〈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
〈The Far Seers are one of the MSY's more enigmatic organizations, having managed the feat of staying relatively unknown at a time when the existence and exploits of other nominally secret organizations have become increasingly well‐known. Unlike the Black Heart, it is not directly involved in major wartime missions, and its membership is much more selective than the relatively well‐populated Telepaths' Guild.〉④
〈In structure, the Far Seers are most similar to a Guild, with a charter and internal organization that closely resembles that of Guilds such as Shields Up and Backstabbers United. However, unlike most such Guilds—and like the Telepaths' Guild—the Far Seers have not degenerated into an effective social club, and have held onto their purpose and roots.〉④
〈This purpose may perhaps be most efficiently expressed by quoting the Far Seer charter:〉④
〈"…to ensure that the MSY is always aware, and always ready. The gift of magic allows us to gather intelligence and knowledge in ways unimaginable to even the most gifted of mortal strategists. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if we know our enemy and know ourselves, we will never be in peril. Thus we aspire to always know our enemy, but even more importantly, to always know ourselves."〉④
〈In the service of this credo, the Far Seers, founded in the late 2070s by an initial cadre of powerful clairvoyants and telepaths, seek only the most skilled of information gatherers, especially those capable of gathering valuable information without the usual trappings of physical involvement.〉④
〈While the information that might be provided by the Far Seers would naturally seem to be of incredible value, and while they do serve as one of the MSY leadership's most valuable sources of guidance, past pronouncements by the Far Seers have often proven frustratingly oracular, even mystical in nature, with members speaking frequently of such topics as multiple possibilities, probabilities, and fate. Because of this, they are generally regarded as unreliable at best, and their undying quest to recover the lost art of precognition seen as little more than tilting at windmills…〉④
— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Guild, Government, and Matriarchy," excerpt.
"Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the Tree of Life."
— Motto, Project Eden
"Humanity cannot live unless it learns to ride the wings of eternity."
— Motto, Project Janus
"Lux Aeterna, Sol Aeternus, Vox Aeterna."
— Motto, Project Icarus
The smoke of the burning torch oil danced against Kyouko's nose, acrid against the otherwise damp air of the cavern. The light of the torch itself played luridly against the rock walls, casting her and her guide's shadows wildly over the surfaces. The sideways motions of the flame suggested a hidden air current, probably derived from the ventilation systems that kept urban Paris cool and oxygenated.
She didn't try to talk with her guide, who was after all a nun in the two‐century‐old Order of St. Barbara. They weren't sworn to silence, but it was customary to keep speech to an absolute minimum, something those who patronized their catacombs were made to understand. The deep chambers were one of the few places on Earth where one could speak without fear of being overheard by an electronic device, aside from the wilderness or ocean. Thus, its location in urban Paris made it very popular for private conversations, and the MSY had come to be one of the Order's biggest patrons.
Not all of Paris's underground districts were entertainment districts, after all.
They came to a stop in front of an old‐style wooden door, one that wouldn't have been out of place in Kyouko's church in Mitakihara. The nun ducked her head slightly, gesturing Kyouko to enter.
She found that she had been the last to arrive, the three other attendants of the meeting looking up at her entrance. The rough wooden table in the middle of the room was supplied with bread and cheese, a welcome sight to a girl who was used to bringing her own food—a practice strictly forbidden here.
Kyouko sat down next to Yuma, who was frowning angrily at the girls across the table. She grabbed a hunk of bread, some cheese, and a knife, and set quickly to work.
"I'm just saying I'm surprised you can even walk in here, given how much your job relies on being in constant communication," Nadya said, munching on her own bread. "There's no need to get angry."
Nadya had been a last minute addition to the meeting, at the insistence of Clarisse.
"My dependence on Earth's computer networks is greatly exaggerated," Yuma said, pouting. "I am aware of the rumors, and they are stupid. I am still human. And as for my job, I can have MG substitute for me in the short run."
Greatly exaggerated, yes, Kyouko thought. But it was always cute just how angry and obviously dissatisfied Yuma became the longer she was away from a direct internet connection. She wasn't sure her putative little sister was aware of the phenomenon, but it made for amusing viewing, especially given the enchanted Incubator plushie she was holding tightly on her lap.
She also wasn't entirely sure she believed Yuma was truly cut off from the internet, or that she didn't have to perform some elaborate procedure to prepare beforehand, but it was mean of her to think that way.
"Fair enough, fine," Nadya said.
"Here, have some food," Kyouko said, passing a plate in Yuma's direction. "It will make you feel better."
Yuma made an annoyed noise, but started eating anyway.
"Well, Kyouko, you might as well start this thing," Clarisse van Rossum, the last member of their group, said. "Now that we're all here."
"You've screened the area?" Kyouko asked, looking around rhetorically. The Order of St. Barbara took their work seriously, but they all knew that was no real impediment to a determined eavesdropper, technological or magical.
"Yes," Clarisse said.
If the area had been unclean, Clarisse would have said a signal word, and they would have started talking about a mundane topic, while holding their real conversation via pure telepathy. Games within games, just as Yuma preferred. They could have done so anyway, but if they couldn't feel secure within the caverns of St. Barbara, with its massive privacy‐enforcing interdiction field and Clarisse van Rossum screening for magical listeners, they would never be secure anywhere.
"Alright," Kyouko said, pulling out a square data crystal, of the kind that was only used for privileged information nowadays—that which could not be broadcast.
She slid it into a concealed slot on the table, provided by the Order for this exact purpose, and a moment later part of the rock wall in the back of the room slid upward, revealing a flat screen suitable for presentations. It had been a long time since she had been obliged to do one of these, but to her it waxed a little nostalgic—she could still remember giving "PowerPoints" until she was sick of it, back when she had been CEO of D&E.
But she had volunteered to do this, so there was no getting out of it.
The first slide of the presentation was a simple screen with the title "Conspiracy Theory Roundtable", followed by a list:
X‐25 and the Ordo Illustrata: Who were their mysterious backers?
How did they manage to get stealth technology of that magnitude?
Why am I (Sakura Kyouko) so important?
Was Homura involved? If so, how?
Misa Virani: What happened to her in New California, and what happened to her soul gem?
Shizuki Ryouko: Who made her and why? Why did someone try to kill her on Eurydome?
The case of Simona del Mago
The case of Joanne Valentin
The case of Kuroi Nakase
The missing grief cubes: What, how, and why?
Kyouko waited while the others read, Clarisse snorting incredulously on several occasions.
"'Conspiracy Theory Roundtable' is an accurate title," Clarisse said finally. "I feel like I'm at an actual conference."
"Well, you know what Yuma says about that," Kyouko said.
"You'll forgive me," Nadya said. "I don't know how a lot of this connects? 'Who made Shizuki Ryouko?' 'What happened in New California?'"
"I imagine you're about to enlighten us," Clarisse said.
"Yes," Kyouko said.
She made a show of pretending to clear her throat, and began:
"It is a shame Mami was unable to make it to this meeting, so I will have to speak in her stead."
"I called this meeting because of the coincidence of Clarisse and I both being in Paris, but also because I have recently grown increasingly aware of something fishy going on. There's no better way to put it, but the combination of odd events gives me an uneasy feeling, and I know we have all felt it."
She looked around the table, where there was a round of nods.
"I have thought about the various odd occurrences going on, and I am starting to conclude it is no coincidence," she said. "Though I cannot quite see what the connection is."
She changed slides, so that the display now showed surveillance footage of the colony they had recently raided, and an image of the founder, Grigori DeWitt.
"I'll start with the topic where the presence of another organization is clearest, that of the rogue colony on X‐25. Yuma has taken the liberty of granting you both sufficient security clearance to read all about it. Have you done so?"
Nadya and Clarisse nodded.
"Deep waters," Nadya said.
"Indeed," Kyouko agreed. "In this case, whatever organization was backing the Ordo Illustrata from the shadows was clearly exposed, though they were able to clean out their facility so thoroughly that Governance has thus far been unable to find anything of interest. Facility built along generic scientific facility guidelines, with materials extracted robotically from local planetary sources. Nothing to give them away. All we have been able to tell is that it contained some kind of prototyping facility, and some medical facilities."
"Even that is something," Nadya said, grimacing subtly. "Weren't the girls that started to reject their memories sent to a facility to be reprocessed into guards? This could be where it happened."
"That is probably what happened, though we still haven't ruled out the possibility of another facility somewhere," Kyouko said. "The planet is still being exhaustively searched."
