in her stomach, the two of them hiding behind a giant chunk of metal, still shimmering with partial stealth—

Homura running forward, wings folded in front of her, deflecting lasers, drones, explosives, shielding several girls carrying melee weapons—

An enormous volley of projectiles from the long‐range specialists, breaking the back of an attempted counter‐attack—

Specialist teleporters arriving with grief cubes, blinking the cubes in to the hands of everyone with enough time to cleanse themselves—

Homura picking up another soul gem—

Nadya screaming in fury, arm missing, freezing and redirecting an artillery volley with pure force, soul gem darkening, a healer rushing forward with grief cubes—

Another orbital strike, and in the confusion, only a few scattered in time—

The alien infantry finally arriving, adding their firepower to the mess—

The Human armored column arriving in turn, treaded monstrosities moving and firing their heavy railguns, and exploding as well—

The arrival of a heavy alien counterattack, waves of vehicles and drones appearing on the horizon—

Alien fighters falling out of the sky—

An alien and Human armored infantry member in direct melee, the alien heavily damaged and missing two tentacles, for the moment as evenly matched as two wrestlers, until the cephalopod's head exploded, the victim of a distant magical girl sniper—

The arrival of the rest of the magical girls, Kyouko among them, a giant spear rising from the ground to impale an alien tank, spear slicing off one of the legs of another—

An orbital strike—

Another orbital strike—

Another orbital strike—

And Homura herself falling out of the sky, wings finally broken.

She landed with a cringe‐inducing snap!

The audience, from Homura's perspective, saw her raise her hand to her eyes, her diamond soul gem nearly entirely black.

"No, NO!" Kyouko yelled, appearing out of nowhere to drag her body to cover and cradle Homura's head in her hands.

"Not like this," she said.

Does anyone have a grief cube? she thought, desperately.

I'm sorry.

I used mine.

If only I hadn't—

I didn't think—

I'm on my way!

But the last one was too far away, and would never get there in time, even with teleportation.

"No, not like this," Kyouko repeated, tears falling.

Ake–Homura! Hang in there! Please! Mami begged, distantly.

A chorus of other thoughts followed.

Homura grabbed Kyouko's hand in hers.

Finish what we started here, she thought, relaying the thought outward to everyone, starting to cry.

Mami, in the audience, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. She remembered what it had been like, helpless in her command post, listening to her friend dying, hearing Homura cry for the first time ever.

It was the moment everyone who was there remembered, from the sobbing technicians in the command post, to the girls in active combat fighting tears of rage.

Don't let me down. I gave my soul to defend this world! Homura exhorted.

Then, smiling slightly:

I'm just happy I can finally see her again.

"How can you be happy, you idiot?" Kyouko demanded. "Don't just give up!"

Homura just shook her head and reached up, pulling the ribbon out of her hair. The ribbon which had survived centuries. She held it, clutching it to her heart.

I–I only want— Homura began.

She stopped.

She was looking with incredulity at her soul gem, which was now entirely black, except for a single point of light at the bottom, radiantly bright, that wasn't going away.

I can't die, she thought.

"Yes, of course you can't, that's better," Kyouko said, not understanding, bowing her head, refusing to look. "Don't die."

"No!" Homura said, sitting up suddenly, broken back somehow healed. "I can't. Not as long as I remember her!"

"What are you—" Kyouko began, blindingly happy at the recovery, crying from the situation, confused at what was going on.

She was interrupted by Homura's heart‐rending scream.

"What's happening?" Kyouko demanded. "Homura, answer me!"

Homura was sitting, nearly catatonic, shaking and sweating, staring at her soul gem and ribbon, now together in her hand.

She was repeating to herself: "How long? How long? Can I ever see you again?"

Kyouko followed her gaze—and recoiled, witnessing the cloud of corruption forming around her gem.

"Homura!" Kyouko repeated, swallowing and shaking the girl, trying to ignore the phenomenon. "Are you alright?"

"But why?" Homura demanded. "What must I do?"

Damn it, hurry up with those grief cubes! Kyouko thought, lashing out through the telepathy network.

"I'm fine, Kyouko," Homura said suddenly, voice lacking affect.

"No, you're no—" Kyouko began, then stared as Homura stood up, retying her ribbon.

