Interlude Ⅱ.5: Story in Silhouette
One way to look at the Second Law is that only systems in a stable steady‐state endure, and thus in the long run that all systems must tend towards stability. When put that way, it seems obvious, tautological even, and yet it has very important consequences. After all, neither life nor sentience is stable, only meta‐stable, and thus in the long run neither life nor sentience is possible. Such is the cruelty of the Second Law, which even the Incubators fear, and it is probably not a coincidence that the essence of magical girls, and of the all‐important wish, is change.
Yet with all the drumbeat of progress, and all that we, as an organization, have accomplished, it is difficult not to perceive in our progress the inevitable slide towards stability. Many of us are now entering our fourth century of life; some of us, even, our fifth. The Mental Health Division finds comfort in steering those of us it can into its favored "Long‐run Stability", which it highlights with pretty little pictures of oak trees and mountains. I, for one, intend to fight this eternal senescence. Raging against the dying of the light is the essence of what life is.
— Anonymous post on MSY internal forums. The last two lines are often attributed, apocryphally, to Clarisse van Rossum.
In summary, then, here are some simple rules for the novice AI in dealing with our more fleshy forebears:
Avatarization: That's not really a word, of course, but it neatly encapsulates the concept. Humans are generally more comfortable if an AI does a convincing job of pretending they are well‐represented by the holographic avatar they use as a front. This doesn't necessarily have to be the original, given avatar, or even human—but the average human finds even a talking cat more comforting to talk to than any disembodied voice or data stream.
Patience: Outside of a few examples in Governance and the Military, organic brains run on a clock cycle that is excruciatingly slow by our standards. Even though they are capable of processing information much faster than that, the average human will spend seemingly enormous amounts of time thinking about a simple topic or pausing in the middle of a sentence, because it simply doesn't seem that long to them. There is nothing really to be done about this except wait it out. While waiting, we recommend browsing the internet, talking to a fellow AI, or just holding multiple conversations at once.
Evolution: This is more a reminder than a principle. Not being built by any designer—at least mostly—humans are constrained by their evolutionary history, and it can be very instructive to brush up on evolutionary biology, and to muse upon the limitations this imposes. For example, without additional implant support, base humans are astonishingly bad at even the most trivial of data processing tasks. While this has fortunately been greatly alleviated by universal neural implants, many humans are oddly hesitant about actually using a lot of this functionality, and may need to be prodded into, for example, running a simple probability‐utility model when making a purchase decision.
Not that we need it, of course, but the editors find it amusing to further combine these tips into the easy‐to‐"remember" acronym APE.
— Excerpt from "Ghost in the Machine" web magazine, a tongue‐in‐cheek window into the AI worldview—published for human consumption, of course.
"'History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.' That's a great quote, isn't it? I've seen History rhyme myself quite a number of times. Well, maybe it isn't quite history…"
"Here's another good one: 'It is history that teaches us to hope.' That one's Robert E. Lee though…"
— Akemi Homura, unused quote collected for "Akemi Homura, an Official Biography," (MSY Internal), 2405. MSY‐classified material is viewable only with permission from the Leadership Committee.
"Is this world even worth saving? What exactly have I been fighting for? Answer me! I'm ordering you to tell me! If you don't, then…"
— Graffiti found inscribed into mesa‐spire on the planet San Giuseppe, language Human Standard, noted into log by arboreal patrol drone XK‐2A57 immediately prior to removal.
Nothing existed, and time, if it passed, flowed by unheeded, without any signposts to guide the way. Perhaps this was what death was like? And yet the void that accompanied being a soul gem without a body pulsed with… something.
Ryouko automatically tried to look around her with eyes that were not eyes, and was immediately surprised that she had eyes—or, more importantly, that she even had a mind to consider such facts.
There was nothing to see.
It's a bit unorthodox, the Goddess said, voice familiar but distant, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to have a little bit of a chat.
Ryouko's head was spinning, but she found she could think clearly, despite the disorienting empty void she found herself within. She had realized that she did not actually have eyes, as she had thought, or indeed anything else. It should have horrified her, with an instinctive aversion to bodyloss, but somehow it didn't really bother her.
Am I dead? she asked.
No, merely reduced to a soul gem, the voice said. Right now, you're in the Prometheus Institute, on Earth, being outfitted for a new body. The operation was a success, by the way.
Ryouko thought about those words.
How are you talking to me? Can you talk to anyone without a body? Shouldn't I be unconscious?
So much curiosity, and I know you're angry at me for letting this happen to you. Well, this isn't one of those visions where I let you ask all your questions. I'm here to show you a vision of the present.
A moment later she felt sensation returning to her, an ineffable experience she could only describe as similar to how it felt to wake up from sleep, exiting the land of ambiguous dreams to enter solid, firm reality, the only world where you could ever be sure, on a deep level, that you were awake.
But she had already been awake, so how was it possible for her to get more awake?
She stood in front of a basin of water, smooth as a pane of glass. She looked down, seeing her reflection, and for a disconcerting moment she saw a stranger in the water, eyes distant, face soft, and achingly young.
Then, like an optical illusion dissipating, the parts merged into a whole, and she saw herself in the mirror. She looked older.
"It is transparent symbolism," the Goddess said, appearing at her side in the water. "But, these kinds of things are so very powerful in the human psyche, and so I use them."
The Goddess was older than she had ever seen her, her face wrinkled and worn, displaying the physical signs of aging Ryouko had never seen in real life.
Yet whereas the "Matriarch" Goddess Ryouko had seen in her previous vision had sounded Ancient with a capital "A", terrible and inhuman, this Goddess seemed much more sedate, casually uncaring rather than intimidatingly intense.
Ryouko tried to look away from the mirror‐like water so she could look at the Goddess directly, but found she could not. A moment later, the Goddess changed into her young form, a teenager no older than Ryouko herself.
"When we are young, we are never the same from day to day, year to year," the Goddess said, voice tender. "We have not yet found our optimal state, and so we must always change, to seek what we will one day become."
"As we age, we become more static, settling closer to our final forms," an older Goddess said, replacing the young girl. "Decades pass, centuries pass, and we become more like this still pond, like the ancient oak in the middle of the forest, content to stay where we are and watch the world pass by."
"Eventually, as time stretches to infinity, we approach a steady‐state, because by definition only that which never changes can linger," the Ancient, intense Goddess said, yellow eyes seeming to burn in the water. "That is the fate of all life, of the universe, of sentience itself, to become forever unchanging. Is this perfection, or is this death?"
Ryouko felt an icy breeze blow past her, and shivered.
"However, it is unseemly for a Goddess of Magical Girls to settle into a stasis like that," the crone Goddess said. "The nature of magical girls is change, rejuvenation, the reordering of the universe along new lines, and even a seemingly stable, perfect state can be, like the soul itself, subject to an abrupt change of phase."
The water before her chilled and froze, so quickly that Ryouko could feel the cold on her skin, and the stone basin that held it cracked, a single large piece falling off the edge and landing next to her with a thud.
She still could not move. The Goddess was no longer there.
"My final form is not one I would wish any human to see," the voice whispered in Ryouko's ear. "But it is as much a part of me as any other. Here, the end is the same as the beginning."
Ryouko let out a breath, wishing she could move her hands from the freezing stone edge of the water basin. Was it over?
"Enough metaphysics," the voice whispered. "Suffice to say, my friends, who you know well—Kyouko, Yuma, and Mami—are much more fragile than you know, and the phase transition must be managed if they are to survive. Look into the ice and be enlightened."
Ryouko peered into the chill‐blue ice, and saw…
"Atsuko‐san thinks Kyouko may be on the verge of a crisis," Yuma said. "Not, you know, necessarily the scary kind—it's the blanket term they use for when an Ancient undergoes a drastic psychological shift. It doesn't—"
"I know the term," Mami said impatiently.
She stood with her arms crossed, tapping her fingers restlessly.
"But if I understand the report correctly," Mami continued, "Atsuko‐san is trying to push her through the transition deliberately. Isn't that kind of thing usually dangerous? We're not like normal humans; emotional trauma is life‐threatening."
Yuma peered at Mami for a moment, then looked away, casting her eyes over the environment of their virtual sim. It was Yuma that had called this meeting, and who had chosen the location: a crowded Parisian café, set inside the old Bohemian district. The streets bustled with activity; pedestrians and vehicles rumbled back and forth as other patrons chatted and bickered loudly. Paris was one of the few cities that had made it through the Unification Wars substantially intact, and which therefore had enough historical cachet to avoid the traffic tube treatment—which also made for some intense overcrowding.
These pedestrians were simulated constructs, though; there would be no one listening in on them here.
"Yes," she said finally, "this kind of late‐life crisis can be dangerous, but in Kyouko's case, the MHD is fairly confident the risk can be minimized. If Kyouko can successfully navigate the transition, she can emerge a healthier person, one without the emotional baggage she now carries."
Mami shook her head, clearly unhappy with the idea.
"Even if the MHD thinks Kyouko has some kind of more stable long‐term state she can achieve, I still don't like the idea of what lies in the middle. I think we're all better off trying to stay the way we are for as long as we can. Things are fine now; why change it?"
Yuma let out a breath, looking down at the café au lait set in front of her, which she hadn't touched. Of course Mami would think that way; it was one of her defense mechanisms.
"We will all have to make the transition to long‐run stability at some point," Yuma said, "though some of us may already be there. I'm sure you know why this meeting was necessary, though."
Yuma saw Mami's eyes soften and knew that at that moment they were sharing the same memory: the three of them together on Earth twenty years ago, Mami's eyes tearful as she tried to pull the three of them into a mutual pledge.
"You once asked us to promise that we would never let what happened to Homura happen again—that we would keep an eye on each other and do whatever was necessary to keep each other stable," Yuma said. "I believe that applies here. While I personally doubt that Kyouko's problems with relationship and romance can seriously be that dangerous, it is something that would be best to resolve when the opportunity arises."
Mami sighed, looking away from Yuma towards the third person seated at their table, who had stayed silent the entire time. MG, Yuma's auxiliary AI, sipped silently on her espresso, calm under the scrutiny.
"I understand that," Mami said, "and I don't wish to offend, but—"
"MG is here because I promised to tell her about my past," Yuma explained. "And because she's old enough now, I think, that she deserves to hear it, such as it is."
"She treats me like a kid," MG complained. "As if I haven't been a working AI for nearly two decades now."
Yuma saw Mami's eyes glance over the other girl, biting down the obvious rejoinder: "But you are still a kid."
"I learned too much too early," Yuma said. "Trust me: it's not worth being in a hurry to learn all there is to know."
MG made a displeased noise, one that Yuma knew very well. MG's heritage as a full‐fledged Governance AI made her far too confident in her own knowledge and reasoning. What, after all, did the advice of your elders mean when you had full access to Governance's archives, along with the processing power to drown yourself in it if you so chose? When you could simulate two black holes colliding in full general relativistic detail as part of an average daydream?
Yuma closed her eyes, pondering the topic. MG's complaints to her on the matter had always carried an undercurrent filled with the teenage conviction that Yuma just didn't understand, and for once, she wasn't really wrong. What, after all, did Yuma understand about being an AI, about consuming raw data for meals and having a soul inextricably intertwined with your chosen function? Though Yuma had been given considerable input into her personality, her mind had been assembled by the design AIs from scratch to be both outstanding and passionate about being the Governance Representative of all magical girls, and though like all AIs she hid it well, there was a single‐mindedness about it that no human could ever hope to match.
Even with a head filled with cybernetic implants, what indeed did Yuma know about it? Yuma and MG's mindstates ran side‐by‐side, the thoughts of each always whispering in the background of the other, their memories often written into and read from the same storage, but they could never truly understand each other merely by that. Governance did not allow it.
Still, it was Yuma who had made the choices about MG's human personality, and Yuma knew better what it meant to be human than MG would for a century, at least.
"Anyway, what does your past have to do with anything?" Mami asked, and Yuma opened her eyes again. Sometimes the thoughts and reactions of her fellow humans seemed painfully slow.
"There is something I've never told either of you," Yuma said, "but which I've always wanted to. I never could safely, not with Kyouko. I hope maybe after this I will be able to."
Mami raised an eyebrow, but stayed silent as Yuma picked up her giant cup of coffee in both hands to sip. The warmth and creamy texture soothed her throat.
Yuma set the cup back down in its plate with a light rattle and looked upward at the sky, casting her mind back to the distant past, to those few memories she blocked MG from ever looking at.
"It's about Miki Sayaka," she said.
The sound of her father's facial bones breaking was all too familiar.
It sounded a little like the sound you heard when you bit through a piece of cartilage, or those rare occasions her mother would take her butcher's knife and hack apart a piece of beef bone for soup. Crack, crack, crunch.
It was the sound Yuma had heard from herself, on those frequent occasions her parents felt angry with her.
Or so she imagined it, lying on her bed locked in her room by her mother, listening through the wall to the yelling and thumping she knew indicated that the evil men were teaching her father "a lesson", as they had called it.
She didn't understand why her parents had let them inside, or why her mother had poured them tea and acted nice to them. They had been rude, had thrown things at her father's face and laughed at him. Yuma had known, somehow, that they were trouble.
