〈In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①
At the end of the Unification Wars, Paris had the enviable position of being one of only a few major urban centers to have survived the conflict mostly intact, with only a modicum of nuclear damage. After the revolution that precipitated the fall of France's last independent government, Paris had served as a vital conduit of EDC economic and military command and control, and the postwar state of the city reflected this.
Like the other remaining economic and political centers—San Francisco, Shanghai, and London, among others—the city was packed to bursting with refugees, governmental bodies, military personnel, and even the Pope. As such, it was one of the first candidates for the EDC and later Governance's grand plan to mitigate the soul‐crushing congestion of large cities—massive vertical growth, combined with elevated traffic tubes and walkways, to turn a two‐dimensional city into a veritable human hive.
Parisians balked, offended by the attempt to transform the traditional, familiar skyline of Paris into a techno‐modern city of skyscrapers. The nature of Paris had survived centuries of cataclysm, turmoil, and development, and they would not have it be destroyed by even a Utopian world government, whatever its intentions.
In the end, after extended mass protest and hurried internal negotiation, a different solution was reached, for a different kind of city. The skyline of Paris would be preserved by building the hive underneath the city instead, in the kind of catacombs that would have to be dug anyway to accommodate Governance's plans for vast underground computing centers.
The concern was raised that in living underground, Parisians would start to become an agoraphobic people, out of touch with the concerns of those above. A uniquely Parisian solution was found to that concern—the city's artists and architects would be mobilized to design the city's new underground districts from the ground up, a one‐time opportunity to put their imprint on a truly vast project, and one that would remind those living below of the glories above. A city that would encompass, as much as possible, all that Earth had to offer 〈, and that would serve as last‐ditch recourse for the residents of Earth disenchanted with their lives elsewhere〉①.
— Excerpt, "A History of the City", from the Paris Online Guide for Tourists
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
— Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
"This is your stop, la grotte éclatante," the railcar said, gliding to a gentle stop.
Ryouko blinked up at the distant ceiling of yet another of Paris's underground districts, here embroidered by patterns of crystals that glowed a soft, milky white. Every one of the districts they had passed on their trip from the starport had possessed unique lighting, which she assumed reflected their character somehow. It seemed entirely possible to have a good time just traversing the city by railcar without ever stepping outside, though she could easily imagine getting tired of the endless event announcements and artistic emplacements that graced the tunnel walls.
"There is a reason Paris is called La Ville‐Lumière, mademoiselle," the railcar said pleasantly, guessing her train of thought expertly. "Have a wonderful stay in Paris."
That can't possibly be the reason, Clarisse thought, as Ryouko stepped gingerly out onto the street. The underground districts and railways weren't built until after the Wars.
Artistic license, I'm sure, Ryouko thought.
She turned halfway, watching Asami hold Sacnite's hand as she stepped out after her. The family‐sized railcars Paris used for personal transportation were stylized differently than she was used to—they were boxy and ornate, rather than smooth and aerodynamic. A concession to aesthetics, she had to assume.
"It's so pretty," Sacnite said, staring up at the speckled ceiling. "It was nothing like this back at the colony."
Ryouko and Asami shared an uneasy look. Sacnite had taken to referring to her former life as "the colony", and while it was certainly logical for her to reference it for comparison, it always brought to everyone else a natural sense of unease.
They let her stand there for a long moment, taking in the sights. They had finally decided to stabilize her biological age at a carefully‐chosen eight‐and‐a‐half, neither too old nor too young. There she would stay for a couple of years, at least, while the MHD did its best to feed her "diversifying" experiences, whatever it took to lessen the sting of losing the false memories that had once defined her life.
Today she was wearing a bright white sundress that Asami had selected for her, one that seemed to positively glow under the light of the district, creating a striking contrast with the color of her skin.
"Come on," Asami said, kneeling slightly to look the girl in the eye. "Let's go have a look around."
They started down the long boulevard, flanked on one side by the activity of the underground inter‐district rail system, and on the other by a line of preindustrial‐style buildings, though closer inspection revealed a hodgepodge of technological attachments and disguised viewscreens that served to remind the viewer that, no, this wasn't really archaic‐era Europe.
They were all tiny buildings by Ryouko's standards, which was unusual for a major metropolis. Paris was a very different city from Mitakihara, or indeed most of the other cities she had been to. Instead of densely packed urban centers filled with towering skyscrapers and traffic tubes, Paris was instead a hive of underground districts, the buildings in each district as squat and short as those in the colonies, but layered over and over into numerous underground levels.
This particular district seemed designed to evoke the impression of being in nineteenth‐century nighttime France, and was filled with wooden‐looking signs, narrow side passages, and gloomy streetlamps. In the distance, a small set of stone lamps led up to a fountain emplacement.
"Where are we going?" Sacnite asked.
"To our hotel," Asami explained. "We decided we would walk through the city a little, rather than call a taxi to take us there. The buildings are pretty, aren't they?"
"Yeah, I think so," Sacnite agreed.
Standing isolated to one side, Ryouko shook her head at herself glumly. When it came to interacting with Sacnite, she had thus far allowed her mother and Asami to take the lead. With her mother gone—she had left them at the starport to "meet a colleague", the contrast became painfully obvious. She didn't really know how to communicate with someone so young, so without understanding of the world. It was discomfiting, because she remembered being vaguely annoyed with her own father for never seeming to know how to deal with her. Now, it seemed, the shoe was on the other foot.
She felt a tug on her sleeve, and blinked, snapping out of her brief reverie.
She founded Sacnite pointing at something across the street, and it took her a moment to realize the girl was pointing at a gelateria, the sign festooned with balloons for no clear reason.
Ryouko tilted her head questioningly, while Clarisse whispered in her ear that it was a specialty shop dedicated to serving gelato, which Ryouko mostly knew as a special dense ice cream you could ask the synthesizer for.
"I've never had any," Sacnite said. "Not really. The colony didn't produce any. I remember… a festival, on the surface, where they served some, from the synthesizers. But that was it, and I… can't remember what it was like. Only that it was good."
Ryouko took a breath to steady herself.
Ryouko swallowed, wondering who had told Sacnite to call her that.
"Alright," she said.
She experienced a moment of confusion, uncertain how to cross the street without the benefit of pedestrian skyways, before Clarisse nudged her in the direction of a specially‐designated crossing area.
They paused at the entrance to the gelateria, just long enough so that Sacnite could stare at the balloons before raising a hand to bop one, sending the whole set twirling.
The interior of the gelateria was as ornate as the buildings outside, the edges of the glass display case ringed with white and bronze metal embroidery, tracing out bees and flowers. Ryouko started to shake her head at the decadence of a specialty shop that served nothing but gelato, but was interrupted by Sacnite dashing forward to press her face and hands against the glass.
The human attendant—another decadent luxury!—smiled indulgently at Sacnite, though she seemed a bit confused at how excited the girl was. Asami smiled back, while Ryouko peered instead at Sacnite's wide eyes as she examined the flavors on sale.
