"I have had much time in my long life to think about the nature of consciousness, of souls and wishes and what might have been. I'm not told as much as I'd like to be, but I've reached my own conclusions."

"The Incubators tell us we each have our own soul, that they can package it into these little gems, and with that we can make a wish. But it is well‐known that this version of consciousness flies in the face of all that science has taught us. Consciousness is malleable, and can come in any size desired. Governance has made playing tricks with consciousness a matter of course, and there is no doubt in its ability to fill the Empty Throne, should the need arise one day."

"But what of the soul of such creations? What of the soul of those who sit on the Directorate, the amalgamation of so many smaller Representatives? What of the humans involved in this process? What if we filled the Empty Throne, but a girl desired to make a wish? Would her soul somehow be torn away from the collective, or would the wish not even be possible? Does this question even make sense?"

"I believe the Incubator's vision of the soul is a lie, though not a deliberate one. The idea of each person's soul being wholly distinct and held within a gem is simply unnatural, especially if you have seen, as I have, the possibility of more than one world. This, I believe, is the secret to why soul gems must decay. They are simply unnatural, though we must remember that being unnatural and being bad are two different things."

"But you are shaking your head. The famed First Executive of the MSY is a bit more eccentric than usually reported, yes? Well, you're not going to be able to use these words, I know. I myself wonder why I am even telling you this much…"

— Akemi Homura, redacted quote from "Akemi Homura, an Official Biography," (MSY Internal), 2405. MSY‐classified material is viewable only with permission from the Leadership Committee.

I do not have the faith in the TCF that so many of my colleagues do. I have spent time thinking about, working on, and studying magic, and I am all too aware that if there is anything magic provably excels at, it is in achieving the impossible. What do theoretical guarantees mean to the girl who wishes to brush them all aside? Nothing.

Thus, I am glad that in this one case Governance sees fit to agree with my paranoia, at least insofar as they have granted resources for investigating this potential problem, though it distresses me that these have been allocated to our neighbors, the Zeus Institute. I understand it is a problem involving magic, but it also involves technology, and thus should fall under our purview.

In any case, I have allocated some resources from our own budget for this topic, and for the important related problem of designing additional robustness into the TCF, in case of breaches, but this has thus far proven to be a challenging idea…

— Joanne Valentin, excerpt from memo to the Board of Directors of the Prometheus Institute

"One tessa ready, Shizuki‐san!" a squeaky, but cheerful voice said.

An oddly flexible mechanical arm delivered her dish of carefully sliced fish a moment later, wrapping around the bottom of the plate with all the expert grace of a true tentacle.

Ryouko gulped surreptitiously. Robotic arms were a common sight at conveyor‐belt sushi establishments, a single mechanical arm carefully folded in front of each patron, awaiting their command. According to her mother, they had first appeared about four decades ago, as part of a silly fad that accompanied the consumerization of formerly military robotics technology, and had never quite gone away.

"Thank you, Tako‐san!" Chiaki said, waving hi to the holographic mascot that drooped languidly over the edge of the counter. The mechanical arm that had delivered Ryouko's food raised itself up to wave back.

"You're welcome!" the voice squeaked.

Ryouko and Asami glanced at each other, then at Meiqing, who was further down the counter. The cartoon octopus mascots were cute and enormously popular with children, which explained their continued presence, despite an unfortunate resemblance to certain murderous alien invaders.

It's a good thing they're so cartoonish, Meiqing thought, or they'd have problems with veterans and PTSD.

Ryouko nodded, as inconspicuously as she could manage. She couldn't help but think of the building AI for the ITG on Eurydome, which had been forced to stop using a Cthulhu avatar for the same reason.

"Come on, Ryouko, open up," Asami said, holding up a pair of chopsticks with a piece of Ahi sashimi.

Ryouko could feel the eyes of Chiaki and Ruiko on her as she ate the proffered fish. She was pretty sure Asami was doing this intentionally, and it took a good deal of her self‐control not to blush.

She closed her eyes for a moment, though. The unexpected wiring synergy that made raw meat taste delicious to those in the military apparently extended to fish as well. It gave an entirely new dimension to sushi.

When she opened her eyes again, she found Asami looking at her expectantly, and sighed internally.

"Come on," she said, picking up a piece of her tessa for Asami to eat. The girl bit down, closing her eyes and looking pleased for a long moment.

"Get a room, girls," Ruiko said, rolling her eyes. "Look, you're scandalizing your poor adopted sister."

She gestured at Sacnite, who had transitioned from staring wide‐eyed at the fish to staring wide‐eyed at Ryouko and Asami. She was seated to Ryouko's far left, next to Ryouko's mother, who was working quietly on a piece of hamachi.

"You know, bluefin tuna went extinct in the wild centuries ago," Chiaki said, expertly changing the topic. "The only reason we have it now is because some hyperclass fanatics managed to save a breeding population for themselves. They still haven't quite managed to reintroduce them to the oceans—all this stuff is probably still farmed in orbit, where the environment can be better controlled."

