The MHD maintains a carefully curated database on Reformatting patients, including both their previous and, if necessary, new identities. By explicit design, no one has access to more than a handful of identities, but plenty of statistics are available on the database as a whole, a sampling of which is contained in this summary.

The disclaimer must be made, however, that while these statistics are useful for gauging the nature of psychiatric breakdowns within the magical girl population, no person who has access to these statistics should consider them a true measure of the number of Reformatting operations carried out. Leaving aside Reformatting carried out in the context of classified operations, the prevalence of undocumented Reformatting capabilities within the veteran population is believed to be astonishingly high, perhaps even as high as one in ten. Though unauthorized Reformatting is subject to strict penalties, even when done with consent, only a few prosecutions have ever been carried out. It is believed that black market or even self‐Reformatting represent a substantial number of unrecorded cases.

— Reformatting Statistics, Executive Summary Produced on Request for the MSY Leadership Committee

"The universe may be timeless, but if you imagine breaking it into pieces, some of the pieces can serve as clocks for the others. Time emerges from timelessness. We perceive time because we are, by our very nature, one of those pieces."

— Craig Callendar

They returned to the surface for debriefing a short while after Gracia's "interrogation" of Sacnite. Without the suppression field, the invasion force's teleporters and clairvoyants were now free to operate, and teams of magical girls probed the underground complex, capturing and retrieving the guards that were still wandering, devoid of a central mission. There was no controlling AI here, just what were effectively drones, programmed to follow a plan that was no longer relevant.

With the main colony now firmly under Governance control, individual clairvoyants fanned out across the surface of the planet, searching for the elusive second base where the cult leader DeWitt was holed up with the colonists' children. Governance satellites and ships had naturally already scanned most of the planet, but had thus far failed to find anything of note. It was considered a likely possibility that this second base was cloaked with the same technology that had concealed the nuclear device, which is why it was necessary to send out whatever clairvoyants they could. It would still be a massive search operation, though, and desperate in the knowledge that the cult leader could be doing anything in the interim.

Another likely possibility, one that they were hoping wasn't true, was that DeWitt had managed to trick Sacnite and simply left the planet altogether, escaping in a cloaked ship.

Questions still abounded, of course, most prominently the seemingly impossible access to resources and technology the colony had displayed, including technology Governance itself had no access to, and would be greatly desirous of acquiring—the stealth device surrounding the nuke had already been retrieved, the engineers lamenting Meiqing's hasty crushing of the prize, along with the radiation damage from the sub‐critical uranium.

"I wonder what's going to happen to all those clones," Meiqing said out loud, cradling a cup of Chinese rice wine. "Even with all that happened to them, many of them are still going to be loyal to the cult. I doubt they're going to believe the things they're being told."

Ryouko had never known Meiqing to drink and disapproved—but what was there to say? A lot had happened.

"It should be possible to reveal their memories as fake with a session from one of the MSY telepaths, though it's going to take a while, with the number of girls involved. I don't want to have to be the one to see the looks on their faces, though. I'm glad we have… professionals to deal with it."

"You're forgetting about the guards," Asami said. "They'll definitely believe us, but—"

"The important thing is not whether they believe us, but the damage that's been done to them," Meiqing said. "I asked Gracia. She said that spending that long with your consciousness suppressed eventually degrades your core brain circuits. The older ones are going to be spending time with neurosurgeons and healers. The damage wouldn't even be repairable without magical healers, since otherwise the information would be lost forever."

Ryouko glanced at her friend, whose eyes looked subdued and exhausted. She regretted that her friend had been forced to experience this, since she had probably been roped in by her connection to Ryouko, not just her earth‐related powers.

In the end, though, Meiqing had been indispensable to the mission, just as Ryouko had been. The Goddess had foreseen it all.

"It looks like I'm getting some leave time after this," Meiqing said, unprompted. "Time to go home, get pampered by my parents, and get prodded by my designated therapist. Honestly, I'd hoped I'd never have to see her again after our introduction, but here I am. I need it, to be honest."

There was a lot left unsaid in her words. How little she had been prepared to experience all this, even compared to Ryouko and Asami. The many truths she had never wanted to face.

Meiqing looked down into her drink.

"I wonder how common it is, to want another wish after your first one. I thought it would be enough, saving my family's mining companies. I thought, I could come out here and fight, with no regrets. Instead…"

Meiqing's voice trailed off, as her two friends looked on in concern.

"What would you want to wish for?" Asami prompted. "If it's not too much to ask, that is."

Meiqing spun her cup slowly in her hand.

"I'd want to rewrite history, and give those clones the lives they never had," Meiqing said, looking up and smiling wanly. "A bit ambitious, right? I'm not sure I'd quite have the potential to pull it off, even if I still had a wish to spare."

Ryouko bit back a comment about the ambiguous nature of potential, ducking her head to hide the gesture.

"I wonder…" Ryouko began, after a long moment of silence.

The other two looked at her, as she continued to formulate her thoughts in silence.

"I wonder if they'd let us visit Sacnite," she said, finally, looking back up at the eyes of her friends. "I think it would be good for all of us to talk to her again, and see that she's doing alright."

Meiqing's eyes perked up in hope for a moment.

"Why do you think they'll let us talk to her?" Asami asked. "If I were them, I wouldn't let anyone talk to her. They're probably not done examining her memories, or doing whatever interrogation they want to do. I'm not sure I'd want to see any of it."

The implied cynicism of Asami's words chilled Ryouko. This mission had taken something out of all of them.

And to think it's not even over yet, she thought. They still hadn't found where the cult leader was hiding, or any of the children they had supposedly set out to save.

"Well, I think if anyone can get in to talk to her, it's me, and us," Ryouko said, realizing that she was placing herself on a bit of an invisible platform. "Let me talk to Kyouko, or Mami, and maybe something will happen."

"Only if the MHD approves it," Meiqing grumbled.

"Probably," Ryouko agreed.

Mami cleared her throat, buying herself just a moment of time. Four and a half centuries of life, and she still wasn't really used to talking to large groups of people.

It had to be done, though, just like everything.

She looked out over the crowd of reporter and blogger avatars seated in front of her, gathered to hear a special announcement from the Chair of the General Staff. The press conference was a formality, but being allowed to sit in on Armed Forces Announcements was considered a major token of accomplishment, as well as of a certain degree of access to Governance. Right there in the front row she could see prominent military blogger Avnit Hassan, as well as Agatha Amaranth, one of the top reporters for the Armed Forces Network. Mami exchanged glances with Agatha for a moment, nodding knowingly. Openly one of the mouthpieces of Governance, AFN had the privilege of receiving many press releases ahead of time, including this one.