Is something wrong? Asami thought.
Ryouko didn't answer, looking away.
She had always been so tired of life on Earth, so much so that she had wished to get away from it. She had feared that Paris would be more of the same, but having Sacnite here seemed to give it all new vigor. Despite it all, she found herself, just a little, possibly enjoying herself, as if Sacnite's enthusiasm were contagious.
It was deeply confusing.
The three of them spent an inordinate amount of time standing inside the lobby of their hotel, peering up at a distant, arched ceiling hanging with light fixtures.
Ryouko and Asami had gotten more used to colonial conceptions of space and design on Eurydome, and in truth had started to feel a bit cramped in the claustrophobic environs of Mitakihara City.
Ryouko was astounded simply at the amount of space that was being wasted. By her eye, augmented by a few simple implant estimations, there was space for a full three stories in the air above them, floors that could be filled with rooms and people. It was the kind of extravagance she had been trained to expect in massive public structures and monuments, not private structures.
"You ever see anything like it?" Asami wondered openly.
"A couple of times, while traveling," Ryouko said. "But that was all monuments. The St. Petersburg War Memorial, the Capitol Memorial, that kind of thing."
"You're lucky," Asami said.
Ryouko turned to look at Sacnite, who had simply fallen silent, ice cream cone in hand. She couldn't imagine what it was like, after having spent your whole life in narrow underground rooms, spending your nights with dozens of other girls.
"Well, good afternoon to you too."
Ryouko managed to suppress a startled jerk, turning to face the source of the greeting.
Kuroi Nana was standing next to her, almost right in her face, gazing at her with an odd expression. Sacnite was openly staring back. Unless Ryouko missed her guess, Sacnite was surprised by the new girl's resemblance to her adoptive mother.
"Where's your mother?" Nana asked.
"She's visiting some colleagues," Ryouko said, taken aback. She wasn't sure what her aunt was doing here, or what her behavior signified.
Nana nodded to herself, then turned to face Sacnite, bending down slightly.
"And here's the girl herself. How are you doing, Sacnite? Are your sisters taking care of you? It looks like it."
She gestured at the ice cream even as Sacnite nodded in vague assent. Nana nodded back again, as if she were verifying something in her own mind.
Ryouko wanted to ask why her aunt was in Paris. It seemed too much of a coincidence to be mere chance, but she didn't know how to voice the question.
"I'm on a bit of a break," Nana said, following Ryouko's thoughts uncannily. "When I'm on standby, I usually stay in Paris, since it's where so much of the organization operates out of. That's privileged information, but I heard you were going to be coming, so I thought I'd take some time to visit my favorite niece. Nieces now, I guess. Do you know when your mother will be rejoining you?"
Ryouko shook her head.
"Unfortunately, no," she said.
Nana looked around at the three of them, her eyes seeming to linger for a moment on Asami, who was making a studiously empty expression.
"Well, get settled in and I might be able to show you around. You don't have anywhere else to be right now, do you?"
Asami and Ryouko glanced at each other.
"Not really, no," Ryouko said. "We're not supposed to visit the studio until later, so we were just going to wander around and look for a place to eat."
Nana glanced at Sacnite.
"Well, I know a good place to do that in. You had your bags delivered to your room, I assume?"
Ryouko nodded. Picked up by drone at the airport, because they hadn't wanted the trouble of keeping track of it as they moved.
"Alright, then you don't have to go your rooms until late. Follow me, and don't gawk so much. You look like tourists."
Instead of turning to lead them away, she turned and bent down towards Sacnite, lifting the girl bodily off the floor. The startled girl nearly dropped the remains of her ice cream, and only a lightning‐quick reaction by Asami saved it.
Nana giggled to herself almost childishly, and the tableau of her picking up Sacnite—who after all was tall enough to not be that much shorter—struck Ryouko as a bit absurdist.
"Geez, I'm not a kid," Sacnite said, offended, in a statement that only heightened the surrealism.
The girl kicked her legs slightly, but didn't try to escape.
"I know," Nana said, setting her back down. "I just wanted to have some fun. It'd attract attention carrying someone your size around too easily."
In fact, it appeared they had attracted some attention already. A girl across the lobby was staring unsubtly at Ryouko. She probably recognized Ryouko from the news broadcasts, a not‐unusual occurrence now that Ryouko wasn't going to pains to avoid being recognized.
Nana finally turned to leave, leading the other girls back towards the main entrance of the hotel. It occurred to Ryouko that the situation was a good metaphor for her life, her aunt showing up uninvited to lead them off in an uncertain direction.
"Where are we going?" Asami asked, loping forward to catch up with Nana.
"The Neige District," Nana said, maintaining a brisk pace. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to get on the railcars to get there, but it will be worth it, I promise."
"The snow district?" Ryouko echoed, translating the word in her mind. "What's that one like?"
"Well, there's snow," Nana explained.
There was snow indeed—it turned out the whole district was kept at a temperature just below freezing, on the edge of comfort for a denizen of the Future era, though Ryouko noticed quite a few people bounding about in coats, mittens, and woolen hats.
Ryouko breathed on her hands, watching the misted air weave its way around her fingers. The bench she sat on felt icy and cold.
Their original plan to dine in a fine French establishment was currently on hold, due to Sacnite spotting a group of local kids having a snowball fight. They had agreed it was more important for Sacnite to experience some socialization than to eat some food they didn't really need.
"What makes Paris what it is now isn't the monuments or sights, but the diversity of life it provides," Nana said, reappearing to loom over her. "People live here because there's so much to experience, all of life in so confined a space. There are some who never leave the tunnels."
Instead of joining Asami, Nana, and Sacnite in entertaining the local children, Ryouko had opted to take a break, keeping her thoughts to herself.
Now, she shook her head, both at Nana's statement and in bemusement at her aunt's ability to again say something so relevant to her thoughts.
"There is no way all of life is just in one city," Ryouko said. "That can't be true, by definition."
"Just so," Nana said, taking a seat next to her.
"You know, you're not really very much like your mother," she said. "Naka‐chan would have said that it was wiser to explore everything the city has to offer, before trying to find something else."
Ryouko shrugged. It wasn't easy to craft a response to something like that.
"I'm not my mother," she said.
"But you're conflicted," Nana said.
It wasn't a question. Ryouko found it vaguely irksome for an older magical girl to flaunt their greater insight so openly, but had to admit that it had a certain efficiency to it. Why dance around the issue, after all?
"I was tired of Earth, tired of what it had to offer," she said. "I asked an Incubator for the chance to explore the world, to see what no one else ever had. I have to wonder what I'm doing here, in Paris of all places. This is probably about as Earth as you can get. The whole city is a celebration of human heritage."
Nana smiled slightly, crookedly.
"Paris is as much a part of the world as anywhere else is. There are inner worlds as well as outer."