Indeed, the place they were in proudly advertised that they served "No Synthesized Fish", which also meant it was exorbitantly expensive. That was no matter, since their meal was on the invitation of a wealthy woman named Sakura Kyouko, seated directly to Ryouko's left.

"Yes, I remember that," said woman said absently, after gulping down a cup of sake. "Cost me a pretty penny, let me tell you, but it was worth it."

Chiaki's serene face dropped into an open gape. Ryouko didn't think her school friends had really quite grasped who Kyouko was.

"That was you?" she asked wondrously.

"A lot of things were me," Kyouko said, crooking her mouth sardonically.

She leaned over, pointing at Ryouko's meal.

"Here's another fun fact from an old lady. The fish that comes from produces an extremely deadly neurotoxin in some of its glands. It used to be a fine art, making sure you could eat any of the fish without killing yourself. It used to be a thrill, until implants made it so the toxin couldn't kill you."

She sniffed airily.

"Though us magical girls have been eating stuff like this for longer than that. It used to be a popular way to show off."

There was a moment of silence while the rest of the party shifted uncomfortably. Kyouko seemed a bit moody, alternating between odd comments and strange silences. Even the situation itself, Kyouko offering to take Ryouko "and friends" out to a dinner, struck her as a bit out of character.

"So Ryouko," Chiaki said, again playing the diplomat over the conversation. "Obviously you've had a bit of an exciting life recently. Us poor friends of yours only have news stories and rumors to go on. What have you been up to?"

"What was it like on that freaky religious colony?" Ruiko interjected, before Ryouko could say anything. "I can't believe they were doing those horrible things! Those poor girls!"

From the corner of her eye, Ryouko saw Kyouko turn her head slightly, while Nakase gave Ruiko a carefully‐veiled look.

Governance had done a remarkably good job of keeping Sacnite's presence here a secret—it appeared that people trusted their nomenclators so much, all it took was a simple pseudonym to get most people to turn off their brains. It certainly helped that after the initial burst of stories, Governance had gone to some length to keep the appearances of the clones a secret, even going so far as to change the clones' features before releasing propaganda videos. It was part of a public campaign that justified the cloud of secrecy that now surrounded X‐25 with the explanation that it was necessary to protect the privacy of "those poor girls".

Unfortunately, that secrecy extended to Ruiko and Chiaki—neither of them had any clue who Sacnite was. She was staying with Ryouko and Nakase under the guise of an MSY program placing young orphans with girls who could be their new magical sisters—a program that, conveniently, did exist.

"I'm not allowed to talk about it," Ryouko said, casting an eye at Kyouko, who she hoped would bail her out.

"Oh come on!" Ruiko insisted.

"Ryouko is right," Kyouko said, sitting up in her chair. "I was there too, and there's nothing we should talk about. What happened there is better left in the past. You know that."

It was a sharp, officious rebuke coming from Kyouko, and Ruiko visibly wilted.

"I apologize," she said.

"No need," Kyouko said emptily, sipping some more sake.

She turned towards Ryouko.

"So, what are you going to do now that the ITG is temporarily out of commission?" she asked.

"I don't really know yet," Ryouko said honestly. "It's only been a short while since I got back, so there hasn't really been any time to think about it."

"Well, you're not going to get a lot of time," Kyouko said, drinking more of her alcohol. "Your little security guards are proof of that. You're not going to get left alone. If nothing else, eventually the military is going to try to summon you back if it doesn't seem like you're doing anything."

Ryouko looked down at her food, chopsticks paused mid‐action. Her appetite had started to desert her.

"I know that," she said. "But what am I supposed to do? All I can really do is sit here and wait for orders from someone. Like you said, I'm ultimately beholden to the military. It's not like I can suddenly leave and go be a cook or something."

"Would you be happy as a cook?" Kyouko asked, rhetorically.

"No," Ryouko answered, just as rhetorically.

For a long moment no one spoke, the silence only broken by the clatter of chopsticks.

"It's my first time having sushi, yeah," Sacnite said, continuing a conversation Ryouko hadn't noticed. "I don't know if this is my first time having fish. It might be."

"What do you mean it might be?" Ruiko demanded, shocked. "How can it be your first time having fish?"

Before Ryouko could attempt to intervene in the conversation, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

She turned her head to look, and almost jerked in surprise.

"Director Valentin," Kyouko said, tilting her head in greeting. "It's surprising seeing you here."

Her tone was carefully neutral.

"Well, I don't spend all day at the lab," Joanne said, placing her hands on their chairs so she could lean over. "I was surprised to find you all here, so I thought I'd say hi."

"Hi," Asami said around a pair of chopsticks. Farther down the table, Ryouko's mother waved awkwardly.

"How's the new system holding up?" Joanne said, casting a meaningful glance at Chiaki and Ruiko. "No glitches?"

"Unless you count the raw meat glitch," Ryouko said, putting a piece of fish in her mouth by way of emphasis.

Director Valentin laughed, a sound that seemed… somehow off.

"Ah yes, that one," she said. "I think it's everyone's favorite."

She ducked her head for a moment.

