It may seem like an oxymoron, to apply the methods of systematic scientific study to the topic of soul gems and the soul, but there is no a priori reason to expect such studies to be any less productive than the immense successes we have already experienced in the fields of magical power development and demon hunting.
This is especially true given the Incubators' involvement in the process of soul gem extraction. There is little reason to believe that the Incubators have any innate magical capability, and yet it is they who have learned to create soul gems, even if they will tell us nothing about it.
Indeed, precisely because of the importance of the topic, the possible rewards of detailed investigation may be even greater. Preliminary studies have already shown that the spectral analysis of soul gem emissions may be an effective way of "fingerprinting" individual magical girls. Rare girls with identical spectra do seem to exist, but outside of special cases, it is possible we simply do not have enough measurement precision…
— Excerpt, Memo to MSY Science Division from Director Chitose Yuma, 2043
"To exist everywhere is to exist nowhere. To know everything is to know nothing. To be omnipotent is to be impotent. The essence of divinity is contradiction."
— Unknown, Commonly Attributed to Clarisse van Rossum
"That's not healthy, you know."
Asami looked up at the newcomer, abandoning only for a moment her vigil, which consisted of quietly staring into the sealed vessel Ryouko's soul gem was being stored in.
She turned back towards the gem. A part of her was surprised that Sakura Kyouko, almighty member of the Mitakihara Four, had deigned to come find her. The rest of her didn't care. Kyouko's eccentric behavior had lost Ryouko her first body, which hardly seemed fair, given that Kyouko was over thirty times Ryouko's age and still had hers.
"I don't really care what's healthy right now," Asami said. "I'm just doing what feels right. Besides, this beats sitting quietly in my room."
"Fair enough, I suppose. And, with recent events, it might not be a bad idea to have someone watching the gem."
Asami sensed the other girl pulling a chair over to sit next to her, but didn't look up. What did it gain her to acknowledge the gesture?
She wondered for a moment what Kyouko would say to her. Would she apologize for getting Ryouko fried by a laser? Asami would have been lying to say that she wasn't angry at Kyouko for that, and at the others—and herself—for not following Kyouko like Ryouko did.
But she wasn't far enough gone to truly blame her for it. Things happened. She knew that. She just wished they wouldn't happen to her.
Or maybe Kyouko would try to discuss what had happened, the results of the post‐mission investigation? Despite the mostly successful outcome, the execution of the operation had been less than pristine, ranging from the cult leader's successful suicide in the face of multiple mind‐controllers to, of course, the incident with the laser‐firing drone. To call that merely a mystery would be a serious understatement.
At the moment, though, she couldn't find herself motivated to care. She was tired of the conspiracies and shadows that seemed to circle around Ryouko. What would it take to just live a normal life?
"You know, sometimes your first love just never leaves you," Kyouko said, finally. "It's been so long, and so much has happened, and I still remember my first. It will probably sound crazy, but she was in my head today during the mission. Sometimes I wish I could forget about her."
Asami turned her head slightly, looking at the other girl's face. This was not a story she had heard before.
"What happened to her?" she asked.
"She died," Kyouko said. "Back in the early days, when you weren't expected to last more than a few years at best. I don't want to make this seem like more than it is—she had someone else she was after, and I acted like a lovesick teenager, which means I never really made any moves. You know how it is. In retrospect, we might have worked out. We might not have. I wish we had a chance to find out."
Asami turned back towards the vessel in front of her, peering in through the reinforced window at the brilliant green glow of the gem, which looked glaring against the backdrop of blacker‐than‐black grief cubes.
"It never goes away, then?" she said.
"It leaves an impression on your soul," Kyouko said. "Even in eternity, I don't think it will go away. But, she's still alive, so you shouldn't be sulking like this."
"I'm more worried about what will happen than what has happened," Asami said. "She's not safe."
"None of us are safe," Kyouko said, unwrapping in her hands a piece of chocolate. "I wish I knew why."
No one really liked the Crown Room.
Sure, the Leadership Council meeting room was grand. The virtual location mirrored the actual location, which occupied audaciously the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Mitakihara. The room was surrounded by panoramic windows and a fully transparent ceiling, all of it tunable to control the amount of light that poured into the room—or to provide other views entirely, if preferred. The center of the room was dominated by an imposing mahogany meeting table, carved out of a single piece of giant wood, and flanked by the most comfortable chairs Kyouko had ever sat in, their leather sensuous on the skin.
Server‐bots stood on the side at the ready, poised to deliver whatever food and beverages the occupants desired. The usual recommendation was the downright legendary coffee, but in her time Kyouko had seen girls indulge in everything from kumis to prime rib—though it was obviously impolite to eat a serious meal during important discussions.
The physical Crown Room hadn't been used for nearly half a century, though. The logistics of arranging a physical meeting were too cumbersome, and the truth was everyone had gotten tired of it, even in its virtual form. Kyouko wished that one of the other proposals—Mami's tea rooms, Yuma's outdoorsy ideas—would win a plurality and finally get a new virtual location set, but getting the Committee to agree on anything that wasn't obvious was like herding cats.
Worse, actually. Kyouko had tried herding cats once—it wasn't that hard with a little bit of food.
"Put shortly, someone is trying to kill me," Kyouko said, addressing the Committee members. "And I don't mean merely the one drone that was trying to shoot me. This goes deeper than that."
A low murmur spread around the table, the assorted matriarchs and Ancients taking advantage of the end of Kyouko's statement to start whispering to each other. Kyouko's conclusion had probably crossed all of their minds at some point, but it had taken Kyouko saying it openly to let them all know that, yes, it was a conclusion that might have some merit to it, even if it seemed like pure conspiracy theory fodder.
She peered around the virtual room, letting her eye fall on those members of the Committee that were also members of her Church. Visions of the future, maneuvering to avoid said futures, Goddesses, and so forth were all strictly inadmissible within the governing layers of the MSY—unless coming from carefully verified magical sources—but that didn't mean the members of the Committee hadn't heard what they needed to know from other, less secular sources.
Kyouko sighed, letting gravity pull her back down into her chair, next to the empty seat at the head of the table, allowing it to massage her shoulders as she desired.
She cast her eye about the room, at the Matriarchs talking loudly at each other over the table, and through the ceiling at the planet of X‐25, hovering ominously above them like a sky‐dominating moon, covered with strategic markings and labels, and surrounded by a flotilla of bright red tags that indicated the ships in orbit.
According to Clarisse, it was not like the Goddess to make repeated, blatant interventions into the course of events. She preferred to be subtle, and to get the most done with the least possible modification. She was the sort of deity who preferred to kill a butterfly in Africa, then watch silently as a typhoon was diverted in Asia, to use Clarisse's odd phrasing. The recent pattern of events was therefore odd, perhaps even unsettling.
"Alright everyone, calm down," Mami said, in a loud, clarion tone. "Let's speak one at a time."
She waved her arms up and down in the universal gesture of "settle down", and the room quieted, acknowledging Mami's de facto chairman status, as highest‐ranking attending member.
A long pause later, Odette François, the François Matriarch, renewed the discussion:
"I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this were just shenanigans from Governance. We know they don't really like the idea of us existing that much. Sure, the individual membership is useful to them, but they'd much rather the MSY be a branch of Governance itself. Targeted attacks on the leadership would be one way to accomplish this."