Reprocessed. Now that was a euphemism for you.
She tore off a piece of bread with her incisors, not exactly an elegant gesture, but one well‐suited to concealing her feelings on the matter. She didn't like imagining what kind of hell they must have gone through. She could only hope whatever hell Grigori was in was a hundred times worse.
"Prototyping facilities though," Clarisse said, refocusing the topic. "That must be where they developed the stealth devices."
"It is extremely doubtful that one facility on a remote planet could replicate a Cephalopod‐like stealth device," Yuma said. "No matter what caliber of scientists they had. Governance believes there must be a network of such facilities and has ordered redoubled surveillance of unofficially settled worlds, particularly known rogue colonies."
"If they have more than just a couple of these stealth devices, though, finding them might be nearly impossible," Clarisse commented.
"Yes," Yuma agreed. "Suffice to say, the Directorate is not happy. The MSY is working to see if any clairvoyants can be spared to help with the task."
"Who are they anyway?" Nadya asked. "That's the driving question. That, and what their goals are."
"Indeed," Kyouko said. "Whoever they are, they were willing to compromise their secrecy on a gambit to kill me. The disturbing aspects here are manifold, ranging from however it is they compromised the drone, to how they knew enough about me to come up with their plan. Nothing about this seems good."
Kyouko caught Yuma smirking at Kyouko's use of "manifold", but the child's face immediately grew serious again.
"As I have alluded to, Governance is taking the matter very seriously, much more seriously than they will ever admit publicly," Yuma said. "The possibility of breaches in the TCF, particularly magically‐mediated ones, has been a theoretical worry ever since the MSY went public. Now the worry is more than theoretical, and whoever this conspiracy is, they apparently founded a colony to experiment with cloning new magical girls. That puts the potential magical connection squarely in their eye, and frankly makes it quite awkward for us. I have had to go out of my way to emphasize the MSY's cooperation with Governance on this matter."
There was silence at the table for a long moment, as they digested the implications of her statement.
"This is going off‐topic, but what contingency plans does Governance have for this kind of situation?" Clarisse asked.
"This is strictly off the record," Yuma said, "but nothing says that there can only be one TCF. In principle, maintaining multiple independent computing systems, without too direct a connection to each other, would increase robustness. Research is ongoing. There is talk now of making the newer versions of the Tactical Computers separate, but the challenge is verifying the integrity of a new version of the TCF. We have offered the possibility of magical verification."
Nadya shook her head.
"As fascinating as this is, this is definitely getting off‐track," she said. "I feel that if we're going to drill into this conspiracy, one way to do so is to understand why they were so determined to get Kyouko here, of all people. What threat do you pose?"
The last question was aimed directly at Kyouko, of course, and she looked away for a moment, swallowing.
"I have thought carefully about that," Kyouko said, "and I have no good answer. Outside of questions of religion, I can only think of one thing that might make sense, which is that I was at the center of the investigation of the grief cube anomaly. X‐25 was, after all, before the meeting that was called to discuss the matter. If I had died, only very few would know about it. This secret organization might not have known that I'd already told Mami."
She had glanced at Clarisse upon mentioning "questions of religion", and the other girl had nodded subtly. They knew she was referring to Ryouko's vision of Kyouko's death, the one that had redirected the events of X‐25. The Goddess herself had changed the flow of events, though to what end it was still unclear. That was not worth discussing here, not when Yuma wouldn't participate in the discussion and Nadya didn't believe.
"That brings us to the core point, doesn't it?" Clarisse said. "If there really is this very powerful conspiracy, which may or may not have all kinds of access and power, then they could be anywhere, couldn't they? And then it starts to seem very suspicious that we are missing grief cubes and magical girls, that Misa was involved in an incident on New California and has disappeared, and who knows what else. After all, who's to say Misa wasn't a target just like you were, Kyouko?"
"Precisely," Kyouko said.
"But why now?" Nadya asked. "We've spoken to Gracia. She says she's absolutely certain Misa's memories of the incident had been vacated. If that theory is true, she was no longer any threat."
"Memory deletion is a very tricky business," Yuma said, pressing her fingers together. "Most cases revert within a century, unless a deliberate effort is made to maintain the block. Assuming the memory deletion was done by a nefarious third party, they wouldn't have any certainty about being able to keep her from eventually remembering. They might have just been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of her less suspiciously."
"If so, I'd say it wasn't worth the effort," Nadya said. "We're pretty suspicious now."
"Yes, but they might not have expected us to be so alert," Kyouko said. "That being said, it's entirely possible they had some other reason for acting when they did. Maybe they thought we were getting too close, and it was worth taking some risks or being a little more open."
"Remember, even though the Ordo Illustrata signal was sent years ago, a couple of light‐years is meaningless in interstellar space," Clarisse said. "It was only pure chance a science probe passed close enough to see it. They might not have expected things to come to a head so quickly. Imagine if we had already been looking for Misa for a decade before X‐25 happened. No one might have made the connection."
"Even if it was just the wish, we are lucky," Nadya said. "Even if it doesn't feel that way."
There was a moment of silence while they pondered that statement. Kyouko glanced at the presentation, then fast‐forwarded to the slides about Misa Virani. She was starting to regret bothering to make it—the discussion was proceeding perfectly fine on its own, if a bit meandering.
"A disturbing thought comes to mind," Yuma said. "This conspiracy has shown considerable reach. This topic came up during the Leadership Committee meeting, but it is not inconceivable further attempts on some of us might be made, or might have already been made without us realizing. For instance, you were present when the Institute for Theoretical Gravitonics was sabotaged on Eurydome."
The last statement was directed at Kyouko, who glanced around at Clarisse and Nadya for their reactions. They seemed interested, not puzzled, which meant that they had done the classified reading Yuma had granted them. She shouldn't really have expected otherwise out of Ancients before a truly important meeting, but… well, sometimes people got busy. One of the reasons she had made a presentation about everything was that it gave her a non‐awkward way to inform Nadya and Clarisse about specific topics. It seemed she had underestimated them.
"Personally, I rather doubt the sabotage was directed at me," Kyouko said. "My visit to the facility was not pre‐planned, and the room I was standing in didn't even collapse. If anything, my presence there helped to save Shizuki Ryouko's life."
"Might she be a target too?" Nadya asked.
"Quite possibly," Kyouko said. "I can't help but remember that she helped keep me from making the wrong decision on X‐25, and it was her partner and friend who detected the hidden nuclear device. If she had died on Eurydome, we would have died on X‐25."
"But that's all just coincidence," Yuma said. "Even I'm not paranoid enough to think that they tried to kill her to try to make X‐25 work. How would anyone predict that?"
There was clearly one entity who did, Kyouko thought, casting the thought so that only Clarisse could hear it. I only took an interest and followed Ryouko to Eurydome because of the Goddess, and she only came with me to X‐25 for the same reason. But how would that justify anyone who is not the Goddess trying to kill her?
And before the assassination attempt she hadn't even been sure she was going to come with me, Kyouko thought, this time to herself. If this conspiracy was trying to keep her from going to X‐25, their attempt backfired spectacularly.
"I don't know," Kyouko admitted. "I also can't help remembering that she was onboard the transport vessel that was mysteriously attacked deep in our space by a Ceph raiding party. It all seems suspiciously coincidental, but in ways that don't make any sense."
"Let's leave Ryouko aside for now," Yuma said. "I want to talk about one of the elephants in the room. What does everyone think about Homura? Do any of us think she might be behind all this?"
There was a pause, as everyone avoided each other's eyes for a moment.
"I wouldn't say she's incapable of it," Clarisse said. "But I wouldn't say it's likely to be her. If nothing else, she always seemed too ethically grounded to do any of the things we saw on X‐25, even indirectly. The statue could easily just be a coincidence."
"I might be terrified of coincidences now," Kyouko said, "but I have to agree it just doesn't sound like her."
And she would never act against her own Goddess, Kyouko thought. The Goddess clearly didn't approve of X‐25.
"I could see her being involved, if she thought it was for the greater good somehow," Yuma said. "If she came to think that cloning magical girls was the only way to win the war, then she would do it. And it must be said: we don't know what she is doing."
"It just doesn't seem like something she would really do," Clarisse said.
Another long pause followed.
"Back to Shizuki Ryouko, then," Nadya said, tapping a finger into the table. "I can't honestly say I know her very well, but I read the information I was sent. Is it true? Someone has constructed a human as deviant as this?"