"I couldn't help but overhear the previous topic of conversation. I promise I'm not just being nosy, but I just had a fascinating discussion regarding the matter with Sakura‐san's colleague, Chitose‐san. I suppose it couldn't hurt for me to convey this news in person."

She looked at Ryouko, Asami, and Kyouko expectantly, until Kyouko finally prompted:

"News?" she said. "What news?"

Joanne closed her eyes for a moment, looking pleased with herself.

"Well, I don't have to tell you that the Version Two Tactical Computer rollout has gone… a bit differently than we had anticipated. There is no question that we will soon have to reveal to the government these unpredicted results. After that, it will be necessary to do a bit of a publicity campaign to ensure the public does not grow too worried."

Ryouko nodded.

"I'm not sure where this is going, though," she said.

"Well, you are slated to appear in an upcoming movie," Joanne said. "Chitose‐san is speaking with the production committee about having a script change, to more accurately reflect the existence of… Clarisse, I believe? In that case I believe the writers and actors will want to talk to you in person for the movie. Both of you."

Ryouko looked back blankly. She wasn't sure how she was supposed to feel about this.

I don't know how to feel about this either, the TacComp in question thought.

"If Clarisse is not okay with it," Joanne said, "then we do not have to reveal that you have a Version Two installed. This is strictly up to you two. I suspect the committee will get in touch with you, sooner rather than later."

"I see," Ryouko said, rather flatly.

"I am sorry, I rarely have to ask this question," Kyouko said, shaking her head. "But what are you talking about? What does Clarisse van Rossum have to do with this?"

Joanne smiled slightly.

"Ask Yuma‐chan," she said. "I am not allowed to speak about it yet."

She nodded pointedly at Ryouko.

"I am going to say hi to your mother. A shame what happened with your parents. They were such a good couple! Well, I can't say I regret introducing them if you were the result."

With that parting shot, Joanne stepped away and headed down the row of seats.

Yuma‐chan? Kyouko thought, following the woman with her eyes. I didn't know they were on such good terms. And what do you suppose she meant—

Kyouko's thought stopped abruptly, with the sensation of a door slamming shut.

She shook her head.

"Well, anyway," she said. "What do you think about going shopping with me tomorrow? I have some stuff I'd like to buy, and ordering from an online catalog is so boring."

Ryouko searched the other girl's eyes, but found what seemed to be open sincerity.

"I'm not doing anything else," she said honestly. "I don't think Asami is either."

"I'd like to come too, if you don't mind," Chiaki said, looking at Kyouko with what seemed like an odd look.

"I'll pencil you all in," Kyouko said. "Come if you like."

Isn't she supposed to be, like, really busy? Asami thought, looking at Ryouko. How does she have time to do this all suddenly?

I don't know, Ryouko thought.

Asami turned to wave at Valentin, who was walking away to return to her own seat, a booth on the other side of the restaurant.

I don't trust her, Clarisse thought.

The twin suns traced wandering paths across the ceiling of the shopping complex, impossibly fast, casting their table into a complex amalgamation of partial shadows that was always in flux. Against the eerie backdrop of a too‐purple sky, it was supposed to dazzle shoppers with an alien panorama.

To Ryouko's slightly tired eyes, it looked fake—it hardly emitted at all in infrared or ultraviolet. The windows and sky in the Prometheus botanical gardens had been much better done.

But then, the display was hardly intended for her.

She would be glad when night arrived, as it seemed about to.

"I remember when no one your age had any interest in coming to a place like this," Kyouko said, stirring her caffeinated fruit drink with a small spoon. "I'm still amazed they even exist."

"What? Shopping centers?" Ruiko asked.

"Yes," Kyouko said. "When I was young, they were common, but back before the Unification Wars, no one ever bothered going anywhere just to buy something. It was easier just to order everything you wanted online, assuming you had the money."

"That can't be right," Chiaki said. "Who would want to pass up the experience? Other than boys, of course."

Who indeed? Ryouko thought into the silence that followed, probing her cake with a fork.

"Well, I guess everything old is new again," Kyouko said finally. "I'd missed the experience a little. The funny thing is, no one even remembers the old name for an enclosed shopping center anymore."

"What word?"

Ryouko tuned the conversation out, uninterested. She had given up trying to figure out why Kyouko was behaving so strangely. She had been trying to ask the last time they had been alone, but Kyouko clearly wasn't interesting in discussing the situation.

Ryouko looked at the bags and bags of clothing that signified Chiaki and Asami's purchases that day—to her jaundiced eye, only if they had bought clothes for Sacnite would it have served any purpose.

Her eye lingered on Kyouko's single purchase. While the teenagers had wandered the boutique clothing stores, accompanied by drone attendants, Kyouko had instead chosen to while away her time in jewelry shops, casting her eye over natural gemstones that carried exorbitant prices.

"I'm just looking for something to buy someone as an apology," Kyouko had said when Ryouko snuck away from Asami to ask her about it. "It'd all be so easy if I could just buy an expensive ring, but she won't appreciate the money. Or the ring, for that matter."

In the end Kyouko had purchased a pendant, with special directions she didn't allow Ryouko to hear.