A series of groans sounded off around the table, beginning even before Odette had finished speaking. Her continued and vocal paranoia about Governance was by now a well‐known topic.
"With all due respect, that's wildly implausible," Mohana Bachchan said, leaning in from farther down the table. "The only way that could possibly work is if they eliminated almost everyone here, and surely someone would notice what's up. And that's only one of many, many problems with that theory."
"It's also possible they're trying to do something to the Cult of Hope," Odette argued.
"Let's not get sidetracked," Shizuki Sayaka said, sweeping her arm over the table in a dramatic gesture. "Honestly, I'm not even sure we should accept that someone is really trying to kill Miss Sakura here. That's one plausible interpretation of events, yes, but it's also possible the robot that fired the laser was just being opportunistic. Asserting that the entire thing was a set up to bait Miss Sakura into the area requires a whole series of rather tenuous connections. Frankly, it could just as easily be a coincidence. That's what the analysis AIs we've set on the problem have concluded as well."
Kyouko cast a veiled glance at Sayaka. She should have known that she would be the one to bring the skepticism.
"I wouldn't be sure about it being a coincidence," Kuroi Kana said, surprising Kyouko by speaking up on her behalf. "Whatever else is or isn't going on, it's clear that there are a lot of mysteries surrounding this rogue colony. For instance, if I may draw the discussion elsewhere for a moment, there is the matter of the alleged statue of Akemi Homura that these cultists were worshipping."
"To be fair, that is only a claim made by Kyubey," Yuma commented, from Kyouko's left.
"Well, the Incubators have never told us anything manifestly false before," Kana said. "They can be misleading, of course, but I think in this case we can accept that there was in fact a statue of Akemi Homura present, and that the cult leader truly believed he saw her on Optatum. Their choice of deity aside, I have to say I don't find that last belief terribly implausible."
A shocked murmur passed down the table, and the "Founder's End" of the table turned to glare at Kana, as subtly as they could. While it was a widespread belief that Homura was not truly dead, it was not widespread knowledge that Internal Affairs had already confirmed that she had lived past New Athens, nor that signs of her had been confirmed retrospectively on Optatum. The Incubators' assertions implied that the cult leader believed she had been there after their last evidence of her, and after presumably the last time the Incubators had seen her.
If the cult leader's assertion were true, it would provide another confusing and troubling timepoint to Homura's post‐New Athens journey.
"Explain," Mami said, a little coldly, almost daring Kana to explain herself fully.
Kana smiled slightly.
"What I meant was: I can easily believe that Homura was there on Optatum, just as easily I can believe she was—or is—anywhere else. What's important here is that she wasn't involved in anything that happened on this planet, other than as a figurehead for a crazy cult."
"That seems to summarize it, yes," Mami said.
"Back to the previous topic," Clarisse van Rossum said. "It seems to me that what is worrisome is not any one of these issues in particular, but all that is happening now taken together, in gestalt. We have rogue drones attacking our leaders, respected magical girls dying without cause, a rogue colony with impossible technology experimenting on magical girls, and transports being attacked deep behind the lines when traveling randomized trajectories. Things that should not be happening are, and that is not all that is going on, is there?"
She peered in the direction of Mami and Kyouko, both of whom were aware what had to come next on the meeting agenda.
"No, that is not," Mami said, as calmly as she could, standing up out of her chair.
The room quieted, Mami's standing figure seeming to suck in the gazes of everyone in the room. Even the head of the table, Kyouko and Yuma and Clarisse, turned to watch her, waiting for her to say what they already knew. For a moment Kyouko thought Mami looked like the loneliest person in the world.
"The results of the last grief cube audit have been received," she said, finally. "And the results have been, to put it mildly, disturbing."
Mami spoke with an iron dignity that Kyouko didn't think she could ever have managed in the face of the oncoming storm. She admired Mami for her ability to lock it all out, to be the rock upon which the MSY without Homura rested, never angry, never less than a leader. She admired her for it, even when she knew the flaws that Mami tried so desperately to hide.
"There have been a number of significant discrepancies between the number of grief cubes supposedly delivered to certain frontline combat units, and the number of grief cubes reported used by the units involved, at least when anecdotal interviews are conducted. While the official post‐combat reports of these units show no discrepancy, the members of these units indicate puzzlement and bewilderment at the number of grief cubes they were supposed to have received and used—they report using far less, and this has been confirmed by review of memories stored in their TacComps. The difference in numbers has grown too great to be explained by loss in the chaos of combat."
A wave of shock traveled down the table, but Mami held up her hand magisterially, somehow managing to pause the tide of outrage for just a moment.
"If you please, allow me to explain in full detail."
She paused for a moment, then continued, beginning to pace.
"There is more. As part of the standard interview process, conducted by both official investigators and Church of Hope volunteers, we have received additional anecdotal reports of girls suffering total or near‐total bodyloss who should be able to revive, but who never return. Tracking the cases invariably reveals soul gems that failed inexplicably in transit to their stored clones. One prominent example is the case of Misa Virani, whose exploits near the wormhole generator you know well. Her soul gem survived the mission, yet inexplicably failed on board my own flagship, a fact that we have kept concealed up until now."
"Those of us who knew had kept silent about this, aware of the potential implications, in the hopes that a continued investigation would reveal innocuous causes. As such, we directed our energy into understanding the causes of these anomalies, utilizing all the resources at our disposal. The officers of Grief Cube Supply and Logistics immediately fanned out to audit the system, we enlisted the aid of the Church of Hope, and I personally consulted with military records on the matter. Unfortunately, as you will see from these files, the mystery only got deeper."
Mami stopped her pacing, taking a moment to allow the rest of the Committee to browse over the documentation she had provided. She leaned over to plant her hands onto the table, peering over the rest of the table with an intense gaze.
"There's no way to put a pretty face on it," Mami said, "but we kept it secret in the hopes that the problem could be disposed of quietly, without anyone having to know about it. We've all been around the block a couple of times—I'm sure you all understand that things would be much cleaner that way."
"Of course you would say that," a girl far down the table said, slamming her palm down and standing up. "This is yet another example of you Ancients running the organization like your own damn fiefdom."
Kyouko put one hand to her forehead as the room erupted immediately into a cacophony of protests and shouting.
Snippets of what was being said passed through her mind:
"You wouldn't even be here if some of the idiots in here hadn't wanted 'fresh blood'! I swear—"
"You don't have the right to talk to Mami‐san like that—"
"You mean the one who doesn't ever even show up?"
"—these secrets the senior members are holding back from the organization. And about grief cubes, no less! The people who do the farming have the right to know—"
"Oh, please! Like you've killed any demons recently—"
"Does Mami‐san actually believe the records the military gave her? What they told her? They're leading her around by the nose, and I can't believe she's falling—"
At the senior end of the table, Kyouko watched Mami stand impassively, but bemused, as if remembering just why she and Kyouko attended the Committee meetings so infrequently. Mila Brankovic, the girl who had started this cacophony, was a rising star on the MSY political scene, at least insomuch as it was possible to crack the ranks of the Leadership Committee with its rotating body of Ancients. Some said she was a fiery idealist, dead set on deossifying the MSY. Kyouko conceded she might have been biased, but from her perspective it seemed more like Mila was exceptionally skilled at getting everyone at each other's throats.