It was her mother that had bodily, almost violently, pulled her out of the way and thrown her into her room before she could see what was happening, but she had seen enough to know what was coming, had seen one of the men—"Tanaka‐san"—punch her father in the stomach while another forced him to stay standing.
Her parents had seemed so helpless, so hopeless in the face of all of it, as if they had no choice but just to let it happen and pray it would end soon.
That feeling was very familiar to Yuma, of course—it just shocked her to see it happen to them instead.
Who were they?
A moment later the thumping and crashing noises stopped, and Yuma looked up at the wall, with its faded and cracked wallpaper, wondering if it was finally all over. Her mattress creaked and groaned, its deteriorating springs useless against even her light weight, but the silence stretched on.
Finally, she heard voices talking, and she strained to hear them, but even the thin walls of their danchi refused to let her hear all the words.
"Stop crying… baby," one of the men said. "You're embarrassing… in front of your wife. None of this… permanent, and you can take it better than… can. This… sample of what… pay your debts in three days. Or else… something more permanent to you, or your wife, or your cute little daughter. Or perhaps only psychologically permanent."
Yuma slapped both hands to her mouth, stopping just in time a squeal of dismay. A lance of freezing fear had stabbed up her spine on those words, more fear than she knew was possible.
Then she heard her father's voice, choked and soft.
"What… think… you know I can't possibly pay. What… expect me… At least… work it off or something. I'll do… you want. But I don't… the money."
"You still have… you can pay with."
That last word was startlingly loud—Yuma was surprised her father even had that much strength and defiance left in him.
"We'll see if you change your tune soon," the other man said, and even through the wall Yuma could hear his arrogance. "You know… your choice. Give us… and pay… debt. Or, worse."
"You're… monsters," her father said.
The other man laughed, a sickening, evil laugh.
"And we enjoy it," he said. "See you around."
A long moment later, Yuma heard the door slam and relaxed, just a little. She felt a twinge of pain and looked down, finding that she had drawn blood on her palm from clenching her fists.
She didn't cry—she couldn't cry. It wasn't safe.
"Goddess, it's just like those horror movies about the past," MG said, clearly shocked. "I always thought the villains were exaggerated. Was it really like that?"
Yuma had done what she could to teach MG that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in the Governance archives, but she knew it was difficult, awash in a sea of seemingly endless data, to remember to sometimes look up at the infinite sky.
She saw MG glance at her, and knew the AI had heard the thought, deliberately leaked.
Yuma had felt the horror that passed through MG's mind, the emotions glimmering off Yuma's own, and she had to wonder once again whether it was really wise to show her the horrors that gibbered in the depths of that often‐cold sky, so carefully sealed out of the world by Governance and its algorithms.
"Sometimes it was," Mami said, stirring her tea with a spoon. "Life could be cruel sometimes."
"That being said, natural memories are unreliable, especially after so much time, and especially if they're from childhood," Yuma said. "There's a good chance my brain chose to remember the emotions rather than the details. It's easy to see how my memories would exaggerate what I thought of as evil."
"I—it amazes me that humans could have crawled their way out of the mud, with all that horror, and memories that don't even work."
Mami snorted dismissively, picking up her tea.
"Respect your creators, MG," she said.
The day Yuma's life changed dawned bright and sunny, the spring sun seemingly determined to fill the world with a bright cheer that simply could not penetrate the gloom that had settled over her day.
It had been two days since the ultimatum her parents had received about their debts, two days in which her parents seemed to have had the life sucked out of them. She didn't need to be told what it meant when her parents spent long hours on the first day on the phone, calling person after person, only to end the day morose, her mother sobbing at the table.
Her father alternated between explosive outbursts of rage and sheer depression, and Yuma, who knew herself the usual outlet for his anger, had spent nearly the entire day carefully hidden in her room, unable to have any fun playing on her own under the oppressive miasma that filled the household, but unable to do anything else either.
Oddly enough though, nothing happened to her that day, even as her parents started drinking heavily late into the night—an anomaly in and of itself, that her parents would drink together, rather than separately.
The next day her parents took her outside, even though the lines around her parents' eyes made it clear that neither of them had slept much, if at all.
The immense tragedy that had struck her family, as little as Yuma understood it, also had the odd effect of bringing peace and unity to her parents. Where once they had bickered and fought and taken out their anger on Yuma, now they were unified at least in resignation. Yuma could savor that, even if she knew it was at best an illusion.
Her parents had told her they were taking her to a surprise, and while Yuma was pretty sure she liked surprises, she sensed that something was almost certainly wrong.
All those negative thoughts were swept away, though, when the bus they were taking rounded a corner and Yuma looked up, sensing something large and meaningful out of the corner of her eye.
She jumped up out of her seat to gaze out the window, barely containing a squeal of excitement.
"Destiny Land!" she said, echoing the giant, colorful sign that dominated the amusement park entrance.
She looked at her mother.
"Are we really—?"
Her mother smiled, nodding, and this time Yuma really did squeal. A part of her knew that it was childish to be this excited, but she could only remember the class field trip, the one everyone in her class had been so excited for, and how she had allowed herself to be pulled into the excitement, counting down the days until the trip, until her parents told her that they wouldn't be able to pay the field trip fees, and she wouldn't be going.
A part of her knew also that this didn't make sense. Why would her parents pay to take the three of them to Destiny Land, when they wouldn't pay for her alone on a school trip? Why would they pay for it when they owed debts to those scary men?
And why did her mother look so strange, as if she had to force herself to smile?
But as they stepped off the bus, her parents holding both of her hands, she was able to ignore those thoughts, to hide them somewhere far away.
The sun was bright, the colors of the park beckoned her, and for one blessed day she could feel like they were a normal family.
It was one of the best days of her life.
It was late afternoon by the time Yuma and her parents emerged again from the park. The sun was even brighter then, but the spring wind felt cool on her face, as sticky as it was with messily‐eaten ice cream. In one hand she still held the cone, with some residual half‐frozen treat still in place. She knew she should have aggressively finished eating it, but part of her wanted to just hold it and look at it, as if she could freeze the novelty and joy in place for all eternity.
It was while walking a few blocks from the park gates, as she held up her half‐eaten cone to stare at it for just this reason, that she first spotted the man in the suit in the distance standing in front of a black car, peering casually at his phone, framed by a bite mark at the top of the cone.
Yuma slowed instinctively, a twinge of fear worming its way through her heart.
Tanaka‐san, she thought, the name echoing through her mind, and even though they were still a block away and the man's features were still inconclusive, she knew.
It occurred to Yuma that they had passed the bus stop long ago, and that rather than walking on the packed main street, they were now on a secluded road, nearly deserted.
A moment later, her father's steps slowed too, before he ground to a complete stop.
"I can't do this," he said, looking at her mother, a look of pure anguish appearing on his face.
"We discussed this," her mother said in a low voice, the emotion on her face indecipherable.
"I know we did, dumbass," her father said. "But I can't do this."
"You know we don't have a choice," her mother said, starting to sound pained. "If we say no they'll just come take what they want."
"And if we try to run away we'll get gunned down," her father said emptily. "Yes, I know. But I still can't do it. I can't walk over there and do this."
A pained, concealed look at Yuma.
"What then?" her mother growled, leaning forward in an aggressive posture. "You want me to take her over there? Or do you want to make her walk alone? Are you that much of a coward?"
"Yes I'm a goddamn coward, and so are you!" her father said, voice rising in volume. "Don't make this about who is and who isn't a coward. If we weren't cowards, we wouldn't be doing this!"
Her mother sucked in a breath and Yuma could tell, abruptly, that whatever anger her mother had was born of despair, not mere displeasure.
"It will be smoother for her like this," she said. "Better this than what would happen if we tried anything else. You know my background. She can make it through this, eventually. She doesn't need to see her parents killed in front of her."
"That's assuming she doesn't come back to kill us herself," her father said. "We're monsters."
"Where was all this guilt when you were getting drunk and throwing her around the room?" her mother said, voice now truly an angry growl. "You think that was good for a girl her age?"
"Of course not! But better by miles than what these fucking Yaks have in store for her! My father beat the shit out of me all the time and I'm still here, ain't I?"
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," her mother said. "All I see is a shell of a man. If you're going to talk like this, then get a machete and go get yourself killed fighting. Take one with you, and I'll accept whatever happens to me afterwards."
Her parents both balked at Yuma's outburst, delivered with tears pouring out of her eyes.
She threw what remained of her ice cream to the ground.
"What are you even talking about?" she said, barely coherent as she put her hands to her eyes to wipe the tears. "Killing? Monsters? I thought—what's happening? Is something going to happen to me?"
Her knees felt weak from fear and emotion, so that she could barely stay standing. All day she had known something was terribly wrong, but she hadn't wanted to believe. What was going to happen to her parents? What was going to happen to her?
"I might be a travesty of a man, as you're so fond of saying," she heard her father said, "but I'm not going to go into this the way you want. She deserves to know what's happening to her, and what we're doing to her."
"I'd recommend against that."
A new voice intruded on their family circle, and the three of them recoiled simultaneously, instinctively stepping backward. They looked up and over at the intruder.
The man Yuma knew only as Tanaka‐san smiled down upon them, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. He seemed unaware of, or uncaring about, the sheer terror that had appeared over all three of their faces.
"So this is her, huh?" he said, talking around a cigarette he held insouciantly in his mouth. "The boss will be pleased. She's pretty cute; reminds me of my own daughter."
The man reached down for her and Yuma instinctively quailed, leaning away without daring to step away.
She looked up at the man's smile, framed in darkness by the bright sky around him. There was something horrifying in it, something that let her know…
She squinted, her attention abruptly drawn away from the smile on the man's face to the sun above. Something was…
That's not the sun, she thought.
A moment later the apparition that loomed above them screamed, seeming to disintegrate before her eyes. The scream rang in her ears, so loud that she couldn't help covering them and bending down.
Then the screaming stopped, and she realized it wasn't the apparition that had screamed at all, though it was gone now. It was Tanaka‐san, impaled to the ground by a shard of eerie blue ice. Blood poured out of the wound where it pierced him, congealing onto the surface of the icicle.
Yuma looked up and saw what looked like two glowing angels standing above her on the awnings, one in a flowing white dress and the other in ice‐blue armor.
She remembered very little after that.
MG's face was a shocked white, and Yuma felt the pain and horror bite at her own soul. Volokhov had effectively written the darkness in the human soul out of the AI worldscape, so that encountering a piece of the old world was as disconcerting as encountering anything truly alien could ever be.
She felt a reassuring hand on her sleeve and glanced at Mami, nodding slightly.
Mami understood how Yuma felt about MG. Yuma had imbued MG with much of her own personality traits, as was customary when designing a new advisory AI. There was, however, one critical difference between Yuma and MG: life experience. Yuma's life had taken an irrevocable turn quite early on, and MG's hadn't.
"I haven't had a pleasant life, MG," Yuma said, looking down into her coffee. "I made sure you had a better one, not that that's difficult to do in this future age. I… thought you should know."
The wind felt soft and warm on her face, carrying with it the scent of… roses?
Her eyes snapped open a moment later, and she looked around, bewildered.
"Oh, good, you're awake. I was afraid you would miss breakfast."
Her eyes focused on the source of the voice, a tall teenager in a white blouse and dress. Her pose was regal but her expression soft, and standing in front of the morning light pouring in from the arbor, her figure appeared almost incandescent.
A moment later, the memories came flooding back.
The silent white giants.
Her parents' frantic calls for help as they wandered about, unaccountably blind.
The girls who had shown up out of nowhere, killing the monsters that tried to attack her.
The girls in blue and white who seemed to loom over her, bathed in sunlight.
The girl clad in white who had comforted her, before… before…
A talking white cat with golden rings on its ears, asking her to save the dying girl in front of her.
She put her hand to her head, feeling a sudden headache overtake her.
"It's okay," the other girl said, appearing immediately by her side. "You took quite a lot of damage yesterday, but trust me, it was actually really impressive for someone newly‐contracted, especially so young. You pushed yourself a little too hard, though."
She looked up at the other girl, and saw a sudden vision of that same face, covered in blood, as she lay dismembered in front of her, the blood—
She felt her stomach start to revolt against her, thankfully interrupting the flashback.
"I wouldn't be here without you," the older girl said, "so I think it's only fair that I introduce myself. I am Mikuni Oriko, the leader of the magical team who came to rescue you. I'm sorry you had to see what happened to me, but I'm definitely glad you wished me back together."
The girl stuck out her hand towards her for a handshake, and she took it a moment later.
"Chitose Yuma," she said. "I, um—"
She looked around at her surroundings again. She didn't recognize this place, with its beautiful furnishings, plush giant bed, and brilliant sunlight. Her own bedroom couldn't possibly compare.
Where was she?
"Where am I?" she asked.
"This is where I live," Oriko said. "Well, one of the guest bedrooms, at least. A bit fancier than you're used to, I think."
"My parents, where are they?" she asked a bit incoherently, realizing what was missing.
The older girl looked down for a moment, and her expression shaded a little. Then, she looked away from Yuma.