"Citizens of Governance," she addressed, reading directly off of a speech prepared for her by her staff. "Approximately two weeks ago, an astronomical survey probe detected a radio signal emanating from an unexplored system deep within the relatively unsettled Rhine Sector. The signal was of unambiguously human origin, and contained only the text 'SOS Ordo Illustrata' on repeat. With little other context to go on, we could only conclude the signal had something to do with a fringe religious cult that had once been situated on Optatum, and whose colonization ship had disappeared in 2442, the presumed victims of a Cephalopod attack."

Mami paused, looking around at the crowd of reporters, who were surprised and startled to be hearing something other than the usual run of alien war stories. A moment later, she continued:

"Regardless of the likely source, it was necessary to investigate the situation. A sensor probe sent to the planet shortly afterward was able to discern an unauthorized colony on the surface of a planet within the Rhine Sector, as well as a large underground structure of unknown purpose. Before more could be discovered, attack satellites launched by the colonists intervened, so the probe was forced to evacuate."

"As everyone well knows, Governance and the Armed Forces do not take the forming of unauthorized colonies lightly. Given the circumstances, it was deemed necessary to intervene as soon as possible, a feat which has been performed rapidly and efficiently over the past twenty‐four hours, and not a moment too soon, as events would clearly illustrate."

Mami took a rhetorical breath, knowing that the next section was the most important.

"The colony was found to indeed be the site of the Ordo Illustrata, as suggested by the message. In order to penetrate the mysterious underground compound, we sent in a special operations team composed of some of our most experienced commandos, including the Hero of Orpheus herself. There, they were able to disable a WMD‐trap the cultists had set, but they also discovered something truly shocking."

She put her arms on the podium, making a show of collecting herself.

"Apparently, the cultists had been cloning young girls en masse, in an attempt to engineer magical girl contracts, using implanted memories. This is, I want to make clear, something that fundamentally will not work, but they apparently did not know this. Further, even after this grotesque violation of the Core Rights, they went even further, choosing to perform implant‐mediated mind‐control on those girls whose altered memories began to fail. It was beyond disgusting."

Sucking in a deep breath, Mami did not have to fake her barely‐controlled outrage. When she had first heard the news, Machina had put her into emotional suppression for the first time since she had gotten the TacComp implants. It had been… an interesting experience, one that remained a bit of a blur to her.

At this point the reporters in the room had transitioned from merely startled to downright shocked. Many shared Mami's expression of disgust, and all of them were in tense communication with whatever organizations they represented—all except Agatha, who played along with the other's reactions, even as the Armed Forces Network was already pushing out articles and special features, far ahead of everyone else.

After a suitably long pause, she continued:

"I am pleased to report that the cultists have been neutralized with a minimum of casualties, and that most of the cloned girls are now safely in our custody. They will be undergoing our best medical and psychiatric therapy, and our specialists are confident that they will go on to live happy, productive lives once they can be inserted into general society. For their privacy and protection, we will not be allowing members of the media access to them, nor will we permit direct interviews. That will be their own decision to make, when the time comes. Even now, our forces continue to scour the planet for any additional cultists or underground bases."

Mami bent her head for a moment.

"And now my representative will take questions," she said. "Keep in mind that many additional details will be forthcoming soon."

She dissolved her avatar out of the simulation, and her press secretary took the press, but she kept her field of vision on the assembled reporters.

Her announcement had been terse and short on details, but that was fairly typical for announcements nowadays. It was understood that the majority of the particulars would be included in the official press release, or relayed outward by other channels. There was no need to waste anyone's virtual breath on all those manifold details.

She watched her representative demur question after question with "That is not yet known." and "I am not privileged to reveal that information."

It had still been a press conference as much characterized by what she was leaving out as by what she had revealed. Every word of it was carefully crafted to present Governance in the best possible light, to take advantage of the opportunity for a propaganda win instead of trying to undertake the arduous task of a complete cover‐up.

Over the next couple of days the media frenzy would grow enormous, but, denied access to anyone participating in the operation or any information about the location of the operation, they would have nothing to go on other than what Governance or perhaps the MSY chose to feed them. There would be images and holos of the cloning chambers, of hollow‐eyed girls in armor suits—features carefully modified to conceal their future identities—all the nightmares of the Freedom Alliance coming alive again. There would be magical girls from MagOps and psychiatrists talking to tearful rescued clones. There would be repentant cultists talking about the horrors of the colony.

There would be no mention of the missing children until they were found, no mention of the colonists' unusual resistance, no mention of the unusual stealth device, no mention of a myriad of details that were still puzzling even to Governance.

All half‐truths, but there was nothing the media could do to prove anything otherwise. In that sense, it was fortunate everything had happened on a remote world in the Rhine Sector, where the military could cordon off everything with little fuss.

There would have to be a mention of the magical girl, of course—Sacnite, if the therapists decided she should keep the name. It was the only explanation for the mysterious radio signal, and it made for excellent pageantry. There was still the problem of how best to break that revelation to the public, but Mami already had an idea for that.

Mami shook her head at herself, wondering what the Mami that had made her wish would think of her now.

Used car salesman…

"I can't believe that actually worked," Meiqing said, as they waited outside the suite on board the cruiser Hammurabi, where Sacnite was being kept.

"What? You doubt Ryouko's influence?" Asami asked, smilingly teasing.

Meiqing rolled her eyes.

"Yes, I doubted her influence, and I was wrong. I can see you two will have a happy future together."

Ryouko ignored the banter, preferring to spend her time thinking about what to say to Sacnite. In truth, she had thought up this meeting on the spur of the moment, and hadn't really expected either Kyouko or Mami to be responsive—she had been shocked when Mami had actually written back, saying she'd be glad to arrange for them to have another meeting with Sacnite, pending MHD approval.

A moment later she looked up, sensing someone approaching, the long empty corridors of the immense cruiser lighting up with their approach.

"Azrael," Meiqing said, greeting the newcomer. "What a surprise to see you here!"

For her part, Azrael glanced between the three of them with surprised, wide eyes, causing Ryouko to realize for the first time just how large Azrael's eyes were—almost on the brink of being inhuman, one might say.

"Well, I'm here to talk to Sacnite," Azrael said, sounding nervous. "For a propaganda shoot, I guess, though also to try and comfort her, you know, with the whole rogue colony thing. It doesn't really make sense, since if it's being released to the public I can't really talk about my background, but Mami says I'm photogenic, as long as they're careful to edit out the hump on my back. I didn't know you'd be here."

Azrael looked away from the three of them, seemingly distracted. Something seemed wrong with her, but at the moment Ryouko was more concerned with what she had said.

"A propaganda shoot?" Ryouko echoed. "We're being recorded?"