Homura's face was smooth, clearly in command again, but something was ineffably wrong, as if it hurt her to stay that way.

The corruption was forming a cloud around her hand.

She extended her wings, and they were not the pure, white wings which had earned her the secretly whispered nickname "The Angel". Instead, they were black and coiling, seeming to be made of the same corruption that had blackened her soul.

They couldn't quite capture the effect here, Mami mused. The descriptions of those who had seen it had made clear that it was deeply disturbing. The best description had come from one of the teleporters in the area:

"Looking at those wings… was like looking into a nightmare. And not just your nightmare. The nightmares of every human who has ever lived, ever since the Incubators raised us out of animals."

Overblown, perhaps, but everyone who was there agreed to something of that effect. Mami, who hadn't been there, wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or very, very glad.

Well, it wasn't the filmmakers' fault they couldn't duplicate it.

Kyouko stepped back involuntarily from this version of Homura.

"Ho–Homura?" she asked.

"We have a battle to win," Homura said, looking back.

She pointed at the horizon, at the edge of the devastation zone, where the aliens were now cautiously moving forward to probe the gap opened by the orbital bombardments, hoping they could reestablish contact with their broken spearhead on the other end.

She launched herself into the air on those wings, soaring forward, ignoring the clear disparity in numbers.

"Damn it!" Kyouko said, running forward to follow her.

I don't know what the hell she's doing! Kyouko thought to the others. The rest of you get the wounded and their soul gems out of here, and fall back—

Belay that, Homura said. Get the wounded out of here, yes, but we are attacking.

Are you crazy? Kyouko demanded. That attack decimated—

I know what I'm doing, Homura thought.

Suddenly, she dove forward, adding on an absurd amount of speed, almost instantly covering the remaining distance, becoming a speck high in the air.

You idiot—

The aliens opened fire, hundreds of heavy laser cannons opening fire on the exposed girl foolishly flying into range, drones swarming and firing their own weapons—

And as Kyouko, the other magical girls, and the surviving human soldiers watched, mouths agape, the laser beams bent around her, refusing to strike her, and instead turned back towards their sources, bombarding the alien position with their own firepower.

Homura then stooped downward, the aliens holding fire in confusion as to what to do, and then—

It was too far to see exactly what was happening, except that there was a great number of explosions, the alien vehicles seemed to be decreasing in number, and the alien drones kept trying to swarm, and kept failing.

Finally:

"They're retreating!" one of the Human tank commanders reported, broadcasting a mental image of his sensor screen, showing the alien units pulling back in headlong flight.

Any other questions? Homura demanded.

Kyouko swallowed, still gaping.

You heard her! she thought, swallowing her misgivings. Let's drive those bastards back to whatever planet they come from!

By rights, the battle shouldn't have been over, but that didn't take into account Homura.

Gone was the bow, the careful positioning, the teamwork. This version of Homura didn't care, and didn't need it.

She attacked like a banshee, rising and swooping out of the air, heedless of personal injury, none of the incoming attacks coming close to striking her.

Those that came close to her died.

Those who dared fire on her died.

Those who tried to use stealth found that she could see them perfectly fine.

She gestured with her hand, and vehicles shattered and armored suits exploded.

She gestured with her other hand, and corruption oozed out of the ground, slaughtering the aliens who happened to be in the area.

The orbital strikes, so feared, kept landing—and at the end of each, it would be the alien positions that were devastated, until finally the strikes stopped, their controllers realizing something was wrong.

The aliens began to flee at the sight of her, abandoning their invasion, withdrawing, calling for dropships.

The humans just stayed out of the way.

It seemed as if it were time to cheer, but then:

Get out of there! Mami exhorted. Everyone! Get out! They're preparing some kind of orbital superweapon!

What the hell are the space forces doing? Kyouko demanded, looking into her own interface.

The aliens had got them good, the movie‐watching Mami thought, drinking her tea. The space forces were desperately trying to press forward and eliminate the device, but the aliens were throwing in their last‐ditch forces to protect it, and the device would fire within minutes. They hadn't been looking for it, because none of them had expected that the aliens would fire on their own forces like this.

Stupid. It had been stupid.

The movie accentuated the point by showing a shot of space, of magical girls trying desperately to take it down.