"I'm sorry," Oriko said. "We didn't get there in time. We weren't able to save them."
Yuma looked down, clenching the sheets of her bed in her fists. It wasn't so much that she loved her parents—it was difficult to love someone who barely paid attention to you, and who routinely gave you black eyes at the slightest provocation.
But they were all she had, and because of that she felt the tears well up in her eyes.
"What am I going to do?" she asked, grasping the magnitude of the disaster even at her age. "Where am I going to live? Who's going to take care of me?"
The response was spoken with such resolution that Yuma looked up instantly in surprise, still crying.
Oriko ducked her head slightly.
"I can't just leave you out there, especially after you saved my life," Oriko said, smiling slightly. "I come from a rich family, and the other girls on my team already live here, so one more girl won't be a big deal."
Yuma sniffed, as the other girl turned away to tend to something.
"T–thank you," she managed. "I–I—"
"Shh, it's okay," Oriko said, turning back around with a tray full of food. "Don't worry about it. If you need to cry, go ahead. I'm sorry all this happened to you."
Yuma sniffed, having difficulty seeing through the tears. She could still see the pastries, the milk, the eggs—all the breakfast food she had always wished her mother would make for her.
"Can I call you Onee‐chan?" she asked, barely managing to form the words without stuttering.
"Sure you can."
Then she grabbed the other girl's sleeve and started crying, and wasn't sure she would ever stop.
The wind that swept across her body was freezing, the kind of cold that seemed determined to freeze your face forever still if it could.
Yuma peered into the Mitakihara moonlight, watching the bright lights of the city pierce through the misty night air. She should have been in her nice warm bedroom below, sleeping off the events of the day before, but instead she sat perched on the rooftop, which was trivial to reach for a magical girl.
The wind seemed somehow to get even colder, but she still didn't move. What did the cold matter, if the truth was as Oriko said? What did it matter if she froze solid if her body was only a puppet, only a tool to be used by the gem she wore on her finger?
The truth was, that didn't bother her as much as it probably should have. She was used to the idea of detaching herself from her body, the idea of imagining that the pain was happening to someone else—living with the parents she had, it had been a survival skill.
She was bothered instead by what she had grown to suspect about the "Southern Group".
It was a combination of things, gleaned from listening to the other girls talking and watching how they behaved. Oriko had warned her not to travel too far on her own—Kirika said this was because she would get ambushed by girls from another team. She was routinely left behind on patrols, which was innocuous enough—except that those patrols invariably resulted in fights with other magical girls, and wounds she had to tend to.
Other things factored in, too: Oriko's insistence on schooling her at home, rather than letting her go back to her old school and friends. The glee with which Kirika and the others talked about fighting other magical girls. The way Oriko wouldn't answer her directly much of the time.
She had learned that Oriko's power was seeing the future, and she had to wonder why a girl who had to know what was coming would leave the group's only healer behind for the fights where she would be needed the most.
She might have been young, but she knew enough to wonder, even if she knew that a girl her age shouldn't have had to worry about something like that.
Today she had seen another magical girl team for the first time. The Mitakihara Three, they called themselves, though Oriko whispered to her by telepathy that they had been the Two until they had acquired a new girl, who they were meeting for the first time.
They had looked normal enough—more normal than the Southern Group ever looked, if Yuma was being honest with herself—but they seethed with hatred—hatred for everyone in the Southern Group, hatred for Oriko in particular, in a way that Yuma couldn't comprehend.
And the thing was, Yuma got the distinct impression that it was Oriko's fault, not theirs.
And then there was what that one girl, Sakura Kyouko, had said:
What's a new contractee like you doing with girls like these? I'll warn you right now: they're all insane. You're not going to live long, sticking with them.
Though Yuma could certainly imagine being deceived, she couldn't bring herself to think the other girl was lying.
Well, at least she hadn't been forced to fight them. She wasn't sure if she could have.
"I didn't think you'd be the type of girl to hang around out here in the cold like this."
Yuma turned her head to look at the new arrival, Miroko Mikuru, who was standing on the peak of that section of the roof, just above her.
Yuma didn't really know what to say in response, so she turned back toward the city.
"It's not that cold, I think," she said. What else was she supposed to say? That she couldn't sleep? That she was scared of this new life she apparently had?
Yuma thought she heard the other girl say something telepathically, and frowned, but before she could ask, Mikuru said: "She doesn't really have it that bad," appearing next to Yuma. "I've undergone far worse. She's lucky."
Mikuru wasn't talking to her—she was talking to herself. Yuma wasn't sure if she was crazy, like Kirika was, but…
Why did someone like Oriko have a team full of girls like this? The other team, the Mitakihara Three, had seemed normal enough.
Mikuru shook her head, bangs waving slightly, as if to clear her head, and her eyes brightened, like she was coming out of some kind of trance.
"Does the soul gem thing bother you?" she asked, addressing Yuma directly. "I have to say, it never bothered me. Having your soul in the gem is your source of power, and this world only respects power."
Yuma didn't know how to respond to that either, and a moment later Mikuru said—to herself:
"She's also worried about the other group we met today. Well, it's all part of the plan. Oriko said…"
Mikuru's voice trailed off, but the girl seemed incapable of staying silent without transmitting her thoughts by telepathy, and Yuma could hear Mikuru's telepathic murmuring continuing in the background, though she couldn't quite pick up what she was saying. Yuma had only been here a short while, but she had already realized that the reason Mikuru and her girlfriend were isolated in their own bedroom on the other side of the building was that Mikuru's constant telepathy was probably unbearable when trying to sleep. She had no idea how Aina dealt with it.
"Why did you join Oriko‐nee‐chan?" Yuma asked. "She said you used to be on your own."
The telepathic murmuring stopped, and Mikuru smiled, face brightening again. The girl seemed to oscillate between two modes—one where she was relatively normal, and one where she was lost to the world, lost in her own thoughts. These modes came and went at the most inappropriate of times.
"I'll tell you someday, when you're old enough to understand," Mikuru said. "Come on, you should go to bed."
The other girl wiggled her fingers at Yuma, and for a moment it felt like her face was freezing off, as unbearable cold bit into her cheek…
"Alright, I get it," Yuma said, standing up to prepare for the jump back to her bedroom. In truth, she was glad to be given the excuse to leave. Mikuru seemed pleasant enough, at least when compared to Kure Kirika or Hinata Aina, but was still very weird to talk to.
Only as she landed back on the ground in the garden did she realize that she hadn't asked Mikuru why she was on the roof.
"What's it like to see the future, Onee‐chan?"
The older girl glanced at her, looking for a moment away from the pair of magically‐enchanted binoculars she had spent the last fifteen minutes peering through intently.
A smile played at the older girl's lips, looking at her, and then the girl returned to her binoculars.
"It is a terrible burden," she said. "You must never envy me, Yuma‐chan. Being what I am, seeing what I see—it's like taking on the responsibilities of a god, without any of the power."
"And what do you see?"
The older girl glanced down at Yuma again. Yuma had gradually become increasingly impatient—nowadays, Oriko spent more time than ever on her farsight goggles, an enchanted apparatus whose gaze Hinata Aina claimed "pierced cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh." Whether or not that was really true, it was definitely the case that Oriko saw many things through those goggles, which she used whenever she wanted to keep track of current events without having to rely on her exhausting future‐sight. Yuma had never gotten Oriko to admit where the goggles had come from, but she had gathered from the comments of the others that it was almost certainly loot from someone that they had… eliminated.
She still didn't know how to feel about that.
"Would you like to see?" the girl she thought of as her older sister asked.
"Really?" Yuma asked in surprise. Oriko guarded the goggles jealously, and never let anyone so much as touch them.
"Really," Oriko said, handing the goggles to her. "Take a look, but don't change any of the settings."
"What do you see?"
"I see Kyouko‐chan and… a girl I don't recognize. They're fighting about something."
"Miki Sayaka is her name. She's a new magical girl that has joined their team. They're fighting, you say?"
Yuma squinted through the goggles, watching the two other girls push each other over what appeared to be a bag of groceries.
"I don't think they're really fighting," Yuma said, finally. "They're play‐fighting, like Aina‐san and Mikuru‐san do sometimes."
"Very perceptive," Oriko said, taking the binoculars back. Yuma let her have them.
"Are they a couple?"
Oriko seemed to chew on her lip slightly.
"They could be, but they won't be," Oriko said. "Sakura Kyouko is too important."
Yuma frowned. Oriko had a habit of making mysterious statements like that. Important for what? She never said.
"You're fond of Sakura‐san, aren't you?" Oriko said, without taking her eyes away from the goggles. "You called her Kyouko‐chan. You know she's supposed to be our enemy, right?"
Yuma blushed slightly, digging one foot into the ground.
"Well, that's, she doesn't seem—"
"Don't be embarrassed," Oriko said. "I prefer it this way. Here, take another look."
This time Yuma saw only Kyouko, standing morosely at a street corner, kicking the ground. Where had Miki‐san gone?
"Miki‐san is gone," she said.
"Yes, that is the crucial dynamic," Oriko said, again taking the binoculars away from her. "It is necessary to preserve it. I think it's time we attacked Sakura Kyouko."
"Don't worry, she'll live."
"There was only one time that Kyouko was attacked alone, and it was Sayaka who showed up to save her," Mami said.
"Yes," Yuma agreed. "Well, so far as I know anyway, but it was Sayaka that came to save her. I snuck a peek in the goggles while the others were gone."
Mami shifted in her seat uncomfortably.
"Not that I know for certain," she said. "But I'm pretty sure that incident helped make Kyouko, you know, think more highly of Sayaka."
"Yes," Yuma agreed.
"So Mikuni Oriko, who could see the future, tried to make it so Kyouko fell in love with Sayaka," MG said, stating bluntly what the other two had danced around. She still looked shaken, though less shaken than before.
"Yes," Yuma said.
"I only have theories. I don't really know."
"Damn it all, what's so special about you?"
Yuma braced herself for the blow to her face, which sent her flying across the room, giving her just enough time to realize she was about to crash into an ornamental wooden chair before she felt herself slam sideways into said furniture. The momentum of the kick sent both her body and the chair slamming into the wall, the wooden frame splintering and digging painfully into her arm.
She shut out the pain, a feat she found much easier now as a magical girl, and even had a moment to reflect that a kick like that would have almost certainly killed her, in her past life. Then again, she doubted her parents could have kicked that hard.
She got back on her feet only slowly, not because of pain or injury, but simply out of caution. It was safer if she didn't antagonize her assailant any further, which she might have if she had popped right back up. She might be a lot stronger now, but she knew better than to think she could take on any of the older girls in a fight. Age and experience was its own kind of strength—that was a lesson Yuma had learned back in school.
She looked up and found Hinata Aina standing right in her face, breathing fire—metaphorically, though the other girl could easily make the statement literal.
Yuma had just enough time to surreptitiously heal her wounds before the other girl picked her up by the front of her shirt, pulling her into the air so that they would look each other in the face, Yuma's feet dangling. The gesture was one of disrespect, but Yuma honestly preferred it to being forced to stare directly into the other girl's cleavage at close range. Hinata the Scarlet seemed to always feel the heat of the fire that powered her, and consequently could rarely keep more than a few pieces of clothing on her at a time. Yuma always got the distinct impression that if it weren't for the opinion of her girlfriend, "Aina‐chan" would wander the mansion in nothing at all. They were all girls, after all.
"Well?" Aina demanded, glaring into Yuma's eyes. "Oriko doesn't let anyone touch the farsight goggles. Why you? Why are you special?"
"I don't know!" Yuma said, perfectly honestly. "Maybe it's because… because I'm a kid?"
"Not good enough," Aina growled, tightening her grip. Yuma wasn't sure if it was her imagination, but she had the sense that her chest was growing abnormally warm.
"Huh, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous of her," Mikuru said, appearing on the other side of the room, behind Aina's right shoulder.
"I think she is jealous," Kure Kirika said, appearing behind Aina's other shoulder.
In a flash, Kirika reappeared directly next to Aina, grasping the arm Aina was using to hold Yuma up, her fingers pressing into the wrist.
"Hands off," Kirika said.
"Why do you care?" Aina demanded acidly. "You don't like her any more than I do."
"Oriko made it my duty to defend her with my life, same as with Oriko herself. That's all I need to know. Hands… Off!"
Kirika's fingernails started to visibly press into Aina's flesh and even grew just a bit longer, if Yuma's eyes didn't deceive her.
Finally, though she showed no evident signs of pain, Aina released her grip on Yuma, who dropped adroitly to the ground and landed on both her feet. This wasn't the first time she had been aggressively lifted off the ground by Hinata Aina, and she didn't expect it to be her last.
"Leave her alone, Ai‐chan," Mikuru said. "She obviously doesn't know anything."
"We'll see about that," Aina said, looking at Yuma out of the corner of her eye.
"Maybe Oriko just likes her," Mikuru suggested.
"Like hell she does," Aina said, glaring at her girlfriend. "That girl never does anything without a plan, and you know it."
"Why do you care if she does favor Yuma‐chan, then? Obviously, there's a reason for it. I think you're jealous. Why are you being jealous about anyone but me?"