"You didn't know?" Azrael asked, looking at her in confusion. "The military wants to have videos of us interacting with Sacnite, so we can look like we're really trying to help. But then, I guess they didn't tell me you'd be here. I—"

Azrael's eyes lost focus for a moment, looking at the ceiling. Ryouko felt the soft sensation of a new message arriving in her inbox.

"Oh, there's the official orders," Azrael said. "Wonder why it took this long."

"Propaganda?" Meiqing asked incredulously. "I'm not going to fake—"

"No, no, it's not like that," Azrael said, waving her hand at the other girl. "If they wanted to fake anything, they'd get professional actors. For people like us, they'll just want us to be ourselves, then they'll use the footage however they like. Read the orders."

Ryouko already had, finding little of note other than that there were orders, along with the standard admonishments to keep a lid on sensitive facts.

"I'm surprised they were willing to go public with what happened here," Asami said. "You would think that if they'd keep anything a secret, they'd keep this a secret."

"It was too big," Azrael said. "Could they have done it if they had tried? Probably. But it's not worth going to all that trouble when they could control the story instead, and make it the heroic military going in to save terrified cloned teenagers. Really, it could not have possibly worked out better for Governance and the MSY. The Hero of Orpheus, Mami, a crazy religious cult, evil cloning. Not enough gray to stand out unless you really look for it. Not like, you know, my home planet."

Azrael said it matter‐of‐factly, but the reminder of her history put a brief chill on the conversation, as the others struggled to think up what to say in response.

"So what were you, uh, up to during the landing?" Ryouko asked finally.

"It was kind of boring, to be honest," Azrael said. "I'm trained mostly as an infiltrator. In this case, I was supposed to talk to and deal with any magical girls that showed up from the colony. None ever did, so I ended up doing some fire support, then cooling my heels while we waited for you guys to send a message. Underground chambers aren't a great place for someone with wings. It makes me shudder just thinking about it."

Meiqing looked about to say something, but the door next to them slid open and Sacnite's new live‐in minder stuck her head out.

"Alright, I think we're ready for you. Come on in!"

The group of four stepped into the doorway, a bit wary of the minder, a cheerful looking, middle‐aged blond woman who, according to the nomenclator, was also a magical girl more than three times as old as all of them combined.

"Now obviously she's a bit distressed by all that has happened," the minder whispered to them. "I've tried to give her a comfortable environment, to ease the transition to her new life. It's not easy, since I have to try not to remind her of her false memories, you know, but that's for others to try to work with."

She guided them past the living area to two bedrooms in the back, pointing them towards the one on the left.

"She's waiting for you in there. I'll leave you to your privacy. I left you some of my famous scones and tea for snacks. Look forward to that."

The woman trotted away, leaving the four other magical girls blinking. She had seemed like a bit of a doting mother‐figure, but something about the way she carried herself…

She could probably kill us all with a thought, Azrael thought, following their gazes. But let's not dwell on it.

The door in front of them was still closed, so Azrael waved it open and stepped inside, pulling the other three with her.

They found Sacnite seated on her bed idly chewing on a scone, dressed now in a loose skirt and button‐down shirt.

She looked… okay. Not great.

The girl waved vaguely for the four of them to sit, and a set of four chairs assembled themselves on the spot, from a large set of smartblocks that had been thoughtfully left in the corner of the room. As they sat, a table assembled itself in their middle.

"I like this furniture," Sacnite said airily. "We didn't have anything like that down at the colony. Not on the surface either, if these memories are anything to go by."

"How are you holding up?" Ryouko asked. "You doing okay?"

Sacnite glanced down for a moment.

"I've had some time to think about things," she said, leaning over towards Ryouko. "I, uh, wanted to say…"

The girl sucked in a breath.

"They told me you're the only reason I'm still alive. They said your team was going to kill me, until you stopped them."

Ryouko looked away, a little embarrassed.

"I wouldn't put it that way. I wasn't trying to save you. I was just… responding to events."

"I'm thankful. There were times, earlier, when I thought about how much better it would be to end it all. But, in the end, I couldn't do it. I wanted to live."

Ryouko closed her eyes. The words hurt to hear, because she knew Sacnite was only a child, even compared to her. The way she spoke sounded like she had discussed it once already, probably with the platoon of psychiatrists that had descended upon the cloned girls. In a certain way, Sacnite was even younger than she should have been, because most of her memories were false, and even her ability to speak had probably been directly wired into her brain.

"I'm sorry you had to go through all that," Asami said, sounding shaky.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ryouko said, opening her eyes. "These are my friends, who were also on the team, except for Azrael. She's, uh, just someone I know."

Azrael smiled politely.

"I was also born on a colony world that, hmm, also didn't work out," she said. "I have good memories of my home, though, so I can't say my situation is like yours. That was quite a few years ago, though."

"Don't worry," she appended, looking at the others. "Like I said, they're going to edit afterward, so it doesn't much matter what we say."

"I have good memories too," Sacnite said bitterly. "It's just that none of them are real. Even then, I'd hold onto them if I could, but I can't."

The raw anger of the comment was startling enough that Ryouko turned her head slightly, catching a glimpse of the girl's face. Though her words had been clear, her face had the frustrated, pained look of someone trying to hold back tears.

Ryouko looked around for someone seated farther away to bail her out, but Meiqing and Asami looked frozen, while Azrael merely looked back at her with her head tilted.

"Those are just ghosts," Ryouko said inelegantly, reaching for Sacnite.

She pulled the other girl into a side hug as she started sniffling.

"Hey, come on," she said, wiping the other girl's eyes. "You can't let them get to you like that."

"I miss my mother," the girl said, rubbing her face into Ryouko's sleeve. "I can't help it. I keep thinking about her."

"It's okay to miss her, but we have to focus on making new memories together," Ryouko answered.

The girl looked up at her, tears spilling out of her eyes onto dark brown skin.

"You mean it?"

Ryouko opened her mouth, freezing for just a moment.

You… didn't think that through, Clarisse commented.

No, no I didn't, Ryouko thought. It just seemed like the natural thing to say.

"Of course I do!" Ryouko said, trying to sound cheerful.

In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought.

Sacnite nodded, and even smiled, seeming happy for a moment.

Goddess, she's young, Clarisse thought. Mentally, I mean. Much younger than you were when I first, uh, met you.

It probably hasn't been more than four years since she left the tank, Clarisse, Ryouko thought.

I know; I'm just reiterating.

I haven't heard you swear to the Goddess before, Ryouko appended.

Hey, it can't hurt.

Ryouko looked up for a moment at the others, catching Azrael giving her a thumbs‐up. Had she…

Asami stood up, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to Sacnite.

"Did you have any friends down at the colony?" she asked. "How are they doing?"

"They're mostly okay, I think," Sacnite said. "I got to see some of them. They don't tell me much, though."