Which was a useful political trait in its own right, Kyouko well knew, surveying Mila from a distance, watching her shout into the fracas, forehead impressively matted with virtual sweat.
An extremely loud screeching noise, akin to fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, startled Kyouko into looking up, and similarly froze everyone else in the room.
"Enough of this!" Clarisse van Rossum said, as the startlingly deep lines she had gouged into the wood of the virtual table disappeared.
Now standing, she peered over the table.
"We have spent too long discussing problems, and no time at all discussing solutions. What exactly is it the Committee wishes to do, other than what is already being done?"
She glanced around, and when no one immediately responded, continued:
"Well, I have some suggestions, though I can't promise they're good. First, regarding the more pressing grief cube issue, I propose we form a new subcommittee specifically devoted to the topic. That would be a lot more transparent than having a few Ancients at the top trying to deal with the issue, which is the only real alternative. I know what everyone thinks about having more committees, but we've had it work in the past, and frankly a committee with a broad range of membership would be the only way everyone would stay in the loop."
A murmur passed through the Committee as they considered the idea, and Clarisse gestured broadly at the assembled leaders.
"Of course, none of this precludes doing things on your own, as long as you're careful not to breach secrecy too much. In fact, for something like this, I suspect the input of the various Matriarchies might even be appreciated, since they have resources MSY proper doesn't have access to, in the same way as the Church of Hope."
Kyouko felt herself looking at Clarisse in—confusion? Puzzlement? She wasn't sure, but instead of finding herself respecting Clarisse's temerity and diplomatic savvy, she found herself—
She found herself realizing that this was the role that Mami normally played, and that instead Mami was simply standing near the head of the table, facial expression strained.
She can't take the bullshit anymore, Kyouko thought. That must be it. It happens.
"In addition, regarding the topic of the possible attempt to assassinate Miss Sakura, I'm not sure we have enough evidence yet to devote tremendous resources solely to that," Clarisse said. "However, perhaps we could form a special committee for everything that happened on this rogue colony. Certainly it is a matter worth discussing, since it has been a long, long time since we have seen crimes of this scale pertaining to us in particular. Especially involving an organization Kyubey tells us is still out there somewhere."
She looked over the table again, as both her ideas appeared next to her, written as two bullet points hovering in the air above the table.
"Finally, I think it is long past time that we assigned special protection to the senior members of the MSY. I understand that we are generally difficult to kill, but no state has ever allowed its leaders to travel without protection, not counting Governance. We should at least do this for the duration."
"You mean bodyguards," Kuroi Kana said, eyeing Clarisse carefully.
"Yes, I mean bodyguards," Clarisse said.
"This has been proposed before," Kana said. "But that was during the War, when it was necessary, and it was abolished when the danger passed. None of us like the idea of being surrounded by security. This is surely not a crisis worthy of the same precautions as a global war."
Kana clasped her hands on the table.
"I like your other ideas, but this seems like an overreaction. Many of us even have other, private sources of security. If it is felt that Miss Sakura in particular needs additional security, then the Kuroi clan, for one, will be happy to provide."
"As would we," Shizuki Sayaka interjected.
"Which is precisely the problem," Clarisse said. "I doubt any of us who don't have our own independent security teams would really be okay with accepting security from those who do. It raises questions of independence and motivation. A professional protection service, rooted in the Soul Guard, would eliminate those questions."
"With all due respect, Clarisse, I don't think that's necessary yet," Kyouko said, without getting up from her chair. "I don't want it said that we started giving everyone bodyguards just because someone tried to kill me once. It's not like they even got that good a shot off."
"You lost a hand. I'd say that's a pretty good shot," Clarisse said.
"Only because I lost my cool," Kyouko said, the hand in question twitching slightly as she wished for some food to hold. "It's not going to happen again."
"Didn't we agree this is all a pretty Rube Goldbergian idea anyway?" Mohana asked. "The idea that someone would set up a colony just to bait Miss Sakura into losing her cool and either killing an important prisoner or getting shot? It still all seems a bit much to me."
"Well, it's more that whoever orchestrated this whole thing saw the opportunity to get me involved and took it. I don't think the colony was solely for me. That'd be crazy."
Kyouko frowned slightly, remembering she could just summon food into the simulation on a whim. A moment later, a bowl of rum raisin ice cream appeared in front of her.
The matriarch Mohana shook her head.
"Still far‐fetched. If the Black Heart were to suggest a plan like that, it would never pass the plausibility test."
"I agree, it's not terribly plausible," Mami said, surprising Kyouko, who thought she had tuned out of the discussion entirely. "I just think it's a possibility to keep in mind. I have a feeling about it."
A moment of silence prevailed over the table.
"If that's the case, perhaps we should submit the question to the Far Seers," Kana said. "They may be able to glean something of value."
Kyouko heard Mami groan. Mami had never been fond of the MSY guild of clairvoyants, who had chosen a truly mystical name for themselves. They claimed that their more unusual members could glean facts obscured to everyone else, and tried to increase their prestige by quietly encouraging prominent magical girls to submit questions.
True to form, Mami almost immediately said:
"I've never really found them all that useful. For some reason, they're always misleading."
"But they're always right in the end," Yuma commented.
"Like a true Oracle," Mami said dryly. "Unfortunately, the true Oracle was never actually useful."
"It can't possibly hurt, Mami," Kyouko said, around a mouthful of ice cream. "It's not a bad suggestion."
Mami sighed, shrugging, and putting a hand to her head.
"Alright, fine. We'll see what they have to say. In the meantime, unless there's any objections, I'll second Clarisse's three proposals so we can put them up for a vote."
Mami glanced around the table, where it seemed like everyone had acquiesced. Kyouko wasn't surprised: subcommittees were easy to propose because they didn't resolve any of the actual conflicts, but still seemed like a step towards a solution. The real fireworks would wait until members were appointed to the committees.
"All in favor of proposal one?"
A clear chorus of ayes made it obvious that proposal one, to form a subcommittee for investigating the matter of the missing grief cubes and magical girls, passed easily. Proposal two, for the formation of a similar committee to investigate occurrences on the colony X‐25 and the ghostly organization the Incubators suggested had backed them, also passed easily.
Proposal three, though, for the establishment of a protective service for senior MSY officers, clearly failed, and Kyouko saw Clarisse shrug her shoulders. It wasn't that important.
Kyouko watched Mami sigh slightly, knowing what was to come.
"Alright, I think in the interests of speed, we should now decide who to appoint…"
What seemed like an interminable time later, Kyouko opened her eyes, blinking as the lights in her cabin grew softly brighter. It felt odd, not having someone by her side, but since she ended her last relationship she simply hadn't felt the impetus to go prowling for someone to share her bed with.
It simply made for a more pleasant experience, being able to exit a long and tiresome simulation with the knowledge that you would immediately have someone next to you that you could snog.
Kyouko sighed, postponing separate requests from Kuroi Kana and Shizuki Sayaka for a post‐meeting meeting. Whatever the topic, it could wait, and she simply wasn't all that interested in being followed around by a Matriarchal security detail. That "security" usually comprised a combination of bubbly house scions on their first assignment and plain‐clothed agents trying to blend in with the surroundings, painfully obvious to anyone of Kyouko's age and powers. She really wasn't sure what the point was, given that she could probably have taken them all on single‐handedly, but she supposed it made some people feel more secure. All the veteran girls of any real value were off doing something more important, of course.