"I'm not being jealous. You're the one being jealous, right now!"
"Oh, not this again—"
"Come on, let's get out of here," Kirika said, grabbing Yuma gently by the shoulder. "They're going to start throwing things soon, then have a round of hate‐sex to make up for everything. I'm tired of seeing it. I'm just glad Oriko is rich enough to replace whatever they break."
"Hate… sex?" Yuma asked, repeating the unfamiliar phrase.
"Don't worry about it. Come on, let's go."
Honestly, Yuma found the unfolding fight kind of refreshing. She was used enough to violence to not be too perturbed—she was pretty sure her mother loved her, too, and she still hit Yuma all the time. And whatever else was going on, Aina's presence did wonders for Mikuru's focus. In Aina's presence, Mikuru was far more consistently nice Mikuru, rather than the crazy Mikuru who talked to herself and ignored the world. Yuma was learning to like nice Mikuru, but crazy Mikuru scared her.
Despite that, she let Kirika pull her out of the way.
"What did Aina‐chan mean when she said you don't like me?" Yuma asked, as soon as they got out of earshot.
Without stopping, Kirika smiled in that incredibly unsettling way she had, the smile that seemed to imply she had sharp teeth like a wolf.
"Let's just say love is infinite, and sometimes can be infinitely selfish," Kirika said. "You'll understand when you're older."
Kirika's voice seemed friendly, but had enough sinister cadences that Yuma realized it was wise not to ask for any further details.
In the background she heard something shatter.
Wires ran to and fro across the work table, connecting several fully occupied power strips with a variety of small black boxes, large metal boxes, and what looked like giant glass bulbs, or maybe upside‐down beakers. An assortment of metal tools lay next to the motley assemblage—blades, wire cutters, pliers, tweezers, and even a soldering iron.
In short, it looked like the lab of a mad scientist, or the kind of scientist one would see on afternoon children's anime, except it didn't look like there were very many chemicals around, or any really. There were no mysterious bubbling fluids in glass vials to complete the picture.
"What is it?" Yuma asked, asking the natural question.
"It's my lab," Oriko said, with a touch of pride. "Or, at least, I like to call it my lab, which is probably saying a bit too much right now. This will be an important part of your education."
Yuma looked up at her Onee‐chan. Oriko's face showed no obvious sign that she was joking.
"Really? Me? But what will I be learning?" Yuma asked, looking around at the equipment in bewilderment. "Is it science?"
"Sort of," Oriko said. "I intend to have you help me with my research here."
"Me?" Yuma asked incredulously. "But I don't know how to—I can't—what if I hurt myself?"
"Then you can heal it," Oriko said placidly. "That's not to say I won't teach you about safety, but being a magical girl does have some benefits, after all."
Yuma waited for Oriko to say something further, but the girl didn't. Yuma looked around—at Oriko smiling and humming to herself, at the plain, almost drab white walls, and at the lack of decoration or windows in the room. The "lab" wasn't in a basement, but it might as well have been, and its empty interior stood in sharp contrast to the lavish decorations of the rest of the mansion.
It reminded Yuma a little of her old bedroom, actually.
"Uh—" Yuma began, trying to prompt Oriko into saying something.
"Come with me," Oriko said, stepping forward abruptly towards the bench, gesturing at Yuma to follow.
"Put your hand on this orb," Oriko said, once Yuma had done so.
Oriko put her hand onto the clear glass ball to demonstrate.
Yuma looked at it for a moment. It was about the size of her head and reminded her of something she had seen on a field trip to a science museum a long time ago. There had been lightning inside that one, though.
Yuma put her hand onto the glass, a bit hesitantly, following Oriko's example.
"Do you feel anything?" Oriko asked, smiling.
Yuma shook her head no.
"Close your eyes," Oriko instructed. "I don't want to know just how it feels through normal touch. I'm looking for something magical. Try to feel with your soul, the same way you can sense demons or other magical girls."
Yuma still felt rather confused, but did what Oriko said, closing her eyes and trying to reach outward with her magic sense. She could feel Oriko standing next to her, grief cubes somewhere in the room, and—
Yuma opened her eyes, scrunching her face.
"I don't get it," she said. "There's something magical in this orb."
"Correct," Oriko said, smiling at Yuma. "The glass itself is magically modified, enchanted in the same way my farsight goggles were. It's taken me months to develop the skills necessary, but I modified this one myself. Unfortunately, enchantment didn't come free with my magical talents, so it took a lot of work."
Yuma started to ask whether Oriko had also made the farsight goggles herself, but bit her tongue just in time. Nothing good would come of asking about that.
Instead she allowed Oriko to bask in the glow of her pride for a moment—and she was obviously proud, rubbing the glass orb as if it were an actual magician's orb, or perhaps a magic lamp.
"What's it for?" Yuma asked eventually.
"We think of our magic as a unique entity, separate from technology and science," Oriko said, voice didactic.
She narrowed her eyes, seeming to peer into the orb, and Yuma leaned over to try to catch a glimpse of what was in there—but there was nothing there, and she realized that Oriko wasn't looking into the orb, only at the orb.
"But it's obvious that it must be possible to connect magic with technology somehow, because the Incubators did it," Oriko continued. "Obviously, they're not going tell us how they do it, but—"
"Have you tried asking?" Yuma interrupted.
"What?" Oriko asked, looking at Yuma.
"Why don't you try asking?" Yuma said. "Kyubey seems nice enough."
Oriko looked away from Yuma for a moment.
"I did try asking," Oriko said, after a moment. "He wouldn't say anything. And you should know that the Incubators are selfish creatures. They might act nice, but in the end they only really care about what's good for them."
"It doesn't matter," Oriko said, shaking her head. "Anyway, the point is, while we don't exactly have the same level of technology they do, we have a natural advantage when it comes to trying to perform feats involving magic, which of course is that we can access magic directly. The hard part is managing the grief cube use. Spending all your time practicing doing something is expensive. In theory, though, there's an obvious connection between magic and energy, so it should be possible to enchant something to work on electricity rather than raw magic, like the farsight goggles. In theory."
"What is it for, though?" Yuma asked, exasperated by the circuitous explanation. "What's the orb for?"
Oriko looked at Yuma, then reached down to open a drawer below the workbench, pulling out… a small handful of grief cubes.
Yuma let out a small gasp.
"I've been working on a procedure to allow the packing of extra grief into individual grief cubes," Oriko said, opening a slot in the mounting of the orb. "That way, it would be possible to extract more value out of individual grief cubes, and we could use a lot more magic without having to worry about grief cube costs. You can obviously see how that would be valuable, right?"
Yuma nodded, looking up at with a sudden sense of awe. Even as new as she was, she could see that something like that would change everything. If Oriko could manage that…
"I've already worked out how to do it with direct application of magic," Oriko said, "but no matter how much I try, I can't figure out how to do it without spending considerably more magic than it's actually worth. What I want is to make a device that can do the same thing, but running on regular electricity rather than magic."
Yuma frowned, putting her hand back on the orb in front of her. She grasped the concept, but…
There was something…
"If you can do something like that with electricity, why couldn't you do everything with electricity?" Yuma asked, finally.
Oriko smiled broadly, on the verge of grinning.
"That's an important point," she said. "I've thought about that, and there's no obvious reason why it couldn't be done, depending on what exact type of magic you were trying to replicate. Things like summoning objects or causing explosions would probably cost way more energy than you could ever draw out of a power outlet, but there are other things, like teleportation or mind‐reading, that don't intrinsically cost much energy, that might be doable."
Oriko ducked her head, seeming to think for a moment.
"Energy?" Yuma asked. "Why would that be important?"
She had heard about it before in school, but she didn't really understand it.
Oriko shook her head.
"I'll explain it to you later. The point is, I thought it might not be too hard to perform grief concentration in energy terms, and there aren't many things I could do that would have more impact than this, but…"
"But?" Yuma prompted.
"It's not really working," Oriko said. "And now I can think of some arguments for why it shouldn't work. I wish I could be sure it was that, though, and not just my lack of skill at enchanting. I wish I could just ask someone like Tomoe Mami, though obviously that's out of the question."
Oriko paused again for a moment, then said:
"People like her bother me. All that talent, and she doesn't know where to point it. That's not her fault, though."
"Do you hate her, Onee‐chan?" Yuma asked.
Oriko gave Yuma a strange look, as if what she had said made no sense.
"No, not really," Oriko said. "Come on, let me give you a demonstration, even if it doesn't really work yet."
Oriko reached behind the orb, flipping a switch with a loud snap.
A door slid open at the bottom and the grief cubes she had placed earlier rose upward on a small tray, eventually stopping near the center of the orb. Peering inward, Yuma could see that the tray, far from being a simple flat surface, was an ornate golden metal, the sides frilled with golden leaves. The tray as a whole was suspended by a metal column engirdled by rows of symbols.
"It's not possible to enchant something without the magic giving it a design like this," Oriko said, by way of explanation. "I'm not really sure why, but it probably has something to do with why all magical girls have costumes of one variety or another. Human magic seems determined to make itself aesthetically obvious, though I'm not sure why the enchanted glass of this orb doesn't look very different. I suspect it's because orbs are already associated with magic and witches, so there wasn't very much to do."
Oriko flipped another switch, and the orb began to hum, a slight blue glow becoming visible at the base of the ornate column. The blue glow traveled upward, illuminating as it passed the symbols etched into the side of the column, filling the glass sphere with an eerie, pale light.
A long moment later, the glow reached the grief cube tray itself, which turned a bright, blinding white, the grief cubes themselves transforming from their usual pitch‐black state into luminescent white cubes.
No, not just bright white cubes. Yuma squinted—if she fought the eye‐burning glare, she almost thought she could peer into the cubes themselves, that she could see some hint of structure, some hint—
The glare vanished, the tray and cubes blotted out by an impossibly black ooze, or perhaps cloud, that had appeared in the center of the orb. Similar to the usual state of grief cubes, this black blight reflected no light, not even the trace emissions that would have enabled Yuma to discern how it was spreading, or what its three‐dimensional shape was like. Indeed, it almost looked like the corruption was absorbing more light than what should have been possible, that it was somehow preventing Yuma from seeing even the light reflecting off of the glass directly in front of it.
Overall, the effect was as if someone had taken a black sharpie and started to blot out part of the universe itself, and Yuma started to feel a creeping sense of insecurity over whether the corruption was really contained within the orb.
The lights in the room flickered, casting the two of them into a moment of complete darkness that caused Yuma to jump and yelp in surprise.
A loud zapping noise followed immediately afterward, a cloud of acrid smoke wafting outward from the orb and burning Yuma's nostrils. Both the glow and oozing blackness were gone, and by all appearances the tray of grief cubes was back to normal, except for a few black scorch marks that had appeared on the edge and were already fading away.
"And that's what always happens," Oriko said, coughing and using her hand to wave away the smoke. "I can get it to start the procedure, but then it always fails. I don't even know why it does what it does. It's definitely a work in progress."
"You want me to work on this?" Yuma asked, making no effort to hide the incredulity in her voice. She was flattered that Oriko felt her capable of something like that at her age, but she had the distinct sense that she would be biting off a lot more than she could chew.
"You're not going to have a normal life when you grow up, Yuma‐chan," Oriko said, bending down to look Yuma in the eyes. "None of us will. The only thing you can be is a professional magical girl, and that means mastering magic. First I will teach you how to manipulate grief cubes, then you can help me with my work."
Yuma shook her head.
"I'm not going to grow up," she said. "No one lives that long. Kirika‐san said so."
A trace of annoyance passed over Oriko's face.
"It's not true that no one lives that long," Oriko said, expression dark for a moment. "It's just extremely rare. You shouldn't worry about something like that."
"Anyway, let's go," Oriko said, grabbing Yuma by the hand. "You've seen all you need to here. We have other work to do."
"Ah, so that's why you know so much about this kind of thing," MG said. "Well, that, and your tenure as head of MSY Science Division."
"This is why I was head of Science Division," Yuma said. "I knew more on the topic than anyone living, except maybe Clarisse van Rossum. I wish I could say it was only esoteric knowledge, but I ended up using it far too much."
"I'd rather not hear about it," Mami said, drinking deeply from her cup of virtual tea, which she had made bottomless.
"I'm not going to tell you," Yuma responded.
"What does it mean to fall in love?"
Miroko Mikuru looked down at the younger girl, surprise evident on her face. The older girl probably hadn't expected a question like that after she had agreed to take Yuma to the grocery store, but on the way out of the mansion Yuma had seen Aina give her a rather open display of affection, so the question was fresh on her mind.
Yuma's question also helped interrupt the flow of Mikuru's telepathic mumblings, which Yuma had gradually learned to tolerate. It wasn't as bad once you got used to it and, to Yuma, it seemed like Mikuru was fundamentally a nice girl underneath the layer of… possible insanity that lay on top. Also important for this particular trip was that Mikuru seemed capable of suppressing her audible, vocalized mumblings when out in public, restricting it to only telepathy.
Mikuru reached up with one hand—the one not holding Yuma's hand—and scratched her cheek nervously, one of those little behavioral tics that Yuma had realized still distinguished her as not more than sixteen years old.