I hope we didn't kill one of them during the mission, Meiqing thought, grimacing.

Thanks, I didn't even think of that, Asami shot back sarcastically. And my mood was improving too.

Ryouko smiled. Her mood was improving too, even if she had become abruptly aware that the propaganda video of her comforting Sacnite would soon be broadcast across the tiny human corner of the galaxy.

It just felt pleasant, feeling like she had made a difference with something so simple.

"We should visit her again," Asami said, as they stepped back out into hallways of the cruiser.

"I agree," Azrael echoed.

Ryouko agreed as well, but her attention was focused instead on Meiqing, whose expression looked troubled, shoulders tense. The conversation with Sacnite had seemed to disturb her, rather than relieve her, and Ryouko was worried that it had been a bad idea.

"You want to get some food?" Asami asked, seemingly determined to push forward with an air of normalcy.

Meiqing felt Ryouko's gaze on her, turning slightly to look at the others.

Meiqing shook her head slightly, not at Asami's question, but at the general situation.

"I'm glad we came," she said. "This kind of thing…"

She turned away from the rest of them, almost talking to the wall, shoulders hunched, but voice still clear.

"During the Unification Wars, there was an entire branch—nearly half—of my family that supported the FA. It tore us apart. Sisters and cousins killing each other, things like that. It nearly broke us. After the war, it turned out that some of us had been involved in engineering the FA Elites. The shame stains everything now, like a giant open wound, and the other families never let us forget about it. I'm only a teenager, and I'm already sick of hearing about it."

She paused.

"It should feel like redemption to be doing all this, but seeing all this in person makes it worse somehow."

"Genetic engineering can be used for good as well as evil," Azrael said. "I thought we talked about this."

"I know."

A moment later Meiqing straightened her back and walked away, making it clear she didn't intend to be followed.

The cloak covering Azrael's back jerked slightly, and Ryouko knew that Azrael was twitching her wing roots in an abortive gesture of emotion.

"She'll be fine, eventually," Azrael said. "It's hard being new to the business."

"I hope," Asami said.

Kyouko squinted up at the unfamiliar light of X‐25's star, shining through gaping holes in the ceiling of what had been the colonists' main religious structure. The light glinted off the main gateway into what had been the colonists' underground cloning facility, underneath what had been an enormous altar. A few military personnel milled about and guard drones buzzed throughout the area, but the building was otherwise abandoned. It made for a substantial improvement from how it had looked only recently, scattered with debris and the shattered remnants of a giant statue, dead colonists scattered where they had died.

"So this is the place, huh?"

Kyouko looked up, surprised at having been addressed.

"Oh, yeah," she said.

She had been lost in her thoughts—not a very Kyouko‐like thing to do, she was aware, but she had much to think about.

The girl she had brought here, a clairvoyant‐telepath named Jong Yi, peered up at the building's structure.

"This would have been a nice place, before, you know, the bombing."

Kyouko shook her head.

"A nice place with a black heart."

Jong Yi looked down at the floor for a moment.

"I should remind you again that I'm not actually sure that this will work," she said. "My base power is intended to detect the intentions of individuals at the current moment. It's only recently that I started experimenting with stretching it into the past."

"Yes, and, as such, you threw a flag in the system," Kyouko said. "If you pull this off, you'll be officially too valuable to be on any frontline MC squads."

Jong Yi grunted, grasping a group of grief cubes and holding them next to her heart, where her soul gem was.

"It's not my intention to be leaving my girls," she said. "I just thought it'd be useful for scouting."

She transformed, planting her ruby scepter into the ground in front of her. The two of them would have made a pretty sight in combat, Kyouko thought.

"I heard Nakihara Asami was on the team that got sent down," Jong Yi said as she closed her eyes.


"I'm surprised. I was glad she was sent off the lines. She wasn't cut out for it. I didn't think she'd end up in a mission like that, of all places."

"There were special circumstances. Look, I don't want to be mean, but I'd rather not stand here chatting. Lives—"

"I know," Jong Yi said, interrupting. "I can do two things at once."

The tip of her scepter began to glow a pale red, growing slowly in intensity, at first barely visible against the sunlight, but then beginning to cast a faint red tint on her surroundings.

"There was a statue here," Jong Yi said. "It was important. They worshipped it."

"Yes," Kyouko said. "Unfortunately too much of it was destroyed, and none of our drones got a good look at it."

She bit back an impatient "Focus!" command.

Jong Yi seemed about to say something, but instead shook her head, keeping her eyes closed.

A moment later a series of red lines began to appear around her, forming what almost resembled an intricate spider web, though without the carefully patterned order. Red lines showed people moving in and out of pews, up to the altar, in and out of the building.

Kyouko bit back another question, deciding to take Jong Yi at her word that, yes, she could spread this web of intention over the entire town. Far in the skies above them, drones kept watch for the anticipated red lines. If she was right, there would eventually be only one red line leading out of the town, leading far into the distance.

Until then, she could only stand and wait, and hope Jong Yi could really do it. Thus far the surveillance sweeps of the planet, both conventional and magical, had turned up little. There was a whole planet to search, and against unknown technology, only clairvoyance was reliable—but standard clairvoyance couldn't usually sweep a planet.

Specialists were called for, and Kyouko had searched the manifests of the task force until she found someone, anyone, who might fit the bill. Jong Yi was perfect—if she could really pull off what she said was a recent, experimental extension of her powers.

Even if Jong Yi couldn't cover the whole town, they could still recharge her and move her section by section in a circle around the town, until they found the red line they wanted. But that would take a long time, and Kyouko was getting increasingly impatient. She feared what might happen to those kids, and wanted to meet this DeWitt once and for all.

There was nothing effective to do but wait, the kind of situation that Kyouko had never handled well. She preferred to be always on the move, rather than to be forced to stop and think. It was a tendency that she had managed to quell over time but, fundamentally, her personality just wasn't suited to that kind of introspection.

Stop thinking about it so much! Just roll with the punches, like I do!

She could still remember herself saying that, so many years ago. It was good advice, advice she had always tried to follow, and she had done fine for herself—she liked to think that after so many years of going by gut instinct, her gut had learned to be pretty damn accurate.

But the girl she had given that advice to hadn't listened, not to a single word, and she had died so, so easily. Compared to old‐growth timber like her and Mami, Sayaka had been a mere sapling, crushed underfoot far too early.

Maybe that was why these missing children bothered her so much. So many saplings, with no chance to learn the ways of life, being placed in the path of a herd of voracious goats. She could recall all too clearly the many girls she had seen cut down similarly early. Not just Sayaka, but many others, some cut down by Oriko in one of her rampages, without even a chance to see what was coming for them—others disappearing into the night, without a chance for anyone else to even know what had happened.