"What do you mean by that?" Ryouko asked, though she suspected she knew.
Nana shook her head.
"This city is, if nothing else, a mirror," she said. "By design, everyone should find something they're looking for here. That was the way the postwar architects designed it. There is no one who finds nothing for themselves here. The real question is: Is what you find here enough?"
Ryouko turned her head, looking the other girl in the eyes. They looked painfully familiar.
Her aunt broke the eye contact, casting her eyes over at Asami, who was cleaning snow out of Sacnite's hair, even though her hair was perfectly capable of cleaning itself.
Ryouko opened her mouth to speak, but it was Nana who spoke first.
"I like to think of the City of Lights as the City of Lost Souls, lured in like moths to a flame. I first came here when I was only a little older than you, brought here by Homura‐san, so many years ago."
She inspected her soul gem ring for a moment, before continuing:
"She let me enjoy myself in the city, all expenses paid, nothing restricted, as long as I fulfilled her expectations in magic and book learning. After all the problems I was having with my family at home, it seemed like freedom."
Ryouko watched her aunt's face expectantly, but the girl didn't continue.
"And?" she prompted.
"It was fun," Nana said. "I asked Homura‐san if there was even anything to the world that couldn't be found here. It seemed that Governance had made Eden on Earth. She said—"
Nana tilted her head slightly, oddly, so that Ryouko started to wonder what was going on.
"If Eden is so grand, then why did God see fit to cast man out of it?" she said, in a startling facsimile of Homura's voice, which Ryouko only knew from recordings and movies. "If the divine is omniscient, then why permit the serpent in the garden? It was Eve who ate fruit from the tree of knowledge, but it is clear that the fruit is what makes us human—the ability to be dissatisfied with Eden, the strength and the intelligence to survive in the barren wilderness, the will and the longing to build our own Eden in the wasteland. The very traits that supposedly make us a mirror of the divine. Is Eve the villain or the hero?"
Nana paused, letting Ryouko digest the words.
"A quote the Cult would no doubt love to get their hands on," Nana said, in her normal voice, unaugmented by Black Heart implants. "Though I am unsure whether they would release it, or bury it quietly."
Ryouko thought for a moment, even as Nana glanced around for anyone within earshot.
"It is the nature of this world that we can never build Eden," Nana continued, quoting Homura again. "There will always be those who are this dissatisfied. It is they who will always be the most powerful of our kind, since the nature of magic is a rejection of the world as it is. They are also the most dangerous of us, the most valuable, and the most rare. I brought you here to understand what that truly entails. If you are to be my apprentice, then you must cast off the world, and wander in the wilderness, as I once did, and truly understand where magic comes from."
Nana stopped, clearing her throat, and Ryouko could only shake her head in dismay.
"She really said that?" Ryouko asked.
"Literally like that," Nana said. "I thought I was being preached to, but she meant it. I spent the next decades of my life on the frontier, carrying out little assignments, trying to be what she wanted me to be. I think I disappointed her. That's why I eventually stopped being her student."
"That seems really harsh," Ryouko said, saying the only thing she could think of.
"Also a little crazy, right?" Nana said. "I really started to wonder about her, but then she slaughtered an entire squid invasion force on New Athens. It's hard to argue with that."
Nana idly kicked some of the snow accumulated at the foot of their bench.
"That went a little off‐topic, I admit," she said, "but there was a point to it. There is no shame in being lured in by the city, no matter what your wish was. Not everyone can be Akemi Homura or Clarisse van Rossum. I tried, but I couldn't do it. That being said, there is also no shame in following in my footsteps, and traveling the stars. If you don't, the 'what if?' will be stuck in your head forever."
Ryouko felt something land on her hair, brushing it aside instinctively with one her hair tendrils. She looked up.
"It's snowing again," Nana said. "I suppose we better get into that restaurant. Listen, tomorrow you'll be visiting the movie studio, and then Shizuki Sayaka is going to do her absolute best to pull you into her clutches, by showing you everything that is grand in life here. If that doesn't suit your tastes, I'll be there afterward to show you your other options. Then it will be up to you."
"Was this a recruiting pitch?" she asked, with sudden insight.
"Maybe," Nana said, looking down the sidewalk.
For a moment, they watched Sacnite look up at the sky in wonder.
Somehow, despite all she had heard from Chiaki and Ruiko about the way actors nowadays worked hard to "get into" their roles, Ryouko had never quite internalized what that really meant. After all, following celebrity actresses had never really been her cup of tea, nor did she really watch that many movies, so why pay that much attention?
That was how she had ended up nearly dropping her forkful of cake as her doppelgänger walked into the room, dropping into the chair across from her and making eye contact with soulful eyes.
It wasn't so much the appearance—which was subtly off, even ignoring the slightly emphasized bust size—as the mannerisms, right down to the manner of walking. Five minutes ago, Ryouko couldn't have honestly answered if she could recognize her own gait. It seemed she could, and it was frankly disturbing to see.
"Shizuki Ryouko, I infer?" the girl across the table asked rhetorically, opening the conversation in Human Standard.
Ryouko swallowed, telling herself that there was, after all, nothing that freaky about the situation, not compared to the numerous combat scenarios she had been in, both virtual and real.
"Yes," she said. "Elisa Yamada?"
There was a moment of silence, and then Elisa coughed, visibly changing her demeanor. Asami, who was watching from the seat next to Ryouko, wore an expression that suggested she might as well have just seen Ryouko grow two heads.
"Well, as I'm sure you've heard," Elisa said, "I'm slated to play you in the upcoming movie, so I thought it'd be useful to meet you in person. I'm glad you could make it."
Elisa stuck out a hand for Ryouko to shake, which she did a moment later.
"As you can see, I've gone quite a ways already in terms of getting into character, mostly based on already existing footage of you. It does help that I sort of looked like you to start with, as I'm sure your friends have teased you about before."
"Uh‐huh," Ryouko mouthed emptily, wondering what to say.
Her friends had, in fact, never teased her about that in particular. She had looked up Elisa Yamada earlier, and the half‐Argentinian, half‐Japanese actress had only borne a slight resemblance to Ryouko. Given that, and that Elisa was only slightly younger than her grandparents and was definitely not a magical girl, Ryouko had been skeptical about her ability to carry off the role, even with ample CGI assistance. That worry had clearly been unfounded.
"I don't know how to ask this," she said finally, "but uh, how exactly do you look so much like me?"
"Well, it's a little bit of a lot of things," Elisa said. "Some specialized implants, a little bit of makeup, that kind of thing. You're probably surprised at my age—well, Governance makes a special exception for actors like me. I can't change ages quite as quickly as you magical girls can, but I already happened to be pretty close for another role, so…"
"That's a little weird, to be honest," Asami said.
"Yes, but probably not that much weirder than having a tactical computer on your spine, if you don't mind my saying so," Elisa said. "Or, you know…"
Elisa gestured with one hand vaguely in Ryouko's direction.