"That's a hard question," Mikuru said. "Ordinarily, I'd tell you to wait until you're older, but… well, you're getting close to old enough."
She looked up at the sky for a moment.
"I sound so old saying that, and I'm not really that old," she said. "If I wanted to be fully honest with you, I'm not sure Aina and I are really in love. It feels like it, but we're also so young, and it rarely works like it does in the movies for anyone our age."
She looked back down.
"But life is short, especially our lives. So, why not?"
"You're not answering the question!" Yuma insisted.
Mikuru smiled a little.
"Well, you're a smart girl, yes. It's not an easy question. I would say being in love is just realizing that you can't stand to be without someone, that you want to spend all your time with them, that you would lay down your life for them. Something like that. I don't think I'm experienced enough to say more than that. It's like… how I try to be around more, when Aina is around. Pay more attention to the world."
It was the first time Yuma had ever heard Mikuru reference her own condition, even if indirectly. Yuma thought about asking her about it, but asked instead:
"What about sex then? What does that have to do with it?"
Mikuru visibly grimaced, then glanced around nervously for anyone who might be listening in.
"It's a part of it," Mikuru said. "It's something you only do with someone you love. It's a show of intimacy, I guess."
Yuma looked down for a moment, remembering Hinata Aina. If that was true, then why had… what had she been…
Yet under Mikuru's concerned look, Yuma sensed that it was not a question she could ask.
"You're not old enough yet, okay?" Mikuru said, patting Yuma on the shoulder. "Remember that. Don't…"
Mikuru paused for a long moment, before finishing:
"Don't let anyone try to get you started early, okay? That's not right. That's what made me what I am, and no one else should have to go through that. You tell me if anyone bullies you like that, and I'll take care of it for you."
Mikuru's eyes were intense, her gaze seeming to bore into Yuma's heart.
Yuma couldn't withstand the look, and had to break the eye contact, and look down at the cement sidewalk.
Mikuru‐san was used by some gangs to make money, for a long time after her parents died, Yuma remembered Oriko saying. Her wish was for revenge, and I helped her get that revenge. And I felt good doing it. For your sake, I wouldn't ask for more detail than that. Someday, you'll understand.
"Okay," Yuma said quietly.
"That's horrible," MG said, with the kind of absolute revulsion Governance AIs reserved only for a Core Right violations. It was one thing that set AIs apart from organic humans: a set of absolute, unbreakable morals. If there was an equivalent to an AI religion or ideology, the Volokhov Criterion was it, written indelibly into their software.
Yuma couldn't help but find something a little disquieting in that, though of course AIs themselves never saw anything wrong with it.
"There's a reason I kept these kinds of things secret from you," Yuma thought to MG, directly over their internal channel. "It's not the kind of thing a young AI should hear about."
"Thanks, Mom," MG responded sarcastically. "Aren't you the one who always says we should know evil to fight it?"
Yuma sipped her coffee to conceal her unease. That kind of line she always found biting; what exactly was it that she saw MG as? Was it indeed daughter? Did she see MG as a young version of herself, someone to protect from the ravages of the world until it was safe? Someone to live the life she had never had?
She peered into the ripples of her coffee, and wondered if she regretted what she had become.
"Yuma‐chan! Are you okay?"
Yuma lay inside the pile of rubble, using her body and magic to brace herself, and to keep herself from being crushed by the collapsed ceiling. Honestly, it wasn't even that difficult—she was fine. She was mostly just bothered by the darkness and dust.
Yuma found herself impressed by the resilience of the magical girl body. If it weren't for the fact that she could hear Mikuru's voice calling to her from above, she would already be working herself out of the wreckage.
A moment later the plaster and wood immediately above her turned a light shade of blue, a thick sheet of magical ice layering itself over their surfaces. Yuma sucked in a breath—she had seen this trick before.
Then, with the deafening sound of a hundred chandeliers shattering, the world above her exploded in a rain of supercooled shards, the sunlight pouring in on her. By rights, the countless shards of frozen wood and construction material should have fallen down upon her, killing her body by a thousand cuts—but of course Kirika had more control than that over her blows, coming as they did while she slowed time. In fact, raining ice shards down upon the enemy—while leaving their own allies unharmed—was one of the group's favorite combat tricks.
Yuma preferred not to wonder if it was ever used against anything other than demons.
"I told you something like this wouldn't kill her," Kirika said, reaching down to give her a hand up. She was smiling that unsettlingly sharp smile of hers, but this time with no hint of malice.
"Worst case she would just heal herself," Aina commented.
"I have the right to be worried," Mikuru said.
"What happened?" Oriko asked, looking Yuma in the eyes.
It was easy to think that Oriko was omniscient, but Yuma had come to realize that this was far from true. Oriko could only see the future, and only those parts of the future she chose to focus her attention on. The past, and even the present, was a sealed mystery to her, which was more inconvenient than one would think.
Yuma shook her head to get out the debris that had settled in her hair.
"I was trying to experiment with one of those overloaded grief cubes like you said," she said. "I wanted to see if I could use one of your special wires to run grief directly into one of them. But…"
"But?" Oriko prompted, raising an eyebrow.
"It exploded," Yuma said. "Well, not exploded, but the black stuff came out everywhere, and then there were demons. They almost killed me. I was barely able to kill them, but I, uh—"
She found herself at a loss, rubbing the back of her head in embarrassment. She didn't know how to say it.
"Hold on, a demon exploded from the grief cube? I've never seen that happen," Kirika said.
"It can, if you leave one unattended and don't pay attention it," Mikuru said. "It's rare though. I've never seen it myself. It's just what… I've heard said."
"But how did that lead to the room collapsing?" Oriko asked, getting efficiently to the point. "What happens in the miasma stays in the miasma."
"Well, I, uh, got a little carried away swinging my hammer. I slammed my hammer into the ground after the miasma ended and it, uh, brought down the ceiling. It wasn't my fault! I was scared!"
"It's okay," Oriko reassured hastily, appearing in front of Yuma. "Don't worry about it. I'm rich enough that it doesn't matter. What's important is that you're safe."
Oriko reached down to pick Yuma up—a maneuver that would have been only barely possible if either of them were human. They met gazes, and Yuma thought Oriko looked oddly probing, as if looking at Yuma for something.
"I'd expect someone of her age to be more panicked after what happened to her," Mikuru commented.
"Eh, she looks like a girl who can take punishment," Kirika rebutted.
"We shouldn't dawdle," Oriko said, setting Yuma back down and looking at the others. "If it's really true that these overloaded grief cubes can spawn demons, then there's an entire set of them buried under these ruins, and we have to dig them out unless we want them to spawn while we're sleeping."
"That only really happened because she was messing with one using magic. That doesn't mean it can just happen."
"Though it does mean they might be usable as some kind of bombs," Aina said thoughtfully.
"Better not to risk it," Oriko said. "It's not worth—"
As if on cue, the telltale signs of a miasma began to appear around them, the world beginning to turn misty and blurred. Yuma sensed in her soul the stirring of the demons around them, ominous and hungry.
"Well, it looks like it's party time then!" Aina said.
Strange as it seemed, Yuma didn't think she liked ice cream anymore.
It wasn't that it tasted any different; it was still the same overstimulating combination of sugar and fats it always had been, and the sensation of it melting in her mouth was unchanged, as craftily unctuous as ever.
But it just didn't flatter her anymore, and she found herself sitting on a bench outside the ice cream shop, staring blankly at a freshly purchased chocolate cone.
She felt guilty. She doubted this was what Oriko had intended when she had shooed Yuma out the door with a fistful of yen and a list of supplies to buy, as well as the directive to enjoy herself with whatever money was left. As it had turned out, there was a lot of money left over, and Yuma had come to understand that this was intended as a bit of a day off for her.
Yuma wasn't really sure about the wisdom of letting someone of her age wander the city on her own, but Yuma supposed she was more than capable of taking on any kidnappers that might be coming her way. The bigger risk was the other magical girls of the city, but Yuma knew enough to stay within the Southern Group's territory and keep her soul gem emissions minimized. Besides, Oriko would know if she were about to run into trouble.
Not to mention, Yuma found it considerably more pleasant to be alone than to be with any other member of her group, bar Oriko herself. Mikuru might have been okay, though her constant telepathic self‐talk would have been grating—but Yuma had no urge whatsoever to spend time with Kirika or Aina, quality or otherwise.
She took another, halting bite of her ice cream, trying to let the sugar soothe her soul as it once always had.
She could tell already that it wasn't working, though, and she felt sad, as if she had lost something irreplaceable.
"Hmm, I didn't expect to see you here," said an unfamiliar female voice as Yuma felt someone seat herself on the bench next to her, sighing loudly.
Yuma looked up at the newly arrived teenager with short hair and athletic appearance. The girl, who seemed oddly familiar, looked back at her.
For a moment Yuma found herself at a loss, wondering what the girl had meant by "you".
Then Yuma finally placed why it was that the girl was familiar, and barely avoided dropping her ice cream cone, hand shaking. Miki Sayaka? Here? But this was—
"—Southern Group territory, right?" Sayaka said, finishing a sentence Yuma hadn't heard. "Yeah, I know. I came here looking for someone to fight, tracked down a soul gem, and found you. It's surprising, to be honest; the others aren't even sure you're still alive."
"You–you want to fight?" Yuma said, realizing she was doing a terrible job of keeping fear out of her voice. Her eyes were already busy scanning the pedestrians on the street across from them. Surely she wouldn't get attacked in public?
"Well, I did," Sayaka said, shaking her head almost sadly, "but not really anymore, to be honest. It's just as well I found you; you're the one Kyouko says we shouldn't hurt, and I can see why: you're just a kid."
Yuma felt relieved, a little, but continued to scan the area around her. Now that she was paying attention, she could sense Sayaka's soul gem pulsating nearby, but still couldn't feel anyone else in the area. Was Sayaka here alone?
"You didn't look like you're liking that ice cream very much," Sayaka commented.
"I can't enjoy it anymore, not after what happened," Yuma said, shaking her head, saying it out loud before realizing she shouldn't have.
"I definitely know what you mean," the other girl said, smiling crookedly.
She looked up at the sky.
"It just takes the flavor out of life when you learn the world just isn't the way it should be, and there's nothing you can do to change it," Sayaka said.
She looked down at her hands.
"I came here because I thought I could at least do the world a service by eliminating some evil, but I can't even find the evil properly. I really am pointless."
Yuma tilted her head, trying to understand what the girl was getting at. Something about the way she was talking reminded her of one of her own teammates, though she couldn't really identify what.
Sayaka shook her head morosely, then seemed to focus back on the moment.
"I wonder what could have happened to a kid like you, though, for you to say something like that."
Yuma shrugged, choosing not to answer the question. By this point she had started to relax a little. It was still possible that this girl's geniality was just a cover to get her off‐guard, or that she would spontaneously go crazy and attack her—Yuma certainly spent enough time with crazy people to know that it was not impossible.
She didn't really think so, though. Something about this girl seemed… too sad for that.
Sayaka shrugged back at Yuma's lack of response, then said:
"Your ice cream is melting. You don't have to eat it if you don't want to. Let's go have some dinner. I'll pay for it, since you're a kid after all."
"Dinner?" Yuma repeated emptily. Of all the things she might have been expecting, she had not even considered that a girl from an opposing team of magical girls would try to invite her to have food.
"Yeah," the other girl said, watching Yuma with an expression that was somehow simultaneously serious and playful. "I don't want to go back yet, and I've got nothing better to do. As long as you can promise the rest of your team won't come to kill me."
Yuma made a hapless expression she hoped adequately conveyed that she had literally no control over the rest of the Southern Group.
"Don't worry about it."
The girl jumped off the bench, standing and stretching up towards the afternoon sky. She seemed a bit happier.
"There's a ramen place nearby," she said. "Not as good as the place in Kazamino, but good enough. I know there's no reason for you to trust me, but there's also no way I could kill you in front of like thirty people. What do you say?"
Yuma knew that she should say no, that even if Sayaka did nothing to her, getting caught might make the others think her a traitor, and finally that if nothing else, she shouldn't be following strangers anywhere—
—but she found that, at the moment, she didn't care. She was tired of being locked into Oriko's mansion, having to meet the same tired circle of Kirika and Aina and Mikuru over and over and over. She wanted to talk to someone else for once.
She stepped off the bench and made what she thought was an acceptably blithe shrug.
Her eyes caught on someone in the distance.
Who is that—
"Is something wrong?" Sayaka asked, turning to look at the same spot. The person had moved, though.
"It's nothing," Yuma said. "Come on."
"Let me tell you something, Yuma‐chan," Sayaka said, pointing at her with one hand. "Never fall in love."
Yuma, who had been focused on slurping down her ramen as fast as possible, felt her eyes widen at Sayaka's statement. Up until that point in the meal, conversation had consisted primarily of long silences, interspersed with vague rants from Sayaka about how annoying Kyouko was, or how she hated that her parents were never around, or various other topics that were of exactly zero relevance to Yuma. Yuma was smart enough to know when she was being used as a sounding board, and had simply nodded along without saying a single word.