"It is true," Yuma said, answering the rhetorical question. "I would say it is unfair to call her deviant, given that she shows every other sign of being perfectly normal, but the question of what the extra brain tissue does must be answered, especially given how important she turned out to be to the course of the war."
"I didn't mean anything negative by it," Nadya said. "Only in purely genetic terms."
"Has there been any progress in figuring it out?" Clarisse asked.
"It's still being worked on," Yuma said. "It's not easy doing this without access to the original subject, even if we have access to the genetic survey and previous medical records. A lot of it has to be done based on simulation. At first we were worried that it was some kind of remote control module, or a kill switch, but that has been definitely ruled out at this point—it just doesn't seem to have the right connections to the brain stem or the neocortex. It doesn't have access to sensory input either, and has no implants other than the generic neural support implants."
"So what does it connect to?" Nadya asked. "It can't just sit there doing nothing!"
"I was getting there," Yuma said. "As far as we can tell, it's primarily connected to the regions of the brain most associated with emotion, things like the basal ganglia and amygdala, along with the speech centers. As far as we can tell, it doesn't have much in the way of connections going out, either—most information seems to be flowing in, rather than out. It would explain why it wasn't easy to notice during TacComp installation."
"What could the purpose of that be, though?" Clarisse asked. "Gathering emotional information and what she's talking about? That's oddly unambitious, given a modification pattern of this complexity."
"And of course, there's no actual implants to transmit the information anywhere, if that is the purpose," Yuma said. "Or implants to receive any information, if this were a control device."
She paused for a moment, glancing around at the other three.
"We're definitely not at the bottom of this. This isn't just an expansion or a reuse of existing neural wiring paradigms, or a new set of regulators for generating new tissue—there is new metabolism going on, new neurotransmitters, new biochemistry. This is immensely sophisticated work, but we don't know to what purpose. I've had to swear the biologists to absolute secrecy. About the only thing anyone can grasp yet is that the new neurotransmitters might be just to prevent crosstalk—to guarantee effective isolation of the internal processes."
"And I'm sure we don't have to tell you what unusually sophisticated, secret scientific work sounds like," Kyouko said.
"Except if it was the same group, why would they try to kill her?" Nadya asked, shaking her head. "It doesn't make sense."
"Maybe they're not the same group," Clarisse said. "Or maybe they were trying to kill her to get rid of the evidence somehow."
Nadya closed her eyes for a moment.
"With all due respect," she said. "If the problem is that she can't be studied directly, why not ask her to submit to a more thorough examination? Nothing bad, just a full check‐up. I'm sure if she was told it had something to do with her implants, it would be no problem."
Yuma smiled slightly.
"I'm already working on it. Shizuki Sayaka has offered a particularly effective solution."
"Complete power loss?" Natsume and Elisa asked incredulously, almost in unison.
"Yes, so it seems," their vehicle informed them placidly over the intercom. "For your safety, it is recommended you stay inside the vehicle until power is restored."
It wasn't clear that the group had much of a choice, since they were still firmly ensconced in one of Paris's municipal tunnels. Bathed in the eerie backup lighting of the vehicle, the tunnel outside looked dark and foreboding, empty of the bright displays that usually served as decoration. Perhaps most disconcertingly, Clarisse's avatar had vanished along with everything else, leading to bitter complaints delivered directly into Ryouko's mind, which synergized most pleasantly with the over‐worried messages of her ostensible bodyguards, also trapped around them in the municipal tunnel system.
No thank you, Ryouko thought, refusing an offer of an emergency teleport out. I could do it myself if I had to, obviously. We can wait for now.
"Do we have any idea how long that is going to take?" Natsume demanded of the vehicle, clearly angry. "Or any idea what's caused this?"
"No estimate for repair has yet been produced," the vehicle said. "The electrical power underlying most of this district's power usage has gone offline for unknown reasons. Backup non‐electrical power transmission systems remain online. Rest assured, core services, including communication services, are still online."
"But not transit apparently," Elisa said, looking bemused. "I don't think I've ever seen a failure in the power grid."
She's correct, Clarisse thought. The last time there was an unscheduled outage in Paris was a decade after the Unification Wars.
Natsume, for her part, was tilting her head, obviously engaging in some unspoken communication even if she wasn't making the usual hand‐on‐ear signal. It seemed like whatever she was hearing was not pleasant.
"I have bad news," she said, finally. "The facility we were going to was affected, and they don't want to run any new simulations until they are sure everything is back in working order. They won't be available again for at least 24 hours."
Asami made a displeased noise.
"That's a real shame," Elisa said. "I had been looking forward to this."
The actor closed her eyes for a long moment, and though Ryouko felt it odd to try to read what looked like her own face, she felt as if Elisa was deeply perplexed about something.
"Do we have any more information about just what happened?" she asked, finally.
Natsume tilted her head again, blinking slightly.
"They haven't told me anything special," she said. "But, I suppose we should make lemonade of lemons. We can do something else."
"Couldn't we go to another facility?" Asami suggested. "This is just one district of the city."
Natsume shook her head.
"I wouldn't have the same kind of access I do here. It would be an inferior experience."
"Well, what then?" Airi asked.
"Well, I guess we can just sort of wait," Natsume said.
Ryouko started to nod, then put her hand to her ear, accidentally mimicking Asami.
Paging all teleporters, mobility specialists, and others with relevant skills, the message said. We have a major incipient demon spawn under way in the Phantasos District. A local power outage has interrupted transit and we need everyone capable of moving MSY personnel into the area on site immediately. Coordinates are enclosed. Your cooperation is appreciated.
"We have a problem," Ryouko said.
"A demon spawn, huh?" Kyouko said.
"Yes," Yuma said, holding the telepathy‐enhancing Incubator up to her ear as if that actually helped. "A really big one."
"That sounds a little familiar," Kyouko said.
"Yes," Yuma agreed again, letting a little bit of annoyance show on her face. Shizuki Sayaka's suggestion had been great: Invite Ryouko to a VR session, use the opportunity to do some detailed brain scans. It should have gone swimmingly, except for a mystery power outage and demon spawn.
"Someone doesn't want us studying her too carefully," Kyouko said.
"We should wait to verify," Yuma said. "I've already made sure someone checks the area for evidence afterward, but there's no guarantee anyone would have left any. If it's the same people, they're probably more careful after getting found out last time."
It was conspiratorial thinking to conclude that this series of coincidences necessarily had something to do with Ryouko, but she had come to find that paranoia was always well‐warranted.
"What about the power outage?" Clarisse said. "Have there been any updates about that?"
Yuma shook her head.
"It's still a mystery. The system recorded a massive, broadly‐distributed drain on the grid, too huge to be anything normal, so it cut the connections momentarily. When it tried to bring them back online, though, nothing was responsive. Even the monitoring and repair drones seem to be offline. Human personnel are en route, but it's taking time with the transit systems down. Even emergency power is unresponsive."
Clarisse wrinkled her brow.
"This is a new one. Something that drains power?"
"And not localized either," Yuma added, "which is the only way it could have even happened without tripping a current limiter or overloading a cable. Even superconducting cable has its limits."
She paused, watching Nadya out of the corner of her eye. Unlike the others, and unlike her usual self, Nadya had spent much of the conversation silent, leaning forward with hands clasped and eyes unfocused.
"Is something bothering you?" Yuma asked.
Nadya looked away for a moment, clearly thinking about what to say.
"I have seen something like this before," she said. "But it's not possible."
"Well, don't beat around the bush," Kyouko said. "Tell us what's not possible already."
"Draining power was one of Misa Virani's favorite tricks," Nadya said. "Rather than exert herself trying to make electricity ex nihilo, it was usually much easier to extract existing current and redirect it into a target. Even the squid use enough electricity in their bases to make it work sometimes, and it's double the damage—sap one system, destroy another. It has the added bonus that most systems are designed to protect against big surges, rather than big drains."
There was a long silence as they thought about what she said.
"You're right, that doesn't really make any sense," Kyouko said.
"Yes," Nadya agreed, talking into her fist. "But if the technicians find that everything in the area has been fried, I don't really know what else could have done it."
"There are other electricity‐based mages in the MSY," Clarisse suggested.
"Maybe," Nadya said.
She paused for a moment.
"None like her though."
Yuma let out a breath.
"Well I would say it's time we left these caves, and got back to somewhere where we can observe the situation more closely," she said.
"What are we going to do about Ryouko?" Kyouko said.