Penny for your thoughts? Asami asked, glancing at Ryouko from the corner of her eye. As always, she had picked up that Ryouko wasn't really paying attention.

I'm just wondering about what Kyouko bought, Ryouko thought, half‐truthfully.

Aren't we all, Asami thought. She's been so secretive. It's a good thing they gave us these disguises.

Yes, Ryouko thought.

The little devices that served to subtly adjust their appearance to fool facial recognition heightened Ryouko's distrust of the nomenclators. It had taken some getting used to, looking at each other with the wrong faces, but Ruiko and Chiaki had giggled at the novelty.

There was no sense taking risks, after all. With Ryouko and Kyouko in the same place at the same time, in a very public location, the possibility that someone would put the pieces together and identify Sacnite was too likely to be ignored.

Finally, someone thought. You girls are too damn hard to find.

Ryouko turned her head slowly, exerting her self‐control to suppress the surprise even as Asami jerked in her seat. Who was it?

A familiar‐looking girl walked up to their table, drawing the looks of those seated there. It took Ryouko a moment to place the identity, though she didn't need her nomenclator this time.

Kishida Maki, she thought, a moment before she swiveled her head unsubtly towards Kyouko, who abruptly looked like she had seen a ghost.

From her initial body language, Maki had been dead set on talking to Ryouko, but now her expression was frozen, and she was staring directly at Kyouko. Kyouko's face might have been slightly different, but it was probably trivial for Maki to put two and two together, given that she had apparently been capable of finding Ryouko.

And in that moment, Ryouko put two and two together as well.

"Oh, it's surprising seeing you here," Ryouko said woodenly, painfully aware that she and Maki had effectively never met. "You and Kyouko‐san must have so much to talk about."

"Yeah," Maki echoed.

"Come on," Ryouko said, looking directly at Chiaki. "I think we should leave these two alone and go look for clothes for Sacnite. We're almost done eating here anyway."

"Why Sacnite?" Ruiko asked. "And aren't we being a little ru—"

"That's a great idea, Ryouko!" Chiaki said, catching the hint perfectly even if she didn't understand exactly why. "Come on, Sacnite, it will be fun!"

Sacnite latched onto Chiaki's arm, looking at Ryouko wondrously. Even though Chiaki and Ruiko hadn't been told anything specific about Sacnite's situation, they had naturally sensed that she was perhaps a bit… young, and had taken a cue from Ryouko's treatment of her.

"Alright," Sacnite said.

They hurried away from the table, picking up their bags and whatever food containers they still wanted, though Ryouko couldn't resist taking a look backward. The two remaining girls looked awkward, but they hadn't started shouting at each other, which was probably a good sign.

She also couldn't help but be struck by how much Kishida Maki looked like Miki Sayaka. It put in her mind odd questions, about just what Kyouko's intentions had been, and what they were now.

"I wasn't told you'd be here," Maki said finally, grabbing the back of one of the empty metal chairs, ornate and leaf‐patterned.

"Yes, well, I wasn't told you'd be here either," Kyouko said, with a touch of dryness.

"A coincidence," Maki said.

"I doubt it," Kyouko said. "Why were you looking for Shizuki Ryouko?"

"You know about my new job, I'm sure," Maki said. "They sent me to ask Shizuki‐san to pay a visit, now that she's available. They're hoping she will be willing to provide some input as to her character."

Kyouko pressed her lips together, making a flat almost‐smile that she hoped adequately conveyed her feelings.

Maki was right to assume that Kyouko would know about her new job—she had quietly helped arrange it. The production committee for the new movie about the Euphratic Incursion had needed artists for promotional artwork, and Kyouko had wanted Maki out of harm's way. It was a match made in the Goddess's heaven.

Kyouko was just glad she had accepted the offer. With the immediate alien threat defeated, it seemed Maki was again content to leave the front lines.

Maki would never have accepted the offer if she had known about Kyouko's involvement. It should have been pretty easy to guess, actually, but one of Maki's charm points was her relative naïveté.

"Yeah, I heard about the job," she said. "I had thought about stopping by myself, since Mami had asked me to fill in for her on the character interview."

She thought about continuing, and expounding on why she was almost certain this meeting was no coincidence, that this was probably a set up by Yuma or Arisu or, Goddess only knew, both of them.

But none of that really mattered, of course. Fate had delivered this opportunity back to her, even if it felt more like a disaster than an opportunity.

"Did you get my message?" she asked, ducking her head with what she hoped was sufficient contriteness.

"I did," Maki said.

Kyouko found Maki's tone of voice difficult to read, but as she tilted her head back up to take a look at the girl's face, she instead found herself with her head tilted sideways, cheek stinging from the kind of resounding open palm slap only a fellow magical girl could deliver.

She cast her eyes over the crowds of people milling around the shopping complex. Most of them had carefully diverted their eyes politely, and she was gladder than ever for the identity‐concealing hologram projector—and that Maki's slap hadn't knocked it off her face.

"I suppose I deserve that," she said.