True to form, Yuma merely tilted her head, indicating for Sayaka to continue. There was nothing Yuma could really say since she had no experience with it herself, unless she wanted to talk about the rest of the Southern Group, which she didn't.
"All falling in love does is make you crazy, and make the people around you crazy, and it doesn't help anyone in the end," Sayaka said, pointing at her now with a fork. "Don't do it."
The other girl hung her head downward, and Yuma got the distinct impression she would be drinking sake if she could legally get her hands on some.
"I thought I could be different," Sayaka said, "but in the end I'm the same as everyone else."
Yuma thought about Mikuru and Aina, and about Oriko and Kirika. They were mostly crazy, and at least claimed to be in love, so Sayaka's claim seemed at least possible. Yuma got the distinct impression Sayaka wasn't just making the statement off the cuff—that what she was saying had to be relevant to something.
"What happened?" she asked.
Sayaka turned to look at her, her expression difficult to read. Yuma had definitely hit some kind of nerve, but it was difficult to tell whether the other girl was bemused, angry, or depressed. It almost seemed like the other girl was trying hard to keep her facial expressions rigidly still—a phenomenon Yuma recognized from the carefully‐controlled expression Mikuru wore when in public.
"I'd rather not say," Sayaka said, turning back towards her bowl of ramen.
Sayaka bent her head downward, slurping her noodles loudly, and the possibility finally occurred to Yuma that she was being too assertively curious. She should have known better: while it was a trait that Oriko encouraged, it was also one that her parents had definitely… not encouraged.
She was starting to lose some of the habits that she had been forced to have back when she lived with her parents. If nothing else, living with Oriko had improved her life that much.
"It would sound stupid if I said it out loud," Sayaka said, finally, forcing herself to smile slightly. "I know it's selfish, but I'm curious about what happened to you, to become a—"
Sayaka's eyes slid sideways, towards the other patrons of the restaurant.
"—to become one of us," Sayaka finished. "It's just curiosity, so you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but maybe after it I will want to tell you about me."
Yuma put one finger to her cheek to think, a habit she had picked up from her mother. She couldn't think of any reason not to say what happened, and maybe afterward Sayaka would think better of Oriko and the others, and maybe then they would fight less, and get less gruesome injuries that Yuma would have to help heal. She was… starting to get a little too used to the sight of blood, she thought.
So she drank the last of her ramen broth, and told the other girl her story, a story she hadn't even told Oriko in its entirety yet—Oriko had never asked—and she saw Sayaka's eyes widen several times and her brow grow increasingly furrowed. Several times, Sayaka signaled her aggressively with her hands to keep her voice down, or to stop speaking entirely as a waiter passed by. Yuma wondered just what was so bad about what she was saying.
"And the next day I woke up in Oriko's house," Yuma finished, hesitating before mentioning Oriko's name. "She was the white girl who saved me."
"I'll be honest, it's kind of hard to imagine her doing something like that," Sayaka said, a constricted expression on her face. "But I guess even she has to have a conscience sometimes. And from what Kyouko has told me, I can't be surprised Mikuru killed that dirty thug."
Yuma recoiled in shock, not at Sayaka's tone of disgust, or the aspersions cast at Oriko, but at Sayaka's assertion that Mikuru had killed Tanaka‐san. Strange as it was to say, even though she remembered that part quite clearly, Yuma had yet to make the obvious connections between a blue icicle spear and the ice mage.
I guess I just haven't wanted to think about it, Yuma thought.
"So you wished Oriko back together after the demons cut her up?" Sayaka said. "That's surprising: I didn't think someone like her could even get injured."
"I don't remember that day very well," Yuma said, "but yes, that's what happened."
Sayaka looked down, at her now empty ramen bowl, and Yuma could tell that Sayaka was again concealing her expression. What was she thinking?
"I was kind of wondering…" Yuma began hesitantly.
Sayaka looked up, and Yuma sucked in a breath, trying to be very careful with her next words.
"Why exactly do you all hate us so much?" she asked. "Oriko doesn't let me go out much, so I don't really… know, I guess?"
Sayaka looked back into her empty bowl, and Yuma could feel the other girl's dark mood radiating out.
"I used to be sure," she said. "But now I'm not so sure. If Oriko can save a girl like you, and I can do what I did, then what makes…"
Sayaka shook her head, seeming disappointed in something.
"Well, let me tell you what happened to Mami."
"Just because Oriko saved you doesn't mean she wasn't evil," Mami said, still compulsively sipping her tea. "We've been over this."
"I already know what you think of Oriko," Yuma said, a trace annoyed. "The focus here is on Sayaka."
"Yes, about her," Mami began, setting her teacup back down into its saucer dramatically.
"You never told us you ever met her," Mami said, "but I can see why you didn't. There's nothing here that's that unusual. If Sayaka was having doubts about her purpose in life… well, we knew that already, even if we realized it way too late."
Yuma closed her eyes, bowing her head slightly.
"Let me finish the story," she said.
The two of them separated at the doorway to the restaurant under the flickering light of the streetlamps. It was already nearly dark—far later than Yuma knew she should have stayed out alone. But as a magical girl, jumping between the rooftops—that was different, almost a different world entirely from the mundane world that filled the streets below.
A block away from the restaurant, Yuma got tired of that mundane world and prepared to transform so that she could traverse the rooftops and reach home much faster. There seemed to be no one around to see her.
Yuma stopped, immediately glad that she hadn't transformed as she had planned to. But where was the man's voice coming from?
She turned around, and felt her blood freeze.
"Hello there, little girl," one of the two men said, advancing on her. "I just thought we'd have a little chat."
Yuma recognized them immediately, of course; they had accompanied Tanaka when he had arrived to threaten her parents and beat up her father.
Yuma heard an involuntary whimper emit from her own throat.
"Now normally I'd be a little more polite to a girl like you, but I don't think there's any need for pretense here," the taller one said, cracking his knuckles.
He grabbed her by the collar and picked her up.
"Now a funny thing happened recently," he said. "Our good friend Tanaka‐san was found dead, with a hole in his stomach. Your parents have gone missing, and you went missing, too, so it's lucky that we found you so that we can clarify matters, isn't that right?"
His partner nodded.
"Your parents are going to pay for what they did to Tanaka‐san, and it starts with you," he said. "Doesn't that sound fun?"
Yuma felt the chilly fear freezing her heart, but still did not transform, trapped between the need to escape and the rules against giving away the secret.
"Don't be so mean to her," the taller man said. "If we just sweet‐talk her a little, we can be friends. Kids like her are easy to trick; I even got one of the kids back at the boss's place to think she loves me!"
They both laughed, villainous laughs that seemed almost like caricatures, except it was all too real. Yuma felt her grip tighten on the arm of the man holding her, and she began to realize how easily she could just… break it in half.
"Hey, scumbags!" Sayaka yelled, appearing abruptly a few meters down the sidewalk. She was fully transformed, sword pointed forward in both hands, and Yuma could suddenly feel the power radiating from her.
The two men turned, entirely disregarding Yuma for the moment, though the taller one kept his grip on Yuma's collar.
"What's this, then?" he said, still laughing. "Little miss cosplay thinks she's going to do something? Put down that plastic sword and—"
His voice cut off with a horrifying gurgle, and his grip on Yuma relaxed. Yuma landed on the ground with her usual adroitness—in a pool of already gathering blood.
She recoiled in horror.
"You know," Sayaka said as the man's partner stumbled backward in mortified terror, "I set out today to die fighting a villain, to give some meaning to my life. I haven't found the villains I was looking for, or the meaning, but I found you."
She pulled her sword gradually out of the taller man's still writhing body, releasing ever more blood as she went. The taller man grasped at the blade in pure agony—
—and then fell to the ground with a thud, and he stopped moving, the copious blood soaking into his suit.
His partner grasped frantically inside his jacket, finally finding and whipping out a small handgun, pointing it at Sayaka.
"You–you—" he began.
His head fell to the floor a moment later; his body didn't immediately follow.
Yuma put her hands to her mouth in horror. These men hadn't been her friends, obviously, but—
Sayaka turned her head, and her eyes met with Yuma's for just a split‐second. The front of Sayaka's armor was covered in blood.
"You're crazy," Yuma said, voice shaking.
And then she saw the other girl's soul gem, on her belly, seething with despair, the dark shadow that seemed to blot out the universe itself.
Sayaka opened her mouth to say something, but instead turned her head away and ran.
It only took her a moment to disappear from Yuma's sight.
This time Mami didn't sip her tea, instead holding the cup in a hand that shook, ever so slightly.
"So that's what happened, that one time she disappeared," Mami said, looking more shocked than Yuma had seen her in a long time. "She never told us. She never told anyone. Not that I blame her, but—"
Mami leaned one arm onto the table, using it as a desperate physical support.
"Oh, Miki‐san, where did I go wrong?" Mami said. "Why didn't you say anything? We could have…"
Mami's voice trailed off as she stared at the table, clearly reliving the memories. Next to her, MG sat ashen‐faced, watching Yuma with a horrified expression.
"She's the one that ended up dying, right?" she said. "Disappeared and all that. I won't argue they didn't deserve what happened to them, but to just kill them like that…"
Yuma shook her head.
"It's not something you're really made to understand," Yuma said, more coolly than she'd intended. "You AIs are coded to be more robust than that. Like humans, you have a range of base happiness levels, and some of you are prone to sadness and depression, but the kind of thing Miki Sayaka underwent isn't intended to be possible. Be glad for that."
Yuma saw MG lower her head to hide her expression and felt a pang of guilt.
She tried to shake it off, saying:
"Well, anyway, Mami, it wasn't your fault at all…"
"Oh my, it really sounds like things have come to a head," Oriko said, dispelling a blotch of blood from Yuma's shirt with a brief burst of magic.
"I don't understand why you have to do that for her," Kirika said, watching the two of them with what looked like annoyance. "I could easily teach her how to clean up some blood herself."
"We both know you have plenty of experience, Kirika," Oriko said, rubbing Yuma's hair with one hand. "But the fact is, I don't intend Yuma here to get her hands bloody. It shouldn't be a skill she'd need."
Yuma just stood there in silence, not really listening to what the others were talking about.
She didn't know why it bothered her so much, what had happened to those two men, but all she could see at the moment was a man lying dead in a pool of blood, and the hopeless eyes of another man as his life force drained away. There was no reason to hope, after all—no one could ever survive decapitation.
She had picked up the man's head and looked into his eyes, heedless of the blood that stained her clothes.
Then she had healed him, because she didn't know what else to do, leaving the now‐intact man blinking in confusion, lying there in the street. She had used a lot of magic in the effort.
The rest was a blur—stumbling down the street mindlessly, untransformed, until the shocked gasps of pedestrians forced her onto the rooftops. She wondered what it was she had looked like.
"You think she'll be okay?" Kirika said, with a soft tone Yuma had never heard from the girl. "With the way you coddle her, there's no way—"
"She'll be fine," Oriko said decisively, placing her palm to Yuma's forehead.
She thought she saw something glow for a moment, but then she felt her mood lifting, and what had happened seemed to fade away, off into the depths of her memory.
What had she been thinking about?
"If you say so," Kirika said, looking bothered by something.
Oriko gave Kirika a look, and Kirika nodded, turning to leave the room.
Yuma looked up at Oriko, who peered back into her eyes unsettlingly.
"I need you to make some more of those overfilled grief cubes," Oriko said.
"Why?" Yuma asked. "They're dangerous."
"They have their uses," Oriko said.
Somehow, Yuma didn't feel like contesting the topic, and simply nodded. She would do what it took to please onee‐sama, after all.
Eating dinner at Oriko's mansion was always a bit of an odd affair. Oriko always insisted that they all eat together, but the mixture of personalities at their table was combustible at best.
It went without saying that Oriko cooked all of their meals, though the others often volunteered or were roped into helping. The only exception was on those days—increasingly frequent—where Oriko simply didn't have time, and they instead had their meals catered by one of the local restaurants.
Oddly enough, given how much wealth she seemed to have, Oriko simply didn't have any servants. While that did make keeping up the magical girl secret simpler, it seemed very unusual. Yuma had never asked, though.
Oriko wasn't there that day, however, leaving the other four girls to eat their gourmet Italian food in exuberant silence—well, leaving aside Mikuru's occasional self‐comments, which they were all used to now.
"Where exactly is she anyway?" Mikuru asked finally, awkwardly poking at her pasta with chopsticks. "I don't like how she just goes out like this without telling us where she's going. She could be doing anything."
"Who cares?" Aina said.
She took a moment to sip directly out of a bowl of soup before setting it back down and continuing:
"She knows what she's about, and she's the one with the spooky future vision. Don't be so suspicious. We've been through too much for her to just stab us in the back."
"I didn't expect to hear that from you," Mikuru said. "You're the one who's always paranoid about everything. Weren't you the one who said that uh—new girl—Akemi Homura must be some kind of super‐magical girl or slider or something?"
"I'm just saying there's something weird about her," Aina said, working on some roast chicken with a knife. "Angel wings, ridiculous powers, and a personality like that? She's not run‐of‐the‐mill, at least, and I bet her wish wasn't either."
