〈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 telepathic arts, as practiced by the Telepaths' Guild, have always been a bit of an oddball among the various classes of magic. Lacking much of the direct flashiness of so many other magic types, telepathy has instead developed along a more esoteric, inwardly‐focused route, full of secret manipulations, meditation, and invisible attacks. This aesthetic extends even to the customs of the Guild, which eschew flashy decoration and events in favor of simple rituals, and to the cultural nonchalance of the Guild towards "routine" mind‐reading, which is conducted as a matter of unremarkable course.
It is likely that this motif developed out of the inclination of human cultures to consider what may be more broadly termed "psionics" as very distinct—or even wholly separate—from other forms of magic, often lacking elaborate equipment, rituals, or spells. The close association of the Guild with the MHD 〈and the secretive Black Heart〉④ has doubtless only heightened this inclination.
Nonetheless, along these same lines, there are several notable deviations from the main line of telepathic magics, most of which are heavily reminiscent of familiar archetypes. By far the most common is the appearance of a colored magic glow when using telepathic powers. Less common, but still relatively prevalent, is the use of telepathic powers to deal direct damage, usually in the form of brain aneurysms or neural trauma. Finally, a relatively rare type of mage flaunts the convention entirely, drawing upon the historical association of mental manipulation with darkness and corruption.
— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Guild, Government, and Matriarchy," excerpt.
〈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
〈I had viewed the Marshal's recent ascension to the Chair of the General Staff with a mixture of natural pride and alarm. I see now that while she has held up under the pressure better than I expected, the alarm was very warranted. That being said, I view her willingness to confide her stress in me, and her delegation of responsibilities to allies like Admiral Anand, as signs of a healthy awareness of her own limits and responsible stress management. (A funny thing to be saying about someone of her age!)〉⑤‡
〈Nonetheless, I remain concerned—not about the stress per se, but about its impact on some of the Section 3 defensive measures in place. Meitner and I are now convinced that someone more qualified must perform a restoration, or at the very least that some sort of decision must be made. Meitner will perform a consultation, after which we will issue our formal recommendation.〉⑤‡
〈Access to sections marked ‡ restricted to: Shen Xiao Long, Atsuko Arisu, Charlotte Meitner, Sakura Kyouko, Chitose Yuma〉‡
— Shen Xiao Long, Designated Monitor, report to Designated Psychiatrist Atsuko Arisu.
Mami frowned, floating in deep space as she tried to focus on the spectacle playing out below her. She usually found the strategic view of Command Mode relaxing, but now she was tired, frustrated, and swore she had a headache.
She found herself spending more and more time nowadays in this kind of simulation, plugged into Zhukov while seated in her command chair. The purpose wasn't combat or direct command, but large‐scale strategy, and beating her head against the conclusions of Governance's top AIs, trying to find another way.
It felt a little like being Sisyphus, gazing down on another long‐term war simulation that ended in Humanity's inevitable defeat, Governance's long‐range emergency colony ships darting off to distant corners of the galaxy. From a straightforward logistical standpoint the conclusion was inescapable—eventually one of the Cephalopod offenses would succeed, and Humanity didn't have the reserves necessary to turn the war back around.
And that wasn't even bringing up the more disturbing aspects of Governance thought, the nagging models that couldn't rectify Cephalopod performance in the war with any of the most likely models of their society. The squid should have easily had the personnel and industrial production to run right over them, but just didn't. Were they an insular species that disliked expansion? Was this a minor splinter cell that didn't represent the main population group? Were they really primitives hand‐fed technology by yet another race? It was impossible to know.
Governance military policy was dictated primarily by these considerations. They were playing a dangerous game, betting that they could stave off the current alien incursions with a carefully tuned investment of military resources, while pouring everything else into industrial‐economic expansion and scientific research and development. The more they could grow and develop, the longer the war would stretch out, and the greater the chance that a sudden breakthrough or reversal, especially driven by a magical girl, would abruptly change the game.
It's not good enough, Mami thought. I won't accept a game like that.
There was the possibility, after all, that given enough time the squid would learn dangerous aspects of the magical girl system. There were new reports of alien personnel combing battlefields for invisible objects, in search patterns that suggested they were looking for some kind of magical girl equipment or power source. Mami simply did not like it.
They needed some kind of plan, some kind of trump card in their back pocket they could play in case things went sideways—something which was starting to seem increasingly likely.
Perhaps it's time you took a break, Machina thought. You're starting to mix your metaphors.
It wasn't the first time her TacComp had made the suggestion, but this time Mami rubbed her head and acceded. Even if Machina seemed a bit more assertive lately, that didn't mean it was wrong.
You're right, she thought. I've been here too long.
She closed her virtual eyes, allowing herself a bit of rest as she felt the simulation release her. How long had she been in there? Hours, at least. Realtime.
About three hours, realtime, Machina thought. You can't keep doing this to yourself.
It's not that much, Mami thought, bothered by a sense of disapproval she suddenly felt. The others spend much longer than that.
Yes, but it seems to affect you more somehow, Machina thought. The others don't find it as stressful.
It's probably the material, Mami thought, opening her eyes and looking around Zhukov's bridge. The others mostly just think about how to run their sectors, or what kind of attacks they might face. I have to spend my time looking into the most depressing long‐run projections.
If you say so.
Mami pushed herself up and out of the chair, feeling the snake‐like spinal connection cable detach itself smoothly. She had thought exiting the simulation might improve her headache, but it only seemed to be getting worse.
It's definitely not normal, Machina thought. You're not supposed to be able to even have headaches, but something is definitely toggling the pain receptors. I could block it, but it's probably better for you to get a diagnostic done. All the self‐diagnostics are coming up clean.
You're not wrong; there just hasn't been time, Mami thought, a bit uneasily. She wasn't used to Machina, or anyone, showing this much concern for her. She was used to being senpai, after all.
Well, I was made with your genes, of course, Machina thought.
"Good evening, Mami‐san," a voice nearby said.
Mami snapped out of her reverie, finding herself in the hallway heading back to her office. The woman who had addressed her stood there, smiling back, dressed as always in far fewer clothes than Mami found sensible.
Charlotte Meitner, Mami thought, sighing to herself.