"You're damn right you do!" Maki said, barely keeping her voice from turning into a yell. "Do you know how long I waited for you? I kept telling myself you'd come someday, but I was a fool, wasn't I? Do you even know what happened to me?"

"You lost your body," Kyouko said, rubbing her cheek. "I know. Of course I know."

"I didn't even know new bodies were a thing!" Maki said. "Do you know what kind of shock it was for me?"

Kyouko was surprised they had told her about the clones, rather than mumbled an explanation involving advanced medicine, but said:

"Yes, of course I know. Knew, I mean. I'm sorry. I really am. It was a mistake to dump you in the first place."

She looked up and saw that Maki had her arms crossed, looking down at Kyouko with all the fury of a woman scorned. It was an experience that was unfamiliar to her.

"In your message you said something about having an explanation about all this, and about Sayaka," Maki said.

Kyouko sighed, glancing at the people around them once again. Mercifully, they seemed to have lost interest in Maki and Kyouko's conversation, now that it was relatively subdued. Even so…

Yes, she thought. I never talk about Sayaka because it's still a sore point for me, and honestly it's kind of embarrassing, but…

Kyouko felt Maki's eyes on her, and sighed.

Miki Sayaka was my first crush, when I was even younger than you. She died before I could even do anything, and I've blamed myself ever since. The truth is, I've never gotten over her.

Maki shook her head, mild surprise briefly overcoming her scowling expression.

I mean, that sounds like exactly what I thought it could be, but I have difficulty believing it. You? Still hung up on her after all this time?

Yeah, well, you see why I don't talk about it, Kyouko thought. But it's been nagging me all these years. It's why I couldn't really commit, you know? It's not a great reason, but it's an honest reason for why I couldn't really accept you. I hope you understand.

Kyouko paused for a moment, trying to figure out how to continue.

What I can't believe is that I was dumb enough to fall for you, Maki thought. We agreed, didn't we? At the beginning. That it wouldn't be serious like that.

Kyouko started to give her usual flippant response, something along the lines of Yeah, I'm just appealing like that, but stopped, realizing she was protecting herself instinctively again.

Me either, she thought finally. On that topic, there's one other thing I have to show you. I don't look forward to it, but this discussion wouldn't be finished otherwise.

She reached into her jacket pocket, grasping for the portrait that she had held onto for four centuries. She had paid for its maintenance, for the technology that would reconstruct the deteriorating image back to something that looked new, even if it wasn't able to repair Sayaka's appearance quite right. There was no recreating the exact details of Sayaka's face, not even from Kyouko's imperfect human memories. If it hadn't been for her recent vision, she wouldn't remember exactly what Sayaka looked like herself, except that Maki resembled her uncannily.

Maki frowned down at it for a moment.

So what about it? she thought. You edited her picture to look more like me? That's kind of—

No! Kyouko thought. Not more like you. More like Sayaka. I've always known you look just like her, but I was never confident enough to use that information to repair it. I thought… that maybe I was starting to see things, that maybe my memories from so long ago had started to fade. I was terrified of losing the past, so I never went back to have the photo retouched. Only recently was I able to… confirm that I wasn't misremembering.

Maki made a worried expression.

I really look that much like her? she thought. In that much detail?

Apparently, Kyouko thought. I…

She let the thought trail off, deciding what to say.

I confess now that we didn't meet by chance in that bar, she thought. I did it deliberately, consciously, because I was lonely, and you looked so much like her. You seemed like a piece of what I had lost, and I couldn't let that go. Not again. That was what it was initially. But that's not what it is now, I swear.

She met Maki's skeptical look.

It's not just about what you look like, Kyouko thought. Not anymore. You're not her. That's obvious. If you ever met her, it'd be obvious you two are different people. I told myself it was just about the looks, but I was lying to myself.

She looked down at the floor. Somehow the lines had sounded better when she had planned them earlier.

It might have started for bad reasons, she finished, but let's start it again on a new foot, okay? I… have something for you.

She swallowed again, reaching for the single bag Ryouko and the others had left for her thoughtfully, handing it over to Maki.

I promise it's enormously cheesy, she thought, smiling slightly in an attempt at humor.

Maki gave her an unreadable look.

I haven't gotten to where I am by being tentative, Kyouko thought, even as she was aware that the self‐reassurance was itself a sign of uncertainty. Instead she simply handed the bag over and did her best to look into the empty middle distance.

"A pendant?" Maki said, pulling the piece of jewelry out of its box.

"Yeah," Kyouko said, with painful carefulness. "No diamonds or anything gaudy like that. I know it doesn't make any sense to try to impress you with money, so I just got one of those heart‐shaped pendants that has a picture inside. You should recognize it."

"Yeah," Maki said, breathing the word out quietly. She didn't elaborate, but of course she didn't need to. Kyouko had chosen one that had sentimental value, even if it was embarrassing. After all, there weren't many holograms or pictures of Kyouko that had her grinning stupidly with a fistful of cotton candy next to another girl.

It was hard evidence that somewhere in her Ancient, stone‐encrusted heart the girl she had once been still dwelt, and for that she secretly prized it.