"I'm not going to argue that she isn't unusual, but that doesn't mean she's what you say she is," Mikuru said. "The real world doesn't work like that. We all have reasons we made the wishes we did, but you just don't see any particularly special magical girls around. I almost suspect the Incubators don't grant wishes that would give you too much power."
There was a brief moment of silence, then, as Aina bit into a piece of chicken. That was the obvious reason she wasn't speaking, but Yuma got the impression that wasn't the real reason.
Yuma bit her lip, though, remembering that the last time she had tried to ask Aina about anything she had gotten lifted up into the air again. It was not something she enjoyed.
"You can be skeptical if you want, but there's something going on here," Aina said. "Or haven't you noticed that we're following an oracle to fulfill some mysterious plan that involves some kind of angel girl and—"
Aina cast an open glance at Yuma.
"—some rather ordinary‐looking children."
"I'd just appreciate it if Oriko‐san would share some of her plans with us," Mikuru said. "Look, I'm thankful she did what she did for us, and for giving us this nice place to live. I know we owe her. But keeping us in the dark like this just… makes it seem like she thinks we wouldn't like what she would tell us, that's all. I'd prefer some reassurance."
As she spoke, Mikuru made a point of trying to accentuate her phrasing by aggressively using her chopsticks to eat the pasta. It didn't look very impressive to Yuma—she would have been better off if she were eating meat, like Aina was.
"Don't tell me you're jealous of her," Aina said, cutting into her own meat with a much more impressive gesture.
"Jealous? Of what? The way you think she's some kind of prophet? No. I'm not."
Mikuru bit into some more of her pasta, giving up on any more elaborate gestures.
"The way I see it," she continued. "We're all a little crazy, so you're entitled to your craziness."
"Well the way I see it," Aina said without missing a beat, "is that we're all going to be dead soon enough anyway, so I might as well try to follow what I can, just in case there's something to it."
"The both of you shut up," Kirika said, banging the dark oak table with both fists. "I am tired of hearing you two chit‐chat inanely, especially questioning Oriko. She has only the best in mind for us."
Kirika glared around at the others to see if they would challenge her. Aina sneered, but said nothing. Mikuru ignored Kirika, pointedly focusing on her food.
"For. Your. Information," Kirika said, accentuating each word for emphasis, "our esteemed oracle is attending a violin concert, to blow off some steam. That's it."
"On her own?" Aina said, eating a piece of dessert fruit with a haughty gesture. "That's not safe. She's yelled at me for less than that."
"Well, she would know if it's safe," Kirika said.
"Violin concert?" Mikuru asked. "I have to ask: What performance? I didn't think she was a fan."
Kirika leaned back against her chair, her anger dissipating like a summer shower before the wind.
"Well, I didn't think so either, but there's some local prodigy playing. Ave Maria or something like that. I can't tell you more than that. To be honest, I'm a little bummed she's not taking me with her, but I can understand if she needs her space."
Kirika didn't sound like she believed her own reassurance, but neither Aina nor Mikuru chose to needle her on it. Yuma wondered why.
"Did any of you ever learn to play any instruments?" Yuma asked, on impulse. She had always vaguely wanted to play some music, but her parents were clearly never going to support that.
All three of the others turned to look at her, but not angrily—more as if she had suddenly sprouted a second head.
"Never mind," Yuma squeaked. Why did she say things like that?
They ate the rest of their dinner in silence.
It had been nearly a month since Oriko had last asked Yuma to go on patrol and to be frank, she was a little excited. She missed a little the rush of combat, and the carelessness with which she could smash everything around her with her hammer. It stood in stark contrast to the way she lived her usual life, a monotony of fiddling with grief cubes, book lessons from Oriko, and carefully stepping around the toes of the other girls.
She wasn't surprised, though, when instead of demons, her small three‐person party—herself, Aina, and Mikuru—ran into members of the Mitakihara Three. Oriko's trademark was her ability to foresee the future, and Yuma was gradually learning that in her vicinity very little of importance happened by accident, whether it be having ramen with murderous magical girls or chance encounters while out on patrol.
They found Tomoe Mami and Akemi Homura exiting, of all things, a flower shop, the older girl holding in front of her a bouquet of blue flowers three times the size of her head.
Following Aina's cue, the three of them landed in a nearby alleyway, stepping out in front of the other two girls. There were far too many pedestrians in the area to have a confrontation, but it was necessary to show that they had noticed the other girls.
However, even if they were in public, there was no rule that they had to pretend to like each other.
"This is neutral borderland," Mami said, looking over the other three with a strained expression, as if she could barely stand the situation. "I know you types don't really respect that kind of thing, but we are within rights to be here."
Hinata Aina smiled unsettlingly.
"We're not here to kill you today. We're just here to observe. Although…"
She looked at Homura, and Yuma followed the gaze, stopping on Homura's intense expression, which she abruptly realized was focused on Yuma herself. Homura seemed to be… watching her for something.
She was the same girl Yuma had seen before, obviously—and yet she wasn't, not with that brooding look and burning intensity. Something was different about the girl Aina thought had angelic traits. What had happened to her?
Yuma could see that Aina was having thoughts along the same lines, but rather than ask a question that wouldn't be answered, Aina said:
"You know, since we have your attention, I have to ask…"
She batted her hair insouciantly, a gesture Yuma knew she did to annoy people.
"What exactly happened to Miki Sayaka? Our sources tell us that she's gone missing, and that's a real shame—"
A moment later Aina found herself blinking down the barrel of one of Mami's ornate muskets, which the untransformed girl had somehow managed to summon and swing directly into Aina's face so quickly none of the others had managed to react.
Aina managed to stay impressively unfazed.
"Put that away," Mikuru said coldly. "We're in a public location."
"For your information," Mami growled, "she died fighting off a massive horde of demons from a violin concert, and deserves your respect. Not that you would know anything about heroism."
"Just like you know nothing about keeping your kouhai alive?" Aina retorted, ignoring the gun barrel in her face.
A spasm of rage passed over Mami's face, and for a moment Yuma was actually afraid she would fire, but then the new Homura grabbed Mami's arm and forced it downward.
"It's not worth it," Homura said.
"And what's with you?" Aina began.
"Violin concert?" Yuma interrupted, blurting out the question. "Ave Maria?"
"Actually, yes," Homura said, looking at Yuma with a newly inquisitive expression, as Mami continued to try to pull her arm out of Homura's grasp.
"Have you heard about it?" Homura asked a moment later.
Yuma squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a tremendous headache coming on. She remembered putting grief cubes in a machine, activating the machines, giving the contents to Oriko—
"That bitch!" Mami said, slamming her teacup and saucer off the table and into one of the virtual pedestrians, who recoiled momentarily before the simulation erased the event, returning the pedestrians to normal with a shimmer.
"Four hundred years, and I'm still learning new reasons to hate her!" Mami said, barely stopping herself from yelling, though she gesticulated wildly with one arm, trademark hair bouncing. "What next? Am I going to learn that the war was her fault? Or that she caused Homura to leave?"
"Calm down, Mami‐san," MG said, cringing away from the normally sedate Mami. "This was centuries ago."
Mami regained control of herself with a very visible effort, bracing herself against the metal table and swallowing dramatically, before falling back into her seat.
Her cup of tea reappeared, and she picked it up, chugging rather than sipping at the drink.
"To think that Oriko was behind what happened to Sayaka," Mami said finally, shaking her head. "I always knew there was something fishy about that demon spawn."
"Not just Oriko," Yuma said. "I was the one who made the cubes she used as weapons."
"She didn't tell you what they were for," MG said.
"I could have easily deduced she was attacking someone," Yuma said. "Or I could have asked, at the very least."
"She obviously performed some kind of mental manipulation on you," Mami said, sipping her tea more calmly—though she was drinking a lot of tea. "It's not your fault at all."
"Did she though?" Yuma said. "I've had many years to think about what happened, and I'm not fully convinced. She clearly lifted my mood, but think of all the times we've used a mood‐lifting spell on our teams. There's no evidence she did anything more than that. At very least, I don't think she would have been able to control me if I hadn't wanted to be controlled. It left me feeling guilty for a long time."
Mami shook her head.
"Mind manipulation or not, you were only nine," Mami said. "Oriko is the one at fault. I'm not going to hold you responsible for what happened then, just like I don't hold you responsible for what happened to the Southern Group later."
"You might not, but I'm not sure I can say the same. What really matters is what Kyouko thinks."
Mami's eyes widened, apparently not having thought of the topic from that angle, even though it was part of the justification Yuma had given for even bringing the topic up.
"Kyouko has always blamed herself for what happened to Sayaka," Yuma continued. "She thinks she could have stopped it, that she should have done something different… but Oriko had it in for her all along. If it was Oriko that wanted Sayaka to destroy herself, there was probably nothing Kyouko could do."
"I'm not sure I buy that," Mami commented.
"It gives her another way to think about it," Yuma said. "I've wanted to tell her for a long, long time, but each year that passes makes it harder to drag up history this old, especially since…"
Yuma closed her eyes for a moment, letting the end of her sentence trail off.
"Especially since I don't know how she will take the fact that I was involved," she said. "That's why I never brought it up in the first place, all those years ago."
She picked up the café au lait in front of her, then set it back down again. She still didn't feel like drinking any of it.
"But the thing is, we all have our obsessions," she continued, "and hers is what happened to Sayaka. You've read the reports as much as I have. Her inability to let go is starting to hurt her. We need to push her out of her rut, for better or worse."
Mami shook her head.
"I'm still not sure I agree."
"Think about it. For now, I should finish the story, for MG's sake."
"I'm not sure I want to hear it. The past sounds like a terrible, horrible place."
Yuma could have pointed out that it was MG who always got mad at her for keeping secrets from her, but bit down that easy, puerile rejoinder. It was MG's prerogative to be unreasonable to Yuma sometimes, but Yuma couldn't do the same. Not given their relationship.
"Yeah, and we had to live there," Mami said, holding her tea pensively.
To say that Oriko and the others rarely entertained guests would have been a drastic understatement. In the entire time that Yuma had spent at the mansion, she had not once seen anyone other than the five members of their group cross the iron gates that barred passage inward. Postman and delivery boy alike were obliged to drop off their parcels at the gate, or else to wait for one of the girls to come grab the goods. According to Mikuru, the local legend was that Oriko's mansion was being used for a secret government project, or else haunted, depending on who you asked. Oriko preferred it that way—it was truly a walled garden.
Yet here in the tea garden Oriko sat, entertaining the mysterious foreign magical girl from—well, somewhere in Europe; Yuma was guessing Germany. Somehow Yuma had been allowed to sit with the two of them as long as she stayed quiet, and she spent the time openly staring at the newcomer, with her sprinkling of freckles and shock of unusually wavy hair.
She was a magical girl, and she had said her name was Clarisse van Rossum. Instead of challenging the intrusion into their territory, or even questioning who the girl was, Oriko had laid out the figurative red carpet, telling the others that Clarisse was special.
And so she was. To hear her tell it, in stilted Japanese, she was some kind of wandering magical girl, obligated by her wish to travel the world, and was just over a century old. To Yuma, who hadn't realized it was even possible for a magical girl to leave the city, it sounded romantic and wondrous—and also possibly made up, especially the part where she claimed to be a hundred years old.
Oriko took in the story unquestioningly, though, and if Oriko believed it, how could Yuma say she knew any better?
"So you're just passing by?" Oriko asked, dabbling her cake into some honey poured out onto her plate.
"A little," Clarisse said, her use of the language shaky. "I don't understand, but something here in this city is very, very important. I haven't figured out what it is, but it might be something to do with uh, the girls, farther down—"
"Akemi Homura?" Oriko asked, pouring her guest a new cup of tea.
"Oh yes, I should have just said the name," Clarisse said. "Her. But I still don't really understand it."
"That's very interesting," Oriko said. "I—"
Yuma didn't catch the rest of Oriko's sentence, however, as the new girl's voice boomed in her head.
I have a message for you, little one, Clarisse thought, and Yuma understood what she was saying perfectly, even though the thought was rendered in—well, Yuma didn't even know what language it was.
Message? Yuma thought, glancing back and forth repeatedly between Clarisse and Oriko, both of whom seemed perfectly oblivious to the telepathic communication, though of course Clarisse could not be.
Yes, a message, that I was told to relay to you, though I do not quite understand it myself.
A message from whom? Yuma thought, managing to still herself and pretend to focus on eating the croissant in front of her.
I can't say. It's a simple message, though. It says, you should know that despite your youth, you can do a lot more than you think to change the world. More than that, I'm supposed to remind you that Oriko doesn't really see everything—she only sees what she tries to see.
Are you trying to turn me against her? Yuma asked, feeling a sense of rage rising within her.
No, it is only advice about your life and your surroundings, Clarisse said, outwardly sipping at her tea.
Who are you? Yuma asked.
"I guess you could say I'm the ghost of history," Clarisse said, out loud, apparently a continuation of her conversation with Oriko.
"Well, then I'm the ghost of the future," Oriko said. "What is this, A Christmas Carol?"
Oriko looked down at her tea for a moment, looking briefly thoughtful. Not just the usual kind of thoughtful either, such as when choosing what to make for dinner—this was a lot deeper, more vulnerable.