Mami wasn't very fond of her MHD Minder—it was difficult to like anyone who spent her time prying into your mind—but Mami knew better than to be a child about it, like Kyouko was. It was her job, after all, to monitor the senior magical girl officers on board Zhukov, even if they generally returned the favor by staying as far away as possible.
Mami's bodyguards, meanwhile, had managed to conveniently disappear, following protocol near a Minder. She wished she could just tell them not to.
Still, she straightened her back and managed to conceal her unease, returning to her usual, pleasant demeanor.
"Good evening," she said. "What brings me the pleasure of having you here?"
That was a little stiff, Machina commented. Her TacComp really was being more talkative these days.
"Well, I couldn't help but notice you seem to be having a bit of trouble recently," Charlotte said, a telepath like all the others. "I know you're busy, but you definitely seem to be taking more stress than is healthy. I was thinking we could schedule a session to talk about it."
Mami opened her mouth to say something, but felt an abrupt sharp pain in her head, sharp enough that she couldn't avoid visibly wincing. The throbbing in her head seemed to double in intensity.
"You have a headache?" Charlotte asked, tilting her head. "That's not normal."
"It's alright," Mami insisted, even as the headache worsened. "I'm going to get it checked out."
She meant it, too. At this point she was on the verge of summoning the medical staff to her, rather than trying to get there on her own power.
"I know I've been very very busy recently," she managed to say. "But I've been through worse. I'm just a little tired."
"I wouldn't say that," Charlotte said, frowning deeply. "You feel exhausted, more than you should be."
The last thing she wanted to do was talk to anyone about the dreams, Mami thought.
She instantly regretted that thought, though, since obviously she was broadcasting it directly to the telepath in front of her.
"The what?" Charlotte echoed out loud, holding a hand to her head. She seemed confused, even perplexed, even as another sharp pain stabbed at Mami's head.
She bent over slightly.
Okay, I'm definitely summoning the medical staff, Machina thought, a distinct note of worry permeating its thoughts.
And yet, even as it did, the pain abruptly lifted from Mami's head, and she was even able to let out a sigh of relief, though she felt a lingering dizziness remain.
She looked up, resolving to use some magic on herself to alleviate the issue, before noticing that Charlotte looked different.
Young, much younger, and… raven‐haired? It struck her immediately that she looked beautiful, and a strange ache developed in her chest.
Then, with an almost palpable snap, reality flooded back in, and she found herself looking at Charlotte again, who had both hands on her head this time and looked like she was in agony.
"Miss Meitner!" Mami managed, before the woman in front of her collapsed on the spot. Mami barely managed to catch her in time, deliberately falling to the floor as she did so.
A spider‐like medical drone scurried out of a nearby transport tube a moment later, the advance guard of the medical team that was on its way. Its one eye looked at Mami, then at Charlotte, and made the logical decision to crawl onto Charlotte and start scanning her, rather than who it had been summoned to attend to. A series of mechanical arms and tubing reached out, interfacing with her spinal node, and contacting the skin.
Zhukov's avatar flashed into existence shortly afterward, looming over the three of them.
"What is going on?" he asked. "Do you have any idea what this is about? Is she alright?"
"I don't know," Mami said, channeling healing magic into her hands. "But I think she'll be alright."
She was no Yuma at healing, but she had a few tricks up her sleeve.
She closed her eyes, letting her thoughts settle, just as Yuma herself had taught her to, once long ago. It was easier to heal magical girls than anything else, because their own magic would be trying to do the same thing, and would eagerly accept the help and the synergy. She just had to reach out…
"Spontaneous massive cerebral hemorrhage," the drone concluded a moment later, voice oddly soothing in that way medical drones somehow had. "Non‐vital region, but ordinarily a near‐certain chance of irrecoverable data loss. Subject magical girl, however—damage should not be a concern. Recommend stabilization and self‐healing, or—"
It looked up expectantly at Mami, who had already opened her eyes again.
"I've taken care of it," she said.
"Source of damage unknown," drone continued, looking down and deploying more instruments. "Resembles focused blast damage. Does not make sense given surveillance recordings…"
The drone continued to mutter to itself even as Charlotte awoke, jerking away from both Mami and drone in surprise. The drone stayed attached with little difficulty, but Mami found herself looking Charlotte in the eyes.
"Do you have any idea what you just did?" Charlotte demanded, wide‐eyed with shock.
"Heal you?" Mami asked.
Charlotte sucked in a breath, clearly working to steady herself.
"Nevermind," she said, looking away. "We'll talk about it later."
The rest of the medical team appeared in the corridor, deploying themselves professionally around Charlotte without any evidence of surprise at the change in patients.
"What are you talking about?" Mami asked, even as Charlotte gamely lay back down for examination. "Do you know what just happened?"
Charlotte shook her head, regaining her usual demeanor.
"Just make sure to get your diagnostic. Later."
"After that, you should probably take a break," Zhukov commented, looking bemused as he surveyed the scene. "You have a meeting with the Staff in two hours."
Questions swirled in Mami's mind, but still, she only barely managed to resist sighing.
"I know," she said.
Ryouko had forgotten what it was like to be in deep space.
The cold stars that surrounded them soothed her, a piece of the seemingly eternal in a world where nothing was ever certain. For a long moment, she could even forget the nagging voice in her head, the one that pointed out that those stars weren't eternal either, though if the Incubators were to be believed, they themselves were keeping the fires of existence lit.
You're doing it again, Clarisse thought.
I know, she thought, resenting briefly her TacComp's intrusion.
The moment broken, she brooded quietly with her head on her hands, staring out their shuttle's side‐viewing panel. She and Asami were seated alone in a tiny Skipper shuttle, a smaller cousin of the much more common Navigator. It only carried four people at most, with a simple A to B guidance system.
More importantly for their purposes, it was simple enough for a team of Science Division technicians to do a thorough manual code analysis. Ryouko's distant guardians had gotten sharply more paranoid in recent weeks, enough to attach Patricia von Rohr to her bodyguard team, as a specialist in detecting magical and technological manipulation.
It was, to put it simply, a massive headache, one stacked on top of the repeated brain scans she had undergone, and the need to keep everything secret from her mother and the surprisingly perceptive Sacnite. Waving goodbye to them at the starport had been almost a relief.