Anyway, it wouldn't even have been that hard to find someone to serve as company. The local networks in any sizably populated area were always jammed full of people "seeking bed partners", and Kyouko had enough of a reputation that some girls would jump at her. Hell, if she really wanted, she could have accepted one of the matriarchs' offers of security, then immediately tried to seduce her security detail. It's what she would have done just a year or so ago.
She looked down at her hands. As a rule, she tried to take things on an even keel, refusing to allow herself to be shaken by events, but she couldn't deny that the past month or so had taken its toll on her. Much of what had gone wrong on X‐25 had been undeniably her fault, or at least her responsibility. She was the one who had gotten hot‐headed at all the wrong times, and the one who had let her past get to her at the critical moment. She had lost Shizuki Ryouko her body, and even though that would have happened eventually anyway, she still felt guilty.
She was still avoiding the real issue. She sensed that her year‐long relationship with Maki had changed her, in a way none of her previous flings had. She had told herself—and Maki—otherwise, but a part of her had started to dream of something different.
She shook her head at herself. She could only imagine how much Yuma would laugh at her. For it to turn out that she had just needed to hold the door open a little…
As if on cue, her train of thought was interrupted by someone at the door. She looked up, wondering for a moment who would come to her room unscheduled, before simply checking the summons and seeing that it was, of all people, Atsuko Arisu, therapist to the stars.
She sighed, and signaled the door to open, getting up to head for the sitting room of her cabin.
She found the woman—and it was woman, not girl—perched on the edge of her couch, part of the generic couch and coffee table set that graced the sitting rooms of every shipboard cabin. On ships larger than frigates, the ratio between the number of crew and the available space was high enough that even the lowliest technician warranted their own private cabin with the basics, though you had to be important to get anything more than that. Of course, the more permanent denizens personalized their cabins to their hearts' content.
Kyouko didn't really mind the sparseness. To be honest she rather preferred the simple furniture to the ubiquitous self‐assembling smartblocks of Earth.
"So what brings you here?" Kyouko asked, sitting down next to Arisu. "I wasn't even aware you were on this ship."
The ship in question was the cruiser HSS Sun Zhong Shan, one of the ships returning to heavily settled space from the X‐25 system now that they were no longer needed.
"I just got here," Arisu said. "Docked an hour ago. I've been doing the rounds, checking up on my favorite patients. Last stop was Mami‐san, though she's never excited to see me."
"I'm not really excited to see you either," Kyouko deadpanned, half a joke, half brutal honesty.
"I know. None of you old ones are. Personally, I think it's because I remind you of unpleasant truths."
Kyouko looked at the woman apprehensively, trying to turn it into a glare but not really succeeding.
"I heard about what happened at the rogue colony, of course," Arisu said, raising a cup of coffee to her lips. She hadn't asked Kyouko, of course; she had simply helped herself to the synthesizer on the way in, which was a habit Kyouko had difficulty criticizing, since she had done it herself on a number of occasions.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Arisu asked, tilting her head slightly.
"Not really," Kyouko said.
Arisu set the coffee back into its dish with a clatter.
"We're all entitled to our neuroses," she said, looking at Kyouko. "There isn't really anything negative to say about your childhood trauma giving you a bit of a reaction to cults and cult paraphernalia."
"Personally I tend to think neuroses keep us interesting, going into our old age," Kyouko said, just to be contrary. "Not all of us can be like Clarisse."
"Clarisse isn't exactly neurosis‐free either, you know," Arisu pointed out.
"Don't tell me; it will ruin my image of her," Kyouko said, aware that this kind of playful banter was out of character for her.
Arisu raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment directly.
"Physician‐patient confidentiality. Anyway, in my profession we're usually inclined to let this kind of thing, or even worse, slide as long as it doesn't hurt anyone," Arisu said.
"Like that girl who talks to buildings," Kyouko said, smiling thinly as she interrupted deliberately, refusing to let Arisu build up conversational momentum.
"I'm not actually sure she's really crazy."
"The point is it doesn't matter."
Kyouko shook her head, not at Arisu's last sentence specifically, but at the topic as a whole.
"Look, I admit my issues played a role in what happened on X‐25. What can I say? It's not like this is going to start a new trend of 'Kyouko going crazy'"—she made air quotes with her hands—"every week. The circumstances were unique."
"I hope so," Arisu said, shaking her head a little. "I'm not asking you to suddenly be okay with what happened to you as a child. That would be completely unreasonable, as I said. I'm just asking you to be a little more aware of when your own judgment might be impaired and just step aside, or talk to someone."
"Are you saying I shouldn't have gone on the mission?"
"No, that was reasonable. I'm saying you should maybe have ceded leadership once it became clear what was going on. There was certainly enough veteran leadership on that team besides you. That much self‐awareness is a lot to ask, but I think it's not unreasonable for someone of your age."
"I let them overrule me when they all disagreed with me," Kyouko said. "I think I did the right thing there."
"And you wandering off on your own at the end of the mission? That was clearly a bad idea, and you did it anyway."
"No one stopped me. Look, I don't want to say I'm not at fault, but if I was suffering a failure of judgment, it was someone else's job to stop me. The definition of failure of judgment is that I won't realize I'm failing."
Kyouko stopped leaning forward, realizing that over the course of their rapid back‐and‐forth she had leaned close enough to Arisu that they were literally breathing on each other's faces.
She took a breath, then stood up.
"Look, do you mind if I get myself some food?" she asked. "It keeps me calm."
"Your tics are your own."
There was a moment of silence as Kyouko stepped over to the edge of the room where a small dining table nestled in an alcove, with a synthesizer set into the wall.
"You know, I'm not here to give you a hard time about what happened on X‐25," Atsuko said to her back as she decided what she wanted. "I just brought that up because it was clearly topical."
Kyouko waited to see if Atsuko would continue, but the woman didn't.
Kyouko sighed quietly. That meant Atsuko wanted Kyouko to be sitting and facing her for the conversation, which was never a good sign.
The door in the back of the synthesizer slid open, and a plate of nachos slid forward from the mysterious guts of the machine. There were perks to living in the future—a young Kyouko would have killed to get her hands on that kind of technology, and Kyouko distinctly remembered spending the days after getting her first in‐home synthesizer alternating between eating mounds of food and sleeping off the consequent food coma.
"You know, if there's one thing I'm impressed by about synthesizers, it's the tomatoes," she said, setting the plate down on the table in front of Arisu. "I never really noticed when I was young, but unless you bought the artisanal stuff, they were really shoving some shitty tomatoes at you. Now my nachos always come with great tomatoes."
"Uh‐huh," Arisu said, clearly not impressed by the comment.
Well, she was too young to really understand.
Kyouko sat, biting into a chip, savoring the melted combination of blue cheese, bacon, scallion, and diced tomatoes. Not exactly straightforward nachos, but she had learned to live a little in her long life.
"I want to talk about Kishida Maki," Arisu said finally.
Kyouko cringed. She had known this would come up.
"Your pattern of behavior has changed recently," Arisu said. "After your previous relationships ended, you were always right back on the dating and casual sex scene. Not this time. This time, I come here to find you sitting quietly alone in your cabin. That's not like you."