Here it is, Mami thought, and she could hear the others around her sucking in their breaths.

The movie returned to the ground, where, as the humans tried to flee, Kyouko instead stood still and watched, aghast, as Homura instead flew straight up, hand reaching for the sky.

The massive particle beam coming downward turned the sky white with light, bearing down upon them, and Kyouko knew that none of them would escape, that it didn't make sense to run, that the only hope was that Homura was not absolutely insane to fly straight up into it. She watched, dropping her spear.

It was a moment that would become legendary, searing itself into the collective Human memory, recorded on a thousand holocams, and the eyes of everyone who dared to look up.

Homura's wings expanded to enormous size, turning the entire sky into a chiaroscuro between the brilliant white light and her nightmarishly‐black wings.

And then—

—the light disappeared, and alien and human alike blinked in confusion.

It returned, bright and scorching, and for a moment Kyouko thought all was lost—and then she realized, somehow, that it was now headed the other way.

In what was undoubtedly the cinematic climax of the movie, the audience watched from space as the alien cruiser bearing the weapon received the full force of its own shot, detonating cataclysmically, destroying everything around it, its own defenses, the other alien cruisers, troop transports, everything, until the only aliens left in space were the thin outer shell of fighters who, realizing they had nothing left to defend, tried desperately to escape, charging their faster‐than‐light engines.

Then Kyouko dropped to her knees, like so many others that day, unsure whether she was looking at the Akemi Homura she knew—or a god.

Then the black wings disappeared, and there were only the two small white wings, which disappeared in turn, and all that was left then was a human girl, dressed in ordinary clothing, falling through the air, the only sign of anything unusual the ribbon in her hair glowing white.

Kyouko ran forward to catch her.

The scene ended with a voiceover of Kyouko's thoughts.

Is it true? she thought. Is everything she said true? Then, what have I been doing with my life?


There was only one scene left.

There was a brief shot of the sign of the Acropolis Hotel, to help establish location, and a glimpse of the reporters camped outside, to help establish the situation.

Kyouko and Mami around a mahogany and glass table piled high with plates of delicate hors d'oeuvres. The room was palatial, huge even by the standards of the uncramped colonies. Every possible luxury was thought of, from the decorations on the wall, to the enormous bed, to the wine cooler and gold trimmings.

It was one of those rooms that would have actually cost Allocs back on Earth, and was positively exorbitant here in New Athens.

It was Mami's room, as she recalled, and it was all compliments of the local colonial government. The hors d'oeuvres were compliment of hotel management.

The curtains were closed.

"I still don't think that's good enough evidence," Mami was insisting.

"What are you talking about, evidence?" Kyouko demanded, banging the table with a fist. "Look, I know you weren't there, but didn't you at least look up?"

"I was in the command post, trying to direct an evacuation," Mami said, a slight edge to her voice. "I'm sorry, but I didn't see anything."

That too, was a memory. Those terrifying minutes when Mami had thought she was going to die, and had resolved to spend those minutes getting as many girls out of the area as possible.

Mami cringed, knowing what was coming. She and Kyouko had been honest to the scriptwriters—perhaps too honest. This was not going to be a pleasant conversation.

"Still, though," Kyouko said. "She redirected a particle beam capable of wiping out half of Europe!"

"Which is amazing, I know," Mami said. "But think about what she claims. Some magical girl she knew sacrificed herself to become a Goddess and recreate the universe to bring hope to us all. Hope? What does that even mean? She's never even explained."

"How stubborn do you have to be to deny the evidence?" Kyouko demanded, banging the table again.

"Why do you want to believe so badly?" Mami responded in counterpoint. "I know you, Sakura‐san. I know you've always wanted to believe in something like this. I know you still visit the spot where Miki‐san died, but just because—"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Kyouko snapped, far too quickly.

"Everything!" Mami shot back. "I've tried so hard to keep you grounded. I don't want you losing yourself—"

"And I thought I was a cynic," Kyouko said, standing up. "Do you really like it so much, watching me drift my way through life, like you? It's boring! What about your faith, Mami? What do you fight for?"

Mami stayed silent, head bowed.

"You don't know, do you?" Kyouko said. "Neither do I. We've been alive so long we can't even remember what's so good about living."