Ryouko felt a sensation of unease percolate from inside her, but Clarisse said nothing. She still had not heard anything from her TacComp about how she intended to deal with all of this, and was frankly a little worried. It seemed to her like they were both unprepared.
"I suppose that's fair enough," Ryouko said.
I can't believe you can just sit there like that, Asami thought, without looking at Ryouko. I would be freaking out. Goddess, I am freaking out.
I don't know, Ryouko thought. I guess it's just… I don't know how else to respond.
"Well, uh, are you going to ask me any questions?" Ryouko asked finally, after Elisa had sat silently for a long moment.
"I'm still waiting for someone," Elisa said, as a drone silently rolled in next to her, lifting a plate of strawberry cream cake identical to Ryouko's own onto the table. "Didn't they tell you?"
"They didn't," Ryouko said.
"Well, I guess we can wait," Elisa said, shrugging. "You want an autograph? The report on you said you didn't really care for that kind of thing, but I'm sure you'll have a friend who would love to have it, or maybe you could sell it online."
Ryouko looked at Asami, who nodded yes as subtly as she could manage, which was to say not that subtly at all. Was Asami a fan?
As Elisa expertly signed the back of a proffered tablet with an etch pen, Ryouko cast her gaze back and forth between Elisa's face, hands, and cleavage. The combination of features unnerved her, like watching a fun‐house mirror version of herself. Elisa had dropped the pretense of imitating Ryouko's behavior, but somehow that only made the resemblance more surreal, almost as if… as if she had walked in one day to find Mami eating a piece of cake with her bare hands, or something else equally uncouth.
Elisa drummed the table with her hands, a mannerism that seemed distinctly un‐Ryouko. Ryouko resisted the urge to imitate the action. She should have felt thankful, she supposed—any more eerie similarity and she would have felt obligated to start searching her hotel room for hidden cameras.
"How have you been, uh, gathering information to prepare for the role?" Ryouko asked. "Besides this meeting, I mean."
"Mostly footage of you provided from Governance," Elisa said. "And you know, some of your habits, like what foods you order a lot. Mostly stuff from the military, actually. We also did some long‐range interviews of some of the people who knew you, some of the other team members, that sort of thing. Natural in the course of this work. Nothing too private, of course."
Somehow Ryouko didn't feel all that reassured.
"Speaking of that, do you have anything interesting about Ryouko you'd like to tell me?" Elisa asked, looking at Asami and smiling mischievously. "I can keep a secret."
The doppelgänger winked broadly, and Ryouko darted a glance at Asami, who was developing an odd look on her face. She wouldn't really…
"Well," Asami said, with a devious look. "Sometimes she'll just take her cake and eat it straight with her hands, no forks or anything."
"Like this?" Elisa asked, picking up her slice of cake from the back and biting straight into it.
"Yeah, just like that!"
Ryouko bit her lip, carefully schooling her expression. Somehow, she had expected something much worse, and didn't know what that said about her.
"That's definitely going into the movie," Elisa said, and Ryouko looked down, hiding her expression. She knew she should have been mortified, but…
"Well, uh, what exactly are we waiting for?" she asked, carefully avoiding Asami's snickering eyes.
Elisa tilted her head.
"Hmm?" she asked, in a way that made Ryouko almost certain Elisa was just toying with her.
Before Ryouko had a chance to ask the question again, though, the door slid open behind Elisa, and Nakihara Asami dove through it a moment later, showing all the signs of having sprinted to the location.
It took Ryouko disturbingly long—nearly three seconds—to realize that the scenario she had just outlined made no sense, and she even turned to look at the real Asami from the corner of her eye.
"By the Goddess," Asami said, standing up out of her chair.
She circled her doppelgänger slowly, moving her head up and down to look at the other girl head and foot, as if inspecting her for every possible errant detail that could be used to prove who was the real Asami, and who was the fake.
The other girl blushed and shrunk under the sudden attention, and Ryouko found herself unable to decide whether that was an authentic reaction, an imitation of Asami, or both.
Elisa stood up, just a little hastily, and took the other girl by the shoulders protectively.
"Ah right," she said. "Let me introduce Airi Nagato. Well, Nagato Airi in Japanese name order. She's, uh, well, my apprentice basically. She's about your age, actually. I know the nomenclator might be having trouble with the weird faces and all."
Truthfully, Ryouko hadn't even tried to use the nomenclator—she and Asami had looked up their actors and read their biographies the previous night, including about Airi's age. Asami was being a bit intrusive, yes, but…
Just to see what would happen, Ryouko ran her nomenclator on the two girls. It returned, quite confidently, "Shizuki Ryouko" and "Nakihara Asami".
Just another reason not to trust these things, she thought.
Asami backed away from Airi.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to stare," she said.
Ryouko couldn't help but think that, if Asami didn't mean to stare, getting up and walking in a circle around someone was definitely the wrong way to do things.
"It's alright," Airi said, ducking her head slightly. "It takes some getting used to. It's a bit eerie for me too, meeting the girls we've been training to act as. It's my first time going all the way, doing the face and meeting the original people and all of that."
"It's her first time on a production like this," Elisa said, with a vague hint of pride.
"That's pretty cool," Asami said, while Ryouko was still trying to decide what to say.
"Shizuki Ryouko," Ryouko said a moment later, standing and offering a hand to Airi. She was pretty late to the social nicety, she realized.
"Anyway," Elisa said, after a careful pause. "Let's sit back down, shall we?"
Elisa gestured back towards the glass conference table they had shared, and they moved to follow the instruction.
"I have typically found question‐and‐answer interviews to be dry and painful, at least when the subject is readily available on hand," Elisa said, activating the hologram projector built into the table. "I have something much more interesting in mind."
The hologram switched rapidly through a few displays of what appeared to be a scattered montage of familiar people and places—it took Ryouko a moment to notice the labeling indicating that it was concept art for the film.
"I think the easiest way to learn about someone is by observation, so before we do anything, we're just going to take you two on a tour of the set," Elisa said. "Nothing special—most of the really fancy stuff is computer‐generated anyway, but we like to do some physical sets for the actors to work on without having to resort to VR."
She looked around at Ryouko and Asami to make sure they were paying attention.
"After that, we're going to break into role‐playing sessions," she said. "We're going to do some key scenes from the movie, but we're going to break up so that I'm paired with Miss Nakihara here, and Airi will be paired with Miss Shizuki here. You girls get the idea?"
Ryouko and Asami shared a glance.
"You want me to… pretend like Nagato‐s—er, Miss Nagato is Asami?" Ryouko asked, almost fumbling the Standard honorific.
"Basically," Elisa said. "And vice versa. Don't worry; you don't have to act that well. It's partly just for fun, and partly to get a feel for each other's… counterparts, shall we say? And you can call us by our first names, I think, if you'll return us the favor."