"We'll just have to keep trying," Yuma said. "If there's someone really trying to stop us, it's only going to get more obvious. If there isn't, then we'll know what we want soon enough."
We need reinforcements near the concert hall, a voice relayed into Ryouko's mind.
She was already reacting to the message, the relevant tactical information and context dropped into her cortex faster than the thought could really transmit. A small group of local volunteers had already formed an impromptu bomb squad—a bit non‐standard, with a melee lancer, water mage, and mind‐controller in place of the usual area damage focus, but it had the barrier generator, so it would have to do.
A moment later they appeared next to the concert hall in question, in the middle of the main thoroughfare. The barrier generator threw up a barrier of cold blue light against the horde of demons as they spared a fraction of a second to scan for errant civilians. They were supposed to have been cleared, but you could never quite be sure…
The barrier generator ducked and squealed as part of her shield warped and flickered away under a ferocious bombardment, but the others were already making their moves. Giant metallic lances sprouted from the ground around them, impaling what they could as a stampede of water‐formed horses charged through the area, scattering all in their path. Meanwhile, the telepath turned any still active demons away towards their brethren, and Ryouko fired an explosive bolt for good measure.
It was messy, and had plenty of anti‐synergy, the giant lances and stampeding horses actively interfering with each other's action. But, it was at least effective.
Goddess, that's a lot of demons, thought the girl who had protected them, getting up from a crouch. I'm not usually a barrier generator.
Sakura Kyouko fan? the water mage asked the lancer.
Says the girl with horses straight out of—
The banter was cut short as the lancer in question dodged an attack, stabbing her lance into a nearby building for leverage.
Keep them off me! the water mage demanded. I need more time to—shit!
The girl ducked out of the way of a laser while keeping her hands together in a prayer pose.
I need more time to charge an attack! What are you doing?
This isn't exactly easy! the mind‐controller protested, trying to fulfill the request.
Ryouko bit back a sense of disapproval, keeping it from entering the team telepathic network, focusing instead on picking off what she could with her arbalest. She had to remember that these were Parisian socialites, too old to have undergone combat training, old enough to find exemptions from combat. They wouldn't have the usual cohesion or cold sense of mission.
Not for the first time she found herself missing Asami, who had been assigned to another team to try and distribute the veterans evenly among the various teams. Ryouko wasn't really sure that this was the best way to do it, but she supposed she wasn't the one making the decisions.
"Why are they demanding we hold the line anyway?" the "barrier generator" complained—out loud, the slowest communication method—edging towards Ryouko for a sense of safety as she waved giant fists of light back and forth, shadowboxing demons at range.
I don't know, Ryouko thought back. They must be hard up for someone in this area.
Why isn't there anyone else here to back us up? the water mage demanded, finally unleashing another stampede of horses. I've never seen it this bad!
Ryouko barely twisted aside as a dozen or so demons materialized through the wall of the concert hall, firing as they went. The girl next to her spun around, throwing up another shield that lasted only a few seconds before shattering.
She screamed, but Ryouko knew she couldn't turn to look, focusing instead on the horde with her weapon leveled, gritting her teeth. As a teleporter, she could dodge more effectively than any of the others, and if she just got their attention—
She teleported three meters upward, dodging a fusillade of beams, before immediately teleporting five meters to the right, dodging what she knew would be a follow‐up attack—
But she paused, since the follow‐up attack never came.
Damn it Shizuki‐san, don't get killed over there! I'll never hear the end of it! she distantly registered Kuroi Eri complaining. She had been split from her bodyguard teams too as part of the demon hunt, though they didn't like it one bit.
She watched as orange and green beams pulsated out of the arcade across the street, filleting the demons that had been tracking her. She didn't look for the source, though nothing on her tactical readout indicated just who it had been.
Finally! the mind‐controller thought, crouching next to the barrier generator, who was whimpering with a broken leg. This wasn't the time, of course, and any neophyte knew how to shut down pain—
Ryouko shut down her own complaints as a fresh set of demons appeared down the street, already substantially reduced by the incoming beams. In her head, she heard the demands:
Unidentified magical girls, identify yourselves!
This isn't a game! Identify yourselves!
She didn't wait for the response, even as it never came. Someone had to carry these newbies, and she didn't have time to worry about idiots who didn't identify themselves, especially because they were doing a remarkably good job, combat coordination or no. She just hoped they had good enough aim not to hit any of them.
On your feet! she ordered, firing as she moved forward, teleporting evasively as she went. A broken bone is nothing you can't shut out! Follow my lead!
For perhaps the first time, she felt herself aware of the demeanor she cut in battle, the terrifying focus that others found difficult to comprehend. Was this what Kyouko had meant, when she had said that Ryouko seemed to enjoy it?
She felt a smile creep onto her face for a moment, before she glanced at the girls on the ground and saw that they hadn't moved.
Clarisse slid her consciousness into shallow command mode, starting to plot out tentative combat tactics for the team. Ryouko, who had only a brief instant to decide what to do, picked something likely‐seeming to act on.
Get up! Ryouko yelled telepathically in frustration, trying to channel the team leaders she remembered from training. On your feet!
The barrier generator made a piteous noise as she was yanked to her feet, but quieted abruptly when she peered into Ryouko's eyes. A galloping water‐horse thundered past.
Get that barrier back up! Ryouko instructed. You, make us some space and then converge on me.
She gestured at the girl with the spears.
Cover our backs.
Her orders seemed to inspire the other girls into action. The water elemental charged her horses in a wide arc while a set of spears lanced out, driving away the demons not already under the mind‐controller's renewed influence, giving them some breathing room. No one seemed to be bothered by the fact that they were taking orders from a fifteen‐year‐old; probably, they just hadn't realized.
Ryouko gave another set of orders, this time silent and at the speed of thought, and the others responded immediately.
The water mage shimmered blue as spears rattled out, punching into demons at a frenetic pace, demons disappearing in eerie silence or struggling against grievous loss of integrity. A great torrent of water built up silently behind their barrier.
A moment later their barrier popped out of existence, and a tsunami of horses crashed outwards, accentuated by a fusillade of bolts from Ryouko's arbalest. Another barrage of green and orange tore apart the dregs of what remained in the area.
Alright, thought Ryouko, taking in a breath. But we need to move.
Without waiting for a response, Ryouko grabbed the girls around her and blinked away into another cluster of demons that had been bearing in on them. The barrier went up again as another barrage of spears flew out.
Then the tsunami swept into the demons again, but the barrier generator strained visibly against another fusillade of demon lasers.
Shizuki‐san, we are inbound from the west, Shizuki Elanis, Ryouko's other bodyguard, called out, apparently having received permission to try and help. Hold on!
I need fire support, Ryouko transmitted back, noting that this bodyguard was part of a medium‐range bombardment team. Wait for a signal.
Ready on your mark, Elanis replied after a pause.
Ryouko looked up at the sky, running the next set of actions through her head as Clarisse fed her with plausible battle‐tested tactics, running whatever cursory simulations she was capable of. It wasn't even remotely a good approximation of the usual battlefield, where she would have had access to the advice of combat AIs all the way up the command chain, but part of having trained for the MagOps was learning to deal with fighting with only the brains of you and your squadmates.
Still, command was very different, and there was no getting around that.
She plotted out a teleport straight up, where her team would unload everything it had straight down, accentuated by the input of the other team. Her team managed the barest of confirmations before it happened.
They blinked away. A moment later the immediate area was saturated in multicolored light, ripping apart demons and denuding the shrubbery. Ryouko and her team reappeared twenty meters up, weapons and water pouring downward in a vast, lethal blast wave as they began to fall.
The smile came back to Ryouko's face. Maybe she did enjoy this too much, and maybe she was different, but right now, it really didn't seem to matter.
"And I must say, it's quite an honor to be able to work together with the Hero of Orpheus," the leader of the local demon hunting team—a certain Annette François—said, shaking Ryouko's hand and smiling winningly.
"No, uh, it's my honor," Ryouko said, rubbing the back of her head in embarrassment. "It was really no trouble at all, and you know, I feel like demon hunting team leaders are underappreciated."
Behind her, she heard Asami suppress a reaction, and turned her head slightly to look. Had she said something wrong?
"Anyway, it felt surprisingly good to be back in action, just a little," Ryouko added.