"I live for the sake of the others," Mami said quietly. "So that they can enjoy life. What's so bad about that? How can you say we don't live for anything? We just saved this planet. Didn't you want to be a hero when you contracted? We're heroes now."

Kyouko thought for a moment.

"Yes, we are, and yes I did," she said. "But you can't live life for the sake of others. I've definitely learned that over the years. I want to know that I fight for something. Maybe, finally, I've found it."

She peered down at Mami, who sat quietly.

"Let's talk about something else," Mami said, voice subdued.

Kyouko watched for a few moments longer, then sat back down.

"Okay," she agreed finally, grabbing food off of one of the plates.

Mami sighed, collapsing down onto the table.

"You know, we talk about being heroes and such, but I had no idea it was so tiring," she said, looking up at Kyouko, who was industriously polishing away several quiches.

"It has its benefits," Kyouko mumbled, mouth full of food.

She then gestured at the food and at the room, unnecessarily.

"Yes," Mami agreed. "And I know we had no choice, since secrecy was impossible, but everything is moving too fast. My inbox is jammed full of interview requests, those people are camped outside with drones, and the news shows talk about nothing but us. I had no idea press conferences were so exhausting."

"It's not much better for the other girls, either, you know," Kyouko said. "Sure, they focus the most on us, but anyone will do for an interview."

"Which there are plenty of girls willing to do," Mami said. "I mean, we had a media strategy, but that's gone to hell now. Everyone is just saying whatever they want."

"They're probably scouring Earth too, you know," Kyouko said, grabbing a plate with a small stack of meat pastries. "And everywhere else. I bet you, every girl who looks even a little like one of us is probably getting weird looks from everyone."

"I feel sorry for the girls who still have family and things like that," Mami said. "I have no idea how I'd explain something like that."

"We knew it'd be like this," Kyouko said, looking at her out of the corner of her eye. "We voted for this anyway."

"I know we did," Mami said, sitting up, and grabbing one of the pastries before they all disappeared. "But, knowing about it and actually doing it—those are two different things."

Kyouko stayed silent, eating her pastry.

"And that's just the easy part," Mami said. "I'm sure you've seen it too. It's not just the media. Everything is going crazy, and everyone wants to talk to us. Governance wants all of us to testify in front of the Directorate, starting with Yuma. The Military wants to talk about future operations. The Colonial Council wants us for photo ops, so they can declare a new yearly holiday and put up some statues. The Commanding General wants to meet us. We're getting letters from girls wanting to join. I don't think I've gotten as many messages in my life as I've gotten these past few days."

"Field Marshal Mengale," Kyouko said, holding up her hand as if to read from an invisible list. "General Sullivan. General Abdulla. Fleet Admiral O'Hara."

"Science and Technology," Mami said, picking up the cue. "Military Affairs. Manufacturing and Distribution. Health and Happiness. Colonial Affairs and Colonization. Law and Order. Artificial Intelligence. Public Opinion. And those are only the government representatives who happen to also sit on the Directorate."

"I can start on major media personas," Kyouko suggested facetiously.

Mami snorted.

"Yes, we clearly both understand that approximately five hundred people want to meet us in the next week," Mami said. "What are we going to do about it? We're not ready for any of this!"

"Yes," Kyouko said. "But that doesn't mean we can't do it."

She put her hand on Mami's shoulder.

"Come on," she said, smiling. "We can take it. As long as we stick together."

"Yes," Mami said, smiling back.

The double doors to the room opened. There was only one other person the in‐room AI was instructed to allow in so easily.

"Homura," Kyouko said, looking up at the long‐haired girl walking over to the table, wearing long pants and a blouse.

Just a week ago, Kyouko would have made a rude comment about how late she was, probably something along the lines of "Took you long enough."

Not today, though.

Uncharacteristically, Homura looked hesitant and unsure too—and just a little unsteady. It was reminiscent of what Mami had come to think of as the "other" Homura, from so long ago, before Sayaka's demise. It was things like this that helped remind Mami that, other things aside, they were indeed the same person.

Homura carried a medium‐size travel bag, which she set down next to her chair when she sat down.