A moment later Maki withdrew the folded sheet of old‐fashioned paper that accompanied the pendant, reading it to herself for a few long seconds.

"Was it really necessary to make the poem dirty?" Maki said, voice oddly devoid of inflection. "Imagine if I had tried to read it out loud. This reads like something you'd use to hit on someone."

Kyouko smiled slightly, nervously, unsure if the criticism were legitimate or part of the joke it sounded like. Maki's eerie voice unnerved her.

"Well, you know, I could have faked doing something more elegant, but I thought it'd be better to write something more authentic, instead of trying to pretend to be someone I'm not. And I thought the starfruit analogy was pretty clever."

"Yeah, it was imaginative," Maki said, slipping the piece of paper into her coat pocket.

Kyouko found herself holding her breath despite her every intention to remain calm. What was Maki going to do?

Finally, the girl smiled slightly, reaching behind her neck to lock the pendant in place, letting it drop into the empty space below the nape of her neck.

"Well, it's a bad idea, but you make a convincing argument. I… can't imagine what it felt like to have a friend you loved die on you. It must be like how I felt when I heard what happened to you on that damned X‐25. When you didn't visit me after something like that, I thought you really didn't care. I don't know."

Kyouko cracked a smile, using one of her TacComp's routines to keep herself from crying in relief.

"You're the one who lost your body," she said. "I… I'm sorry to make you worry. I wasn't really thinking straight. Not for any of it. I don't think I've ever thought straight, about you."

"Now you're just sweet‐talking me," Maki said, smiling oddly, and raising her arms.

Kyouko was confused by the gesture, until she saw that Maki's eyes were watering.

She stretched her own arms out and accepted the hug, letting Maki cry into her shoulder, though she was too proud to do the same.

But for a moment, she felt the layers around her heart melt away, and she remembered the day so long ago when Oriko and Kirika had taunted her about her dead family, staying always just out of reach, until Kyouko had collapsed to her knees, exhausted, hearing Oriko's words sting where she was weakest.

Sayaka the rookie had saved her then, standing in front of her and reaching back to pick her up.

She could see her now, eyes firm, shining.

I remembered what you said, Sayaka, she thought. You said I didn't deserve to die, and in all these years I've never let it happen, no matter what anyone said, no matter what we had to do. I started to forget, but…

The centuries had worn on her, as they had on Sayaka's stone memorial plaque. She had been told to live, but part of her had never left her family's grave site, buried somewhere under the soil around her church, marker lost.

But she would live. She would survive.

Thank you, she thought, closing her eyes and returning Maki's hug.

"Paris," Ryouko said.

"Yes, Paris," Kishida Maki repeated again. "The various stakeholders have agreed that you paying a visit to Paris would be the best for everyone involved, including, and especially, you."

Maki's eyes were oddly unfocused, an unconscious gesture Ryouko suspected meant the girl was reading her words off of an internal screen. It seemed logical—the girl was awkward in her role as messenger.

Ryouko leaned onto the table, spreading the palm of her hand over her eyes. She had just gotten settled down into temporarily living quarters in Mitakihara, waiting for word from Eurydome about the status of her "gravitonics research", when here came another message from those she was starting to think of as her handlers.

She had been given advance warning, of course, but she had spent the brief intervening period deliberately avoiding the topic. She didn't want to think about it. Indeed, she had managed to forget about it well enough that she hadn't even considered the possibility that Maki might be the messenger Joanne had been talking about.

To be fair though, Ryouko had been distracted by other considerations. She was dying to ask what had happened between her and Kyouko while she was gone. She didn't know how to ask. She could only observe the pendant that Maki was wearing.

"It does make sense, after all," Maki said. "You're on standby while the ITG lab comes back online, so why not?"

"Why you though?" Ryouko asked.

Maki looked at Kyouko for some reason, who shrugged vaguely.

"I guess they figured we had a connection, even if it was distant, so you might be more likely to listen to me," Maki said, imitating Kyouko's shrug. "I took the free opportunity to come visit this city again, make a few sketches of the skyline. It's different seeing a place in person."

"Paris, though," Ruiko said, clasping her hands in clear envy. "That sounds love—"

She made a coughing noise as Chiaki elbowed her in the side less‐than‐subtly, glaring at her. Their relative heights had made it so Chiaki had hit her square in the middle of the ribcage.

"Well I wouldn't mind myself," Asami said, clearly trying to sound even‐handed. "I haven't visited any of the foreign major cities, except for a class trip to San Francisco, so it'd be an experience, I think."

Ryouko hadn't been to Paris herself—her parents had taken her traveling often, but they seemed to be more interested in wildlife than scenery. It was a popular destination, though, and travel was cheap. She was surprised Asami had never—

Oh. Right, she thought, realizing what she was forgetting.

I was afraid I was going to have to remind you, Clarisse thought, the frisson of amusement tingling up her spine.

The offer was undeniably tempting, but she had to wonder…

"What exactly are these stakeholders getting from this?" Ryouko asked, leaning forward onto the table.

Maki smiled, looking like she expected the question, though she cast a quick glance around at Chiaki and Ruiko.