Annette nodded, peering for a moment over the dim landscape where the members of her team were still working to corral stray civilians. The "sky" of the Phantasos Sector was normally supposed to be the brilliant, ever‐changing landscapes of fantastical worlds, but was at the moment being run in emergency mode, serving as this world's biggest emergency notification board. It estimated that power would be back in a half‐hour, once a new emergency interconnect was built to the next district over. Ryouko wondered why there hadn't already been such an interconnect—or if something had happened to it.
"Some of my girls will want your autograph when this is all over with," Annette said. "I've assigned them extra tasks for now to stall them, in case you want to disappear."
"It's fine," Ryouko said, ducking her head to hide her expression. "I don't want to be like that."
She had already signed a few for her own team, after all.
"Like the snipers?" Annette asked, tilting her head. "Yes, that was weird. Normally, mages with the opportunity to help out can't talk enough about it. I've never had anyone take out that many demons from a distance and then just leave."
"I bet they were important people," Asami said. "I can understand. You don't want to make a big fuss by showing up, and if you happen to have a long‐range magical power…"
Asami let her voice trail off, then shrugged.
"I guess," Ryouko said. "It wouldn't be a very good disguise. There can't be that many girls out there with long‐range green and orange magic. If we also know it's someone who's trying to hide their identity…"
"Let's be respectful," Annette said. "Besides, it's not like anyone can run a personnel search like that on a whim. You'd have to have pretty high access for that."
"I suppose," Ryouko said.
"I guess I'm glad we had their help, whoever they were," Annette said. "They really helped clear a lot of the more troublesome spawn locations."
"Yeah," Asami agreed. "This was a really a big one, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Annette said. "And we had no idea it was coming, which makes it idiosyncratic. I never like seeing those. I once lost a rookie to that kind of demon spawn."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Asami said.
Ryouko tuned out of the conversation, even as Annette and Asami began to chat happily about what it was like to be in a relationship with a celebrity. Something about this whole situation just bothered her. There were too many strange things going on at the same time. A woman named Natsume she didn't entirely trust, an extremely rare power outage, an "idiosyncratic" demon spawn, mysterious magical girls…
"How is it going over there?" Natsume asked, texting her over the usual civilian channel. "Is everything alright?"
Speak of the devil, Clarisse commented.
It was a reasonable question to ask, though. Ryouko had dropped off the civilians in a reasonable location near a local café before joining the demon hunt, and it was only natural for the others to get a little worried, or perhaps even impatient, cooling their heels without any good transit or entertainment options.
"Everything is fine," Ryouko responded. "We're actually done here."
"That's good to hear. Listen, I've been doing some research on what your interests are, and I have a new idea for where we could go in the city, if you can teleport us out of this district. You interested?"
Ryouko let out a breath, consciously doing her best to set her suspicions aside.
"Yeah I suppose I am," she sent back.
After the fight she had just had, she had no desire to go back to sitting in her hotel or wandering the city. She hoped Natsume had come up with something more interesting.
"On the distant ocean world of Lei Feng, where global storms and five hundred kilometer winds ravage tiny pockets of land and newly‐founded floating cities, the unexpected melting of the polar ice caps brings a new year of warmer, calmer weather, a boon to the tattered colonists of this beaten world. But something completely unexpected lies on the horizon…"
Ryouko sucked at her strawberry‐and‐sugar drink through a straw. Natsume's suggestion that they visit the Paris archives had come as a welcome surprise to Ryouko, who had expected another bar or VR attraction. Instead, they were watching holographic diodramas, which felt like a welcome change. Rather than spending the next couple of hours trying to be interested in an exhaustive set of social exchanges, she could just sit and bask in the educational stylings of one of Earth's best museums.
"Seriously, who writes this stuff?" Elisa asked, grousing sourly in her seat. "If they needed a consultant on how to properly be melodramatic, they could have asked me! I wouldn't have even charged that much."
"Now, now Elisa," Airi said. "They're not trying to make a big‐budget movie. This is just historical documentary‐type stuff. Educational museum stuff, you know."
Ryouko did her best to tune them out, casting a glance at Asami and squeezing her hand. The somewhat pretentiously‐named Archives of Man was one of the most prestigious modern museums in the world, constructed in a region of aboveground, central Paris damaged in the war, and as such had taken a disturbingly long trip for them to get to.
She didn't exactly broadcast the fact, but she loved this kind of colonial documentary, and had spent much of her childhood watching similar productions on the internet. She probably should have been disturbed that Natsume had been able to guess at her interests, but Ryouko was far too used to that kind of thing by now.
"As the cloud cover of the world begins to clear around the equator, the vast oceans fill with plankton, forming streaks of green and red on a once monotone sea. The ocean‐going colonists marvel at this phenomenon. The climatologists, though, begin to grow alarmed. The balance of this world is shifting, and the two extremes of the planet begin to once again drift away from each other."
She felt Asami shift slightly, and couldn't help but cringe a little in empathy. The red plankton on the holographic ocean spread out in front of them looked unsettlingly crimson, and while Ryouko could push the effect out of her mind, she didn't blame Asami for reacting a little. In fact, if she recalled correctly, hadn't they both been involved in some kind of ocean training scenario?
Before she could reflect on that thought for too long, she realized that Asami's reaction had knocked her out of her immersion.
She sighed, glancing around at the others. These kinds of documentaries had indeed been one of her favorite pre‐contract entertainments, but ever since the raid on the wormhole generator, she had always found herself unable to focus on the content, even with the enhanced VR abilities of her military implants. She found that she kept being reminded of her own experiences, her own life, and it felt unsettling to her.
As she turned to try and focus her attention back on the documentary, she saw the door to their room slide open and a woman she didn't recognize walk in.
Strictly speaking, the diodrama rooms weren't private, but there were enough rooms in the massive Archives building that it was usually possible to assign each group their own room. That's what the museum AI, Alexis de Tocqueville, had said. Were there that many people here today? It wasn't a special event or holiday…
The woman chose the seat behind Ryouko, and without looking, she sensed the subtle aura of a magical girl. That wasn't that unusual, she supposed, even as Natsume turned to stare oddly at the newcomer.
I'm sorry to interrupt, the new girl—a "Rebecca Shu"—thought, and Ryouko immediately noted that the thought had been directed specifically at Ryouko and Asami, an odd decision to make given the lack of other magical girls in their party.
She didn't say anything else, though, and it seemed like she was just apologizing for her presence. Ryouko nodded and turned back to watch the documentary, which by now was fully engaged in scenes of mayhem and destruction as a planetary superstorm ravaged Lei Feng, tossing aside what should have been storm‐hardened floating cities. Hastily summoned military starships struggled to move citizens to safety, the only ships at the time capable of operating in five hundred kilometer per hour winds, constant lightning strikes, and voluminous hail.
This was before the advent of the war, however, and there were only a few vessels that could arrive with such short notice. The deployment of additional patrol ships as a response to the Lei Feng incident would prove to be invaluable later, when the war came…
Ryouko frowned again. She knew the story of the Great Storm of Lei Feng, of course, but the narrative she wove in her mind as she watched the mixture of contemporary footage and dramatization had a decidedly military flavor to it that hadn't been there before.
I can't believe how much they exaggerate it, Rebecca thought. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as this.
Ryouko blinked, taking a long moment to pin down just what had been odd about the previous sentence.
You were there? Asami asked.
Well, not me personally, Rebecca thought. But my family and the colony, yeah. I heard about it from them.
What did they change specifically? Ryouko asked.
Mostly just how much rescuing we needed, Rebecca thought. The military vessels were helpful, yes, and there were some of us that needed evacuation, but definitely not all of us, and our cities mostly did fine. The colony was not happy with how this ended up being portrayed. It's even a political issue over what's being taught in our schools.
Ryouko frowned. She wasn't sure if she believed the truth of what Rebecca was saying, to be entirely honest. It sounded like exactly the kind of issue where the truth would get drastically inflated by generations of colonial pride.
Wasn't this storm one of the justifications for increasing the size of the military patrol fleet? Asami thought, surprising Ryouko with a piece of history she hadn't expected her to know. Why would they do that if this isn't really what happened?
Rebecca managed to convey what was somehow a telepathic shrug.
No one knows. The popular theory is that Governance had some other reason for increasing the size of the fleet, but needed an excuse that would pass the politics of the time.
With the apparent lull in the conversation, they turned their attention back to the diodrama, which was approaching a triumphant ending filled with resilient colonists and the sunshine of now‐clear skies. It made her uncomfortable, the possibility that one of the stories she had memorized about colonization had been exaggerated.
She also couldn't avoid sensing Natsume watching the three of them from the corner of her eye.