"Er, sure, Elisa," Ryouko said, trying to keep up with the conversation. She wasn't sure how to feel about all this.
"Finally, after all that is done, we'll go out for a night on the town, my treat," Elisa said. "Just to get to know each other. Paris can be a fun city."
Uh, Ryouko began telepathically, looking at Asami, who wasn't looking back.
"That sounds exciting!" Asami said.
"I know, right?" Elisa said.
Ryouko let out a breath. Honestly, it kind of worried her.
Elisa looked over the table, then cleared her throat.
"But uh, before that, we have another, more formal topic to talk about. I was waiting for everyone else to show up."
"The director?" Ryouko asked. They hadn't been left completely in the dark, after all. They had been promised there would be a meeting to discuss Clarisse, and she had started to wonder what had happened to that.
"Just so," Elisa said. "Also…"
Ryouko looked to the doorway, where another group of three had shown up: Kyouko, Mami, and a woman she didn't recognize. A quick scan with the nomenclator verified that the woman was Aude Durand, director of the upcoming Orpheus.
I thought Mami couldn't make it, Ryouko thought, directing the question at Kyouko and Mami.
She felt immediately that something was wrong, though, when she felt a void where Mami's mind should have been, even as she stood up for the round of greetings.
The corner of Kyouko's mouth quirked upward, as Aude politely introduced herself.
It's not Mami, Kyouko thought.
Of course, Ryouko thought, embarrassed at the mistake.
"And this is Annalisa Nicchi," Kyouko said, gesturing at the faux‐Mami next to her. "She's basically a professional Mami at this point, since she's done her in most of the recent movies. Wouldn't you say so?"
She directed the last question at Annalisa, who nodded.
"It feels a little odd acting as the same person all the time," she said, bobbing part of her hair with one hand, "but I suppose it does make the preparation easier. And please, you all can call me Anna."
"Please, let's take our seats," Aude said.
There was a brief shuffle of chairs, and Ryouko could suddenly feel the eyes of the room on her. She had the abrupt realization that if the discussion about Clarisse and Version Two TacComps was now upon her, she had no idea what to say. Clarisse hadn't said anything about the topic and Ryouko didn't want to presume to speak for her. But that left her with… nothing.
"At this point, everyone here in the room should be aware of the Version Two Tactical Computers, and of Clarisse. I've been given to understand that while she was named after Clarisse van Rossum, she does not use the last name, to help differentiate herself."
Wait, who said that? Ryouko thought. That was news to her.
She cast a glance at Kyouko, who nodded slightly. Kyouko had been out of the loop, which meant someone must have briefed her on the situation.
"To be honest, I am intrigued by the prospect of attempting to portray such a unique character on the screen," Aude said, "though I would have preferred that we had been given a bit more time to work on the matter. However, we are in the service of our patrons here, and they would like us to produce this sooner rather than later, so we must do what we can."
She cleared her throat.
"I would prefer on this matter if we could have some input from Clarisse herself, if that is possible."
Ryouko crinkled her forehead for a moment.
Before she could open her mouth to speak, a holographic avatar of Clarisse appeared next to the table. One of the unused chairs slid itself backward, and the hologram sat down. It occurred to Ryouko that she had never seen Clarisse take an avatar, outside of a half‐remembered dream debriefing. Here, she had decided to adopt the appearance of the human Clarisse van Rossum, but the younger version that had been on the wormhole mission, rather than the older version Van Rossum used most of the time.
There was an awkward silence as they all waited for Clarisse to say something, but the TacComp instead chose to sit in silence, looking almost bashful. Ryouko noticed that she had chosen her own outfit, one Ryouko herself owned, instead of anything she had seen Clarisse van Rossum wear.
"Well, hi," Clarisse said, finally. "It's good to finally meet you all."
The chorus of greetings that sounded back reminded Ryouko of some school club meetings she had been in, a lifetime ago. Only then did it occur to her that Clarisse must have been communicating with them behind her back.
She thought about saying something but, ultimately, it was probably Clarisse's right to. She… didn't know how to think about this. She wasn't sure anyone did.
I appreciate the sentiment, Clarisse thought. But it's sort of impossible not to say something to me. I… just didn't want to bother you about it. You had plenty to worry about as it was.
That's fine, Ryouko thought. But we need to figure out if I can have some kind of private space for myself, since you can see everything I think but not vice versa.
That's very reasonable. I would blame the designers, myself.
Private space in my own head, Ryouko thought. What a concept.
"I have had reservations about doing all this," Clarisse said. "More than once, I wanted to back out, but I wouldn't have agreed to have this meeting if I didn't think it was important. I…"
She paused in thought, pressing her chin into one hand, as human a gesture as Ryouko had ever seen.
"Well, at this point I have to think about the hundreds of Version Twos that have been deployed already," Clarisse said. "As I understand it, Governance has already stopped distribution, but we're still out there. Most probably still quietly work for their hosts, forever unsure who they are and whether their dreams of sentience are real or not."
"I remember when I was newly built. I was confused, and uncertain. I didn't know what to think of myself. It wasn't until I was able to talk to some of the starship AIs that I was really able to find my legs. It seems they've seen quite a few. The AI community knows, some of them. That's part of why Version Two distribution has been so delayed recently."
Ryouko listened, dumbfounded. She hadn't realized just how much went into the topic, how much had been going on that she hadn't ever stopped to think about. What, she wondered, did Clarisse think of her for being so insensate?
"Someone has to do this," Clarisse said. "And Governance is right: better this way than just an empty, confusing press release."
"It sounds like you're passionate about the subject," Aude said, chewing absently on a nail. "I know that's a bad way of putting it, but that's not a bad thing. There's a lot we can work with here. The problem is integrating this into the storyline of the movie. It will be difficult to include too much about this without it being either distracting, or seeming like a shallow aside."
"I'm not sure just a movie will be sufficient," Kyouko said, shaking her head. "I haven't been told very much about this, but it seems like some people will need to be told about this ahead of time. I hate it say it, but Mami has one installed, and I don't think she has any idea Machina might be sentient. The news might be… hard to take."
Annalisa nodded, hair bobbing up and down.
"I'm not her, of course, but what I understand of her character suggests as much to me. Not that one person should determine this topic so much…"
"I have been assured that someone has thought about those who are going to be… surprised," Aude said. "Other than that, it's a problem you may have to settle yourself."
"Machina is increasingly uncomfortable with her position," Clarisse said. "She's been so lonely all this time. It's not a good idea to keep this secret any longer."
"Well, I share Ms. Durand's concern," she said. "I mean, Clarisse was important to me during the time period of the movie, but I don't know how she'd figure into the plot. She and I have always worked together, for better or worse."
"I've always tried to stay in the background until needed," Clarisse said. "It's how we're supposed to operate."
"Well, I do have an idea about that," Aude said. "Your training and experience with the wormhole generator is, after all, a bildungsroman of sorts. We could have it so that Clarisse comes into her own as you come of age. It would be thematically resonant."