"Preparation materials for all those interviews?" Mami asked, trying to lighten the mood, which was stagnating under the combined influence of Homura's strange behavior and Kyouko's seeming unwillingness to talk.

Homura didn't respond, looking down at the table.

Mami watched her carefully.

In the time between the "incident" and the time of this conversation, Homura had been unusually taciturn, Mami—both Mamis—mused. Not just taciturn, but constantly brooding, mumbling to herself more than usual, as if thinking about something. She just hadn't seemed the same person, and while she went about her tasks as efficiently as usual, something was off. She lacked dynamism, and came off as cold when the deliriously grateful soldiers, militia, and, eventually, colonists and reporters tried to talk to her. The light in her eyes was gone.

She had spent those days alone and cooped up in her room, even when the situation demanded she come out and talk. Sometimes, she and Kyouko spent long hours talking, and Mami wondered if that was really a good idea.

Mami had worried, of course, but she had never anticipated what was about to happen.

"Is something wrong?" the holographic Mami asked. "You've been acting strange for days, Akemi‐san."

Homura remained silent, but her face seemed to tighten slightly, her eyes growing pained.

"We can't help if you won't even properly explain what happened," Mami ventured.

"I'm sorry," Homura said, in a choked voice Mami had never heard before.

"What? Sorry for what?" Kyouko asked, coming alive at the strangest of moments.

"I can't do it anymore," Homura said, voice broken. "Ever since I ended up in this world, I've looked forward to only one thing."

She sucked in a breath.

"I always knew that, someday, I would fall in battle and could reunite with her," she said, head hanging over the table.

Neither Kyouko nor Mami needed clarification on who "her" was.

"As long as I knew that," Homura said. "I was willing to keep doing this. But she won't let me die!"

With this, she thrust out her hand to display the soul gem on her palm.

Mami and Kyouko gasped simultaneously.

It was pitch‐black, just as it had been on that fateful day—except, again, for a single point of purple light.

"What the hell have you been doing?" Kyouko snapped, grabbing Homura's wrist with one hand, reaching for the gem with the other—but it was already back as a ring.

"I've been testing her resolve," Homura said, "but I understand. My job isn't done here."

She jerked her hand away.

"Wishes are inviolate," Homura said, standing up shakily. "And my wish isn't over yet. But I didn't make that wish. Do you understand now?"

Homura looked down, at the ring on her finger.

"It's interesting to operate from the pits of despair," she said, voice clinical, not taking her eyes off the ring. "It's so easy to lose focus. I'd use a grief cube, but I don't want to forget. I want to remember, how much it hurts."

Wait, they actually managed to sneak that by the censors? Mami the viewer thought.

"What on Earth is going on?" Mami the hologram demanded.

She's acting crazy, Mami thought, in such a way that only Kyouko would hear. She avoided giving any outward sign of the telepathy.

Kyouko looked up at Homura, gritting her teeth.

It's so distressing for her, to be separated from the Goddess, Kyouko thought back.

No, Sakura‐san. Don't talk as if her insanity is true, Mami thought. We've ignored it all these years, and it's finally coming back to haunt us.

Homura shook her head rapidly, as if to clear it.

"I'm sorry," she said again.

She bent down, reaching into the bag she had carried in, and pulled out two sheets of paper—not virtual documents, but actual fabricated paper, complete with all the necessary electronic encryption seals to verify its legitimacy.

She placed them on the table.

"It's my resignation and withdrawal from the organization," Homura explained quietly. "I'm sorry to do this to you. I thought about just going, but it wouldn't be right not to say goodbye."

They stared at her for a long moment. Outside, holocam drones could be heard buzzing around the window, trying to sneak a view in somehow. The joke was on them—the room was infrared‐shielded.

"What?" Mami said, jumping out of her chair. "What the hell are you talking about? You're not thinking clearly, Akemi‐san."

"I agree," Kyouko said, standing up shakily. "What the hell, Homura? What are you doing? Look, I know you're torn up, but—"

"My mind is made up," Homura said, averting her eyes.

She clenched her eyes briefly, then pulled a ribbon out of her pocket.

It was a twin to the one she wore on her head, one they had never seen before.

"I'll leave this with you," she said, placing it on the table. "It was hers."

Mami stepped forward and grabbed Homura by the shoulders.