"Anyway, this is all a bit coincidental," Rebecca said out loud, grabbing the attention of the others as they stood up out of their seats. "I'm here to put a stop to some shenanigans."
She looked pointedly at Natsume as she said this. Natsume, for her part, had developed a staunchly annoyed look on her face.
"We had a deal, Madame Shu," Natsume said, switching abruptly into a Parisian French that Ryouko had to use her implants to translate.
"There have been new developments," Rebecca said back in the same language. "Your old friend has decided to intervene early. And you didn't even accomplish the mission."
"You know very well the power went out. You know, it would be just her MO to cause an outage like that."
Ryouko stood there studying Natsume carefully, even as Asami and Airi looked back and forth with bewildered looks, so similar that an outside observer could easily have been convinced there was a mirror involved.
"No dirty tricks here," she said, "Except from you. It seems maybe Lady Fortune doesn't like you?"
Natsume made an annoyed, borderline angry noise, then reached up behind her ear.
Her face shimmered for a moment, then changed entirely, revealing the aristocratic features of Shizuki Sayaka.
Of course, Clarisse thought sourly, even as Ryouko's magical girl senses finally detected the now obvious soul gem signature. She wondered if the offended look on Clarisse's Ryouko avatar mirrored her own look. Between the two of them, the dyspeptic‐looking Elisa, and the obvious family resemblance of Sayaka, they must have made for an extraordinarily surreal sight.
"Very well, the jig is up," Sayaka complained, in Standard. "I just wanted to have a little anonymous fun. The young ones get so uptight when they know who I really am."
"What are you doing here?" Ryouko asked, unable to summon the level of anger she thought was appropriate to the situation.
"Just showing you a good time," Sayaka said. "It wasn't that bad, was it? If only the power hadn't gone out, it would have been great fun. It's been a long time since I indulged in a good VR sim."
"We would have been happy to have you just as you are," Clarisse said, casting a withering look at Elisa that Ryouko knew she would never be able to duplicate.
Sayaka sighed, rubbing the temple of her head.
"Yes, but you would have been too uptight."
"I mean it when I say I was just showing you a good time. Showing myself a good time too. I love doing excursions like this. I thought I'd get to know my newly‐discovered granddaughter better. You can forgive an old lady, can't you?"
Feeling the gaze of the room upon her, Ryouko made a non‐committal gesture.
"I mean, it doesn't really matter, I guess," she said.
"You may as well explain whatever reasons you have for interrupting us, then," Sayaka said, glaring at Rebecca. Her eyes transitioned from doe‐eyed to dagger‐filled with alarming rapidity, and Ryouko caught Rebecca flinching, just a tiny bit.
"Kuroi Kana isn't appreciative of your game," Rebecca said, recovering and looking at Ryouko. "Sayaka hardly has only the innocent motives she claims. She hopes to lure you into staying in Paris, and living the high life with her Matriarchy—"
"You act like that's a bad thing," Sayaka interjected.
"—and there's something she's not telling you about the friendly VR session you had planned."
"That it was a couples' bonding scenario?" Sayaka said, dryly. "I was only trying to promote healthy relationships."
"That you were going to scan her brain while doing it," Rebecca said.
Even as Ryouko blinked several times, trying to understand the ramifications of a brain scan, she couldn't help but see the anger gathering on Sayaka's brow—true anger, not the vaguely diffident emotions she usually affected.
"Where does she get off, letting you reveal things like that?" Sayaka said. "She can't have, and if it's just you, then your head—"
"Au contraire, ma chérie," Rebecca countered. "You‐know‐who has agreed to take a bit of a different tack this time, after hearing what we have to say. She doesn't care how we do it of course, so the dramatic entrance is merely a token of Kana's appreciation."
She turned towards Ryouko.
"With your permission, Kuroi Kana would like to take you away from this little pleasure excursion and talk about more serious matters. With respect to Miss Yamada and Miss Nagato here, we will also be glad to take them along, provided they are willing to allow a few conversations to be held without them. It should give a unique look at your persons of study, after all."
Airi looked at Elisa, who appeared to think for a moment before shrugging broadly.
"If that's how it is, then sure, I'll go," she said. "I find it odd that you would just assume she'd go with you. Maybe she'd rather finish enjoying a day off first? I imagine she must be rather annoyed at all this right now."
"Exactly what I was going to say," Sayaka agreed, raising a finger.
Ryouko, who had been getting rather annoyed, looked at Rebecca for an answer.
"Well, I knew that would come up," Rebecca said, shaking her head slightly. "Very well. It is not very widely known, but Kuroi Kana is a rare class of mage known as a post‐cognitive, one who has the ability to see the past. Unfortunately, like all such mages she has very little control over what she sees, which is why she found it so interesting that she had a vision about you."
"Me?" Ryouko echoed with automatic incredulity.
"Yes," Rebecca answered. "She thought it was something you should definitely know, rather than be kept a secret."
"Well, if I may be so forward," Sayaka said, angling herself in between Ryouko and Rebecca. "With the permission of Ryouko over here—"
She nodded in Ryouko's direction.
"—I'd like to go along on this trip. I know I'd be intruding on the hospitality of the Kuroi Matriarchy, but I'd consider it a favor."
She peered at Ryouko for a moment, who made a bewildered expression, before spreading her hands to indicate that it didn't really matter to her.
"I'd have to ask for permission to do that," Rebecca said, looking nonplussed for the first time and chewing her lip awkwardly. "One moment."
I don't like this, Asami thought. Why couldn't we just be left alone for once?
I know, Ryouko tried to say empathetically. I know.
"She says fine," Rebecca concluded a moment later. "It might even be interesting."
"Then it will be just like old times," Sayaka said, smiling.
It turned out that Kuroi was waiting for her aboveground, in a location just off the old Champs‐Élysées. The trip over was a struggle, their vehicle navigating the congested surface streets of Paris at a painfully low speed, avoiding other vehicles by only the narrowest of margins as uncooperative pedestrians conspired to keep Paris tied to the old ways. Clarisse had thoughtfully dematerialized her avatar so as to spare them having to get a bigger vehicle, and helpfully let Ryouko know that Paris was now a record holder in Governance's measurements of how long it took to get from point A to point B—a record holder in futility, that was.
She had to admit, though, that for a tourist it really wasn't all that bad. The city was home to some of the world's oldest still‐standing buildings, which served to give the place a sort of old‐world charm that was extremely difficult to find anywhere else. They ordered pastries and coffee en route, receiving it through the window from a cleverly designed refreshment drone, specially provided to relieve the tedium of traffic, and as she chewed the pastry she could see why Elisa and Sayaka had both refused to shortcut the trip with a teleportation jump or even an underground train ride. It was, as they had said, something to experience.
They made small talk as they went, Sayaka surprisingly congenial towards a girl who was apparently closely tied to a rival Matriarchy. As always, the Kuroi‐Shizuki feud was something Ryouko just didn't understand.
They finally stepped off in front of a large, regal‐looking building, almost church‐like in appearance, directly next door to a Governance physical office and an actual church, which seemed to be holding some kind of obscure ceremony. Wherever it was Ryouko had expected to end up, it was not here.
Despite its archaic appearance, the door to the building slid open as they approached, indicating the building wasn't perhaps as old as it appeared. Ryouko felt, rather than saw, a rather aggressive sensor scan pass over her.
"The bodyguards can wait outside," Rebecca said, looking at Sayaka rather than Ryouko. "If there is truly danger to her here, then I doubt they would do more than get in the way."
"Fair enough," Sayaka shrugged.
Whereas the outside of the building had been old‐fashioned and magnanimous, suggestive of tall‐ceiling rooms open to the sun, the inside was vastly different, much closer to the type of building layout Ryouko was used to: a bit narrow, with ceilings at a normal height. Unusually, the few rooms she could peer into had no windows, adding an atypical, claustrophobic air—Governance was normally fully aware of the importance of sunlight to human happiness.
They walked briskly down a hall lined with mostly closed doors, the pace set by Rebecca. Asami, Airi, and Ryouko looked over their surroundings, Sayaka seemed uninterested, and Elisa seemed to be closely watching her.
At the end of the hallway was a nondescript but large elevator, with walls painted a marble‐black. It lay open at their approach, the doors closing behind them immediately after they stepped through, and Ryouko felt a slight chill—usually elevators could be summoned almost by subconscious instinct, and they always knew where you wanted to go. That was an expectation that had ingrained itself into her since childhood, and it bothered her that she could not sense the elevator's presence. It was not open to the usual command channels, even as it descended into the earth.