"Well, on the one hand, Paris is one of the major centers of a certain very special MSY organization that is hoping you'll consent to visit. On the other hand, MSY Finance is heavily invested in the production of Orpheus, and would love to have the opportunity to talk to you about your role in the movie."

Maki gave her a careful look, clearly assessing whether Ryouko understood the hidden meaning, and Ryouko wondered why the girl didn't just use telepathy.

"Yes, I understand," she said.

She took a breath, stalling for time.

"Well, it's an interesting offer," she continued, providing what was only the truth, "but what exactly will I be doing there? Visiting some facilities and talking to some directors?"

"Well, not just that," Maki said smoothly. "You'll probably be talking to the writers, marketers, pretty much everyone involved who would want to talk to you. Have you heard of Elisa Yamada?"

Behind her, Ruiko made an odd, choked noise.

"No?" Ryouko said, tilting her head. "I'll look it up."

"No, no, don't worry about it," Maki interrupted. "She's the actor who will be playing you in the movie. She'd just like to learn some things from meeting you in person."

"Ah," Ryouko said blankly. "That makes sense."

"Anyway, it's not all work," Maki said. "There will be plenty of time for you to explore the city and enjoy yourself. MSY Finance has agreed to pay out a substantial reimbursement for your stay, so you will have no lack of Allocs while there."

"Uh‐huh," Ryouko said emptily. Why hadn't Clarisse been mentioned yet? According to Joanne, Clarisse was part of the point of the trip, but Maki had yet to say a word about it.

"They'd like you to think of it as a vacation rather than an obligation," Maki said, smiling brightly. "Speaking personally, it's a great deal, and the city is absolutely beautiful. I don't know why you'd turn it down."

Ryouko did her best to avoid wearing her feelings on her face, even as she wanted to shake her head at the insanity of it all.

Another offer I can't turn down, she thought, directing it both at Asami and Clarisse. Instead of settling for the languid pace of usual human communication, she pushed the thought out at combat speed, so that they could try to discuss the matter in time with the conversation.

Well, the motives of the Matriarchs involved here are clear, Clarisse thought. But they're also not really trying to hide it. They've made sure it profits you as well as profit them. They seem very good at making it illogical to turn them down.

Clarisse made sure to relay the thought to Asami as well, by traditional electronic means.

Yes, Ryouko thought. But at some point you have to start wondering whether what they get is more valuable than what you get. Letting myself get constantly convinced like this can lead to bad places.

Yes, but it's also true that up until now you didn't know what you were going to be doing with this time, Clarisse thought. Whatever offer they try to make you can always be turned down. I wouldn't be too concerned quite yet, but in the future it might be better to have something ready to do so they can't come up with something for you.

I'm fifteen, Ryouko thought. What am I supposed to have ready? And I literally just got out of the tank.

She realized abruptly that she hadn't really felt fifteen for a long time, though. Heck, she hadn't felt that young a single time since what had ostensibly been her birthday.

I know, Clarisse thought. I wasn't saying it'd be easy, I was just saying the obvious.

Well, for my part I would be for just going, Asami thought. I know why you're worried, but I mean… I would have to say just take what they give you for now, and worry about their offers later. And it will be a fun trip, no matter what, even if I really prefer nature to the city.

Honestly, I'm not sure there isn't a hidden stick here too, as well as a carrot, Clarisse thought. Given your status after the whole wormhole thing, I'm sure Governance would love to use you for some kind of propaganda purpose. They might very well be involved in all this. I suspect the main reason you haven't already been shoved into public appearances is respect for how young you are.

There was an expectant pause, as Ryouko sensed Clarisse was ruminating on her next comment.

Are you sure you want the world to know I exist, though? Clarisse thought. That's what would happen if we let them do the movie the way Joanne Valentin was talking about.

Isn't that something you should be worried about? Ryouko thought.

Yes, but it also affects you, Clarisse thought. People might look at you differently. Your friends might look at you differently.

Ryouko narrowly avoided casting an eye at Chiaki and Ruiko.

I hadn't thought of that, she thought.

You haven't been thinking about it, period, Clarisse thought.

My natural inclination is to say it's up to you, Ryouko thought. I suppose I'll just have to deal with the consequences. What is your opinion, anyway?

I don't know. I've been avoiding thinking about it too. I suppose there'll be time to think about it now, though.

Not if I have to make this decision now! Ryouko thought, frustrated, even as she realized that the last statement had been one of the most human things she had ever heard Clarisse say.

Heck, I don't see why not, Kyouko thought, interjecting herself into what had clearly started to become a long discussion, even with acceleration. Someone of your age needs to explore her options, right? I mean, I'm not a fan of Shizuki or Kuroi by far, but it's your life. And if you end up spending all day stuck in the Paris party houses I promise I'll come drag you out.

Ryouko let out a breath, aware that Maki and the others were still looking expectantly at her for a comment.

"You don't have to make a decision right now, of course," Maki said. "It's a bit of an open‐ended offer, though of course eventually your leave time from the military is going to end."