It was never spoken aloud, but every girl had known the truth, deep in their heart. It didn't matter how much you strove to be smarter, faster, and stronger than the others. It didn't matter how unbreakable you seemed. In the end, unless you were Clarisse with her wish, you had to be lucky. There was nothing that made her intrinsically better than any of the rest. No reason she had lived and Sayaka had died other than time, circumstance, and place.

Where would she be now if Mami hadn't been there to catch her after her family died? Where would she be if Mami hadn't heard her family's name on the news just in the nick of time? Where would she be if Mami hadn't taken the leap of intuition, or had been just thirty minutes slower?

She would be with the Goddess, and her father would in the end have killed her just as surely as he had killed her sister.

She sighed. This was why she didn't like introspection. All it ever turned into was an exercise in staring into the abyss, and observing what stared back. It simply wasn't something you could do. Mami hadn't believed her about that, and look where she ended up.

And yet, she couldn't shake the quiet, nagging voice that reminded her that if her team hadn't forced her to stop and re‐evaluate, she would've gotten them all killed. Nor could she understand why she couldn't now seem to stop herself thinking about things.

Well, there was another side to introspection. Occasionally you remembered something funny. For instance, the next line she had said to Sayaka was:

What does it matter if your soul is in the gem? Your body still works, right? You can still fuck him, can't ya?

If she recalled correctly, Sayaka had then slapped her hard enough to send her flying into the nearest wall. Magical girl strength was scary sometimes. Fortunately, Mami and Kyouko were both quite skilled in the magical repair of walls, from sad necessity.

"What are you smiling so much about?" Jong Yi asked, breaking Kyouko's reverie.

"Just reminiscing," Kyouko responded automatically, before realizing that Jong Yi was no longer channeling her magic, and had walked over next to Kyouko.

Checking her mindscape, Kyouko saw that one of the drones had successfully spotted a single magical line running out of the colony, and off into the distance. Her TacComp apparently hadn't thought it worth interrupting her ruminations to tell her about it, which was odd.

"Now it's just a matter of tracking it, right?" Kyouko asked.

"Yes," Jong Yi said. "Following that one line will be way easier than saturating a whole town with clairvoyance. But we have to be careful—eventually that line will run into the person it represents, and I haven't yet figured out how to hide it. I can't imagine it's possible to miss a glowing red line appearing out of nowhere. I wouldn't assume anything good about it, myself."

Kyouko closed her eyes thoughtfully.

"We already discussed this," she said. "We'll have to chance it. We can scan in front of our path, but if we eventually run into the end, we might have to act fast."

"I know," Jong Yi said, nodding thoughtfully.

The girl peered down at the floor for a moment.

"So what specialists are we bringing?" she asked, finally.

"Well, this time we know we might be going into a hostage situation," Kyouko said. "Or at least a situation that might call for more subtlety than blowing everything up. So teleporters, clairvoyants, telepaths. Fortunately, Task Force Rhamnusia has had to deal with these kinds of situations before, so we even have a few unusual girls to help."

Jong Yi scraped the toe of her shoe against the floor.

"I won't ask about these previous situations," Jong Yi said. "The briefing certainly had enough. But what if we run into another nuke?"

"We're prepared for that too," Kyouko said. "If you'll remember, we have a teleporter who can get us as far as two hundred kilometers away. I'm more concerned about the children."

I was looking forward to a break, myself, Azrael thought, her telepathic voice relayed through the magical girl network from the other side of the formation.

Ryouko peered out the window, her ocular implants zooming in on the distant Azrael, dressed in jumpsuit, goggles, and transparent, barely‐there wings. She didn't look particularly regal, but regal was not the order of the day—they were all stealthed, in one way or another, and she could only see Azrael because she was permitted to.

The stealthed air vehicle she was riding, an Icarus Industries S27 Noctowl, was shared with Kyouko and a few of the other magical girls. Some she now felt almost intimately familiar with, such as Gracia, Nana, and Marianne, who talked in quiet voices with Kyouko. Others were entirely new, veterans from Task Force Rhamnusia specialized in the bloodless capture of civilian populations. These girls stayed oddly silent, almost brooding.

Asami was there, too, of course, in case of some more squid‐like stealth devices she might be helpful in detecting.

Azrael flying so far away from the group made Ryouko a bit nervous, as did the arrangement in general. Their squadron of stealthed transports flew in a tight, silent formation, flanked by air support platforms and numerous drones. Most of the transports carried only less valuable human specialists from Task Force Rhamnusia—the magical girl operatives rode with Ryouko, so she could evacuate them all at once in the event of unexpected nuclear detonation.

Which was why Azrael's positioning made her nervous. Azrael was too far away, in her opinion. Detailed simulation had suggested that the barrier generators could probably stall an explosion just long enough for her to gather everyone with a few short‐range hops, then charge for the truly long‐range teleports, but every millisecond counted, and the extra time it took her to charge a teleport to Azrael could easily be important.

It went almost without saying that in the event of disaster, the regular humans—pilots and special forces—would simply be left behind. Ryouko could not carry them all, she was the only teleporter in the Task Force with enough meaningful range, and it made sense to leave extra personnel behind in a situation where they had more than enough people and every additional ounce of remaining firepower, lethal or not, might make all the difference.

We've been over this, Clarisse thought, sighing almost audibly. The extra time it would take you to get to Azrael is insignificant relative to how long it would take you to charge the long‐range teleport. Either the barrier generators can hold, or they can't. That tiny time difference is unlikely to matter.

It just makes me nervous, and it's not just about time to escape. In the time I'd be delayed getting to her, the radiation would tear her apart.

Which is not a lethal injury.

I just don't… want anything to be my fault, that's all.

She felt a slight tug at her hair, and glanced over, finding that Asami had twisted some of their hair together playfully. The girl smiled at her, and she smiled back.

A moment later, Asami closed her eyes again, going back to scanning the area in front of them for gravitational anomalies, keeping their hair together.

She envied Asami a little. She envied the way she seemed not to think about what was waiting for them, about all the things that could go wrong, about the people that might die. She didn't mean that Asami didn't think about it at all—of course she did—but she could move on to think about other things. Ryouko, on the other hand, found that she could only focus on what she knew was important, on the details of nuclear escape and nonlethal takedown—on the minute details that could save their lives, soon enough.

It helped that Asami had an actual task to focus on, to distract her attention, while Ryouko was reduced to constantly checking her soul gem for unusual brightness.

Those guards that died in the underground base weren't your fault, Clarisse thought. There was no way anyone could have known. You're letting it eat at you too much.

I know, but that doesn't mean I can stop it.

Ryouko glanced at her soul gem again, this time narrowing her eyes. The light sensors attached to it had registered a slight uptick in intensity, and looking at it, she could almost imagine…


Everyone on board the shuttle looked up at the pilot's exclamation, and Ryouko stiffened, preparing for the worst.