When the doors opened, they found themselves on the threshold of what appeared to be some kind of conference room. At the center was a long oval table, flanked on both sides by the same kind of marble‐black walls that had sheathed the elevator car. At regular intervals along the walls were framed portraits, each illuminated by a single lamp. Collectively, these lamps served as the room's only illumination.
A beeping noise called their attention to a server drone that had rolled up on Ryouko's right side, bearing a tray of filled wine glasses. Like the elevator, it had no sense of presence.
"I thought I'd spring for a little decadence today, seeing as my old friend has decided to regale us with her presence," Kuroi Kana said, appearing out of a door on the far side of the room. "2200, a very interesting year."
Ryouko looked the Matriarch over, remembering abruptly the young girl she had seen in her vision of Yuma's past, uncomfortable and angry in front of Oriko. The girl wasn't physically much older, and unlike so many of the other Ancients she was failing to give any hint as to her great age, either in demeanor or posture. That seemed odd, since she would have thought Kana usually needed to radiate authority to fulfill her roles.
"Fallout wine?" Sayaka asked rhetorically, picking up a glass. "You do spoil us, even if the whole idea is a rather silly fad."
Wine brewed by wine fanatics during the teeth of the Unification Wars, Clarisse filled in. It is a tinge radioactive, and was only safe to consume after the completion of Project Eden. Supposedly it has an exotic mixture of tastes due to the mutated grapes.
I thought this looked different, Ryouko thought, tilting a glass to try to scan it before setting it back down.
"I apologize for the decoration of this room, but it's just theatre," Kana said. "Ryouko, Sayaka, you may come with me; the rest of you should sit and make yourselves at home."
And don't forget, my role in the Black Heart is secret from those not in the know, Kana thought. All the actors know is that I'm a powerful Matriarch, like Shizuki here. Let's keep it that way.
Ryouko walked hesitantly towards Kana, watching as the others took their seats and other drones rolled up with trays of sandwiches.
She and Sayaka followed Kana through the back door, down another narrow hallway, and into a brightly‐lit office, completely different in decor from the previous conference room. This one, with its worn‐looking modular desk, sitting couches, and plush carpeting, could almost be called homely.
Seeing her examining the paintings on the walls, Kana remarked:
"Ah yes, these are the same paintings that are in the conference room. They depict the past achievements of the Black Heart. For what it's worth, there's another room just like it in Mitakihara. Stare as long as you like."
Ryouko did so for a long moment. Truth be told, she didn't recognize most of what was going on, save for a few that were obviously from the Unification Wars or even the current war. Some were uninterpretable without further context, such as one that depicted a group of girls infiltrating the former US capital. Others, though, were nearer to heart, such as the one which seemed to depict Mikuni Oriko, or the newest one, which depicted the wormhole mission and included Ryouko herself.
She turned back towards Kana a moment later, indicating she was ready for whatever this was.
"Well, I let Sayaka be involved in this because this might be relevant to her," Kana said, sitting in the chair behind the desk. "Please, take a seat."
They did so, Sayaka crossing her legs and making an arrogant expression.
"But my original intention hadn't been to include her," Kana continued. "I'll give you the option not to share with her what gets divulged, but I suspect you'll want to ask her some questions."
"I suppose that's fair enough," Sayaka said. "If it's private information, that is. My intention wasn't to be nosy; I just don't trust what she's trying to do here."
"It is fair enough," Kana said, managing to sound mild saying it.
She turned back towards Ryouko.
"Look, you're an adult now, or at least we're supposed to treat you like one. We all know I'm a woman of secrets, but I try not to keep secrets for no reason. That being said, despite how flamboyantly Rebecca chose to come get you, I have quite a few reservations about this. She doesn't know the whole story, but I'd like you to know I talked to a few people before doing this."
"Uh, okay?" Ryouko said, unsure how to respond.
"I just wanted you to know my position," Kana said. "I'm not doing this to try to convince you of anything. I just… well, your aunt and I thought you deserved to know."
Kana nodded, then turned her chair towards the side door to her office, which slid open a moment later. Through it stepped her aunt, Kuroi Nana, and Patricia von Rohr, who was the last person she expected to see here. They looked nervous—Patricia even had her eyes downcast, and Nana in particular seemed to have somehow developed worry lines around an otherwise very young pair of eyes.
"I will leave," Sayaka said, standing up abruptly. "If it's this serious, I will be outside with the others."
"As will I," Kana said, standing in turn. "You may use my office. You can be assured no one will be listening in here. Come on, Sayaka‐chan."
"'Sayaka‐chan?'" Ryouko asked nervously, after the door closed behind them. It was a real question—the lack of open fighting between the two matriarchs surprised and unnerved her—but mostly she was confused. Confused, worried, and just a little terrified.
Nana, for her part, looked bothered as well, and no longer had the casual insouciance of their previous meeting.
She chose not to answer Ryouko's implicit question, either because she didn't know or simply didn't think it was important enough.
"Ryouko, I want you to know, when we talked yesterday, I meant everything I said, about Akemi‐san, and about how I was going to meet you after you had spent some time with Shizuki Sayaka. There has been a sudden acceleration of plans, after the recent power outage, and I have… learned a few new things."
A heartbeat passed before Nana, pinning Ryouko with her eyes, seemed to nod to herself, and looked at Patricia, who was doing a poor job of concealing her own trepidation.
"I will let her explain the first part of this," Nana said.
Patricia shook her head in dismay, but said:
"You remember the time I asked to take a detailed sample of your genome?"
"Y–yes?" Ryouko asked, knowing this could go nowhere good. "Those results came back showing nothing new."
"Well, no, I lied," Patricia said bluntly. "Of course, I never would have even asked for a detailed sample if I hadn't already suspected something was different, but the results were unusual enough that we kept it a secret."
Ryouko blinked, paused, then leaned forward, putting her hands on her head. It seemed to her that the world was shifting around her, and she supposed that wasn't necessarily that far from the truth.
"So what am I then, some kind of mutant?" she said, stating the first possibility that came to her mind. It wouldn't be that bad, just being different—wouldn't even necessarily be that surprising. But then why was this meeting so important?
"No, not quite," Patricia said, clasping her hands and looking askance. "If it were just a matter of the genes in your skin that would be the most likely conclusion. But when I ran a secondary study on that genome, parts of it seemed a little too coincidental, small differences that somehow seemed to work together, or result in subtle modifications of protein function. More importantly, neither of the genomes of your parents on file showed any of these changes."
Ryouko felt herself going pale, but nodded slightly, unable to say anything else in response.
Patricia took an obvious deep breath.
"There's no way to say this but to just say it," she confessed. "When I then went on to take a more detailed sample, the nanites discovered a completely novel region of your brain, which I could not find any other examples of in the Governance archives. This region has a genome completely different from the rest of your body, and there is no doubt it is genetically engineered, as it contains protein families and regulatory networks that have never previously been observed."
For a moment Ryouko's sense of the world drained away and, rather than the two girls in front of her watching her in concern, or the paintings on the wall, or any of the elements of reality, she saw only the words Patricia had just said, and felt only the reflected shock of Clarisse in her head.
"We don't know what function this modification serves," Patricia said, desperate to fill the abrupt vacuum in the conversation. "It apparently caused considerable difficulty in your revival after your last bodyloss, since your clone did not have the proper region, and we had not been confident your soul gem restored it correctly. We want to take another, more functional scan of your brain activity, in the hope that we can have some answers. We know you have no idea about any of this."
"What does it do?" Ryouko asked quietly, finally, looking up.
"We don't know," Patricia said. "Someone went to tremendous trouble to design something like this, but without further data, predicting operational function from only a genome and the vaguest of data is a tremendous modeling task. All we know for now is that it connects to some emotional, speech, and auditory‐related areas. To alleviate the obvious concerns, it doesn't seem to have any of the right connections to affect your behavior, personality, or decision‐making. But you can obviously see why we'd want to perform a more detailed scan."
Ryouko put her head in her hands again. How exactly could she react, how could anyone react, to such a surreal truth as this? She had always felt human, no different from anyone else. She had always felt—
"What am I then?" she repeated, again not really knowing the meaning of the question. "Someone's pet project? Why? What purpose could it serve?"
"Well, we don't know," Patricia said. "We could only know by gathering more information."