Now she was riding out to the laboratory Adept Blue in the depths of space, at the express invitation of Tomoe Mami herself. Her stay on Earth had been short, as she was starting to think it always would be.
"It will be alright," Asami said, touching her hand and wearing that worried look she had so often nowadays. Ryouko knew that it was not easy for her, so close to the void again after her previous experiences there.
She appreciated that.
Ryouko smiled slightly, even as they both knew Asami had no way to really say that with certainty. Whoever it was that had designed the module in Ryouko's brain had not intended its secrets to be uncovered easily—something inside it was obfuscating the scans somehow, interfering even with nanite‐based probing, and obviously performing surgery for direct inspection was out of the question. Even now, analysis of what results they could get was still ongoing, but the last time she had asked Patricia about the matter, the only answer she had gotten was "frustrating".
Even magical probing attempts had somehow bounced right off, something that only added another angle to their speculations. Clarisse was gamely trying to investigate it herself, in the hopes that continuous effort would somehow succeed even with limited tools. Thus far, she had done no better than any of the others.
The unsettling implications were obvious to everyone, and they couldn't even deduce whether the magic blocking the probing was foreign or Ryouko's own—a possibility that had to be considered, since the body she was in was effectively almost brand‐new. Ryouko had assumed that she would always be able to recognize her own magic, but that apparently wasn't the case.
Ryouko looked into Asami's eyes. There was some analogy between her situation with her parents and Asami's own situation, but they had yet to talk about it.
"Hey over there! We can see you!"
Ryouko and Asami both looked over, startled out of what had been a period of mutual contemplation. The chirpy voice was that of Shizuki Elanis, one of Ryouko's bodyguards, and for a few seconds Ryouko searched the starry sky, tracing the transmitted audio to its source. Even with her enhanced vision, it was challenging, and she spotted several distant asteroids before she finally spotted one of their companion Skippers, a lot closer than she thought it would be—the emission‐reducing material used on most human ships nowadays made them nearly invisible in deep space.
They had separated from the other Skippers at the beginning of their trip for security reasons, so to be so close again implied that they were approaching their destination, floating somewhere in Sol's asteroid belt.
"It's so beautiful up here!" Eri added a moment later. "I'm so glad I had the chance to come with you!"
Ryouko and Asami looked at each other, Asami barely suppressing a laugh. Somehow, Kuroi Eri and Shizuki Elanis were still traveling with them, when it seemed natural they would have been replaced a long time ago.
Ryouko turned her head to peer in front of their craft. In principle, she could use the trajectories of both their Skippers to help infer where they were headed, but in practice that was extremely difficult to do accurately in three dimensions, without landmarks, in the depths of space.
Even with implant support, it turned out that the uncertainty margin was so wide Ryouko would have done just as well assuming it was directly in front of them. That was, after all, not that bad a guess—but she still couldn't find anything.
"Over there," Asami said, pointing slightly to the right.
Ryouko squinted instinctively where Asami was pointing.
"I don't see anything," she concluded, after a moment.
"I'm sure it's there."
Ryouko wondered how Asami was so certain.
"I spent time fighting in space, geez," Asami said, looking at Ryouko out of the corner of her eye. "I've gotten good at sensing this sort of thing. And, you know, wherever it is we're going feels very odd. Something off with the gravity. It can't be that heavy."
"That makes sense," Ryouko said. "You know, all things considered."
"You're acting like you know everything again," Asami grumbled.
Ryouko shrugged vaguely. Asami subsided for a moment, then leaned over, suggestively close.
"Say, I wonder what they think we've been doing in here, just the two of us. These Skippers probably don't monitor their passengers, and, you know, you just don't get terribly many opportunities to try anything in zero‐gravity. We would just have to remove these straps."
"They can assume what they want."
"Might as well fulfill their expectations, I say."
Ryouko looked sideways at Asami, trying to gauge how serious she was being. There was mischievousness in her eyes, but the girl hadn't made any clear moves, and didn't have that disturbingly predatory look in her eyes.
Asami was just joking, then.
Ryouko shook her head.
"They might be able to see us from here. Are you sure the gravity isn't making you drunk?"
"That stopped happening when I was in the MC!" Asami said, biting her lip in annoyance. "Besides, it's not like anything gets that well‐hidden with how crowded it is on Earth. You wouldn't believe what you can see in infrared!"
"I don't believe that," Ryouko said. "I've tried it."
"Oh, so you have tried it! How unexpectedly risqué!"
Ryouko closed her eyes for an exasperated moment, then gave Asami a look.
"Thanks for trying to cheer me up," she said.
Asami sighed, looking out the window again.
"Well, someone has to," she said. "Here we are, way out here again, just as we were starting to settle in again. You can't be happy with the way they pulled us out here."
Ryouko noticed Asami's careful wording, but said nothing, preferring to follow Asami's gaze into the depths of space. She heard Asami let out a small breath.
"Oh, interesting," Asami said, dropping the topic. "What are they doing over there?"
Ryouko still didn't see anything, but now…
But now she felt her eyes drawn there too, as if there must be something there.
"Ryouko," Asami interrupted, grasping her hand and raising it.
Ryouko interpreted it as an unexpected intimate gesture, and almost responded as if it were, but then saw what Asami was trying to show her.
"It's glowing a little," Asami said.
"Yes," Ryouko finally agreed.
The gravitonics lab Adept Blue wasn't exactly top‐secret. Its existence was perfectly well‐registered in the appropriate public databases, its membership was available in all the proper places, and the topic of its research was freely, if vaguely, disclosed. It even published results at a fairly reasonable pace, participating in the broad network of tracking and transparency that typified modern research. At the same time, though, it seemed to stay deliberately off the radar, with no media, no splashy announcements, no touted visits from Governance officials, and effectively no PR presence.
On top of all of that, Clarisse had found, the lab's exact location was almost a complete mystery. Other than the general acknowledgment that the lab was located within a body somewhere in Sol's asteroid belt, there was effectively no useful information as to how to get to the lab. The ID of the asteroid the lab used was not listed, there was no information about how its personnel got into or out of the lab, and, most importantly, the station was not included in the navigation databases starships used to keep track of the ever‐shifting locations of humanity's outposts in space.