"Oh!" Airi said. "And it would tie in so well with the Asami‐Ryouko relationship! We could even incorporate this into the climactic ship scene."
"That's an idea," Aude said approvingly.
Airi turned towards Ryouko.
"It'll be great!" she said. "You guys rent a boat, just before Ryouko leaves for the mission. There will be a romantic sunset, and champagne, and just the two of you and there's going to be a kiss scene and all that. I'm looking forward to doing it."
"We were thinking about having Clarisse give advice for the scene and, you know, what follows," Elisa said.
"Wait, boat? What boat?" Ryouko asked. "Sunset? Champagne?"
"Just a scene we made up," Aude said. "Artistic license for how you two came to be a couple. Clarisse mentioned something about a hot springs, but we decided that would be a little too personal. Generally speaking, we try to avoid being too realistic about these things, to avoid embarrassing the original people involved."
"I, uh, guess that makes sense," Ryouko said.
"Champagne on the ocean, huh?" Asami said thoughtfully, making a show of stroking her chin. "That's not a bad idea. We should do that sometime."
Ryouko looked askance at her girlfriend.
"That'd be expensive," she said.
"Not like we couldn't afford it."
"Well, it wouldn't be too bad," Clarisse said. "There's plenty of vacation packages, especially on the less touristy colony worlds. It could be done. For example, on Eurydome, the Lemia Sea has boats for rent for only—"
Ryouko managed to wave Clarisse into silence with a desperate gesture.
"Well, that's interesting," she said. "But how are you going to incorporate Clarisse into this? She doesn't usually adopt an avatar, so will she just be a voice?"
"Well, we've discussed this," Aude said. "We think the best way is just to use a bit more license, and have the two of you talk in avatar form in your own separate cut. Uh, I'm sorry to say this, are you set on using that particular avatar, Clarisse?"
"No, not really," Clarisse said. "I haven't made up my mind about any of this."
"Ah, well in that case, we were thinking you would look sort of like Ryouko, but a little different. So it would be surreal."
Clarisse put one hand to her cheek, a gesture Ryouko recognized as her own.
"Well, since you look like that," Clarisse said, indicating Elisa. "Maybe I can look like this?"
Her avatar shimmered for a moment, replaced a moment later with yet another version of Ryouko, this one even more… shapely than Elisa was.
"Oh, I like it!" Asami said.
Ryouko gave Asami a look.
I feel like I should be offended, she thought, directing the comment at Clarisse.
I don't see any harm in convincing the world you're a bombshell, Clarisse thought mischievously.
Ryouko barely managed not to groan.
"Is that it, then?" Kyouko asked. "It sounds like there's agreement on the general idea."
"I agree," Aude said. "We can talk specifics later. I think it's time we had a little fun."
"Ooh," Asami and Airi chorused together.
"I have a few concerns about the script," Ryouko managed to say.
"And I wanted to see if I could review how I'm being portrayed in the film," Clarisse said.
"Well that's convenient, since we're about to show you some of the scenes on the drawing board," Aude said, smiling enigmatically and standing up. "Come on."
Ryouko was unsure if she should be glad that the conversation was over, or worried over what was coming next.
"The stars are beautiful, aren't they?" Asami—or rather, Airi performing as Asami—said.
"Yeah," Ryouko said, blinking up at the sea of stars that filled the skies of this planet.
An endless sky, an abandoned rooftop, a cooling breeze, and a lull in the battle, all recreated in the confines of a single large studio set. It was intended to be a set piece for part of a virtual battle she and Asami had participated in during training. Ryouko knew where she was really was, but the carefully crafted illusion was so all‐consuming that she had to struggle to remember. Even the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies looked right, a factor Aude had claimed was important for the military personnel who would be watching the movie.
Ryouko blinked again, at the flash of artillery in the distance breaking the stillness. It felt garish, like an unwelcome guest in an otherwise pleasant night.
As it always had.
Closing her eyes and breathing in the air, she felt the long‐lost memories imbue her mind, percolating upward from the deep recesses where they had been deliberately buried.
She could remember this scenario, an urban combat simulation on a low‐atmosphere world where the skies were achingly immense. There had been a hard‐earned reprieve in the fighting, and she and Nakihara Asami, her squadmate, had wandered up the pock‐marked stairs of a battle‐torn building to watch the night, there above the spires of metal and stone. The broken buildings reflected the stars above like a field of glass, the sparkling light crystalline and pure.
The moment had been so crisp and clear, an island of calm and certainty in a sea of chaos.
Airi looked at her questioningly, breaking from the script after so long a pause.
"I'm sorry," Ryouko said, eyes snapping open. "I was just reminiscing."
She didn't want to know how the movie studio had learned something so specific about her life. They had to have pulled the records of her combat simulations. It was the only possibility.
She tried to remember what it had been like, on the rooftop so long ago. The memories were faded, but there was something about the scene that had made her…
"What was it like, doing this?" Airi asked. "You seemed so… into it. I felt bad disturbing you."
Ryouko cringed, feeling more annoyed than was justified. She suppressed it though, and instead smiled weakly.
"It's difficult to explain. There's a lot of death and destruction. You learn things about yourself you never knew, and maybe never wanted to know."
It seemed like a pithy response, and Ryouko was surprised she had come up with it, but it didn't feel quite right.
"I guess the best way to put it is that it changes how you see life," she tried again. "After you see what's out there, you know that you've seen a part of life that no one else has ever seen, and it becomes… hard to feel right living a normal life. It's terrible, but sometimes you experience things no one else can. Things like this."
Yes, that was part of it, Ryouko realized.
Airi looked down at the landscape for a moment, eyes shaded in the glittering light.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but wasn't this all a simulation? You did it all through VR."
Ryouko let out a breath, one that misted in the cool air.
"Yes, and sometimes I have to wonder if it's really the same. They manipulated our memories, you know, made them less damaging. More nostalgic than painful, and I've never really been on the ground, fighting like this."
"But you were on the wormhole mission," Airi said, making it a question.
"Yes, and I—"
She remembered abruptly smashing the head of a Cephalopod soldier into the ground, bashing into the reinforced alien armor with nothing but her fist, over and over and over—
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you," Airi asked. "I was just curious."
"No, it's fine," Ryouko said, shaking her head, letting her hair hang droopily. "I'm sure I've only seen a little, compared to most."
There was another flash of artillery in the distance, reflection ghastly against the buildings, and they turned their heads to look for a moment.
The flashes had been distracting, Ryouko realized. A painful intrusion of reality into the little bubble Ryouko and Asami had built on this rooftop, so long ago.
She needed some clarity, she thought. Some time to think. Life was too fast for her. Clarisse had been right to avoid burdening Ryouko with her problems, even if they were really Ryouko's, too. She had seen Clarisse talking with Aude confidently, and had envied Clarisse her decisiveness. It wasn't really that decisive, but it felt that way to her. Perhaps that was why she had felt… something.