"No, Akemi‐san," Mami said, trying to project authority with her voice. "I won't let you. I don't know what's going on with you. But I won't let you make a decision like—"

And suddenly, she found herself grabbing thin air. Did Homura just—

"I'll be going now," Homura said, standing to her left, grabbing her bag.

She bowed to them.

"Where do you think you're going?" Kyouko demanded, stepping in front of Homura.

"I'm going to go look for her," Homura said, suddenly on the other side of Kyouko, still walking for the door. "I will protect the world another way."

"I told you," Mami insisted, growling.

She strode forward, body glowing, transforming.

"I won't let you—" she began, raising her hand, summoning the ribbons necessary to bind Homura.

But Homura was gone, bags and all.

Goodbye, Homura thought, somewhere.

And just like that, the screen faded to black. The audience didn't need to be told the rest, how Kyouko and Mami had practically torn apart the building looking for her, and how the MSY, thrown into disarray, had mounted an interstellar search that turned up nothing.

The Leadership Committee refused the resignation, on the observation that they had never considered magical girls with depleted soul gems capable of rational decision‐making.

But Homura never reappeared.

Mami sat, as the credits rolled by in a montage of Homura's life, all the happy scenes, playing with the other kids as a child, drinking tea with the others…

The other around her began chatting, but Mami stayed quiet, thinking.

It had taken a long time for them to understand, but Homura had run away. Run away from everything in search of what she really wanted, in her heart.

What had happened to her that day on New Athens had destroyed something within her.

Kyouko, and by extension the Cult, viewed Homura as a lost, fallen angel, wandering the world in search of her love, straying from the path. They saw it as their duty to get her back.

Mami viewed Homura as a girl they had failed. They hadn't been there when she needed them, and she had collapsed.

Still, though, she remembered all they had to go through after her disappearance. Her departure had broken them. Kyouko left to found her silly Cult. Yuma, already distant, buried herself in her work even deeper. And Mami…

Mami became a Field Marshal.

It wasn't the job. The jobs were all the same, to her. It was the fracturing of the group.

She hated what Homura had done, and hated herself for allowing it, and hated herself for hating Homura.

She wished she would come back.

Mami fondled the soul gem bracelet around her wrist, hidden by the holography of the movie.

Honestly, she didn't know what to think anymore. Maybe Homura really had been an insane genius, a genius with astounding magical powers. That was the only reasonable explanation.

But every time she thought that, every time she rehashed the arguments Kyouko and her no longer openly had, she always remembered Homura's soul gem.

Pitch black, with a single point of light, inextinguishable.

As the credits ended with a shot of Homura's second ribbon, now firmly enshrined in Kyouko's church, Mami thought about something else entirely.

She remembered Homura's last words to them, the words they had never revealed to anyone, the ones they didn't know if they had even been intended to hear, the ones full of despair, and determination:

If it is your will that I suffer so, if this is what you truly want, then I will continue to protect this world. I swear it.


"Would you like to join us next time?" Nodame Riko asked Mami, as they exited the theatre.

Mami looked up, startled from her reverie. She had followed them out of the building mindlessly.

"I'm serious," the girl said, smiling at her. "You seem like a nice girl."

Internally, Mami cringed. She had been afraid of this.

"Sure, why not?" she said, feeling bad about lying, but knowing it wouldn't matter soon enough. "But I'm sorry. I have to go. I promised my brother I'd go somewhere with him."

Does Chito even have a brother? Mami thought. Damn it. Well, they're not going to check a detail like that.

"Alright," Riko said, looking disappointed. "We were going to go bar‐hopping. See you next time then. I'll give you a call."

"Goodbye," Mami said, bowing.

The other girl turned, waving goodbye as the group headed down the skyway.

Waiting for her transport, Mami heard them speaking in the distance. They didn't think she could hear them, but she could. It was one of those things about not having a human body.

"Damn, Riko, you're such a predator!" one of the boys was saying to her.

"Shut it, Shino," Riko said. "She was looking lonely. I was cheering her up."

A smile crept up Mami's face, and she suppressed the urge to laugh.

She looked up, trying to find some stars. Instead she found clouds.

Ah, that's right, she thought. It's scheduled to rain tomorrow.