"And what does this mean about Mama?" Ryouko asked, looking up with eyes widened with a new realization. "Did my parents—"
"That's why I'm here," Nana said, cutting off Ryouko's train of thought efficiently. "Thankfully, I think we can rule out your mother or father willfully lying to you. But I'm not sure the truth is any better."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Ryouko asked, even as she felt a vast, unexpected relief to hear her parents somehow absolved. "How could they possibly not know?"
Nana looked aside for a moment, clasping her hands together in a small gesture of nervousness. She looked deeply bothered about something, perhaps even… angry?
"Well, that's where our matriarch's vision comes into play," she said. "But first: Do you remember Chitose Yuma's birthday party?"
Ryouko blinked, even as she felt sick to her stomach. She was confused by the seeming non sequitur.
"Yes, I do," she said. "What about it?"
"While you were at the party, an attempt was made to question your mother about what had been found. The line of questioning ran into what's called an implanted psychic defense, a mechanism installed in someone's mind by a trained telepath to prevent questioning on a particular topic. It became clear that your mother—my sister's mind has been tampered with, to remove memories pertaining to your… modifications. We would not be able to remove this mechanism without potentially significant risk, so this has not been attempted."
Nana paused, closing her eyes for a moment.
"I would like you to know, I was not told any of this until today," she added. "It is troubling, and infuriating, to know that someone has been toying with my family like this."
Nana spoke slowly, almost tiredly, but Ryouko could see anger flicker in her eyes for the briefest of moments.
She knew she should share it, but for now felt just an icy calm, the kind of calm that probably came only before a storm.
"And Papa…?" she asked, following the chain of logic in whatever way seemed natural.
"A more careful attempt was made to probe him on the matter, this time with a trained telepath. He seems to be in the exact same situation."
Ryouko frowned, and tried to think back. She could remember catching a few hints of some old disagreement her parents had carried, something about her, something they tried to keep from her. But, she didn't know enough to infer what it was they had disagreed about, and had no reason to believe it was even related. After all, they weren't even supposed to remember what had happened.
"Are you okay?" Nana asked, putting a hand on Ryouko's shoulder in concern. Ryouko realized she had turned her attention away from the conversation entirely, focusing inward on her own thoughts.
"I am not okay," Ryouko said, almost bitterly, without meeting anyone's eyes. "How could I be?"
She sensed, rather than saw, Nana and Patricia share a look.
"If it helps anything," Nana said, audibly nervous. "You weren't made in a lab. That was what the Director's vision was about. Being a magically‐induced vision, there has not been enough time to try to convert it into a memory that can be shared."
She paused, thinking about what to say.
"I can only tell you what she told me. It was a very unclear vision, giving random pieces of the past, and it was lucky she was able to figure out what the vision was even about. Apparently, your parents were asked to participate in an experimental study regarding the development of the next generation of implants. Your father talked your mother into it, but the study was a failure, and they were told you would be unusually likely to contract. But the vision made clear there never really was a study."
Ryouko could feel her aunt watching her, but didn't feel motivated to respond. Finally, Nana continued:
"Kana has been reviewing the vision, but it is frustratingly unclear who the participants in the sham were. She had some glimpses of someone altering your parents' exact memories, others of someone designing the region in your brain, and one of… a machine performing some operation on your mother, something that wasn't in the agreement. I am sorry to be so graphic."
The last line came in hasty response to Ryouko sucking in a breath and grabbing the armrests of her chair, ducking her head and tightening her muscles in instinctive preparation for a physiological reaction, be it of disgust or anger. But Clarisse, who had constantly been hovering worriedly in the background, had suppressed any such reflexes.
"Why tell me any of this?" Ryouko asked. "Who does it help to tell me? Why now, and not sooner, or later?"
There was a long silence, as the others seemed to struggle to formulate a response, until finally Kuroi Kana herself appeared in the doorway.
"I have learned over the years that my visions, such as they are, never occur without a reason," she said, stepping through the threshold.
"I was summoned," she added a moment later, seeing Ryouko's look. "I wasn't listening in."
Since the room was out of chairs—Patricia having taken hers—she stood leaning against her desk.
"It wasn't just that, or I would have still been very skeptical about telling you," Kana said. "But there is reason to believe that whoever is behind your modifications is aware that we know now, and is trying to prevent further investigation. That is why I brought you here. I was monitoring your whole approach to the building. They wouldn't move so openly in aboveground Paris."
"How do you know?" Ryouko asked, though she doubted Kana could tell her.
"The Far Seers," she said.
"The what?" Ryouko asked, after a confused moment.
The Far Seers, Clarisse thought. A secret society of the MSY's most talented clairvoyants, diviners, and information mages, devoted to using magical means to collect all there is to know about past, present and, hopefully, future, whenever conventional methods fail. Like the Black Heart, their existence is an open secret among senior officials in the MSY, but is technically classified on a need‐to‐know basis. Unlike the Black Heart, they are far less well‐known beyond that. Membership is by invitation only. The information was, uh, literally just released to me.
The last sentence was meant as an apology for not filling in the information for her in time.
"The evidence we have is fragmentary at best," Kana said, "but I had considerable suspicion regarding the circumstances surrounding the most recent power failures. The Seers I was able to point at the problem are convinced that the most recent events are certainly the work of whoever is responsible for your genetic modifications. They are also convinced that we must tell you now, or risk never finding out any further information."
"There is other information," Ryouko's aunt interjected, "though much less certain. These kinds of divinations are often much more clouded than we'd like. Some of the Seers claim that they don't believe this group is trying to kill you. One is even convinced that this group isn't trying to stop us at all, just trying to arrange events in their favor. It's a very controversial reading, since no one else can sense that result."
"It's incomplete information," Kana said, looking at Nana almost reproachfully. "It's not worth sharing unless we're sure."
Many members of the Far Seers are also members of the Church, Patricia thought, without a visible change in expression. There often seems to be little rhyme or reason to what can or cannot be divined, except that sometimes the usefulness of the information we can acquire seems… beyond coincidence.
Ryouko looked down at her hands, struck all at once by the surrealness of the conversation. It was a matter that should have been personal to her, but involved big players, a matter that seemed like it could reshape her life, yet, objectively, what exactly was she going to do differently now?
"So what exactly am I supposed to do now?" she asked. "Go to a lab for study? Let myself be experimented on? What else?"
"No," Kana said, leaning over and grabbing her. "We will, of course, want to do further study, but there is no reason you can't live your life. The Seers were sure of that one. Don't—"
She paused, clearly considering what to say.
"Don't let yourself be defined by this," she finished. "You are too young to know very much about this, but there were entire populations after the Unification Wars with worse modifications than what you have, and they went on to live perfectly normal lives. Many of them are all around us. Once we know what exactly has been done to you, if anything needs to be changed, it will be done. But if the Seers are sure you'll be fine, no one is going to lock you up in a lab."
"And my parents?" Ryouko asked, shaking her head wearily as she tried to think through what had been said.
"For now you shouldn't tell them anything," Kana said. "I know that might be a lot to ask, but we just don't know anything yet."
Ryouko let out a breath.
What was she supposed to think? Who could she even trust? Kana and the others assembled here had no reason to lie to her, but she had thought the same of her parents, and of so many others, only to be disillusioned time and time again. And now she had to question whether she was even human, who exactly had plans for her, and, whether Kana admitted it or not, whether her thoughts were even her own.
"Can I be alone for a while?" she began.
"Certainly," Kana said. "We can leave you, though I might want my office back."
"No, I mean, is there anywhere in Paris that might be good to just be alone for a long while? Maybe a park or something?"
The others shared a look.
"I have my own room in the Nunnery of St. Barbara," Nana said. "I can take you there, but I'm not sure now is the time to make the trip."
"Give me the coordinates. I can make the trip faster than that."
She heard Patricia suck in a breath.
"For safety reasons, I don't think we'd really want you to travel alone."
"Well, I was going to take Asami."
Though her words were uncertain, her demeanor wasn't. The others started to look at each other again, perhaps even holding a telepathic conversation, but Ryouko got up and walked out of the room, and they made no move to stop her.
The others, still waiting in the conference room, looked up in surprise as she entered, but she ignored them, grabbing Asami by the shoulders.
"Is everything alright?" Asami asked, shaking off the shock of an unexpected teleport with startling efficiency, even as she peered around at the dimly lit walls. Clarisse stood ever‐present in the back of her mind, with clearly much to say—but she knew to stay quiet.
Ryouko leaned forward and wept.