It seemed par for the course, then, that the asteroid their Skipper flew towards appeared nondescript to the eye, even in infrared. It was by all appearances a completely normal kilometer‐sized space rock, and for a few minutes Ryouko even began to entertain the possibility that they would land on its surface, before a well‐concealed attachment port seemed to pop into existence directly below them, with just the slightest afterimage of the illusion that had once been there.
When they stepped out of the airlock, they found themselves looking down the corridors of a completely standard‐looking research lab—indeed, much more normal than the stone decorations of ITG back on Eurydome. Nothing was out of place, except her two awed‐looking chief bodyguards, accompanied by what was evidently the avatar of a lab AI, considering the "man" that appeared to stand there was the spitting image of Vladimir Volokhov.
"Welcome to Adept Blue," the AI said, turning away from Patricia to address them. "To say that we have been looking forward to seeing you would be… a decided understatement. But I'm getting ahead of myself. There's no need to be in a rush. I am Vladimir Volokhov, or, as my friends call me, Vlad."
The girls traded a look after the enigmatic statement, but followed as Vlad led them down the hallway. As they walked, Ryouko tried to catch a look of what was going on behind some of the open doors, finding mostly researchers seated at their desks frowning at holographic screens and floating models.
"I gather I do not have to spend too much time explaining the work that is done here, given the time you two have spent at ITG," Vlad said, seeming to forget the presence of Elanis, Eri, and Patricia. "I am indebted to Lemaître and Dr. Tao for their hard work on this matter. It is sad that they cannot know more about the true state of things, but they will get their share of the credit, in due time."
"You seem to be talking about something very specific," Patricia said, asking the question that Ryouko had been about to. "What do you mean?"
"Not yet. We can talk about it over dinner. I apologize if I seem like a tease, but I've never been one for any conversation that isn't about work."
From the corner of her eye, Ryouko watched their luggage drones turn and disappear down a side corridor. Their itinerary had called for dinner with the lab director, followed by some time to rest in their new rooms. It hadn't specified beyond that.
She could tell on her newly downloaded map of the facility that they were within the living quarters, and she could only assume that they would be eating there. She couldn't find the director's room on the map, though, and the names of the occupants didn't otherwise seem to be listed.
Who is the director, anyway? she thought, directing the question at Clarisse. She couldn't remember if the name had even been in the public information.
Unlisted, Clarisse replied. Though, with the way this is going, I wonder if Vlad here is the lab director. That would make a certain amount of sense. He doesn't seem good at introductions.
Ryouko felt embarrassed that the possibility hadn't even occurred to her.
A moment later, Vlad led them through a doorway and into someone's private living area, where a dining table had already been prominently set, constructed out of the same kind of self‐assembling modular furniture that was so prevalent on Earth. Chopsticks and teacups helped form what appeared to be a Japanese, or at least Asian, table setting. The table had been set for six, though there was a gap in the arrangement that was suggestive of a missing seventh seat.
"Naturally, I do not eat," Vlad said, almost apologetically, as he took a seat in the gap, a holographic chair materializing below him. "But, feel free to take your seats. I am told Mami‐san is going to be a little late. She is understandably quite busy."
Given that there was now only one seat left, Ryouko could only assume it was for Mami, implying that Vlad really was the lab director. Clarisse had been right after all. They sat, Kuroi Eri peering into the teapot before politely pouring some out for the guests. It was odd that her two bodyguards had been invited to the dinner, or that they had been instructed to socialize with Ryouko so directly, but the once‐large team of professionals was now shrunk to only a half‐dozen individuals, including the two leaders. It simply wasn't practical to deploy so many specialists in planet‐side protection to a completely new environment, and Adept Blue wouldn't have had an easy job accommodating such a large security detail anyway.
Ryouko sipped her green tea, luxuriating for the moment in its warmth and flavor. She wondered if it was synthesized.
"I do apologize for not giving Clarisse her due welcome," Vlad messaged. "But I was told that the field marshal would not respond well, and who am I to question that?"
Ryouko wrinkled her brow, then stopped herself, hoping that no one else had seen her react.
As she did so, her implants registered that the last guest was about to arrive at the door. Only then did she realize, despite all the obvious hints she had already seen, that Mami wasn't going to be here virtually. She was actually here, which explained why there was a table setting laid out for her, and possibly why Ryouko and Asami had flown out all this way. It was obvious in retrospect.
Elanis and Eri looked abruptly shocked, though, and Elanis's hair flailed wildly before settling into a new, more formal hairstyle. Somehow, they had made the same mistake.
The woman herself arrived a moment later, pausing in the doorway to look around and acknowledge Vlad's greeting. Ryouko caught the barest glimpse of Karina and Xiao Long stationing themselves outside the door; it seemed cruel to have them stand outside while they ate.
"Field Marshal," Vlad greeted.
"Director Volokhov," Mami echoed.
As Mami sat down, server drones began emerging from the back room with trays of food mounted on top, indicating clearly that the dinner was underway. It looked like the starter course was soup and pickled vegetables.
"It's an honor to have you here," Eri said, making haste to pour Mami some of the tea. "We hadn't been expecting you to be here in, you know, person."
Elanis laughed nervously.
"It is a bit bad of me," Mami said, stirring a bowl of miso soup. "True, I don't actually have to be on a ship to necessarily command, but Zhukov's interface is better than anyone's. But I have my own reasons for being hard to find at the moment. You have no idea how hard it was to get away."
Ryouko made eye contact with Asami and Patricia in turn. She had no idea who Mami was talking to.
"Oh, I just wanted to hear myself talk," Mami said, seeming to answer Ryouko's question. "Anyway, before we get down to real business, you should do yourself a favor and try some of Vlad's tempura. He makes it himself, you know, with drones and a fryer. I have no idea how he does it, without taste buds and all."
"You flatter me," Vlad said, ducking his head in faux humility. "It's mostly a matter of temperature control and timing, after all."
The promised tempura arrived just moments later, piping hot, and they settled down to eating, though Ryouko had difficulty enjoying the carefully managed texture under a sudden wave of unease emanating from Clarisse.
What's wrong? she thought.
I'll tell you later, Clarisse thought. Nothing you need to worry about yet.
"I suppose I will warm us up with an introduction to what you need to know about Adept Blue and its facilities," Vlad said, as the others took in their food. "I trust you will all be capable of paying attention despite the food."