"No, that's okay," Ryouko said. "I'd obviously like an opportunity to talk it over with my parents first, but that probably won't take more than a day. It sounds like a great opportunity, so I'm definitely inclined to take it."

"That's great!" Maki said, quite sincerely.

Ryouko did her best not to let a frown show on her face.

Thus far, she couldn't deny that she was getting to explore the world, but was Paris really somewhere no one else had ever been before? Obviously not.

But X‐25 had been, and maybe her wish was just biding its time. After all that had happened, she couldn't deny that she was being given opportunities no one else was. It just seemed to come with a sizable helping of being entangled inextricably with the undercurrents of the world around her. Shizuki, Kuroi, the Mitakihara Four, whoever had tried to kill her, and even the Goddess herself seemed determined to weave her into their plots.

Well, you asked to see the world, Clarisse thought. Maybe you're just being shown another facet of it.

I suppose that makes sense.

"Well, let me know by tomorrow then, okay?" Maki said. "You can just send me a message. I'll leave you all alone then."

The girl got up and walked away, Kyouko trailing her a few seconds later.

Kishida Maki was only about a decade older than her, but seemed so much better put together, so much more in tune with what she wanted out of life. Ryouko couldn't help but hope that she could get like that too, someday.

"You are sooo lucky," Ruiko said, once Maki and Kyouko were out of earshot. "Getting to go to Paris and meet Elisa! I can't even try to imagine it without swooning."

"Yeah," Ryouko echoed.

Nadya had wanted to meet in St. Petersburg, among the angelic statues of the mountain‐sized Memorial Tower, which looked like it had been dreamt up by a crazed, drunken tsar determined to build his own Tower of Babel. Instead, Clarisse had insisted on meeting in a boring café in Paris, giving her usual vague reasons about historical vibrations or something like that.

So here they were, Clarisse politely letting her take a swig of her drink before pinning her with those pretty violet eyes of hers.

"I wanted you to take a look at this," she said.

Nadya sighed lightly. She had wanted to settle in a bit more.

"What is it?" she asked, tilting her head slightly.

Before Clarisse could answer the question, Nadya glanced away for a moment, turning in her chair to give a rude gesture to a passing pedestrian.

She turned back to find Clarisse laughing at her behind one hand, lady‐like and demure in a casually affected kind of way.

"These French are so judgmental," Nadya complained. "So what if I want to drink in the afternoon? In Russia no one would bat an eye. I think at my age I've earned the right to have a few drops."

Clarisse smiled.

"You misunderstand, Nadya. They don't mind the alcohol, only that you are drinking vodka rather than wine."

"As I said, judgmental."

Clarisse laughed quietly, and the color that rose in her cheeks served to accentuate her freckles.

"Well, anyway, what is it?" Nadya asked.

Instead of answering in speech, Clarisse merely looked her in the eye, and a small file arrived in Nadya's secure mail a moment later.

Some of my contacts in the Telepaths' Guild came through for us, Clarisse thought.

Nadya frowned, taking a look at the plain, unornamented text file, a rarity in these decadent days.

GRACIA PEREZ: "I do not agree with this conclusion. I have observed her for months now, and I am almost certain she has undergone a Reformat."

COUNCILOR 4: "The MHD, as well as our investigators, have noted the same anomalies you have, and have concluded that they are idiosyncratic."

GRACIA PEREZ: "Again, I do not agree. They do not know her as I do."

COUNCILOR 2: "Unauthorized Reformatting is a serious offense, if it could be proven."

COUNCILOR 3: "But it is more common than we like. Might Miss Virani have sought out a Reformat for self‐therapy?"

GRACIA PEREZ: "I refuse to believe so. It is not like her, and the MHD shares my assessment that it does not suit her personality."

COUNCILOR 4: "Well, what evidence do you have to dispute our investigators? We cannot just take your word over theirs. If they say she has not been mind‐altered, then we cannot dispute that without further evidence."

GRACIA PEREZ: "I am sorry. I can only go on my previous assertions."

COUNCILOR 5: "The Guild has already spent substantial resources attempting to verify your allegations, Miss Perez. It does not seem that this Council is amenable to further expenditures, I am sorry to say. Your request is denied."

Nadya looked up at Clarisse, eyes conflicted.

"Why didn't she ever tell me if she thought something like this might be true?" she asked, referring to Gracia.

"The Telepaths' Guild is extremely secretive," Clarisse said, "and for good reason, I might add. She is too young to run the risk of talking to you. I wouldn't be offended."

Nadya shook her head, not because she thought Clarisse was wrong, but out of dismay.

"Is there more to this than just this excerpt?" she asked.

The Guild lost most of these transcripts in an incident a few years back, Clarisse thought. Someone wiped a large portion of the records from that month, and they still have not solved the mystery. It probably doesn't have anything to do with this—there are plenty of people who might want to destroy some of the Guild's secrets—but it does mean this excerpt is all that exists. If we want more, we will probably need to ask Gracia ourselves. I thought that you'd be the appropriate person to do that.

"I am," Nadya agreed.

She gulped down what remained of her vodka in disgust, straight down the throat.

"I don't like it," she said.