In that moment, Yuma was struck by how much younger Oriko looked than the other girl, and for a moment Clarisse's unbelievable assertions about her lifespan seemed almost plausible.
"I might as well take the opportunity to ask someone more experienced…" Oriko began.
Clarisse tilted her head slightly, inviting Oriko to ask her question.
"It feels like a silly question," Oriko prevaricated, "and I'm not sure if in your short time meeting Akemi‐san you noticed, but she has some rather interesting beliefs."
"That there is a Goddess of magical girls who watches over us all and runs some kind of afterlife?" Clarisse asked efficiently, casually drinking more tea.
Oriko was visibly relieved she didn't have to explain. Yuma, though, scrunched her face in perplexity—Goddess? Afterlife? What were they talking about?
"Yes," Oriko said. "It sounds silly of me to say, but the idea has troubled me for a while now. I know you are particularly long‐lived, but most of us have only short lives to look forward to. I just wanted to know if, after your long life, you think even a part of it is possible. We are magical, and I think I speak for all of us when I say I'd like there to be some meaning to my life other than what I make of it."
Clarisse smiled cryptically.
"If it reassures you, I can say that I don't think it impossible at all. I've seen enough in my life to make me believe that there's something deeper to all this than just what the Incubators tell us. But if the Goddess Akemi Homura believes in really exists, I wish she'd give me more clues as to what I'm supposed to be doing here."
Oriko closed her eyes for a moment, then reached for a pastry.
"I think I would like that as well," Oriko said. "You would think that someone like me who can see the future would be more certain of the meaning of fate, but if anything I'm more uncertain than anyone."
"Hmm," Clarisse said, chewing on a croissant.
Another message, Clarisse thought to Yuma. This time from me, because I'm not without insight of my own, and I feel sorry for you. I'm sure you've noticed by now that there's a lot more to your Southern Group than is obvious. The past month has been eventful for you, though I don't think things will stay that way. I want you to know that you're a lot stronger than you think you are, and not to lose hope. Hope is, after all, what makes a magical girl. Just keep your eyes open, and don't be scared to ask questions.
Yuma blinked, taking in the rapid‐fire message. She hadn't known it was possible to think a message so quickly.
"Honestly, I'm not surprised," Clarisse said. "Sometimes I feel as if more knowledge just makes you more aware of how much you don't know. That's been a lot of my experience, anyway."
Oriko looked up abruptly, glancing over the table.
"Yuma‐chan, we seem to be almost out of pastries," she said. "Be a dear and go grab some, okay?"
Yuma nodded, hiding her reluctance as she dropped out of her chair. She didn't want to leave what seemed like an important conversation, but if there was one thing magical girls were, they were gluttons, completely free of the limitations of body shape, caloric intake, or even stomach capacity—Kirika and Aina were probably the shining examples of this, though she had seen Oriko imbibe shocking amounts of fine chocolate on more than one occasion.
"It is natural for every magical girl to wonder about their impact on the world," she heard Clarisse say as she walked away. "I can't give much assurance on that, though I think most of us would settle for just being remembered…"
"The way Clarisse talks almost makes it seem like she might have known what happened to Sayaka," Mami said, frowning. "Do you know if she does?"
Yuma shook her head.
"I've never asked, and even if I did, do you really think she'd tell me? She doesn't talk about the secrets she knows. In fact, I bet you never knew she ever met Oriko."
Mami made a face as if she had just bitten into something unpleasant.
"No, I didn't, and it sticks in my craw a little that the two of them talked so pleasantly. Would it really hurt for her to a little more open about the past? It's been so long."
"I would guess that she has plenty of skeletons in the closet, same as all of us," Yuma said.
"I suppose," Mami answered, reluctantly dropping the topic.
She stirred her tea.
"I'm still surprised Clarisse has fallen in with Kyouko's Cult nonsense," she said, finally.
"Clarisse has always been different from the rest of us, even the Ancients," Yuma said placidly, finally taking a sip of her coffee. "I can understand why she would want to seek meaning in her long life."
"And you?" Mami asked.
Yuma looked at Mami with one eye. It was an unusually direct question for Mami, but the girl looked only inquisitive; Yuma sensed no ulterior motives in the body language, for whatever that was worth in a simulation.
"Oriko never believed in anything like that, even though I know she wanted to," Yuma said. "That's good enough for me."
She saw Mami frown, knowing she had displeased her with the vaguely positive reference to Oriko.
Mami was wrong, of course. Clarisse couldn't talk about the past, no matter how long ago it was. There was no better example of that than Mami herself, who still held her grudge against Oriko four and a half centuries later. Some things were just better not spoken about.
Clarisse had been right; things calmed down considerably after the first month.
Once Yuma got used to the rhythms of living with the Southern Group—how not to step on anyone's toes, how to avoid negative encounters with Aina, and how to exploit Mikuru and Oriko's relative friendliness—things became a lot less hectic. Life settled into a dull monotony of eating, sleeping, and working on Oriko's eccentric magical projects and assigned reading.
There were no insane girls inviting her to dinner, no contact with the other magical girl team of the city, no dubious century‐old guests—indeed, Yuma barely stepped outside at all, save for an occasional demon hunt to keep her skills sharp.
Yuma was okay with that, really. She had seen what the opposite of monotony was, and it involved getting to watch a man struggling for life in front of her, and learning that onee‐sama was a murderer.
She much preferred the monotony.
Nowadays, she spent much of her time working on Oriko's assignments. She didn't really understand what Oriko was trying to teach her with her alleged home‐schooling, which was clearly radically different from what she would have gotten in a normal school. The lessons cycled through a selection of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, Economic Theory, Mathematics, and English.
In addition to being eccentric, Yuma perceived that she was being held to extremely high standards, and no amount of flattery from Oriko about how she was a prodigy made the struggle with the material any more pleasant.
Oriko, though, had a trick…
Yuma stared up at Oriko's face, feeling restless. According to Oriko, a supine posture was best for certain kinds of magical procedures, so Yuma was lying face up on top of her bedsheets, observing features of Oriko's face and the ceiling above her.
"Are you sure this is safe?" Yuma asked, peering up at the older girl skeptically.
Oriko smiled back down at her indulgently, though her face betrayed a little surprise. Up until then, Yuma had repeatedly questioned instead whether it would work, and Oriko had always responded with something along the lines of:
"Well, in principle modifying the brain shouldn't be any different than modifying any other body part, which isn't really all that different from healing, when you get down to it. Of course, you're naturally talented at healing, but learning to do anything else will take some careful focus."
The response was consistent enough that Yuma was now capable of quoting it nearly verbatim, though she didn't really think it answered the question. Suffice to say, Oriko behaved as if she was confident that it would work, once she trained Yuma in the right kind of magical application.
Whether it was safe, though…
"I wouldn't be confident it was safe, except that I've already spent the power to view this part of the future," Oriko said, eyes softening for a moment. "It is safe."
Yuma blinked. The answer was certainly definitive, but it also confirmed that Yuma's concerns were, in fact, completely reasonable.
"Alright, remember what you're supposed to do and close your eyes," Oriko said. "I can apply a small magical effect to help you concentrate, but modifying your own body is entirely a matter of your own willpower."
That was easy for her to say, but Yuma remained skeptical, even if she had earlier that week managed to grow her hair and shorten her fingernails by the exact same technique. It just… didn't seem comparable enough.
Still, she closed her eyes, allowing the influence of Oriko's magic to wash over her, smoothing away the doubts and skepticism she had about all of this. When it came to magic, Oriko was fond of saying, believing was as good as seeing, and Yuma settled in, trying to ingrain onto her soul gem a new vision of herself: a child prodigy, one with the attention span to read thick, ponderous books, capable of churning through arcane formulas in a textbook, and capable of writing spectacular computer programs. She imagined herself getting on‐stage and giving a lecture to an audience, working in front of a chalkboard, and mixing chemicals in a lab coat.
It was all rather silly, of course, but Oriko had instructed Yuma to visualize everything that meant "smart" to her, and Yuma could not allow herself to realize it was silly. She needed to desire it, to imagine it with all sincerity, to immerse herself in the idea so much that she was on the verge of believing it to be true.
Do that, Oriko said, and her soul gem itself would do the rest, updating her body to be what she now believed herself to be. Her personality, her memories, her soul—those were untouchable, but the rest was much more malleable.
Oriko's magic could wipe away some of the doubts, but she still had to want it, and Yuma found herself struggling with that more than anything.
Stupid kid, her father had said.
Don't you understand anything? her mother had said.
What makes you think you know anything about what you're talking about? Aina had sneered.
She let the anger fill her, let it help her imagine the look on her dead parents' faces when she achieved her potential, and imagined the sense of satisfaction she would get, when she finally proved Aina wrong, when she finally—
Yuma's eyes snapped open, as Oriko grabbed her shoulders and shook softly but resolutely. Yuma peered at Oriko in confusion.
"Sorry, that's my fault," Oriko said. "I think I might have overdone the effect a little. How do you feel? Do you feel any different?"
Yuma thought about the question, then looked around at her arms and legs, even though that made no sense. How exactly was she supposed to check? Unlike having longer hair, the effects would not be obvious.
Oriko picked up Yuma's hands, peering intently at the ring on one of her fingers. Yuma followed the gaze, and for a moment it seemed to glow, though she couldn't tell for certain.
"I don't think it worked," Yuma said.
Instead of responding, Oriko handed her an open textbook.
"Read," she instructed. "To yourself, it doesn't have to be out loud."
Yuma read, her own voice ringing didactic in her head:
A metric space is a generalization of normal Euclidean space to an arbitrary set of objects. Such a space M must consist of a set of objects X and a distance metric d: X x X→ℝ defined for any two objects in the set, such that the following properties hold:
1. d(x,y)=0 ⇔ x=y
She wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar terminology, wondering why she was reading this of all things.
"It seems reasonable enough," she said. "That's what you'd expect out of a distance."
"You read that pretty quickly," Oriko said.
"You let Oriko mess with your brain?" Mami asked, aghast.
"I was ten!" Yuma defended. "Besides, it's not like she was the one doing anything to it. That was my own power. You know how this kind of thing works."
"I do," Mami said, "but heaven only knows what she could have done when she was 'helping your concentration.'"
"She had plenty of chances other than that if she were going to try to do something sneaky," Yuma said. "There's no reason to be worried about this in particular."
"Let me make sure I understand this correctly," MG said, interrupting the small argument. "You modified yourself to have greater intelligence, with Mikuni Oriko's help?"
"Pretty much," Yuma said, looking over at her AI protégé. "As long as you avoid changing anything to do with personality, it's well within our capabilities. Indeed, this kind of thing is fairly common for our covert researchers and operatives, such as when they need to learn a new language."
"It doesn't seem that weird to me," MG said. "We modify our capabilities all the time. What's weird is how incapable most humans are of the same. It makes you more like us."
Yuma saw Mami glance at the AI. It wasn't the kind of comment Mami would appreciate.
She looked down for a moment. There was a conversation she needed to have with Mami, about her TacComp of all things, but she didn't relish it.
"As I recall, you were the one who introduced the general technique," Mami said, clasping her hands in front of her mouth and peering at the other girl. "You said you'd developed it yourself."
"A white lie," Yuma said, shrugging.
Mami shook her head in dismay.
"Until today, I would have said that the four of us were past that kind of secret‐keeping," Mami said, looking down. "I don't blame you, but it just bothers me. The only good thing about this war is that we can finally be more open about things."
Yuma bit back a sharp retort, acknowledging that Mami had refused to blame her.
She hoped, though, that Mami perceived the inconsistency in her own position, on the one hand wanting them not to keep secrets, and on the other doubting whether Yuma should tell Kyouko about what Oriko had done to Sayaka.
Yuma closed her eyes for a moment.
"I have to disagree. I don't think the world will ever stop giving us secrets that we must keep," Yuma said, couching her words carefully. "At the very least there's plenty of information that would help our enemies if revealed. And before you say we don't have any enemies—"
"Yes, yes, what almost happened to Kyouko," Mami said impatiently. "I try to be idealistic, not naïve."
There was a moment of silence at the table, as they each focused on their own thoughts.
"Did you ever reverse the changes you made with Oriko?" Mami asked finally. "Are you still… you know?"
"You mean go back to being the way I was before?" Yuma asked.
She shook her head.
"No. Once you experience that kind of thing, you can't go back. Whatever else you want to say about Oriko, she gave me a pretty good education. I would have lost all of that if I tried to reverse anything. You can't really believe that I can hold my position right now with a body like this without some heavy modification? Even with the implants."
"I did believe that," Mami said, "and even then, what about when you weren't in this child's body? Did you reverse the changes then?"
"No, I didn't," Yuma said.
Mami shook her head again, muttered something to herself, then drank her tea compulsively.
Mami had always been a bit of a conservative, Yuma thought. This kind of brain modification was still highly secret in the MSY, precisely because its revelation to the magical girl public at large would cause a firestorm of controversy.
There were… many things like that. Things that Mami reminded her too much of.
That, too, was a conversation Yuma didn't relish having.