"Oh, I'm not sure about that," Patricia quipped, though she was nearly done with her dish.
Director Volokhov accepted the compliment with a smile.
"I must preface that what I say here is strictly confidential," he said. "You may refer to the information I am about to send you for a detailed explanation of the classification level, but rest assured that none of it will be below Level Three."
Shizuki Elanis made a noise, looking at Eri, then at Mami and the others.
"You're fine," Mami said, smiling. "You're allowed to hear this. We'll explain in a moment."
Elanis and Eri shared an obvious worried look, but subsided.
"I'm sure it will surprise none of you at this point that Adept Blue is a bit more than it appears on the surface," Vlad said. "Not to put too fine a point on it, we are the most visible of a network of secret research labs dedicated to sensitive Governance research."
He looked around to make sure they understood, then continued, leaning forward and clasping his hands:
"For various purposes, Governance prefers to have some technologies it keeps to itself, at least on a temporary basis, even if they involve nothing that would particularly outrage the public. This gives Governance enough time to study the potential societal implications of a given technology, and also allows for the development of countermeasures to technologies that may interfere with aspects of Governance surveillance or operations if distributed widely."
It was a lot to digest, though Vlad said it almost matter‐of‐factly, and only Patricia and Mami nodded along in time, the rest blank‐faced. Nonetheless, Vlad continued:
"It is of course no secret that Governance would love to duplicate as much of Cephalopod technology as possible, if only to understand how it works. However, work on replication of their wormhole and stealth technology has been kept proprietary, in the first case because of its potential to drastically reshape the economy and society, and in the second because of the implications of potential stealth we do not yet have countermeasures for. X‐25 amply demonstrates the wisdom of censoring the latter."
Ryouko cast a glance at Eri and Elanis, who shouldn't have known anything about what had happened. As expected, they looked puzzled.
"In any case, we are the primary lab engaged in these two endeavors, because of what we have found to be their inherent similarity," Vlad said. "In this case, our goals aren't all that secret, since pretty much every currently‐operating gravitonics lab is working toward the same goals. What is secret is how much progress we've made, though it's still not as much as I'd like. Oh, but look at me talking over the food presentation."
He stopped talking as the server drones reappeared with fresh trays, preceded by the intoxicating aroma of grilled food. The drones were deft, handling plates piled hedonistically high with grilled shellfish, vegetables, and meat.
Even with her mind filled with speculation on the point of this elaborate meeting, Ryouko found herself abruptly aware of just how long she had spent in transit with nothing to eat. From the looks of the others at the table, her sentiment was hardly unique, despite the tempura and soup that should have dampened their ardor.
For a couple of minutes there was silence, not counting the tapping of chopsticks, rattling of dishes, and chewing of food. The only ones not eating ravenously were Mami, who was being demure, and of course Director Volokhov.
"Girls these days," Mami said, with an air of affected nostalgia. "I remember when everyone here would be holding back for the sake of their appearance."
"It's probably for the best that those times are behind us," Vlad said.
I don't even know what they're talking about, Asami thought, biting into a grilled king mushroom.
It's not important, Ryouko thought.
Despite the presence of the food, Ryouko found she couldn't entirely push the topic of conversation out of her mind. It didn't take a Governance AI to deduce that the combination of top‐secret gravitonics lab, wormhole research, her, and the need for Asami to be there, was highly significant.
"I heard about that from Auntie Shizuki," Elanis said, not‐so‐daintily scarfing down a piece of meat while talking. "It sounds awful."
Mami smiled slightly.
"It never really mattered. You could always use magic to slim down a little if you really had to. It was only a problem in the early days, when you had to conserve on that."
Mami focused on her eating for a moment, nibbling delicately into a mushroom. Ryouko could tell her heart wasn't really on the food.
Finally, after they had all spent a polite interval eating, Mami looked around the table, catching each of their eyes in turn.
Ryouko watched her set chopsticks down on the table in decisive fashion. There was an abrupt lull in the table's eating motions, as everyone felt the mood shift.
"Well, it is probably time for me to talk about why I brought you all here," Mami said. "As I have been implying, it wasn't just to chat, or else I could have just sent a hologram to you on Earth. There is a very good reason for me to order you here."
She paused, and Ryouko had time to reflect that, indeed, she and Asami had been ordered here rather than asked, though she hadn't thought anything of it at the time, so eager had she been to leave Earth behind.
Ryouko felt Mami watching her carefully.
"I understand that there have been disturbing facts that have emerged about your heritage. I haven't had the opportunity to really talk to you about that, which is bad of me as a mentor, but I am sure Kyouko has had a chance to?"
Ryouko cast her mind back, remembering what seemed like an eternity ago.
"She told me that I am who I am, and I shouldn't worry about whatever is in my head because my magic will counter it if it tries to do anything nasty."
Mami nodded, as the clatter of eating cautiously resumed, the others realizing that they weren't being asked to speak, though they still watched the two of them carefully.
"That is the right thing to say. I've been occupied with other aspects of the problem, so I might have seemed a little distant."
"Still, it's probably for the best for you to get a change of perspective for a while," she said. "We also think it best to move you to a more secure environment than the crowds of Earth. That is why it was fortuitous for Director Volokhov to contact me."
"Excuse me, but who is 'we' here?" Ryouko asked. "You and Kyouko?"
Even as Eri and Elanis looked at Ryouko in mild shock, Mami ducked her head to sip some of her tea, perhaps to buy some time to compose a better response.
"Roughly," she said. "I would be lying if I said that it was just the two of us. As you'll see when I explain, there are legitimate reasons for other parties to be interested in all this. It's not just meddling."
Ryouko considered what she said. There were legitimate reasons, of course, even if she didn't like thinking about them. With the revelation of the module in her head, it would have been remiss of the responsible parties to not monitor her. Indeed, she was being treated well to still have freedom of action—even if it now occurred to her that there were good security reasons to not have her near anything critical on Earth.
However, it sounded like Mami was talking about something else entirely.
She nodded slightly, and Mami smiled.
"Well, the real meat of the situation is: Director Volokhov has informed me that Adept Blue has been analyzing the results of the experiments with you at ITG before the unfortunate incident. On their own, they are interesting, but not necessarily that useful. Adept Blue, however, had another idea. Director?"