But there was no bright flash, no panicked emergency barriers going up. Instead, an urgent notification appeared inside Ryouko's mindscape, unboxing itself immediately into new, directly implanted information.

"A large base just appeared out of nowhere directly in front of us," Kyouko said, repeating the obvious for the sake of discussion. "The scanners are still working on examining the layout, but it's nearly deserted, except for a small group of people deep within the base, mostly children. I think we found what we're looking for."

"Did we just get inside their stealth bubble or something?" Asami asked.

"No. This base is showing up on the satellites now. It's almost really as if it just appeared out of nowhere."

Ryouko looked at her soul gem. The brightness she thought she had been seeing was gone.

She took a moment, just a moment, to peer outside at the ground below, which at the moment showed only the dense inscrutable canopy of some tropical jungle.

"We have to go now," she said, looking up. "I'm in range to teleport. I'm sure they know their stealth is down. We have to go before they do something crazy."

Kyouko glanced at the team clairvoyants for confirmation.

"It definitely looks like the cult leader. He looks shocked. Surrounded by unconscious children lying on the floor. Otherwise, nothing of note."

Kyouko nodded.

"Then let's go. The rest of the squadron will drop down whenever they can."

One of the other teleporters vanished immediately in a puff of smoke, the others shifting inwards towards Ryouko. As they did, she worked through the possible scenarios in her head, biting her lip. The teleportation range—about 50 km—was close enough that she could get back out relatively quickly since she wouldn't be expending her teleportation ability on a full‐range teleport. But unless a disaster that necessitated an emergency evac happened, there was not much else for her to do other than stay alert. It would be up to everyone else to lock down the area as much as possible.

A moment later, the teleporter reappeared, Azrael in tow, and Ryouko could begin her teleport. She closed her eyes to help herself achieve the extra bit of focus…

The spasm of magic that occurred when she reopened her eyes was blindingly fast, even by the standards of someone who had seen so many teleportation insertions that the massive barrages of light had started to seem a bit redundant.

The cornerstone of Task Force Rhamnusia's nonlethal capture force was Gabrielle Siegel, whose hallmark skill was an area‐of‐effect field that slowed time for everyone except those she pre‐designated. That was coupled instantaneously with a massive barrage of sticky, magically enhanced spider silk that seemed to fall from the sky, another set of strings from Marianne, a fusillade of mind‐control effects, a flash of light intended to blind anyone in the area, multiple barriers, and a set of Kyouko mirror images appearing on the other side of the room, purely as a distraction.

I don't sense anything, Asami thought.

Soul gem looks normal, Ryouko echoed.

Nana took a moment to assess the situation, then blasted the area with a bright purple shimmer of technology‐and‐magic‐disabling power. With the true finesse of a practiced user, the magic of the rest of the team was untouched.

Only then was it possible to get a clear view of their surroundings. An avalanche of glowing white threads plastered the room, covering both the walls and row after row of occupied beds. These were covered so thickly that it was only just possible to vaguely discern the shape of human forms buried underneath, though it was trivial to deduce from the size of bodies and the clairvoyants' previous observations that these were almost certainly the missing children.

"They're still alive, just unconscious," Gracia said, grasping Kyouko gently by the arm. An unnecessary comment, perhaps, but a familiar look had crossed the Ancient's face, and it hadn't been obvious if Kyouko remembered the clairvoyants' pre‐battle observations.

Within Gabrielle's time‐slowing field, they were able to take a luxurious amount of time to scan their perimeter, searching for threats, traps, or even the slow‐motion shockwave of an incoming explosion. None of those were apparent.

"Keep the field up, Gabrielle," Kyouko said. "I believe we have an appointment with Mr. DeWitt over there."

At the end of one of the rows of beds was the kneeling figure of a man, probably in a position of prayer, though now trapped in almost a grotesque caricature, struggling in extreme slow motion against the white threads that bound him.

Kyouko did not wait for him to finish, stalking her way across the floor with the rest of team following warily, two designated members dropping out to check on the unconscious children.

She grabbed Grigori DeWitt by the collar, drawing the man up into the air. The white threads that bound him vanished, leaving the larger man dangling almost absurdly, kicking his legs in surprise now that he was released from the slowed time field.

Kyouko swung him back down, pulling the starched collar of his black and white reverend's outfit down to her face level as if he weighed absolutely nothing, dragging his legs along the floor.

"Checkmate, Mr. DeWitt," she growled into his face, turning his name into an expletive. "Let me make things real clear to you. You tell me what the hell you were thinking with this colony, and if I like what I hear, I may just let you live. No guarantees, though."

I'm reminding you, we take him alive if we can, Marianne thought, sternly. If there's going to be any killing, Governance wants to do it.

The cult leader stopped tugging pointlessly at Kyouko's grip and looked up at the roof.

"Ah, Sakura Kyouko," the man said, voice distant and unpanicked. "I know about you. Poor lost soul. You have no understanding of what you could become."

Kyouko's face contorted, and her fist tightened on his collar, so expressively that Ryouko had visions of DeWitt's rail‐thin neck snapping like a twig.

It didn't, though, and the man even continued to speak, Kyouko showing admirable discipline—or simply speechless rage—by not interrupting him.

"She showed the way, but she was lost too. I saw her—though she thought herself concealed, I knew. I thought I was alone, but they came to help me. It all came together as planned."

"Stop trying to be clever," Kyouko warned. "You know we can read your mind by force if we have to. We can make it much worse than any torture."

"Oh, I know," DeWitt said. "There are many things you girls can do. More than you think. Something blocks your transcendence. It was necessary to find out what it was."

"Hence, the experiments?" Kyouko demanded.

"It was necessary," DeWitt said calmly. "Better clones than any actual children. You think I'm a monster, but look, I brought the children of the colony away with me, away from the fighting, away from your poisoned world."

He gestured grandiosely—or tried to, at the children arrayed around them.

The doors of the warehouse‐sized room burst open, some of the special forces troops that formed the remainder of their operations force showing up to help secure the hostages. True professionals, they began scattering among the children, checking them and preparing to move them out of the area, ignoring whatever it was Kyouko was doing.

"The clones were a disappointment," DeWitt said. "Only one of them ever made a contract. Before that, I wasn't even sure they had true souls."

Kyouko visibly gritted her teeth.

"You're a monster," she said. "Your cult was supposed to be against the use of magical girls in combat, and then you send one to lure us into a trap?"

"Perhaps I am a monster, but no more than you," he said. "And she was only a clone."

Kyouko was visibly straining at the edges of her restraint, and the other girls in the area tensed, ready to try and intervene if Kyouko did anything rash.