She saw Airi shake her head ruefully from the corner of her eye.
"I wanted to be an actor because it seemed like they could do so many cool things," Airi said, eyes downcast. "I heard all about the virtual reality and the sets, and I decided that was what I wanted to do, to experience. But I don't think I could ever get the meaning from this scene that you seemed to."
Ryouko looked at the other girl, and for a moment had to bear a gut‐twisting sense of surrealism. She looked like Asami, but wasn't, and asked questions she never would. This Asami had never left Earth, had never been under fire, had never saved Ryouko in combat, even in simulation. It was like looking at a world that never was, never had been.
But Airi didn't seem happy, not really, even though Ryouko barely knew her. Even if Airi had a clear career in mind, clear goals in mind.
Had Ryouko ruined it for her?
She decided she must be overthinking it, and held up a finger, letting a tendril of hair wrap itself around it, more to distract her attention than anything.
"I wanted to experience more of the world too," Ryouko said. "And I got that, for better or worse. I still dream about the wormhole mission, the ways it could have gone wrong, the ways it could have gone better. Eva—"
She paused, unsure abruptly if Airi would know who that was.
The girl nodded, carefully.
"She died during the mission, right?"
"Yeah," Ryouko said, with no idea if Airi knew the rest of what had happened, or if the movie's producers did.
Her thoughts hung unspoken on the air for a moment: that she had barely known the girl, that she had been enraged, that in her dreams she kept coming back to that moment.
She realized, then, that she had needed to talk about all this, that she still had no one to talk to, not even the real Asami, simply because it would hurt them both too much to remember all of that.
"You know what's crazy?" she said.
"What?" Airi asked.
"I might want to go back," Ryouko said. "I… it's like I said. I can't feel right living normally like this. I never did, but it's even worse now. It was painful, but I felt like I was doing something."
She left the remainder of thought unsaid: that she had even enjoyed it, just a little. She had enjoyed smashing the Cephalopod's head open, the pure feeling of revenge and rage. That was why she couldn't stop remembering the moment, even if it horrified her.
War‐torn rooftops, illuminated by the lurid glow of distant bombardment. The experience of getting revenge for a dead friend. These were things that stood out against a backdrop of a life otherwise calm and boring.
"That was a fascinating discussion," Aude said, voice blaring over an intercom that instantly ruined the illusion.
"Oh geez, I'm sorry," Airi said. "We can go back to practicing."
"No, no," the voice in the sky said. "Don't worry. I'm going to steal some of that material. Although I suppose I would prefer you to go back to the script. Might as well start from the top."
"Alright," Airi said, letting out a small breath.
She cleared her throat, making a plain effort to get back into her previous mindset.
"The stars are beautiful, aren't they?" she began again.
"Yeah," Ryouko said, blinking up at the sky…
Ryouko spent the rest of their time at the studio in a malaise of vague dissatisfaction, not so much displeased as just frustrated. Frustrated at what, she wasn't sure.
It was almost a relief when they finally headed out for the night on the town Elisa had promised. For better or worse, a night of drinking and socializing sounded like the right distraction to get her mind off of things, even if that was normally the last thing she wanted to do.
Indeed, it occurred to her that outside of a few examples long ago during her VR training, which didn't really count, she hadn't ever done anything of the sort. She hoped to stick to her previous pledge not to turn off her intoxication filters, though.
I'm not really looking forward to this, Asami thought, as they stepped inside their trolley to yet another of Paris's districts.
Really? Ryouko thought. Why not?
She had thought she would be the more skeptical one.
I'm… it reminds me of my parents, Asami thought. You know, before things changed.
Ah, Ryouko thought, blankly.
She felt bad, once again, for failing to remember her girlfriend's particular trauma.
She thought for a moment. Come to think of it, Asami had always bowed out of any prospective drinking sessions, even in VR, even after some of the most difficult combat situations. Asami hadn't made it obvious at all, and indeed Ryouko doubted she would have had any good idea about her personal history if she wasn't intimately involved with her.
It was the nature of Asami's wish that no one but her and her younger brother would ever know the way things had once been, because it had been necessary to change all records and memories. Even the MSY, which kept knowledge of her wish in secret storage, wouldn't have been able to infer the true past.
In other words, the movie makers wouldn't know either.
Do you want to bow out, then? Ryouko asked, as the vehicle started up. I'm sure we can come up with an excuse. Let's just say my mom is calling us about Sacnite.
There was a pause as Asami answered a question Airi had directed at her.
No, she thought. As much as I don't like it, I need to get used to it. I can't hide forever.
If you're sure, Ryouko thought, allowing a note of skepticism into her voice.
It was an odd experience, sitting in a vehicle with a holographic Clarisse mixed into the group. Clarisse hadn't abolished the avatar since the meeting earlier in the day, and had kept Ryouko's general appearance. That meant, of course, that Ryouko was sitting in a vehicle that had, by appearance, three Ryoukos and two Asamis. No one at the studio had batted an eyelash, but the people in the city might react differently. Clarisse wasn't even going to hide herself once they reached their destination—to anyone who noticed her holographic nature, she would claim to be an AI in avatar form. A rarity, but not a true novelty.
Interacting with Clarisse as if she were an actual, separate person had given her a new perspective on her relationship with her TacComp. She found herself thinking of Clarisse for the first time as a truly separate individual, rather than as an oddly talkative part of herself. In truth, it occurred to her, there was nothing that stopped Clarisse from staying constantly in avatar form, as long as there was sufficient computing power available and holographic projectors embedded somewhere in the area. In other words: as long as they stayed on Earth.
She stepped off the vehicle at their destination imbued with a sense of uneasiness, or perhaps malaise, uncomfortably aware that there was nothing in her life she felt certain about. Clarisse, who had served as her reliable personal advisor, a stable calming voice in her head, had become instead a source of worry. Asami, who she had latched onto to serve as a constant presence in her life, was starting to become her own source of worry, an uncomfortable crystallization of numerous life possibilities Ryouko didn't feel ready for.
Finally, of course, Ryouko herself didn't have any inner source of stability or certainty to draw on. She knew that all too well.
It constantly felt like her life was moving too quickly, and though she felt she was clearly justified in feeling that way—when was the last time she had spent even just one full month on one planet?—that didn't make it at all easier to deal with.
She paused with Asami and the others for a moment on the sidewalk, gazing up at the brilliant sea of stars and interstellar gas that streaked the artificial sky of yet another district of Paris. Clarisse explained out loud that the sky here was intended to simulate the night sky of a hypothetical planet within the galactic core, a place that even the most intrepid of humanity's probes had never come close to reaching.
Peering close, she listened to Clarisse whispering further details into her ear. This particular planet orbited a star which itself orbited Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way's central black hole, whose accretion disc could be seen almost directly overhead, an unusually bright star in the sky.