Kyouko wanted to counter that she had, in fact, been in a critical top secret meeting, but the first rule of top secret meetings was that you didn't talk about top secret meetings, so instead she shrugged and said:
"I'm not even going to ask how your nosy spies know any of that. I just need a break, you know? Seems normal enough."
"Not for you. I haven't seen you 'take a break' in centuries. Major changes in behaviors are usually considered a flag."
She continued to focus on her chips, saying:
"What are you getting at? You think I might be suicidal?"
"Don't be coy," Arisu said into her ear, like a guilty conscience. "You know the MHD is the best psychology service in the world, and that's without the mind‐reading. And I'm good at my job."
"You've always been afraid of entering a serious relationship, or allowing yourself the risk of being hurt emotionally, so you refused to ever treat any of these relationships seriously. You allowed yourself to indulge with Maki—and don't think I don't know what she looks like—and then she tried to leave and join a combat mission. You couldn't bear the chance she might get hurt, so you tried to end it there. That's why you broke up, and that's why you've refused to visit her."
"But you spent too long with her, long enough that you now feel something for Kishida Maki, something you haven't felt in a long time. That's the other reason you're doing it, but it's too late, isn't it? Is your behavior really proper for someone of your age, sleeping with someone of hers? At fifty, at a hundred, it is acceptable to toy with the hearts of others, because you don't know better. Not at your age."
"It gnaws at you, and you know that by doing what you're doing you're just inflicting your broken heart upon her. Should she really suffer for your pain?"
Kyouko snarled, raising a hand to strike the other girl, before managing to suppress the instinct, dragging arm back down with sheer willpower. Arisu was too experienced to be fazed.
"I didn't know therapists were in the business of enraging clients," Kyouko growled.
"Everything I said is true, even if you can't accept it yet," Arisu said. "Most people outgrow their first love, but you never did. This is your neurosis, but with the leadership role you have, you can't have it anymore. We've learned from what happened to Akemi‐san. We have to close the books on these kinds of things while we can."
"Eternal life gave you the ticket to be eternally young, to live your life in the memory of those long gone. Your mother and your sister and Miki Sayaka—"
"Get out," Kyouko growled.
"They would want you to move on," Arisu said, ignoring her. "In your heart of hearts, you know this. Go visit Kishida‐san. You've broken her heart, and you know it."
Kyouko closed her eyes, grinding her teeth painfully.
She clasped and unclasped her hands, staring at the other girl, then shook her head and gestured for the other girl to leave.
"Good talk," Kyouko said finally, meeting the therapist's eyes.
She wasn't sure if she was being ironic or not.
"It's my job," Arisu said. "I hope you think about what I said."
Then the woman turned on her heel and strode out the door, almost making it a march.
Kyouko watched the door slide closed behind her, and sighed.
She had Church business to conduct, but maybe she would just lie in bed in a pool of self‐pity instead. That sounded like the right thing to do.
Nakihara Asami held the soul gem in her hand, studying its light for a long moment. On one level, there seemed to be nothing particularly special about the pale green glow, its radiance suppressed to save energy. The cage of the gem was gold, but the gem itself might have been mistakable for an unusually large emerald, were it not for the obvious self‐luminescence.
Looking into the gem itself, she could see…
She squinted. Ryouko's soul gem looked…
Like the Goddess's eyes.
The revelation struck her subtly, the thought slipping through her mind like water, so that it took her a moment to even process that she had experienced a revelation.
How did she know what the Goddess's eyes looked like? She had never seen the deity's face in her vision. Only suggestions, hints, impressions that resonated on a level deeper than vision.
There were infinite worlds embedded in the Goddess's eyes, which were like multifaceted gems with so many facets that… that…
She didn't know how to describe it beyond that, only that she could see something similar in Ryouko's soul gem. Was this what souls looked like?
The natural thing to do would have been to summon her own soul gem and compare, but somehow she didn't want to learn what her own soul looked like. Indeed, she was starting to feel like she had invaded Ryouko's privacy by staring into hers like that.
She set Ryouko's soul gem on the nightstand next to her bed, the bed she and Ryouko had bought for this apartment when they first moved to Eurydome. Asami had chosen it carefully, since she had expected—hoped—that they would sleep on it for a long time. Now it just felt empty.
Ryouko's CubeBot, which had made the trip back to Eurydome with Asami, stirred to life, stepping off of Asami's own drone to scurry over to the soul gem. It scanned the gem one last time with its front eye, then began removing grief cubes from the container on its back with a single robotic arm, while Asami's CubeBot turned its eye to watch curiously.
Asami smiled at the drones, reflecting that whoever the CubeBot designers had been, they had known their jobs. The drones were designed to be quietly adorable, turning routine grief cube use sessions into something that could cheer up the teenage girls that owned them.
It had surprised Asami that she would be entrusted with Ryouko's soul gem, which she had expected to travel to its final destination automatically. Ryouko's clone was going to be revived on Earth, with its more advanced facilities, rather than Eurydome, as would be more typical. Something about unusual genetics.
It had been Sakura Kyouko herself who had handed the gem to her, telling her that, at the moment, there could be no safer place for it than with Asami.
She tried not to dwell on the sense of foreboding that had accompanied that conversation, waiting a moment for the CubeBot to finish its job, before picking the gem back up and converting it into a ring, one she wore on the same finger she kept her own ring—naturally, the ring finger. It felt pleasingly symbolic to her.
"It surprises me that you came back here," Kuroi Nakase said, appearing in the doorway of their room. "I thought for sure that you would go straight to Earth to wait for the revival."
Asami looked up.
"I would get there too early," she said. "In which case I might as well stop here first. It feels like home now."
Nakase turned her head slightly, and Asami could feel the implicit question in the woman's eyes.
Home? What about your parents, your home?
But Nakase did not ask.
"And there were some other people who wanted to come with me, so it seemed natural enough," Asami added.
"So I've heard," Nakase said. "It looks like we might have a few people staying here for the duration."
Asami peered at the other woman's expression, framed by the sunlight that shone through the hall windows, trying to read what the other woman was thinking.
"I'm surprised you didn't yell at me when I got back," Asami said. "You know, given the contents of our last conversation."
"Our last argument, you mean," Nakase corrected. "I got over it. None of this is your fault. If I'm going to get mad at anyone, it should be my sister."
"Speaking of which…"
"Yes, she'll be here soon."
Ryouko's mother turned away from her, facing the hall window for a moment.
"You know, it's really odd that they didn't move her clone to Eurydome after you two moved here. Even for unusual genetics, there's nothing that could be done on Earth that they couldn't do here. I had honestly expected that I could oversee the revival here, but I guess not."
Nakase paused for a moment.
"I sent a message to her father about it, and he doesn't understand it either. Apparently she just wasn't moved, even though he thought she would be. Well, he'll be helping to oversee the revival, then, so she'll be in good hands. No reason for me to rush back."
The woman turned her head towards the front door, tilting her head slightly.
"That'll be my sister," she said, disappearing from the door of the room. None of the usual mechanisms had warned Asami of anyone approaching the door, as they should have, but Asami knew not to question the mysterious ways of Ryouko's aunt. It was… just the way Ryouko's family was, just as Asami's was the way it was.
She stood up a moment later, waving aside her CubeBot, who had walked to the edge of the nightstand, presenting her a grief cube with two mechanical arms, eye upturned appealingly.