The AI made a show of clearing its throat.
"Please, though," he said. "You've barely eaten, Shizuki‐san. Take a moment."
Feeling very awkward, Ryouko reached out for a few pieces of calamari and beef. She didn't know how exactly she was supposed to eat like this, with the eyes of the table all covertly on her, but she managed to chew through it methodically, even enjoying it a little.
"Alright," Vlad said. "I'll relieve the suspense, if you'll excuse my renewed interruption of your eating…"
The air above the table flickered briefly, before congealing into a blue and red blob that Ryouko initially had difficulty interpreting. There appeared to be a large sphere embedded into the middle of the object, but—
Oh it's the moon of Orpheus, Ryouko finally realized.
The others seemed less enlightened, however, and after a moment Vlad continued:
"This is a large‐scale representation of the wormhole at Orpheus in the brief moments where it was reopened by Miss Shizuki here. The focused attention of the fleet's sensors on the area has provided us with a wealth of information we had not previously been able to obtain. Being able to observe a wormhole opening has been particularly helpful. We had some previous telemetry from the Saharan Raid, but oddly enough, the military doesn't spend as long as we'd like taking measurements."
He said the last sentence without a trace of irony, leaving Ryouko wondering how seriously he meant it.
"Based on what we saw, we were able to significantly refine some of our models, and even take a guess at some empirical rules, but there wasn't much room for additional progress without a theoretical breakthrough, until, of course, the most interesting teleporter in existence agreed to participate in a few experiments."
He smiled at Ryouko, expression acknowledging the blatant piece of flattery. The hologram over the table morphed smoothly into what was clearly a simulation of a wormhole opening and closing.
"As a result, we were able to verify a few of our theories and clarify our thinking," he said. "Since then, we have been hard at work trying to apply what we have learned, to replicate at least some aspects of the effect. We have had some encouraging results, but not as much as we'd like."
He closed his eyes again, and Ryouko wondered if it was primarily for effect, since if she recalled correctly AIs mostly considered human conversations too slow for their taste.
Ryouko took the opportunity to look around at the others. Vlad's presentation was clearly going to be long enough that they had slowed in their eating, preferring to pay attention to what was being presented. Patricia and Asami had the thoughtful look she associated with someone trying to pay close attention to something far outside of their field of specialty, a look she probably shared. Elanis and Eri wore blank looks that indicated they had lost track of the conversation, and were perhaps trying to follow a time‐delayed version on their implants. Mami she could not read—she appeared to have a smile frozen on her face, one that Ryouko couldn't help but find something unsettling in.
"The amount of power involved in performing these kinds of manipulations of space‐time is prodigious," Vlad said finally, steepling his hands. "We have simply not been able to generate the energies necessary to replicate even the distortions seen in relatively minor Cephalopod gravitonic technologies. Until the stealth device was discovered on X‐25, we had believed that we had run into a fundamental limit of the technology, and that only successfully replicating the power source of a paradox drive would generate sufficient power on anything remotely portable enough."
The diagram that now appeared above the table had little meaning to Ryouko at a quick glance, and was likely more for decoration than explanation.
"The energy costs of generating a controlled wormhole are orders of magnitude more enormous," Vlad said, a distant look in his eyes. "Indeed, we suspect that the wormholes the Cephalopods use are sized to optimize this energy cost, managing a trade‐off between the energy necessary to open something so large, and the sheer instability of smaller wormholes. Ironically it is not nearly as difficult to keep a wormhole open once it is open, but with our current resources we simply could not do either."
Ryouko could feel Mami's gaze resting on her as Vlad spoke, and wondered what exactly her reaction should be.
She pulled herself up in her seat, even as Asami put down a piece of chicken she had just picked up, apparently deciding against eating it for now.
"So you want Asami and I to stay here for further study?" Ryouko said, drawing the obvious conclusion. "I can see how that'd make sense. We could stay here away from Earth until whatever needs to be solved has been solved, and we can also help you with your research. This is obviously a bit of a secure location."
For the first time since earlier in the conversation, Vlad smiled slightly, focusing his attention back on Ryouko.
"That's not a bad guess," he said. "Though I suppose the evidence was all around you. You are mostly right. That is the general reason you are here. However, if it were just a matter of further testing and experimentation, it would hardly have been a matter that could have brought the Field Marshal out here."
Ryouko couldn't avoid looking at Mami, who just nodded and gestured with her eyes back towards Vlad.
"After a long time spent studying the issue," Vlad said, expression now serious, "we have concluded that there is a way to achieve the effect we desire, on a transient basis. I am not sure how useful it will be, and it hardly satisfies me intellectually… but I will stop mincing words. Our models are convinced now that a properly constructed apparatus, coupled with a small controlled singularity, could recreate weakly the conditions for wormhole opening, similar to the conditions prevailing near Orpheus after the alien wormhole generator was destroyed. Given that, it is possible that you could replicate the feat of teleportation you achieved there, using the near‐instantaneous wormhole transits with which you perform your teleportation. In other words, we would be able to construct a device that would act as a range amplifier."
The sudden onrush of words left Ryouko bemused for a moment, struggling to parse not just the explicit meaning of what he had said, but also the implicit meaning. If they could construct a range extender, then what? To how far? Why did it matter?
The movements of utensils slowed further, as the others realized the same things Ryouko did about what Vlad had said.
Even as Ryouko formulated what she was going to say, though, Patricia spoke up on the topic for the first time.
"A controlled singularity?" she asked, blinking deliberately. "That's hardly something you can find on a shelf. The last I heard, we weren't sure even the Cephalopods had managed to do something like that. That hardly sounds like a step up. Are you saying Adept Blue has managed to make one?"
"Well, that's something I'd prefer a technological solution to," Vlad said. "And no, I am not. But at least on a one‐time basis, we have a non‐technological source."
He looked meaningfully at Asami, pulling Patricia's gaze over as well. A moment later, she nodded.
"I see. I hadn't realized."
Asami grabbed Ryouko's hand under the table, and squeezed.
"How much amplification are we talking about?" Ryouko asked. "Being able to move a group of people across a star system would definitely be useful, even if I did pass out last time."
Vlad smiled again, seemingly amused.