But Kyouko did not snap.

"Impressive," the cult leader said, patronizingly. "You were supposed to kill me on the spot. Any other questions for me before you try your blasphemous mind‐reading on me, then?"

"No," Kyouko growled. "I'm done here. I just wanted to see your face."

"And I wanted to see yours. Goodbye."

DeWitt's eyes rolled up weirdly in his head, and Kyouko's eyes widened in turn.

If the rest of the team had really believed they could successfully stop Kyouko from executing the cult leader, they were swiftly disabused of the notion. To Ryouko, it had seemed that one moment Kyouko was there, peering into the cult leader's eyes with shock, and then the next, Kyouko was mid‐follow‐through on a vicious slice with her spear, blood and gore obscuring the tip, and Grigori DeWitt's head already in the air, eyes open, falling towards the floor.

It should not have been possible for her to move fast enough to evade Ryouko's perception, but she had done so.

In the next moment, Gabrielle and one of the teleporters had grabbed Kyouko's arms to restrain her, too late, and the ripping sound of the air being torn open by Kyouko's slice finally reached Ryouko's ears.

"What the hell are you—" Marianne began.

Grab his head! Kyouko thought back. Stabilize it! The man has suicide implants!

After only the briefest hesitation, Marianne shot her strings out at DeWitt's head, the almost invisible wires probing prehensilely at the base of the detached spine.

Gabrielle jumped forward, casting her time slow field on the head, while the group healer, who also carried an emergency life support device, rushed forward.

"It's too late," Marianne said, breathlessly. "She was right, but it's already too late. His brain is goo. Melted by special implants. No wonder he was willing to chat. I wondered why he hadn't just killed himself first. I thought maybe he hadn't managed to override the antisuicide controls, or Nana was able to disable something. Shouldn't have underestimated him."

Kyouko's shoulders slumped, and then she pulled her arm away from the teleporter angrily.

"For the record," she spat. "Not everyone puts suicide implants directly in the brain. I figured chopping his head off was worth a try."

"At least the children are alive," Kyouko said, looking back over her shoulder. "Though we'll have to check if they've been messed with. I wanted to know what was going on here. Instead, we're going to have sit around sifting evidence, playing back what the guy said—what a waste of time. I'm sure everything he said was junk."

Asami and Ryouko had merely stood slack‐jawed, unable to react to what they were seeing. They had seen enough gore in their simulations to be inured to the decapitation, but everything that had just happened was just…

I think this would be a good time to provide an explanation, a cheery, almost boyish voice thought, resounding in their heads.

It was unmistakably an Incubator, who nonchalantly appeared out of the ether directly in front of Kyouko.

It took Ryouko a moment, but she realized that this wasn't just any Incubator—this was Kyubey, the Mitakiharan Incubator who had contracted her.

"Well then, explain," Kyouko said, glaring at the Incubator with barely concealed fury. Starting with what you're doing here.

I tagged along with you on your trip here to monitor events. It was also thought you'd be more receptive to what I said, rather than any other Incubator.

The Incubator glanced at the other girls on the team, almost like a human would.

We've been monitoring this illogical grouping of humans for a while now, ever since we discovered them out here. Their leader had some interesting theories about magical girls that he wished to test.

The Incubator rubbed one of its ears with a paw, seeming almost satisfied with itself.

The creation of new magical girls runs through us. We do not contract girls if it runs contrary to our interests. The only girl we contracted was one we knew would summon assistance here. I am glad we were able to accurately predict that Sacnite's wish would bring you here, though we did not predict how exactly it would happen.

"Why didn't you tell us anything earlier?" Kyouko demanded.

It is not our policy to intervene so directly in the affairs of humans. We allowed Sacnite to contact you, as it was her wish to do so, but otherwise—

"Bullshit!" Kyouko interrupted, almost snarling the word.

She leaned forward, peering directly into the Incubator's eyes.

"You've intervened in our affairs plenty of times. I've seen you do it! And don't pretend you don't rat people out either! If you really wanted us to show up to this colony, you would have just told us!"

The others stood around her, eyes wide in mild shock. Most of them had never seen an Incubator rebuked in such a fashion.

The Incubator tilted its head slightly, saying nothing, and Kyouko continued:

"This colony was here so long because you allowed it to be here, because it suited your purposes somehow."

You should be grateful, the Incubator thought, shaking its head. Regardless, I thought it might interest you to know something about what we observed here.

The Incubator looked expressively at the room around them.

First, this facility was not built by your cultists. That is easy enough to deduce, but we can additionally tell you that this was built by another group, who supported the cultists by providing them the weapons and resources to build their base, while they stayed here, hidden in this base. Grigori DeWitt was advised by them. Once it was clear you would find this base, they abandoned him here, with his agreement, and departed in their cloaked ship.

Kyubey dipped his head slightly, as if nodding to itself.

Second, it greatly interested us that they had a statue of Akemi Homura inside their main building. Grigori DeWitt believed that he had seen her earlier on Optatum, after she was supposed to have died, and based much of his insane beliefs on what she had achieved. He was quite sincere in this belief, but that is of course not surprising for someone so insane. After all, we had plenty of Incubators on Optatum at the time, and it is absurd to suggest that he could see her, when we couldn't.

Kyubey looked back up at Kyouko.

"Well?" Kyouko asked, after a long moment of staring. "That's hardly a complete explanation."

We would rather not say anything else.

Kyouko blinked, then snarled, smashing her spear into the spot where the Incubator stood—but it was no longer there. The polished gray flooring cracked open, shards of fabricated rock scattering upward from the point of impact.

Honestly, Kyubey thought, reappearing on Kyouko's shoulder. So illogical and violent. None of you have managed to kill one of my bodies for centuries. We will forever be confused why you would prefer such waste.

Kyouko stood back up straight, Kyubey and all, shaking her head.

"It's just stress relief. Not that you understand the concept, you rat."

You should be grateful, the Incubator repeated, its body slowly disappearing. But it was good to see you, Kyouko.

Kyubey vanished a moment later, leaving Kyouko standing there holding her spear loosely.

"Did it just call me by my personal name?" she asked, peering over at Marianne.

"Yeah," she said.

"Weird," Kyouko said.

She tapped her foot on the floor one, two, three times, then looked around at the children around her.

"This is pissing me off; I need a break to think."

She turned on her heel and strode briskly towards one of the exits. It was clear that the others weren't intended to follow her.

Kyouko's entire life had been shaped by religion and faith, in both a positive and a negative sense. In the long centuries that stretched between the death of her family and seeing Homura on New Athens, it had followed her always, as present in its deliberate absence as it ever was in her church.

I know that, she thought, as she stomped through the now secured hallways of the compound. I don't lie to myself. Not like Mami. Not since the beginning.