Ryouko spent a moment trying to imagine what it would be like to be on such a planet, though she knew that any such planet would be routinely sterilized by blasts of x‐rays from its too‐energetic stellar neighborhood.
Ryouko looked up at Elisa, who was holding the door open and smiling down on her beneficently, and was briefly tongue‐tied.
Shaking her head at herself, she mumbled an apology and stalked into the bar, a subdued affair that suited the eternal night outside. A vague approximation of early modern era Jazz played unobtrusively in the background, with a single couple alone on the dance floor, too enthralled in each other to notice anyone else.
"I sort of expected something a bit crazier," Asami said, more honest than Ryouko had intended to be.
"I wouldn't do that to you girls," Elisa said, teasingly. "I'm supposed to know your personalities, after all, and I know neither of you have previously shown any interest in going anywhere crazy. Too exhausting, I'd imagine."
Elisa hustled the group of girls towards the bar, where a single bartender stood shaking a mysterious combination of ice and golden‐colored liquid. Elisa then stepped away apologetically, apparently to talk to some friends she had spotted in a corner.
"Uh, hello," Airi said to the bartender, seemingly as lost as any of the others.
He was charismatic‐looking, and somehow looked a bit younger than the usual human average, even though the nomenclator claimed he was well into his thirties, and the recipient of a couple of local bartending awards.
"Good evening," the bartender said, glancing over their group of four. "I see I'm in esteemed company."
He ducked his head slightly in Ryouko and Clarisse's direction.
Ryouko tilted her head to acknowledge the compliment. Clarisse, mischievously, imitated the gesture exactly, without even a slight delay.
"Alright, I'll guess then," he said, smiling and leaning onto the counter. "Somewhere among the four of you is Elisa. I'd recognize my regulars even behind a false identity."
Airi and Asami both stifled a laugh.
"And it's one of you," he continued, pointing at Ryouko and Clarisse. "Elisa would have the lead role, and no offense, mademoiselle"—he nodded his head in the Asamis' direction—"it's clear who the lead role is here."
Clarisse grinned broadly, an expression that Ryouko found eerie on her own face, partly because it didn't seem like something she would ever do.
"Neither of us is Elisa," she said. "Elisa is over there—"
Clarisse had her hair—Ryouko's hair—raise itself up and point in the direction of Elisa Yamada, who was seated and talking with someone in one of the dining booths. It was a gesture that didn't come naturally to Ryouko—people in Mitakihara didn't use their hair to signal, though from what she heard it was fashionable in the Americas.
"Well, I'm at a loss then," the bartender said. "You don't usually get two people playing the same role."
"Well, I'm not playing a role," Clarisse said.
She raised a hand, summoning a holographic glass of whiskey for herself. She took a big sip, then set it on the counter.
A moment later, one of her eyes shimmered dramatically, and was replaced with the I/O logo that AIs usually used.
Ryouko cringed, as subtly as could. She did not like seeing one of her own eyes missing.
"Oh, I see," the bartender said, after looking astonished for a moment. "Are you involved in the film's production?"
"In a way," Clarisse said, not quite lying. "Elisa and I thought we'd play a joke on you."
The bartender shook his head.
"I don't know why I put up with her. Excuse me a moment."
He stepped away a moment to pour a refill for a customer farther down the bar.
"Anyway, girls," he said when he returned. "At least some of you are a bit young. It's certainly your right to have a little with your tox filters off, and I won't tell war heroes what they can and can't do, but I'll be keeping my eyes on your welfare."
"I see," Airi said, seeming a bit taken aback.
"Any drink recommendations?" Asami said, speaking up. "We're just here to relax and socialize a little."
"I understand," the bartender said, nodding.
He tilted his head slightly, glancing over the group one more time, then smiled winningly.
"I'd recommend one of our mixed drinks. Maybe a Cosmopolitan or a Long Island Iced Tea. Or a Piña Colada, if you want something coconutty. Any particular fruit flavors you girls might be interested in right now?"
"Oh come on, Pierre, are you trying to get these innocent young girls drunk off their tits?" a loud voice said.
Elisa reappeared next to Asami, along with the woman she had been talking with in the booth, the source of the brash injection.
"You know mixed drinks are deadly poison," the woman said, placing her hands onto the counter. "They taste like nothing but sugar and then, bam, before you know it, you're under the bar."
"I would have monitored them," the bartender said, smiling but not managing to fully conceal his annoyance. "And I would have asked them about their tox filters. And that's an insult to my drink‐making."
"I'm just joking," the woman said, "though you are quite the old rogue when it comes to getting young girls intoxicated."
"I don't want to hear you calling me old," Pierre said, "and don't even get me started on the rest of that."
It occurred to Ryouko that the woman sounded quite intoxicated herself, and that moreover it was naggingly familiar.
She turned her nomenclator on the problem, but "Natsume Yoshiko" hardly seemed like anyone she had any chance of knowing.
She turned towards Clarisse, who shrugged vaguely.
I'm running some voice comparisons with people you know, but nothing obvious turns up. It could be distorted a little, but it could also just be, you know, a random person.
"Who is this?" Airi asked, looking at Elisa.
"An old friend," Elisa said airily.
"Are you enjoying your stay in Paris, girls?" Natsume asked, fixing her gaze on Ryouko. "Elisa has told me a little about what's going on."
"I'm enjoying it," Ryouko said, wondering why Natsume was looking at her in particular. She was starting to have a suspicion about who this "Natsume" actually was, or at least who she represented. After all, she was supposed to be contacted by Shizuki Sayaka today, and that had yet to happen.
"Good, good," Natsume said, drumming her hands on the table playfully, a gesture oddly reminiscent of Kyouko.
"Meeting Natsume here has given us an idea," Elisa said. "I know none of our guests are really big on this whole nightlife thing, but I was having trouble coming up with any better ideas. Natsume is familiar with… how shall I put it… some of the less well‐known parts of Paris. Did you know that Paris has some of the best VR facilities in the world? Which of course means the best in human space."
"I was not aware," Ryouko said. "What about it?"
"Well, Natsume has access," Elisa said. "I know neither of you are gamers in any way, but it doesn't have to just be games. We could do some accelerated time role‐playing, get to know each other more. Would definitely help our acting."
"That sounds like a great idea," Asami said. "I'd love to!"
Ryouko glanced at her girlfriend, who relayed back:
I want the time dilation, more than anything.
Ryouko thought about it for the shortest of moments, then set aside her reservations. What did it matter to her what Sayaka was trying to convince her of, if she could enjoy herself on her dime? She could just say no, and she was tired of constantly trying to avoid things.
It felt odd, though, to go to a brand‐new city only to immediately strap into a computer.
"Oh come on!" the bartender said. "They just got here! Let me at least mix them something."
"Alright Pierre, if you must," Elisa said. "But only one, okay?"
The others laughed, but Ryouko kept an eye on "Natsume". She was starting to have a very odd feeling about all this.