"We don't know," he said. "We're not even sure it works. That's why we'd want to try it. But our estimates go as high as several dozen light‐years. This isn't even the same scale. It doesn't just match the performance of the Cephalopods—it vastly exceeds it, at least when it comes to blink drives."
It took a while for Ryouko to take his latest statement in, blinking back into the hologram's eyes while she decided whether and how to respond.
"To be perfectly honest with you," Mami broke in, "there are those in Governance and the MSY who consider you a security risk after what has been discovered about you, as I think you are smart enough to have predicted yourself. It has not been easy keeping them from acting on their concerns, nor to keep you free and active on Earth. There was no way you could stay and, now, no way potential like this could be ignored."
So it is a prison as well as a lab, Asami thought bluntly, while keeping her expression still. We should have realized.
As much as she would have preferred to, Ryouko couldn't ignore the possibility that she was right. She chose to ask a different question, however.
"So what exactly is the potential of this?" she asked. "I can't deny there's a certain thrill to doing something like this, but what specific value can't be ignored? Blowing up alien bases?"
"And how would it be possible to assure she would even end up in the right place? Or that she could make it back?" Patricia asked. "It'd be very risky to test."
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Mami said, expression looking almost disappointed. "There are things we simply won't know until they're tried. But Humanity needs new weapons in this war. We need to do something. The Saharan Raid bought us years, but they're too buttoned‐up this time to let us do it a second time. Something must happen."
Ryouko thought she saw Mami clutch the edge of the table, but couldn't decide if it was her imagination.
"So why are they here?" Asami asked, gesturing with her head at Eri and Elanis. "No offense, but it still doesn't make terribly much sense."
Mami smiled slightly.
"No matter how safe this facility is supposed to be, it is difficult to be entirely sure. The two families also thought it would be good for them to build up a little bit of experience, from a situation that doesn't just involve more socializing."
The explanation didn't strike Ryouko as particularly convincing, though she had difficulty reading Mami's expression. Patricia made sense—her power set was perfect against potential electronic infiltration—but Eri and Elanis weren't specialists in anything in particular.
The two girls in question looked overwhelmed, though, and Ryouko let out a breath, knowing it fell on her to say something.
"Well, I suppose it will be interesting," she said diplomatically, though she meant what she said. "And I don't have any objections to being here for now, as long as there are things to do."
"Well, we couldn't bring too many of your friends, for obvious reasons," Mami said, cutting at a piece of meat daintily. "But another reason these girls are here is just to keep us all from getting too lonely."
There a pause in the conversation, into which Eri chuckled nervously. Ryouko realized that, for a few minutes, she had completely forgotten they were supposed to be eating.
"Well, as I worried, you all have barely eaten anything," Vlad said, even though Patricia had been quietly mowing through a mound of meat. "Well, I'm warning you, dessert is on its way, so you better get to eating this embarrassing excess of food."
He made a show of clapping his hands, and the server drones reappeared, bearing what appeared to be icy, pink‐red tunnels.
"Thai rolled ice cream," Vlad said, looking satisfied with himself. "Well, really more of a sorbet to be honest. They're shaped like wormholes to symbolize our shared interests."
They settled in to eating, some of the others hastily stuffing down the grilled meat from earlier. Ryouko managed to follow suit, wondering if Vlad felt he needed to rush the meal, and if so, why?
She was glad nonetheless. Once again, she felt as if she could sympathize with Clarisse van Rossum. She could feel the world shifting under her feet again, and could only wonder where it would take her.
Mami liked to think that she, at least, knew when there was something wrong with her. That was why, rather than try to tough things out on board Zhukov, she had taken a bit of a working vacation, handing over her main duties to Fleet Admiral Anand to embark on this little exploratory excursion.
She had yet to ask Charlotte about the incident earlier, or what she had meant when she demanded to know if Mami knew what she had done. The MHD, Charlotte included, had been very solicitous afterward, asking her—no, demanding her to come speak with them, to the point where she had legitimately begun to wonder if they would try to force her or trick her into doing it.
While she had always thought Kyouko and especially Homura tragically stubborn for refusing help when they needed it, she felt she had special circumstances.
They probably all think they have special circumstances, Machina commented.
Mami shifted in surprise, having been completely lost in her own thoughts. She was supposed to be reviewing developments in the latest generation of experimental naval bombers; judging by how much she could recall about the topic, she hadn't even gotten started.
She leaned into her arm, propping her elbow on the desk in front of her.
I'm not going to consent to go near their telepaths now, Machina, she thought. I can read the evidence. The MHD's own secret documentation states clearly that spontaneous cerebral hemorrhages are one classic mind‐reading countermeasure used by powerful telepaths. I don't know how, but I somehow did that to her, and afterwards she wouldn't even talk to me about it. They're either hiding something, or they want to take my head apart to figure out what I did. Either way…
No, I agree, Mami, but just because you have reasons to be suspicious of them doesn't mean you're alright—
"I know I'm not alright!" Mami snapped, out loud to her empty room.
She let out a breath, calming herself down.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Of course I know I'm not alright, she thought, leaning forward in her chair to press the palm of her hand into her forehead despairingly. We've discussed this already. I can't hide from it anymore. Everything seems to indicate that I must have been Reformatted at some point. But by who? And why? And who is this girl that I can't remember? From all I've ever heard, if I've figured out this much, the memory deletion should have already fallen apart. But I still can't remember.
Do you even want to know? Machina asked. A Reformat wouldn't be done without a good reason, and for all we know you did it yourself.
I don't think I have any choice but to know, Mami thought. At this point, the walls are clearly starting to come down. Unless I find out who did this to me and just ask them to do it again, I have no choice. And that'd just be putting the consequence off.
Is putting it off really that bad of an idea, given your current position in the military? Machina thought. You're too important for the MSY to lose.
And that's why I don't trust the MHD, Mami thought. Why do you think I came all the way out here? Vlad is an old friend, and he's… different.
What we need is an old friend who is a telepath, who can be trusted— Machina began.
No, Mami thought. If something like this has happened, there's too high a chance my 'old friends' are involved. What I really need is someone who isn't.
Let's find one, then, Machina suggested.
"Are you really okay with all this?"
Ryouko looked up from taking off her socks, wondering why Asami would choose to ask a question like that now.
"That's a bit vague," she said, pushing herself up onto the bed so she could look her girlfriend more in the eye. "Can you be more precise?"