"Sorry, I'll do it later," she said, following Nakase to the door.
She nodded at Meiqing on the way out, and the girl nodded, looking a little awkward, perhaps bored, sitting on the couch of their sitting room. Meiqing had been given leave to travel back with them to attend Ryouko's revival, partly as a bit of a reward for her performance in the X‐25 mission, and partly because she was Ryouko's friend, and therefore probably a good idea to have around, for psychiatric reasons.
Nakase got to the front door before she did, meeting Nana and Sacnite as they arrived. Asami was abruptly confronted by the disparity between Nana and Nakase, one a girl her age, the other a woman much older. The family resemblance was there, but it was clear whose daughter Ryouko was. Indeed, it occurred to her that even though Ryouko and Nana definitely resembled each other, the resemblance had never been very striking. She had hardly even considered the matter.
For a moment, everyone else in the room became mere bystanders as the two sisters stared at each other, focusing their emotional energy and thoughts on each other to the exclusion of their surroundings.
"I'm sorry," Nana said, opening the conversation.
"Sorry for what?" Nakase demanded.
"Sorry I let that happen to her," Nana said, watching Nakase carefully. "I should have gone with her. I shouldn't have let her follow Kyouko‐san alone."
"That's not what you should be sorry for," Nakase said, directing an intense glare at her sister. "You should be sorry you lured her onto this mission in the first place. Everything would have been fine if you had just left well enough alone."
"I refuse to apologize for that," Nana said, looking back at Nakase levelly. "It was her right, and my right, to make these choices."
"What right have you to expose her to these risks at her age? She's barely begun to live her life, and here she is getting torn apart by lasers."
"I remember another girl the same age volunteering for those risks so her sister wouldn't have to," Nana growled.
Nakase reared backward, like a cobra dodging a strike.
"And you think that gives you the right to make these decisions for my daughter?"
"Please, both of you, calm down," Meiqing said, appearing at their side. "You can have this conversation later, but you're frightening Sacnite."
Asami blinked, as startled by Meiqing's intervention as Nakase and Nana were. She glanced at Sacnite, who had indeed started to hide herself behind Nana like a child. Somehow the decision had been reached that Sacnite would travel with them for now, for reasons they hadn't deigned to explain to her.
It had been easier than expected to dodge media attention towards Sacnite—it was trivial for Governance to give Sacnite a false identity in the nomenclator systems, and the expectation was strong that Governance would keep Sacnite in a military facility. Apparently not a single reporter had considered the possibility that she would be traveling anonymously with apparent civilians, even civilians who had already appeared in a propaganda video with the girl. Hiding in plain sight, as it were.
Nakase turned her attention towards Sacnite, assessing the girl with a long look.
Whatever it is they did to her to get her to believe in her false life, Asami remembered Nana saying on the trip over, they didn't do a very good job of it. She won't lose the memories entirely, but they fade faster every hour—soon, they won't seem like real memories at all, but a movie that happened to someone else. What will she have left? A few years of life in an underground bunker, worshipping an evil man. A child with the body of a teenager, the exact opposite of the rest of us.
Asami peered at Sacnite, and could see in her nervous expression that Nana had been right.
Nakase bent down slightly to pat Sacnite on the head, smiling pleasantly. Nakase and Nana looked at each other, sharing a look that Asami couldn't decipher.
"Well, come in," Nakase said. "It's going to be difficult to come up with bed slots for all these extra girls, but I'm sure we can manage."
Asami glanced over at Meiqing to see if she had any thoughts.
Meiqing response was merely to shrug.
Then, as a group, they all turned their attention back towards the front door.
"Someone else?" Nakase said. "I wonder who it could be."
"Yes, I understand that you are displeased with what has taken place, Shizuki‐san," Kyouko thought over the audio line, "but there was no way for anyone to anticipate what would happen."
Even after all these centuries, Kyouko still had difficulty saying Shizuki Sayaka's personal name. She always wondered if the Matriarch had noticed.
"A mentor is supposed to make sure her trainees don't die, at a minimum. Obviously, that's not always possible, but I would think someone of your age could keep her from getting killed by a malfunctioning gravity generator, or by a silly drone."
"And she didn't," Kyouko pointed out.
"We can't keep relying on you or someone else in her immediate vicinity to keep saving her from these incidents, Kyouko‐san," Shizuki said, in that voice that always annoyed Kyouko irrationally. "There is reason to think that whoever has been trying to kill you is also trying to kill her, and not taking precautions about such a valuable member of the family would go against our interests."
"I know, but a protection team? That just seems a little too much," she said.
"They can be discreet," Shizuki Sayaka said. "I won't insult Ryouko‐chan's intelligence by suggesting that they can operate without her noticing, but they can definitely stay out of the way."
Kyouko put a finger to her cheek thoughtfully. If she played her cards right…
"I wonder, do you think they could cooperate well with a Kuroi security team?" she asked.
"Definitely not—wait, is Kana‐san trying to assign a team too?
"Well, yes," Kyouko said pleasantly, smiling toothily. "I spoke with her just before this. I would think that double the security could only be better—"
"That bitch! Doesn't she know Ryouko‐chan is a Shizuki? She needs to learn to stay on her own turf."
"Well, you're going to have to tell her that yourself," Kyouko said, grinning wildly. "I couldn't get her to change her mind either. She already has a team on the way."
"Well, mine is also already on the way. I'll call her and sort out this foolishness."
"You do that," Kyouko said.
A moment later Shizuki Sayaka hung up and Kyouko could finally release the peals of cackling laughter she had stored up over the duration of the conversation, collapsing forward onto her desk on board the transport she was taking back to Earth. There wasn't very much she could ultimately do to improve the situation—both Shizuki and Kuroi were determined to bring in their security teams, and conflict was inevitable—but at least she could ensure the two of them had a nice, pleasant discussion. Kyouko just wished she could listen in.
You have Tomoe Mami waiting to talk to you, her TacComp reminded gently, a few seconds later.
"Ah right," Kyouko said out loud, drumming her hands on her desk happily. The conversation with Shizuki had been more invigorating than she could have reasonably hoped for, but she had kept Mami waiting too long. The girl was busy, after all.
"What's up?" she asked, picking up the call from Mami.
"Do you mind going into VR for this?" Mami asked politely. "It's not necessary, but I think it's a good idea."
Kyouko leaned onto her desk, closing her eyes in preparation for the VR transition.
A moment later she opened her eyes again, finding herself in what appeared to be Mami's office aboard HSS Zhukov, facing the other girl across her computerized wooden desk. The choice of venue surprised Kyouko—Mami generally preferred setting their informal meetings in one of two locations: the last apartment Mami had seriously lived in, or Café Salamander, the tea and coffee shop that had provided the ambiance for so many of their meetings, long ago in their youth.
"So what's up?" she asked Mami, who was watching her with an odd expression.
Mami signaled her to wait.
"Ah, there they are," Mami said, a moment later.
Just as Kyouko began to raise an eyebrow in bemusement, a third person appeared, complete with extra chair, followed by a fourth: Clarisse van Rossum and a girl she hadn't seen in person in a long time, Nadya Antipova.
There were a few murmured greetings, and then Chitose Yuma appeared in a fifth chair.
"Geez, you're all so slow," the waifish‐looking Yuma said.
"Not all of us can easily be in several places at once," Clarisse said absently, peering off into a corner. She seemed distracted.