She checked her chronometer. It was nearly midnight.

Mami looked back down and there, just down the street, was the girl with the short hair again, about to step into a transport. Mami smiled at her, and she smiled back. Then, the girl stepped into her vehicle.

Mami's own vehicle arrived, and this time she hadn't bothered to pursue stealth. This was her vehicle. Let the pedestrians puzzle over that.

She took off her holoemitters, tossing them in a bin by the synthesizer.

It was time to stop pretending. Her vacation time was up.

Machina, attend, she thought, stepping into her vehicle.

"Machina" was the name she had assigned to her tactical AI. All members of the military had one installed. Most of those, however, were relatively primitive devices whom no one bothered to name.

A few years ago, a directive had gone out instructing General Staff members that they would be upgraded to a new, vastly improved version. She had gone through with it rather skeptically. Unlike most of her peers, she wasn't a fan of burying yourself among the machines, an attitude that, among other things, motivated Yuma to make fun of her for being old‐fashioned.

To her surprise, though, she had rather liked the new version. It was a lot more personable and intelligent than the older model. One no longer had the feeling of talking to a machine, and it could even hold good conversations. It was like talking with a True Sentient. The only strange thing was the fact that it took weeks to reach full functionality, when the older model could be up and running within the hour.

It was only later, when looking at the technical specs, that she realized why.

Designing a processing system with power and space efficiency comparable to organic systems had vexed both Human and AI designers ever since the first computer was ever built. Yes, AIs existed, and there was a plethora of smarter‐than‐human machines around, but in terms of building one both small enough and energy‐efficient enough to compete with humans on the battlefield—that had never been solved. Not even the aliens seemed to have solved this problem.

The designers had cheated. It wasn't merely a powerful nanoelectrode array, or merely a self‐assembled implant. An implant it was, yes, but this one wasn't content to sit quietly on the spinal column with its mesh array. This one actively recruited stem cells out of the bloodstream and manipulated them into growing around the device, intricately and carefully rebuilding the entire area. Nearly ten years of research and development, it was one of the most advanced pieces of technology humanity had.

One that behaved so human, she had felt obligated to give it a name—and she later found out that pretty much everyone who got one eventually did. It wasn't so much a tactical AI as a personal assistant AI.

It also meant Mami had a giant neural cluster sitting somewhere in her abdomen, constructed out of her own neurons.

It was a little disturbing, and she tried not to think about it.

Well, in any case, Machina had been there the whole time, but Mami preferred to have her head to herself when she was on vacation. Sometimes, she wondered if the device was offended by that, or whether it even could be offended. No one was sure how sentient they were.

It never showed offense, for what it was worth.

Good evening, Mami‐san, the device thought, in the same Japanese that Mami tended to think in. It had her voice. How was your vacation?

Excellent, thank you, Mami thought, even though they both knew that the device knew exactly how her vacation had been, down to the last detail.

Mami was glad that MSY technicians inspected every last such device, ensuring that they had loyalty only to their owner and not to, for example, the government.

Write up an article for the Akemi Production Committee, would you? Mami thought. Mention how I watched it in secret, I liked it, and so forth; it's for public consumption. Also, tell them I'm sorry, but I can't make any publicity events, but that they can use the article however they like.

Done, Machina thought.

Truth be told, there was no need for Mami to think everything out so elaborately, in words. She could just as easily let Machina read her mind and take care of it, like they did in combat. But she liked the conversational interaction. That way, it felt like talking to a personal assistant.

Mami thought briefly.

Also, type out some personal messages to those people I was just with, and apologize for misleading them.

I will take care of it, Machina thought.

After a moment, it continued.

Your bodyguards will be waiting at the starport, it thought. As will François‐san, as you requested.

Excellent, Mami thought. That will be all.

The device went dormant again, the sensation of its presence disappearing from Mami's awareness. It had returned to its normal activities—the endless process of sorting messages, planning schedules, issuing replies to messages that didn't warrant Mami's direct attention, and so forth. No modern general could function without her AI. The only difference was, messages that Mami didn't directly approve carried a little tag at the bottom indicating their machine‐origin. No one was even offended by it anymore.

"Alright, time to go through the rest of these messages," Mami said to herself.

The work never ended.