Asami, who had up until now been standing still watching Ryouko unwind, began to walk around their room slowly. Their room, while well‐furnished, was a definite step down from Mami's, and certainly lacked the lived‐in appeal of the flat they still had on Eurydome. It was also much smaller, and after having lived in the colonies briefly, they were starting to get tired of cramped spaces.
Asami raised an arm and gestured broadly.
"You know, living on this asteroid, doing more of these experiments, hiding from Goddess knows who. We don't even know what would happen if they're successful. Don't you like having more control over your life?"
Ryouko let her hair drape over her eyes, wiggling her toes idly. Asami's comment stung, because the thought had crossed her mind, yet she hadn't found herself willing to complain to Mami.
"I'm starting to think I won't get that kind of freedom for a while, not until whatever this all is is over with. I feel like I've made some kind of devil's bargain. I wouldn't be able to see all these places or do all this without my wish, but to do this my wish needs precise control of my life. Or something like that."
Asami opened her mouth slightly, then closed it again, before shaking her head.
"That doesn't even really make sense," she said. "How exactly did your wish give you this thing in your head, or make you descended from all these people, or any of that?"
"It could be retroactive," Ryouko said, avoiding Asami's eyes. "It just makes too much sense. No one has ever proven wishes can't be retroactive."
She didn't like saying it out loud, because she knew it sounded paranoid.
"No one has ever proven they can be either! That's stupid!" Asami said, voice tinged with a sudden anger that surprised Ryouko. Her hands shook, clenched into fists.
Ryouko looked back in shock as Asami visibly dialed herself back, swallowing.
"I'm sorry," she said, putting a hand to her head. "I—it's just, if they could be retroactive, why wasn't mine retroactive? Instead I have to remember all this—all this nonsense about my parents. It could have at least erased my memories for me. Or my brother's."
Multiple answers filled Ryouko's head, ranging from "maybe you didn't have enough potential" to "you had to have some reason to make a wish, after all." She swallowed them all, and instead said:
"Part of me wishes I could forget all this about some kind of organ in my head, or at least that my mother was involved somehow. Part of me wishes that we could find out who or what is behind all this. But we're out of wishes, aren't we? We have to face the world as it is."
Ryouko felt Asami's eyes on her for a moment, even as she chose to stare carefully at the chair next to the door of the room, abandoned after they had used it to take off their shoes.
Asami sat down next to her, and Ryouko could almost feel the other girl relax her shoulders.
"I'm not sure I believe that," she said. "After all, I'm not sure even the Ancients keep their eyes open to everything. I don't talk to anyone about my parents, and you—well, I told you not to tell your mother, and you agreed with me once you had a few days to think about it."
"I can't convince you otherwise, because I'm not sure you're wrong," Ryouko said. "But from what I've seen, not facing it now just means you have to face it later, sometimes much later. Not even the Ancients are immune to that."
Asami took a careful, deep breath.
"I'll take your word for that. You have more experience with them than me, after all."
She leaned against the wall, distorting the default view of the stars it was engaged in displaying.
"Well, let's face it then," she said. "If you're right, what does that mean? How long are you going to keep getting run into new places? When can you ever stop and just stay home? Why can't it wait a couple of years?"
Uncharacteristically, Asami seemed to be avoiding direct contact with her, as if she worried it would interrupt the conversation.
It can't wait because I couldn't wait, Ryouko thought, reaching out with one hand, but aborting the gesture.
"I don't know when it will end," she said, finally. "But I'm pretty sure…"
She paused, wondering if she really wanted to say something like that.
"Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure you must be part of that," Ryouko said, grabbing the other girl's hand and looking her in the eye. "It makes too much sense. Gravity and wormholes? The way we met?"
"Are you saying we're fated to be together somehow?" Asami said, frowning. "Because of your wish or something?"
"Something like that," Ryouko said, tilting her head slightly.
"That's a really romantic thing to say," Asami said, shaking her head. "But I don't want to be fated. I—too much of my life is manipulated by wishes already. Sometimes I feel like it's all I ever have to deal with. I want this one thing, at least to, be my own."
Ryouko ducked her head, wondering if she had said something wrong.
"I don't think it really matters in this case," she said. "From what I understand, wishes often take the path of least resistance. If the wish was responsible for us, then it probably chose to put us together because we were already compatible. We just never would have met otherwise."
"That makes me feel a little better," Asami said, smiling slightly, though Ryouko didn't know what to make of the expression in her eyes.
Ryouko thought for a while longer. What was usually the right thing to do in this kind of situation?
"So do you want to—" she began.
"No," Asami said, shaking her head. "Let's see if we can set the far wall to show us something romantic. Like those spires on San Giuseppe, the ones we visited with Azrael."
"Alright," Ryouko said, allowing herself to be distracted by the task of finding a suitable presentation.
They sat there on the bed a while longer, holding hands, watching and wondering.
Appendix: "Secret Research"
〈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
〈Like all governments since at least the dawn of the industrial age, Governance has found it prudent to operate a network of secret research facilities. While officially there is no need for Governance to do so, as there are no longer any rival nation‐states to keep secrets from, in practice Governance: Science and Technology defines three classes of secret research:〉③
〈1. Research which is kept secret for political reasons, or the maintenance of public order.〉③
〈2. Research whose ramifications on society, public order, and the human condition are uncertain and possibly dangerous. In this case, Governance prefers to know the limits of what is possible before anyone else does, and whether or not it is necessary to suppress similar research or implement a clear ideological ban.〉③
〈3. Research which would be dangerous in the hands of rogue groups. While similar to 2, this focuses more on the development of countermeasures, often kept secret, before technology is officially released through other channels.〉③
〈Rather unusually compared to past practice, some of the blackest Governance research groups are organized into cells, operating under their own supervision and with little knowledge of each other, with most members—sometimes all members—blissfully unaware of who their sponsor really is. What is lost in terms of efficiency and integration is gained in deniability and sheer secrecy. Whatever concerns there are about the ramifications of a black research group being confused with a real rogue group by security forces or investigators are alleviated by the fact that such a group, if discovered, is better off destroyed anyway.〉⑤
— "Secret Research and Governance," Executive Summary for New Agents, excerpt. Need to know basis.