All of it only added to Kyouko's surprise. Generally speaking, for a get‐together of Ancients like this, Mami should have loved reinvoking Café Salamander. Not to mention, Mami would generally give Kyouko advance warning of a meeting like this, instead of blindsiding it. Hell, Mami could have at least told her she was making all these people wait.
"All hands on deck, huh?" Kyouko commented, looking at Nadya. She was really the key here—Nadya might have been Clarisse's friend, but Clarisse had a lot of friends, of all sorts, and neither Mami nor Kyouko knew Nadya well. Mami wouldn't have included her without a very specific reason.
"There's been a development in the Misa Virani investigation," Mami said, clasping her hands on top of her desk.
Kyouko leaned forward towards Mami, as did the others.
"Have we finally found out who did this to her?" Nadya asked, her voice carrying a faint suggestion of unbridled rage.
"Not quite," Mami said. "Follow me."
Mami stood up from her desk, walking towards the doorway while gesturing at the others to follow. Kyouko shared a look with the others, but then shrugged and got up to follow Mami. It was odd that Mami was making them walk through the corridors of a virtual version of Zhukov, but presumably there was some reason for it.
"There's no need to make this a full VR experience," Mami commented, as they stepped out of her office into the hallway. "Check your internal maps."
They dutifully did so, discovering as they did that they were no longer in the residential sections of the ship, where Mami's office should have been, but were instead much closer to the hull, in one of the staging areas for MC teams assigned to Zhukov.
Kyouko glanced back over her shoulder. The doorway they had stepped out of had vanished.
"This is a recreation of the section of the ship we were storing Misa's soul gem in, based on internal surveillance around the time the gem was first delivered," Mami said, turning to face the rest of them. "That door over there is where we keep the soul gems awaiting revival."
Mami pointed at a door farther down the hallway. They craned their heads to look.
"I thought it might be more revealing to visit the area in VR, rather than stare at the holovideos for the hundredth time. We can do a walkthrough later, but I don't want to bury the lede here. The upshot is: You remember the interview with the soul mage that froze her soul gem in stasis?"
"Yes," Nadya said. "Nothing really enlightening about it, I would say."
"Mami, can you get to the point?" Nadya added after a moment, interrupting Mami, who had opened her mouth to speak. "This is an emotional issue for me, and I appreciate you giving me context, but what exactly are you trying to tell me?"
Mami looked down for a moment.
"Well, I didn't want to give you the wrong impression about how certain this is," Mami said. "To abbreviate, after the interview, the mage looked up some details about Misa Virani and her life, out of curiosity. Now she says there's no way the soul gem she put into stasis really belonged to Misa. She says she can see a little into the soul whenever she manipulates it, and whoever's gem she was working on had a very different personality. Someone very shy and meek. That doesn't sound like Misa."
The group of girls shared a moment of perplexed thought, before they grasped the implications of the statement.
"How sure is she?" Nadya asked.
"Well, she's very sure," Mami said. "Her explanation makes sense to me, insofar as it goes, and her ability to peer into souls is documented. I'm still very skeptical, though, because it just doesn't make sense."
Nadya shook her head in dismay.
"What the hell am I supposed to do with that?" she asked rhetorically. "I'm serious. I'm going to her funeral in two days, I've been planning it with her parents, and now you're going to tell me this? What do I do? What do I tell them?"
An awkward silence settled over the conversation. Among the five of them, Nadya was by far the youngest, despite her great age, and she had not seen what the others had, long ago in the age of war and conflict. Like the others, Kyouko felt a kind of sympathetic pain for Nadya, but there was nothing she could say. This was Nadya and Mami's conversation, a conversation between the grieving supplicant and her natural target of supplication, the leader who would naturally supervise the investigation and who in the ranks of the MSY had set herself apart as the nurturing mentor figure, the one who would take your troubles onto her increasingly overburdened heart.
Mami looked away from the other girl, and Kyouko could see that Mami was hiding the amount that the situation bothered her.
"Don't tell them anything yet," Mami said. "It's not certain enough; we don't know anything. But, I just thought… I just wanted to tell you."
"I…" Nadya began, before biting her lip, a gesture one would have never expected from someone of her age.
"I don't know," Nadya began again. "I do appreciate it. I… It's just that, since this war began, I've buried too many of my pupils. If she died heroically, it'd be one thing, but like this? And now she might be alive? I don't even…"
"I know," Mami said, and though her voice sounded empty, Kyouko knew what she was thinking of.
"I think it would be best for everyone if we got to the bottom of this," Clarisse said. "We must know what's going on. That's why we're here, right, Mami?"
"I wish I had more to tell you," Mami said. "But the situation is utterly perplexing."
"There was only a small time window in which it might have gotten switched. I brought the gem down here myself and placed it in the suspension queue."
"And the soul mage didn't get to it for another 67 minutes," Mami said. "It was low priority because you said you already suspended it a little yourself."
"Yes," Clarisse said. "I could have tried something more thorough, but I thought it was better to leave it to an expert."
"Is it possible someone just made a mistake?" Nadya said, making a clear attempt to focus on the facts. "If the two soul gems were similar…"
"I don't know," Mami said. "But we can try to find out. I'm taking us soul gem watching. We're going to stand next to it, within the surveillance footage, and see if anything weird happens to it."
Mami turned away and started walking.
"Each magical girl's soul gem has a definite spectrum within the visible light range which is characterized at the first opportunity after their contract," Yuma commented, looking troubled. "Soul gems are kept sorted by the same system. It's not unheard of for two girls to have the exact same spectrum, at least within measurement error, but it's very rare, and the symbol at the crest of the soul gem is used as a secondary indicator. Plus, someone would have made a special note of it if two girls with the same symbol and spectrum managed to have their soul gems in the same queue."
"How many girls could there possibly be with the same symbol and color?" Nadya said, shaking her head.
"We checked for all of that," Mami said. "No one on record has the same symbol and color, especially not anyone whose soul gem might have been here."
"That makes no sense," Clarisse thought.
"Exactly," Mami agreed. "And the soul mage says the soul gem matched the description of Misa's soul gem."
There was a moment of silence as they all pondered the impossibility set in front of them. Kyouko, privately, decided she had been wise indeed to give Ryouko's soul gem to her girlfriend for safekeeping. After what had happened to Misa, she had… heightened paranoia. It seemed even more justified now.
Mami led them through the door she had gestured at earlier, which opened to reveal a rather ordinary‐looking, laboratory‐style room. A single white‐costumed girl stood at the bench, biting her lip and focusing her attention on a soul gem. A small pack of service drones attended to her, skittering along the top of the bench and the floor, a motley assortment of sizes, but all of them the same general design as the CubeBots that were issued to magical girls in the service.
Carefully spaced around the room were large, oddly cubical black boxes, about half a meter long on each side. Kyouko knew without having to look inside that the boxes contained soul gems and grief cubes, neatly arrayed so that each gem could easily dump corruption as needed, without over‐concentrating the grief cubes and risking some kind of demon spawn. The attendant magical girl would occasionally check the status of the grief cubes, and if one rack was starting to saturate, a drone would be summoned to replace a rack of cubes.