But was that really true? What about all the years she had spent refusing to reflect, refusing to think? All the years she had spent drinking away her life in a thousand high‐end bars, spending night after night in a different bed?

That's not lying to myself, damn it! she answered, resisting the urge to slam her fist into the wall near her. I know what demons I'm running from.

In her mind, she saw the images that had tormented her her whole life.

Her father bouncing her on his knee, smiling down at her.

Her father standing in front of the altar, expression radiant, as if God himself spoke through him.

And finally, the lifeless bodies of her family, her sister lying in a pool of blood, body gashed and broken, the flames already consuming her.

A part of her had burned there with the rest of her family, she knew. That part of her ached, the hole in her heart that had almost cast her into the flames with them.

You abandoned us, she thought, gripping the frame of a doorway as it slid open. You were supposed to save us. My father believed in you, and you let the demons consume us. Why?

She looked up, and saw that the metal‐ceramic composite of the door frame had twisted and warped under her grip, the door whining unhappily at the injury. She saw that she had somehow reached one of the service entrances to the mysterious base. A small clearing just outside the doorway led directly into jungle, the sun shining down from above onto her, harsh and burning.

She remembered a wall of swords streaking out of the sky in front of her on just such a sunny day, the clawed maniac of the Southern Group recoiling from the assault, pausing in her attack on Kyouko.

She remembered the swordsman descending out of the sky a moment later, placing herself between Kure Kirika and a heavily‐injured Kyouko, the blood pouring out of her side where Kure had stabbed her.

"I'm not leaving you behind! Not while I'm still alive," Sayaka shouted, looking down on her, eyes full of fire. "I heard what bucket head over there was telling you. It's bullshit. You don't deserve to die."

Then Sayaka had turned towards Kirika, eyeing the other girl down the length of her sword.

Everyone deserves to be saved, if they change themselves. Don't ever look back!

"We tried to save the world," she said. "Just like you would want. I did everything you said. But you couldn't follow your own damn rules, and you died too."

Four and a half centuries of this damn nonsense, and people are still suffering. The demons of this world still consume the hearts of men, and they in turn inflict torment on those under rule.

She cracked a slight smile at the thought, which sounded like a line from a sermon.

It would have been so much easier to have given in, she thought. So much easier to do a little studying, put together a little effort, and empty her own memories with a quiet self‐Reformat. It would hardly be unique—the practice was common enough that the MHD even had a name for it, and kept a close watch on some of the older girls. Kyouko would be lying if she had said that she'd never once considered it.

Kyouko shook her head, letting a tear fall, and fell to her knees.

She would try to pray.

Ryouko had felt sickened by the situation. The others had told her not to follow, but she could see that Kyouko was in distress, and had been for the whole trip to this forsaken planet.

She followed the other girl at a distance, trailing her through the abandoned halls of the compound. Kyouko was too preoccupied to notice she was being tailed, and Ryouko even had the time to observe her surroundings en passant. There had been something big going on here, and there were clear signs of equipment being hastily stripped from the compound.

Finally, the other girl stopped just outside an entrance into the building and Ryouko let out a breath, wondering if Kyouko was going to acknowledge—or had even noticed—her presence.

Instead, Kyouko grabbed the side of the door frame, crushing it in her hand like a disposable cup, causing Ryouko to flinch.

"We tried to save the world," she heard Kyouko say. "Just like you would want. I did everything you said. But you couldn't follow your own damn rules, and you died too."

Ryouko had no idea what she was talking about, or if Kyouko really thought she was talking to someone. According to their team interface, Kyouko's soul gem was only somewhat below normal, but Ryouko felt nervous.

Something nagged at her. She found herself remembering Kyouko dying on the cliff, long ago in her vision.

But that can no longer happen, right? We prevented that future.

She almost sighed in relief when the girl finally fell to her knees in an obvious prayer posture. She knew enough to expect that it would calm Kyouko down.

She stepped forward cautiously, hoping to avoid startling the other girl.

The clearing in front of them was beautiful, the sun streaming in through the hole that had been carved in the canopy above, the edges ragged where the jungle sought to reclaim the land that it had once owned. Ryouko wondered just how it was that they had managed to hide such a large base from sensors, when the missing trees alone should have given it away.

They had already found what had presumably been the base's stealth generator, completely obliterated by an explosion just before they had arrived. Whoever had built it clearly didn't want them to get their hands on the technology.

She peered up towards the canopy, narrowing her eyes slightly at the clouds of insects milling about in the unusual sunlight. Something about this situation bothered her.

Impressive, the cult leader had said to Kyouko. You were supposed to kill me on the spot.

There were many ways to interpret what he had said, including simply that they were the ravings of a madman. Yet something about those words was deeply unsettling. It gave her a certain sensation, a certain déjà vu, not that this situation had happened before, but that she had felt this sensation before.

It feels like your vision with the submarines, and Mikuni Oriko looking up at you.

Ryouko's eyes widened.

Yes, that exactly. How did you know? Do you feel it too?

No. That was right after Version One of… me was installed. I wasn't even online yet. I'm just telling you what memory your brain is trying to tug at.

I see.

She was sure Kyouko must have noticed her by now. One probably didn't get to be that old without being able to sense another magical girl half a meter away, no matter how distracted you were. Kyouko was probably just really focused on praying.

What does it mean, though? she thought. Why would I be reminded of that right now?

Well, this was the mission that submarine thing was supposed to be about, right? Well, here we are.

She shook her head.

I don't think that's all it is. Something about what he said… riddles in the dark.

She narrowed her eyes, raising a hand to block out the sunlight that was saturating some of her optical sensors.

That drone loitering there is way out of position— Clarisse thought.

Ryouko saw only the briefest glimmer, a tiny blip in infrared, a signal that by rights shouldn't have even entered her awareness.

It was enough to send her diving for Kyouko though, moved by instinct, magic, quiet ideas simmering in the crevices of her mind, and, just maybe, the whispers of a Goddess planted in her memory.

She felt the searing heat of the laser engulf her, consuming her body even as she managed, barely, to plot the teleport out.

There was no time to feel fear, as darkness followed the fire.

Kyouko opened her eyes just in time to see the laser burn through the teleporter above as she flung her arms around Kyouko—just in time to feel the laser tear into the exposed parts of her body as well—

And then, she found herself just outside the beam, staring up at the drone firing downward.

She flung her spear into the drone, faster than thought, an angry cry managing to escape her lips only after the action, not before.

By the time the rest of the team appeared only a few seconds later, carried by the other teleporter, they found Kyouko already kneeling on the floor, paying no heed to her missing hand or the exposed burns that dripped blood from her shoulders and legs.

Instead, she clutched a star‐shaped soul gem in her remaining hand.

"Thank you," she whispered.