Efficient and automated. Kyouko was rather proud of it, even if it wasn't her own design. Once, as Director of Logistics and Grief Cube Supply, she had been obliged to help think of schemes like that. The design itself, old and reliable, dated back centuries—there wasn't really a compelling reason to change it.
The soul mage in the room ignored the party that had entered, as did the drones, one of whom was in the process of literally walking through Clarisse's legs. They were, after all, only viewing a recreation of events that had already occurred. Strictly speaking, the door shouldn't have even opened for them on the way in.
"So what exactly are we doing?" Nadya asked, peering around the room. None of them had to be told what the black boxes were.
"We're going to stand here, and watch what happens between Clarisse's arrival with the soul gem and the soul mage's first contact with the gem, to see if we notice anything the previous analysts didn't," Mami said. "Take a moment to look through the schematics of this room."
Kyouko dutifully did so, reading the information that Mami had sent them. Not too surprisingly, the ordinary‐looking nature of the room belied an extensive and thorough security and surveillance system, more than capable of detecting and neutralizing most intruders.
A moment later the door slid open and Clarisse van Rossum, the virtual version, stepped through the doorway. The soul mage and Ancient exchanged spoken greetings, the soul mage staying at her station, not even turning her head.
Clarisse turned towards one of the drones, which had appeared on the table next to her on arrival, and handed over the soul gem.
The party watched as the drone sealed the gem securely within its back, then stepped over towards one of the boxes. A rack of soul gems ejected itself, looking like a crate of bright, multicolored eggs. Finding an empty slot, the drone inserted the soul gem, and the box resealed itself.
"It's not terribly useful for us to watch it if it's going to be in that box the whole time," Nadya commented. "Anything could be happening in there."
"The storage boxes are too cramped to do much more than slide the racks in and out," Kyouko commented. "These are MSY design, for obvious reasons. There just isn't enough physical space to switch anything, unless the box was rigged somehow."
"We tracked the box down afterward," Mami commented. "It seemed perfectly normal. I've claimed it as evidence, just in case."
She waved her hand, and the black box turned partially transparent, showing a heavily obscured view of the soul gems within the box, focusing on the one of interest, though there was little to see but a blurred image.
"This is a computerized reconstruction," Mami said, "based on the emissions of the box. However, both grief cubes and flowing corruption are extremely dark, so dark they prevent us from seeing much more than this."
"To be precise, they are perfectly dark," Yuma said, bending over to squint at the blurred soul gems. "No measurement ever taken has ever detected any reflection or emission. Not even black‐body radiation. They don't even transmit vibrations. Impossibly dark sinkholes that violate thermodynamics, though I doubt any of you are surprised by that."
"I'll fast forward it," Mami said. "Otherwise we'll be here for an hour watching."
"I might want to watch the whole thing," Nadya commented, sounding worn out. "But maybe later. Go ahead."
They stood over the box of soul gems for a long five minutes, watching as drones skittered back and forth over around the area, occasionally ejecting a rack to deposit a new soul gem or withdraw one for the soul mage's attention. On two occasions, the rack containing what should have been Misa's soul gem was ejected, and they got a clear look at it.
Finally, the rack was ejected a third time, the iridescent gem gingerly removed from the casing and handed by the drone directly to the waiting soul mage, who went immediately to work.
"Nothing," Yuma said.
"I have to agree," Clarisse said. "Obviously a surveillance recreation has its limits, but I didn't see any signs that the soul gem could have been replaced or confused with another. Of course, we couldn't really see inside the box…"
"Is it possible the drones are rigged?" Nadya asked. "How do we know they aren't switching gems inside their cavities or something?"
"We thought of that," Mami said, "but unlike the grief cubes, the drone bodies do let some radiation through—enough to get a general idea if there's something glowing inside. Everything is in order."
Mami looked down for a moment.
"It's possible the soul mage was just wrong," she said.
Kyouko chewed on her lip. She felt responsible for the design of the gem storage box—it just hadn't ever occurred to her or her subordinates that it would be necessary to see inside the box, especially not with conventional surveillance equipment.
"Let's look over those two times the gem was ejected in more detail," she said. "Maybe something will be obvious the second time around."
Mami waved her hand, and the world flashed, zooming immediately to the first time the rack had ejected. This time the action happened in slow motion, the soul gem grid sliding gradually out of the box as a drone peered down from above. They leaned over the arrangement, and Kyouko tried to clear her mind, looking for something other than the obvious. Not just the obvious motion of the gems, or the drone reaching down, but anything else.
Eventually, the rack slid fully back into the box, and Kyouko let out a breath. Nothing.
"Let's try the next one," Mami said.
This time, Kyouko stopped the simulation halfway through, pointing down at the gem.
"That wasn't there before. Have any of you seen that before?"
It took the others a moment to see what she was talking about.
"That speck of darkness in the middle of the gem?" Clarisse said. "That's odd, given how many grief cubes it's soaking in."
"The accumulation of grief inside a soul gem can take many forms, but I don't think I've ever heard about anything quite like this. I'm not sure it means anything, though."
Yuma glanced up at the ceiling for a moment.
"Checking the records, there aren't any recorded instances of anything similar, but it's not like everyone's soul gems are monitored constantly. This kind of thing is difficult to have as a topic of study, for obvious reasons. I'm initiating an automated check of whatever surveillance records we have, though."
Mami nodded, then waved her hand to continue the simulation.
A while later, they checked the soul gem on its final withdrawal from the rack. It no longer had the speck of oddly concentrated grief.
Mami shook her head.
"Still nothing, really," she said. "Unless that grief anomaly means something."
"It might," Yuma said. "After all, the soul gem supposedly spontaneously failed later."
"Yes, but it's gone now. I just queried the automated systems: it doesn't show up again afterward, either."
"Still, it might be worth following up," Yuma said. "We should ask the soul mage if she detected anything similar."
"I'll do that," Mami said, nodding.
Nadya stood up a bit straighter.
"If you don't mind, Tomoe, I want to stay here for a bit longer."
"I understand, of course," Mami said.
Kyouko tried to slam her fist into the table next to her and failed, her fist slipping through the incorporeal table.
"Damn it," she said, not acknowledging her embarrassment at failing to hit a table. "I thought we might be onto something."
"Investigations are frustrating," Yuma soothed. "Mami, do you mind if I interview this soul mage myself? I know a little about the subject, and it will help me judge how likely she is to be mistaken."
"I'd like to join in," Nadya added.
"Of course," Mami said.
Mami paused for a moment.
"I'm sorry, but I have other obligations," she said. "I need to go."
"Honestly, I should too," Clarisse said.
Yuma nodded along.
One by one the three of them disappeared from the simulation back to their own lives.
Only Nadya and Kyouko remained.
Kyouko set the simulation back to the second ejection. She bent down, abolishing the incorporeality and picking up Misa's supposed soul gem, allowing the simulation to simulate the result.
For a moment the two of them stared into the light of the soul gem, which lacked the nuances no recording could ever reproduce.
Even so, Kyouko saw for a moment Sayaka showing her a blue soul gem, tainted, and darkened.
It was a memory she had played back many times. For a blurry moment, though, she couldn't tell who she was looking at—Sayaka, Maki, Misa, or… someone else.
Then she blinked, and the moment passed. It was just a simulated soul gem again.
"I'm sorry about what happened to her," Kyouko said, trying to look Nadya in the eye. "We'll get to the bottom of this."
Nadya didn't answer.